Product Packaging and Nationhood


by Justin E. H. Smith

I enjoy spending time in those countries that are not big enough or important enough to have their own product packaging, and instead must share surface space with information in the sundry native tongues of neighboring countries. I remember standing in front of a microwave in Sarajevo, waiting for some ramen noodles to warm up, and thinking: Wow! I can study 20 languages at once, just skimming the ingredients of this so humble repast.

These noodles, in fact, were meant to be cast far and wide across a great swath of Eurasia, the entire part of it, in fact, that cannot be said to be truly either Europe or Asia, roughly from Albania in the west to Kazakhstan in the east. The languages one finds in between, marked out on the package by a little oval containing the official one- or two-letter country abbreviation (‘H’, ‘RO’, ‘BH’, ‘KZ’, etc.)  are mostly Slavic and Turkic, with some representatives of Eastern Romance (Romanian, Moldovan), Caucasian (Georgian), Ural-Altaic (Hungarian), and a few true isolates such as Albanian –the native word for which is ‘shqip’ and which evidently evolved as the only surviving descendant of ancient Illyrian–, thrown into the mix. And, except in those few cases where the alphabet is unknown to me, I can learn how to say ‘sodium carbonate’ in all of these! (‘Sodyum karbonat’, ‘natrij-karbonat’, ‘carbonat de sodiu’, ‘nátrium-karbonát’, etc.)

These noodles are not fit for consumption in Europe proper, where packaging, other than in the so-called ‘ethnic’ stores, is meant to mirror national identity, which since 1789 has been wrapped up in the modern collective imagination with language: no nation, in fact, without linguistic uniformity. Western Europe cannot let itself descend into Balkanic lawlessness! Why, the unpoliced linguistic macédoine of the products they allow to circulate there: is this not a testimony of past violence and a portent of more to come?

Of course, there are some complications. For one thing, there is at least one multinational state in Europe (Belgium), and it shares languages with three of its neighbors (most significantly, France and the Netherlands, but also Germany). This means that if you are eating corn flakes in Lille or Nancy, it is not entirely unusual to be told (at least in writing, which is for me a sort of telling) that these are not flocons de maïs at all, but rather maisvlokken. Now in Belgium one learns to live with this, if bitterly: I once had a Walloon girlfriend who proclaimed that she was ‘assaulted’ every time her eyes landed on the Flemish side of the cereal box. (‘Walloon’, by the way, like ‘Welsh’ and ‘Vlach’ and a number of other European demonyms, comes from an Old Brythonic word that meant, simply, ‘foreign’; and foreign she was.) But when these bilingual boxes spill over from that queer kingdom into the glorious republic to the south, the reaction could very well be not indignation, but simply confusion. The French revolutionaries had to wage a brutal campaign against regional otherness to rid the new republic of Occitan and Provençal and Breton, and here we are more than two centuries later confronted with these obscene Germanic consonant clusters on our cereal boxes! This is not the sort of fraternité we had in mind!

The idea of a binational state, as product packaging reveals to us, is inherently strange. In fact, I feel like saying that product packaging in binational states itself serves as a testament to the fragility of the arrangement. If we may move from the Old World context to one with which I am slightly more familiar, I would like to hold forth a bit on the utter bizarreness of Canadian conventions in the labelling and marketing of commercial goods.

Anyone who comes to Canada and who cares about the richness of either English or French will quickly notice that both of these cultural-linguistic treasuries are, in the public display of them, anyway, greatly reduced. In order to be sure of saying exactly the same thing in both languages, Canadian product packaging invariably ends up saying nothing, or next to nothing, or something that really would have been better left unsaid. Thus for example we are told, and expected to passively agree, that ‘Fancy Spinach’ is ‘Épinards de Fantaisie’. Of course, ‘fancy’ is etymologically a contraction of ‘fantasy’, which did come into English through French. But ‘fancy’ and ‘fantasy’ mean two different things today, and it is absurd to think that anyone has any ‘fantasies’ at all about frozen spinach. The high percentage of shared lexical items means that Anglo-French bilingualism is fundamentally different from, say, the Anglo-Chinese bilingualism of Hong Kong, or even the Franco-Netherlandic bilingualism of the earlier example, as it enables product packagers to squeeze two languages’ worth of labelling into a seemingly continuous phrase, with the two languages’ adjectives flanking a shared noun in the middle. This is supposed to save space, as well as the reader’s mental energy, but it makes me furious. When I am told that I am eating ‘Tomato Ketchup aux Tomates’, I feel like like saying: Well of course I am! You already told me that!

It has been said of the Francophone and Anglophone communities in Canada that they are ‘two solitudes’, and some have pessimistically averred that this is the most we can hope for wherever two or more ethnies are crammed together into a single state (the worst, of course, is Sarajevo, where we started out). The two-solitude détente is perhaps most evident in what is often called ‘generic’ packaging (a strange designation, when we think about this term’s origin in the taxonomical notion of genus). I do not want to dwell for too long on the strangeness of this species of packaging (for it is not a genus). That would bring us too far afield from our principal concern, which is, if I may put it this way, product packaging and nationhood. But I will just say that generics perform a striking counter-movement against the prevailing purpose of packaging in the capitalist world: while ordinarily packaging strives to the extent possible to conceal what is really contained within it, and to present it as not just the sum of its ingredients, but as something with what Walter Benjamin might have called an ‘aura’, generic packaging by contrast has as its sole aim the blunt declaration of the true nature of the thing or things it contains.

And it is here that bilingualism seems, momentarily, to do what it is officially supposed to be doing: communicating to us exactly the same thing in two different, non-overlapping word-worlds: peas & carrots / pois & carottes. It all seems so simple.

But even here, even when the aim is pure generic explicitness, the idiosyncrasy of what the Spanish rightly call ‘idioms’ (for to the extent that we are separated off in our own linguistic worlds, we are indeed idiots) shows itself soon enough. Next to the cans of peas and carrots, we find some mixed vegetables, which, curiously enough, are in French not légumes mixtes, but rather they are a macédoine de légumes. A veritable Macedonia of vegetables! They are the culinary equivalent of that demographic powder keg in Southeastern Europe, with pea next to chopped carrot next to diced potato, just as you might find an Albanian village next to a Serbian enclave that abuts an Aromanian district. The French and the English cannot be made to say exactly the same thing, not even in the blunt, literal language of generics. And this unharmonizability, one fears, is but the exact linguistic reflection of the irreducible discreteness of the can’s various contents (this is not a mash, but a mix), which in turn is but the alimentary mirror of unending human conflict.

Piece originally published on Justin E. H. Smith’s website