Food, snobbery and anti-capitalism
By Alberto Mingardi
I’m currently reading a truly interesting book, which some of EconLog’s readers may be already familiar with: “The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939” by John Carey. Carey argues, in his own words, “that modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century education reform.” He thus describes How intellectuals endeavoured to develop an increasingly less intelligible sort of artistic production, to distinguish and separate themselves from “the masses.”
But of course “the masses” do not exist in nature: they are instead an intellectual construct, manufactured, according to Carey, to dismiss in a much easier fashion those individuals who could be classed as “mass men.” Mass men are a fictionalised version of what intellectuals suppose ordinary people, with ordinary tastes, are. This latter species of human beings surely is a fault of the Industrial Revolution, in the sense that it multiplied in the process of “Great Enrichment” Deirdre McCloskey speaks of.
Carey’s analysis reminded me somehow of the one developed by Ludwig von Mises in “The Anticapitalistic Mentality.” There, Mises explains that capitalism “could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.”
One of the ways in which “common men” are depicted in “uncommon books,” Carey points out, is as partakers of bad food. Simple and “industrialized” food habits speak badly of those who hold them. In particular, a customary enemy of the high culture intellectual happens to be tinned food.
Being essentially unknowable, the mass acquires definition through the imposition of imagined attributes. (…) Another curiously persistent attribute, worth noting in conclusion, is tinned food. We saw E.M. Forster’s Leonard Bast eats tinned food, a practice that is meant to tell us something significant about Leonard, and not to his advantage. The Norwegian Knut Hamsun waged intermittent war in his novels against tinned food, false teeth and other modern nonsense. T.S. Eliot’s typist in “The Waste Land” ‘lays out food in tins’ (…) Tinned salmon is repeatedly a feature of lower-class cuisine in Graham Greene.
(…) In the intellectual’s conceptual vocabulary tinned food becomes a mass symbol because it offends against what the intellectual designates as nature: it is mechanical and soulless. As a homogeneous mass product it is also an offence against the sacredness of individuality, and can therefore be allowed into art only if satirised and disowned.
My impression is that this goes on today as well. “Man is what he eats,” and certain food habits are either proof of lack of sensibility (aesthetic but also environmental, think about food miles), or of lack of refinement and education, a deficiency individuals should be rescued from. Would the equivalent of tinned food, in the language contemporary intellectuals speak, be fast food? The “mass men” to be “re-educated” thanks to the political process eat burgers and drink sodas. But does any other example come to your mind? How food habits are used as a signal for the need of straightening the crooked timber of humanity?