I’m a bit late with this one but I wanted to write something about the ridicule that Ed Milliband received for eating a bacon sandwich inelegantly.
On one level I think it’s a bit rude to take a photo of someone eating. It’s not often going to be pretty.
But politicians have to eat sometimes when they are out and about, to try and show they are a normal human being. In the moment it looks good if you’re eating where people usually eat. But food you eat with your hands tends to be a bit messy. Which is part of the appeal no?
Drinking tends to avoid the mess but most politicians don’t want to risk looking like they drink too much. Or drinking something too posh (Cameron has allegedly imposed a ban on drinking champagne).
Or drinking to something common inauthentically. It’s a different kind of minefield.
The thing is, we all eat. And we all shit it out the other end. But we have lots of different ways of trying to hide these facts. Joris Vlieghe, Maarten Simons, and Jan Masschelein write about this in their 2009 essay ‘The Democracy of the Flesh: Laughter as an Educational and Public Event’:
“…defecating, scratching one’s bottom, eating with one’s bare hands, giving oneself over to sexual desire, and so forth show the undeniable democracy of the flesh. All the examples we have just given confront us both with the autonomous functioning of our bodies and with the fact that we ultimately lack self-control. In these cases, we all have the same experience of the loss of self-mastery. This experience contradicts all of the social and cultural distinctions that humanity invents.”
Which is probably why I find it’s rude to take photos of people eating.
But why do we do all have to keep up this pretence? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just admitted that we are messy, sweaty animals?
Yes, but one of the reasons is that the pretence doesn’t effect everyone equally and so it becomes a tool of power. For example a group of people can make a particular effort to uphold these rules and then make them difficult for other people to understand.
They can do this by explaining them in books that cost money.
Or teaching them in finishing schools that cost even more money. Here’s an entree choreography (admittedly free on Youtube).
Or better yet sharing the knowledge implicitly and silently. Picking it up by being in the ‘right’ places, at school, from your parents, at dinner parties.
And in these ways, this group can reap the benefits of being the ones in the know because with this knowledge comes status.
But at any minute our bodies can get the better of us. Vlieghe et al continue: “These aspects of embodied life constitute a time bomb, which constantly threatens the existing hierarchical order, and thus it becomes understandable why the higher classes try to immunize themselves against all these “unpleasant” phenomena: they force us to face the fact of the autonomous and anonymous functioning of the flesh that is radically indifferent to social structuring.”
Even then we sometimes keep on pretending. Here for example is Finnish politician Timo Hellman being sick in his mouth during an interview:
I warned you.
Sometimes the spell is broken and we acknowledge our mutual human-ness with laughter.
But the press love to see people in power losing control and bringing our attention to it.
Vlieghe et al write about these suppression of ‘autonomous bodily functions’ in terms of class but it is also a highly gendered form of power, by which I mean anti-women. You don’t get many finishing schools for men for example.
It’s partly because women in general have more bodily functions that they have to hide under this regime of denial, so far example women are still sometimes prevented from breastfeeding. Here’s some women protesting in 2012 against Facebook’s decision to remove pictures of women breast feeding.
But even when bodily functions are shared by all genders, it is generally less acceptable for women to display them. Why is why the ‘women who eat on the tube‘ Tumblr became a thing for example.
The press undermines Ed Milliband when he eats a bacon sandwich because as someone in power he’s not supposed to expose his autonomous functions. And in revealing this, the press try to exert their power.
The contributors to that Tumblr account undermine women when they eat because as women they are not supposed to expose their autonomous functions. And in revealing this, the contributors try to exert their power.
Fortunately if enough people decide to disobey these rules they start to go away:
On 12 July I’ll be running a one day workshop at the University of Roehampton looking at autonomous functions, dirt and cleanliness. There may or may not be bacon sandwiches. It’s the fourth of six art/ life events for artists, philosophers and other citizens, using choreographic strategies to engage with politics and citizenship through the body. To book or for more information see: hamishmacpherson.co.uk