An Everyday Analysis contributor can often be seen to order a wordy combination of options such as the above in a local conglomerate coffee corporation. The criticisms of such drink selections are familiar; that it is a poncey identity gesture, that it is ‘not the real thing’, even that it is part of the demonization of the calorie that has come to define our relationship to food and drink in the 21st Century. All of these are fair criticisms in their own way, and yet if one looks at the structure of this desire, something more is revealed about our relationship to food and to our bodies.
The first point is the excessive nature of the American-style coffee; the size of the cup (perhaps epitomized by Starbucks), the number of shots of coffee (Café Nero) and the amount of milk exceeding your RDA of protein (certainly Costa). Then we add sugar or sweetener, chocolate, cinnamon or vanilla dust, and a shot of flavoured syrup, perhaps even cream. The whole process, masquerading as ‘choice’ (‘we can make your perfect coffee’) is really an injunction to drive towards excess (‘make sure there is enough/too much of everything in your coffee!’).
But what happens when we take out all of the ‘bad’ content of this excessive gesture; the fat, the sugar, and anything that would need to make us feel ‘guilty’? Surprisingly, very little. The enjoyment does not disappear, or even appear significantly reduced. The explanation that we enjoy this excessive consumption precisely because it is harmful, as if it were a kind of Death Drive, seems insufficient. We are essentially drinking nothing, but we derive a similar enjoyment from this as we would from gorging on piles of full-fat chocolate and pints of full-fat milk and cream.
Of course, disawoval (see below article of David Cameron) is a part of what is in play; ‘I know very well that there is no content to what I am offering my body, but even so, I can enjoy feeling as though there is.’ We all know that this drink is not ‘the real thing’ and that is the point.
But there is something more too. This reading shows the subjects desire to make a split, perhaps a very clear one, between mind and body. And further, it does this in two completely contradictory ways.
In the first case, I want to believe that my body wants to consume a huge cup of sugary milk, and so my mind has to trick it into believing that I have given it what it wants. Here, the mind is in on it, committing disavowal, and tricking the body into feeling gratified with this ersatz calorie-free alternative. In the second case, happening at the same time, is the absolute opposite. I see my body as a ‘temple’, a pure and uncontaminated space. I recognize the cultural need to consume American-style coffee, placing the mind in the position of the subject-who-desires, and I instead need to gratify this cultural or social desire without contaminating the purity of my body; the body is in on it, the mind is fooled.
In the large skinny latte with extra coffee, fat-free cream, sugar free vanilla syrup and an extra shot of espresso we see the simultaneous satisfaction of two contradictory ways in which 21st century culture conceives of the body. We are able to see our bodies as naturally desiring excess and consumption (excusing our role in consumer capitalism) and we are also able to see our bodies as natural uncontaminated temples which we need to preserve against the world (also the logic of capitalism). If we look closer at these structures we start to see that both these views of the body, both of the body-as-natural, are part of capitalism’s own contradiction, and so they cannot be seen as natural at all.