Hunger Abatement

One knows that this term [1] designated a "meal's principal dish, which one served first to quiet down, to reduce the hunger of the dinner guests" (Larousse). In their dictionary, Hatzfield and Darmesteter refer to the term as "antiquated." But history is the infallible master of dictionaires. With the recent progress of technology, the totality of nourishment consumed by modern society is uniquely becoming hunger reduction.

The extreme degradation of nourishment is a banality that, in the manner of other banalities, is generally tolerated with resignation: as a fatality, a ransom paid for progress that one knows can't be stopped because one is overwhelmed by it everyday. Everyone keeps quiet about it. Some because they don't want to speak of it, others because they can't. The immense majority of the population that tolerates this degradation, as well as their strong suspicions about it, simply can't face such an unpleasant reality. It is never agreeable to admit that one has been played for a fool, and those who have created "beefsteak" [2] -- and its claims -- in the form of a "reconstituted" shadow of itself are also little disposed to admit what they have lost by allowing convenient ersatz semblances into their habitats. Those who can refuse nothing for fear of going back upon all that they have let happen in their lives are habitually the same.

And yet, one can easily date with precision the arrival of the global phenomenon that affects nearly all of the economically advanced countries and that immediately acts upon the countries that are subject to the retardation of the same process. Although the loss of quality has resulted from gradual modifications, the threshold -- a sudden reversal of all the old "alimentary habits" -- was crossed in two or three years. This anti-qualitative leap took place in France, for example, around 1970; about 10 years earlier in Northern Europe; and about 10 years later than that in Southern Europe. The criteria that permits one to very simply evaluate the state of advancement of this process is, of course, taste: modern necessities are prepared precisely by an industry that one calls "agro-alimentary," a phrase [3] that summarizes the character of its disastrous results, because its colorized appearance didn't guarantee taste or innocuous insipidity. First of all, chemistry is massively imposed upon agriculture and animal husbandry so that the yield can be augmented to the detriment of all other considerations. Then there was the use of new techniques of preservation and stockpiling. Dating back as far as the beginning of industrialization, each instance of this "progress" has been a reversal of what the experts of hunger abatement call our "mental barriers," that is to say, our the long-standing experiences of quality and taste. Thus, the techniques of freezing and rapid de-freezing at first served to commercialize "poultry thighs" that are composed of materials that have been ground up and reconstituted by "forming." At this stage, the materials in question still have a certain connection with the word "poultry," which isn't stretched too far from "poultry" that wasn't produced by industrial breeding. But once this form has been accepted, its content can be altered all the more easily: new examples from Japan -- from the East comes the light [4] -- are "crab legs" and "shrimp" that are in fact industrially produced from low-cost fish that has been reconstituted into these forms. Developments such as these make optimistic someone like Jacques Gueguen, who is "in charge of research at the I.N.R.A. [5] station in Nantes," at which one studies the conditions under which we will swallow steaks made of "protein material derived from vegetables." They [these products] certainly have faults, but these can be remedied. "The color isn't all there, Jacques Gueguen recognizes. 'The soy isolates are creme-white, with a perceptible aroma of cabbage. The sunflowers in it have grey fibres. As for the rape-seeds, they are yellow, and always have an aftertaste of cabbage. In any event,' he affirms, 'the fibres are ground up, re-colorized and aromatized, and so you won't see them when they take the form of beefsteak, veal, pork or turkey.' Sceptical, you say that you will never eat such meat. Well then, cast an attentive glance upon the composition of your favorite ravioli or hamburger that you buy in the frozen-foods section: a very banal package, with a photo of a medium-grilled steak resting on a bed of lettuce. Made of beef, just like the others? Not at all, if you read what is written on the carton: 69% (sometimes as low as 65%) ground beef, 'seasoned' with vegetable proteins. In fact, the 31% of vegetable proteins don't have any flavor but constitute a kind of additional stuffing for the true meat" (Cosmopolitan, June 1985).

But the same logic that tells us that we have already swallowed this crap has no need to be frank about what is coerced: it suffices that we forget all that we can't taste. Thus, after we have bought beer infected by whatever conditions in which it was stocked, we will no longer regret our adaptation to the necessities of its market circulation: "The Adelshoffen-on-Schiltigheim brewery in the outskirts of Strasbourg has launched a beer-concentrate. One volume of beer to five volumes of water. Thanks to modern techniques of ultrafiltration, the brewer is simply a mechanic who separates out each element: water, alcohol, aromatic sources. . . . Like Coca-Cola, Adelshoffen already dreams of shipping the reconstituted syrup from Alsace to local bottlers all over the world [...] 'This reduces the costs of transportation and packaging, since the brewers are more and more becoming the retailers of the packaging, which one regards as part of the price of the liquids in the final product,' Michel Debuf explains. 'The beer-concentrate is a fantastic project for the global outlets,' he says enthusiastically. Henceforth, there will be simple local bottlers trying to break the monopoly of the breweries. 'With the concentrate, all a chain of bottlers has to do is add the water and carbonic gas. All bottlers of soda of the Coca Cola type can do it'" (Liberation, 29 July 1985).

This senseless pursuit of economies of time and the minimumization of the costs of labor and materials (which cut into profits) reinforces the logic of the commodity in all of its abstract purity, which, over time -- for example, the accumulation of human history necessary to acquire the know-how to make a good beer -- pretends to ignore the qualitative. But the qualitative doesn't fail to return negatively, as sickness. For the qualitative, one substitutes various ideological claims -- State laws that are supposedly imposed in the name of hygiene or simply to guarantee the appearance of it -- that favor the concentration of production, which serves to better support the normative weight of the new infected products. At the end of this process, the monopoly of the market aims at letting the choice be between hunger abatement and hunger itself.

The United States thus has the Food and Drug Administration [6], which visibly provides the abstract consumption of abstract commodities with its own laws, although these don't function too well in the regulations of what's called the "Common Market." One might say that this is the principal reality of this institution. All historical traditions must disappear and the abstraction rules in the absence of quality (see the article "Abstraction"). All countries obviously don't have the same characteristics (geographical and cultural) in nourishment. To abide by the requirements of Europe, France has the worst beer (except for that of Alsace), very bad coffee, etc. But Germany drinks good beer, Spain drinks good chocolate and good wine, Italy has good coffee and wine. France has good bread, good wine, numerous cheeses, lots of poultry and beef. In the framework of the Common Market, all of this becomes reduced to equally polluted merchandise. Tourism plays a certain role here. On the spot, the tourist gets used to the misery of commodities, which have been polluted just for him; he comes to consume all that has deteriorated precisely because of his presence. In effect, the tourist is treated as badly everywhere as he is at home: he is the displaced voter.

The essential utility of the modern commodity, which is developed at the expense of everything else, lies in its being bought; by a miracle of which it has the secret and by the mediation of capital, the modern commodity can "create jobs"! As for the employment or use of the commodity, it is authoritatively postulated or fallaciously evoked, in the case of food, in the artifical preservation of some of its old characteristics. But these appearances are of course addressed to meanings that are the easiest to abuse: "Thanks to the new methods employed in the avoidance of food spoilage, in our markets in all seasons of the year one can find fruits and vegetables that used to appear only a few weeks out of every month. For example, the apples that one stocks in gigantic refrigerators. The only big problem is the fact that fruits placed in cold storage lose a lot of their natural flavor" (Cosmopolitan, ibid.). When months didn't count as several weeks, there was a season for each thing: today we lack both the reality of time and the reality of things. The meanings that are the most directly practical are the ones that are sacrificed: the flavor, aroma and touch are abolished to the profit of the delusions that permanently lead sight and hearing astray (see the article "Abbe"). When the usage of certain meanings becomes hazy (it is certain that one wants to abolish odors when one lives in a large town) and the usage of others becomes misplaced, one assists in the general revocation of sensuality, which goes hand-in-hand with the extravagant revocation of intellectual lucidity, which itself begins with the disappearance of reading and the bulk of vocabulary. For the voter who drives a car and watches television, taste has no importance whatsoever: this is why one eats Findus and votes for Fabius, or swallows Fabius and reads Findus. [7] The voter's important activities, his growing passivity, don't allow him the time to develop acquired tastes that, most opportunely, commodity production itself doesn't have time to satisfy: this marvelous adequation between the absence of use and the use of absence defines the current loss of all criteria of value. We thus recover the crucial question of time, of time saved for not living. Thus, the time formerly devoted to the preparation of meals has, today, been absorbed by the contemplation of television, "conumers are demanding less and less the cheap cuts that require long alimentary preparations." "Cheap cuts," with which one used to prepare a number of excellent dishes of popular French cuisine, are now recycled in the forms most convenient for rapid preparation: "If one looks at them closely (but not too closely) and tastes them, one is deceived. It seems to be sirloin steak: it has the look, the texture, the 'tenderness.' But this sirloin is made of round steak, flank, and collar beef, in short, of the cuts that are usually reserved for the preparation of braised meats or simmered ragus. Braised beef transformed into beefsteak? It is this that is prepared by the researchers and industrialists who destroy the architecture of meat, taking more-or-less finely chopped cuts and putting them back together in the created form of 'reconstituted' meat" (Le Monde, 25 September 1985). We don't doubt that this reconstitution will very quickly extend its field of action beyond the domain of the bovine. "One has succeded in making appetizing and tender 'beefsteaks' from poultry or pork, which are cheaper than beef, and 'the future of the bovines is behind them,' M. Dumont emphasized" (Ibid.). This full-of-the-future Dumont is the director of a meat research laboratory at the National Institute of Agronomic Research; he is a specialist in hunger abatement, as is he who -- regarding the technique of "extrusion cooking" that permits the fabrication of "cell-structured products" such as those destined to be consumed by dogs and cats -- declares: "As concerns the application of this process to human nourishment, 'everything remains to be done'" (Ibid.). As concerns our acquiescence to this bestiality without instinct, a lot has already been done.

A long time ago, the bourgeoisie said: "There was history, but not any more" (Marx). When it bureaucraticizes its domination, the bourgeoisie adds to the mix: "There was taste, but not any more." Each person no longer has an individual history in and through which he discovers and forms his own tastes. It is necessary to accept all this without making any distinctions, without pretending to hold on to some criteria by which judgments can be made. Only those who listen to the proclamations of experts -- who, for example, dazzle us with visions of the radiant future of irradiated vegetables -- believe that "vegetables never looked so good" (L'Express, 6-12 September 1985). Such are the last looks [8] of the society of the spectacle. All individual looks [9], as connected as they want to be, can't be connected to the society of the spectacle, because it controls the entire network. And so, the "mashed meat" that is the hunger-abater for poor salaried workers, who eat it standing up in the decor of train stations, can give itself the allure of modernism, chosen by those who eat McDonald's [10] and think Actuel.

How did we get to this point? Who wanted this? Previously, no one did. Ever since the Physiocrats, [11] the bourgeois project has explicitly been to improve, both qualitatively and quantatively, the products of the earth, which had previously been more immutable than the products of industry. This project was effectively realized during and since the 19th century. Critiques of capitalism are sometimes more preoccupied with the highest qualities. In particular, Fourier [12] -- who favored pleasure and passion, and loved pears -- expected the reign of harmony to provide a tasty variety of this particular fruit. But, as elsewhere, the progress of civilization accomplished the opposite result. Today, the problem can be concretely defined by taking a classic recipe from traditional French cuisine and examining what each ingredient has become under current consumption (see the article "Agro-Alimentaire").

The harmful effects of hunger abatement aren't limited to the things that it eliminates, but also include the effects that its schema, by virtue of its very existence, has upon each new product of the old world. The food that has lost its taste presents itself in every case as perfectly hygienic, dietary, and healthy in comparison to the risky adventures of pre-scientific food preparation. But it lies, cynically. Not only does this food contain an incredible amount of poison (see the sadly famous example of the powerful agricultural products manufactured by Union Carbide[13]), but it produces deficiencies that are only measured later, after the fact, in the health of the general public. In the completely scientifically euphemistic words of a doctor: "It seems that the intensification of agricultural productivity has been realized without sufficient attention to the notion of quality, of which trace elements are an important factor" (H. Picard, Therapeutic Use of Trace Elements). Terrifying in its own right, what's legal in food processing is accompanied by blatantly illegal activity that, nevertheless, is tolerated (growth-hormones in veal products, antifreeze in wine, etc.) The principal form of cancer spreading in the United States doesn't affect smokers of polluted tobacco products or the inhabitants of the most polluted towns, but President Reagan and other diners of that type. [14]

The practice of generalized hunger abatement [abat-faim] is also responsible for the famine [la famine] among the peripheral people who are absolutely at the mercy of what one dares to call the global capitalist system. The process is simple: living cultures are eliminated by the global market, and the people of so-called underdeveloped countries are magically transformed into unemployed workers in vast shantytowns, which one sees growing rapidly in Africa and Latin America. The fish that was formerly caught and eaten by Peruvian peoples is now monopolized by the proprietors of the advanced economies, who use it to nourish the poultry that they sell on the market. To get rid of the fishy taste, without creating another after-taste, the manufacturers secretly add acroline, a very dangerous chemical substance made right in the middle of Lyon, without the knowledge of the town's inhabitants. Currently dangerously uninformed, both consumer of the product and neighbor of the manufacturer won't fail, one of these days, to become informed of these matters in the light of catastrophe.

The world's specialists in hunger (there are a lot of them, and they work hand-in-hand with other specialists, who create the impression of a banquet of abundant delights) communicate the results of their calculations to us: the planet produces enough cereals to feed everyone, but what troubles this idyll is the fact that the "rich countries" abusively use half the world's cereals as feed for livestock. But when one has experienced the disastrous taste of butchered creatures fattened on cereals, can one really speak of "rich countries"? Surely not. While a part of the planet is dying of famine, the inhabitants of these countries are not living like Sybarites [15]: they live in shit. But the voter is flattered when reminded that, strictly speaking[16], he is the one who has the hard heart, because he lives so well while the graves of underprivileged countries are fattened by the cadavers of children. He loves to believe the agreeable things that he has been told.

Like medicine and some other things, nourishment is becoming a State secret. During the rise of the proprietary classes, which, not without reason, feared what democracy would effectively mean for them, one of the most forceful objections to democracy was the evocation of the ignorance of the masses, which effectively prevented them from knowing and taking care of their own affairs. Today, the proprietary classes believe themselves to be protected by recently discovered anti-democracy vaccines or by the small dosages of democracy-residue that they pretend to guarantee us. Because people ignore the mysteries of the economy that are put on their plates, the cut-rate performances of "choices society must make" concerning the deployment of strategic weapons and other subtlties can be staged again and again.

When the secret thickens everywhere, even on our plates, it isn't necessary to believe that everyone ignores everything. But it is necessary that the experts in the spectacle do not spread dangerous truths. They must keep quiet. It is in their interest to do so. The individual, who is really isolated, who cannot trust his own tastes and experiences, also cannot trust socially organized deceptions. A union spoke up? Not without being irresponsible and revolutionary. In principle, unions defend the interests of salaried workers within the framework of salaried work. Unions defend the workers' "bread and butter," their right to "bring home the bacon." [17] But this "beef" is abstract (today, work itself is abstract and abstractly defended). Although real beefsteak has almost disappeared, these specialists [unions] haven't disappeared, at least officially. Beefsteak, meat free of chemicals, still exists clandestinely, is expensive, and, simply by its existence, forcefully shakes the columns of the temple of "contractual politics." In Western nomenclature[18], one well knows the returns on investment that can be gained from selling high-priced health food.

In the period that immediately preceded the Revolution of 1789, tentative and moderate efforts to falsify bread caused large-scale riots. Many bold experimenters in corrupt bread were hung from streetlamps after being made to explain their reasons for doing so. All through the entire 19th century, it was the retailer who engaged in marginal and artisanal falsifications; it wasn't until the war of 1914, which gave birth to the ersatz, that manufacturers began to falsify their products. But it stirred up anger among the masses. Different times, different habits. Said another way, the benefits that class society derives from its spectacular equipment and personnel out weigh the expenses of the ballyhoo that inevitably accompanies the ersatz. And so, in the last ten years, bread has disappeared from France and been replaced by a pseudo-bread (non-panifiable flour, chemical yeast, electric ovens), but these traumatic events, unlike the recent closings of so-called free schools, didn't incite protests or defense movements. Quite literally, no one said anything. Now that we have lost the taste of bread, one can -- full of cynicism -- pretend that extending the bureaucratization of culture is instructive: "It's a question of an education in taste that begins with elementary things: making one's bread, identifying the elements of its composition. This is bread that one should make the object of a national campaign: 'bread considered as an object of patrimony,' as 'living national treasure,' as the Japanese say" (Jack Lang, quoted by Le Monde, 7-8 April 1985). With the advent of this new "national bread," one knows better than ever that the authentic world has no place in current life and will end up in a museum.

The pleasures once thought to be "simple" will soon disappear and thus become the objects of scholarly museography. Modern architecture has already suppressed a large part of the simple life's previously vast field of action. Certainly, as pleasure becomes spectacular enjoyment, consumers are happy when they find images to graze upon. But the dangerous dialectic threatens to return, because everything works to decompose the dominations of this world. While critique preserves the management of domination, its results kill it. This is the syndrome of the fatal malady of the end of the 20th century: in a constant and omnipresent effort, the society of classes and specializations tries to immunize itself against all pleasures. The collapse of its immuno-defensive system against the poisons that it produces will be total.

Note: Written by Guy Debord and published without attribution in Encyclopedie des Nuisances, #5, November 1985. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! in August 2004. For the manuscript version of this text, see letter from Debord to Jaime Semprun dated 16 September 1985.

Translator's notes:

[1] There is no equivalent in English for the antiquated French term abat-faim, which was typically a piece of high-quality beef to which one returned again and again (la piece de resistance). The abat-faim didn't satisify hunger: it merely reduced hunger or abated for a little while. And so, for our purposes, the phrase "hunger-abater" will have to do.

[2] The word Debord uses is Bifteck, a piece of steak.

[3] The term agro-alimentaire can be translated as either the "food processing industry" or "agribusiness."

[4] Latin in original.

[5] Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (National Institute of Agronomic Research).

[6] English in original.

[7]. Laurent Fabius was a French politician (Socialist Party) and Findus a manufacturer of food products that contain genetically modified organisms.

[8] English in original.

[9] English in original.

[10] English in original. Spelling of "Mac Donald" corrected.

[11] The Physiocrats were a group of French Enlightenment thinkers of the 1760s who surrounded the French court physician, Francois Quesnay. They proposed to advance the interests of agriculture by adopting a system of economic freedom.

[12] Charles Fourier was one of the favorites of Raoul Vaneigem and others members of the Situationist International, of which Guy Debord was a co-founder.

[13] English in original.

[14] In 1985, the American President Ronald Reagan had cancerous growths removed from his colon and nose.

[15] In an ancient Greek city in Italy, the Sybarites indulged in sensuous luxury.

[16] Latin in original.

[17] The word Debord uses here is bifteck.

[18] Russian in original.

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