Consider the octopus: the upside of thinking about uncomfortable things
An ars poetica by Stephen Hotchkiss
Written in 2004 for Gourmet magazine, David Foster Wallace’s ”Consider the Lobster,” is a hilarious and scathing indictment of not only the Maine lobster festival, but also of willful delusion and moral laziness. After an in-depth discussion of lobster neurology, Wallace asks the readers of Gourmet (certainly not a publication known for it’s hard-hitting ethical probing), ”Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
DFW wasn’t a radical animal rights activist, at least I don’t think he was, and the point he was making wasn’t necessarily only concerned with the ethical dilemma of boiling a lobster alive but also with the larger importance of critical thinking and an honest awareness of the world and one’s place in it.
The following paragraph displays, more or less, Wallace’s primary thesis:
“The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.”
Our basic need for sustenance unites us, and this fundamental fact makes food systems a powerful lens through which we may observe an entire society. On a cultural level, the prevailing attitudes toward food (including all aspects of agricultural production, processing, economics, and the political factors involved at all levels) are usually a telling indication of a given society’s overall world view. From an anthropological perspective, the adage is true, we are what we eat.
And so what does it say about a culture who generally prefers to consume sterile, packaged, nutritionally-lacking, synthetic, alien substances, manufactured by mega-corporations with a primary interest of making money and not healthy food? What are the implications of food that does not decay? What can we learn about a culture that hyper-processes its food to the extent that no trace to the original source can be made?
We might turn, as I often do, to Ernest Becker for a deeper analysis.
In The Denial of Death, Becker speaks of a fundamental narcissism that governs our thinking and relationship with the external world: ”Our organism is ready to fill the world all alone, even if our mind shrinks at the thought. This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physiochemical, inner organic recesses he feels immortal.”
We are indeed what we eat, and also, after examining the popularity of non-perishable, almost otherworldly food-like substances, it seems, we eat what we wish we were: immortal, gods. I’ve thought long and hard about it and the only reason I can figure why anyone would knowingly use synthetic food coloring known to be toxic is to imbue one’s food with a supernatural, ambrosial appearance in a ploy to further sever one’s terrestrial connections and to continue on with the grand narcissistic delusion. After all, being reminded that we need to eat plants (and/ or animals) to live reminds us that we are not that much different from the very plants (and/ or animals) that we eat, and that we too will die one day, and this is perhaps the most uncomfortable fact of them all. Best just eat space food and pretend the whole thing is a dream.
Fueled by a neurotic inability to confront uncomfortable facts, we have deluded ourselves into thinking we are extraneous/ superior to the rest of the natural world — what George Monbiot refers to as “deus invictus, the weightless god, floating above the grubby realities of life on earth,” – which is to say, we have lost a sense of our true selves as earthlings.
As a result, the environment has been all but completely annihilated; strawberries are sold in Canada in December; reality TV shows continue to be popular; genes are patented; bees are dying; otherwise intelligent people eat margarine, and so on.
While it may be an octopus rather than a lobster, the video included at the top of this page illustrates the personal empowerment that comes with thinking about and questioning your place in the world and about how your actions matter.
The purpose of this introductory post isn’t necessarily to advocate that we should all stop eating meat and jello, but simply to suggest that an examined life, connected to the earth, is worth the discomfort.