The last couple of days I have been raiding the 10th anniversary issue of Saveur magazine. It introduced me, for instance, to the “eat local movement.
This is pretty much what it sounds: a movement that encourages consumers to provision their tables from local farms.
There are lots of happy effects: the growth of farmers markets, unmediated relationships between producers and consumers, the creation of tiny niches of producer experiment and consumer response, the diminished use of preservatives, and so. But there is something odd about the movement, especially when it veers in the direction of orthodoxy. Some advocates of the Eat Local movement believe you cant eat oranges unless you live in the Sun Belt.
This put me in mind of the manifesto penned by von Trier under the title Dogma 95. Von Trier and pals decided that the only thing that would save film making was a strict set of rules, rules they aptly call the “vow of chastity. Among them: no additional lighting, no sounds not native to the scene being shot, all films to take place in the here and now, and my personal favorite, rule no. 6: “The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
Von Trier is a right wanker, this much is well known. (If you dont believe me, treat yourself to his recent film Dogville.) But it is still hard to credit how utterly and astonishingly cowardly is the vow of chastity. Its as if von Trier and company feel obliged to hew to orthodoxy because anything else puts them on a slippery slope. Without the uncompromising direction and discipline of the vow, von Trier could not trust himself to make a good film. (Allow a little added sound, and, before you know it, youre making the Sound of Music.)
Im all for people making better films but something in me wants to say, “well, you know, if you are saying you can only make good films when you surrender the creative options the art form makes available to you, I have to wonder whether you are not declaring your incompetence as an artist. If you have to give up your ability to make choices, you shouldnt be making choices in the first place. Choices are what we pay you for, both in salary and reverence.
The Eat Local movement as this same quality. It is a self imposed limitation. Not doubt this springs from good motives and a certain seriousness of intent, but really, when you decide to give away what a culture of plenitude and transformation makes available to you, are you not declaring yourself unworthy of this culture?
We see this from time to time, a certain panic in the face of our thoroughgoing dynamism and multiplicity. This was funny when the Fluxus art movement said, what would happen to my art if I imposed this tiny, nuttily arbitrary little constraint upon myself? But when it is practiced in this wholesale manner, to foreswear all the technological advances of film making, or the distribution system that puts Brazilian food in my back yard, one feels obliged to shake ones head. Isnt there a Greek myth, or is it a Grimms fairy tale, about a man who is given everything and then decides he doesnt want it? Can the economic actor really be this perverse?
The economics and anthropology enterprise, the one that wonders at the emergent properties of markets and cultures, depends on the supposition that actors will make choices. Without these choices, experiments do not happen. The invisible hand falls still. Nothing “emerges.
Whats really scary about this “choice against choice inclination is that it dresses itself up in indignation. It becomes the way sophisticated people show their discernment in matters of food and film, and their disdain for the mainstream. Is this what the avant-garde has come to? It is no longer an experimentation in the very new, an exploration of the far edge of possibility, but a refusal of the full range of choice. Could this be a fit of pique practiced by the Left in protest against the fact that markets did what markets were supposed to stand against: the creation of more and more options and the effortless incorporation of the new. Can we say at least that the most important locus of creativity and innovation has moved away from the artist into the very thing the artist stood against: the marketplace?
Na. Couldnt be.
Andrews, Colman. 2004. Ten Years of Cooking and Eating in America, 1994-2004. Saveur Magazine, 10th Anniversary Special. October 2004, pp. 87, 94.
For more on the creative powers of the marketplace: Tyler Cowen in print: Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Consumer Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. and on line.
More on the “eat local movement here.
More on “Dogma 95 and the vow of chastity here.