A defense of foodie-ism

by Rob Horning

21 September 2010


Almost incidentally, in the course of positing the value of a liberal-arts education, Tyler Cowen presents a sort of defense of foodies:

I am interested in food (among other topics), not only because of the food itself. I also view it as an investment in understanding symbolic meaning, cultural codes of excellence, the transmission of ideas, and also how the details of an area fit together to form a coherent whole. I believe this knowledge makes me smarter and wiser, although I am not sure which mass-produced formal test would pick up any effects.  I view this interest as continuing my liberal arts education, albeit through self-education.

Grasping food as a cultural system and understanding how it works makes one smarter, as long as you agree that smarts are a matter of mastering these kinds of decoding and recoding procedures. Liberal arts education, to put it as technocratically as possible, teaches students how to process information in a number of different codes, how to manipulate their idiosyncratic structures of meaning. The problem with foodies (and perhaps libaral-arts types like myself generally) comes when they attempt to assert a kind of dominance through the mastery of these codes—they try to make the possibility of mastery exclusive, a zero-sum game. That is, they try to impose a status component to the coding/decoding that shifts the original or inherent or latent meanings of the food (or whatever) in a new way that suits their pretensions to becoming an elite. Then connoisseurship threatens to become the only relevant meaning possible to decode from a certain practice. (This is what Baudrillard feared in his ruminations about the consumerist code.) In other words, foodie-ism threatens to take all that rich cultural information inherent in making and enjoying food and flatten it out so that it only indicates where you stand in relation to some food-related trend, as an early adopter or an arriviste. Worse, we can only interpret it that way, and the original data begins to become inaccessible.

I think this sort of pattern fuels a lot of the culture-war animus directed at university-bred “elitists,” who are seen as reducing/reifiying the richness of traditional everyday life and making it a big status game.

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