Comfort food: succulent hugs in morsel mouthfuls. It’s soulful re-invigoration at a delightful and intangible level. Sinfully delicious or piously nutritious, our hard-studying taste buds deserve the best. We know what we like and we don’t need to ask why. But what if your favourite Canadian dish threatened extinction for a species in the wild? Uh oh, spaghetti-oh…
Free-range pasta, pan-fried poutine, and deep-fried pickles are in no way threatened, it’s true. Yet, a quarter century ago, a moratorium on the Atlantic cod fishery hit another taste bud tickler: Fish and Chips. This signature English dish carries such cultural connotations that George Orwell, while conducting an interview for a housekeeper, famously asked if she was a good cook, and, when the answer was in the negative, he simply brushed it off and pronounced that that was just fine; they’d nightly eat takeout fish and chips (Orwell, online). That being said, here in the 21st Century there’d have to be a good justification to continue eating Atlantic cod if the species was in peril. In such cases it helps to ask where our heartfelt attachments originate.
We’re probably all familiar with the pejorative notion that the treasured diploma or degree we labour towards is just a worthless piece of paper. After all, many students attain their degree only to go on to work in a seemingly unrelated field. Some disciplines (Hello art history and theoretical physics) are written off as though they might as well have been extras in a Charmin commercial. How can we quantify the priceless sense of worth and vitality imparted by completion of a degree that requires such rigorous self-discipline and time management skills? The value of our AU parchment is simultaneously immeasurable and beyond measure; it’s worth depends on our values and these are deeply personal and linked to our evaluation of our chosen academic discipline(s).
As Victor Frankl, psychologist and holocaust survivor, stated, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Frankl, online).
Our pleasure and desire are not value-neutral. They are embedded within terrain we traverse using methods keyed to our social surroundings and academic disciplines: our favourite things did not get that way spontaneously.
Shark fin soup is a notorious example of a culturally valued dish that threatens species with extinction. The broth lacks nutritional benefits and its swarmy, mucousy texture often contains toxic mercury (Telegraph, online). And, perhaps most damaging to foodies with precocious palettes: “the fins themselves are virtually tasteless” (Telegraph, online). Traditionalists nonetheless claim that this viscous potion will “improve everything from sexual potency to skin quality” as well as potentially “prevent heart disease, lower cholesterol and fight cancer” (Telegraph, online). Recipes date back to the Ming dynasty five hundred years ago and, with the upward mobility of an emerging middle class, shark fin soup has never been more in demand. With the scientific facts available, why do people from Singapore to Manchuria to Vancouver keep eating it? Well, before we hop on our high horse (horse meat is delightful on Venetian pizza, I must add) we might consider shark fin soup’s social role and compare it to items in our own culture that function in similar ways. In Frankl’s terms, our intuitive responses stay unexamined at our peril, not to mention our hypocrisy.
Cue the Jaws theme song. Symbolically, shark fin soup sort of speaks for itself. A shark fin, symbolic of all the stealth, power and efficacy of a ravaging and insatiable killer, is consumed at special events where it demonstrates social prestige and encourages physiological health. This noteworthy protuberance as a status symbol symbolizes power; in post-Freudian terminology it functions as a phallus whereby a phallic symbol represents power rather than literally representing the male organ. “Contrary to Freud, Jacques Lacan stressed that the ‘meaning of the phallus’ is linked to the fact that the penis is not the phallus” but rather, the phallus is any symbol that connotes the acquisition or maintenance of social power (Alphaville, online). In fact, there are phallic foods spanning countless cultures including such delicacies as Yak penis and Geoduck Clams (Cambell, online, Washington Dept, online). Each are supposed to enhance potency, ensure health, and increase social standing for those who consume them. Foods that represent phallic power come to symbolize the acquisition of knowledge and, as we know when people argue over facts and their possible fakeness, to possess effective knowledge is to effectively wield power. But you don’t have to stick with edibles to see a trend emerging: our consumerist culture has got the phallus trick pegged with our own economic marks of adulthood, stability and virility: big ticket items like humungous pickup trucks.
Many men do not need, per se, a huge truck or the newest model every few years and yet they proceed to buy one anyway. Their truck functions as a status symbol. Perhaps even adorned with stainless steel testicles dangling off of the rear axle (Leonard, online). This Fly on the Wall can personally testify to seeing multiple examples of these while travelling on Alberta’s Queen Elizabeth Highway.
Clearly there are bigger things going on than folks possessing a piece of modern engineering. So much so that a recent TV commercial for Ford felt the need to proclaim, with solemnity and a stiff upper lip, that “it’s not a metaphor” (Capital Ford, online). As Lacan described, we live enmeshed within a “symbolic-real’ imaginary” realm and, born into our culture’s tropes of identity and codes of conduct, gain a sense of self within a realm more symbolic than objective (Alphaville). As children our gender, name, and location conflate to create a backdrop pastiche. The “image in the mirror is the image of coherence-of what makes the world and our place as complete subjects in it make sense. It becomes a process of identification of internal self with that external image. The mirror stage thus represents the infant’s first encounter with subjectivity…with an external sense of coherence, and with a sense of “I” and “You” (ibid).
As our AU experience unfolds we add identifiers like academic scholar and university graduate to our matrix of self. Hopefully our diploma means something deeply to us, otherwise it’s just another cultural signifier that might make us appear pretentious.
Sometimes we come to identify with an “icon”; that is, an image which is understood with no (or little) mediation. Here the big chichi truck rides into view once again, as could a pair of studious reading glasses or a classy business suit. These external identifiers do not appear coercive, so naturally are we interpolated into our social world with its narratives and symbolism, yet we find ourselves feeling at one with them without necessarily being aware of how this happened. I’ve always liked trucks, we might say or I just dress how I feel. These commonsensical answers enter our lexicon not because they are transcendentally true (we were all born naked and truckless, after all) but because we swam amidst cultural symbolism from the moment of our birth and before we were self-conscious.
So with shark fin soup as restorer of, er, masculine function and a pickup truck as provider of masculine functionality (Honey-Do list trips to the town dump anyone?) both function as phallic symbols because the phallus signifies not literally a penis but the possession of power itself. Crucial to our identity, they resist rational critiques from discourses of extinction and climate change. After all, from our first consciousness we experience a need to make sense of ourselves and the world around us; objects which help direct us to culturally appropriate models of understanding function as phalluses; they literally point us in socially-sanctioned directions. As such, “the phallus is the signifier of this desire for understanding brought forward through language” (Mulvey, online). Even colours work this way; some are coded as feminine and others masculine. “In order to fill the gap created by this desire-signified by the phallus, the subject must find a way to be the phallus in order to draw the attention and recognition from the Other,” (Mulvey). Whether eating a shark fin and thus absorbing it into our bodies or driving a truck, and thus becoming inseparable from its bigness and chichiness, the effect is the same: a cultural icon functions as a form of self-definition that provides the user with a powerful and stable sense of self. It’s like wearing a shark-suit to a party: everyday is a masquerade when we realize the nature of our accoutrements, costumes, and pieces of flair. They’re symbolically all phalluses.
But what good is everything being a symbolic phallus? Tune in next week, where we’ll address theoretical lenses and their real consequences for how we see the world and our place within it.