Fly on the Wall—We Are What We Read

What We Put Into Our Minds Makes Us Who We Are

Whatever we put into our bodies goes into the makeup of our being.  Years ago I attended a restaurant in Nelson, BC, specializing in delicious garlic dishes.  The glory of that mighty plant was on full display and for months after I enjoyed roasting garlic cloves with a little salt and olive oil.  Garlic, like any shared experience, is most enjoyable when everyone imbibes.  If we all ooze the same aromas out of our pores then a world of olfactory equality arises, right?  So, with this in mind, let’s consider an action crucial to AU student life: reading!  Yet, before we can read literally we might consider how much of social reality involves reading ideologies into our personal identities and beliefs that we tend to take for granted.  Everything we see and consume we first read in a sense.

The Personal and The Political

Jurgen Habermas (1929-present) claimed that the goal of a free civil society was for people to inhabit what he called a “rationalized lifeworld” (Habermas, 449).  Like eating what we truly are hungry for, while bettering ourselves and our social spaces, Habermas concluded that “integrative social solidarity” must “gain sufficient strength to hold its own against the other two social forces – money and administrative power” (447).  For him, “politics is conceived as the reflexive form of substantial ethical life” (442).  And as material reality goes, so goes our belief systems.

Yet here a problem arises: norms and values are so external and coercive that they insidiously get inside us—like garlic aroma that lasts for days or body image issues that weaken our self esteem.  What began as tasty and healthy becomes something else entirely as it becomes who we are.  Just as we are trained to imagine the capitalist marketplace as a value neutral realm of exchanges among rational actors, “the legal institution of an economic society that is supposed to guarantee an essentially non-political common good through the satisfaction of the private aspirations of productive citizens” can make our desires seem natural and inevitable (447).  But as soon as we meet discursive opposition, dissonance arises and we are forced to find new interpretations of our realm.  This, in a nutshell, is what education is about.  And this, nutcrackers to the nether regions implied, is precisely what pop activist fandoms fail to incorporate: an ability to taste the world in new ways.

Yet, taking hunger as our archetype, we find that the world forges our ideas of what to eat in much the way society frames what is good to read.  The “integrative force of solidarity” can mean no one tries anything new, let alone tastes unpopular intellectual fruit, and that can only make social reality blander and more malleable to those with ill intentions, cost-cutting or civil rights limiting, or both (447).  And, descending to the nastiest junk food imaginable, memes are such common fortune cookie tidbits of readable brain food that we assume that they provide real sustenance.  It remains, surely, for our AU student selves to transcend the simple answers provided by blurb-y words on social media so that we can better ourselves and raise the bar of discourse of those around us.  High ideals to be sure, but no one ever doctored up Kraft Dinner by clinging to the directions!  After all, the common belief that social media provides free access to information and reality to all would literally eat our academic impulses alive if we didn’t defend the noble ivory tower essence of a university education.  For many of our peers, structured education appears wholly necessary in these times of apparently unlimited online information.

Seasoning Our Minds: Another World And Another Meal Are Both Possible

As Zhuangzi (circa the 4th Century BCE) famously put it, “the eye envies the mind”; thus, no food is value neutral in that our mind, unconsciously perhaps, creates our desires according to social expectations.  Metaphors of consumption abound through more serious art and literary realms.  Think of the joke “Do you like seafood?” “Yup, I see food, I eat food!”  In academic disciplines, to read the world is to engage with, and truly masticate, reality so as to taste new possibilities.  Margaret Atwood describes her first published novel, The Edible Woman, as a 1969 interpretation of eating as a social performance: “it’s a human activity that has all kinds of symbolic connotations”, she says.

As anyone can attest who’s loved or been loved by someone with an eating disorder, or noticed how for some folks every act of eating invoked consumerist notions of self as a product advertising at all times to an unseen but omniscient culture Other (otherwise summarized by the line “will this make me fat?”), eating is never value neutral.  Food is a consumerist fact in our times and one maybe a pinch less addressed than countless other politically correct topics.  Is that because we in 2021 take it on faith alone that the meaning of life is to live long and be healthy at the expense of flavour and fat?

Maybe food is the ultimate metaphor; as a cursory review of the art world shows, the eye is a favourite theme of consumption.  Judy Chicago’s 1979 exhibit The Dinner Party highlighted how status and privilege define the way we consume one another with our eyes and minds.  Chicago work, in her own words, delivers a “reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table.” A critic’s summary describes the dinner scene:

“The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine “guests of honor”—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization.  Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement.  Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva”. 

Wow, that’s a different dinner set!  To consume challenging imagery is to engage our critical thinking faculties; when we are comfortable in our news and views we aren’t likely to express any new ideas in our AU essays.  Remember, the brain requires more calories than another other organ.  And that, despite only weighing 2% of our total mass!

Feminist geniuses have critiqued patriarchy and social norms by questioning how ideas get inside the brain and make their bad brew appear natural and inevitable.  If you aren’t questioning authority then there’s a good chance you are upholding oppressive values.  To think that today’s world somehow transcends this iron law of rebellion where The Man (“Das Man” for Heidegger fans) operates as a dark shadow menacing enlightenment is surely foolhardy.  Any among us can post Simpsons-themed memes about social justice issues but it takes the authentic academic skills of an AU pupil to deploy some rigorous discourse.  Maybe to truly read ourselves into our studies and consume new ideas that will make our brains grow up big and strong is to endorse views opposed to the norms of our time.  At least, for long enough to broaden our horizons.  After all, just as books are just words, and food is just a meal, so too are all actions only momentary dollops of sour cream in the vast soup of life’s potential.  So next time you see something readable or edible that makes you go “just, no!” give yourself a chance and try it, you might like it!

Habermas, J.  (1998).  ‘Three Normative Models of Democracy’.  In Peter Krivisto Social Theory: Roots and Branches.  New York: Oxford University Press.
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