Breakfast cereal is an emblem of the industrialized food system. If the system had a totem, surely the faces of Captain Crunch, Tony the Tiger, and Snap, Crackle and Pop would be displayed on it. The cereal box I opened this morning to feed my boy, Kellog’s Smacks – which features a froglike creature with big eyes, an open mouth, a startlingly human tongue, and human like hands, splashing about in milk and wheat stalks and larva shaped honey smacks, against a vivid red background – tells me that it provides me with “50 % Vit. D. Daily Needs”. I’m never sure if I should believe this kind of thing, or even really what it means – one bowl? The whole box? On the back it provides me with a printout of “ingredients” and”nutritional facts”. That the words are in English and Arabic points to the global system – this Kellogg’s cereal box has been somewhat vaguely routed or controlled by the Kellogg’s office in Casablanca.
This box is a marvel as well as, given the ecological tragedy of agribusiness, a horror. Marvels and horrors are the familiars of my ordinary life – and no doubt yours, reader. We flip between them with every app and every birdless sky.
The world of commerce, the system of global production and circulation which brought that box to my kitchen, seems, sometimes, to fill the world. It depends, however, on the act of giving. I give the cereal to my boy. My wife gave her time, labor and money to go out and get the box and bring it back home. My definition of neoliberalism is that cultural regime which attempts to completely embed the social in the economic (defined narrowly as capitalism, a market based system of goods and services controlled by capital); however, it is always limited by the fact that it depends, fundamentally, on what Georges Bataille called the “general economy” – the economy of unexchanged energy, generosity, sacrifice and giftgiving. The further neoliberalism digs into the general economy, the more it undermines itself. In this contradiction, myth is generated.
At least this is one way to locate myth. I am writing under the spell of Roland Barthes mythologies, essays on the quotidien that attempt to decode certain bourgeois patterns of recognition, styles of representation, in order to reveal their mythic dynamic. Barthes wrote these pieces in the fifties, when he was still using an impressionistic technique. He didn’t quite have together what he meant by myth. His latter essay on myth, which was added when the pieces were combined into a book, is confusing, I think, because he retrospectively tries to cast what he was doing in the armature of the more fully developed semiotics that he was able to manipulate in the sixties. Still, each of those essays has an exhilarating air, as though he were an alien among these ads, sports events, strip shows and automobiles.
Myself, I can sit pretty, given such predecessors as Barthes and a thousand others. Yet I still don’t have the categories to quite understand, for instance, the glue, or – I suspect – starch based adhesive that gives the box its use and mystery. The top of the cereal box is a familiar rectangle divided into two rough triangles traced out by impressed creases. One of the triangles slots under the other. However, to get to that organized state – which we will call the OPENED cereal box – I have to make it so – because the box is eminently CLOSED this morning. It comes closed. It is closed when it finishes its transit of the assembly line. The box is lightly sealed because the contents of the box have to be protected from spills and damage. The cereal, in other words, is very much conditioned not just by the fact that its end use is to be digested, but also by its circulation – its storage, transportation, and distribution on top of shelves in a store. Due to the necessity imposed by the truck, the store manager, and the stock person, I am confronted by a sealed box top. The potentially separable triangles that make up that box top are glued to two interior cardboard flaps. In the face of this, I, an American bred and born in the 20th century, know just what to do: I must deflower this box top. But from long experience I also know that I can make a mess of it. Too much pressure and you tear the thing, destroying the ideal symmetry that would insert the slot snugly under the mouth of the other triangle. If I exert the right pressure, I can break the adhesive bond and the box top will tent perfectly over the contents, which are, as well, protected by being stored in a little wax paper embryo inside. That wax paper, too, I will have to force open when I get to it – and for that, scissors is your best friend. That is, if they are at hand. On the other hand, if I am too violent, the box top triangles will rip, and instead of tenting the contents, they will raise up, irregularly torn, revealing the grayish paper under the beautiful red dye. Every time, then, I open the cabinet and take out the cereal box, its ruinous state will reproach me. This reproach will attach, like fine starch adhesive, to my thoughts about the cereal – I will be inclined to want to hurry up its consumption, and might well toss the box before it is completely void of honey smack pleasure, in the way one hides things one is ashamed of.
This is doubly bad: not only will the box and the wax paper embryo be prematurely tossed into the garbage can, from whence they will be taken to foul some corner of the earth and leach their dyes into the water, but also the organic matter, the food, will be put into this system. Wasting food, organic matter, is not only bad on the human scale, but ups my carbon footprint.
Thus, much depends on my successfully applying a degree of force: my shame, my eco-citizenship, and my sense of being a good housekeeper.
The need to seal and break a seal – that is, to have adhesives that both adhere and break apart proportionate to the human force brought upon them – is an old old story, going back to myths of seals of wax that lock away vital messages – as for instance in the case of Bellerophon, who was entrusted with a message that, under its seal, instructed the receiver to kill the messenger. That is one mythic facet of my titanic and tiny struggle with the box. The other facet is that what we are talking about here, with this sealed box, is a trap. It is a trap for me, a trap in which I am, as a consumer and manipulator, caught. Here, too, our fundamental functions count: Open/Closed. A trap uses that binary to effect the capture of animals. And it was not long after the trap was devised that the self-referential joke of it – the trapper trapped – found its way into tales as a motif. Traps are part of a technology that goes far back in human pre-history, like fire and writing.
So much depends on that starch based adhesive.
This morning, I successfully applied just enough, but not too much, force and opened the box. Then I poured the cereal into the bowl. As the box is narrow and rectangular, I do this in a rather eccentric way, out of the side of the box. According to Scott Bruce’s Cerealizing America, the box type in which my honey Smacks are stored is called a billboard box. I am utterly at home with this kind of box – it is part of the syntax of boxes that I have dealt with all my life.
Habit makes the habitus. The cereal box is a monument, among other things, to packaging waste. the extraordinary extra layers that we flake off our objects, the plastic tied in plastic, the cardboard that discloses tissue paper. I know this. Yet it is also a nostalgia object, deeply embedded in my childhood and the childhoods of all the kids I know. This is why when I, on rare occasion, buy cereal for myself – for instance, oatmeal flakes – and I buy it in bulk, which makes more sense, I find the bag that I use to store it and carry it with me relatively joyless. The bag disenchants the whole cereal box experience. There is no froglike anthropomorph jumping around iconically on the front of the bag – it is simply brown. It is better. It is rational. It is faceless. It is pure.
And so the carnival is over.