Soylent: The Rise of Food Performance?

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Advances in technology, scientific understanding and daily life have transformed some of our most necessary tasks into ritual, such that these tasks now serve more a performative purpose than an essential one. Email, for example, has all but replaced snail mail, even for the most important of documents. The only reason I write letters now is for the ritual of it, to show that I took the time and effort to actually set pen to paper. However much care or concern this shows, letter-writing today feels like a performance: people would never use it now for more official correspondence, like communicating about a possible job. Analog post is simply too slow and unreliable; many people, particularly in business, consider it mildly inappropriate.

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Another necessary task, this one on the order of life and death, may also soon pass into ritual: food. As sci-fi has long predicted, from TV’s Star Trek to the novel Make Room! Make Room!, a viable total meal replacement has arrived in the form of Soylent, cheekily named for the meal replacement made from people in Soylent Green, the film version of Make Room! Make Room! It’s a shake, and it promises to satisfy all our nutritional and digestive needs. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to the ubiquitous blue milk from Star Wars IV: A New Hope. More importantly, Soylent promises to free us from the inconvenience and ill effects of traditional food. Up to this point, meal replacements, in particular liquid meal replacements, have not been considered a viable long-term product; studies abound showing that liquid meal replacements can lead to nutritional deficiencies and the breakdown of the digestive system. Soylent has received a substantial amount of media coverage, and most of it has either been negative or tepid at best. However, I consider the product quite revolutionary.

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Soylent’s detractors have leveled their criticism not at its nutritional qualities, preparation or a negative taste but its lack of “delight” or “joy,” it’s preoccupation with practical functionality. There have also been complaints of indigestion from the fiber in Soylent, but this is mostly due to a paucity of fiber in the American diet, a problem it aims to correct. Now, I don’t know about you, but making eggs and oatmeal with berries every morning doesn’t bring me “delight” or “joy”; it brings me a full stomach and the ability to function until lunch. Most of the other complaints about Soylent relate to the idea of food — eating it, making it — as having a performative quality. Critics say this is not why we eat food. But if food evolves from a vital task to a ritual, food-as-performance is exactly what it will become.

To be fair, Soylent is not the sole force threatening to make food into a performance. The preparation and serving of food has been highly ritualized since the dawn of recorded human culture. Cushions, cup bearers and lavish arrangements dominate depictions of banquets in the ancient Mediterranean world. Everyone would agree that an evening at Cipriani is more about the performance of the service than the actual food. Even at home, performative elements creep in: Is it really more effective to use chopsticks to eat Thai curry, especially considering that chopsticks, to the Thais, are a foreign and non-traditional utensil?

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All of this is nothing compared to the current generation of cooking shows. With the rise of The Food Network, Chopped, and a plethora of series focusing on the preparation, serving and consumption of meals, food is already being explored as a performative entity. No longer is it dinner and a show; now, dinner is the show. The presentation of food has gone to this extreme with shows like Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, which delves into and judges how meals are served. The consumption of food has become a subject for TV news — just ask Anthony Bourdain as he visits Parts Unknown.

Riveting, successful and with legions of devoted, almost rabid fans, these series highlight how food has always been about a combination of form and function. What Soylent indicates to me is that the form and function of food may now be diverging. The reviews of Soylent in the media are correct: the product does lack joy, interesting taste and delight in its use. As Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s inventor, says, the essential point is to remove all ritualistic aspects of food, leaving only its practical function:

“We’re definitely not trying to compete with the experience of your mom’s cooking…. Our goal is to make food more like water.”

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If food becomes more like water, then eating will become just a performance. This is not as terrible or unprecedented as you might think. Nearly all the actions in our lives have a performative element. We are a complex social species and interpersonal performance is an indelible human quality. The performative aspects of clothing, haircuts and speech patterns all allow us to passively convey the complex social information we use to conduct personal interactions on a day-to-day basis. The question is what lifts these subtle interpersonal performances to the level of intentional performance more akin to theatre or dance. Right now most of us want our food to taste good, to satiate us and to be, hopefully, a bit healthy for us. Food’s performative aspects are in the background, a consequence of other factors, not a driving force. If we adopt a viable alternative like Soylent that fulfills the functional needs of food, our only reason to cook or eat traditional food will be for purposes of performance. Suddenly, the performative aspects of eating food become not merely a prominent intent but the only intent.

I do not see this as the end of food but the beginning of a different relationship to it, just as email did not spell the end of written communication but marked its transformation. I eat voraciously, retaining the metabolism of an entire football team as I very shortly enter my late twenties. Being able to consume an entire meal that satisfies me quickly, cheaply and is also actually healthy sounds like a miracle. No longer tied to the never-ending task of feeding myself, perhaps I can actually enjoy the food that I do eat.

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