Department of Anthropology
Southern Illinois University
So you’re seated at a table with a dozen strangers. Hungry, you’ve got a bowl of some sort of stew in front of you, and a large-handled, wooden spoon. The only problem—like everyone else at the table, you’re wearing a straightjacket. What do you do?
This was the problem posed to the main character of the 2013 movie The East. And spoiler alert, this is a good scene that I don’t want to ruin for the reader, so I urge you to see the movie before you read on. The East, by the way, might have flown under your radar screen. Released in the spring of 2013, it is a tense thriller focused on an eco-anarchist group and a private security firm’s attempt to infiltrate it, from the pen of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (Marling also stars in the film, along with Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard). While the film got mixed reviews (some complaining about the idealistic ending), I found it to be a compelling story and a meditation on different kinds of political action in the present.
The scene comes fairly early in the movie when the main character Sarah (Brit Marling) has been taken to the hideout of The East by faking a serious injury as part of her plan to infiltrate the group. She is treated for her injury and while recovering she is invited to dinner, but not before she has donned the straightjacket. The putative leader of the group, Benji (Skarsgard), suggests that as their guest, Sarah should begin. This is the part of the scene where the viewer is put into Sarah’s perspective, trying to figure out how to proceed. After lifting the spoon with her teeth and seeing the seeming futility of this, Sarah drops the spoon. Then she puzzles for a bit longer before finally grabbing the side of the bowl in her teeth and lifting it up so that she is able to slurp a little bit of the stew into her mouth. Sarah looks up at the others, chewing in a seemingly self-satisfied manner. They all nod at her politely, then they pick up their spoons in their teeth, and, turning their heads to the side, proceed to feed each other. Sarah storms off feeling humiliated by this “lesson” in her own selfishness.
Some readers may recognize the basis for this scene in the allegory of the long spoons, a parable that can be found in a number of different cultures and religious traditions. Kirin Narayan discusses her discovery of this story in multiple religious/cultural traditions, and analyses a Hindu version of the story in detail, in her book Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (1989, University of Pennsylvania Press). In this allegory, retold here by Bishop Desmond Tutu, it is Heaven and Hell that are being distinguished, i.e., Heaven is where people feed each other, Hell is where people are surrounded by sumptuous meals but unable to eat because they have failed to realize their interdependence. This allegory clearly encapsulates the moral significance of reciprocity and interdependence, and suggests that the radical individualism associated with untrammeled capitalism is, in fact, a hell on earth.
Similar techniques are also used in some anarchist groups (David Graeber, personal communication, December 12, 2013). However I think the scene is strikingly effective in the context of a U.S. culture where eating has become a key practice of individual choice and identity. My hypothesis is that the “solution” to this conundrum simply doesn’t occur to most Americans, steeped in a culture in which the recognition that eating involves the labor of other people has been deeply attenuated. Thus all 10 students who watched the movie in my class expressed surprise at this scene. By contrast when I described this scene to a table of Greek anthropologists they immediately guessed the direction of the scene. This perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me as I have been working on a project looking at the food-based responses to neoliberal policies in Greece, all of which center around the symbolic value of food in expressing ideas about social solidarity (see the previous FoodAnthropology posts on food used in Greek politics here, here and here).
Western Middle-Class common sense has often been skewered through challenging table manners, most famously in Bunuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty in which using the toilet is done publicly and is a site of sociability, while eating is seen as a disgusting act only to be done in private. While Bunuel’s point is the cultural arbitrariness of table manners and the scene from The East suggests a potentially universal message of interconnectedness, both scenes are reminders of how central food is to our human sociability, and perhaps together could form a good starting point for courses on food and culture.