Still from CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, "Iran Episode" YouTube clip

“Pounding Humility into You Permanently”: On Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain was loved not for his wit or charming temerity, but for confronting us with our own alienation and cultural isolation.

I had a kind of falling out with Anthony Bourdain.

When his show No Reservations (Travel Channel 2005-2012) was still quite young, I think I must have watched every episode several times over as the seasons circulated. I heard – and made – all the familiar and dull comments: “this guy is living such a dream that it makes me sick” (an odd signal of endearment, to be sure), “I don’t usually like travel shows much but this is interesting,” and so on. When his show was on, I’d stop whatever I was doing. Working at a cigar lounge as an early 20s youth who was endeavoring full-time to embody the Plutonic form for listlessness, I’d take every opportunity to snatch moments of the show — to get away from the interminable, droning clutches of ESPN’s corporation-suffused ‘coverage and analysis’ broadcast in the lounge, and turn the volume of the sonorous tones of Bourdain’s narration up (occasionally to the chagrin of my own customers).

Bourdain had, after all, something to say. There was an air about it. You got the sense that both he and his producers had something in mind and were realizing that vision with aplomb. He was charismatic, to be sure, but television is full of charisma; it isn’t full of what I, at the time, partly identified as this new 21st century celebration of hedonistic revelry, a kind of modernly-masculine yet thoughtful account of food, culture, and ‘living the good life’ (the lattermost an irony the more you watched and read of him, as Bourdain often remarked on just how miserable many of his years had been).

This approach wasn’t really crass per se, but it was honest, to the point, and as intoxicating as the sake he might down over a dish more skillfully prepared and deeply informed by regional culture than your average consumer-Joe American had any experience with. His was a thing to aspire to, while another favorite of mine, An Idiot AbroadKarl Pinkerton‘s bumbling ‘the joke is on you’ escapades across anything that wasn’t the comforting domestication of life in Northern England – was what you’d watch to ultimately reflect on how comparatively abysmal your pampered Western ass would actually be at traveling, and how ignorant, flat-footed, and unremarkable your commentary would probably sound.

As that banal early-20-something youth who was taking nigh-every opportunity to waste his mind and his energies, I wasn’t quite able to articulate for myself in those years of adoration that there was much more to what he was doing than the sensory, the exotic, yet I felt it all the same; within all of Bourdain’s work, increasingly, was the ‘perspective of the lesser’, a gaze at the often working-class dinner table which would only grow in earnestness. It wasn’t really that he was promoting hedonism, some roadmap for the modern cosmopolitan man to emulate, but that he was looking for a way to bring us in better contact with the world and ourselves (but more on that later).

So, what eventually happened was not, certainly, that I came to dislike his work. He didn’t start to say anything that grated on me. I didn’t get ‘sick’ of his show, and the quality didn’t dip. Indeed, when I finally got around to reading Kitchen Confidential (HarperCollins, 2000) some years after walking away from his televised work, the reasons that autobiographical foray eventually catalyzed him into fame couldn’t have been any clearer.

Really, it was just that he got too big.

What had previously felt like a somewhat intimate viewing relationship – that aforementioned sense of the maligned and working class, the alienated perspective of a man who was trying to bring you into contact with something new and exciting – was withering. I felt this increasing sense that he was becoming yet another ‘big-profit’ media property, a phenomenon all its own which was creeping into an increasingly corporate familiarity. Bourdain was the rock-star chef. He created rock-star chefs as we know them today, and that edge, that ‘coolness’, intensity, and those pretensions to ‘revolution’ because a chef was serving small plates of culinary fusion in some uber-bourgeois corner of downtown Detroit’s ‘revival’ or something – all of it started to feel formulaic. You started to see more and more autobiographical chef’s tales from ‘behind the kitchen lines’ and the language became rote. The incredible privilege there, that meteoric success, was in my mind threatening to drown out what I had connected with in the first place. Like an early adopter of an indie band that goes chart-topper, I somehow got worn out, though most of the rest of the world didn’t.

Looking back, it’s easy to speculate whether Bourdain felt the same. The lines on his face were becoming cavernous. He looked tired. At times, it could look like he was aging as gracefully as warm milk. Shooting a travel show of that quality for that many episodes a season is no doubt about as exhausting as making television gets, but again, it was this creeping sense of a routine, of this ‘brand’ which had now become ‘Anthony Bourdain, hip rock-star-chef-man’. He was successful, and when you are that successful, you become managed. I think there was a part of me that was afraid that also meant he’d become average; I came to feel something for the worldview he presented, and I didn’t want to watch it circle the drain of profitability. I turned away.

It was during the years I stopped watching that I also became much more political, both in the sense that I went and somehow decided it would be a good idea to earn two degrees in political science, and in that I became increasingly estranged from (and enraged by) the ‘culture’ I was living in, the ‘anti-politics’ which suffused the nation, the ‘leadership’ the United States was providing to a world increasingly on the edge. I, like no shortage of others, had never truly trusted or particularly liked ‘mainstream’ news media, but now I could only see it as an effective taboo, a putrid broadcast string of pandering scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel garbage and oligarchic misdirection. It probably isn’t a surprise, then, that Bourdain’s jump to CNN didn’t do anything to rekindle my interest; I would ultimately see exceedingly little of it.

It was in the wake of his suicide – something which by now has become a kind of national trauma – that I’ve had a chance to reflect on what happened. Reading perspective pieces and tributes, I was able to realize that while I was becoming more political, he too was shaping a more focused message over the course of Parts Unknown (2013 – ). Indeed, the trouble with my departure was that Parts Unknown did take a step back; I just wasn’t there to see that growth, and it took his death to realize what I’d been missing. It was in all those tributes that what I had so connected with before, at last, now had a chance to resurface.

In short, Bourdain was good at what he did because he made you feel less alone. He stood out truly not for his wit or charming bits of temerity, but for his insistence on confronting us with our own alienation and cultural isolation when there were connections to be made by dinnertime.

He made you feel less alone with the world, with your culture, with the world’s culture, with yourself. His honesty with his own failures, his own suffering (the arrogance, the angry outbursts, the drug abuse, the depression) and the tenderness with which he increasingly regarded the rights of distant, unseen, and even oppressed peoples offered an increasingly seldom humanity to the small screen. It certainly wasn’t that you knew him personally, and it probably wasn’t that you had really lived a life anything like he had. It was that he had a way of at times peeling back the veil on ‘capitalist realism’, on the alienated, isolated, sad, lonely lives we are in fact living. That was his insight, and that was his gift.

“I’m never a reliable narrator, unbiased or objective.”

Writes Arun Gupta in his truly excellent piece for Jacobin, “Bourdain was simply a journalist… journalists can’t recognize him because they can’t recognize what real journalism is anymore… He was not compelled to drown everyday observations in qualifications and important sources. But his approach represented the best of journalism.”

Truly, in the way of a Studs Terkel or Hunter S. Thompson, he could bring you down on the ground with him, and for all the darkness, what a wonderful world that could be. His was a world without the ‘perspective from nowhere’, without timid, boring, half-assed condemnations of systemic abuse carefully designed to make you only mildly indignant while you continued assuming the world to be spinning as it should be; to be sure, it was also a world with great food, great people, and – perhaps rarest of all – some sense of history, some desperate rekindling of culture in a globalized world which was marketing all of that away.

Since his death, a number of openly socialist publications such as teleSUR and Jacobin have committed tributes, and though this may seem somewhat odd for a man who was for many defining this new kind of ideal bourgeois-living (at least in No Reservations), I argue that it is because Bourdain had this way of lessening our collective alienation in roughly 44-minute segments that it was so easy to celebrate him in the face of global capitalism. The vitriol with which he attacked figureheads of systemic injustice (his now much-loved tirade against Kissinger, or his gracefully impactful description of the capitalistic wasteland which is now Butte, Montana) was indeed informed by that tendency toward real connection, and this element of intimacy was absolutely deliberate – the very thing that drew me in to begin with.

Bourdain’s coverage of immigrant labor became particularly incisive, landing him increasing recognition as a consummate advocate within the restaurant industry (where low-wage labor is frequently and viciously abused). Making waves in late 2015 during the course of the overlong 2016 U.S. Presidential election, he lashed out at anti-immigration sentiment: “I rolled out of a prestigious culinary institute and went to work in real restaurants… the person who took the time to show me how it was [done was] always Mexican or Central American. The backbone of the industry — meaning most of the people in my experience cooking… I was a manager employer. Never, in any of those years, not once, did anyone walk into my restaurant — any American-born kid — walk into my restaurant and say ‘I’d like a job as a night porter or a dishwasher’… Just not willing to start at the bottom like that… Every restaurant in America would shut down [if there were truly mass deportations].” (SiriusXM) In a more recent Reddit AMA, he again made headlines when he argued that negative economic assumptions about ethnic food (e.g., ‘it should be cheap’) was ‘racist’, speaking in particular against the notion that Mexican food didn’t deserve the same valuation as traditional Western cuisine.

Continues Gupta, “[Parts Unknown’s] agenda was at once banal and radical: ‘Show regular people doing everyday things.’ …The Iran episode is particularly affecting because Bourdain and his crew spend much of the episode lingering over faces, smiles, families, laughter, children, picnics, and prayers. He was asking Americans if they are willing to bomb, shoot, and starve these people with an astonishingly rich and hospitable culture.”

Bourdain was a journalist who worked because he spoke in the universal language of food while bringing you something essential, a sense of being-with-others, a globalism you could get behind, a globalism which was promised. The way in which he drew the lines of both class and racial disparities could cut deeper than the restaurant business because it revealed the assumptions of American discourse on migrant culture and labor, and on the lives of distant groups whom too many Americans are apparently all too eager to threaten, intimidate, exploit, bomb, and otherwise ignore when they don’t have the first idea of what their lives are like.

In my own short time of writing and publishing, I find myself focusing time and time again on this issue of alienation, of material conditions informing our desperate loneliness, and I see now the debt I owe to Bourdain for helping that development come along. I can’t imagine myself as simply projecting onto him when his writing was so often an apparent response to the abysmal zeitgeist of late-capitalism; in an interview with National Geographic, Bourdain’s notes on fast food hit the mark regarding capitalism’s degenerative effects on culinary heritage and our collective good sense: “Oh yes, there’s lots of great food in America. But the fast food is about as destructive and evil as it gets. It celebrates a mentality of sloth, convenience, and a cheerful embrace of food we know is hurting us.” Having the fortitude to call something evil alone is something journalism at large has discarded today (unless talking about neoliberalism’s enemies, of course), but here and elsewhere, Bourdain was saying things which hit more people and hit them harder than most any pithy Times op-ed.

That ‘cheerful embrace of that which we know is hurting us’ is indeed a product of alienation, a result of something which professor Fritz Pappenheim (in his fantastic 1964 lecture at a conference on “Socialism in America“) argued was the grim roadmap of our time: “…in my opinion the trend toward [Gesellschaft, the essential separation of individuals from one another,] is the prevailing trend in our modern society… the victory of Gesellschaft over [Gemeinschaft, deep-seated interpersonal connections across society,] is almost complete.” It is once again the ways in which Bourdain was able to attack this feeble sense of Gesellschaft, these mere pretensions to community and compassion for those struggling both far and near, that he offered an opportunity for people to meet themselves and others which they didn’t even know they so desperately needed. It’s a connection which global market forces want you to forget needing – that glut of monstrous multinationals which spend billions a year fostering a populace that believes it can ‘do anything and be anybody’ in its pursuit of an atomized slave-caste of obedient consumers, this global Huxley-esque herd of undead wage earners with historical amnesia.

In that sense, we should also resist the temptation to atomize the conditions of his suicide (nor should we with anyone). I can’t pretend to know what drove Bourdain, but I feel it fairly safe to say that he wasn’t dull-witted enough to believe that mental illness was merely some individualized process of delinquent brain chemistry. Writes Mark Fisher in his 2013 work Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemical-biologization of mental illness is… strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. [This has] enormous benefits for [capitalism’s drive towards atomistic individualization] … It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation.” (pg. 37) Tragically, in 2017, Fisher also committed suicide.

It is following from this that I contend Bourdain’s suicide to be so traumatic precisely because he was someone who challenged us to be in better touch with ourselves, our politics, and the cultural heritage of the world at large, and that for this kind of mind to decide life was no longer worth living is deeply upsetting in ways which relate directly to the problems of alienation in modern life. The shock which comes with a wealthy, hugely beloved, and famous individual’s untimely self-destruction is a kind of social routine which dances around a core issue… a central, largely unspoken, deep-seated concern: if someone of such tremendous life, such tremendous success, could decide to abruptly end everything even in the face of a loving family and a legion of loving fans, what does that say about the grandest promises of our society?

Truly, if we are perhaps slowly and increasingly accepting the premise that we are all anxious, depressed, and otherwise miserable specifically because of the world we have all implicitly agreed to live in, because of this unending fucking competition we have to enter into with one another and that god-awful job you hate and that wage that barely makes ends meet and that constant gnawing sense of need and isolation at the center of it all, then the death of someone who is such an unqualified success serves to shake the foundations of that grand lie at the heart of capitalist realism.

“Understand, when you eat meat, that something did die.”

Bourdain was as far from perfect as any of us: his celebrity feuds seemed many, he had a slew of ‘enemies’, and later in life, he often admitted to his deep failures of character. I certainly wouldn’t mean to make him sound like some missed opportunity at a socialist leader who also could also cook up a mean plate, but the sheer resonance with which he wrote during a time when our most basic social institutions are crumbling before us was no damn accident.

Speaking candidly, I’ve no small bit of self-consciousness at casting myself in as one of a now nigh-countless multitudes who have deigned themselves interesting enough to try and publish something which hasn’t already been said many times over about the man since his passing; my writing here feels small in the shade of the reach he was capable of. When a famous person dies, we don’t all need to throw our hat in the ring of public discourse on it, and the ways in which varying publications invariably attempt to profit off such a horrid event has an air of opportunism about it which I’ve no small measure of guilt to think I may be just another part of.

Really, though, I didn’t decide to do this because I wanted to simply bathe him in praise (indeed, my first instinct was not to do this). It was that I thought, maybe, there were others out there who also shrugged Bourdain off at some juncture, who also grew tired of him, or weary, or who made assumptions about who he was. Writing my own kind of obit, I can’t escape my own assumptions either. I’m projecting, of course. I haven’t read his every book or watched all those episodes I missed out on. I’m not an authority of any kind, no number one fan.

I do keep coming back to the way he would speak about himself in later interviews, though, the way he spoke of a man who was arrogant, nasty, angry, disorganized, probably narcissistic-in-spite-of-the-self-loathing 40-something, and how in all of that I somewhere recognized a reflection of myself, how I was an arrogant, nasty, angry, disorganized, probably narcissistic-in-spite-of-the-self-loathing early-20-something who wanted to be better but kept failing at it somehow. I keep thinking about the way in which I turned away from my adoration for him belied that fear, the worry that he would be absorbed by the same forces I felt I was being absorbed by (albeit in different ways), that dismal tide we are all being absorbed by, and that I would only witness the gradual implosion of someone I had deeply respected. I think now about how he did implode, but just not how I’d figured… how he did get swallowed by that maw in some way or another, how it so wounds me as I write this now, even after figuring I was done with it.

I don’t know.

I think I write this for the same reason I mean to write anything else I hope someone reads and feels something about. I want to point out that what hurts me is what I argue is hurting everyone else ‘when you get down to it’, and that pop culture is a way for broad audiences to come into contact with these ideas, with surges of feeling, with insights that cut through the alienating lies we accept as capitalism’s natural law. I think I want to point out in my own way, in my own voice (as Bourdain helped to show so many of us), that yeah, there is an alternative to the question of capitalist realism which Fisher investigated, there is way forward for globalism where we see the people upon whose backs global capital makes cheap clothing and shitty-trinkets-we-don’t-goddamn-need as real people who we maybe don’t want to bomb, who we maybe don’t want to allow our national corporations to ruthlessly exploit, who we maybe don’t want to turn away at the door when we’ve finished pillaging their land with IMF ‘development’ loans and other such bullshit.

Bourdain’s was a world where the things we think we have forgotten – our culture, our history, and our place-in-time-and-the-world – are not gone just yet, and indeed can still be found at the edges, at the dinner table, in grandma’s kitchen in that dusty cookbook you think vaguely about inheriting someday. His was an offering which invited you, for all those deep flaws, to a place where things were bigger, vaster, more expansive than you had known in your little bubble of day-to-day subsistence, a world which he could expand outward yet reign inward, make you feel closer to, a part of, even a citizen of. Akin to his own description of the restaurant business, Bourdain’s work had a way of ‘pounding humility into you permanently’ much as he often noted that travel helped to gradually resolve his own arrogance, a kind of humility we dearly need to facilitate those new connections.

A kind of humility I dearly needed.