Sunday, May 06, 2007

The cereal that won the west

Looking for Sayyid Qutb links the other day I ran across Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture. Sounded promising, maybe even Lileks-like: a journal for academics to poke gentle fun at the atrocious foods, fashions, and entertainments of the recent past.

Yeah, sure. It's Downtown Deconstruction City all the way. Here's the opening of "Ridin' the Rails: The Place of the Passenger and the Space of the Hobo," which appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue:
“The body” is an idea that has been at the center of debate in cultural studies where lines are drawn and redrawn over issues including race, gender, science, and technology. . . . Bodies, however, are not mere theoretical ideas, ethereal and unsubstantial. They are physical entities existing in time, place, space even if they choose to manipulate their own invisibility, an act frequent among marginal peoples.
A bold idea: physical bodies actually exist, a little invisibility manipulation among "marginal" peoples notwithstanding. Having laid his career on the line, the author states his thesis:
Remaining faithful to the physicality of the body in this study, I want to contrast the body of the rail passenger against the “invisible” body within the rail hobo subculture. By inserting their bodies within designated areas of the actual machine of the railroad car, I will argue, hobos achieve a spatiality of subcultural power . . . .
Run! It's the hobos with a spatiality of subcultural power! [Update: sorry, here's the right picture.] Ridin' (sic) the Rails is worth reading if only because the author, who labors under the name John Lennon, describes an incident in which he and other passengers on a train in Portugal were robbed by 20 "youths":

As the train passed by a certain spot, on cue, they began attacking the passengers, stealing jewelry and watches, and terrorizing certain ethnic groups [did you say something?--ed.], all in the time it took to arrive at the next stop when, all at once, they ran out of the car. When the train began moving again, no one knew what to do; we were all in a state of shock and for the most part, we sat silently in our seats and stared straight in front of us. We did nothing but remain immobile waiting for the train to rumble to our own particular destinations.

And ridiculously semioticizes it:

What those twenty or so youths did in the time in-between platforms was to create a space for themselves within the realm of place. Space exists when there is a rupture in the stability of the environment, when subjects enter into a “proper” place and use it for their own purposes—purposes not sanctioned by those who “own” the place. Be it political soap-boxers proclaiming their manifestos on a street corner in Manhattan, thieves grabbing chains on a train in Portugal, or hobos stealing rides on a train headed to Kansas City, all assert their own subcultural power within a regulated place and—for a time at least—transform it into their own space.
Buck, buck, buck (chicken noises). He's deconstructing his own fear.

Other articles include the ho-hum "John Wayne and the Queer Frontier: Deconstruction of the Classic Cowboy Narrative During the Vietnam War"; and my favorite, "Surveillance, Paranoia, and Abjection: The Ideological Underpinnings of Waste Management in the EPA’s Measuring Recycling Guidelines and Don DeLillo’s Underworld."

They're so creative. This stuff can be fun in (very) small doses. Problem is, you inevitably get to treatises like "Reading Cereal Boxes: Pre-packaging History and Indigenous Identities," which mines a box of Nature's Harvest Mesa Sunrise organic cereal for insights like:
The cereal box occupies a space, a vision, and a location all at once. After we have purchased the cereal, we are expected to sit down and read the box as part of the morning ritual. In an oddly-sustained, postmodern version of a Norman Rockwell portrait, the timeless place of the American cereal box, organic or not, is atop a breakfast table, next to an open newspaper and a half-gallon of wholesome milk. Indigenous images on organic cereal boxes are used as cultural windows that bring the meals of the “natives” into our home, and essentialize breakfasts across time and place.
The author says lots of funny things like "essentialize breakfasts across time and place," but of course her thesis is a very serious one: capitalism is a rapist ("commodifier") of authentic Indian cultures:
Mesa Sunrise is a cornflake cereal boasting ingredients of organically grown and processed flax, amaranth, and “Indian corn.” The cereal box itself is like a miniature Levi-Straussean museum assembled from the stolen bodies and cultural sacra of the past, and reworked into a modern narrative. . . . Mesa Sunrise cereal constructs a visual narrative around fabricated cultural identities, thereby creating a product—and a consumer—just exotic enough to be healthy.
Ward Churchill, you will not be surprised to learn, is cited.

Update: By the way, looking for a pic of hobos I ran across a new word (new to me, anyway), and it's a good one: hobosexual. Unfortunately if you look around at all you'll quickly run across at least one hobosexual porn site. Sheesh.

Update II (5/7/07): Yeah, Lileks having his column killed and being moved to local news at the Strib (as its friends if it had any would call it) is pretty unbelievable. Radio gink Hugh Hewitt has been not urging but commanding Strib readers to drop their subscriptions.

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