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Black Sky Thinking

Digital Indigestion: Serving A Shoe Pie To Instagramming Food
Pavel Godfrey , February 14th, 2013 06:53

Pavel Godfrey righteously slams the new decadents who Instagram their meals: "Unless you are a restaurant critic, the contents of your plate are as interesting as the contents of your chamber pot." Cheese photographing editors John and Luke hang their heads in shame

Last month, the New York Times ran a feature on how the owners of high-end restaurants react to customers photographing their food, and a Gawker column quickly skewered everyone involved. That's good news as far as it goes, but the plague of iPhone abuse extends far beyond the circle of investment bankers, technocrats and posh tourists that can afford to gorge themselves on 20-course meals at places like Per Se.

Its origin is in the gastro-hipsterism brewed in Portland and New York over the last decade, and its ideal type is a blurry Instagram photo of overpriced, middlebrow comfort food captioned with a boast about the location of its consumption – perhaps "pizza brunch at Roberta's <3" or "OMG, burgers and booze at MEATLIQUOR". A question to ask is not why these images are so obnoxious, but why they occur at all. In what sort of society is it possible to even imagine taking a picture of your $20 artisanal mac'n'cheese, much less setting it loose on the meme-winds of Facebook and Twitter? How has it become acceptable not just to enjoy a meal, but to take pride in it?

In the broadest sense, this reflects a perilously mediated culture where being photographed doing something has become more important than actually doing it. Instagramming your dinner out is not so different from attending a party in hopes of ending up on the Vice website, or acting out a game of old-timey croquet just for a friend to capture it all in digital sepia. Actions are becoming the means to their own representation, and the game of representation is about accruing social capital. Your heaping plate of gourmet fried chicken is proof of your being present at Pies'n'Thighs, which indicates that you are the kind of person who goes to Pies'n'Thighs – affluent and in-the-know, but not above wearing a jean jacket and getting your hands a little greasy. There is nothing wrong with going to that restaurant, of course, or any other, but there is something wrong with the culture of empty display that turns every restaurant, and even one's own kitchen, into a status signifier.

If it were just about the caché of a certain space, though, we would be seeing more pictures of exteriors, signs, kitchens, awkwardly smiling waitstaff. Instead, we see the food itself, a celebration not just of where one is eating but what one is eating, and of the act of ingestion itself. Just as the food becomes incorporated into a living body, its image is assimilated into that body's digital shade. It's akin to leaving food for a household god, but in this case the god demanding nourishment is the self, projected into the internet as a carefully engineered complex of images and "likes." The amateur food-photographer has a fetishistic relationship not just to the chosen dining spot, or food, but to their self-representation. It means nothing to them – indeed, it appears right and proper – to disrupt their own meal for the sake of feeding their externalized, reified persona.

Such conspicuous virtual consumption only makes sense in a world where eating has been gradually cut out from the fabric of daily life and re-imagined as a pastime in and of itself. Once, the intensive pursuit of gustatory gratification (and its accompanying prestige) was conceivable only for a tiny elite, and when this passion overstepped its bounds it was ruthlessly mocked by satirists from Juvenal to Chaucer to Molière. In the last decade, though, the gourmet lifestyle has become just another outlet for would-be aesthetes, equivalent to going to shows or following art or watching movies. From the rapidly thinning blood of "alternative culture," foodie values have seeped outwards into the mainstream, accessible and imitable for everyone with time, money, and an internet connection.

The epitome of this trend is the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where this writer once worked. The Ace, part of a chain spawned in Portland, is a hipster-themed Disneyland for wealthy old professionals who used to listen to Talking Heads and upwardly mobile "creatives" who can grab the latest Fleet Foxes from a kiosk by the check-in desk. In addition to several luxury retail stores it houses a lobby bar, two (very good, very expensive) restaurants, an artisanal coffee shop, and a purveyor of $10 submarine sandwiches in flavours that would never occur to the sandwich dilettante. It is a base camp for consumption in its purest form. Hotel guests and New Yorkers alike wander from room to room, grazing, and then sit, sated, on the fur-draped couches of the lobby. There, they plan their next moves. Fingers dancing over glowing iPhone screens, they pick out destinations for drinks, and then dinner, and then drinks again. The truly sad thing is that the cozy faux Bohemia of the Ace is not far off the mark – in the Lower East Side, in Williamsburg, and now in Bushwick, the central question of the day is, all too often, where to eat, what to eat, and how to be seen eating it. Whatever the food, it will end up on Twitter.

It is good to dine well, and to take pleasure in it, and there will always be those whose true calling is the table, but there is something truly rotten about this new Epicurean paradigm. In elevating eating from a means into an end in itself, the culture of restaurant-hopping and food-photographing constitutes a disordered mode of life. It puts passive, easy enjoyment on par with pleasures that demand action and commitment. It promotes the agglomeration of dead matter to oneself, rather than the direction of energy outward into the world. It valorizes excess at its safest and most banal. The eater has chosen a nutritive existence, and there used to be a vocabulary for condemning this choice – we could call someone a glutton, a sybarite, a stomach. These words weren't meant to damn people for eating with gusto, but for profoundly misplacing their priorities. Nothing encapsulates this misplacement better than the Instagrammed lunch, which implies that one's personal intake of food is something to be documented, celebrated, envied, and "liked," when exactly the opposite is true. Unless you are a restaurant critic, the contents of your plate are as interesting as the contents of your chamber pot.

Amateur food photography is, ultimately, a silly fad that will pass, but it represents a deeper, more pervasive degeneracy. Something is wrong when a self-proclaimed cultural vanguard gets drunk on the fruits of "mixology" and defines itself not with music, not with art, not with politics, but with organic cheese. And underneath it all is the sense that there is too much money in all the wrong places. Even as the global economy staggers, the financial industry, the tech industry, and the "creative" industry are making a killing. It's another bubble, and the urban centres that anchor it are bloating like stuffed stomachs. Some people say class analysis is dead, but today it is simpler than ever: There are those who eat to live and those who live to eat.