Friday, March 28, 2008

Cows and Cannibalism

Rethinking Popular Culture: Contempory Perspectives in Cultural Studies

Marshall Sahlins wrote a chapter in Rethinking Popular Culture entitled La Pensée Bourgeoise. Here he takes a swipe at North American notions about the rational nature of our food choices. The 12 pages or so are a blistering romp through $40,000 words - but one of the shortest my anthropology course this semester. Here's the angle:

Most of us seem to make very rational choices about the food we purchase to consume. Especially in today's health conscious world we are focused on the value that our food brings us. We are concerned about calories, flavour and cost. So when we hit the supermarket our minds are constantly making calculations about what we should put in the shopping cart. If you asked people about what sorts of effects cultured played in their food choices we might only be able to identify a few subtle differences between what we would choose to eat. Our choices are between hamburger or sirloin pork chop or chicken breast for instance. Most of us never consider picking up some dog loin for supper. Why is it that we don't?

A dog after all is far more cost effective. Dog meat is cheap to grow and just as easy to prepare as beef. And even when you look at a butchered cow the laws of supply and demand that make capitalism flourish are somehow abandoned. I mean there is only one tongue and a heck of a lot of steak - yet tongue is almost the cheapest thing you could buy. Not quite such a rational decision after all?

And think of all the subsidiary economic ramifications of eating cows. Around here there might be a lot of farmers looking for different crops to irrigate instead of timothy.

Sahlins suggestion is that we objectify certain parts of our material culture in order to distance them from ourselves. Otherwise a prevailing metaphor of cannibalism prevents us from being able to consume them. A dog is part of the family. Who eats their own family members? But this idea of objectification reveals a far more subtle plot. Think of the cow for a minute. Ever eaten cow groin? Or how about a cow's back or belly? It's not usually a shoulder its a brisquette or shank or loin. Sahlins suggests that even this terminology reveals a clever distancing that allows us to eat the cow without feeling too bad about it.

The article is really a gold mine of ideas but it has prompted a new poll which you will find on the side of the blog. And for those of you who might like to explore this a little more here's a clip of from the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy to give you a little more fuel...

Fast forward to the 5:30 mark for a tasty little clip!

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