Food and Drugs for Thought
Charlie Bertsch and Brock Craft
Issue #43, April 1999
We all need to eat. If we go a day without food for reasons of poverty or personal choice, we feel the absence in our bodies and minds with startling immediacy. Maybe that's why we are unlikely to think about the consumption of food in the same way that we think about the consumption of culture. We insist on the difference between needing something and merely desiring it. The problem with this distinction is that it fails to take into account all the ways in which food means more to us than mere sustenance. We may need food, but we also desire it. By calling this issue "Food and Drug," we seek to provoke thinking about this dimension to the consumption of food.
When our desire for food exceeds our body's need for it, the connection between food and drugs starts coming into focus. People whose illnesses would have killed them ten, fifty, or five hundred years ago survive today because they are taking drugs that were not available to their predecessors. Addicts need drugs in another sense. Some substances transform the body so that it requires regular doses in order to function. Others may not fit the clinical definition of something that is physiologically addicting, but still have enough of an impact on the body that their absence is felt with the intensity of a need. Frequently, the line between sanctioned and unsanctioned drug use blurs, as when the use of prescription drugs results in addiction or when illegal substances are used for medical reasons. Yet whether drugs are used in a way that the government deems proper or not, they differ from food in one fundamental respect. Although many people may need drugs to live, this need is historically defined. People needed food before they lived in civilizations, before they spoke what we would recognize as a human language, before they were "people." The same cannot be said for drugs. On the contrary, a strong case could be made that the use — and abuse — of drugs is a sine qua non of our humanity, something without which we would not be human at all.
If we need drugs, it is because that need has been manufactured as a result of our collective action as a species. As we learn more about the communicative capacity of primates and whales, our bedrock belief that language sets us apart from animals is being shaken. It seems safer to assert that it is actually our ability to manufacture new needs that makes us human. The imbalance that human beings have created in the world's ecology through the destruction of natural resources certainly derives from these manufactured needs. If we hadn't come to need fire, we wouldn't have had to cut down trees to fuel it. If we hadn't come to need petreoleum, we wouldn't have had to pollute the air and seas with its byproducts. This list could go on forever. The point we want to make is that the need for drugs is inextricably bound up with what makes us human, making drug culture a perfect place to begin investigating our common humanity.
It is precisely this humanity that concerns us when we foreground the discrepancy between the food we need and the food we desire. We make a distinction between the part of us that is human and the part that is not. Instinct impels us to eat. But it does not drive us to eat more than our body requires. Nor does it inspire us to discriminate between foods on the basis of taste instead of nutritional value. This is easy for people from the middle and upper classes of the developed world to forget. We spend so much time worrying about what to eat that we blind ourselves to the fact that the majority of the world's inhabitants worry everyday about whether they will have anything to eat at all. Taste only becomes a problem when instinct recedes into the background. In other words, taste is an effect of surplus. When we have more than enough food, food becomes every bit as aesthetic as books, museums, and televison. This is why we should subject it to the same critical scrutiny that we reserve for a novel or painting.
The contributors to this issue focus on the impact that food and drugs have on the way we make sense of our world. They explore what happens when consumption goes beyond the realm of necessity, when want can no longer be defined biologically. Katie Simon makes her years of experience as a waitress in tony restaurants the starting point for reflections on how the control we exert over our bodies is itself the product of intense social control. Steven Rubio links together a number of different stories about linguica, a sausage popular in his California hometown, in order to show how the consumption of "comfort foods" can provide a foundation for our sense of self. Mike Mosher's piece makes a provocative connection between photography and drugs, implying that society is being pulled apart as a result of our dependence on images. And Charlie Bertsch muses on his urge to experiment in the kitchen, suggesting that the impulse to break conventions may not be as revolutionary as it initally seems.
The issue also features three articles not written with the topic of food and drugs in mind. Jill Stauffer philosophizes about the problems faced by intellectuals who feel torn between the academy and the "real world." Scott Thill dissects the New York Review of Books' recent direct-mail marketing campaign, pinpointing the crassness with which it deploys the category of the intellectual. Finally, Megan Shaw takes the soon-to-be-released prequel to the Star Wars trilogy as an occasion for a humorous discussion of the narrative's seemingly limitless temporal scope.