Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)
Author: Dr. Ben Trubody
Using the theory and concepts of Jean Baudrillard it will be argued that the ‘realism’ one finds in modern food retail and gastronomy are both literally and metaphorically consumed by virtue of the metaphysics that are required to support them. Specifically I will be focusing on the creation of the modern curry and how it fits Baudrillard’s 4-stage process by which the ‘Real’ turns into the ‘Unreal’ (Baudrillard, 1994a: 6). These stages will be denoted as ‘archival’, ‘perversion’, ‘pretense’ and ‘pure’, tracked-out by the movement from the archaeological evidence for the ‘proto-curry’ (archival), to the colonization of ‘India’ (perversion), to the exportation of the Nabob/ Raj culture back to the UK (pretense), and finally the rise of the ‘curry-house’ in modern Britain (pure). Along with Baudrillard’s 4-stage process I will focus on the phenomenological attitudes of ‘nostalgia’ and its antonym ‘aon’ (anticipation of novelty).The implied teleology of ‘nostalgia’ (past-looking) and ‘aon’ (future-looking) gives us a way of structuring time and our relationship to history in order to make sense of the ‘realism’ inculcated in terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘original’, ‘genuine’, ‘natural’ and ‘100%’. Here food represents a history, a culture, a location that we connect to through our consumption of it by already accepting that food, such as ‘curry’ does have an origin, can be authentic, or some sense can be the ‘real thing’.
To be clear neither myself nor Baudrillard is denying that there are real events or objects, rather it is the metaphysics behind our notions of the ‘Real’ that are being critiqued (Norris, 1991, 1992). If our first reaction is to understand the above statement as a denial of actual things/ events then this only goes to highlight the extent to which said metaphysics already influence our understanding. To contextualize my argument it will first be useful to understand how ‘realism’ is tied up with food consumerism, then ground my own use of Baudrillard via his own attack of the Platonic ‘Real’ in Western thought and finally show how we have come to invert the relationship between the ‘Real’ and the ‘Unreal’ through his ‘successive phases of the image’ regarding the ‘curry’ (Baudrillard, 1994a: 2-3).
II. Realism, the ‘Real’ and Food
The language of ‘realism’ in food is now commonplace with ‘real ales’, ‘authentic curries’, ‘traditional pasties’ and ‘100% natural’ products. This desire for the ‘Real’ rests on us already understanding what is at stake in terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘traditional’ and ‘100% natural’, which imply a host of negative alternatives, such as ‘fake’, ‘unconventional’ or ‘artificial’. In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard addresses the metaphysics behind such everyday notions that evoke realism and argues that in a postmodernist age where we are saturated with images the ‘Real’ has been been replaced with the ‘Unreal’, that there is no longer an origin to signs but only endless replication, and in fact even ‘reality’ has been replaced with a heightened, exaggerated version of itself in the ‘hyper-real’ (Ibid.: 2-3). One ideology that particularly encourages talk of the ‘Real’ and all its phenomenological effects is ‘capitalism’, where we look to consume models of the ‘Real’ and never the actuality of the ‘thing’ in front of us. Never more apt is this idea than in the sense of the ‘ready meal’. Not only is it in a literal sense that that something is already prepared for us to consume with minimal fuss, but also the desire, life-style, and culture that is also packaged with the product. In short, there is also a ‘ready-made’ reality that accompanies it. Here we are prepared to suspend disbelief or engage in cognitive dissonance in order to consume the model. For example, ‘Patak’s Original: An Authentic Indian Recipe – Our Family Cookbook’ are the words that adorn the ‘Patak’s’ official website and products (Pataks, 2014). These words allude to something genuine, a taste of ‘India’, something with heritage, unspoiled or tampered with, unique as a family recipe. Automatically there is an internal antagonsim between the idea of ‘family’ and the multinational trading company ‘Associated British Foods Plc’ that owns it. Moreover, the fact that ‘Patak’s’ supplies 75% of the curry-houses in Britain also dilutes the idea of familial uniqueness and originality. This situation becomes further removed from the ideal when we consider that ‘Patak’s’ sources its ingredients from Canada, Italy, Brazil, Peru, Thailand, Iran and Morocco (Jackson in Ulrike, 2010: 174). Was this originally how the Pataks family made curries?
If we think we can replicate ‘originality’ by fixating upon geographical or historical accuracy, then we already have to understand that there must be some thing we are getting closer too in terms of time and space. Whilst spice trading has existed since 3000BC, it will be argued that the ‘curry’ is a modern creation that can be retold as part of several histories (Kusuman, 1987: 2). This ambiguity in history, such as lack of an origin in both denotation (where the word ‘curry’ comes from) and connotation (what makes something a curry) are masked by us always already understanding what ‘curry’ is and so can be nostalgic for something that never existed. ‘Food’ in a consumer society is never about survival but about the exercise of status in the world. ‘Food’ does not exist as it has become blurred with the lifestyles, culture, and aspirations that make-up its signification, so primary urges such as hunger routinely become confused with appetite. Equally, the meaning of hunger is a social exercise, where the plight of the homeless, or famine stricken is something distinct from the diet of the supermodel. Here Baudrillard asks, “Is loss of status- or social non-existence less upsetting than hunger?’ (Baudrillard, 1981: 81)
In order to understand the problem Baudrillard was addressing here I will first need to spend some time unpacking the Platonic notion of the ‘real’ and how that has influenced current thinking.
III. The Real
Whilst Plato’s contribution to the philosophical tradition is vast it will be his part in introducing the ‘Real’ into western metaphysics that will concern us. If we can understand the metaphysics behind the Platonic ‘Real’ this will give context to Baudrillard’s critique of the ‘Real’ from cultural theory. At least for Hyland there is still contestation over what Plato’s ‘theory of Forms’ means, and so at the risk of giving an overly schematic and potted history of Platonism, I will only outline the ‘Real’s’ infiltration into Western metaphysics through Plato’s influence on religious and scholastic thought (Hyland, 2002: 257-72). Here scholars generally agree that Plato’s influence has persisted through its assimilation into monotheistic doctrine and the subsequent paths organized religion has taken. Three major points to Plato’s thought are the immateriality of reality, an eternal soul distinct from the body, and the idea of cosmic order (Fergusson, 2003: 335). Where the notions of ‘simulation’ and ‘simulacra’ begin is that there is a divide between the ‘Apparent’ and the ‘Real’ in how reality is experienced. For Plato held that the world of material experience was illusory, since only that which is unchanging and eternal can be ‘Real’. Only the essence can be ‘Real’, that which always remains true and visible to the mind even if our senses can be deceived. For example, imagine an Athenian and Alexandrian carpenter charged with the task of making a chair. It is conceivable that both chairs will differ, different sizes, wood, structure and so on, but both agree that they are still chairs. In Platonic thought what is common to both chairs is the ‘Form’, which does not change regardless of the interpretations and varieties both carpenters come up with.
Plato reasoned that there must be a realm of eternal unchanging ‘Forms’ that are the blueprints for those impermanent phenomena we encounter through sense-experience. Through the distortion of the senses both carpenters end up making an imperfect copy of the perfect chair. Here what is ‘Real’ is outside of us, transcendent, only partially accessible through reason. Of all the ‘Forms’ that exist Plato tells us that the form of the ‘Good’ is the highest from which all other forms derive (or the ones that can be known by reason) (Plato, 2006: 222). Platonism gave way to Neo-Platonism, which adopted mystical elements such as the height of existence in ‘The One’ or ‘The Good’, whereby virtuous practice and meditation allowed the soul to unify with the singularity of existence. With the spread of the Christianized Roman-Empire, and the merging of the Greco-Roman cultures, theologians, philosophers and mystics began to shape the early Christian religion through ideas inherited from Platonism. As Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire this allowed ‘Greek’ ideas to travel unconstrained and percolate deep into the structure of society. From the evangelical commitments of Christianity, the proficiency of war and the organizing affect of religion, the intellectual foundations of ‘Western civilization’ had at their core Platonic metaphysics. ‘The Real’, ‘The One’, and ‘The Good’ all became condensed into the God of classical monotheism. Welton says, the impact of Plato’s ‘theory of Forms’ on Western culture is ‘immeasurable… [and] Platonic metaphysical thinking and its spiritual motifs on Biblical theology, and Christian theology in particular, is notorious and incalculable’ (Welton, 2002: 1).
However, over the course of the 20th century there has been a healthy challenge to Platonic metaphysics and the systems derived therefrom. Badiou has argued that the majority of this counter-movement has come from European (mainly French), ‘continental’ philosophy and non-philosophy (psychoanalysis) (Badiou, 2005: 67-77). These new methodologies, however, have their roots in Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein (mainly German), leading to what Badiou has called anti-philosophy (Badiou, 2011).These developments have been a useful counterbalance to the hardcore analytic philosophy and scientism that mistake their activities and pursuits of the ‘true’ for one of ‘Truth’ (Unger, 2012: 31-41). As part of that mainly french, European tradition, Baudrillard (whilst still marginal) is part of a generation of post-structuralist thinkers whose multidisciplinary approach to attacking the ‘Real’ has broken conceptual ground for the humanities and social sciences (Pawlett, 2007: 3). It must be repeated that the ‘Real’ is not to be confused for the ‘real’ or ‘actual’. It is the metaphysics that underlie discourses of the ‘Real’ or ‘Truth’ that are to be scrutinized, where we think we can detach an event from its meaning as is present in the metaphysics of ‘objectivity’. Such matters however will have to remain in the periphery here due to lack of space.
The development of post-structuralist theory began to problematized the simple relationship sign and signifier were assumed to have, all of which were played out against a pretense of the ‘Real’ or ‘True’. With the developments of logical positivism and ‘ordinary language’ philosophy, it was believed that science and ‘good’ philosophy could dispense with metaphysics and deal only in what can be said. Post-structuralists like Derrida came to undermine the foundations upon which such assumptions are based, where propositional logic is already based on a metaphysics that allows a sign to exist independent of its meaning (Derrida, 1977).
What makes talk of the ‘Real’ so seductive is that it can be confused with the ‘actual’. This seduction has us view any criticism of the ‘Real’ or its umbrella term ‘Reality’ as absurd, as if one were denying that things really exist. ‘Real’ in the anglophone everyday sense is interchangeable with words like ‘true’, ‘genuine’, or ‘authentic’. As we can talk about such things with little effort this then acts as a handy framework for hanging other ideas on. One such ideology that feeds this use of language and metaphysics is ‘capitalism’. In the world of marketing and branding it is an accepted part of the vocabulary, that ale can be real, high-street ethnic food authentic, dishes can be traditional or original, meat a 100%, and dairy products natural. As trivial as these sound, they are designed with a purpose to stimulate desire. The implication is that there are fake, false or pretend products that may not be as they appear. Beyond the surface meaning and desire of having something ‘genuine’, there is a symbolic order attached that propagates this consumer ideology. For Lacan it was a dialectic between the lack and excess in both ‘surplus-jouissance’ and ‘surplus-value’ that determined the ‘Real’ (Lacan, 2007). The ‘Real’ here is the gap between what can be represented in language and the thing itself. Žižek takes these Lacanian categories and applies them to items such as Coca-Cola, where objects come to be the cause and effect of their own desire. This ‘surplus-jouissance’ or excessive pleasure is signified most perfectly by Coke’s slogans the ‘real thing’ or ‘it’ (Žižek, 1989: 96). Here we can only enjoy our lack of enjoyment, fumbling after the unknowable quality that makes something like Coca-cola so compelling. A beverage that is not healthy, aesthetically unpleasant, thirst enhancing, and in its emptiness it creates a desire for more of the same (Žižek, 2014). ‘Surplus-jouissance’ is created by first already being in a world that precedes us, where total satisfaction and placation of the body exist in the symbolic order. As this situation precedes us it becomes a kind of myth of which we have never truly experienced, but know we desire. The very impossibility of obtaining this situation only serves to heighten its desirability, propelling the fantasy. This puts us into an endless cycle of want, desire, dissatisfaction, more want, desire, and so on.
IV. Nostalgia, Aon, Simulation and Simulacra
A notion that is also both its own cause and effect are the phenomenological attitudes of ‘nostalgia’ and its antonym, which I have called ‘aon’ (anticipation of novelty). This combination of opposites is in keeping with Baudrillard’s ‘immanent reversal’ where all things turn into their opposite such as the ‘Real’ into the ‘Unreal” (Kellner, 2003: 326). ‘Nostalgia’ is defined by Boym as ‘longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed’ (Boym, 2007: 7). Its opposite ‘aon’ is for a future to be unlike anytime previously experienced, good or bad, but as yet unknown. This serves like the horizon, constantly at a distance from us no matter how fast we approach it. Agamben suggests that the belief the future will be unlike the past, paradoxically, keeps history repeating itself (Agamben, 1993: 89-106). There is a kind of reverse gambler’s fallacy at work here. Both the gambler’s fallacy and our understanding of history involves a teleology of ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’. For the gambler the roulette dice ‘remembers’ the previous rounds, increasing the person’s chance of a win in the present. In ‘aon’ there is an ‘amnesia’ about the unpredictability or originality of the future, where events of the past tend to repeat themselves in the hope of a new outcome. If ‘nostalgia’ yearns after something that does not exist (cannot exist) it is because it lacks an origin. There is no-thing to which it refers. Its opposite in ‘aon’ is the absence of an end-point, a future that does not exist, not because it has not happened yet, but because this is not what the future is. Both of these attitudes are a reflection of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacra’.‘Simulacra’ is a copy without an origin, just a copy of a copy. It is a sign liberated from its referent. As we live in world of mass produced, homogenous objects this precludes ‘counterfeiting’ as all objects are already copies (Baudrillard, 1993: 55). With regards to food ‘nostalgia’ and ‘aon’ creates either a longing for a past that we did not inhabit or aspiration for a culture or lifestyle that does not exist. Since both are chimerical we are constantly under-whelmed, forever searching for a mythical origin or endpoint of satisfaction.
As part of postmodernist theory Baudrillardian terms have become common currency, where he is held as a proponent for ‘Postmodernism’, yet is critical of the term that descends into a ‘generalized idol fetishism’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 150). When Baudrillard claims that there is no such thing as the ‘Real’, on a naïve reading this can seem radical or even immoral, as with the potential denial of the Gulf war (Norris, 1992: 14-15). To restate, it will not be argued that things are not real or that events do not happen, but that pernicious use of the ‘Real’ is implied in the discourses of realism in food where something like a curry can be ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ or ‘original’. What is it then that a moderate reading of Baudrillard seeks to understand? A reasonable assumption is that in order to simulate something there must first be the ‘thing’ you are simulating. A forger must first have the original painting before a copy can exist. For Baudrillard this situation is now a myth. In order to situate something meaningful like an ‘original’ or ‘pre-given’ real thing, we have to be complicit in a certain way of understanding the world. This understanding is not necessary, but because the relationships of forger to fake or artist to masterpiece are so intuitive, it maybe more pervasive than we think. For Baudrillard a ‘simulacrum’ is no longer an imitation, or copy of an original, but an endless system of self-reference. What Baudrillard is challenging is the metaphysics that support the notion of an ‘authentic’, ‘original’, ‘pre-given’ real, or put another way, he is problematizing the Platonic metaphysics behind a certain account of reality.
The term ‘reality’ itself already implies this metaphysics due to the ease with which we discuss such abstract notions. What Baudrillard does through his 4-stage process of turning the ‘Real’ into the ‘Unreal’ is to invert Platonic metaphysics (Baudrillard, 1994a: 6). That is, the image becomes the model for ‘Truth’, rather than the image being an approximation of it as accessed through ‘Forms’. This inversion has the terms ‘simulation’ and ‘representation’ mean something different in the Baudrillardian and Platonic frameworks. ‘Representation’ and ‘simulation’ for Plato is where the order of ‘sign’ and ‘signifier’ have an equivalence. Here ‘simulation’ is a false representation of the ‘Real’. This could be through ‘mimesis’ in its literary or practical forms, but because they stand in relation to the ‘Real’ they can be true or false and it was up to the philosopher to make sure that ‘Truth’ won out.
‘Simulation’ for Baudrillard is where the ‘Real’ has been replaced with a ‘sign’. The equivalence is thus no longer between ‘sign’ and ‘signifier’ attempting to mirror the ‘Real’, but is a leveling down of everything to signs and symbols. Here all signs refer to all other signs where they have no relation to reality (Ibid.). So in the first instance we require an order, a primary ‘Real’ thing from which we can then hold signs in relation to as representation. This would be the Platonic understanding of deriving imperfect copies of an object from the perfect, pre-given reality of its ideal. In the second instance there is no order, there are only signs that then point to other signs, which become interchangeable, which endlessly mirror each other. Objects cannot be copied or forged, for in a certain sense they are already their own forgeries and act as their own models for representation. So ‘simulation’ for Baudrillard is not expressed by an original object being copied but is ‘characterized by a precession of the model’ (Ibid.: 16). That is, we confuse ‘facts’ with the models that contextualize our ‘facts’, or ‘objectivity’ with the metaphysics that makes sense of objective statements. ‘Simulacra’ is thus a system of self-referential signs that are endlessly interchangeable, which we have come to identify with the ‘Real’. Here there is no difference between a true statement and acting as if the statement were true, between a ‘Real’ object and acting as if it were Real. This acting ‘as if’ Baudrillard calls the ‘reality principle’ where certain systems exist in order to hide the fact that what we actually take to be ‘Real’ are only simulations (Ibid.: 12-13). As our modern society is saturated by technology, images, codes, signs, and so on, what we take to be ‘Real’ is an exaggerated, hyper-real system of exchange. The ‘hyper-real’ presents pure stimuli, a simulation of something that is no longer there, it is only the experience we can consume and nothing more meaningful than that. As the ‘thing’ that the meaning is supposed to be attached to is no longer present we never become fulfilled, we are never satisfied, which ensures we carry on consuming. Baudrillard identifies this as the reinvention of, among other things, the ‘lost taste for food’ (Ibid.).
If this sounds abstract it is because it problematizes an intuitive notion of reality, the simple correspondence between what there really is and what I experience. To illustrate how the ‘Real’ becomes the ‘Un-Real’ or how the original sign-signifier becomes detached from reality so as to be without referent, Baudrillard describes a 4-stage process (Ibid.: 6). The form is arguably derived from Nietzsche in inverting the ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ worlds, for both Nietzsche and Baudrillard use the example of ‘God’ in the inversion of iconoclasm in the emptying of the signifier (see Hegarty, 2004: 153-54). The fear was that the image would come to supplement the divine, and somehow corrupt our relationship with it, necessitating the destruction of all icons. Today the icon is what is divine, be it religious or secular as it papers over something we no longer experience. The ‘Cross’ or ‘Christ figure’ stands in for our internal relationship with God or faith, the spectacle of charity and prayer (ice-bucket challenge, televised appeals, prayer rooms) stand in for our morality and authenticity as a ‘believer’. Moreover, for those secularized the metaphysics of religion are absorbed by capitalism, in promising an unobtainable happiness, freedom and eternal life. To understand how the same sign-signifier disruption occurs the example of ‘money’ is a good one:
- ‘Faithful’ – The image reflects a profound reality: Before ‘money’ people exchanged skills or items on a feudal like for like basis. Your ability to mend cartwheels and need to eat reflects my trade as a farmer and ability to give you livestock and crops.
- ‘Perversion’ – the image masks and distorts a profound reality: As skills became more diverse, and labour divisions more stratified, there became a need to tokenize skills, goods or time. Here the token ‘stands-in’ for whatever the skill or item use to be worth.
- ‘Pretense’ – The image masks the absence of a profound reality: The ‘things’ the tokens use to stand-in for are now completely absent. As we have no idea what our equivalent values as managers, officiates, clerks or secretaries are we now worth, we have to trade and exchange in pre-agreed symbolic form, that of ‘money’.
- ‘Pure’ – The image has no relation to any reality whatsoever: What was abstract, the ‘token’, is now concrete as ‘money’, and what were concrete, ‘skills’ and ‘labour’, are now abstract, alienated from us as ‘value’. Here we think of ourselves in terms of economic worth, we exchange what we are worth (an abstraction), i.e., capital in terms of time, skills, and knowledge, for a wage (a further abstraction).
In the first instance neither Nietzsche nor Baudrillard names the stages of the ‘Real’ becoming ‘Un-Real’. Nietzsche simply presents four theses, whereas Baudrillard, mimicking Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, bullet points the ‘successive phases of the image’ (Baudrillard, 1994a: 6). Baudrillard (1981) does however layout a similar 4-stage process for how ‘utility value’ morphs into ‘exchange value’ through the headings ‘natural’, ‘exchange’, ‘structural’ and ‘fractal’ (Baudrillard, 1981). Zima comments on the mirrored semiotics between the ‘Real’ into the ‘Un-Real’ and ‘utility value’ into ‘exchange value’ (Zima, 2010: 87-109). It should be noted that ‘stage 4’ is always a complete inversion of ‘stage 1’, but because we begin at ‘stage 4’ this seems like the natural order. We live and breath in a world where the abstract has become more ‘Real’ and concrete than those things they use to signify. For Nietzsche it was the making of every value an unvalue. For Baudrillard it is the loss of the ‘real’ to production replaced by a system of arbitrary symbolic exchange. Here our concrete actions are now understood through economic abstraction, where practices that do not conform to the ‘capital’ model become ludicrous and alternatives to the model seem incomprehensible (Žižek, 2006: 149). The theater of the ‘Real’, as opposed to the ‘desert of real’, is for Baudrillard, the reality we wish to occupy (Baudrillard, 1994a: 1). Once we ascend from the pretense that the image no longer masks the absence of a reality, but actually ‘stands in’ for that reality, we have simulacra. It is this ‘Real’ that for Baudrillard becomes a ‘deterrence machine’, inhibiting thought and directing our gaze from those things directly in front of us Ibid.: 13). For what we are concerned with is no longer a representation that can be true or false, but is its own simulation or equivalence, thus removing it from the sphere of logic. Unlike Baudrillard, Deleuze argues that simulacra are not implosions of meaning, but is differentiation by affirming its own difference to the model (Deleuze,1983: 45-56). Baudrillard hints that this shifting from representation to simulacra may lead to a new way of thinking about history, using more literary forms in interpreting events (1994b).
Part of the discourse of modern consumption is the pre-fix of adjectives such as ‘traditional’, ‘real’, or ‘authentic’. Whatever the choice, food here is no longer purely functional as a means of staying alive or gaining the required nutrition, rather they are part of a re-enforcement of the ‘hyper-real’, where the model precedes reality. That is we ‘consume’ the label, packaging or idea and not the actual foodstuff. This symbolic shift occurs before a single bite is taken, where the spaces that we buy our food reinforce the ‘natural order’ of the model. For example, supermarkets now have ‘world cuisine’ or ‘ethnic food’ aisles. This gives credence to the idea that food has a location or origin due to there being a specific section of the supermarket that I can find ‘Indian’ food replicating geo-political categories. The taxonomy of the supermarket creates a sense of order that appears to mirror reality, for it stands to reason that Indian food should come from India and should be found with all Indian ‘like’ things. The actuality, however, of multi-nationalism is that food has no location or country of origin. Companies source, refine, package and sell produce from a number of geographical spaces coming together and re-organized in the supermarket to give a facade of natural order. As with the example of ‘Patak’s’, their ingredients are sourced from around the world neither being original nor authentic to whatever their ancestral cookbook was. Yet the point is that we ‘consume’ the label as the ‘reality’ not the actual product inside. To see how we have got to this stage I will use Baudrillard’s 4-stage process as a template and track out the historical movement from the ‘Real’ to the ‘Unreal’ in the concept of the ‘curry’. I will also be deploying the phenomenological/ teleological attitudes of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘aon’ as the symbolic shifts occur as means of accepting the new phases of the image until the model is what we consume as the reality of the object.
Like all nostalgia we start at the beginning, the lie being that the past in the ‘faithful’ sense is accessible to us. Rather, for Baudrillard, we have moved from an age of ‘history’ to one of ‘archives’, interested in fidelity to a period when there once was history (1994a: 48). ‘History’, for Baudrillard, requires ‘strong events’, an ‘Other’ as a force for change. So what we now take as ‘history’ is actually archival fidelity to a time when there was history, when change offered new alternatives for ways of being. As we always view history from ‘stage 4’ I will term ‘stage 1’ the ‘archival-stage’, self-reflexive in how history can be approached.
The use of the term ‘curry’ has changed over the years, for some it means a particular dish from a particular part of the world, for others it is ubiquitous with a flavour, such that we have curry powder or curried flavoured crisps. When we say ‘curry’ we generally know what the other person is talking about whether it denotes a specific dish or a flavour, but as Sen notes, ‘a dish by that name never existed’ (Sen, 2004: 25). It has been claimed, however, that the ‘proto-curry’ dates back over 4,000 years, founded by the Indus Valley civilization (Kashyap and Weber, 2012: 228-29). The Indus Valley was home to one of the world’s first urban civilizations – along with those in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Anthropologists Kashyap and Weber found traces of cooked ginger, turmeric and garlic, among other cereals, pulses and spices in starch grains in pottery and human teeth remains at the ancient town of Farmana. The discovery was dated between 2500BCE and 2200BCE, making this the earliest recorded use of ginger and turmeric to be identified in the area. The find also also suggest that the pairing of rice with ‘curry’ was already a custom. If we agree that spices such as ginger, turmeric and garlic along with rice are exclusive to the term ‘curry’ then we may conclude that ‘curry’ is the ‘oldest, continuously prepared cuisine on the planet’ (Lawler, 2014). As part of Kashyap and Weber’s testing they followed traditional curry recipes containing turmeric and ginger to see how the fibers broke down in the cooking process and examine the residues left over (Ibid.). The evidence has led archaeologist Vasant Shinde to conclude that the Indus people ‘are responsible for introducing most of the [culinary] traditions in south Asia’ (Ibid.).
In less critical approaches to histories there can be a retro bias where we view the past from the present, with our current conceptions in mind and work backwards as if the present were an inevitable consequence of the past. This is a type of ‘nostalgia’ which lends itself to narratives of national, religious or ethnic identity. Looking at the facts, the Indus or Harrapan ‘script’ of the ancient Indus civilization is still an undeciphered language, if it indeed classifies as a language at all (Fischer, 2001: 95). Very little is known about the Indus culture, no scrolls in jars or stone inscriptions (Pruthi, 2004: 22). Less still is the presence of cooking manuals, recipes, or texts that tell us how or why those people prepared and ate what they did. At best we can speculate from later cunifrom tablets as to their potential significance as with the ‘Yale Babylonian tablets’ (YBT). Even if one wanted to concluded that this was the first ‘proto-curry’, by granting some exclusivity to the use of turmeric, ginger, garlic and rice – the very idea of ‘proto’, ‘original’ or ‘first’ comes from the Ancient Greek culture, not Indus. It would also seem an odd test to prepare and cook ingredients as if it were a curry to see what this could tell us about Indus cuisine. There is a kind of circularity to this method. For wheat and barley were also found at the site in Faramana, yet I doubt pizza dough could tell us anything about Indus cuisine? The very idea that one could use a ‘traditional’ recipe is part of this circularity of signs. Moving forward to the oldest known ‘recipes’ inscribed on the YBT’s (circa 1600 BCE) they contain no quantities, or cooking times, all through an approximated translation (Bottéro, 2004: 3). Due to the lack of measurements, proportions and direct cooking instructions, depending on how one already regards the ingredients you can either get the ‘broths’ and ‘porridges’ of Bottéro’s translation or the ‘koreshes’ and ‘curries’ of Kelley (2014). Even if we could get a ‘faithful’ translation of the Harrapan script with cooking instructions, the typical south Indian or Tamil Nadu-Phai ‘kari’ and those based on the ‘Ayurveda’ texts do not have a fixed set of ingredients. Rather they aim at balancing the six rasa (tastes) which lead to well-being (Monroe, 2005: 34). Here preparation and consumption of food also depend upon caste, the season and region of country, all of which means identifying a ‘curry’ with a fixed set of ingredients is 1) practically impossible and 2) undesirable (Collingham, 2006: 7). The departure from Baudrillard’s stage 1, which was left with the Indus culture circa 2200 BCE, means we can only derive a curry by treating the said ingredients ‘as if’ they were already one. The sense of ‘nostalgia’ here is also in the language used where a ‘rich culinary culture’ of colourful curries and koreshes must be a part of the ancient’s diets and not the ‘dull food’ of porridges and broths. There is a deeper point here that I do not have room to develop, but that the terms ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ or ‘real’ can be understood as a value-judgment, that they are some how better than whatever the alternative is. Yet ‘authenticity’ can also be understood as a ontological claim, such that Heidegger makes where it has nothing to so with being better or worse, but whether someone owns who they are (Heidegger, 2962: 211-20). To conflate these two is to evaluate a person’s ‘authenticity’ in terms of a criteria (beings – ontic). This is what we might do with a painting or recipe, yet the more fundamental form of ‘authenticity’ has nothing to do with fulfilling a criteria or list in the objective sense, but is about how we relate towards our own being. I mention this as the discourses of ‘authenticity’ in the ‘value-judgment’ and ‘ontological’ sense can also inculcate a sense of the ‘Utopian’ in romanticizing the past or projecting towards the future (Gardiner, 2006: 1-2).
As well as not knowing what the ancient Indus people called their blend of turmeric, ginger and garlic, it is not known where the word ‘curry’ comes from. A possible answer is in the root of the French word ‘cuire’ through the Middle English ‘cury’ meaning to cook. This is documented in the 14th Century collection of recipes The Forme of Cury or ‘proper method of cookery’ (Davidson, 206: 322). Both Davidson and Lawler, however claim that ‘curry’ comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’ meaning spiced sauce, a type of dressing with a soupy consistency. The Tamil lexicon, however, attributes many meanings to the term ‘kari’, in the culinary sense (1) chewing, eating by biting; (2) vegetables, raw or boiled; (3) meat, raw or boiled; and (4) pepper. There is also the possible Dravidian root of ‘Kar’ which is more associated with vegetables than meat or a sauce, but equally depending on the caste it can refer to a vegetable or meat dish (Southworth, 1979: 163-64). Different words in Tamil refer to different dressings, wet, dry and stewed, however, it is believed that the term ‘kari’ is the umbrella term the European settlers of India used. By the 16th and 17th centuries we have Portuguese and British traders on the Indian and sub-Indian continent. Those traders and colonial powers play an important role in the ‘perversion’ of the curry. It was the Portuguese who introduced the red chili pepper into Indian cuisine from the ‘New Worlds’ of Mexico and South America (Yule and Burnell, 1996: 282). The heat of chilies is now one of the strongest signifiers of the modern curry, but is not ‘native’ to Indian cuisine. After the Portuguese colonized parts of India we start to find recipes for ‘karil’ (the preferred Portuguese term from the Canarese for ‘Kari’) in 17th Century cookery books. Yule and Burnell suggest that the English term ‘curry’ derives from the plural of the Portuguese ‘karil’ (caril) being ‘caris’(Ibid.). A contemporary dish of the curry-house is the ‘vindaloo’, which comes directly from the Portuguese ‘vinha d’alhos’ meaning wine and garlic but due to the ‘aloo’ sound mimicking the Hindi word for ‘potato’, this has now created its own origin. ‘Vindaloo’ can now be made with potatoes, where some cookbooks identify the ‘aloo’ as originally meaning ‘potato’ (Dubey, 2011: xxi). In true Baudriallardian style, ‘potato’ does not stand-in for ‘garlic’ but is now its own reality.
Not only did change come with European settlers, but the spread of Islamic culture brought a much greater emphasis on meat in the kari format, along with new methods of cooking. Yule and Burnell conjecture that the ‘curries’ spoken about in medieval literature (Christian and Islamic) are of only partial Indian descent and instead come from a tradition of spiced cookery already present in Europe and Western Asia at the time (1996: 282). As part of the ‘perversion’, Yule and Burnell claim that ‘turmeric’, still unknown to medieval Europe, was ‘represented by saffron and sandalwood’ to simulate its colour in medieval curries (Ibid.). This can either be read from the nostalgia of the present, in that, even medieval cuisine had a sense of the ‘exotic’ – that turmeric was so representative of the ‘eastern’ look, which we now know curries to be, it warranted simulation even then. This ‘standing in’ where one ingredient is substituted with another to hide its absence is a microcosm of the pretense stage, where we are masking ‘the absence of a profound reality’ (Baudrillard, 1994a: 6).
From Portugal’s exploration and confiscation of the African coastline, instituting commercial slavery, the establishing of sea trading routes to Indo-Asia, along with the expansion of the British Empire and Islamic world we see the fading of perversion into pretense. Here there was a re-molding of the globe, a new mapping of ownership, gone from native lands to new territories, the de-humanization and commodification of people, and the beginnings of global-trade. In much the same way the ‘curry’ follows this trajectory, being up-rooted from no particular origin, the labeling of a multitude of dishes under the term ‘Kari’, its alteration by substituting or introducing new ingredients, where the gradual distortion of the referent takes us into the next stage of pretense.
After the establishment of the East India Company (EIC) and the spread of the British Empire, we have the commodification of ‘curry’, where its concept or abstraction starts to be transported on a global scale. To the colonizers of India any dish of vegetables, meat or fish served in a spicy broth/ gravy with rice was a ‘curry’. Over a period of time as India became colonized a taste for ‘curry’ began to grow augmenting their Anglo-European diets. Tinned and imported European foods were expensive to ship and most perishables spoiled in transit. Compare this to the plentiful indigenous foodstuffs, which were cheaper, healthier and better for the local economies (Maroney, 2012: 129). The then inhabiting British would have Indian cooks prepare spice mixtures for flavouring their food, which would eventually lead to the creation of ‘curry powder’ and its commercial trade. However, prior to the invention of ‘curry powder’ the first English recipes for ‘curry’ were being published. Hannah Glasse’s (1747) The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy describes a stew of chicken or rabbits, rice, onions, spiced with peppercorns, coriander and salt served as a sauce, under the subtitle ‘How to Cook Currey the India Way’ (Glass, 1995: 101). Firstly, the dish contains no ‘traditional’ Indian spices, even though black pepper is native to India it was not widely used in ‘kari’, and secondly, it utilizes cooking techniques domestic to Britain. Now, what was a nondescript ‘dish’ that was always served with a significant amount of rice as its main accompaniment is now via Glasse a soupy stew that has a minimal amount of rice in it. Indeed, apart from the name ‘currey’ there is very little to distinguish it from a domestic English stew common to the time. Later Glasse would add turmeric in the 1751 edition, adding colour and possibly a ‘feel’ of the exotic. This variation proved popular remaining unchanged and replicated in other cookbooks up until 1794 (Maroney, 2012: 13). Still these recipes did not resemble Indian cuisine due to the availability of ingredients in Britain at the time, mangoes became apples, tamarinds became lemon juice, ghee became butter, and so on. The inclination is to think of these as substitutes, but in the stage of ‘pretense’ there is nothing to substitute. It is the simulation/ simulacrum that hides the fact that there is nothing. So it is this that makes the title ‘How to Cook Currey the India Way’ incredibly apt, for there is no ‘currey’ or ‘India Way’. What is being referred to and replicated is colonization, where the British have exported their own Raj/ Nabob culture back to themselves, but under the pretense that it is not theirs, in a sense trying to colonize themselves. This colonization accelerates with the invention of ‘curry powder’. Maroney states that the origins of powdered spices are also unknown, but ‘curry powder’ was an off-shoot of the EIC culture (Ibid.: 133). ‘Curry powder’ was manufactured and exported by the EIC, and marketed as an ‘Indian’ commodity. The earliest know description of ‘curry powder’ comes in a 1784 advert that goes on to state that not only is it a genuine ingredient, but that it is the corner stone of all great Indian cooking. It then encourages readers to visit ‘Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse’ to learn how to use it and create authentic Indian curries (Ibid.). ‘Curry powder’ initially marketed for the ex-EIC members, ranking officials and nabob’s became a part of British cuisine, becoming widely available around 1780. For those people that came from the EIC culture and British Raj it was maybe a literal ‘taste’ of nostalgia and for those yet to travel, only hearing tales of sea faring voyages, it was a flavour of the ‘other’ (aon). Yet what is longed for in ‘nostalgia’ or held in ‘aon’ is not ‘Real’, it is an import of EIC invention to cover over the fact that the cuisine, culture or taste we desire does not exist but is a British creation. Another example from the time comes from William Thackeray’s (1847-8) novel Vanity Fair in a scene depicting a curry dinner. Here the character Miss Rebecca Sharpe is encouraged to eat a chili and on revulsion at its spiciness Joseph Sedley reassures her that ‘they are real Indian’ (Thackeray, 1853: 18). Now whether the chili is offered as part of the curry or a joke, it still belies the fact that the chili, originally a New World plant, exported by the Portuguese adds to the authentication and fiction of the ‘curry’. In our nostalgia or aon the model is of ‘curries’ originating and coming from India, along with curry powder, chilies, all of which we take to be exclusive to Indian cooking. Here we get a sense of shift in symbolic order, moving from the pretense to the pure. ‘Pure’, for Baudrillard however, is where we always start. Here there is no longer representation or substitution of those prior stages or past ‘reality’, where things can be ‘true’ or false’. Rather we have ‘simulation’ where we can only replicate an experience which we now treat as ‘Real’.
After the ‘curry’ concept arrived back into Britain and spread its familiarity through cookbooks, ex-British Raj officials, nabobs and merchant seamen, the ‘curry’ also voyaged from the coffee houses to the first curry establishments. The turn of the century saw ethnic curry cafes multiply around London and other trading ports. What was served inside is not well documented, but due to the uprising of Indian nationalism at the time, the India Office set up covert surveillance to monitor political activity reporting their locations (Monroe, 2005: 80-81). One of the first ‘curry houses’ to be frequented by an Anglo-white clientele was the ‘Shafi’ in 1920. Whilst there is relatively little information about what was served in the Indo-Asian communities, information on the ‘Veeraswamy’ restaurant, opened in 1926, is plentiful. Edward Palmer, a retired Indian Army officer, and founder of ‘E. P. Veeraswamy & Co., Indian Food Specialists’ descends from a line of British military men who married Indian women (Collingham, 2006: 154). Palmer later wrote a cookery book promoting curry powder sold by his own company in the making of a ‘proper curry’ along with the admonishment of apples and sultanas as ingredients in curry. The cuisine, décor and ambiance of the ‘Veeraswamy’ was to replicate the culture of the British Raj, using cane chairs, potted plants and palatial light fittings. Even the waiters were specially imported from India wearing the bearers’ uniform of British India (Ibid.). Food critic reviews from the 1930’s reveal how much of a novelty the ‘British-Indian’ experience still was, such as Bon Viveur’s (1937) Where to Dine in London. Such restaurant guides and reviews started to heighten the reality of the modern curry by treating it as its own authentic creation, the event becoming a ‘spectacle’ (Mendoza, 2010: 52-53). The reduction of reality to appearance.
DEHLI, 117 Tottenham Court Road, is a restaurant where genuine Indian curry is served…It is not sufficient to do up a little mutton and rice with curry powder. The real thing is a much more elaborate affair, and it is essential that it should be served with Bombay Duck, poppadums, fresh chutneys and Lime or Brinjal Pickle (Viveur, 1937: 96-97).
Until 1962 members of the Commonwealth were allowed to freely enter Britain, so as the influx of immigration increased the ‘Indian’ restaurant became a familiar sight in the UK. However, until Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971, it is reported that at least 75% of all ‘Indian’ restaurants were Pakistani owned, and since then it has moved to 85-90% Bangladeshi ownership (Buetter, 2008: 871). Hopefully, one can appreciate the level of simulacra here, from the replication of the ‘British-India’ in restaurants, to the novelty of an authentic dish/ experience that does not exist, to how an entire nation can ‘stand-in’ for another. This can happen because it does not matter, it is the model we treat as ‘Real’ not the desert of the real which is the actuality of the situation. For Baudrillard we are past the point of no return, in the land of the pure, where it is only simulation of a simulation that matters. It is this model we treat as ‘Real’ with no knowledge or experience of a once faithful referent. The model is a ‘look’, a ‘taste’ and ‘experience’ that has no bearing on whatever people ate in the Indus valley 4000 years ago. In modern Britain our literal consumption of the model has led to the inability to tell what meat is even being eaten. Most recently in 2013 the UK experienced ‘horse-gate’, where products labeled as 100% beef did in fact contain between 1-100% equine or porcine meat (Lymberry and Oakeshott, 2014: 5-10). Here it was the public’s inability to tell the difference that I find most compelling of the relationship between simulacra and simulation. Since then Food Standards Agency in the UK have tested curry takeaways from the major cities of London and Birmingham and found that 40% of lamb curries contained other meats, such as beef and chicken, and in some cases no lamb at all (Lawrence, 2014). The idea is that what was once abstract is now how we experience reality over the concrete of what we are actually eating. The standard complaint here is about eating unknown or mislabeled food, being duped unable to trace the provenance of what is being consuming. Yet, for Baudrillard this is the point, we consume the label not the ‘thing’ inside. All that ‘horse-gate’ did, like Baudrillard’s ‘Disneyland’, is bolster the ‘reality principle’. It gave greater credence to the idea that people do not want to be lied to and that corporations should take responsibility, only to mask or act as a deterrent to the fact that no one really wants to know how their food is made or where it comes from. The actuality is that people want to be ignorant or lied-too giving over responsibility to the ‘other’.
It has been argued that the discourse of realism in food is another sign of simulacra. The term ‘authentic’ for the curry does not refer to an origin or birthplace, but to a system of simulation. I have tried to illustrate the process of this simulation by Baudrillard’s 4-stages of ‘faithful/ archival’, ‘perversion’ ‘pretense’ and ‘pure’. The intention here was to undermine the already intuitive notion of the ‘Real’ which we may unknowingly entertain as remnants of Platonic metaphysics. Here the ‘Real’ is not outside of us in some transcendental realm against which we can compare our imperfect models but has become the model itself outside of which there is nothing but itself to compare it to.
I also introduced the phenomenological and teleological attitudes of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘aon’ as facilitators of the model’s succession. ‘Simulation’ is not only replicated in the gastronomic language of realism, where foods are ‘authentic’, ‘traditional’, or ‘natural’ but also in the spaces we symbolically and literally consume it. From the restaurants that promote the location of their cuisine, exclusively identifying themselves with a country or culture, to supermarkets that have designated ‘world’ or ‘ethnic’ food aisles, where foodstuffs are re-organized according to a particular model of geo-political reality. Baudrillard tells us that in simulacrum the model precedes reality. This was illustrated through the various stages of Baudrillard’s conversion of the ‘Real’ to the ‘Unreal’. Whilst I have limited myself to a brief history of the curry I believe there is ample room for development of simulacrum in food. For example, the conformity of fruit and vegetables to preordained standards, which means symmetry, size and colour are guaranteed. Edible ‘defects’ such as misshaping, or significant variation in size/ weight are eliminated at source so the consumer receives a uniform experience (UNECE, 2011). Here the model of the tomato or onion precedes the reality of the variations one finds, yet we have an archetype of what they must look like in order to re-create an ‘authentic’ dish. It is not so much that foods come ‘ready-made’, but that ‘reality’ must also have this convenience.
About the Author
Ben Trubody completed his PhD: Sloppy Thinking: To What Extent Can Philosophy Contribute to the Public Understanding of Science? at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. He is a lecturer in philosophy for the Worker’s Education Association. He has published on a wide range of subjects from the phenomenology of Tourette’s Syndrome to the philosophy of expertise. His main research interests are continental European philosophy and post-positivist philosophy of science (broadly construed).
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