You aren’t what you eat

by Steve

A family gathered around a series of vending machines

Amongst all the goodness in the first issue of the New Inquiry magazine, one article in particular stood out – The Resentment Machine, by Freddy De Boer. It is available in full in that link back there, so you should probably read that rather than this, but anyway, it challenged me in all number of ways (I should probably offer some sort of summary here, but even after multiple readings I won’t do it justice and you’d be better off just reading the real thing, or failing that reading what follows in the next paragraph…), but one quote near the end particularly got to me.

There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing…There are no Apple people. Buying an iPad does nothing to delineate you from anyone else. Nothing separates a Budweiser man from a microbrew guy. That our society insists that there are differences here is only our longest con.

Undoubtedly, on first reading this it felt right. We shouldn’t define ourselves or others by what we consume. There is more to life than consumerism. Society shouldn’t be so shallow to judge on cultural tastes, when that neglects people’s character, courtesy and values. Cultural consumption has little, if any, meaningful worth or value.

And yet. And yet on second reading it struck me more plainly that I was that guy – Mr Cultural Consumption Man. To at least some degree I define myself by my cultural consumption, and have almost certainly been shaped by it.

Getting into indie music in my early teens helped me define myself as someone different from my peers. I had my music. Then Britpop happened and everyone around me was suddenly into similar music, so I moved on to (what I thought, and probably still think) was better stuff, and definitely more obscure. I kept my music to myself, the eternal inverted snob. If I gave too much away, a little bit of me would be gone too. Which is pretty sad when you’re talking about  a bunch of middling indie records. But still.

In a broader sense that music moulded me. The early nineties was the last golden age of music journalism in the UK. The music press was still weekly, still vital and didn’t talk down to its readership. It brought in critical theory and wider cultural concerns to discussions about pop and rock music. It not only pointed to great bands, it pointed to great films, books and art. And so did the bands themselves. The Manic Street Preachers would have literary quotes in their sleevenotes, Suede would talk of art and arthouse film. Old Smiths articles and record covers would lead me to Oscar Wilde, 60s kitchen sink dramas and Warhol. Chances are I wasn’t growing up a sexist, racist pig, but having role models in indie music certainly led me on a path away from that and towards the vaguely left-leaning position I take today. They definitely widened my reading and viewing habits, opened up new worlds and new perspectives.

Even beer has defined me. Or I’ve defined myself by beer, I’m not sure which. In my youth, most of my contemporaries would be swilling lager, or alcopops. My friends and I gravitated towards the beer and ale. At first, it was probably because it was cheap and the pub we went to had a decent selection. But it also felt a little bit like a statement – we weren’t the lager louts, we were probably old men in training. Enjoying good beer probably helped shape my appreciation of good food, or of any proper craft. My experiences, through consumption, have for better or worse help make me, given me a certain worldview.

But of course I still get the argument above, and still feel a little guilty about it. Defining myself by what I consume is probably at best foolhardy and at worst a little dangerous. There is a deeper me than what I watch, or listen to, or drink. Just drinking good beer and listening to good music won’t make me a good person.

And however I may define bad taste doesn’t guarantee that someone is a bad person. I shouldn’t judge them. But naturally I do. I have matched certain tastes to certain behaviours, and have sometimes been right. I’ve met angry, inarticulate lager drinkers listening to awful bands, for example, but I’ve also met some great people with terrible tastes (by my definition). I’ve met Mac bores, and met lovely people who iWorship. While I suspect cultural consumption can be some sort of societal barometer, I know I shouldn’t trust myself to use it. Sometimes taste and character are coincedental, sometimes they reflect one another. It is difficult to decide which, so probably isn’t a helpful social strategy. It also makes me a terrible snob, inverted or otherwise.

But I do find it interesting that the article doesn’t really touch on cultural consumption in terms of reading books. I suspect that is just as much of an issue. I find it odd when I go to someone’s house and don’t see any books. I love to see what people are reading on the train. Perhaps to digress a little, but nevermind, one reason e-readers are so popular has be that you can read what you want without anyone judging you.

I don’t really know what the answer is, or what conclusion to make. Feel free to help me out in the comments. But, I think I’m leaning towards thinking that definition-by-consumption isn’t so bad when we define ourselves, providing that we don’t see it as a get-out – we don’t automatically become a good person because we read great literature, listen to wonderful music and drink fine beer. Surely to some extent we are the result of our experiences, and cultural consumption does colour those. We see society and humanity as much through books and films and music as we do through face-to-face interaction, for better or for worse.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so ashamed of what isn’t so cool or whatever. The whole guilty pleasures phenomenon seems built on saying publicly, “I might like this awful song, but because I’m aware that is it awful and that I shouldn’t like it please don’t judge me, it doesn’t make me a bad person.” Or maybe I’m just overthinking (or even underthinking) that one.

But defining others by what they consume is more problematic, albeit something pretty hardwired. At least for me. It will be a while before I can stop myself sighing at the guy playing on his iPad sipping a light beer from a large corporation. But I’ll keep trying. And I’ll keep trying to grasp this argument, because I suspect I’ve missed the point, or at least overlooked some key elements of it. Further installments may not follow, but I’ll keep on thinkin’, dear reader.

Image from the Nationaal Archief, via Flickr