Friday, December 27, 2013

2012 in Shit (Bonus): Candy

I'll keep this one fairly short.

Samira Kawash's Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure is a pop history of candy, from its early artisanal form through industrialization up to its current status as a sort of generalized exception. It begins with a story about a friend of Kawash's daughter, whose parents showed utter contempt at the possibility of their offspring eating candy. It then hops back to the mid-19th century, and gives a broad history of how the stuff was made and talked about.

That description is actually closer to the book that I wanted to read than the one that actually exists, but it's still largely accurate. I had some problems with the structure of the book, and some with how what I thought I was going to be reading differed from what I actually ended up reading.

The latter, and less fair, complaint, is largely based on the fact that I assumed it would be more explicitly a history of the manufacture of candy, while it turns out to be largely a history of various discursive threads around, about, or by candy and its manufacturers. It is much more a book about marketing than production. Sometimes this is really interesting; other times not so much. It's always pretty compellingly told; Kawash writes in a very pop history register, and so is totally readable (even if that clarity sometimes comes at a lack of depth) and knows how to tell what amounts to a long series of citations in a way that feels like a story.

Well, sort of. Which is the former problem; rather than structuring the book chronologically, each chapter has a tendency to focus in on a specific discursive thread and track it through up to a certain point. This seems kind of fine, in abstract, and isn't necessarily a bad thing; it, again, makes the whole thing much more readable, and I am always suspicious of my own preferences with regards to these sorts of books since I read very few history texts in general, and a large part of that problem has to do with the fact that I think I want more immediate depth than a pop history tends to provide but also don't have the background to actually engage with more difficult history texts. But anyway.

The book, after a few chapters, begins to feel like it might have been better situated as a coffee table type rather than a 300 page tome; as each chapter recapitulates certain years from the previous ones, they begin to feel more and more like semi-related vignettes than a cohesive look at the subject matter. Certainly it wouldn't be impossible to glean the large picture by reading through the book, but by teasing out, say, the arguments made against candy in the lead up to and through Prohibition in one chapter suggests that there are certain historical reasons for this discourse. But to then go back a couple chapters later to talk about the homemade candy craze of those same years, without any acknowledgment that these are in fact the same years, and likely the same people, the book starts to read less like a historical understanding of the discourses and more like a flat out reification of them. There's a little bit of a problem in the inconsistencies of Kawash's editorializing, whether overt or implicit, that contributes to this; she often manages to put together the discourses in a way that avoids moralizing about or apologizing for candy or its makers and marketers, but not always. Which is kind of a big difference.

The other biggest problem with the book is the way that it ends; after largely being good about refusing to moralize, she falls totally into the trap of moralizing about processed foods. The chapter "Candification" outright ends up calling processed foods fake; a trap which one would assume writing a book about the ways in which candy has often been called fake would presumably hypersensitize one to. I imagine someone who has more invested in the idea of "real vs fake" foods than I do would find this less objectionable, but it seems to me to be a consequence of Kawash doing ideology critique without the tools of ideology critique. Admittedly, she is as quick to call bullshit on processed foods marketed as health food as she is those which don't position themselves as such, but her conclusion that unprocessed foods are the only real food, with which processed foods (including candy) ought only ever to be supplemented, seems to me to simply recapitulate certain currently vogue forms of localism which themselves are decidedly historical as though they are (say it with me, ideology) transhistorical, scientific fact.

Of course, there are parts of the book that are really fucking cool. As much as my childish resistance to pop history locates itself in whining about books that are just collections of neat facts, there are some hella neat facts in this book. A personal favorite is the circa-World War II advertisement which relies on equating housework with work according to the scientific understanding of nutrition (i.e. calories) of the time (pictured below). The idea that "Housework--any work--uses energy" is, given the centrality of the Wages for Housework campaign and its related work (even as I am woefully underread on the actual campaign or its theorists work) in my own thinking, kind of really fucking interesting. Obviously the purpose here isn't to demand the impossible, to make clear the invisible exploitation that structures the mode of production, but to sell a product. Even so, though, the struggle is strange, and these weird lacunae are important.

If this seems largely negative, it's only because the book itself is, for the most part, very interesting. I honestly didn't have particularly high expectations of it, and even if the lateral difference between what I did expect and what I got was kind of disappointing, I was largely impressed with the work. I don't know that I'd recommend it totally generally, but I certainly think it's the sort of thing that is worth reading if you think you'd be into it. Especially if you keep in mind that it might work better as a set of discrete chapters rather than a larger narrative.

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