Any Scotch Will Do as Long as It’s Not a Blend of Course: Cultural and Gender Signification of Food and Alcohol

I remember big family gathering where drunken relatives would get us youngens to sip and taste the alcohol they were drinking, usually an after dinner brandy. Of course, already drunk, they would laugh at my cousins and me as they told us to breath through our noses while we tasted the harsh liquors that made our faces crunch up in horror and distaste. The idea was that we were supposed to learn how to drink and learn how to drink properly. The other idea was that if my cousins and I knew we could drink at home, we wouldn’t overindulge as teenagers at parties.

My brother tells me a story about our grandfather teaching him (my brother) how to drink scotch. After taking a sip, my brother stood up saying “This would go great with some coke.” Of course, my grandfather explained to my brother that the point was to enjoy scotch for its taste and that adding a mixer or ice would take away from the taste. As I got older and started drinking, my aunt introduced me to good wine, my brother taught me to drink scotch, and my uncles taught me how to drink beer. My friends taught me what it looks like to overindulge.

The more I bartended and learned about alcohol and food, the more I saw how all food serves as a sign for modern society and culture and the more I became a snob. As Barthes says, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication” (22). In serving the public, I quickly began to see the signification. A man on a date orders a steak and scotch to signify his masculinity and “refined” taste, but he nullify it by ordering his steak well done and his scotch with coke . The woman, to signify a feminine refined taste, orders fish with vegetables and a glass of Sutter Home blush wine. These choices are a break down of the signifying system of what these foods represent while also illustrating how food is gendered.

Right now as I write this in a coffee shop, I got up to serves myself coffee from the table the cafe has set up. Next to the table the owner and a woman sit, and as I poured my coffee, the woman apologized, “I’m sorry. I think we used up all your soy milk or cream, whatever was there.” “I like my coffee to taste like coffee,” I responded. She looked at the owner and said “Why is it men drink coffee black?” As I shrugged and walked back to my table, the answer became obvious: because black coffee signifies masculinity for men and seriousness for women. This signification is the same that manifest itself in people’s food and alcohol choices. A steak signifies manliness; a well-done steak signifies ignorance. When a man orders a single-malt scotch, it signifies good taste as well as status. Here is a man who appreciates the finer things in life and is willing to spend the money to enjoy it. Additionally, woman who orders a good wine that pairs well with her food demonstrates her knowledge and status; a woman who orders blush wine reveals her ignorance.

The manners in which certain foods signify appear to be a glitch in Barthes’ system. Barthes’ makes the observation that once food is the standard for consumption, “as soon as it takes on the characteristics of an institution, its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function” (21); however, scotch, wine, and steak have become an institution symbolizing wealth, class, and good taste, but only when consumed properly . When not consumed properly, these items can signify the exact opposite of what they are meant to signify and reveal the character of their consumer. The man who orders a Macallan single malt scotch and puts more than one ice cube in it or adds a mixer is signifying the opposite of taste and class just as the woman who orders blush wine is signifying the opposite of good taste and refinement.

Furthermore, food and alcohol signify gender as strongly as clothes. This signification is the same that works in sexual engagements. A man who experiments with having sexual encounters with men is gay or at least bisexual; a woman who engages in sexual encounters with women is not necessarily lesbian and is just “experimenting.” This same societal rule applies to food. A man who orders a salad with a crisp white wine is considered feminine while a woman who orders a raw steak and a beer is seen as down to earth or as “real” for eating like a “real” person. While I know this signifying systems mean very little, I still can’t help to scorn the man who can afford to order Macallans but puts ice in it; just like in Starnucks, I judge the guy who gets the salted caramel Frappuccino® with extra whip cream.

I think there is a cultural significance to this as well. Most of the people who would get their steaks well done are Central American or from the Caribbean. My Cuban family eats its steaks well done while my brothers and I eat our steaks medium at most. I don’t know what this cultural difference signifies. This cultural difference correlates to the alcohol as well. It was mostly South Americans who would drink their scotch with a mixer, but my family is the one who taught me not to mix good scotch with anything, which was later reinforced as I started bartending. I don’t understand it.

Scotch’s status symbol is perfectly illustrated in a scene from Swingers
Mikey makes it a point to order a scotch, single-malt, of course, because he is trying to signify wealth and status.

I was going to put “properly” in quotation to signify that there is no real proper or improper way to consume these food items; however, as I stated before, I am a food snob and believe these foods do have a proper way to be consumed.

Barthes answers his own question after asking who speaks in Balzac’s novel: the reader can never know because, “…writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (1322). If writing is the destruction of origin, then it means that the Author must be dead since the Author is the origin of the text. Barthes indicates this by replacing the idea of an Author (capitol A) with the “modern scriptor” (1324).

Barthes’s idea echoes Lacan in the way that both perceive language giving subjectivity; language isn’t just a tool that the Author uses to communicate; rather, before the Author can use language, it is determining the way He thinks (there is no consciousness outside of language). Language is already imbued with structures, angles, values, priorities, etc.. The idea of a capitol A Author conveying inherent meaning is impossible because (for Lacan, there is no Subject that does not have lack, precisely because of language) language is, as Saussure elucidated, arbitrary. Language only means by deferral (and to jump ahead to Derrida by Differance: both deferral and difference).

Barthes traces the idea of an Author-God back to the reformation; therefore, the very idea of an Author is a historical-cultural construct. This construct posits the Author as the owner of his/her work as if she/he created the language with which the work was created. Barthes points out how this view limits a text, supplying the text a final signified (1325). This view makes criticism a game of simply finding the writer in the work.

The death of the Author opens up reading and the complicity of language. A text is not composed of a Meaning that can be traced back to an Author-God; this would imply that Meaning is outside of language. Language produces meanings rather than reflects language. Therefore, the Author dies, and the Meaning the Author “intended” goes with him/her, and meaning(s) are found in the reader: “A text’s unity lies not in tis origin but its destination” (1325). I like to think of this as the death of Capitol T Truth Meaning for the birth of little t truth meaning.

Reading Gilbert and Gubar this week, I see ways to inform a reading of Invisible Monsters that I want to attempt as soon as I get more time. G & G wonder how a woman can write in a patriarchal world, which can be mirrored in Palahniuk’s novel where characters seek a way to undermine (“write”) in a world that defines them.

G and G reevaluate Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” and question the woman’s role in this theory. The influence appears to always be a male poet’s anxiety over his male predecessor, so then, what happens to woman writers? For G and F the situation, “cannot be simply reversed or inverted in order to account for the situation of a woman writer” (1929). Rather the woman writer must fight how other writers (male) have “read” women.

It is not a fight with the female precursor that G and G posit, but rather that women writers can look at predecessors to see that it (writing) can be done, even in a male dominated world. The go on to explain how women were always looking for ways to break into a male dominated profession, and that if women today can feel freer about writing, it is only because their mother figures struggled to change the system.

What interest me, though, is the second half of the essay where G and G posit that women faced actual pyshical manifestation of illnesses because of the constraints of a patraicharial soceity imposing oder on them: “It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters” (1932). It is socialization in a male-centric world that cause women to become ill.

I believe this is what is playing out in Invisible Monsters where Shannon, conditioned to be just a pretty face, a model, in order to radically break from the constructs of society (and possibly manifesting the disease that G and G discuss), decides to destroy her own face. Shannon says she felt like she was trapped in a beauty ghetto, unable to expand and grow but rather pigeon holed; can it be that this feeling arose because, as G and G point out, “Learning to become a beautiful object, the girl learns anxiety about–perhaps even loathing of–her own flesh. Peering obsessively into the real as well as metaphoric looking glasses that surround her, she desires literally to “reduce” her own body” (1933). Shannon, indeed, “reduces” her own body because of the anxiety she feels of the looking glass, and she does so radically.

By mutilating her face, Shannon nullifies the power given to her by patriarchal society. But what does this say about Brandy? I wonder if Brandy, then, doesn’t becomes a model for reversing the order, challenging the assumed patriarchal hierarchy in place? Brandy is a problamatic character here because he still has a penis, and as the one with the penis (and a voice), he is the one who gives the other characters a story to live by. Brandy is the manifestation of the Lacanian subject supposed to know. With his penis (his symbolic phallus of power), he wields his power but under the guise of a female (soon to become an actual male). Or can it be said that Brandy has a transgender/transexual is purposely complicated any easy definable category, as Brandy says she/he wants out of the labels.

Ugh–freaking grad school! Rather than explore this by reading Lacan and other femminist, I have to do homework and grade papers and quizes. But I will get back to this soon. I might use this line of reasoning when I present my paper in Illinois in April.

Looking at Lacan, I am fascinated by just how much of his ideas can be implemented in every day life (as Zizek constantly points out). It is frustrating, though, as Dr. Price-Herndl’s handout points out, that Lacan posits that coming into language is a journey, and “[Lacan] sees this journey as painful and difficult, and claims that he wants the entrance into his discourse to likewise be painful.”

In trying to understand Lacan, I began Jane Gallop’s intorduction Reading Lacan, which also attests to the difficulty in understanding Lacan. Gallop describes John Muller and William Richards encounter with writing about Lacan: “They [Muller and Richards] describe the experience of reading Lacan as ‘infuriating’ and ‘extraordinarily painful'” (Gallop 32). This has been my experience with Lacan as well, but this was Lacan’s point, I think.

From the outset of reading Lacan, I am castrated. I am never complete in my knowledge and never will be. From what I understand, once the subject enters language, he/she is castrated. The complete image that is mis-recognized as a complete whole is broken in language. Lacan says he is led to regard “…the function of the mirror-stage as a particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality…between the [inner world] and the [outer world]” (1166), but there will always remain a gap between the psychological projection I create (the outer world) and reality (the fragmented inner world) because as Lacan goes on to say, the subject is always marked by fragmentation. As the subject enters the social symbolic (through language), the subject will lose the wholeness acquired in the beginning of the mirror stage and will spend the rest of its life trying to find wholeness again (1166-67).

Lacan’s idea of lack interest me because I believe Lacan can begin to voice the experience of heartbreak. The subject is always radically fragmented; it can never be present to itself and never be present to anyone else (which is what postmodernism will say as well: Eagleton points out that if language holds not fully present meaning, and if we can only know ourselves through language, then we can never fully know ourselves). As the handout and Lacan (1188) points out, our desire is always the desire of the other, what others desire of us. In a relationship, a subject takes up the identity of that desiring thing the subject thinks the other wants. When the other rejects the subject, though, the subject is radically castrated. In heartbreak, Lacan’s fragmentation, as well as subjectivity constituted as lack, is manifest in the subject’s statements of “why doesn’t he/she want me?”

What is being said in these statements (especially in cases of a lover leaving the subject for someone else: “what does he/she have that I don’t have”) is a breakdown in the symbolic order that keeps the subject stable. Since the sense of self is always predicated on the other, what happens when the other rejects me? If the subject is already marked by lack, what happens when that lack is highlighted by being rejected by an other? Heartbreak, just as its opposite love, is a temporary insanity. That is, the heartbroken identifies itself as a whole that can be fully-present. This is illustrated in statements that hold claim to whole-ness: “he/she will never find someone like me;” that is to say, someone as whole and complete as I.

I think– which leaves us back at my opening statements and the frustration of reading Lacan.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Print.

I first read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as an undergrad during a Woolf class in which we read To the Lighthouse. It was my first ever introduction to feminism, and the idea that Woolf is analyzing here, fascinated me back then and still does today.While this idea is confined here to a feminist perspective, I think the implications are the same ones that apply to the second half of readings as well as to a certain Marxist perspective of material culture.

It is the culture, after all, that denies Shakespeare’s sister a chance to express her artistic talents, simply for being a woman. It is scary to think how accurate Woolf is in claiming that,

“When […] one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen” (898).

The world has surely lost a number of talented artist for their gender or race or color or location or socio-economic situation. Hurston and Gilman are two examples of writers that were almost lost to society because they were not WASPY males.

Woolf’s second piece anticipates some of the arguments that De Beauvoir’s will make. Woolf asserts that women in literature have only been shown in relation to men and rarely does one see two women as good friends. Woolf goes on to say that relationships between woman in literature have been “too simple.” This is a point that De Beauvior takes up with her analysis of woman: “To pose Woman is to pose the absolute Other.” De Beauvior does an excellent job of pointing out the contradictions in how woman have been portrayed throughout, not just literature, but history. This analysis points out Sartre’s limitations. Sartre says that one can only know himself through the other, but then says that woman are mysterious.

DeBeauviour looks at this myth of woman as mysterious, as virgin, as demon, as idealized, and as always absolute other of man. Her claim, which I believe is more astute than Sartre’s, is that woman is no more mysterious than man is mysterious to woman, and that to make these outrageous claims is just lazy and to promote the patriarchy. Making claims such as this goes against the first tenet of existentialism, in which “existence precedes essence.” That is that woman (nor men) have any essence outside of their actions. These idealized and categorical claims men make on women puts women in an absolute, deny women the ability to make themselves and totalizing them. The point should be, rather, that the relations between men and women are reciprocal, a give and take of subjectivity. In the views of men, the Hegelian dialectic of relations between men and women, women are always the slaves to men.

It is this mystification that Woolf is looking at in literature in “Chloe likes Olivia.” Additionally, I feel that in “Androgyny,” Woolf is calling for this reciprocity that De Beoavior wants. For the dialectic not to be dominated by the male perspective, but rather, that there has to be a true dialectic. One in which a synthesis of “male” and “female” is balanced.

I think I will stop here before I go on too long. My problem is that I am reading a Zizek essay in which he looks at the idea of sexualization. He looks at the idea of “femininity” vs. “masculinity” to show how this are constructed categories– which leads back to the idea I started off with: how much of all we are, of all our identity, and of everything we think of as “us” is really just a social construct that we have been duped into believing?

I find this article fascinating while I am starting to find Derrida a little easier to understand and also a little annoying at the same time.

In typical Derridian fashion, Derrida looks at a word (concept, idea, whatever), and then he explores the common definitions and connotations of the thing, just to show the complications of those common ideas we have about the thing.

In this essay, I like this idea of deconstructing the idea of genre because this is a problem I am having in grad school now. I have always been something of a dilettante (and not a particularly bright or ambitious one). My interest range from Continental philosophy to Romantic literature to Modernist literature to Postmodern literature. I am equally happy reading Oscar Wilde as I am reading Chuck Palahniuk, only to put those books down and read Keats’s or Yeats’s poetry. But academia has divided all these up into little categories of which I have to chose one to “specialize” in. I am doing my best to become a “generalist” so that I can dabble in all my interest. I have never understood my colleagues assertions of “I’m an 18th-cneturist, I don’t like reading contemporary novels”– or vice versa– the “Modernist scholar” who doesn’t read Oscar Wilde. I do this because I like reading and philosophy, and I get to read both (somewhat).

Derrida here begins with the premise: “Genres are not to be mixed” (55). Derrida then goes on to interpret this. First, he says that this utterance could mean the he will not mix genres; then he goes on to say that another way of looking at the sentence is as a law. A “do” or “do not” of the utterance. And since I have much more reading to get to, I will keep this note on this essay short.

His point is that the idea of genre is one of “law.” Once we attach genre to writing, then we have set limits; Derrida says “As soon as the word ‘genre’ is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And when a limit is established, norms and interdictions are not far behind: ‘Do,’ ‘Don not’ says ‘genre.’ (56). This “law” that genre sets up brings with it the implication that there is something pure about genre that must be respected. That one can speak of “mixing genres” is implying that there must be something pure about genre categories: “…then this should confirm, since, after all, we are speaking of “mixing,” the essential purity of their [genres] identity” (57). If genre were not considered pure, then we would not bother with talking about mixing them. However, since mixing genres (frequently) happens, or rather, because we say it happens, then we are attaching some idea of purity to the word: genre.

Derrida goes on to analyze Maurice Blanchot’s story “La Folie du jour” [The Madness of the Day]. Derrida shows how this work defies any easy classification into any one genre and how the mixing of genre is always already working within the very word genre. There is no genre of genre, after all. Genre is always difficult to legitimize, even with history, genre defies historical classification. This is what genre tries to do– it classifies and organizes text into categories. That is to say, genre tries to naturalize text by classifying text even though there is nothing natural about genre. A genre means that we should be able to look at a text and identify and classify it through its common traits: “There should be a trait upon which one could rely in order to decide that a given textual event, a given “work,” corresponds to a given class” (63). Therefore, when a text is put into a genre, it closes itself off, but is still open. A text cannot be without a genre, but that does not mean that a text belongs to a genre. The participation of a text in a genre does not mean that it belongs to that genre.

By putting art into these genre categories, society implies that these categories are natural, with their distinct traits and codes which are followed to be put into the correct categories, but as everyone well knows, this is not the case; art transcends genres, mixes genres, and participates (though never really belongs to) genre. Genre implies a presence that is absent.

It seems the depiction of class in Hurston’s novel is more complicated than merely being a depiction of status. There is rather an intersection of class and status linked to race and color, which is seen in the exchanges that Janie has with Mrs. Turner. For Mrs. Turner, it seems that class is decidedly linked with race as the narrator tells us that Mrs. Turner can “forgive” Janie for wearing overalls “like the other women who worked in the field” because of Janie’s “coffee and cream complexion and her luxurious hair” (140). Mrs. Turner even goes on to say that “…dey outghta make us uh class tuh ourselves,” referring to light-skinned blacks (142).

Of course though, everything that Mrs. Turner says is refuted by what happens earlier in the novel. Even if whites were to make light-skinned blacks a “class tuh [them]selves,” would it matter? The people of Eatonville create a social hierarchy even away from a controlling white hegemony.

The people of Eatonville consider Janie to be high class, and this is seen at the very beginning of the novel when Janie walks back into town and the townfolks are gossiping about her: “–why she don’t stay in her class?–” (2). While the town’s view of Janie as being of a higher class has slightly to do with her appearance, it is her money that makes her high class, which is seen in Janie’s gold spittoon: “It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you on a wonder” (48). This is hints at the contrast between Gatsby and Janie: while Gatsby, no matter how much money, could never be part of the upper echelon, Janie and Jody could buy their social status in Eatonville, just as earlier Killicks is considered someone of higher social standing because he owns land.

Jody, who was just like the people in Eatonville except for having money and because of money having power, considers the townsfolk “trashy people” (54), and doesn’t want Janie to interact with them. Although this attitude arises from both class and patriarchy, as Jody believes that a woman’s place is in the home. Jody conveys this view a number of times. He uses not only class but his position as the bread-winning-man to control Janie and discourage her from not getting involved in what the “trashy people” do (for example when Jody and the town bury the mule 60).

Class is wielded throughout the novel against Janie as a way for her to get out of her position as a woman (her grandmother’s way of living: marrying out of poverty). It is only through money, marrying into money, that she can be classy, and she can easily compromise her class by making “mistakes.” Pheoby warns Janie that running around with Tea Cakes is somehow compromising her class: “He don’t know you’se useter uh more high time crowd than dat, You always did class off” (112).

I think this raises an interesting question about what “class” means. If someone has class, can he/she lose that class? Tom Buchannan is considered by society as someone of high class even though he is a womanizer and brute while someone like Tea Cakes can never be considered of a high class even if he buys into it, or can he? JOdy is able to buy his way into the upper crust in Eatonville, but is this because Eatonville is a new town just for blacks? How then is class defined? It almost seems to be something one is born with (the nature vs. nurture exchange between the men on the porch).

For instance, Janie is considered by everyone to have some air of class about her even though she enjoys doing things that are not considered fit for her station, such as gossiping and joking on the porch with the men. This is further seen when Tea Cakes tells Janie that he didn’t invite her to the party he threw with her money because he was afraid she “…might get all mad and quit” him for associating with the non “muckty mucks” people. (124).

In the end, Janie is back in Eatonville with everyone gossiping about her, and it doesn’t matter to Janie. I htink this illustrates Janie’s realization that class is just a social construct, so it doesn’t matter if the townsfolk gossip about her and about what happened.