3 September 2010

Of presidents, pies & social capital...

The Americans vex me dreadfully at times. This fetching picture quite unreasonably unfixes my hair and makes my seated heart knock at my ribs with seething irritation. The room is the Oval Office in the heart of the White House, now slathered in a fresh coat of creamish paint and striped wallpaper, like a pair of clown's pantaloons. Its been done up. Spiffing. No objections from me there. But what's this? On the left, we are treated to the bending figure of Barack Obama - "the leader of the free world" let's remember, with Lincoln looking proudly on - tugging a purposeless tug on one side of a heavily embroidered sofa. On the right, the elected Governor of the state of Vermont, Jim Douglas (Republican), folds a little in the middle and dangles diffidently, as if wanting to seize a parp of his Commander in Chief's soft furnishings but proving too bashful in the event to do so. And what luck! A camera on hand to catch this manful manhandling of heavy objects around a room.  

"He always struck me as an effete intellectual, haughty and abstract - but boy - the way he handles a sofa - I want to sit down and have a beer with that guy now!" This is palpably, patently absurd, staged nonsense of the sort American politicians seem to specialise in. Nobody honestly believes that this pair of elected officials houked the new upholstery through the corridors of the White House nor heaved it off its delivery van. Why not include a charming piccy of Barack picking out the new wallpaper? Too froufrou? He could have donned a labour-stained and chequered lumberjack costume to compensate, and tightened a big leather holster about his waist, festooned with practical looking metal objects to prod other metal objects with. Too subtle, do you think?

These political performances aping values of averageness and ordinariness are complex, operating on several planes. Amongst the most interesting incidences are those that are broadly culinary. No matter how crashingly bourgeois or patrician their backgrounds or actual objective dining preferences, one is lead to believe that they favour "local joints for the occasional lunch with the guys" and other such jealous burlesques to demonstrate the manly ordinariness of millionaires, crying "Come, let us make haste to a burger bar, there to consume neon-hued shaken milk & low-quality fried food manually!" And formulaically, the electors are presumably intended to respond "Boy, he may be President of the United States, but I respect him because he pretends to shift his own furniture when the camera's on him and can gnaw a cheeseburger with moderate competence..." Hilary Clinton necked shots in Indiana when she was agitating for the Democratic Party's nomination for President. They even inflict these absurd performances on foreign leaders. Obama took the president of Russia Dmitry Medvedev (and all importantly, camera crews) to "Ray's Hell Burger".

So why is this so vexing? For me, I think it is the deliberate, plainly artificial and manipulative intention behind all of this. The frustration perhaps mostly occasioned by the sense that Americans may be disposed to take any of this seriously.  In Britain, there is a parallel tradition, but I don't think the manipulative purpose of our (still complex) culinary forays are quite so acute nor are their pitfalls so successfully negotiated. Some public figures obviously try their best with overdone domestic scenes, publicity angles, electioneering shots. Recall Blair's purchase of a pair of '99s on the campaign, one for himself, the other for Gordo Broon, the latter holding his flake-skewered Mr Whippy as stiffly as if Blair had handed him a syphilis swab. Or how, during his tenure as leader of the opposition, William Hague's attempted to depict himself as bluff and beer-addled by boasting of his slurping prowess. In Alex Salmond's case, one rather assumes that pies would teeter on his jaw, whether or not a photographer was on hand to capture that magic moment for the annals of remote posterity.

As apocryphal political stories in the genre go, the discomfiting tale of Peter Mandelson and the tub of mushy peas furnishes us with one of the best. In the unlikely event that the story is new to you, I'll briskly recap. During his days as MP for Hartlepool, Mandelson was apparently campaigning in his constituency and popped into a fish and chip shop, no doubt seeking some refreshment. As the story goes, he ordered the eponymous spécialité de la maison and spotting the shop's trench of mushy peas, added "... and some of that guacamole as well." Cue mirth. The received wisdom is that the appeal of the vignette is owed to its plausibility, whether or not it actually happened. It speaks to Mandelsonian metropolitanism: it sounds like him. That said, in this story as in the others, we shouldn't individualise too far. The whole story only makes any sort of sense because is renders explicit the implicit class tensions of Mandelson, representative of the people. Interestingly, the vehicle it uses to dramatise this sense is food, culinary capital. The other attempts by these Sir Politick Would-Bes to invest their culinary capital as a means of demonstrating their empathetic affinity and competence with differential modes of class consumption are suggestive of the crucial point - like all investments, some are wise and others less so. When a politician reaches for a burger under the eye of the camera, he or she does more than simply risk scooshing tomato sauce down their front.

On one level, food is still food: ultimately edible or inedible, toothsome or revolting, bud-satisfying or bud-repelling. Some a spoon will negotiate down your gizzard, others call for the fingers, others for fork prongs. Preference, up to a point, is indeed subjective. Cutlery is not the ultimate expression of civilisation. However, on another level, what we cook, buy, eat, drink, order in eateries - and how we eat it - aren't merely whimsical ledgers of subjective preference. Apprehensions of class are imminent and structure our attitudes and our behaviour. Do you feel comfortable eating with your hands? Eating in public? Or indeed comfortable with what you're eating? If not, the answer probably lies not in the intricate distinctions of your tastebuds but in the complex class associations of this form of consumption. Indeed, public consumption of food by predominantly bourgeois politicians furnishes a particularly excellent example of the complex tensions involved. This, more or less, is the thesis advanced by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book La Distinction, first published in 1979 and translated into English as Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. While his units of analysis are decidedly French, the parallel argument can readily and interestingly be assayed in these islands and across the Atlantic Ocean. As he once said:

"The sociologist who chooses to study his own world in its nearest and most familiar aspects should not, as the ethnologist would, domesticate the exotic, but if I may venture the expression, exoticise the domestic, through a break with his initial relation of intimacy with the mode of life and thought which remain opaque to him because they are too familiar." (Homo Academicus 1988, xi)


  1. Nice one Lallands.
    I agree entirely, but not surprised in the least. Another dimension to this might have been the feeling that Barack Obama would not stoop to this kind of false PR, but I guess that's just a romantic notion.

    Politicians are like large multinationals, keen to develop a brand image that will strike a chord with consumers/voters. An image is far more powerful than text, and Obama (and team) clearly know how to do this well. The fact that this was stage-managed will be lost on many people - I guess that's the idea! Even to the extent that it could be portrayed as an 'unguarded moment'. A false one.

    Real unguarded moments are hard to come by these days, especially with high-powered politicians. Although I can think of a couple that reveal the true brand image of the politicians in question. Gordon Brown's electioneering faux pas with the microphone and Prescott's fisticuffs some years ago would be two such instances. How much more interesting they are!

  2. Glad I'm not the only member of that smouldering category who gets vexed by fidgeting with furniture in the Oval Office, Andrew. As you say, it is the conscious pretence of it that really galls. On Mr Obama, no doubt he has all the more need of this sort of "ordinary guying", since he doesn't have underbrush on a Texan ranch to hew. I'm not American, obviously, and I'm not on intimate terms with this apparently pervasive "ordinary American" discourse they have. I know I have one or two readers from over the water. Perhaps one of them might enlighten us from more personal experience.