Food and Public Culture


I am at a diner, and I just realized something. The lack of public philosophy in America is positively, physically dangerous.

What am I paying for in the diner? Certainly for the food and for the service. But also for being in a public space where I can experience a sense of togetherness with fellow human beings. In a society where public culture is bleached in order to be neutral, the main form of being-with others, beyond one’s family, friends and colleagues, is as fellow customers. You could be the poorest person in a village and be generally made fun of, and still, sitting in the public square you would experience a sense of shared, public culture. This is a form of culture and experience that is lost to us now. Like everything else, we have to buy such an experience. This is neither good nor bad in itself. It is just the reality.

One could go alone to a park, a place seemingly free of market forces, and even though on a good idea one might be surrounded by families or people, there isn’t the connection one feels in, say, a diner as a customer. For at the park one is gaining a sense of social bond simply vicariously, as if one were part of a group or as if it was a village square. But the sense of isolation can be palpable. In a market space, however, even if one is alone, there is an objective togetherness based on a relationship one shares with others in the diners: we are all customers, and we are doing our individual part in a shared activity of maintaining the market space. In buying one feels a communal bond.

Thus the special zeal for shopping to feel better. It is not just that one feels better because one is getting what one wants. It is that through buying one feels connected to something bigger than oneself, and feels a transcendence beyond one’s own life and pain.

The same is true for eating, especially if one is eating bought food. It then feels like one is literally internalizing culture and having a rush of the sense of belonging. One then experiences a sense of community from within, as if one were grounded and connected to others through the core of one’s being.

No wonder then that America, the land of the Enlightenment experiment and the land of a lack of public shared culture, is also the land of obesity. People are literally trying to eat away their sense of hollow individuality.

But aren’t the most obese people in the red states, which are defined by more “traditional American” culture? Exactly. There is no such thing as American culture, at least not in the sense of Indian or German or Brazilian culture. Those cultures get their sense of identity from practices which predate Enlightenment values. Not that they don’t also have such values, but there is an underlying structure of culture in the pre-modern sense. Not so in America. So the people who think they are defined by American culture are in a great need of feeling culturally grounded, and food plays a great role in this. Not coincidentally, most red states are also poorer than blue states, and so they are not able to get their rush of communalness through their purchasing power.

This explains something I felt when leaving academia. It felt as if there was a qualitative change in my mode of being when I left. A sense of feeling stranded. Being bereft. As if it is unclear what my mode of being connected to other people was. After I left academia, sometimes I would go onto college campuses and just sit there or walk around for the day, staring at the buildings and taking in the general ambiance. What was I looking for and trying to re-experience?

It was the non-market mode of belonging to a public space and to other people in that space. This isn’t because college campuses in America have any special sense of physical culture, even when they mimic the architecture of Oxford or the early colonial period. College campuses, like any part of America,  lack a deep sense of physical, public culture. But what the colleges do have, or rather did have, is a public space of ideas which seemed to be driven by something other than market forces. In modern America, setting aside small towns in rural America, being in a college town is the closest one gets to being in a village, where there is a pervasive sense of being connected to fellow citizens in some other way than as fellow customers. That feeling is positively addictive. Even more than the financial and job stability, this is what is one envies in a tenured professor: a lifelong pass to being part of such a public space of ideas. Often the disdain and the fear academics have of leaving academia is the fear of losing that sense of communal bond and being thrust into the market public space along with everyone else. The worry isn’t just that one might not make money outside academia. It is that even with making money, one might not have a sense of community beyond being a customer along with everyone else.

This vision of academia was only possible as long as academia seemed to float above the capitalist forces in the society. As academics now know well, there is no more such floating. The march of capitalism continues, and now it is finally engulfing academia as well. I think academics now feel like a native community being confronted, and being taken over, by the imperialist forces of capitalism. Like native peoples, academics are realizing there is no way out. Either isolationism or engaged combat only pull them further into the vortex of the market. I suspect that as the public culture of academia is taken over by market forces, in the coming decades the obesity levels of academics is going to go up, especially at the less financially well off colleges where one cannot simply buy one’s sense of communalness.

If even academia gets engulfed into market forces, is there any hope for a public mode of communalness beyond all of us being customers? Yes, but not in the sense of pre-market cultures. If we are to find new modes of communal togetherness, they have to be built on top of the market forces. Can that happen without the market eviscerating anything other than its own mode of consumer interaction between individuals? That’s a good question. A pressing question. Our long-term psychic and physical health depend on how we answer it.

2 thoughts on “Food and Public Culture

  1. Cathy Legg

    Hi Bharath,
    I think you might really like this long essay by Wendell Berry called “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community”, particularly the fourth and final section where he discusses ‘pluralism’:

    Click to access sex,%20economy,freedom%20and%20community.pdf

    I’ve gained a lot from reading Berry the last few months – he is an exceedingly deep thinker – and I think you guys might be heading in some of the same directions.



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