In Praise of Bad Food

I have lived in Paris for nine years. In that time, I have witnessed the arrival of organic Sunday brunch, juice bars, gourmet hot dog shops, American-style food trucks, and, most recently, a gourmet cupcake shop on the rue Rambuteau. These businesses are without exception inspired by urban trends in the United States. They are hugely successful here in Paris.

The food served at these places is delicious. It is prepared and served by attractive, enthusiastic young people. It is organic. It is healthy. It is fair-trade. It is local. I refuse to eat it.

Why are these businesses so popular? After all, France is full of delicious food already. Why would a French person trade in a croissant for a cupcake? Why have cupcakes, of all objects, emerged as a hipster shibboleth?

What these restaurants sell is not food as such, but rather the promise of a new type of relationship with the object. “Object” is here intended in the psychoanalytic sense, as that missing piece of our bodies that must be captured for us to attain identity with ourselves. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this object constitutes the deepest kernel of our being. Although this object can take any shape, it inevitably appears in the guise of one of a limited number of socialized forms: cleavage, a diamond, a cupcake…

When Jacques Lacan proclaims that there is no sexual rapport, what he means is that the object, be it oral, anal, phallic, scopic, etc., can never be attained as such. The unconscious is organized around the repressed fantasy of fusion with this object, and the essence of neurosis is the belief that this internal, fantasized missing piece really exists in some positive external form and can be captured.

Psychoanalytic theory teaches us that the most primitive fantasy of merging with the object is the oral fantasy, derived from the baby’s relationship with the maternal breast. On an unconscious level, whenever we swallow food, we engage in the fantasy that we are incorporating the transcendental Object.

What is troubling about these faddish new restaurants is the regressive nature of the object they propose. Here is the difference between an organic, locally-produced hot dog and a good old-fashioned industrially produced hot dog made of animal ass. A normal hot dog is full of disgusting things we know we ought not to eat. It is bad for the environment. It is produced in factories by underpaid migrant workers. It is injected full of hormones. It doesn’t even taste good. When eating such a hot dog, we understand, on some level, that this object is not it, not the loving maternal breast, not the transcendental oral object that will finally make us whole. It is a damn snack. A neo-hot dog, on the other hand, by ridding itself of all of the “bad” elements, mobilizes the deep, archaic unconscious fantasy of the perfectly comestible oral object.

The series of new bad ingredients has even been given a shorthand name: gluten. Suddenly humanity can no longer eat bread. We need to stop and consider this for a moment. Bread. Although gluten is certainly a real substance, what is being rejected here is not an enzyme but the very concept of tradition, of a symbolic debt to the past, of a connection with our ancestors. The sudden inability of leftist digestive systems in major Anglophone world capitals to process bread must rather be understood as a form of mass hysteria. In other words, what is being rejected is not the substance gluten but the signifier “gluten”, which functions here as a neologism whose unconscious signified is the entire structure of traditional human society. (Novak Djokovic credits a gluten-free diet for allowing him to take his game to the next level. It would be interesting to submit him to psychoanalysis in order to find out what unconscious objects have found themselves subsumed under the signifier “gluten”.)

Here is the fantasy underlying so much of the current thrust of American consumerism: that of a perfectly good object (what could be more innocent and reassuring than a cupcake?) and, by extension, a perfectly good world, a perfectly good system, one from which conflict, evil, and loss (=gluten) have finally been banished. Of course, the history of humanity is littered with totalitarianisms whose starting point has always been a belief in the ability finally to banish Evil and realize the Good.

And do not all of these neo-restaurants have in common an implicit moral stance? Unlike Freeport McMoran or Halliburton, whose goal is to pursue evil under the guise of capitalism, the organic cupcake shop’s goal is to make the world a better, tastier place one cupcake at a time while still turning an honest profit. We are allowed to enjoy fancy gluten-free cupcakes with whimsical flavors because they are the rations of the Army of the Good, the righteous, the beautiful souls.

It is not by turning away from the necessity of conflict and taking refuge in a regressive fantasy of the Realm of the Good that we will attain social harmony. Rather, we must understand that social harmony is an illusion, and that it is only through Agon, through generative conflict, that we can exist both for ourselves and for each other.

Freud has been much maligned for his theory of the libidinal stages (oral, anal, phallic, and genital). Without entering into too much detail, the child’s libidinal development passes through several bottlenecks during which the object that had previously organized his erotic life is revealed to be inadequate. At some point, the child must stop sucking at the teat. This “must” is not a simple cultural prohibition but a biological, even a spiritual imperative, one that must be reflected back to the child by his educators for it to become operative. At this stage in the process, the original object falls away, only to be replaced by another object existing in another register.

In the series of the four Freudian stages, the decisive cut occurs between the phallic and the genital stages. Whereas the oral, anal, and phallic stages all revolve around the fantasy of a positively existing object that can be seized and incorporated, the genital stage is marked by the realization that the object has a paradoxical status. It is both real and mirage, good and evil, me and not-me, structurally necessary and impossible to attain. It is a surface-effect, one that hints at depths that can never be sounded. What Freud refers to as the genital phase might be reformulated in the language of epistemology is the acceptance of difference as the ground of knowledge and with it, human existence.

A “genital” form of social organization is one in which the oral fantasy of the perfectly just society has been abandoned in favor of an acceptance of the inevitability of lack, suffering, conflict, inequality, and death. The alchemy of subjectivity lies here, in the fact that it is only by acknowledging our constitutive incompleteness that we have any hope of overcoming it. Until this happens, any attempt to avoid this necessary passage through difference can only fall into some form of regressive inauthenticity.

As subjects, we are condemned never fully to coincide with ourselves, never fully to encounter the object, never completely to merge with the Other. This scandalous truth is embedded in the cultural institution of sexual difference, whose task it is to safeguard the traumatic truth of subjective division. Here is the link between genitality, understood literally, and epistemological difference. Sexual difference, the supreme metaphor for the epistemological difference that grounds language and human existence as such, is thus diametrically opposed to the archaic fantasy of orality, which promises to liberate us from the difficult obligation of accepting our incompleteness and coming to be as desiring subjects.

These new restaurants are just one new variation in the all-out war led by consumerism against the hard-won gains of millennia of civilization. They are animated by the fantasy that if we try hard enough, we can finally abolish difference, and with it subjectivity, once and for all.

To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, I like delicious hot dogs, and I’d rather eat muscle than ass cartilage, but I like being a subject a lot more, and to “swallow” the new orality is implicitly to weaken genitality and with it Eros and subjectivity.

I find it particularly sad that France, a country whose greatest cultural legacy is its rich institution of Eros that has no equivalent in the United States, is allowing American Puritanism in through the back door in the form of this new orthorexia nervosa. The day will come when we no longer know what a man or a woman is.

Until then, you can find me eating unhealthy frozen dinners reheated by visibly unhappy illegal immigrants in Flunch.


Not long after writing this, I sold a copy of my novel to a lovely couple outside the Pompidou Center. It turns out that the girl works at the cupcake shop I mentioned at the beginning of this post. She came back a few minutes later with a gift box of cupcakes for me. Ever since I have started selling books on the street, the Other has been sending me my own message in an inverted form with a vengeance. Obviously I felt like a heel. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t say anything. Yet I continue to stand by what I wrote here. Perhaps the lesson of this encounter is that it is always an act of aggression to insult someone’s libidinal economy. We must distinguish between the structure of the Other as such (the new orality) and the subjects whose engagement with this Other is always complex, singular and deserving of respect.






One comment

  1. Dries Van Cann

    I was reading your article with interest, and all the while I thought of ‘puritanism’, in the last paragraph you did indeed mention the term. What seems to me distinctive about the puritan way of dealing with the human condition, is its refusal of compromises with the super ego indictment of childish oral pleasure. Smoking, alcohol consumption etc are compromises with this indictment, because it attaches to oral pleasure an added ‘bad’ element which serves as a necessary precondition for the regressive behaviour to be ‘condoned’. Thus the subject pays its tribute to the super ego by saying ‘look i know what i’m doing is wrong/immature, therefore i punish myself at the same time’. In the puritan way of being, however, such a compromise is no longer possible.

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