Televised food and consumption deskilling

by Rob Horning

4 August 2009


Though it is part of the conspicuous flood of hype for the upcoming film Julia and Julia, Michael Pollan’s article about cooking shows for last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a fascinating look at the way food and cooking are depicted on television and what that indicates about America’s relationship to consumption in general. A few things I found particularly interesting:

1. Pollan talks to a market researcher at the NPD Group, which is ubiquitous in stories about retailing in the business press.

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

I found it interesting that someone who is only interested in humans insofar as they are shopping would conclude that they are entirely fixated on convenience. The realm of retail is precisely where that potentiality in people is brought to the fore, rewarded, massaged. So it’s not surprising that the NPD Group won’t deign to measure an activity that runs counter to convenience, that it would prove “elusive.” So is the causality backward here? Does the market research and retail analysis start with an assumption of convenience as the desirable value (if that is the goal, then we can seem to solve our problems with shopping) and then impute it to human nature, as a way of shoring up what is an ideological tenet, not a universal psychological truth?

2. Rob Walker higlighted this paragraph, which jumped out at me too:

The historical drift of cooking programs — from a genuine interest in producing food yourself to the spectacle of merely consuming it — surely owes a lot to the decline of cooking in our culture, but it also has something to do with the gravitational field that eventually overtakes anything in television’s orbit. It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

The point is that commercial television’s main function is to make viewers into the sort of people who want to watch more and more commercial television. Any of its programs can be reduced to that agenda, ultimately, with the specific content of any show being something of a by-product, an alibi. As a free-flowing, ongoing form of media, television invites us to interact with it constantly; unlike other consumer goods it can refine the wants it satisfies in the process of satisfying them. Watching TV is like eating a meal that tastes great but makes you hungrier. To that end, television wants to provoke us to replace our concrete, direct activities with vicarious ones and demonstrate through its sensory manipulations that the vicarious experience (to paraphrase Baudrillard) is more real than real.

3. Nonetheless, I’m skeptical of this sort of argument: “You’ll be flipping aimlessly through the cable channels when a slow-motion cascade of glistening red cherries or a tongue of flame lapping at a slab of meat on the grill will catch your eye, and your reptilian brain will paralyze your thumb on the remote, forcing you to stop to see what’s cooking.” I suppose there has been a study where the brainwave or eyeball movements of participants are tracked and measured to demonstrate some correlation between pictures of food and limbic system activity, but nevertheless, I have a hard time conceding that humans are hard-wired for any sort of vicarious experience. Such explanations for the increasing amounts of vicarious experience in our lives seems to excuse various forms of media have interposed themselves into our lives and prompted us to consume images. And it seems imperative to investigate how the seemingly irresistible appeal of images is constructed and reinforced within the realm of images—how manipulation via images is a craft, an applied science. Our media are not neutral terrain that merely permit the unveiling of evolutionary mysteries; to what degree do they posit and condition those discoveries about the so-called reptilian brain?

4. Pollan suspects the appeal of cooking shows is that it vicariously fulfills our longing for meaningful work:

“You know what I love about cooking?” Julie tells us in a voice-over as we watch her field yet another inconclusive call on her headset. “I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

Television presumably undermines the way in which such satisfaction might have been integrated into our leisure time in the form of craft-based hobbies.

5. Television is part of the culture-industry program of deskilling our leisure, or rather removing life skills from everyday, nonwork life and transforming them into hobbies for the few. Cooking, as Pollan suggests, has become another front in that war.

We seem to be well on our way to turning cooking into a form of weekend recreation, a backyard sport for which we outfit ourselves at Williams-Sonoma, or a televised spectator sport we watch from the couch. Cooking’s fate may be to join some of our other weekend exercises in recreational atavism: camping and gardening and hunting and riding on horseback. Something in us apparently likes to be reminded of our distant origins every now and then and to celebrate whatever rough skills for contending with the natural world might survive in us, beneath the thin crust of 21st-century civilization.
To play at farming or foraging for food strikes us as harmless enough, perhaps because the delegating of those activities to other people in real life is something most of us are generally O.K. with. But to relegate the activity of cooking to a form of play, something that happens just on weekends or mostly on television, seems much more consequential. The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.

Chris Dillow made a similar point in this post about cooking shows. He blames deskilling on “the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money.” Not only is it an animating principle of capitalism, instrumental rationality, as the Frankfurt School theorists insisted, is the lifeblood ideology of the culture industry. (See “Enlightenment as Mass Deception”) It also animates techno-utopian celebrations of the efficiency of the internet for all sorts of social-cum-commercial functions. In general, instrumental rationality alienates us from process and fixates us on the end product, convincing us that the time wasted in enjoying processes for their own sake is wasted since there are so many cool products out there for us to be enjoying in that time instead. Why cook when you can spend that time online hurtling through blog posts and YouTube videos?

This paper by JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler about consumer deskilling and agribusiness probably has lots of interesting ideas on this point, but unfortunately it’s gated. The abstract, though, is promising; it sounds like an academicized version of Pollan’s ideas:

The prevalence of packaged, processed, and industrially transformed foodstuffs is often explained in terms of consumer preference for convenience. A closer look at the social construction of “consumers” reveals that the agro-food industry has waged a double disinformation campaign to manipulate and to re-educate consumers while appearing to respond to consumer demand. Many consumers have lost the knowledge necessary to make discerning decisions about the multiple dimensions of quality, including the contributions a well-chosen diet can make to health, planetary sustainability, and community economic development. They have also lost the skills needed to make use of basic commodities in a manner that allows them to eat a high quality diet while also eating lower on the food chain and on a lower budget.

I’m attracted especially by the suggestion that consumers are socially constructed to prefer convenience.

Here (pdf) is another paper on consumer deskilling vis-a-vis food, drawing on the paper cited above and Pollan. It focuses on deskilling, and the problems we face in trying to reskill ourselves (a process, by the way, that the Food Network blocks while seeming to facilitate it): “By gaining experiential knowledge of food, food preparation, appreciation of taste and quality, and increasing food literacy, one renders the range of products and services offered by the industrial food system as both useless and undesirable.” In other words, you set yourself against a massive institution that controls most of our access points to the food chain, which means you are in for an endless headache until you are prepared to embrace inconvenience as an ethic of its own.


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