“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

whose taste is it?

Last week, LI ran a series of posts about menus. Our point was that menus, which seem like innocent things, actually encode and enact important social attitudes and arrangements. Our more specific point was that menus came out of the great houses -- where they were used as a means of communication between the cooks and the owners (aristocrats or the great bourgeois families) into the public sphere as one of the components in the making of restaurants.

My point in sketching that history was to question the division between the private and the public -- and to point to the way the division is made absolute in liberal myth.

When I use the word myth, I don't mean a thing that has no social effect -- a mere illusion. There's a charming story, in Sydney Smith's Lectures on Moral Philosophy, that is the perfect illustration of myth:

"Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained after his time but mind; which experienced a similar fate from the hands of Mr. Hume in 1737; so that with all the tendency to destroy, there remains nothing left for destruction: but I would fain ask if there be any one human being, from the days of Protagoras the Aderite to this present hour, who was ever for a single instant a convert to these sublte and ingenious follies? … Pyrrho said there was no such thing as pain; and he saw no proof that there were such things as carts and wagons; and he refused to get out of their way: but Pyrrho had, fortunately for him, three or four stout slaves, who followed their master without following his doctrine, and whenver they saw one of these ideal machines approaching, took him up by the arms and legs, and without attempting to controvert his arguments, put him down in a place of safety."

Whereever you see myth, you see slaves. They are the necessary concomittant of the ideal. And just as Pyrrho's slaves paid for Pyrrho's myth, so, too, we pay for the myth of the absolute distinction of the private and the public every day, rescuing the system that dedicates itself to the myth in every newspaper and tv show by giving it our absolute belief while spending the brute and best part of ourselves, in everyday life, negotiating its unworkablity. And so we are gnawed at, year in and year out. The system actually wears a hole in us, a black hole of existential exhaustion, which becomes the malign center into which we toss every fucking thing we love, letting it all disappear in order to save the shaky, self-contradictory structure for one more day.

The terms public and private have never been so flung about as during the last two decades -- the age of 'privatization.' LI's notion is that the private and public spheres have been redefined, both in reality and in myth, in tandem with the disembedding of the forces of production - to use Polanyi’s phrase for the assumption of systematic autonomy on the part of the economic system, and the bending of the social to fit its necessities. In capitalism, this long event was accompanied and justified by a notion of freedom, which in turn was entangled in a notion of the separation of the private and public spheres from one another. Socialism derives its own notions about the system of production from the capitalist event. LI, ever the Derridian, maintains that the separation of the private and the public sphere is forever undecidable. It simply cannot sustain the strain of being elevated to an absolute.

To illustrate these things, I'm going to pursue a related question, which is: what kind of property is taste? In particular, the taste of the tomato. I'm choosing the tomato because that fruit has, it turns out, been the object of an awful lot of literature. So first I am going to look at Langdon Winner's famous essay, Do Artifacts have Politics. In the next post.

PS
The Inestimable Mistah Scruggs sent me a link to a website we can all rally around. The site is dedicated to a policeman who is riding a one eyed horse across America, preaching the gospel of DECRIMINALIZING DRUGS. Sanity, in the current moronic inferno, can only be heard above the talk radio roar by dressing itself up in motley. Hurray for the legions of King Lear's Fools out there - our last fuckin hope, buckos!

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