Friday, 27 May 2011

The Jargon of Authenticity

David Burton is most likely New Zealand’s leading food critic; whatever that exact status, it’s certain that his books and wide-ranging writing on food – deeply informed, careful, grounded in decades of research and careful reflection – mark him as a major figure in contemporary food writing in English. His eminence and exemplary status, then, offer reasons to read his works following what the narratologists call a symptomatic interpretation, looking for the ideological and political codes they unwittingly blurt out.

Burton’s prose – with its arch mannerisms, its laboured wit, and the carefully feigned casualness with which it constructs our image of the curmudgeonly implied author – offers suggestive images and fragments, clues to the ideology which it serves. In the era of what Mark Davis calls “the decline of the literary paradigm” and the rise of the celebrity chef, careful attention to the writing of food writing may present political insights of the kinds we used to demand from critics reading literary novelists. If Jamie Oliver’s Mockney gushing over the dishes he prepared for Blair and Berlusconi stands now as a record of one strain of New Labour’s elitist vulgarity, Burton’s concerns follow longer-term shifts in consumption and class society.

Burton’s highest accolade is that he finds food “authentic.” I started, after returning to Wellington last year, keeping clippings from each time his columns used the word, but it soon became clear how pointless the task was; the weeks when ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ didn’t appear were rare enough to seem remarkable in themselves. “Authentic” food is sometimes followed by checks on the racial purity and authenticity or otherwise of restaurant owners or staff: a piece in Cuisine magazine last year on Japanese restaurants noted sniffily that most of the owners profiled weren’t Japanese but instead Korean. Would we make the same background checks on Ford car dealers to be sure they’re all from Detroit? The racism inherent in the gesture (and one very rarely applied to New Zealand chefs trying their hand at different European traditions) goes all but unnoticed.

It makes perfect sense, of course, for a food writer to care about the quality of food and the coherence and flavour of dishes, but isn’t authenticity a particularly ill-suited sign under which to travel? Doesn’t the history of food itself – a history Burton’s own books do a great deal to reveal – reveal the cross-cultural, migratory, productively contaminating and inventive energy which comes from human travel and social interaction? Most of the time ‘authenticity’ is used as a marker to keep others out, or to insist on traditions with dubious roots and stability: it’s no accident that many of the most of what one thinks of as ‘typical’ Japanese dishes – okonomiyaki, say, or teppanyaki – date, in the form we know them, from the post-war period. A survey in the Japan Times a few years back revealed kare raisu, the Japanese take on an Anglo-Indian interpretation, as most readers’ ‘typical’ comfort food.

This is to say nothing in defence of food fads or ‘fusion’, but merely to note that ideas and flavours respect few borders: my favourite food memories from my time in Tokyo are of those meals which were the least authentic, those wonderful Japanese takes on Italian food, mushrooms and fish eggs stirred through pasta and then dressed with nori. Who’s to police what, and where?

Most advocates of “authenticity”, however, would react indignantly to being classed as gate-keepers and racial purists. Aren’t our eating habits and all those ‘ethnic’ restaurants a sign, as the argument goes, of our enlightenment, of the multicultural sophistication of the contemporary liberalism? The racist term “ethnic restaurant” gives that particular game away, and matches the exclusions supporting contemporary liberal thought. Are Pakeha so at one with the Universal they’re able to dispense with talk of their own ethnicity? ‘Ethnicity’ is fine as additional glamour and as a consumable lifestyle component, but it will be kept in very particular places, and its excesses policed.

A seemingly apolitical obsession with culinary ‘authenticity’, then, works in parallel with the kinds of ‘authenticity’ political multiculturalism authorises: activities which promote separation, distance, and reified cultural practices – the Multicultural Festivals so beloved of city councils the developed world over – are promoted, while vehicles for cultural communication, contact, blurring and exchange – the trade union movement, centrally, joint political struggle, the kinds of interactions working-class social and industrial life imply –are denied or belittled.

Slavoj Zizek has described multiculturalism as “the cultural logic of multinational capitalism”, and his remarks illuminate Burton’s obsessions:

… the ideal form of ideology of this global capitalism is multiculturalism, the attitude which, from a kind of empty global position, treats each local culture the way the colonizer treats colonized people—as ‘natives’ whose mores are to be carefully studied and ‘respected’. That is to say, the relationship between traditional imperialist colonialism and global capitalist self-colonization is exactly the same as the relationship between Western cultural imperialism and multiculturalism: in the same way that global capitalism involves the paradox of colonization without the colonizing Nation-State metropole, multi-culturalism involves patronizing Eurocentrist distance and/or respect for local cultures without roots in one’s own particular culture. In other words, multiculturalism is a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a ‘racism with a distance’—it ‘respects’ the Other’s identity, conceiving the Other as a self-enclosed ‘authentic’ community towards which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance rendered possible by his privileged universal position. Multiculturalism is a racism which empties its own position of all positive content (the multiculturalist is not a direct racist, he doesn’t oppose to the Other the particular values of his own culture), but nonetheless retains this position as the privileged empty point of universality from which one is able to appreciate (and depreciate) properly other particular cultures—the multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority.

Authentic Class Relations

For all the talk of authenticity, certain constants from the cultural ‘centre’ remain, and woe betide the waitress with English as a second language or an ‘accent’ (a review from 2002 moaned about the ‘sah-poons’ Burton was offered at Sakura Restaurant) or a restaurant with parts of its menu untranslated (last week’s complaint). These gripes – alongside the usual reviewer’s complacent moaning about standards of service – serve a crucial class function, interpellating us as the subjects of middle-class consumption. Again, the assumed accent-less status of the writer goes unnoticed; if others have ‘accents’, what status then for our own speech? Concerns about “poor service” – a term here covering everything from signs of underpaid and overworked exhaustion through to insufficiently obsequious competence – act to insist on a distance between diner and waiter, a distance for fantasy class investments and egotism.

The historian Ralph Samuel, writing almost thirty years ago on the cultural transformations Thatcherism worked in Britain, observed that

The new middle class have a different emotional economy than that of their pre-war predecessors. They go in for instant rather than deferred gratification, making a positive virtue of their expenditure, and treating the self-indulgent as an ostentatious display of good taste. Sensual pleasures, so far from being outlawed, are the very field on which social claims are established and sexual identities confirmed. Food, in particular, a postwar bourgeois passion . . . has emerged as a crucial marker of class.

Little has changed these last decades, and Burton makes explicit the links between his own project and its social audience:

To explain all this [the culinary renaissance], we may cite the breaking down of trade barriers and the consequent freeing up of imports; the impact of global fashions; and the information age bringing television cooking shows, cookbooks and magazines to a greatly expanded middle class determined to acquire the trappings of culture

One of the by-products of neoliberalism’s success has been that its key ideological foundations have, for many years now, been able to pass themselves off as outside the realm of the political, as common-sense, as universal truths of economic and social life. The tag-team roles of the main parties in the 1980s and 1990s in introducing the neoliberal order helped this process. What I’ve tried here is to suggest some ways that, when the topic is seemingly non-political, symptoms of that ideological process speak themselves. Food reviewing, perhaps, offers itself as political commentary in a way other, more ‘relevant’ discourses, find themselves unable to do.

And what am I having for dinner? Something inauthentic, of course, prepared by a cultural interloper. Just like everybody else.


Burton’s quote I’ve taken from his Biography of a Local Palate (Wellington: Four Winds, 2003), pp. 53 – 54.

Samuels’ lines are quoted in Alex Callinicos, “The New Middle Class and Socialists”, International Socialism, 1983.

The illustrations for this post are from two food-themed manga: Oishinobo, the classic food-critic manga, and Yakitate!, an odd wee tale about the quest for "Ja-Pan", the truly Japanese bread.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Shinjuku Boys

Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). Friends and comrades of mine in Australia marked the day by taking part in speak-outs and rallies building the campaign for same-sex marriage. The Anglican Church in Sydney is trying to stop an important rally for LGBTI rights taking place this weekend, so this lead-up week must have a particular political and emotional force and charge. There were events in New Zealand too, and around the world.

One of the nice things about living in New Zealand again is being within a social formation where the movement has won a certain, enduring, space for lesbian and gay lives, and being able to enjoy the great benefits that brings to all of us. Particularly around where I live in Newtown, for reasons which aren’t clear to me (I fit here the cliche of the straight man for whom obvious social signals are a mystery), there are plenty of gay and lesbian couples living visible lives: as I walk to work each morning I pass a man kissing his boyfriend goodbye for the day, a gesture touching in its (I think calculated) combination of workaday normality and understated but significant physical bravery. This isn’t a tale of lives divorced from the working class, either, as one currently popular narrative in Labour Party circles would have it; these guys look like they’re on a budget, and their shoes show all the signs of regular use. There’s more to win – full marriage rights, for one – and nothing is permanent. Still, seeing two men kissing each morning is a nice, and educational, start to the day: plenty of heterosexual men (myself included) would struggle with that kind of relaxed emotional expressiveness, whatever the wider questions of sexuality. It hasn’t always been this way, of course, and it took a mass movement to win what freedoms there are. The activists in that movement took risks: as Bill Logan has written, “it was no rose garden, but it wasn’t a mistake.”

It’s the transphobia part of the international day I’ve been thinking about recently, though. I’ve learnt a lot, as I suspect plenty of others have too, from the issues that have been raised by the same-sex marriage rights campaigns in Australia and the United States, in particular around the struggles within these movements for the voices of trans people to be heard, and how their contribution to the struggle has strengthened its reach and energy. Sherry Wolf’s essay “To Riki, with respect” moved me, and set other thoughts in motion.


I’ve written before about “this path”, the life of “this world” that is Queer Japan. Reading contributions around IDAHO yesterday, I remembered Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ excellent documentary Shinjuku Boys (1996).

Shinjuku Boys follows the lives of a group of onnabe working in The New Marilyn nightclub in Tokyo. The term Onnabe – the pun here plays on 女 – woman – and 鍋 – nabe, those lovely hot pots that make Japanese winters such fun and which demand a good deal of stirring and mixing – refers to women dressing and/or living as men and working in a “host” bar catering to women clients. Some are transitioning to new physical identities. The clientele are, in the main, heterosexual women, although many form ongoing emotionally and sexually intimate relationships with hosts they meet at the bar. The documentary, in allowing these people to speak openly and freely about their lives, is an intensely moving, educational, and inspirational work.

That last paragraph was difficult to write, and doesn’t communicate particularly well, because each of the terms I’ve looked to ends up proving as inadequate as the one it replaced. This difficulty mirrors the limitations in my political vision the film helped expose. First time around, with well-meaning bafflement, I spent most of my time trying to fix in place precisely what couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be fixed: who were the men? Who were the women? Were any – or all – of the people interviewed lesbians? Which people lived as women? Which wanted to be men?

This line of questioning, apart from being a particularly rude and unpleasant way of talking about other people, is politically unhelpful, and Shinjuku Boys helped me see why. That the labels of sexuality, gender, and, oftentimes, sex itself didn’t fit for many lives was, for the interviewees, a given: things became difficult when other people (and, through them, social forces) tried to make them fit, with sometimes tragic results. Some onnabe were happy, others unhappy, much like the rest of the world: what they shared in common, though, was a determination to live the kind of life they wanted to live. A good aim and, if the social fixations, expectations and clothing- and genital-attractions of each of the sexes didn’t fit so well, bad news for those expectations.

Shinjuku Boys, in giving its commentary over to the subjects of the documentary themselves, forced me to confront complexity. These people’s frankness about identity, sex and sexuality was also a reminder of the importance of respect and privacy, of the sorts of conditions necessary to make political conversation possible: you can’t learn about other people’s lives or needs by demanding easy affiliations from them. The power of unity in struggle is, among many other things, the power of being different. That’s difficult, and needs working at, but I’m sure it’s essential too.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
And ev'n devotion!

The struggle continues: I was very pleased to see the first openly gay candidate win public office in Japan earlier this year. Socialist Ishikawa Taiga marches on May Day, campaigns for AIDS awareness, writes thoughtfully on gay life and has opinions on US bases. (The hint here, again following right-wing commentary on the state of the NZ labour movement: it’s possible to multi-task).

Here in Wellington next month we’re going to march to “Queer the Night”, a sign of LGBTI pride, and against homophobic violence and threats.

So, let's rock society!


Most of the best political and social websites coming out of the Japanese lesbian community start with pages asking men not to view or enter them. Fair enough. I’ve respected those requests and won’t read or link to them, but want to record their absence here. If you’re a woman reading this you might like to explore further.

In keeping with the international day being about action and education, I'd like to acknowledge the extraordinary education in sexual politics and LGBTI history and struggle through my time in Socialist Alternative when I lived in Melbourne.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Australia's Pacific War

Part of the great ideological power of ANZAC Day now is the way it mobilises imagery stressing the pity and sorrow of war in order to strengthen militarism and Australia and New Zealand’s military role in the world. Few events grant the armed forces such opportunities for public display and social legitimacy; fewer still so successfully de-politicise the discussion of political questions. When Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds brought out their collection What’s Wrong With ANZAC : The Militarism of Australian History last year, they faced sustained hostile commentary from both the liberal and right-wing press. In New Zealand it’s taken a legal battle right through to the Supreme Court to establish that free-speech principles stand on April 25th.

The event’s power is recent, and remarkable: baby boomers I’ve spoken to marvel at the transformation of the unpopular, poorly attended and jingoistic events of their youth into the well-nigh universally marked dawn services of today. Part of this appeal is no doubt to do with the passing of the generation who fought in World War Two – I remember that as my own half-formed justification when, as a teenager, I turned out in Queen’s Gardens – but, whatever our individual and complex emotional feelings about loved ones and relatives, the political and social consequences of ANZAC Day’s revival are everywhere evident, and damaging.

This ANZAC Day I was flying home from the Marxism conference in Melbourne, an event where I’d been lucky enough to be able to attend the launch of Tom O’Lincoln’s new book Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth. This book is an excellent, and sorely needed, corrective to the nationalist and pro-war mythology bolstering Australian military and imperial ambitions, and informing the cultural work on ANZAC Day – Australia’s Pacific War is an anti-war counterblast, a critical account of how Australia and its allies fought in the Pacific theatre of World War Two.

The Pacific War has a particular significance in the mythology of contemporary Australian imperialism: for all the drunken revelry of backpapers taking time out from their OEs to worship at Gallipoli each year, World War One offers slim pickings for today’s apologists for war. Widely accepted as an exercise in bloody futility, distant, confused; the First World War serves too easily in the anti-war narrative for the right ever to have bothered much with its reclamation. (The grubby role of Australian and New Zealand troops propping up British colonialism doesn’t help here either: characters in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy use the term “Australian” as a catch-phrase for abusers, pillagers and thugs). Against this, Australia’s actions in the Pacific can be connected to myths of the Second World War as the “good war”, for Australian independence against Japanese aggression, for freedom and democracy, for liberty against empire. It’s a myth which has suited many an imperial venture since.

“What I mean by the Pacific War myth,” O’Lincoln explains, “is a mass phenomenon, in which an elaborate belief system sustains social mobilisation…Instead of a fantasy of inevitable victory, we find a fantasy affirming the inherent validity of national war mobilisation – a national myth that underpins war-making today.” (viii). Replacing older, cruder myths of “inevitable victory” is in part what gives ANZAC Day its ideological force: mourning and recognising the dead, now, provides unwitting support for the set-up that ensured their death.

Australia’s Pacific War sets out an historical record very different to that the myth of the “good war” encourages us to imagine. Australia was never under threat from a Japanese invasion, and its rulers knew this. The fear of that invasion, though, was cleverly developed and exploited by the Labor government of the time to justify and extend war policies abroad and industrial exploitation at home. (Labour’s vile role suppressing civil liberties in both Australia and New Zealand deserves more attention: see, for NZ, Russell Campbell’s documentary Sedition).

Drawing on racist campaigns against the Japanese of long standing, Australia’s media and political forces used the war to whip up popular loathing and a de-humanising of the enemy. Where anti-Nazi propaganda focused on Germany’s leaders, anti-Japanese material was generalising, and deeply racist. O’Lincoln quotes from an article on “The Japanese as a Fighter” in the Melbourne Argus :

He was a mass of contradictions – he fought grimly, enduring terrible wounds, until he was destroyed; or he ran in screaming fear; or he blew himself to pieces with a grenade clutched to his chest or stomach. He was cruel and dirty and bestial. He killed his wounded rather than have them fall into our hands. He plundered and raped the natives. The Australians and Americans came to loathe him as one loathes something that is dirty and ratlike.

And this appeared after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Politicians exploit this set of associations still; O’Lincoln quotes Alexander Downer in the early days of the “war on terror” referring to “monsters such as Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.” Even George Bush himself wasn’t as capacious in his genealogies of the Axis of Evil.

Australia’s Pacific War details the Australian army’s role in sustaining British – and Australian – colonial domination in the Asia-Pacific region; Australia’s invasion of East Timor; racism in the occupation of the Japan and repression of the Japanese labour movement; and the impact of the war on democratic liberties and class struggle at home. Life for people in colonised countries under Japanese rule could be very unpleasant: in this, it differed little from life under any of the other competing colonial forces in the region. O’Lincoln quotes from a diary of an Australian soldier:

The private local war [in East Timor], Portuguese versus native, still goes on in its bloodthirsty way, and provides some humour for sub units. One of our patrols near Mape, out hunting the Jap, encountered a Portuguese patrol out hunting some natives, they exchanged compliments and went their various ways.

This all makes for grim, but important, reading, but Australia’s Pacific War isn’t just a chronicle of war’s horrors. O’Lincoln includes chapters on unrest on the homefront – industrial unrest, certainly, but also changing attitudes to gender and sexuality – and considers some of the experience of ordinary soldiers in Japan, and how these human encounters changed their attitudes and actions. There’s plenty on the ongoing resistance of indigenous people – in Australia and in colonies abroad – to the treatment they received from occupying forces.

Australia’s Pacific War is written to “challenge conventional views of the war.” I hope it does.


Tom O’Lincoln’s website has some excerpts from the book, as well as supplementary material on questions it raises – on the (compromised and occasionally horrifying) position of Communists in Australia towards the war, on labour in the war, and more.

ANZAC Day has been a site of social conflict and contestation as well as forced unity: read Kyla Cassell’s very good article here (PDF) on class conflict at ANZCAC Day celebrations between the wars.