Product Packaging #1


by Justin E. H. Smith

When I spend, as I often do, several days in a row without human contact, it starts to seem to me that the principal function of language is to describe, in written form, the contents of commercially available food items. This is more alienating than one might at first think. For not only are the descriptions entirely impersonal (even when, as is often the case on children’s cereal boxes, fruit rolls, dinousaur-shaped chicken nuggets, etc., the vocative is amply deployed), they are also thoroughly cynical, disingenuous, and obfuscatory. One encounters bizarre instances of double negation, as when sugarless gum announces that it is ‘not non-caloric’. One encounters outright tautologies, like the mini-boxes of raisins that announce that, as if by some mysterious cosmic coincidence, there are only 100 calories per 100-calorie serving. In Great Britain, I’m told, one might even encounter, in the frozen-foods aisle, a cryo-preserved creature bearing the following label: “Trout. Ingredients: one trout. Warning: contains fish.”

The mention of raisins in the penultimate example recalled to mind another quandary: it has long been curious to me that there is in many languages no lexical distinction between the dried version of a fruit and the natural, unprocessed version (and indeed in English for many fruits, such as apricots, apples, and so on, there is no distinct term). In French, for example, both grapes and raisins are raisins (one can add raisins secs to make the difference explicit adjectivally), and both plums and prunes are pruneaux. This deprives French of a good deal of humor potential, for raisins and prunes are inherently comical, but they must be named in order for the joke to get across. I noticed recently in the United States that certain packaging-savvy agribusiness prune producers have taken to calling their product ‘dried plums’. In transforming their product into something that, like dried apricots, is not a shriveled, deconstipating, senior-citizen-targeted thing-in-itself, but only a state of a perfectly respectable fresh fruit, they have foreclosed on the possibility of any prune-themed ribaldry. One wonders –and I really don’t know, but here am only speculating– whether the appearance of distinct names for the dried forms of fruits is not a cyclical feature of natural languages, which are by turns euphemized out when the humor potential of the dry-form term overwhelms any possibility of speaking of its objective utility as a foodstuff.

But what I really wanted to talk about was a more general feature of product packaging. I have before me a box of Sunny Crunch brand Müesli (that e after the umlauted u looks redundant to me, but that’s a topic for another day). On the front there is an image of a spoon full of the product being held inches above a bowl, also filled with the product, sitting on a rustic wooden table, and flanked by a sack of oats, some coconuts, a pineapple, what appear to be cacao berries, and what looks like a sort of horn-o’-plenty out of which all of these goods bountifully pour. Beneath the picture, in fine print, we read: “Serving suggestion / Préparation suggérée.” We see this message on product packaging more or less every time there is a display of the food that differs from the actual form the food takes within the packaging itself. These words thus seem to be there as a sort of disclaimer, as if to warn some hypothetical rube that when he opens the box, he will not find a spoon being held over a bowl upon a rustic table flanked by a horn-o’-plenty, etc., but instead will only find a bag of inchoate müesli. This is not reality, the warning says, but only a potentiality, and it’s up to you to make it a reality. But exactly how many mistakes would one have to be making about the nature of reality in order to mistake the serving suggestion for the package’s actual content? What would one’s conception of reality have to be like?

This is a good illustration of the first lesson I would like to draw about product packaging in this ongoing series of reflections: in its over-literalness and its zeal for non-misrepresentation, it takes its hypothetical addressees as far stupider, far more disconnected from the actual properties of things, such as the insides of cardboard boxes or the contents of a trout, than any actual package-reader could even conceivably be. I fear moreover that this is but an extreme case of the inevitable outcome of a deployment of language that takes literalness as its supreme purpose, and that feels obligated to offer immediate apology for its perpetual lapsing into embellishment.

Product Packaging #2

Surely there must be a name, in advertising parlance, for the figure of the anthropomorphized food item that happily consumes a non-anthropomorphized version of itself? I first noticed Yocco years ago when driving through central Pennsylvania, and I admit he’s haunted me ever since. What could he be thinking? What would existence as Yocco, the Hot Dog King, be like

He is delighted, it is clear, but does his delight flow from the fact that human beings, the true anthropomorphs, enjoy eating his lesser brethren, the hot dogs that were destined to remain mere hot dogs? Or is he delighted because he himself is free to eat his lesser brethren? Do they constitute him, like the subjects of Hobbes’s Leviathan? Is Yocco aware of this? Does Yocco not know what, exactly, he is? And, if he does, does it not horrify him?

Of course, autophagy is an old trope of advertising. We see it in abundance on the signs outside barbecue joints: the pig joyfully digging into a plate of pork, or, even more absurdly, the pig delighted to present itself as an already prepared pork product. Now the former possibility is not all that unverisimilar: pigs do resort to cannibalism regularly and without qualms. They will eat their own offspring alive, if circumstances dictate; and they will certainly eat pork by-products if these are what industrial agriculture puts on the menu.

But the second figure, the figure of the pig as pork that delights in being transformed into pork: that is something that warrants pause. The image from the advertisment for the Auvergne sausagemakers was so captivating that for a long time I did not even bother with the text. It is only now, in looking at this ad for the first time after  many months, that I begin to wonder: why is it a virtue of sausage that it does not cause ‘fatigue’? Was sausage consumption something that was thought, in traditional French culture, to tire a person out? Anyway, it’s clear that the cochon d’Auvergne is above all delighted to be serving himself, delighted at his own transformation, which is here conceptualized not so much as death, but as a moving on, up the scale of being, towards a higher purpose. It is true reincarnation, with an emphasis on the carnis.

And all the more so, when, as in Yocco’s case, the animal by-product not only relishes its by-product status, but is transformed by his own consumption of other animal by-products into something that is no longer by-product, but rather an articulated being, with a face, limbs, perhaps internal organs. Some sort of cycle has been completed in Yocco, whose regal nature seems to flow from his spontaneous re-organization into a properly organic being, a being that can be considered not just qua mass but also qua structure.

This completion of this cycle proves remarkably effective for the sale of animal by-products, particularly for consumption by children. Consider the dinosaur chicken nugget. Scraps of who-knows-how-many birds are brought together to form the effigy of a single bird ancestor, a single bird ancestor, that is, which, like Yocco, can be imagined to have all its working parts in order. It is in fact a very simple form, all that is really discernible are a head and a tail, perhaps two or three legs, but this already gives the imagination enough to perceive it as a structure rather than a mass, as a being rather than a congeries of flesh from multiple beings. And this is enough to give it a  regal presence on the child’s dinner plate: even the gentle, vegetarian brontosaurus, who never ate meat but is now thrown into being as meat, seems to be a sort of king.

Here we have something even more complex going on than in the case of either Yocco or the cochon d’Auvergne: an individual of an extinct species that is given new life, both as an individual and as a species, through the molded remains of several individuals of an extant species. Does it know what exactly it is? If it does, does this horrify it?

None of these figures –need I point out?– comes up in the packaging and vending of the foods of the vegetable kingdom. We have the Mannerist masterpieces of Arcimboldo (which I’ve never liked, for what it’s worth), showing men as arrangements of fruit. But this is trompe l’oeil; it’s an attempt to show how you can make one thing look like another. Yocco by contrast involves no trumpery. What is of interest here is not making one thing stand in for another, not a relation of resemblance, but rather one of constitution. Meat, carnis, constitutes  a  body, while fruit can only ever stand in for the body. Meat serves itself in the service of a higher cause, and the regal symbol of this higher cause is meat reformed into an animate, articulated being.

I suspect there is much more to be said about the similarities between the take-out bag from the central Pennsylvania hot-dog joint and Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for Hobbes’s definitive work on the body politic, which would take us a long way toward understanding our peculiar relationship to animals and the meat they produce. But I’ll leave this as a mere soupçon, for now, as I’ve already gone well beyond the original scope I had set up for this occasional series of reflections upon product packaging.

Pieces crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website