Fervent Pharmakon

Food, Fashion and the Haul

Published in
Issue #01

In most climates across the planet, human bodies need portable protection from the elements. Bodies are swaddled in cloth from birth until death. Thus, most bodies are clothed by some layers of necessity. But on the boundary of abundance, of extra resources, energy or time, the sugar of aliveness is added to the everyday—play, decoration, the sweet tastes of aesthetics and sensory pleasures. This is the sugar of plenty, the culinary multitudes of candied lavishness, the fabulousness of fashion.

Yet even in meagre circumstances, humans find the pleasure of play and passions. Bodies surely need shelter and nutrients, but even under the most critical conditions and existential hunger, human minds and bodies seem to open up to passions, anxiety or desire, hunger or rage. The sweets, salts and sours of existence follow us everywhere, and they make up the contrasting palate of life. Perhaps with a taste of paradox, in the material and calorie-loaded plenty of consumer society, we also become fearful of our passion for provisions. After the feast or fashion haul, a silent panic creeps upon the victim, a feeling which often results in ferocious detoxing, cleaning, and deep cleansing. The cycle can start again.

Passion and Hunger

Hunger has very little to do with reason. It is an emotion that can override even the most disciplined mind. Food is a friction, an uncontrollable and magmatic passion erupting from the deep abyss of our reptile brain.

Food, just like fashion, taps into the irrational emotions. Both phenomena are also absurdly dysfunctional. Just like eating, fashion is part of cultural rituals far removed from what is usually understood as utilitarian. Just look at the eating instruments—surely there has to be more optimised ways of moving food into the mouth than balancing it on a fork or with slim sticks? Thus, the ritual of eating has only little to do with ingesting nutrients. Instead, it is a cultural protocol, signifying taste, culture, class, and intent. Precisely because of its habitual sincerity, its subtle signals are saturated by psycho-social communication which reveal so much of us to the silently judging surrounding. What we like, in what combination, how and where we eat, how much sound we make, and every delicate gesture—every little detail speaks of who we are and who we aspire to be. Nutrients are sprinkled on top of ritual. Yet fashion and food would not be such important rituals if they were not also tied so tightly to our biosocial being. As for any other animal, the process of eating is that which shapes the relational orders of the pack. And not least, digesting nutrients is also an important avenue in flirting and mating behaviour.

As highlighted by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher[1], humans have cultivated a wide variety of rituals that cater to seduction throughout history. The protocols around eating are just one of them. Cultural habits around food bring potential partners together in close physical proximity, with food raising blood pressure and pulse rates, gestures articulating the body, with heightened levels of biological lust mixing social ritual with sexual excitement. Food, like fashion, is a form of alignment of attentions. Large communal meals and parties shape families and tribes, as well as on the level of peers—just think of the procedures around serving and drinking tea or coffee, or tobacco or alcohol. And these rituals are also clothed to mark the occasion and add that extra sweetness of bodies decorated for increased aesthetic pleasure.

It is thus no coincidence that eating and dressing are often matched in weight and aesthetic terror—with fine dining comes fine fashion and fine behaviour. Like the rituals of eating, fashion attunes sensual cognition, making appearance part of attunement, seduction and judgment. As a result, it comes as no surprise how both foods and fashions have a long history of social regulation, taboos and sumptuary laws, pinpointing who can eat with whom, or what culinary options are made available, including controlling the seductive properties of sensual pleasure. Food and fashion are socio-biological explosives, sensitive and potentially disruptive, and must thus be guarded carefully.

The Curse of Pharmakon—Medicine and Poison in One

Fashion and food also share the property that they are best consumed when fresh. There are surely some perennial and freeze-dried versions, but they almost always lack the seductive crisp allure of the quickly decomposing forbidden fruit. Their appeal comes from their need to be consumed.

Yet, the paradox of such quick consumption is that with increasing abundance, there also seems to be a plague of hunger and emotional starvation. The connection may be almost too obvious between the fast and habitual calories ingested in fast food and the fast and habitual garments acquired with low blood sugar at H&M. Both offer a quick fix to get through the rest of the day. We live under a regime of fashion consumption journalist Michele Lee calls ‘McFashion,’[2] which she posits as the unsatisfying, commonplace and utterly forgettable experience of the fast food equivalent. The basic premise is to be almost emotionally disconnected; an immediate hit of calories or appearance.

What Lee’s notion of McFashion also highlights is the unhealthy everyday relationship to both fashion and food, or how a convenient source of nourishment turns toxic in the social body, seen not least in obesity and surging numbers in diabetes and overstuffed clothes bins. Under these conditions, both fashion and food turn toxic to the planet and, to some degree, also to the general populations of the ‘fast-food nations’.[3] Large populations have become dependent on unhealthy and addictive substances as vehicles for nourishment and social affirmation and self-esteem. It is another example of pharmakon, the Greek term translated simultaneously as either ‘cure’ or ‘poison.’ It is the substance that should bring us pleasure, a soothing medicine for the soul, but is the same as that which poisons us. As noted by philosopher Bernard Stiegler,[4] the concept can be a tool for thinking of how opposites unite into one intoxicant remedy. Stiegler’s examination of pharmacology, and its related category, toxicology, unpacks how human techniques, tools and cultural prosthetics come to inform the distinctions between health and disease.

As similarly noted by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk,[5] pharmakon are connected to the cultural techniques humans use to become more human and excel over one’s peers: what he calls ‘anthropotechnics,’ the cultural capacity of deliberate self-manipulation. Such techniques help cultivate what is considered the higher purpose, distinguishing some from the lower levels of the animal properties of human life. As much phenomenological as philosophical tools, these techniques of super-human enhancement address the epidemiology of biosocial emotions. Instead of drifting with the masses, the subject is meant to cultivate both body and spirit and cut through averageness, yet simultaneously running the risk of habituating platitudes. The examples are plentiful in the birth and death of gurus and religious cults, yoga retreats and esteem-boosting Instagram posts. Spiritual cures, seen not least in the everlasting flow of new ascetic programmes, in diets and work-outs, inspire struggles to excel, while simultaneously turning the same programme into yet another banality or delusion. Yet the call to transcend the habitual keeps echoing throughout the multitude of human lifeforms and is the main selling point of most consumer ideals: ‘Buy this remedy and change your life.’

But just take a look around. What should feed and cure us is killing both the planet and our emotional lives. All in one: medicine and toxicant. A hunger for life turns on itself into obesity and anxiety, passion and shame.

Displaying the Haul—Binge-Eating and Fashion Bulimia

The Instagram post of the lunch plate and the haul video both serve as illustrations of how a social pharmakon can turn into a curse of competitive desire. Even if different in the amount of content displayed, both display to peers how a passionate consumer unpacks the latest meal or shopping binge to their viewers online. Whereas the Instagram plate often shows discreet and curated tastefulness, the haul is often simply presented as plunder piled up on the bed. Yet both act as everyday snapshots into an excess of habitual consumption-for-display—but often with a tone of almost anti-conspicuousness. In its quotidian innocence, both share a clear purpose—to expose to followers the Potlatch-esque competition in obsessive squandering of underused or misused resources (the shared documentation seldom shows the half-eaten avocado sandwich or the overstuffed wardrobe).

Cultural historian René Girard examines the struggle over thinness, which also happens to be a central component of fashion, in order to expose how something we usually think of as subjective is actually a psycho-political conflict over the control of the body. This friction between bodies of conflicting peers explains phenomena such as bulimia and anorexia, Girard argues.[6] As with most ailments of the body, it is common to think of bulimia and anorexia as sicknesses residing in the victim’s mind, but as Girard sees it, they must instead be interpreted as diseases of desire. They emerge from psychosocial contestations, and need to be freed from the stigma of ‘madness’ as proposed by psychoanalytic interpretations, which focus merely on the mind of the individual. For Girard, a phenomenon such as anorexia and the binge/purge patterns of bulimia must instead be understood as a pathology that stems from a desire to outdo one’s peers by obsessive control of rivalist consumption and squandering. In this form, anorexia and bulimia are simultaneously medicine and poison, or simply different sides of the same dish.

Once again, the pharmakon of food is turned toxic, yet here it results in the rivalist sacrifice of social relationships. As Girard posits, the anorexic social bond stems from a sense of powerlessness, where the pharmakon of food is a vehicle that gives back control. Like a race, binge/purge cycles take on a competitive form of mimetic desire against one’s peers. Here, Girard sees a mimetic rivalry on a larger social scale: the intensity of my desire stands in relation to how much I make my peers crave and compete for the same goal as me:

Anorexia is therefore both a personal challenge and a form of asceticism. But it is also a rivalry with others, a struggle for power: the anorexic very quickly becomes the centre of family attention […] Appeal to a recognised ‘authority,’ the physician, formalises the defeat and surrender of the anorexic’s parents and introduces her to another, more formidable rival. Anorexia therefore confers power, enabling a person who refuses to eat to triumph over her family. In this sense, it is a kind of terrorism: the anorexic takes herself hostage and bends everyone to her will.[7]

As a form of Potlatch expulsion, the biggest loser is the biggest winner, and a conspicuous non-consumption goes hand-in-hand with the urge to make others consume. The ascetic only stays disciplined by making others overconsume. Yet, by claiming the coveted position of the victim, the ascetic stays in control of the condition. Girard writes: ‘The compulsive dieters really want to be thin, and most of us are secretly aware of this because most of us also want to be thin.’[8]

The haul video is a splurging in garments, but the author only wears one selected layer: the rest is squandered and darkly scrapped through the wardrobe into the dump in an archetypical sacrificial binge/purge ritual. Paradoxically, to excel being ascetic also includes two forms of rivalist consumption: to make one’s peers consume more, while oneself consumes only that which signals the opposite—to expose one’s own consumption of frugality, dieting or cleaning. Anorexia shares with fashion an ideal of aesthetic self-control, and both stay expressed in compulsive thinness. The haul is only successful if the wardrobe is still meticulously organised and aesthetically superior; otherwise, it is the sign of a hoarder who has lost all control.

Thus, the consumption of the pharmakon is displayed as a display of control over the self, according to an inner vision of what is considered desirable. Cleaning one’s body from excessive calories becomes parallel to cleaning out one’s wardrobe of underused garments. The subject shows how to master a life in absolute abundance, while remaining in total control over the self and its desires. The cyclical patterns of binge/purge hold the continuous attention of one’s peers. Girard points out how the anorexic ‘interprets all attempts to help her as envious conspiracies of people who would like to cheat her out of her painfully acquired victory, being unable to match it. She is proud to fulfil what is perhaps the one and only ideal still common in our entire society, slenderness.’[9]

The binge/purge behaviours become the centre of consciousness for the rivalling peers, inverting freedom into compulsive patterns of competitive self-sacrifice, ritually framed through consumption. The anorexic’s ‘radical freedom is synonymous with her enslavement to the opinion of others. […] To understand desire is to understand that its self-centredness is indistinguishable from its other-centredness.’[10]

Behind a mask of prestigious indifference, the nervous self is ashamed of their envy of others. The competition to overcome oneself outdoes the cause of the binge/purge behaviour. The plate and body are filled and emptied, the shopping bags and wardrobes, too. Yet the pattern only succeeds as long as the subject appears as doing so only with pure passion, and without acknowledging the ongoing rivalry. The easy-going haul video, just like the seemingly informal dinner party, must appear so natural that no one in the audience acknowledges the underlying rivalry. As Girard points out: ‘There is nothing worse than letting others see that you want to impress them.’[11] Thus, after yet another haul, the subject throws out the garments that no longer spark joy, and the fashion bulimic shows no videos of the clothes going into the bin. The cycle continues while the toxicity of the pharmakon remains hidden under the sugary crust of the cupcake.

A Future for the Pharmakon?

A first reaction to the toxic spread of compulsive consumption of McFashion can be seen in the almost habitual praising of a return to home cooking and the cultivation of domestic sewing. Yet, it is important to notice how the dream of a return of domestic crafts is a dream that is not attainable for all. Not only does increasing working hours encroach on people’s lives but so do the ideals of a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.[12] An image of perfection is increasingly the necessary ingredient for any résumé, yet few have the money, time and opportunity to check this box in their lives. A high price is paid for healthy ingredients for cooking, while at the same time, fabrics for home sewing often cost more than finished garments from the high-street stores. A child coming to school with some home-cooked lunch or home-sewn clothes is today often a mark of a rich household, rather than a mark of poverty. Taking control over one’s consumption has more and more turned into a class issue.

But the relationship between food and fashion may still offer some helpful metaphors for the development of mixed strategies towards more healthy living with our pharmakon. For example, just like the process of cooking together can create bonds and be an essential part of a dinner, the curation of shared or communal sewing could help open ideas for how to use clothing for more intimate bonds than mere consumption. The social bonds of shared rituals are open for exploration and experimentation. What’s more, acknowledging that not every meal needs to serve exotic food—or how we often find habitual shelter in flavourless meals—may also help designers understand that a mix of the bland and adventurous makes up the essence of everyday foodscapes. Similarly, utilising the rituals of food as mirrors for engagement with clothing can help expose a more pluralist vision of what role fashion can play as both a marker of an everyday habit and a badge of a special occasion. Even if they only scrape the top of the dried crust, fashion designers have so much to learn from the Christmas and Passover dinners, from the carnival and wedding feasts, from festivals of sacrifice and fasts, and by no means least, the shared pleasures that occur in the breaking of fasts.

Come lotus-eaters, let’s leave the ascetic ideal for just this night, and drink from the nectars of life together.


Bibliography

Fisher, Helen, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Girard, René, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013.

Lee, Michele, Fashion Victim: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Dressing, Shopping, and the Cost of Style. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.

Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Mariner, 2001.

Sloterdijk, Peter, You Must Change Your Life. Translated by Wieland Hoban. London: Polity, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Translated by Daniel Ross. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013.

Widdows, Heather, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Footnotes

[1] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), p. 55.

[2] Michele Lee, Fashion Victim: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Dressing, Shopping, and the Cost of Style (New York: Broadway Books, 2003).

[3] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Mariner, 2001).

[4] Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology,trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013).

[5] Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life,trans. Wieland Hoban (London: Polity, 2014).

[6] René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013).

[7] Jean-Michel Oughourlian, quoted in Girard 2013, pp. x-xi.

[8] Girard 2013, p. 5.

[9] Girard 2013, p. 9.

[10] Girard 2013, p. 17.

[11] Girard 2013, p. 51.

[12] Heather Widdows, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

Otto von Busch

Otto von Busch is Associate Professor of Integrated Design at Parsons School of Design, New York. In his research, he explores how the powers of fashion can be bent to achieve a positive personal and social condition with which the every-person is free to grow to their full potential. For over fifteen years, he has examined fashion beyond consumerism, aesthetic decrees and arbitrary authority, and worked towards establishing fashion practice as a shared capability, biosocial energy, a process of mutual flirting, a play of embodied attentions.