An appeal to an artwork’s realism, its roots in reality, is an appeal not to its accuracy at registering facts but to the depth of its claim upon us. The claim is not, ‘this is the real world’, but rather, ‘this is your world’.
— Josh Kortbein, josh blog
Walter Benjamin notes that in Baudelaire’s Paris a fleet of more than five hundred sedan chairs was still in use for elegant transport; that it was fashionable for flâneurs to purchase turtles and use them to set their pace; that a worker committed suicide in the home of the fantastically popular novelist Eugѐne Sue, leaving a note in which he hoped ‘dying would be easier for me if I died under the roof a man who stands up for us and loves us.’ The chief interest of this phase of the work is to watch an array of ‘individual details’ deployed and redeployed in the search for new forms of presentation and illumination.
… At a number of points in his final years Benjamin referred to the ‘now of knowability’. ‘Every now,’ he claimed, ‘is the now of a particular knowability.’ His most deeply felt philological conviction was that no document of the past – whether recent or remote – is equally comprehensible at all times. Every document, every work, every poem, has what he called a ‘historical index’, a secret rendezvous with the present. For Benjamin the point of historical study was not that the past shed continuous light on the present, or that the present cast a steady light on the past. Rather, at certain points in history works offer a ‘now of knowability’ (or a ‘now of readability’), a moment of fortuitous opportunity,
In the history of art, the most famous example of “looking awry” at an image to see what only appears as a void from the front is Hans Holbein’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors. When viewed straight-on, its clear that something is amiss in the foreground near the ambassadors’ feet. But only when the picture is viewed askew, from a different perspective, does the “stain” reveal itself: a skull, symbolizing death, thus betraying the vanity of the vestments and ornaments of the painting’s aristocrats. Even though we see skull in the painting, we don’t really see it for what it is until we look at it differently, until we view it sideways.
The McRib is like Holbein’s skull.
We experience it as (quasi-)foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don’t sufficiently explain it. To understand McRib fully, we have to look at the sandwich askew.
When McDonald’s first “retired” the McRib in 2005, it marketed the event as the “McRib Farewell Tour.” The promotion included websites with a mock-petition to save the sandwich, sponsored by the fictitious “Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America.” The same farewell tour appeared again in 2006, and yet again in 2007. Since then, the sandwich has reappeared for a few weeks in the autumn, a predictable part of the holiday season.
Together, the eternal return of the McRib, along with the blatant celebration of a sandwich that is obviously and unabashedly fake comprise the cause of desire the public bears for McDonald’s. Not just for the McRib, mind you, but for all of the restaurant’s offerings—most of which rely on the same cheap ingredients, machined pre-preparation, and chemical additives that the McRib embodies to the point of caricature.
We know that we do not know the composition of the McNugget or McRib or McWhatever, but we do not know precisely what it is that we do not know. Nevertheless, we desire such products not in spite of the fact that we do not know it, but because we don’t. This apparent paradox rests at the very heart of McDonald’s cookery: the secret components and methods that make it possible to create cheap and predictable, sweet and fat fast food. We normally don’t talk about it, but the chemical composition, mass-manufacture, and freezer-to-tray reconstitution of fast food isn’t just a convenient means to produce a result people enjoy. Instead, that very manufactured falseness is itself what we desire, in food as much as in smartphones—what is high-tech if not designed fakery?
In fact, manufactured, technological falseness has become a feature of haute cuisine as much as fast food. As Jeb Boniakowski has argued, apart from context, cost, and class markers, there’s really not much difference between McDonald’s “super-processed” food and molecular gastronomy, the application of food science to haute cuisine.
If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that.
And just as fine dining derives some of its desirability from its infrequence, so the McRib’s regular death and reanimation might be a necessary condition for its viability.
INTERVIEWER When you begin to write something, do you begin with a certain character in mind, or rather with a certain situation in mind?
HENRY GREEN Situation every time.
INTERVIEWER Is that necessarily the opening situation—or perhaps you could give me an example; what was the basic situation, as it occurred to you, for Loving?
GREEN I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash …
INTERVIEWER Do you believe that a writer should work toward the development of a particular style?
GREEN He can’t do anything else. His style is himself, and we are all of us changing every day—developing, we hope! We leave our marks behind us, like a snail.
Pablo Picasso, Angry Owl. Bronze, 1951–53.
Jan van Tongeren, Still life in blue and black. Oil on canvas, 63 × 80.5 cm (1958).
Garlic Knots ($1 for 3; $3 for 12) at the new Rizzo’s branch, 17 Clinton Street
From Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962–2010, a show by Drawing Center on view at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, from September 27, 2013–January 19, 2014 and at the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico from February 22–May 4, 2014.
VONNEGUT I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.
INTERVIEWER A rather large weapon.
VONNEGUT The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.
INTERVIEWER It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.
VONNEGUT Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
When Mr. Bloomberg, dressed in a crimson tie and a crisp winter coat, showed up, the poll worker had a question. What was his first name, again? As he left, clutching a loaf of banana bread and a plastic cup of coffee, a little boy waved at his king-size S.U.V., and yelled.
“Bye, bye, mayor!”