Inequality by (interior) Design, a smart sociology blog you should be following if you aren’t already, included a shout-out to Janice Radway in a post describing the way books written by men and women are packaged with dramatically different cover designs. Janice Radway wrote a book on how women engage with mass market romances: rather than critiquing female romance readers as mindless consumers of patriarchal bullshit, she actually, you know, talked to women who read romance novels and listened to what they said. Her interviews and analysis suggested that women enjoyed their romance-novel reading in a variety of ways, many of which resist patriarchal norms–the blurb quoted on Inequality describes a housewife carving out time from her domestic duties in her own home to immerse herself in a world where a heroine’s needs are prioritized and met. I respect this conceptualization of mass market paperbacks as something to be consumed–rather than something to be consumed by or taken in by, as the Frankfurt School characterizes mass culture. I definitely like to see readers and consumers cast as agents rather than dupes; I think there is more than sufficient evidence that human beings can be pretty ingenious about making the best of what’s available to them.
But I actually first picked up an article by Janice Radway because of her critique of the way we describe mass culture consumption in food terms: “Mass culture,” she writes, “has regularly been characterized as ‘predigested . . . pap’ or ‘gruel’ which is easily and commonly swallowed whole.” In other words, mass culture is baby food, and doesn’t require any digestion, rumination, or other intellectual (!) work to swallow. The metaphor’s logical extension is that people who consume mass culture are childish–an association you also hear when we talk about “syrupy” songs and “eye candy,” simple and strong flavors that go down easy. But the mass-culture-as-pap metaphor is also kind of gross, right? To hammer home the point: my dad used to refer to sappy movies and songs as “pablum puke.” Baby stuff, yes, but also, who would want to eat that?
Janice Radway and I don’t think that mass market paperbacks are baby food, or that it’s gross or childish to want to read them; we think that the women who read them are adults and capable of making their own sense out of pop culture. I feel the same way about the literal consumption of mass produced food, as it happens: millions of people buy fast food and junk food because for millions of reasons–cost, ease, nostalgia, taste preferences, household politics, etc.–it seems like a good decision, or at least the best decision under the circumstances.
All of this is but a preface to explain my complicated feelings about this poem from The Hungry Ear anthology, which I stumbled across once again this weekend while sorting through some notes:
“Woe” by Campbell McGrath
Consider the human capacity for suffering,
Our insatiable appetite for woe.
I do not say this lightly
But the sandwiches at Subway
suck. Foaming lettuce,
mayo like rancid bear grease,
meat the color of a dead dog’s tongue.
Yet they are consumed
by the millions
and by the tens of millions.
So much for the food. The rest
I must pass over in silence.
I find this poem hilarious: the contrast of the grave, sermon-like first and last lines with the irreverent subject; the three increasingly lengthy descriptions of disgusting food; the implication that if humanity is so self-destructive on the matter of sandwiches, the rest is too vast or awful to be spoken of. For me, reading this poem aloud feels like vengeance, a snarky curse upon the family dinners of Subway I endured as a teenager and the terrible meals at my university’s writing center, which were catered not by Subway but by a business that serves equally unchewable “French rolls” and cardboard avocado slices.
But at the same time, the poem invokes those very patterns of consumer critique I think it’s important to avoid–with very minor differences. The object of consumption is disgusting, but not like baby food; like decay. The millions don’t consume this rotten food mindlessly; they do it from an appetite for suffering and woe. I know better: I know that the family Subway dinners were quick and easy for my working parents, and one of the few such options that included vegetables at all; I know that the university sandwich shop is considered cheap, clean, and safe for food allergies. We the consumers choose these terrible sandwiches for a reason.
That doesn’t explain why sandwich purveyors choose to make the worst possible sandwiches, like priests of an ascetic religion who transform convenience food into a meditation on the brevity and futility of mortal life.