Volume 11, Number 1 (January, 2014)
Author: Lucy-Jayne Bloomer Davies
From Roland Barthes in the 1950s up to critical theory today, food in the media, it seems, forms a catalyst for considerations of anything from class and gender struggles to a sign of ‘liberation’ through the advancement of technology, and with it the potential to ‘share’ food on a global scale. In addition to this there appears to be a tendency to consider food in the media in a way once afforded to sex; bringing with it the term ‘food pornography’. What this research addresses is why food pornography has, perhaps, replaced ‘traditional’ pornography as the new home for desire and with it created a new realm for critical enquiry. It is this imagining of a relocation of desire that appears to have opened a space for a resurgence of critical theories considering commodification and fetishisation; synonymous with Marxist theories of alienation. Adopting Jean Baudrillard’s four orders of simulacra, understood as his project of ‘follow[ing]…all the major dimensions of Western culture’ (Gane, 2000: 34), this research traces food pornography through the media and academia. Included in this research is the capricious coverage in magazines and social networking sites, ‘warnings’ of the potential dangers of excessive consumption of images of food and reflections on the ‘truth’ behind this ‘phenomenon’ posited by academics utilising pre-existing theories. Through this process of revealing the atmosphere around food pornography and food in the media in general, this research then moves to considerations of disenchantment as a symptom of ‘progressive’ Western modernity. This idea of disenchantment as a social anxiety, emerging via food in the media, will then be addressed in relation to Baudrillard’s later work on disappearance bringing with it the Nietzschean idea of the importance of hope over fulfillment and, in its Baudrillardian consideration: vital illusion over ‘truth’ or ‘reality’. It is here that this research, through developing several recent examples of food in the media, considers the position and more interestingly the function of critical theory today, in the post-critical West, where the ground for critique appears smaller and increasingly unstable.
II. What makes food pornographic?
Perhaps pornography is only an allegory, that is to say forcing signs, a baroque enterprise of over-signification touching on the ‘grotesque’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 28).
When tracing the use of the term ‘food pornography’, academic and food media expert, Signe Rousseau, dates the earliest use in 1977 when it appeared as ‘gastro porn’ in the New York Review of Books [suggested by Rousseau to be a ‘variant’ of ‘food porn’. At this time ‘gastro porn’ was described as having the ability to induce a ‘sense of the unattainable by proffering coloured photographs of various completed recipes’ (Cockburn, in Rousseau, 2012a: 74). Since this description some thirty six years ago, attempts to define it have taken the form of various lines of enquiry. For example, does using the word ‘pornography’ serve to conjure sexual connotations; is food the new sex? Is there an element of voyeurism involved, in that the consumption of food images in the media could quite easily outweigh ‘actual’ eating? Or, perhaps, does the pornographic element relate, instead, to the celebrity chef and the performance of food preparation by the likes of Nigella Lawson; the go-to cook when considering food as a metaphor for sex? This then leads to questions about the cult of the celebrity now present in the more ‘humble’ aspects of daily life from cooking to property improvement. On considering the ‘celebrity chef’ Rousseau writes, ‘it has…become quite normal for chefs to become famous with the same kind of ‘wealth, glitz and attention as more traditional celebrities like movie stars and musicians’ (Rousseau, 2012a: ix). The primary purpose of these initial lines of enquiry is to demonstrate just where one can go when confronted with the term ‘food pornography’. It also helps initiate thinking on the limitations of engaging with food pornography at this superficial level by attempting to address it dialectically with what are, ultimately, the same things: products of consumer capitalism. By placing food pornography in conversation with ‘traditional’ pornography and celebrity culture, it seems the expected outcome is to discover some ‘truth’ about sex, pleasure and desire, themselves, this research will argue, products of this same system.
In Marxist theory, and taking inspiration from the Frankfurt School, pornography is addressed as an alienation of basic human desire; a fetishisation of our most base urges as a means of exploitation and, ultimately, power over the working class. Pornography and exploitation are also synonymous in Feminist theory but with a focus on the struggles of women and gender inequality. Indeed both Marxist and Feminist theories will be addressed in relation to food pornography as it seems food, like sex, receives similar attention as a tool for the bourgeoisie or patriarchy to distance the working class and women, respectively, from mastering their ‘true’ needs; keeping each in a position of subordination. What such theories often neglect to ask, however, is if women in contemporary Western societies (and with thanks to the work of Feminism) are now ‘liberated’, sharing ‘equal’ rights with men, where they may adopt the more traditional roles of housewife and mother or be a CEO of a major corporation, can we say that food pornography ensnares women? If we are no longer sure of what working class is, when traditional signs of affluence associated with the bourgeoisie: cars, property, an attractive body or an education, are available to ‘everyone’, through an economy built on credit and debt, there needs to be an alternative approach to addressing food pornography. Indeed this focus on food pornography and the alienation of desire in both Marxist and Feminist theory occupies the early stages of this research; from Roland Barthes in the 1950s, Feminist writings in the 1980s, up to academics still publishing this kind of critique in the last ten years.
By eventually departing from such critiques, however, this research will then attempt to go ‘beyond’ class and gender politics and address food pornography, not as a means of alienation and exploitation of desire but, rather, signaling the loss of the ‘illusion of desire’ (Baudrillard, 2005a: 25). Indeed it was Baudrillard who suggested that, ‘[i]n porn, nothing is left to desire’ (2005a:25). Further to this, in Baudrillardian thought, ‘the principle of need itself is ideological: ‘true’ and ‘false’ needs cannot be ultimately distinguished’(Pawlett, 2007: 29). This is not to say, however, that writers no longer dedicate time and energy to exploring how our ‘true’ desires are still, despite the supposed ‘liberation’ of just about every thinkable (and perhaps unthinkable) desire, out of our control. This line of enquiry, now that no one perhaps believes in traditional pornography anymore, has seemingly shifted to considerations of pornography elsewhere; be it food, property, science or torture to name a few, as if desire has simply relocated. What this research aims to address however is the ‘loss’ of desire and with it any potential mystery; evidenced perhaps in media and academic endeavours to keep it alive by suggesting it is still to be found; still to be ‘liberated’ in a modern society proud of its ‘freedom’. It is in this consideration that food pornography will be addressed, not as a means of uncovering dominant ideologies pertaining to class and gender, but in its own right as a symbol of Western modernity and a product of the ‘perfection’ strived for with technological and epistemological advances. With this in mind, by interrogating food in the media and academia, we may go some way to beginning thinking on the implausibility of suggesting that food pornography ‘blocks’ ‘true’ desire when desire, itself a product of the law of value, is free to roam within the same system that decries its removal as a means of alienation.
III. Food pornography: In the Media
I am talking about overgrowth, instead of growth [i]t is obvious in the production of information and communication, in material goods and sexual contacts: this is the overproduction that doesn’t any more know what it’s for but for the moment finds a sort of logic in its own proliferation (Baudrillard, in Gane, 1993: 43).
Before presenting examples of various academic readings of food pornography, it is necessary to address the appearance of food pornography in the media in terms of conception, use and criticisms; both amateur and professional. It is the notion of ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ as distinct categories of media production that brings about the Baudrillardian definition of the media which, perhaps, differs from other media studies approaches. Baudrillard suggests, ‘media are a central mode of social control and integration in consumer society (Pawlett, 2007: 24). Further to this and as alluded to previously, Baudrillard’s writings on the media ‘does not reiterate the Frankfurt School attacks on the ‘mass’ media as producing isolation and alienation….arguing that they are inadequate to an analysis of contemporary culture’ (2007: 24); contemporary culture being proud of its ability to integrate and ‘make room’ for ‘everyone’ and ‘anyone’. That said, this research will provide space to address ‘inadequate’ theories as a means of understanding media today; described by William Merrin as Baudrillard’s ‘McLuhanist strategy of reworking ideas to reapply and rediscover new meanings and possibilities within them’ (Merrin, 2005: 64). Indeed Pawlett reiterates this when writing on the four orders of simulacra, suggesting ‘[n]o ‘end’ dates can be given for the orders…[i]nstead, each order is supplemented by another as its energy or ‘principle’ is weakened or undermined’ (Pawlett, 2007: 72). It is this ‘interplay’ (2007: 71) that will be considered when addressing academic writing on food pornography and the appearance food in the media today; suggesting that there is no point in which theories become wholly outdated or that they cease to exist, but how reincarnation through new publications signals a shift in energy between the four orders.
Returning to food pornography in the media then, when considering contemporary media studies and indeed pornography the conclusive place to begin is the internet, perhaps the home of pornography since mass use of the internet began. A ‘Google’ search in March 2013 using the word ‘porn’, finds a choice of 1.38 billion search results in approximately twelve seconds. A second ‘Google’ search shortly after and using the words ‘food porn’ provides 249 million search results in the same time which, although not quite at the same level as ‘traditional’ pornography, suggests that it certainly has a considerable online presence. Searching through some of the pages (and pages) of ‘food porn’ results there appears to be no sex pornography sites lurking but instead websites, books, journal articles and online newspaper archives dedicated to thinking about this ‘phenomenon’.
Of the journal articles consulted, some focus on the ‘performance’ of food pornography: ‘[t]he chef starts building the viewer’s expectations and hunger…every gesture, raised eyebrow, and licked lip a sign of what’s to come’ (Chan, 2003: 47-53). Others take inspiration from ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception (Adorno  1972)’ from the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer: ‘[t]he Culture Industry perpetually cheats its consumers… [with]…the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of’ (Adorno & Horkheimer in LeBesco & Naccarato, 2008: 223). Going on to confirm their position that ‘Adorno and Horkheimer…expose the illusory nature of [the culture industry’s] promises…’ (2008: 223). There are also semiotic analyses taking inspiration from Roland Barthes with focus on the play of ‘substance as surface, surface as substance’ (Tisdale, in Magee, 2007). This piece then moves to an analysis of setting and the celebrity chef, for example discussing how the ambience of Martha Stuart is crafted by ‘floral colours provid[ing] a warmth that contrasts with the suggested coldness of the outside’ (Magee, 2007) and how ‘food icons that capture our attention…fall easily into two opposing kitchens: food Puritanism and food pornography’ (Magee, 2007). The piece consulted, in keeping with its Barthean critique, offers what is fundamentally Sausserean semiotics; that of ‘barring’ and ‘separation’ (signifier/signified) particular to the crafting of meaning in Western modernity. In the example used we have an obvious split: warm/cold, but more in keeping with the dominant morality (mainly Christian) food Puritanism/food pornography; kept separate as if unable to interact and an example of this barring of the antagonism between what we can identify as Good (pure) and Evil (porn). It is here that we may witness the inadequacies of this kind of semiotic analysis: within the first and second orders of simulacra but not quite able to account for occurrences in the third. If however, we were to address this in the third order we would need to consider the ‘sexual explosion’ (Baudrillard, 2007: 143) in consumerism where, ‘[s]exuality is ‘at the forefront’’ (2007: 143). Where women can adopt the role of both ‘homemaker’ and ‘porn star’ by subscribing to appropriate lifestyles and buying the proper goods on a high street where Marks & Spencer’s stands opposite Anne Summers. This is not to say that this signals the removal of the barring of interplay between Good and Evil, where we are all ‘free’ to do whatever we like. Indeed Pawlett suggests this to be a display of ‘secur[ing] assimilation at the level of form by parading ‘diversity’ at the level of content’ (Pawlett, 2007: 111). This is where then we may consider the ambiguity of fashion; Baudrillard suggests, when thinking on fashion and the body, ‘[i]f the body appears as a type of obscenity, of a purely sexual demand, it is finished. Fashion must continually play with that’ (Baudrillard, in Gane, 1993: 65). The play of fashion then, inherent in consumerism, becomes a process of reconfiguration of what is Good and what is Evil at the level of sign in a system where consumers have ‘been taught to look for things’ (1993: 46) that the system will always be able to provide. If you want to be a porn star on Tuesday and a housewife on Wednesday this can happen; it is vital, even, to the entire illusion of choice in the consumer system, bringing to mind Baudrillard again, ‘the only drive that is really liberated is the drive to buy’ (Baudrillard, in Pawlett, 2007: 91).
When researching the work of other writers in food media, Warren Belasco, editor of online Food Culture and Society journal and described as ‘A Food Pioneer’ is among one of the most published in his field. In addition to this Belasco runs a Food Studies course at The University of Maryland where he is Professor of American Studies. The course includes ‘an appreciation of how food creates community and identity…[and]…the problems with meat production, animal rights, environment and the obesity epidemic’. Belasco has also written extensively with such titles as Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (Belasco, 2007). and Americans on the road: from autocamp to motel, 1910-1945 (Belasco, 1997). His book Food: the Key Concepts (Belasco, 2008) is ‘a required text for food study courses at a number of universities’. The opening lines of the book read ‘[w]elcome to food studies! Food is the first of the essentials of life’ (2008: 1). He later quotes sociologist Gary Alan Fine, ‘[f]ood reveals our souls’ (Fine, in Belasco, 2008: 1). Indeed this ‘revelation of the soul’ through food is quite common; for example in The Sex Life of Food (Crumpacker, 2006) this sentiment is repeated, ‘[f]ood is our first comfort, our first reward. Hunger is our first frustration…[w]e discover pleasure’ (2006: 3-4). It seems it is this linking of food to sex, and ultimately desire and pleasure that motivates the majority of writing on food pornography and indeed where the term derives most of its current meaning.
Moving to social networking, Twitter, for example, houses hundreds (if not more by now) of accounts dedicated to food pornography and the sexual connotations are far from subtle. For example there is‘@ItsFoodPorn: Food food glorious food. Follow me and I promise to make you hungry’; ‘@FoodPornWars: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’, and even parody accounts: ‘@crappyfoodporn If you didn’t ask yourself, Does this look like a poop? before you posted your food porn, we’re probably tweeting about you’. The latter ‘anti-food pornography’ parody accounts could indeed suggest a ‘backlash’ to the food pornography ‘craze’ but more obviously signal its success and acceptance at a time where the use of parody and irony regularly breathe new life into what could be a disappearing trend or genre.
The general ‘trend’ of food pornography on Twitter appears to be little more than amateur photographers sharing images of their supper with the rest of the internet or users trawling the internet to find the ‘perfect’ professionally shot photographs of food to ‘share’, like bread around a table, with other users. Whether for or against, sharing photographs of food is competitive, none of the accounts observed (or followed) ask for anything other than to be ‘Followed’ and it is as relentless and disenchanted as its ‘sexual’ counterpart. When writing on the vacuousness of viewing pornography, Pawlett writes, ‘[s]trip away the illusions, the rules, the rituals, the veils and you get…nothing’ (Pawlett, 2007: 92). The same can be said of food pornography, take away the ritual of eating, the rules of ‘not consuming too much’, the social bonds (even if brief and only a few times a year) formed over a family meal, and you are left with an little more than an inability to stop mindlessly clicking on images of ‘perfect’ plates of food. As in the climax in ‘traditional’ pornography one can only hope for internet failure to release viewers from its grip.
In keeping with considerations of the similarities to ‘traditional’ pornography, food pornography needs a camera and a producer. Food pornography online, it seems, is greatly aided by sharing site ‘Instagram’, posing as ‘a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your photos with friends and family’ whilst inspiring the term ‘foodstagramming’ which has, unsurprisingly, attracted media attention (http://instagram.com/). The attention, as one would expect, is from journalists attempting to ‘make sense’ of the ‘phenomenon’ of photographing food to share with anyone and everyone (who has internet access). Weekly fashion magazine Grazia included an article by journalist Rebecca Seal in a March 2013 issue ‘Since When Did We All Become Food Paparazzi?’. The article refers to the ‘critical mass’ that is ‘foodstagram’ whilst including the go to cause of many media sensations: ‘[y]ou could blame celebs for kicking off this trend’. After one or two other attempts at sense-making through allusions to status anxiety: ‘restaurants have become the ‘see and be seen’ destinations’, the piece concludes with a list of things to do and not do in pursuit of perfect photographs. It seems the rest of the article was a mere flirtation with criticism before it could get back to the serious business of how to produce food pornography. Outside of the United Kingdom, geographically at least, The New York Times published a piece, in January 2013, by Helene Stapinski, ‘Restaurants Turn Camera Shy’ documenting the apparent ‘backlash’ to producing food pornography in public. The piece documents chefs banning it altogether, ‘[photographing food] totally disrupts the ambience’ to offering a service whereby they will photograph your food for you using professional techniques and producing ‘perfect’ shots; a clever manoeuvre given the advertisement potential. What is most interesting about this particular article, however, is its use of the recognised ‘mental health condition’ obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), added to the concluding lines of the article (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Obsessive-compulsive-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx). It makes the link that documenting what you eat with regularity is symptomatic of an illness, like an eating disorder or substance addiction. In its arrival into the mainstream media, food pornography, it seems, has also been delivered into the hands of psychologists and ‘behavioural experts’.
American news broadcaster, ABC, included a piece on their website dealing with ‘The Food Porn Problem’ by Theresa O’Rourke of Women’s Health magazine (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_DietAndFitness/food-porn-problem/story?id=17413303#.UVrrhxxJOd9). The piece contains the same format of statistics as the Grazia and The New Yorker articles and includes proclamations of ‘awareness’ as to what images of food really are (pornography) : ‘[i]t’s your classic money shot, the camera tight to reveal every detail of steamy cinnamon buns drizzled just so.’ The ‘difference’ here is that, rather than offer advice on procuring better food pornography, the piece warns of the ‘real emotional and physical hunger response that can be tough to control’ whilst using research by neuroscientists and introducing the ‘phenomenon’ of ‘supernormal stimuli’ to presumably give the piece credit [‘Supernormal stimuli’ is described in the article as, ‘exaggerat[ing] qualities we are already hardwired to love’].. As with the other ‘non-scientific’ pieces, the ABC piece also culminates in ways to ‘enjoy’ food pornography despite the suggested dangers. On thinking on psychoanalysis and the need to analyse any new ‘phenomenon’, Baudrillard suggests, ‘[i]t satisfies a sort of dizziness for explanations, for self-obsession and for reproducing itself’ (Gane, 1993: 45). ‘Everyone’, to use the sweeping description exhibited by advertisers in the West, it seems, has something to say about images of food.
On reflecting on food pornography and psychological discourse a recent lecture hosted by The University of Wolverhampton’s Psychology Department comes to mind. In February 2013, Dr Steve Brown from the University of Derby presented research findings on ‘The effect of food presentation on expected satiety, hunger/fullness and subsequent consumption’. During the talk months of research was presented centred around, as the title suggests, how the presentation of food affected participants hunger and satiety; research that, no doubt, would be fascinating reading to the advertising departments of supermarket chains. This aside, what this lecture and indeed the psychiatrisation of food pornography online suggests is that hunger much like desire and need, serves as great source of interest and study. As if hunger/desire/need are a secret, the way to know somebody and, given the Western tendency to discover, to gain knowledge to realise more and more about the world, it is a secret that will sooner or later, one way or another, be revealed. It seems hunger is also occupying areas of interest in other media texts; included in a March 2013 issue of Weight Watchers Magazine, for example, is an article offering tips on ‘[c]onquering hedonic hunger’ (March 2013: 74-75). Writer Peta Bee documented her experience as a participant in a scientific study of the brain which included ‘an MRI scanner…fast[ing] for 18 hours, while for 60 minutes images of food and drink flash before [her] eyes.’ This study, it is reported, is part of ‘cutting-edge science in the emerging field of hedonic hunger’ which seeks to uncover how the brain interprets images of food (and here we may consider food pornography) in relation to the compulsion to then eat the food. The word ‘compulsion’ has been selected here with good reason in that Bee goes on to explain that the study seeks to address why, when shown an image of a doughnut, for example, you experience the overwhelming desire to ‘have that doughnut and…have it now.’ Much like the research presented by Brown, what this article reiterates is this need to know how images of food and hunger affects us. The fact that is speaks of ‘compulsion’ is merely a confirmation of the media’s tendency to sensationalise every aspect of life mixed with the fact that this piece is aimed at overweight women who, perhaps identify themselves, through a process of being identified, as compulsive eaters. In the media one cannot be hungry, one must be ravenous. No longer are reported cases of anorexia ‘rising’, it is an ‘epidemic’. For Baudrillard, the more we ‘realise’ the world, the more ‘looming’, ‘rich’ and ‘diverse’ we attempt to make it, the more it signals not only its disappearance but our own. Baudrillard writes, ‘[t]his is the moment when human beings, while setting about analysing and transforming the world, take their leave of it…[and]…[b]y their exceptional faculty for knowledge…begin a process of dissolution’ (Baudrillard, 2011: 11).Indeed when considering the third order of hyperreality, Pawlett writes of Baudrillard’s interest in ‘DNA, DIGITALITY AND THE TEST’ and echoes this notion of ‘disappearance’ by writing of how, ‘the cycles of meaning become infinitely shorter in the cycles of the question/answer’ (Baudrillard, in Pawlett, 2007: 79). Further to this is the notion that ‘DNA…embodies…the moment when the code is ‘discovered’ within’ (2007: 78). Indeed Baudrillard, when thinking on, ‘[t]he mathematically minded Leibniz’ (McLuhan, in Baudrillard, 2002: 57) considers DNA to be the ‘prophet’ of ‘digitality’ (Baudrillard, 2002: 57).
IV. Food Pornography: The Hunt for Desire
[I]t was only a matter of time before a desire as essential and physical as food would be co-opted by capitalism’s most profitable avenue…[f]ood porn, like sex porn, like voyeurism, are all measures of alienation (McBride, in Rousseau, 2012a: 75).
[S]urely you aren’t going to run down the class struggle in the eyes of those who haven’t had their bourgeois revolution? (Baudrillard, 1996: 95).
If, as previously discussed, scientific study sees pleasure and desire, in this case in relation to food pornography, as products of DNA and brain activity then it is important to address how academia is also tracking desire but with, perhaps, a different motivation. With this in mind then it is important to trace food pornography through historical writings and, in addition to the journal articles and books discussed so far, document various critiques of it. Taking our lead from Baudrillard, the notion underpinning this research is that desire loses its energy in the hyperreality of pornography; be it sex or food, and that by thrusting the pleasures of food and sex into the spotlight we ‘eras[e] all..secrets and ambiguity…[via]…the hyperreality of the image’ (Baudrillard, 2005a: 25). It is here that it seems most fitting to present some other key research findings on food pornography in academic considerations as a means of evidencing what seems to be a ‘tracking down’ of desire; beginning with the most recent. We previously encountered, albeit briefly, Signe Rousseau, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and whose research areas include food media, celebrity chefs, Guy Debord, Karl Marx and spectacle. Having had two books published just months before this research began, it seemed Rousseau was one of the leading writers in the academic study of food media and could, therefore, offer insight into current thought around the subject. The first book: Food Media: Celebrity Chefs And The Politics of Everyday Interference (Rousseau, 2012a) includes a section simply titled ‘Food Porn’ (pp. 74-78). Unsurprisingly given Rousseau’s critical interests; sex, food, desire and need appear synonymous with commodification, fetishisation and alienation. Rousseau writes, ‘as much as pornography revolves around fantasy, its industry also relies on the non-satisfaction of that fantasy in order to keep consumers coming back for more’ (2012a: 77-78). Indeed, as one might not expect, similar Marxist lines of thinking appear, somewhat erroneously, in considerations of Baudrillard’s work on the hyperreality of pornography. Baudrillard scholars Douglas Kellner and Steven Best, when writing on pornography, suggest: ‘porno videos stimulate libido in abstraction from the problems of real relations’ (Best & Kellner, 1997: 102). The use of the word ‘stimulates’ brings to mind the Marxist use of the word ‘alienation’, both suggesting a somewhat ‘truer’ desire than anything experienced in ‘reality’. ‘Stimulation’ suggests that sexual desire is something base, something un-real, lurking ‘underneath’ social/personal codes and conventions and yet in Baudrillardian thought there is no ‘underneath’; not in the radical or vital illusion of symbolic exchange nor simulation in ‘reality’: all ‘vital for human existence’ (Gane, 2000: 34). Indeed Pawlett also writes about pornography in relation to Baudrillard’s work on the body and sexuality. Immediately different from Kellner and Best, far from even beginning to address desire and need in relation to the ‘fakeness’ of pornography, Pawlett writes, ‘[f]or Baudrillard the body is understood as ‘cultural fact’, not as…biological or natural ‘fact’’ (Pawlett, 2007: 92). If we consider this in relation to need and desire then, Rousseau, Kellner and Best’s notions that desire is either ‘removed’ and made fetish or ‘stimulated’, suggests that our bodies exist outside the culture in which they appear. Even further to this, it suggests each has its own secret desire lying in wait. Pawlett continues, ‘in capitalist societies…the body [is] a form of capital owned by the individual. Yet it is also fetish’ (2007: 92). In this sense then the least of our concerns should be whether desire ‘belongs’ to us in considering a system whereby we cannot even lay claim to our own bodies. It is indeed this way of thinking that has Baudrillard accused of ‘demoraliz[ing] the masses’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 95) by, as the opening quote to this section states, ‘run[ning] down the class struggle…[or]…discredit[ing] feminist…demands’ (1996: 95). Interestingly, however, Baudrillard responds by suggesting that ‘[u]nderlying…charitable intentions is a profound contempt…[and]…by imputing this plaster-saint realism to [the masses], one takes them for naïve and feeble minded’ (1996: 95). This research is not primarily concerned with dictating the feebleness of the minds of others who write on food pornography and yet there is an element of reservedness, perhaps blind earnestness even, in still seeking to adopt critical concepts crafted by Marx in the 1860s or even the Frankfurt School in the 1940s.
Another writer consulted for this research was journalist and Professor of Journalism at Roehampton University, Rosalind Coward, and in particular a section in her book Female Desire (Coward, 1984). This particular text was selected as it is the earliest found use of the term ‘food pornography’ in academic consideration making it prime for comparisons with Rousseau some 28 years later. Where Coward’s work differs is in its overtly feminist critique of food photography in magazines aimed at women and with particular focus on weight-loss magazines. Coward refers to how magazines aimed at women and weight loss include images of ‘croissants with butter…[and]…exquisitely prepared bacon and eggs’ accompanied by ‘sinister messages’ of calorie content (1984: 101). Coward then goes on to suggest, like others before and after her, that ‘the reader looks on these pleasures in the full knowledge that they had better not be indulged’ (1984: 101). Similar to Rousseau et al, Coward adds, in the introduction to her book, ‘[t]o be a women…[is]…to have our desire constantly courted’ (1984: 13). Later, when writing specifically about food pornography, she suggests ‘food photography [is] meant to stimulate…desire’ (1984: 101-102). What Coward aims to do with this piece is offer a similar Marxist critique but rather than suggest that food pornography serves as a means of reinforcing the dominance of the bourgeoisie she instead makes clear her view that ‘pornographies are creating and indulging ‘pleasures’ which confirm or trap men and women in their respective positions of power and subordination’ (1984: 102). What is interesting here, is that by ignoring the very notion of gender, itself a construct and constraint, and by suggesting that there is such a thing as ‘female desire’, measured therefore against ‘other desires’, themselves subjected to laws of value, Coward re-inscribes women within the dominant system of thought that this piece seemingly sought to challenge.
Indeed when writing on feminism and indeed the feminine, Baudrillard warns of the ‘sexual revolution for the female’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 6) adding that, as evidenced by Coward, ‘she will be enclosed within a structure that condemns her either to discrimination when the structure is strong, or a derisory triumph within a weakened structure’ (1990:6). A structure that will give the victory of ‘freedom’ to women if freedom has indeed been outlined in a list of demands; for example, being able to look at images of food without feeling guilt or having ‘free’ sex without social stigma; the price to pay being the very disappearance of women. Pawlett offers a rather stark reminder of the ‘derisory’ triumphs of the women’s ‘liberation’ in response to feminists who condemned Baudrillard for wanting to ‘confin[e] women to traditional roles’ (Pawlett, 2007: 5):
‘When Baudrillard argued that the women’s liberation movement risked worsening social pressure on women if it ‘liberated’ them according to existing models of sexuality, he was denounced as a sexist creep…yet in the age of size zero and models dying of anorexia, of omnipresent lap dancing clubs and teenage lesbianism deployed in TV ratings wars…of pre-pubescent girls wearing ‘Porn star’…t’shirts…Baudrillard’s arguments have been reappraised’ (2007: 5).
For Baudrillard then, [t]he feminine…has always been…somewhere else. That is the secret of its strength’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 6). Therefore attempts and indeed ‘successes’, in being ‘equal’ to a structure where all otherness is eradicated through either absorption (for example, women ‘being like men’ in terms of ambitions, signs of success, etc) or ‘triumphs’ that see women in a new phase of entrapment, are made worse by the fact that women are told that this is what they fought for. The disappearance of women, then, occurs through an exchange of the feminine for signs of ‘freedom’, predetermined by a structure that was just waiting for women to ask.
Further to this, now that women are ‘equal’, patriarchy and indeed the masculine can be seen to have ‘disappeared’ too, in as much as the ground for criticising them has been altered; posited by Baudrillard as ‘non-differentiation and neutralisation’ making the task of criticism harder and harder. ‘Equal’ enjoyment of food pornography, uninvestigated by Coward, for example, is depicted by Rousseau, ‘the way some of my friends talk about food…I hear they sit up in bed with their partners…having a good hard look at the pictures’ (Glover, in Rousseau, 2012a: 75). Rousseau does not mention if they are same-sex relationships or heterosexual relationships but the point is gender is not even a factor; as if it goes without saying that gender is no longer the subject of criticism. Adding to this, the content on Twitter does not have an overtly male or female position in terms of producers and consumers, confirming that it is not just starved women staring at pictures of food, produced by other starved women in the shadow of well fed dominant males that food pornography targets. Indeed, eating disorders in men (with such names as manorexia) are apparently rising to ‘epidemic’ levels in the glare of the media [http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/14051772 (no longer active 2018): ‘The NHS says there’s been a 66% increase in hospital admissions in England for male eating disorders over the last 10 years’]. Mental health discourse, it seems, has created space for men too confirming, what many may have suspected all along: there is enough pressure, suffering and misery to go around and that attempts at gendering food pornography no longer off an adequate means of addressing it in the contemporary media landscape.
The point of addressing food pornography somewhat chronologically, beginning with the most recent, was to evidence the fact that nothing particularly new, in relation to the ever-expanding media landscape, seems to have appeared since Roland Barthes’ collection of essays in Mythologies, first published in French 1957 and in English in 1972. Of course Barthes’ work does not account for food pornography in the age of digital photography and ‘Photoshopping’, given the time it was written, and yet by comparison to more recent critiques of food pornography Barthes’ work seems remarkably up to date. Indeed, this is also perhaps a tribute to Barthes’ work and clear linguistic and interrogative skills, evidenced in his continued use in semiotics and media studies, but more to the point it is a denouncement of the work produced more recently; including even Coward’s work from the 1980s. In an essay entitled ‘Ornamental Cookery’ (pp. 88-91), for example, Barthes describes the food photography in Elle as ‘‘idea’ cookery… whose… consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking…a cuisine of advertisement…widely read by small-income groups’ (Barthes, 2009: 90-91). Indeed, we can, quite easily identify Baudrillard’s first and second orders of simulacra at work, whilst taking steps towards the third order of sign-value (given his area of study: Elle and advertising). Barthes’ famously adopts the classic Marxian notion of use-value being an ideological tool for those with a vested interest in exchange-value within market relations (the petit-bourgeois), suggesting that photographs of food in magazines are based on ‘coatings and alibis…to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs’ (2009: 89). Moving on from use and exchange value, however, in another essay, ‘Steak and Chips’ (Ibid.: 69-71), Barthes’ writing can be said to move, in retrospect, to considerations of food in the third order of hyper-reality; valued at the level of sign. Barthes writes, ‘[s]teak is a part of the same sanguine mythology as wine’ (2009: 69). Indeed, for Barthes, both steak and wine are ‘the alimentary sign[s] of Frenchness’ (2009: 71).
The difference then between Barthes’ and, in particular, Rousseau and Coward, is that each saw their work emerging in post-critical society; where the energy and conviction afforded to being critical is somewhat tempered by the assertion that ‘everybody’ is a critic. Any yet it seems it is only Barthes who fully engages with it and whose post-critical predictions we will address shortly. Indeed in her second book, Food and Social Media: You Are What You Tweet (Rousseau, 2012b), Rousseau includes a chapter entitled ‘Everyone is a Critic (but Who Is This ‘Everyone’?)’ (pp. 51-68), perhaps symptomatic of an anxiety that, in post-critical society where, indeed, ‘everyone’ is thought to be a critic, one needs to be able to keep up. In the same book’s introduction, Rousseau speaks of the dangers of user-generated restaurant reviews to professional reviewers who ‘increasingly have to defend their livelihoods against a plethora of amateur voices’ (2012b: xi). It is this that perhaps explains Rousseau’s tendency to document rather than interrogate food pornography and why, when writing on her work, there is not much to address in terms of food pornography outside of tried and tested Marxist theory and even this is tentative, as if not entirely sure it is still working but unsure of where to go instead. Indeed, anyone who wishes, as was necessary for this research, to read what academics are writing with regard to food and social media, specifically Twitter, will find this book a useful source of statistics and online observations; beyond that, however, it offers none of the courage required when interrogating media.
In thinking on how to adopt a position in a post-critical era another recently published book on the topic of Twitter by journalist and ‘Twitter celebrity’, Grace Dent, offers a perhaps more contemporary example. The example can be found in the description of her book, via its title: How to Leave Twitter – My Time as Queen of the Universe. And Why This Must Stop (Dent, 2011). Some two years after its publication and whilst still very active on Twitter, Dent, on March 16th 2013, replied to the following tweet: ‘Damn this book is having the opposite effect for such a suggestive title’ with ‘NO SUCCESS CASES TO DATE’ (https://twitter.com/gracedent/status/312916425155178496). In the post-everything, ironic, ‘liberated’ environment that is the mass media today, it is clear that the ultimate success of Dent’s book lies within its failure. As previously mentioned, Barthes predicted this general awareness of previously mystifying practices within the media and culture when revisiting his work in Mythologies adding, ‘any student can denounce the bourgeois[ie]… demystification…has itself become a discourse, a corpus of phrases, a catechistic statement’ (Barthes, in Allen, 2003: 65). Indeed, with Dent’s book we can see that, and returning to Barthes, ‘[t]o instill into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks…becomes a paradoxical…means of exalting it’ (Barthes: 2009: 39). It is not just Barthes who revisited his work in this way and, in what we may suggest is ‘post-Debord’ society, Marxist and founding member of the Situationist International, Guy Debord ([1967 1977), revisited his most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle over twenty years after its initial publication. Upon reflecting on the work, Debord suggested that ‘integrated spectacle shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse…never to be occupied by a known leader, or clear ideology’ (Debord, 1998: 9). Baudrillard also offers insight on post-critical society, ‘[s]ay: This is a simulacrum, you are merely a simulacrum, this war is a simulacrum – everyone bursts out laughing. With forced, condescending laughter…as though at a childish joke’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 95).
The vision and courage, then, lies in making attempts to understand what it is that induces this laughter beyond some hazy suggestion that it is a result of ‘postmodernity’ where ‘anything goes’. Baudrillard writes, ‘[n]o one believes fundamentally in the real, nor in the self-evidence of their real lives…[t]hat would be too sad’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 95). This perhaps explains why, in 2012, we can find academics still seeking to ‘discover’ the world through addressing food pornography when Barthes did it rather comprehensively in the 1950s. There appears to be a resistance to merely believing in, therefore accepting ‘reality’ as it is now, in the spotlight of ‘truth’ thanks to technological advancement and attention given to experimentation, discovery and progress, all traits of the West. This consideration then opens space to suggest that an awareness that there really is little left to discover, signals the cycle of discovery attempting to start again, actively ‘forgetting’ that it has perhaps gone as far as it can go within this logic:
‘For what is proper to human beings is not to realise all their possibilities, it is of the essence of the technological object to exhaust its possibilities…and even to go quite some way beyond them, staking out in that way the definitive demarcation line between technical objects and human beings, to the point of deploying an infinite operational potential against human beings themselves and implying, sooner or later, their disappearance’ (Baudrillard, 2011: 15)
V. Food, Media and the Fourth Order: The Task of Re-enchantment
Intense hope is a much stronger stimulant to life than any single instance of happiness which actually occurs (Nietzsche, 1978: 133, Aphorism 23).
In what was the golden age of joyful disillusionment, we carried out the critique of all illusions (Baudrillard, 1996: 27).
At this stage, research findings, as we have discussed, have occupied the somewhat crowded realm of considering food pornography in the first and second orders. Where desire and pleasure exist in some other-worldly place removed from the harsh ‘realities’ of daily life. What this section aims to do then is address food pornography (or more to the point at this stage: food in the media) today by using a particular advertisement still in circulation at the time of writing. Before doing this, however, it is worth noting the work of Baudrillard scholar Gary Genosko who produced a critique of food and the media in relation to the third order of hyperreality; something we have not yet addressed in any explicit way. It is this that will aid thinking on food in the fourth order, where this research sees the media currently grappling with ‘reality’.
In an essay entitled, ‘Better than Butter’ Genosko focuses his attentions on the relationship crafted between butter and margarine in the third order of simulacra. Genosko writes, ‘[b]oth margarine and butter issue from models…that situates [them] in simulation’ (Genosko 2009 85). In the case of butter, its value as a product for consumption lies in its image, produced and reinforced within the media. Butter today, like margarine, is produced in factories on a large scale and yet still relies on the idealisation of the ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’. Indeed advertisements for butter often focus on rural countryside showing fields and cows which allude to the butter being a product of the same cows’ milk thus natural and traditional. It is here that Genosko takes his lead from Barthes; ‘Operation Margarine’ where ‘[m]argarine’s commercial valorisation takes place on the grounds of its imperfections, as well as its secondariness in relation to butter’ (Genosko, 2009: 83). In identifying the ‘naturalness’ (the ‘Goodness’) of butter, margarine by proxy stands for everything butter is not: synthetic, laden with chemicals, pumped into plastic cartons by machines that replace humans thus stealing jobs. Margarine, therefore, is Evil and it is this identification process that signals its emergence into a new realm of advertising potential whilst protecting the sacredness of butter which has its own specific advertising agenda. Genosko furthers the consideration of the hyperreality of margarine and butter, adding that the dynamic is routinely transformed through ‘market research…and…trends’ (2009: 85). This can be observed through a recent advertisement campaign from the makers of ‘butter substitute’, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’, whose ‘Cheat on Butter’ tagline brings it up to date in terms of food pornography and the sexualisation of food. It is Genosko’s work on the orchestrated differentiation of butter and margarine and ultimately, the process of inoculation surrounding the identification of the ‘real’ from the ‘fake’, that is of particular interest here when concerned with food in the media today.
As mentioned previously, the arrival at this point in the consideration of food in the media is owed to the other critiques of it so far. If we then take Baudrillard’s ‘McLuhanist strategy’ (Merrin, 2005: 64) and instead of simply ignoring recent work and writing it off as rehashes of the same tried and tested critical theories, we can perhaps begin to consider this work as attempts at returning to this ‘joyful age of disillusionment’, posited by Baudrillard. This age, for Baudrillard (and indeed Barthes and Debord), ‘still left room for a critical consciousness and demystification’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 27). Interestingly, recent attempts (mainly, in terms of this research, anything in the last ten years) at criticising food pornography as the commodification of desires and a process of alienation, do conduct their analyses in the era of virtuality: the fourth order of simulacra, and yet seem to fail to notice. Instead, the internet is treated as a rich source of information that we may then relate back to ‘reality’. It seems then that virtual reality has been subjected to the ‘margarine effect’ as an attempt to keep the energy of ‘reality’ strong and somehow ‘grounded’ and referable to something; nostalgia perhaps for a time where we could say ‘this is real/this is not real’ and then offer a critique of this binary. What is interesting here is how nostalgia now seems to be for a time where we were, supposedly, less fulfilled and less ‘integrated’. A time when women were supposedly more oppressed; for example the 1950s, and the resurgence of the housewife who enjoys knitting and baking. And so people who were not even around in the 1950s begin to display all the signs of the era through clothing, social practices and even moral values. Preferring then a life in hyperreality, with no ‘real’ origin but with at least the illusion of an origin over the alternative, offered by virtual reality.
The final major example, then, takes the form of an advertisement for Somersby cider a product distributed by Danish brewing company Carlsberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3rNQ2pTyAY ). The advertisement is a parody on the customer experience of an Apple Inc. store with the same set up and language one would expect when in the market of technological sales. One of the ‘sales assistants’, for example, holds up one apple whilst instructing her customer that it is ‘single core’ then picking up a second and announcing: ‘dual core’. Other than this play on the ‘similarities’ between Apple technology and ‘real apples’, the advert then parodies the consumption of digital media with the consumption of food and drink. Upon sipping the cider, a customer is told by a member of staff, ‘you’ve downloaded’; the advertisement concludes with the tagline, ‘less apps, more apples’. Aside, then, from listing the clever attempts at playing with the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, how does one begin to critique this text when it seems to know what it is doing? Further to this, if Baudrillard suggests, ‘we are no longer either alienated or dispossessed: we are in possession of all the information…no longer spectators, but actors…increasingly integrated into the course of [the] performance’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 27), how does one gain distance? Interestingly, integration has ‘positive’ connotations in the West; signifying ‘equality’, ‘peace’, ‘kinship’ through a process of ‘realising’ the world, of uncovering secrets through progress, globalization, the ‘bringing together’ of ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ and turning its back on anything else. The internet then being, perhaps, the triumphant embodiment of this. Baudrillard writes, ‘thanks to the deployment of a limitless technology…human beings are capable of fulfilling all their potentialities and, as a consequence, disappear’ (Baudrillard, 2011: 12-15). If the Somersby advertisement is anything to go by, we can say that indeed human’s have disappeared and that this is an attempt to make a somewhat sinister joke of it, to pretend it has not happened by using the same tactics as the advertisements for butter and margarine; only this time the stakes are higher. No longer is a vaccine of contingent Evil required to protect industries or capitalist ideologies, it is used to deter the discovery that humans have disappeared. Of course this does not suggest that technology has or is going to turn on us and ‘actually’ (biologically) end the human race; Baudrillard writes, ‘[i]t’s a question of disappearance, not exhaustion, extinction or extermination (2011: 9).
In what appears to be a drawn-out suicide, symbolically speaking, we could argue that, according to Baudrillard, this disappearance is something humans have been hastening, working towards and striving for since, ‘the modern age, with the decision to transform the world…by means of science, analytical knowledge and…technology’ (Baudrillard, 2011: 10). It seems now though, that upon realising the world, upon achieving complete transparency and ‘liberation’ we lose ‘any imagination of the real…which we happily associated with the real as its friendly shadow’ (Baudrillard, 2005b: 18). And so we have to force it, fool ourselves into believing that we still have enemies to fight in order to be ‘truly free’; force it even by believing we are still useful and in control in an age where we ‘labour under the illusion that the aim of technology it to be an extension of man and his power…in a world…we believe we rule’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 71). It is by addressing food in the media today that we can see this; by witnessing the ‘return’ of humans through parodic gestures, be it re-enacting (poorly) critical theories of the past or through the popularity of competitive cookery shows injected with saccharine sweet nostalgia. The BBC’s seasonal show, ‘The Great British Bake Off’ provides an example of this; where subjectivity, identity, ‘human struggles’ are all made sacred like the last human able to bear children in Children of Men; the last hope. Perhaps, moving away from food in the media, we could consider the 2012 resurgence of hyper-patriotism with the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee; the last attempts, it could be argued, of Britain refusing its disappearance into a global superstructure and virtual reality. Shows like the ‘The Great British Bake Off’ have nothing to do with food and everything to do with denying this disappearance. Adding to this, Pawlett writes, ‘the major obligation of the modern citizen is no longer to produce goods, but to ‘produce’ a personality’ (Pawlett, 2007: 152); today, it seems, it is as a matter of urgency, of desperation, in an attempt to reinstate humans in a world that ‘expels them from it’ (Baudrillard, 2011: 15).
Bringing this research to its conclusion then begins somewhat paradoxically with its beginning; the initial spark, so to speak, being the idea of a finger print in the icing of a cake. In a Guardian article, ‘Food photography: the tricks of the trade’, food writer, Felicity Cloak, when writing on achieving the ‘perfect’ shot suggests, ‘food shouldn’t look too perfect these days: a fingerprint in the icing, or a slightly wonky soufflé helps people relate to the food (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/aug/01/food-photography-tricks-of-trade). What is interesting about this remark is that ‘perfection’ is no longer deemed a display of technological trickery but a display of ‘human error’; where ‘daylight’ is preferred over the ‘flashlight’ of a camera. Where a fingerprint in a cake before it is photographed becomes human graffiti; no longer a sign of identity or allegiance to a particular gang or ideology but rather a vital sign of existence. It was here then that the first signs of this process of re-enchantment were witnessed; a reinstatement of the world and its humans, responsible for their own disappearance in the first place, ‘subject[ing] to the full glare of criticism – sex, dreams, work, history, power…producing, in return, the consoling illusion of truth’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 27).
It is here that we may address the work of Coward, Belasco, Rousseau et al, all working to keep critical theory alive, denying that it is has completed its mission to ‘understand’ the world and that there is nowhere left for it to go. We may now return to Nietzsche, whose words introduced the concluding thoughts of this research, ‘[s]ufferers have to be sustained by a hope which cannot be refuted by any actuality – which is not done away with by any fulfilment: a hope in the Beyond’ (Nietzsche, 1978: 133). Of course the more recent works of critical theory, a few of which we briefly discussed in relation to food pornography, do not signal a return to this ‘golden age’ where we sought this ‘Beyond’; in fact they do not seem particularly sure of what they are doing. On the saturation of critical theory Baudrillard writes, ‘[t]he more we advance in this understanding, the more ambiguous it becomes, the more it loses sight of itself’ (Baudrillard, 2005b: 17). Thinking then on Rousseau, our most recent example of writing on food in the media, this notion of ambiguity can be seen in her work. It speaks of critical theory and yet lacks any of the vision, clarity and courage required of interrogation and is therefore reduced to documenting what others have said and inserting statistics. What has actually been documented then is the loss of whatever it is we were fighting for in the first place, all in the name of ‘truth’ and ‘transparency’; it is here, we might actually be witnessing an example of ‘the critical illusion devour[ing] itself’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 27).
As suspected this research, therefore, is not about pornography, or even food; how could it be when attempting to investigate ‘reality’ as a form? It is about a display of what has been lost. A glance at ‘rationalism’, ‘truth’, ‘perfection’, ‘progress’ but a tribute to illusion. Baudrillard wrote, ‘[t]here is something stronger than sex or happiness: the passion for illusion.’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 6). We could argue then that, through addressing food in the media, in all its forms, this passion may be signalling its return. Of course, not in a way that signals the end of modernity and a return to symbolic exchange, but a sign of an ‘awareness’ that ‘progress’, ‘reality’ even, was perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ‘Fortunately’, Baudrillard tells us when considering ‘reality’: ‘the crime is never perfect’ (1996: 7).
About the Author
Lucy-Jayne Bloomer Davies is an undergraduate in the Department of Sociology and Cultural Studies, Wolverhampton University, UK.
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