View From Nowhere: …to Facebook or not to Facebook

facebookAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A few years ago, I joined Facebook. My plan was to network with other authors and learn the state of the publishing world—find the best path to get my work in print, in front of readers, and perhaps even make some money. We can all dream a bit, can’t we?

On the one hand, this was a fine plan. I did network with authors of all sorts. On the other hand, the plan was also deeply flawed. Alas, despite networking, it became obvious that none of these people understood the current publishing industry either. Alas! They were all asking the same questions I was, and although we had some fine conversations on the subject, little of substance was decided.

So, what exactly is it that many writers get out of FB? Aside from interesting online chats, they also build up an entourage and get to listen as their fans tell them how brilliant they are.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this, but there are hidden dangers. Writers, perhaps science fiction writers in particular, tend to be opinionated and Facebook is not the best place for persons of diverging opinions to share views. Anyone familiar with FB has no doubt seen those irritating “Yes, they are”/“No, they aren’t” exchanges that constitute most online arguments. It is quite tempting to just de-friend people whose opinions irritate you—to simply cut people off—particularly if you don’t have any offline relationship with them. In fact, some would say it’s better than wasting valuable time arguing with them, particularly when FB friends might be watching. (I lost at least one date this way.)

The problem with cutting them off, however, is that it allows writers to inadvertently surround themselves with “yes-people”—in other words, a writer’s online fan base becomes a band of sycophants reminding them of their own brilliance. Where I’ve seen this frequently is in gun-control debates. Many science fiction writers support gun control. I do not. Why? I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt having a gun made me safer.

One author, I’ll call him John, has decided that there are too many big, scary guns in the USA. This is not an unusual position. However, John, while on Facebook, attempts to discuss the issue by citing questionable sources. For example, he shared a British study that claimed to prove that gun owners were racist. The study began with the premise that no rational person would own a gun, arguing that they were more likely to be used for suicide than home defense, and then based its conclusion on the premise that one could determine a racist by their tendency to vote against social welfare programs. Finding a correlation (surprise) between gun ownership and a tendency to vote for Conservative politicians, the study therefore “proved” gun owners were racist. (Editor’s note: I’ve seen this study, it’s riddled with logical fallacies.) In response, John’s followers—90% of them—responded with bland statements about how they did not like gun owners.

Now, my impression is that John, in addition to being a good writer is a pretty intelligent guy. However, by surrounding himself on FB with “yes-men” and clamoring sycophants, he’s not likely to consider an opposing viewpoint anytime soon.

Now, do all writers do this? No, of course, not. I’ll even name Theodora Goss, as a counter-example. Dora and I attended the Odyssey Writers Workshop together fourteen years ago although I’ve only seen her once since then so it would be a mistake to call us friends. Dora and I disagree on many things but she’s a smart cookie. And, unlike some science fiction writers, she does not delete people who disagree with her from her FB page; keeping open to opposing views.

Of course, Facebook has other uses. Some writers use it to seek publicity and build a following. Facebook, they say, will allow you to tell others about your projects and help sell books. Apparently, that’s a documented fact. Then again, if you actually check Facebook to see what its book marketing process looks like, you’ll see giant webs of inter-connected authors trying to sell books to one another. Think about that.

 

View From Nowhere: Poly Styrene, R.I.P.

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

For the last several issues, I’ve shared my thoughts on how humanity might appear to total strangers, say aliens from space. This time I’m going to take a break and write about something a little closer to home: writing, reading, art and the purpose of it all.

I’m a bit emotionally worked up. I just received word that Poly Styrene died in April. Now, who’s Poly Styrene? some of you might ask. And, should you not know, it’s good to ask because better to learn late than to never learn at all. Poly Styrene was the stage-name of British performing artist Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, best known as the lead singer of the early punk band X-Ray Spex. Inspired by a Sex Pistols show, Poly Styrene put out an ad, collected some like-minded people and began recording songs.

Not yet eighteen years old at the time, half Somali-half English, dressed in bizarre clothes and with a strange hair cut, at times performing with dental braces, Poly Styrene did not look like someone who should be the lead singer of a band. Nor did she sound like one, alternately introducing songs with a little girl voice and then shouting out lyrics—often unintelligible lyrics—as loud as she could. Yet Poly Styrene was, indeed, lead singer of a band. And, should anyone care, that band and their most popular song, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is in my CD collection four times. Once on the band’s classic album, Germ-Free Adolescents and three times on various compilation discs. It is with shame, regret and a feeling of being a poseur that I confess the group to be absent from my much older vinyl collection.

Poly Styrene had somehow managed to reach the age of 53 at the time of her death, a mind-boggling feat for anyone who has seen videos of the early X-Ray Spex, videos that froze a certain image of the band in time.

Is the song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” great art? Obscure, perhaps, but it has clearly had an inspirational impact on many people, and, now, perhaps sadly, has outlived one of its key creators.

These are both goals that I aspire to as a writer, and like many people connected with this publication, I am a writer. What that means is that just as teenage Poly Styrene once saw a punk show and cried “I want to do that too,” at some point in my life I finished a favorite book and shouted “Hey, could I, too, write one of these things?” In other words, I embraced the punk slogan, D.I.Y., Do It Yourself.

There is, as far as I know, no way to become a professional writer that does not at some point involve announcing oneself as a writer to the world and then seeing how seriously people take your claim. And it’s a strange feeling when you first do it, a feeling of perhaps being an imposter.

Like the punk singers, I wanted the world to notice me, and react, but, let me tell you, it ain’t easy. And, like many punk rock singers those same demons that drive one to cry “notice me” and drive you to seek attention hoping that in some small way you can change the world for the better, are often the same demons that get in the way of one’s production as an artist. Drugs, violence, alcohol, behavioral problems and addictive, damaging relationships can all provide life experience, ideas for stories, and an interesting perspective and outlook on life which make for better writing, but at some point the resulting mental, physical and emotional problems start to hinder your ability to actually write, finish and market anything. Remember, if you want to be a writer, you must be physically and mentally able to focus yourself on projects long enough and regularly enough in order to string out long sequences of words that make sense to other people. And then you must be able to put these passages together into an article or a story and send it somewhere where people will show it to each other.

Think of all those artists—punk singers, as well as writers—who destroyed themselves. Sure, some died young and stayed pretty, becoming icons, but most just wound up forgotten.

So, if you want to write, take care of yourself, at least well enough that you can actually produce writing that makes sense to other people and get it to a market.

And don’t expect to start at the top. Yeah, it’s happened, and, yeah, I just might marry Jennifer Lopez now that she’s single again, but it’s never a good bet. If you want to write and you want to change the world consider contributing to forums like your local paper’s Op-Ed page. You’ll gain valuable experience working with editors, writing on a deadline and with limited space, and, like the punks, if you do it right, you can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, always a good rule of thumb when deciding how to act.

Which brings me to two ongoing writing debates I’ve recently faced.

Should writers read and should writers include messages in their writing?

Some writers read and some don’t. But I believe great writers read and they read extensively. Writing is their art. How can they grow as a writer if they don’t have a love of this art that manifests itself through a strong desire to experience the writing that already exists? What sort of visual artist, if given the chance, does not visit art galleries and art museums? What sort of musician does not listen to music? Do you think Poly Styrene listened to other people’s bands or not?

Those who disagree with me, argue that they read when they were younger but are just too busy at this point in their life. A friend of mine likes to quote a widely published pulp writer he knows as saying, “Why should I read? I can write a book faster than I can read one.”

I think in a case like this it comes down to motivation to write. If you write for money and are able to get paid to churn out content to fill voids in publishing catalogs, you probably don’t need to read. But don’t expect many people to read what you write after you’re gone if you do. After all, you’ve virtually admitted to yourself and others that you don’t care what you write so long as you are paid to do it. And if you don’t care what you write, why should I care what you write?

Other writers write for other motivations. Some of us are looking for attention. We want others to see how intelligent, insightful, knowledgeable, important, or outrageous and crazy we are. I’ve been there and done that. But I think that once we reach a certain point, achieved certain goals, then we’ve got to focus again on what we are doing—creating art. And what sort of artist says, “I don’t need to see any more art. I saw all I needed years ago.” What sort of musician stops listening to music because they have heard enough to last a lifetime?

Similarly, some writers debate if fiction should be written to share a message. Yet they generally seem to think that it’s essential to have a theme and character growth. How can one include theme and character growth without even considering the possibility that this growth and change in the character might produce growth and change in the reader? Sure, a lot of stories have been destroyed through heavy-handed attempts at selling a message. But a lot of stories have been destroyed through poor characterization, wooden action sequences, clumsy dialogue, and laughable portrayals of sex and romance, but no one uses this fact to argue that fiction is better off without these things.

Recently I stumbled across a list of 25 highly rated novels chosen by the Cincinnati library. (Why Cincinnati? They were high on a Google search.) It’s astonishing how many of these great classics had clearly defined messages and this is certainly a part of why they have lived on beyond their time.

So, in conclusion, if you are going to use writing to express yourself, then stand tall, speak out, speak clearly, say what you want to say, look to other writers for inspiration in not just technique but also the power of your chosen art and, above all, say something that makes the effort to write and read your pieces worthwhile.

If you do, Poly Styrene would be proud.

 

View From Nowhere: Knowledge

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

If space aliens came to Earth and tried to understand the behaviors of the human race, they would soon find us a complex, diverse and often contradictory species.

I teach English at a major university in Shanghai. Despite previous years in Asia, the cultural obstacles amaze me. Recently, I faced a roomful of graduate students each eager to know, and genuinely uncertain, if they were guilty of plagiarism.

After being assigned to summarize a news article, and then share thoughts about it, I discovered two undoubtedly plagiarized submissions. The first not only had remarkably good English but included facts not in the original piece. The second copied the original piece almost line by line. I announced the situation and requested the guilty students to come forth privately and resubmit their work.

A confession soon came, then another, but from the wrong people. I examined the writing of the self-confessed, only to discover it did not seem plagiarized. Rechecking still revealed no hints of plagiarism. Next came a flurry of e-mails from students wishing to know if they too had plagiarized.

These students were, at most, guilty of improper citation technique.

Meanwhile, of the two parties originally guilty, one finally confessed, admitting to lifting sentences from a Canadian government website. The other never confessed, but when confronted, explained that direct copying seemed like a good way to avoid mistakes.

Some will ask if these were typical Chinese students. Based on their level and school, if anything, they were above average.

Clearly they had not been taught proper citation technique or the importance of original work. When told, my department head, a Chinese academic, was not surprised and said I was doing well. Our students, he said, must be taught not to plagiarize. After all, he explained, some day they might study abroad or submit to foreign journals. I soon modified my syllabus.

Plagiarism, as serious academic misconduct, seems a foreign concept in China.

In this column, I’ll focus on just one of many causes of this complex situation—how theories of knowledge vary across cultures.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But what is the source of knowledge? How is it discovered? How is it judged to be of value?

In the West, where the scientific method is paramount, we generally see knowledge as something that is discovered through research. Ideas, patterns, secrets are uncovered through hard work and verified by careful testing. When disproven, knowledge is discarded and seen as a thing of little value, save perhaps as a historical curiosity. (Of course, we know that in the real world of science, things are actually often murkier than such an idealized series of events.)

Within this paradigm, ideally, knowledge that is useful, or in other words shows the capacity to be applied to solve a problem or create technology, is valued, regardless of its age.

As mankind moves forward into the future, knowledge grows and should continue growing.

However, some cultures, past and present, view knowledge differently.

In many Asian cultures, for instance, the traditional paradigm was that knowledge originated in the past, descending to us from a distant golden age. Things were better. People then could do things we cannot today, for the reason that the knowledge they had has often been lost over the generations.

Within this framework, medical knowledge, for instance, is not something that is discovered, but instead something that can only be rediscovered. If one says, for instance, to a person who holds these views, that traditional Chinese medicine is not as effective as modern, scientific allopathic medicine, they might counter that centuries ago it used to be much more effective than it is today and claim the comparison unfair.

I once heard of a Taiwanese kung fu teacher who claimed his teacher’s teacher’s teacher had defeated a local rival’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher in a street bout. The surface implication is that his style is superior. The deeper subtext is that one’s fighting ability depends almost entirely on one’s training, and that the entirety of his training had been passed along, without either depreciation or improvement, for three generations.

Within this paradigm the creator of an idea is not respected, because, as being new, the idea itself is not seen as having proven value. If original ideas are not of value, why should someone who creates them be seen as having done something valuable?

Therefore, for instance, the identity of the author of the classic of traditional Chinese medicinal theory, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine), is unknown. Whoever he or she was, when they wrote (or compiled) the book two or three centuries before Christ’s time, they saw no benefit to putting their name on the work. Instead it was advertised as the work of the Yellow Emperor, a mythical sage said to live around 3,000 B.C.

The value to an individual lay in possessing knowledge, not in its creation. Study of past knowledge, after all, was a much more efficient and respected way to obtain learning than to simply try to invent new ideas whole cloth, hoping they somehow worked as well as long-respected ideas handed down for generations.

In fact, in the nineteenth century, when the West proved itself undeniably in possession of superior technology, the Chinese soon developed what seemed a logical explanation. Perhaps the Westerners had somehow acquired and then built upon Mohist knowledge. The Mohists were a school of ancient philosophers and scholars from the days of Confucius, a few centuries before Christ. They were known for skill in fortifications and siege warfare. To the Chinese of that time, such an explanation seemed much more likely and sensible than to imagine that Europeans had just invented these things, thinking up ideas out of nowhere.

And when an idea is disproven? Within the traditional Chinese paradigm, this was seen as largely situational. Just because a long-respected idea seemed incorrect in one situation, meant little. It should be saved, taught and passed on to the next generation as it undoubtedly held the potential to be useful elsewhere. The key, perhaps, was to know when and where to apply different theories even if a later civilization might find them contradictory,

Among the less-civilized people of south east Asia some of the same ideas exist. The Chin and the Homng (Miao) are both tribal peoples of the region. Surprisingly, both groups have near identical stories to explain their traditional illiteracy, something that distinguishes them from the literate Burmese and Chinese who they fought with. According to these legends these peoples were once literate but during a great battle with their enemies they left all their books at home. When they returned they discovered, in horror, that pigs and horses had eaten them all. With the books lost, so too went the knowledge of reading and writing. In fact, one reason both peoples welcomed Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that the missionaries not only came with a book but taught them reading and writing, an event seen as a wonderful restoration of things lost long ago.

Countless books have been written on the complex problem of China and intellectual property rights. China is our biggest trading partner and often a political rival. Traditional ideas concerning the origin, value, creditation and development and/or decline of knowledge are just one facet of the issue.

Yet to resolve this it will help to understand that many people in this world see knowledge as something that is better acquired instead of created.

And if we can’t understand our fellow humans, can we expect extraterrestrials to fare any better at understanding humans?

 

View From Nowhere: Addictions

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

The original intent of this column is to explore how humanity might appear to extraterrestrials, the ultimate outsiders. Honestly, there are times when I wonder if such beings would even perceive us as sentient. After all, it is a matter of debate as to just how much conscious control over their own actions humans hold. We are a species marked by a proneness to addictions.

When we speak of addictions, most people think of addictions to substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or any one of a number of legal and illegal drugs. Obsessive, out-of-control consumption of any of these can lead to great financial, social and health problems, a situation that clearly marks serious addictions. Such addictions are common to not just people everywhere but a surprising variety of animals. In parts of southeast Asia drunken elephant rampages can be a lifethreatening side effect of making rice wine should an elephant stumble across the buckets used to ferment the beverages. For a good introduction to the subject of intoxication in the wild, there are many good books, but one I enjoyed was Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication.

But addictions are not just to substances. Humans are also known for behavioral addictions.

To understand behavioral addictions, it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind them. Many of us humans are often in a great deal of pain and discomfort. For some this is physical discomfort but for others, their pain has a psychological cause. There can be many sources of this pain. Poor self image, low self esteem, unrealistic expectations that make one feel like you’ve never done what one should, there can be as many different causes for pain as there are suffering people. In some cases, a solution is simple, once people recognize which patterns of thought are causing them trouble. David D. Burns, a psychiatrist, wrote a book called Feeling Good that does a good job of teaching people to monitor their own thoughts and reduce such pain. Still in many cases, the problem is much more serious and difficult to correct.

People in pain, regardless of whether that pain is psychic or physical in origin, generally take actions to avoid feeling that pain. For instance, responses to pain could include pulling a hand away from a fire or hot stove or taking an aspirin. These are healthy responses.

Unhealthy reactions to pain, particularly psychic pain, include seeking out situations that are so intense that the person will not feel their own internally generated discomfort. Once a person has found such a state, a pain-free state caused by a situation where they cannot feel their own discomfort, they often wish to return to it and seek out similar situations. For this reason, intensely emotional situations can be literally addictive.

Recently, with high profile cases like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny, sex addiction has been in the news. Can a person be addicted to sex? To some extent the issue hinges on the definition used. (Definition of addiction, not the definition of sex.) If we start with a definition of addiction that hinges on a person’s willingness to seek out something while knowing full well that they shouldn’t and that they may cause themselves and others great social, financial and physical damage, then the answer is obviously yes. In fact, who among us has not risked some sort of social problem in an attempt to, if not exactly get sex, at least get a date?

And why, pray tell, is it that when the subject of dating comes up my mind immediately goes to such subjects as anger, crisis-seeking and large quantities of unnecessary drama? Setting aside what this says about my own tendencies towards seeking out unnecessary drama to spice up my life and distract me from my own personal problems, anger, crises and intense drama all can produce states where a person does not feel their own inner pain. Therefore, for some people, they can be more attractive than mundane, uninterrupted, everyday existence. And, thus, for some people, including a surprising number of my dates over the years, all these things can be addictive. (They may also have something to do with why I not only sought out such people, but why I also have been attracted to activities like ambulance work and for a couple seasons enjoyed the sledding sport of skeleton.)

And sometimes even after a person learns that a particular activity is not healthy, and they stop doing it, they find another, possibly equally unhealthy way to avoid pain. This is why the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating. A person shifts from one release to another. They quit smoking and then start taking solace in the pleasures of food, only to soon begin to overeat. Or they go from a life lived in pursuit of drugs to a life lived in pursuit of such things as the intense thrill of staking something they can’t afford to lose a bet. In Chuck Pahlaniuk’s novel Choke there’s a very funny scene where a character overcomes sex addiction and instead tries to keep busy through rock collecting only to eventually find his cabinets, his microwave and every other nook and cranny of his house stuffed with rocks. Ultimately he and a good friend get together and soon take all the rocks outside and build a wall with them.

It’s because of this shifting from one source of pain-relief to another that so much of the discussion in the addiction and recovery field often focuses on such things as “healing the inner child,” “getting in touch with your pain,” and other terminology that sounds quite strange or even silly to an outsider.

Still, the issue is real. Behaviors can be addictive. Need proof? Visit a friend whose collecting has grown out of bounds and who clearly has too much stuff. Yes, that warm fuzzy feeling of purchasing a desired item can often become an end in itself, quite separated from any need or desire to possess. And, it can reach unhealthy levels, and thereby qualify as an addiction. Credit card debt and excessive loans can be one more aspect of the problem.

The intent of this column is to give some thought as to how humanity might appear to space aliens. In this context it has always struck me as fascinating to see what a sentient species might make of our own species’ tendency towards unhealthy, undesirable, and self-destructive behaviors. Would they dismiss us out of hand as a race prone to slipping in and out of control and therefore dangerously erratic, unpredictable and impossible to deal with? Or are occasional lapses in rationality inevitable for a sentient species? Might they have their own irrational and self-destructive behaviors? And if so what form might these take? We can only imagine, but don’t think about it too hard. You might have trouble stopping.

It’s for this very reason that the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating.

 

View From Nowhere: Languages and Science Fiction

languageAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

Remember that mandatory scene in almost every science fiction movie, the one where everyone is surprised the aliens speak English? Or makes reference to languages like “Romulan,” “Klingon,” “Minbari,” or even “Barsoomian,” each indicating that an entire sentient species speaks a single tongue? Of course, realism aside, these advance the plot without characters stumbling over memorization of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And there are exceptions. Tolkein and the less well-known games and novels of M.A.R. Barker’s science-fantasy world of Tekumel revel in linguistic complexity. Still, if there’s one area where much science fiction loses me, it’s when language differences are explained away with a wave of one’s hand

Language diversity is, after all, a universal human trait linked to our adaptability. As people form groups they begin to speak differently. The more isolation, the more time, the more societal change, the more these groups’ languages tend to diverge. This results in such interesting facts as Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) being home to more than 100 languages. In China and India, although numbers are in dispute, linguistic complexity is everywhere. In Africa and India, the colonial languages of French, Portuguese and English retain surprising importance largely because of the underlying linguistic diversity of the regions.

Few Americans really appreciate the natural linguistic diversity of mankind. This is probably because the many indigenous languages of the Americas have been largely supplanted by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Commonly, our awareness of European linguistics is low as well. In the United Kingdom, not just English is spoken but also Welsh and Scotch and Irish Gaelic. In the nation of Spain commonly spoken languages include not just Spanish but also Catalan, Galician and the entirely unrelated language of Basque.

A quick look at Beowulf or the writings of Shakespeare demonstrates that the English spoken in the past is not the English spoken today. Language diversity is temporal as well as geographic and cultural, although most time travel stories ignore this.

Some science fiction bypasses the problem by using telepathy for universal communication. Unfortunately, not only is hard evidence for psychic phenomena sorely lacking but humans think largely in language. Even if you could read a person’s thoughts what good would it do if you could not understand the language they were thinking in?

Could an automatic language translator even exist? Something like the universal translator of Star Trek or the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It would be difficult.

Languages consist of words and words are symbols for underlying concepts. These concepts do not line up exactly from one language to another. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese there are eight different words for “first cousin.” These words, which do not sound similar, specify if a cousin is older or younger, maternal or paternal, male or female, three factors that directly influence how one should treat them in Chinese culture. Although the Spanish word “siesta” entered English, it did so because there was no English word for “nap during the hottest time of day when work is impossible.” In his writings, Jim Cummins, a leading authority on bilingualism and bilingual education, refers to these differences as a language’s “conceptual base.”

Languages also vary widely in terms of syntactic variation (word order), tonality (whether or not the pitch of a word affects meaning), and the embedded information and concepts. For instance, although some languages incorporate concepts of gender for nouns into their grammar, they do not do so in a universally consistent manner. In Spanish the sun is a masculine object, while in German it is feminine. Navajo incorporates some incredibly complex grammatical changes to verbs allowing a native speaker to modify a verb depending on things such as the shape of the object that is performing the action. And as for the old myth about multiple Eskimo (Inuit) words for snow, it just isn’t so. In fact, there is just one Inuit word for snow which Inuit grammar allows to be modified multiple ways.

Controversies abound in linguistics and the quasi-mystical field of language acquisition. We are literally assisting people to reprogram the deep coding within their very brains. The implications are unsettling. What would Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary and (the hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda think? Images of John Dee and his announcement that he had learned the Enochian language come to mind as one’s thoughts travel deeper into realms where language, mysticism and psychology intersect. The tower of Babel. The language of the birds. Adam and God strolling through the garden of Eden giving names to everything they see. The study of human language is an intellectual quest of mythic proportions, but science is a tool that can guide us through this quest. Although we are a small and stupid species, condemned to stride through the dirt unnecessarily proud of our upright posture, as we do our brains, our opposable thumbs and our facility for language are the only means by which we (barely) differentiate ourselves from animals.

Although we can and should research and study how people use and learn language, ultimately it will be centuries before the details are really known or understood. Our brains seem to be using language to learn language but it’s probably actually largely using processes that we are nowhere near understanding. The world is much bigger than we are and we are beginning to understand that perhaps both neurophysiology and physics lie completely outside man’s capacity to understand. Therefore we may never completely understand how people learn language. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that linguistic complexity is a universal feature of mankind.

 

View From Nowhere: Food

worldonplateAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A classic thought experiment is: If extraterrestrials observed Earthlings what would they think? For openers, an outside observer would note intense variety, but there are universals. The universal we’ll be observing this month? Food.

With thousands of cultures comes an amazing diversity based on varying food sources, economic necessities, geographical demands and differing aesthetics.

Food is health. Food is economics. Food is art and to some extent, be it a businessman’s steak dinner, an exotic spread of complex sushi, or the classic Chinese banquet, food even indicates our social status among fellow humans.

Food has multiple meanings. In some cultures, notably parts of China, a standard greeting is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” Out of politeness, we offer guests food, whether they need it or not. As the classic big band, scat singer Cab Calloway sang in the 1940s, “Everyone eats when they come to my house.”

Yet despite the use of food as hospitality, not all cultures appreciate the same cuisine. Some cultures enjoy heads, intestines, brains and organ meats while other cultures don’t even eat meat. Sometimes there’s an underlying logic to these choices. For instance, while most humans find insects unpalatable, in most places insects would not make a good food source. The calories required to catch an insect usually outweigh the calories gained from eating one. However, in situations where insects can be harvested in a manner that results in a net-gain of calories rather than a loss, they often become a desired food source. Accordingly, ants and locusts that can be caught easily in large numbers are eaten much more commonly than other insects.

What one culture finds delightful, another finds bizarre. The other day I visited a museum with a friend, a Karen hill tribesman who came from Burma after fleeing conflict and spending his teenage years as a refugee in Thailand. The displays of traditional Iroquois life reminded him of home. “Hey Pete, have you ever eaten curried bear meat?” he asked as he described cooking curries over an open fire. “It makes you warm.”

Although a widespread and varied cooking technique, I was surprised to learn that currying a food not only flavors but also preserves it, thus making currying invaluable in the tropics of Asia and the Caribbean.

Not only are we aware of differing approaches to food among cultures, at times we as a species seem to revel in them. From cable TV shows that present eating exotic foods as a perverse form of entertainment, to countless ethnic slurs from multiple cultures involving the cuisine and diet of their “weird” neighbors, the food preferences of others often strike us as bizarre.

Browsing through authentic Chinese cookbooks from Asia can be an odd experience for a Westerner. With the flip of a page one turns from an image of a dream meal only to stumble on a photo of stewed chicken feet. There’s rarely much logic to our internalized food preferences and even when there is it is often knowingly flawed. I’m reminded of my father’s visit to Taiwan. “I could never eat chicken feet,” he announced one day. When asked for a reason he said, “I used to raise chickens. I’ve seen where they walk.”

I remember years ago telling a Taiwanese friend that Americans did not normally eat squid or jellyfish. “Why not?” she said with a straight face. “Don’t they like seafood?” To the Taiwanese squid is not just a normal part of their diet, but a common beach food is squid on a stick, barbecued and smeared with sesame seeds and eaten like a lollipop with tentacles spread upwards like a bouquet of miniature flowers.

Commonly we combine our food with our ideas of entertainment. Recently I attended a presentation where Chinese college students described their home provinces, including cuisine. My favorite was “dao xiao mian,” a dish from Shanxi whose English name varies but is often referred to as handshaved noodles. The chef quickly shreds strips from a large ball of dough into boiling water. The varying textures of the irregularly shaped noodles adds to the flavor. Elaborate presentation have become part of the hand-shaved noodle dining experience. Presented was a photo of a chef who shredded the noodles from a platform fastened on top of his head while riding a unicycle in front of the diners.

Amidst the decadence and artistic experimentation of mid-war Weimar Germany, even starvation became art. One restaurant featured “performances” by a “hunger artist” who sat in a sealed glass booth chain-smoking in his underwear while a midget periodically announced the length of time since the “artist” had last eaten. Patrons would tap their glasses in appreciation while consuming a traditional dish of raw pork and onion drizzled with boiling lard.

From Disney-themed birthday cakes to the latest McDonald’s third-pounder to traditional hot dogs and apple pie to biker-themed barbecue restaurants, the commodification and consumption of food is also an expression of an idealized cultural image. It’s no coincidence that if you want to be accepted in Vietnamese society you should learn to eat fertilized duck eggs or by Koreans to appreciate kimchi. These dishes mark them in their own eyes as distinctly different from people who don’t eat them.

What conclusions might an alien make on human food culture? We’re astonishingly flexible yet rigid upon forming conclusions. As a species we’ll eat almost anything consumable yet as splintered cultural groups we’re quite finicky and judgmental of those groups that do not share our preferences. We attach great social importance to the forms that simple biological necessities take. Surely, they could not avoid seeing us as an amazingly complex banquet.