(inspired by Walker Percy)
Like the insidious whispers issuing from beneath the pillows of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, modern society surrounds us with the message of mass-production: “Let us do it for you. Let us free you from drudgery, let us provide you with all you need. Buy our microwave dinners, our Levi’s, our molded plastic chairs. We’ll do it all for you, so you can have time for the things you want.” Yet, at the same time, we value the handmade far above the mass-produced product: a painting may sell for $2 million while the same image on a poster costs less than $10. Surely we must see something greater, more worthwhile in the efforts of the artist, the craftsman, to value the results of his or her labor so highly! And yet we surround ourselves with anonymous objects stamped out by the millions, and see nothing wrong, offer no resistance to the tide of uniformity.
I stand on tiptoe beneath a flowering orange tree, ignoring puzzled glances from passersby as I pluck its fragrant blossoms. After filling my bucket, I take my booty upstairs, where I hand-sort blossoms from ants and leaves before dropping them into warm oil. The oil will extract the fragrance, producing a gloriously scented massage oil. I make many of my own perfumes the same way, for I find them more satisfying than store-bought colognes and floral oils. Bought fragrances seem somehow impersonal, uninteresting, and I avoid them when I can. Similarly, I sew and dye many of my own clothes, and would try my hand at weaving, had I a loom. Prepackaged foods have no place in my kitchen, for how can I truly appreciate food worth no more than five minutes in a microwave, two seconds of my time? I seek to reclaim the everyday, rather than pursue the exotic.
Perceptions differ according to expectations. The tourist who reads about the Tour Eiffel, sees the pictures in the travel brochures, and then visits the tower itself in Paris is unlikely to see it in the same manner as the innocent who, having never heard of it, turns a corner and is suddenly confronted with tall, sweeping curves of black steel. One might even argue that the tourist, in hunting for the Eiffel Tower, has lost it: what he or she experiences is not the tower itself, but a structure which looks remarkably like the travel brochure’s photo–a less than perfect example of the abstract idea, “Eiffel Tower”. An intermediate–the travel agency–has interposed itself between the tourist and his/her experience: instead of a glorious aesthetic creation, the tourist sees exactly what was expected: a three-dimensional copy of what has already been seen in brochures. The tower itself is lost.
In a similar sense, a woman who buys a mass-produced bar of soap in a supermarket, knowing it has been produced a million at a time in huge factories and is thus not at all special, has lost the essence of the soap: the very uniformity of the bar prevents her from apreciating the whiteness, the smoothness, the fragrance. It is not an object to be explored, but a plain, boring bar of Ivory. her preconceptions prevent her from seeing the actual object, replacing it instead with an idea of Ivory soap. She is not involved. The soap does not matter.
The hazards of objectification–the replacement of an object by an idea–are in some ways obvious. Any form of racial discrimination consists of replacing members of a group with the idea of the group, and refusing to see the individual. The ease and unconsciousness with which this objectification occurs frightens me: more than once, I have heard a group of men talking about women as a collection of sexual parts, then, realizing that I am present, immediately assure me that this view does not apply to me. But I cannot believe it: the category woman has been reduced to breasts and genitals, and I am a specimen of woman.
In a similar manner, I will not eat meat–not because killing is wrong, but because I object to hiding the slaughtering process. For me, buying prepackaged parts wrapped in styrofoam from my local supermarket entails a double loss of the animal. The first, the most obvious, is simply its death and dismemberment: it has been slaughtered, and so is gone. But the second loss disturbs me more: the absenting of the very concept, “animal”. The cuts of meat presented in neat cases bear little resemblance to the original creature, allowing me to eat steak without ever thinking of cow, or the bloody process that brings meat to the table. The calf, the pig, the hen disappear in the slaughtering process, replaced by veal, pork, chicken. In denying its ever having existed, the meat industry kills the animal a second, more brutal time. For me, this casual obliteration of animal-ness is more ominous than the actual slaughter: that six billion living, breathing creatures can disappear each year to go to our tables, without ever being allowed to exist in our minds, disturbs me deeply. For me, the anonymous hamburger brings up the process by which it arrives: the cramped animal factories, the slashing of a throat, the final dismemberment–and I turn away. And yet it takes an effort of will for me to discard my ingrained assumptions–that meat grows in supermarket cases, and animals do not exist.
Finally, abstraction of mundane objects deprives us of our identity as individual creatures, of our sense of self-worth. When we lose the towering oak to the fine specimen of Quercus albans, when we lose our kneaded breads, the products of our own efforts, to an anonymous lump of processed flour and additives, we lose something of ourselves. Mass-production, fundamentally, sends the message, “This is not important; this is a convenience, a shortcut because the route does not matter.” And thus we lose our daily bread: what we eat is worth no more than five microwave minutes, and hence does not deserve our attention, our enjoyment, our discovery. We are reduced from people who can enjoy and savor food to machines which need to be refueled periodically, as quickly as possible. We, too, become objectified.
Refusing objectification, classification, abstraction has become an integral part of my life–perhaps, viewed negatively, an obsession. But I feel my reward for this refusal outweighs the cost in time: I know for myself that I am human, I am individual, and I cannot be abstracted. I know that things, basic things, are important, are worthy of time. I appreciate the hand-stitched skirt even as I spread it across the table and pull out the dyes.
© 1991, Tien Chiu
Tien – this essay touched my heart – thankyou. I am not over emotional – [I am English after all!!!] but I am vegetarian – and precisely because of the reasons you have given. I began keeping chickens and ducks for pleasure and every time I fed them, had pleasure in them I couldn’t equate them with the ‘meat’ they produced. I knew that if it was left to me to kill them to eat, then I never could, but it began to trouble me that I was allowing someone else to do it on my behalf. I still miss the taste and flavour meat gives to meals, but I know I could never put flesh in my mouth again. This isn’t a judgment on those that do – honestly, just how I personally feel. I also agree with you on the impersonalisation of our lives – have you ever read William Cobbett – he was complaining of exactly the same thing over two hundred years ago!. Thankyou Tien – I think you are fantastically talented with such eye to detail that it is staggering.