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Reading a Bottled Water Menu

There is a restaurant in Los Angeles with a ~40-page “Water Menu.”* The menu, which features about 20 different brands of bottled water, is curated by Martin Riese, “America’s only certified water sommelier.” What are we to make of this?

R and S menu 3

Ray’s & Stark Water Menu. Photo: M. Gero. Used with permission.

Maybe it suggests nothing more than the success of clever marketing, or that some people just “have more money than good sense,” as a favoured saying in my family goes. But maybe there is more to it. After all, I’m old enough to remember when bottled water was almost unheard of in North America, but it is ubiquitous today. And while most people are well aware of the pernicious effects of bottled water consumption, and there are plenty of campaigns to ban or limit it, US per capita bottled water consumption increased tenfold in the last quarter of the 20th century, and more than doubled again in the first 15 years of this one (Canadian figures are not much different).  And most of us think of “water” (singular) as homogeneous and tasteless, but there are something like 3000 different brands of bottled water available globally.

So I spent some time looking at, and thinking about, this water menu. And writing a pretty detailed analysis of it, which is being published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, here. (It is paywalled, but if you can’t access it and want to, let me know.) If you just want the short version, read on.

The article starts with two epigraphs. One is from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who literally wrote the book on taste. In one of his most famous phrases (just yesterday quoted by – ugh – David Brooks): “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Bourdieu’s work emphasizes the difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating the physical sensation of taste from the social phenomenon of taste as an assertion of cultivation, refinement, or status.

This insight is helpful for understanding both the water menu specifically and the evolution of bottled water more generally. When bottled water was relatively rare, its mere consumption was a mark of distinction. Paying for a bottle of water, rather than contenting yourself with the free tap water that everyone else drinks, was a way to signal an elevated or refined sense of taste. A relatively early (2001) critical analysis of this phenomenon, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, explains: “Drinking expensive bottled water (compared to tap water) is a sign of a rise in the social scale” (p18).

But things are more complicated now. What does bottled water signify when it is itself produced and consumed on a mass basis? When environmental and other critiques of the industry are widespread? When big brands are produced by soft drink conglomerates and are known to be little more than tap water in a plastic container? Since I wrote the article, water sommelier Martin Riese has provided an answer to these questions that is short enough to fit into a single tweet:

Riese tweet

“Water from nature and not from a factory.” But how do you tell the difference?

A number of previous studies have shown how bottled water brands rely on images of nature to sell their product (pictures of mountains or lakes, implicitly distinguishing it from municipal water that comes out of a metal tap). A content analysis of the water menu confirms this is one of the more prominent themes. A majority of the brands are described using words like “natural,” “untouched,” “pristine,” or “pure.” Moreover, “purity” is almost always assured by association with human-free wilderness – the water source’s spatial or temporal distance from human influence – than by human regulation.

One interesting finding was that (by about a 2-1 margin) more of the menu discusses how particular waters are produced (where they come from), than what it is like to consume them (how they taste). Even in a restaurant, when portability isn’t a concern, and it is just as “convenient” to order a glass of tap water, the menu suggests that it isn’t necessary to inform readers how a brand of water tastes, in order to cultivate a taste for it.

Another surprising finding was the prevalence of geological references in the brand descriptions. Geological terms or phrases (“ancient volcanic rock” or “layers of ignimbrite” – note also the references to low or high mineral content in Riese’s tweet above) appear in a majority of the brands. Sometimes the implication of this specific geology are clear (“the reason for the inimitable freshness”). But other times it remains unstated. This seems to pose something of a paradox: to sense something’s “naturalness” requires specialized scientific knowledge?

Bourdieu again provides a clue. He insists that “taste” is acquired, through “a labour of identification and decoding” (Distinction, p.100). Using the example of art connoisseurs, he notes how it takes time and work to develop a good sense of taste in art. Since Bourdieu didn’t endorse a distinction between “aesthetic consumption” (e.g. viewing art) and “ordinary consumption” (e.g. drinking water), it would stand to reason that he would agree that being able to taste differences between waters also requires a “labour of identification and decoding.” But here is one difference: for Bourdieu, writing in 20th century France, taste was seen as a marker of “the progress from nature to culture” (Distinction, p.490). In 21st century North America, taste may mark a kind of progress in the other direction: the desire for, ability to sense, and acquisition of experiences of, (non-anthropogenic) “nature.”

In short, it isn’t enough to say that bottled water drinkers are deluded, or that the taste differences between bottled waters are invented or imagined. Maybe they are, but these delusions or imaginings are collective ones, and, like all distinctions and discriminations, they have real social consequences.

If the cultivation of taste requires work, and tastes therefore evolve over time, we might be better to ask what kind of history has been required to produce the taste distinctions that the water menu evokes, and what price has been paid to develop this rich sensory capacity. Which brings me, finally, to the second epigraph for the article about the water menu, from Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”


* Or maybe there was such a restaurant. The restaurant’s website no longer has a separate “water menu,” and now only lists 10 different brands of water on its “cocktail menu“. Some evidence that the water menu did exist can be found, for example, here, here, and here.


Adorno: A Reading List

So, this happened a few days ago….


In the multiple choice poll that Jeet Heer posted, Adorno came a distant second to Hannah Arendt (but ahead of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt). I’ve taught texts by all four of them (a post that is partly about teaching Arendt’s The Human Condition is here). They all have their virtues. And if you only have 5 minutes, read the two-page Epilogue to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

But if you have more time, then Adorno. I’ve taught a seminar on Critical Political Theory eight (ulp!) times now. Adorno has always been there to some extent, although he has been looming larger as the course has evolved. The first few times, I just assigned the “culture industry” chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment (co-authored with Max Horkheimer). Then a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, the course underwent a major re-boot, with a more sustained focus on Frankfurt School thinkers (including Adorno). Now we read all of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which takes close to half of the course, and the last couple of times through, I have also started the course with a shorter essay of Adorno’s (more on those, below).

First warning: if you are looking for a quick solution to the Trump problem, Adorno is not your guy. For Adorno, the search for solutions (and especially quick and easy ones) is exactly what gets us into the kinds of problems that we are currently facing.

Second warning: one of the problems with proposing an Adorno reading list is that, as Adorno says in “Essay as Form”: “It is impossible to always begin at the beginning.” I warn my students that Adorno is a difficult writer, and no matter where you start, you are likely to feel like you are not just dropped into the deep end, but adrift on a vast ocean. Occasionally, you will spot an island of meaning rising above the waves (“hey, I get that reference!”) Keep paddling, and you will increasingly (eventually) be able to put your feet down.

A few places to start:

  • “Society.” This is where we start my Critical Political Theory course. It is a short (10 pp) piece that is something like an encyclopedia entry. It gives a sense both of what Adorno thinks “society” is or means, and of what a “critical theory” is supposed to look like.
  • “Education after Auschwitz.” This was suggested by @FoptimusSublime in response to Heer’s poll. It is from a 1966 radio lecture, so the form makes it more accessible than some of his written work. And if this exercise is inspired by the fear that we are veering towards fascism, then it is on-point.
  • “The Idea of Natural History.” I mean, if you actually want to start at the beginning… this is one of Adorno’s earliest published works. I think it is really helpful for thinking about contemporary environmental issues, particularly in the Anthropocene, but that may be another story.

Now, if you want the “really essential readings” (s/o to folks who were in the grad school Comparative Politics core course, where that phrase was regularly used to describe the tranche of ~500 pages of weekly assigned readings, just below the equally big “required” tranche).

  • Minima Moralia. A collection of 100+ – what do we call them, mini-essays? “hot takes” avant la lettre? The aphoristic format – the vast majority of the sections are no more than a page or two – means you don’t need a big block of time to devote to it. Adorno is a master aphorist, and a lot of the best ones are here.
  • Dialectic of Enlightenment. This is the text that is probably best known, though not necessarily most read. The entire field of cultural studies more or less begins as a reaction to the perceived elitism of the chapter on the “culture industry.” (It is the first chapter in Simon During’s edited collection The Cultural Studies Reader.) As mentioned above, I used to assign that chapter alone, as I think it still provides a sharp diagnosis of much of contemporary pop culture (I don’t think it or Adorno more generally is as elitist as cultural studies scholars have tended to assume). It is the second-last chapter of the book, and when I initially shifted to assigning the whole book, I worried that the last full chapter, and the fragmentary “Notes and Sketches” that follow it, would be somewhat anti-climactic. This year, that changed. Reading the last chapter (“Elements of Anti-Semitism”) in mid-October 2016 was an amazing experience. If you can set aside the dated Freudian view of sexuality, Horkheimer & Adorno’s fixation on the “half-educated” and “paranoiac” as a political-psychological problem, seems an uncannily prescient view of contemporary politics.
  • “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda.” Another short piece, based on the work done for the large Research Project on Anti-Semitism, that produced The Authoritarian Personality. This essay can be found in The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, which also includes Adorno’s (significantly longer) analysis of the LA Times Astrology column.
  • “Commitment.” A later (1962) essay on political art.

And then… Adorno’s two biggest and most challenging works.

  • Negative Dialectics. If anything can be described as Adorno’s philosophical magnum opus, this is it. He might have rejected the “philosophical” descriptor, but it certainly is a big work. The lecture course that preceded its publication, where he works out many of the ideas in the text, is now available (Lectures on Negative Dialectics). Full disclosure: I haven’t read the Lectures, although I did have a student who did for her MA thesis, and she said it made ND itself easier.
  • Aesthetic Theory. Published posthumously as it wasn’t finished in Adorno’s lifetime. In the first paragraph of Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translator’s introduction, he describes “starkly unbeckoning sheer sides of type, uninterrupted by chapter titles or typographic markers, that have severed and jettisoned every approach and patched over most every apparent handhold.” You’ve been warned.

I generally don’t recommend secondary literature to my students, as I would rather they struggle with the texts themselves, even if they get some of the ideas “wrong,” than learn someone else’s interpretation. I also haven’t kept up with the secondary literature on Adorno in the last decade-plus. So, caveat emptor.

  •   If you are interested in the historical/biographical background, Martin Jay’s Dialectical Imagination is a classic, and provides at least as much time to explaining Frankfurt School ideas as to covering historical events. Thomas Wheatland’s The Frankfurt School in Exile is more historically focused, on their time in the USA. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, embarrassingly, sits on my to-read pile. I know I should.
  • In the same vein but much shorter is the “Introduction” to David Held’s Introduction to Critical Theory. I assign this along with Adorno’s “Society” in the first week of the Critical Theory course, so that there isn’t a mass exodus from the course.
  • It’s been a while, but I remember Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction being helpful as I worked my way through the Adorno chapter of my PhD dissertation. Slightly more recent is Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. And then Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance.
  • Finally, to circle back to where this, in a way, really started: like a lot of people, over the last year and a half I have read a lot of essays, thinkpieces, hot-takes, op-eds, and Twitter threads about Trump. Peter Gordon’s essay, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” from last summer, remains, I still think, the single best one I have read.


Fall term 2016: review in lieu of post

Well, after blogging semi-regularly during a 6-month sabbatical in the first half of the year, I completely fell off the blogging schedule in the second half.

I don’t know if it was actually an unusually busy semester (it sure seemed like it, at times), or I was overwhelmed by the change of pace after the sabbatical. Here is what I did instead of blogging over the last few months:

  • Taught two regular courses: one (“Critical Political Theory”) which I have been teaching pretty regularly over the last few years (though it still gets tweaked every year), and one (“Politics of Water”), which I last taught 4 years ago. That one went through a pretty significant overhaul. The good news is that the work of overhauling the course means that I have some material for a few teaching-related posts (hopefully coming soon). I also taught a directed reading course on Politics & Hip-hop. A steep learning curve on that one for me, although the one-on-one format did help to take some of the pressure off. Help in a couple of instances (at least!) came from the folks at the Critical Karaoke podcast, and also from Jeff Hennessy’s (music prof and interim Dean of Arts at Acadia) Tuesday evening open album listening nights.
  • Supervising an ongoing Honours thesis (on water politics in Israel-Palestine), and three or four (depending on how you count) ongoing MA theses. One (or two) of those were more or less “dormant” this semester, for various reasons, but the other two (Bourdieuian analysis of US campaign finance; politics of/& dystopian literature) were more active.
  • I also sat on two MA thesis examining committees (one on Foucault & Deleuze, one using Agamben to explore tolerance and xenophobia in the context of the current refugee crisis).
  • Participated in two roundtable discussions/public forums on campus: one on electoral reform in Canada, and the other on the aftermath of the US election. (The latter was recorded as part of our new departmental podcast series.)
  • Presented papers at our graduate colloquium, and at the Atlantic Provinces Political Science Association conference in Saint John, NB.
  • Gave a public lecture on “21st Century Water Wars: Global and Local” at Oxford College at Emory University, in Atlanta, GA.
  • Submitted an article, had it desk-rejected, and resubmitted to another journal (all in August), had it accepted with revisions, and just sent the revised version off last week.
  • Started (and almost finished) a proposal for a co-authored book project.
  • The usual department head duties and various other service commitments. You don’t want to know.

As usual, one of my new year’s resolutions will be to try to post something here more regularly. For now, it’s back to grading…

Sabbaticalog: Month 6

Well, this is it: the end of the sabbatical. This month…

  • My WPSA paper (posted at the WPSA conference site here – search for my name) is being turned into two journal articles. The original conference paper was about 6000 words. The first article is almost done. It is about 9000 words, and I think most of them are actually the right words. Just needs a bit of polishing before I send it out. For the second one, I have about 2/3 of what I need written.
  • One conference paper proposal (written and submitted), for APPSA 2016.
  • One blog post published, or two if you count this one. Two more that are in progress.
  • Syllabi for both of my Fall courses are basically done (still tinkering, of course).
  • ~40 micro-blog posts (tweets) and ~300 emails

Tomorrow is a holiday, but Monday morning I will be back in the office and resuming my term as department head. I know I will have a few administrative duties to get done pretty much right away, but some of them are actually nice ones. Hopefully there won’t be too many unpleasant surprises… and I will be able to finish up some of the unfinished things above, as well as other things I’ve recently committed to, like reviewing this book for the Canadian Historical Review.

Speaking of books: there is a story at my university – perhaps not even apocryphal – about a now-retired colleague who once submitted a sabbatical leave proposal that consisted entirely of a list of books that he proposed to read. Over the last six months, it has been nice to be able to tuck into these books (none of which I read because I had agreed to review it or put it on a course syllabus):

  • John Meyer, Engaging the Everyday
  • Gay Hawkins, Kane Race, and Emily Potter, Plastic Water
  • Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life
  • Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy
  • Romand Coles, Visionary Pragmatism
  • John Hultgren, Border Walls Gone Green

And now, one last sabbatical task:





Anger Management, or, Politics after Trump

Although there have been a number of false endings before, it may be that the last few days’ combination of bad recent poll results, even worse fundraising, and the firing of his campaign manager, signal the beginning of the end of the Trump campaign. There are a number of ways this could play out, including a general election loss in November (with or without a third party “spoiler”), a convention coup that denies him the nomination in July, or even the prospect that Trump might be bought out.

Jeet Heer has argued against a convention coup (and presumably the buy-out, as well), on the grounds that the best way to move past Trump is to defeat him through existing democratic institutions. The argument against this view is that, politics being what it is, if Trump has the Republican nomination, then virtually by definition he has a chance of being elected in November. If a Trump presidency is the worst conceivable outcome, then better he is out-maneuvered or bought out earlier. On the other hand, Heer is certainly right that how Trump loses matters for the post-Trump world. And for a while, I’ve been thinking that a more plausible Trump victory would not involve getting 270 electoral college votes in the election night count in November, but rather (and more frighteningly) convincing a sufficient number of people that the election was “stolen” from him. The constant references to Clinton as “crooked Hillary” seem to be a piece of this strategy. And in a strange way his lack of fundraising success and alienation from some of the GOP establishment, and even the seemingly strange campaign decisions not to focus on swing states, supports it as well.

Both preventing the above (unlikely but not impossible) scenario, and dealing constructively with the post-Trump political landscape, require mitigating the anger that is at the heart of trump’s campaign.

From the start, a lot has been made of Trump’s success in connecting with voters characterized as “angry.” In particular, commenters have focused on white male working-class voters who have seen various forms of racial and gender privilege eroded along with the economic security afforded by the long post-war boom. Racial divisions aside, Rob Ford tapped into the same set of grievances. And while a Trump flame-out is unlikely to take the same form as Ford’s, Trump has the potential to engage in behaviour that is just about as spectacularly unhinged.

We can think of Trumpism as a politics of anger that is different and bigger than Trump himself, and could be intensified in a reaction against a thoroughly “hinged” candidate  – someone like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton. If Trumpism can survive the demise of Trump, then that anger will need to be dealt with. Plenty has been written about its social and economic root causes: particularly the hollowing out of the American manufacturing economy and the loss of self-worth and optimism about the future that comes with it. Trump’s success, it is said, lies in his uncanny ability to “tap into” or “channel” this anger, even more effectively (or “authentically”) than the dog-whistle politics that has characterized the Republican party for decades.

But this language of “tapping” or “channeling” doesn’t adequately capture what is going on, insofar as it presents that anger as a pre-existing substance, whose quantity is effectively fixed: there are always angry people out there, but until Trump came along, they were disengaged from the political process. To be sure, Trump didn’t invent white American male rage, and there is probably some truth to the idea that his directness engages some people who weren’t engaged by previous, more coded versions of similar messages. But two political theoretical tools can help us to think about that anger as curated, rather than naturally occurring.

The first is William Connolly’s idea of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine. The idea here is that (some of) the sensibilities of evangelical Christianity and capitalist free-market ideology (“cowboy capitalism”) resonate with each other, and through various cultural forms and communication media (Hollis Phelps also discusses Trump in the context of the evangelical capitalist resonance machine here). It is similar to the idea that narrowcasted media outlets have created an “echo chamber,” where we are increasingly only presented with ideas and perspectives that conform with our pre-existing ideological convictions and political preferences. The “echo chamber” metaphor generally presumes that what echoes are ideas. For Connolly, what resonates are “affinities of sensibility,” and in particular in the evangelical capitalist resonance machine, feelings of resentment. Contemporary media experience is an affective amplifier.

Romand Coles’s new book builds on this idea, in particular by noting the ways in which the communication and amplification of these affective messages happen at what he calls a “cellular” level. Coles draws on recent developments in the science of mirror neurons to highlight (quoting neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni) “the fundamentally intersubjective nature of our own brains,” and thus the ways in which (Coles): “We are born, formed, carried along in, and transformed by waves of intercorporeal resonance that precede all recognition.” (p42) We are created by resonances, starting with babies whose smiling intensifies in response (resonance) to their parents’ smiling at their smile, and right up to putatively rational-deliberative settings, from political meetings to seminar rooms, where “deliberation” is deeply affected by the ways in which we carry our bodies and set our facial expressions.

This “intercorporeal resonance” – the affective amplifier – occurs before and beneath the level of discourse and rationality. The resonance machine is not so much (or not only) about the repetition of particular talking points or memes, or even about the use of particular rhetorical tropes to whip up emotional reactions. Rather it is about particular bodily dispositions that precognitively set us to receive messages in particular ways. Fox News, for example, provides a

“continuous audiovisual resonance of loud voices, angry faces, mad gestures…. The pulsating fury of these audiovisual performances appeared to be shutting down human capacities for paying attention, receptivity, and curiosity and tarrying with the complexities of different people’s lives.” (p33)

Trump’s speeches can be unscripted, because the content that really matters is not the words, but the affective disposition that he projects and generates.

The second idea has to do with the susceptibility to the kinds of affective resonances that the Trump campaign taps into and produces. Back in January, Matthew MacWilliams wrote about Trump’s appeal among people who could be classified as having an “authoritarian personality.” The “authoritarian personality” (the “F-scale”) draws on mid-20th century research, done by Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, in collaboration with a group of more empirically-minded American psychologists. Peter E. Gordon has an excellent article that contextualizes Adorno’s relationship with that research, and how it helps us to understand the phenomenon. The article is really worth reading in full, but at least part of the upshot is that according to Adorno, it is wrong think of “personality types” (including the authoritarian personality) as static or ahistorical categories. Rather, specific personality types (and even the possibility of categorizable “personality types” itself) are produced by historical forces and circumstances. So it isn’t the case that there are always going to be a certain proportion of people in a society who have authoritarian (or other kinds of) personalities. Instead, different kinds of societies are more or less likely to produce authoritarian personalities.

Gordon cites Adorno’s unpublished remarks on the authoritarian personality study: “People are inevitably as irrational as the world in which they live.” Like many of Adorno’s aphorisms, this cuts both ways. On the one hand, authoritarian personalities are produced out of what Adorno called “totally administered society,” which included not only fascist societies, but also Soviet Communist, and advanced capitalist ones. The dominant forms of society in the mid-twentieth century tended to produce people who craved authoritarian relations. In Coles’ and Connolly’s more contemporary terms, in the evangelical capitalist resonance machine, the anger-tariat on Fox News and elsewhere, effectively short-circuits our capacity for democratic (non-authoritarian) engagement at an affective, cellular level. But on the other hand, it is those who are most well-adjusted to the world as it is – the perfectly “hinged” political candidates who represent the establishment, for example – who can be characterized as irrational. Opposing Trump is not enough, if that opposition is conceived in terms of a return to the status quo ante, the conditions that generated Trumpism in the first place.

For Coles, the project is to cultivate “radical receptivity” – one can think of it as the polar opposite of the disposition cultivated by Fox News in the quotation above – as a response to this situation.

“In a rapidly changing world on the brink of collapse, where people of different traditions, new movements, and emergent experiences are tossed together in order to address problems, it is difficult to think of a more important ethical and political art.” (p34)

I find it hard to disagree with this. In part I take it to mean pivoting from #NeverTrump – an absolute demand that has authoritarian overtones of its own – to cultivating a more genuinely democratic, and thus less angry, politics.

Sabbaticalog: Month 5


Writing done in this, the penultimate month of my sabbatical leave.

  • Two reference letters (one for a colleague, one for a student)
  • One grant review, one book manuscript review (and I wasn’t the infamous “reviewer #2” for either of them!)
  • Article about the Chronicle-Herald strike for CCPA Monitor
  • Another 1000 or so words on a book project that I am becoming more realistic/pessimistic about
  • Started a prospectus for a different (co-authored) book project
  • Working on revisions to my WPSA paper; hoping to have an article submitted within the next month, and if things go well, a second, related one underway.
  • No blog posts, but have started something that will either be a series of posts or a longer article.
  • ~60 microblog posts (tweets) and ~300 emails

I’ve also got one of my two course syllabi for the Fall already done, and the second one mostly done, and have a start on both of my Winter term courses as well.


Sabbaticalog: Month 4

Writing this month:

  • two manuscript reviews (one article, one book)
  • one reference letter
  • two blog posts, not including this one. One, on the Chronicle-Herald strike, has been reposted on the CCPA and sites, and is getting me on the Sheldon MacLeod show this afternoon. (2:30 Atlantic time on News 95.7 in Halifax or on the internet, if you want to tune in)
  • 1000 words on a book project… There is a plan to get this moving more quickly. And the plan is crazy enough, it just might work.
  • ~200 emails
  • ~20 tweets/microblog posts
  • Syllabi for both my fall courses are just about finished (I’ve never had them this close to ready four months in advance).