Monday, 12 November 2012

The Devil's Kitchen

Now then readers, I have a confession to make. That confession being that I'm very sensitive to criticism. Objectively, abstractly, I know I shouldn't be. I know that I should be able to accept criticism, whether personal or related to any work I produce, with good grace and humility.

But I can't. No matter how well-intentioned or "constructive" the criticism may be, the result is a burning hatred and an almost limitless desire for vengeance. And I don't care how long I have to wait. Anyone who crosses me will get their just desserts in the end.

And in that respect, I strongly suspect I'm just like everybody else. But why should this be? Why should criticism, which at the end of the day is just somebody else's disposable opinion, be so wounding? In order to solve this conundrum, as with so many others of its ilk, we need to revisit the tribal magical-medical-witchcraft complex, and by way of a modern example, demonstrate its continuing efficacy in modern social relations.

The first important point to note is that criticism, no matter how accurate, justified and meliorated, is always interpreted by the recipient primarily as a social attack, and a social attack is what the witchcraft complex was developed to deflect. In contemporary society, the tough modern ego with its legal-social protections, is able to absorb social attacks more effectively than in "primitive" equivalents (i.e. they're no longer fatal), but in the absence of an effective equivalent of the witchcraft complex, is unable to deflect attacks back toward their origins. The result is therefore a compulsion to escalate any conflict by counter-attacking aggressively in an uncontrolled manner, and hope (usually forlornly) that the social chorus choses to take your side.

So how does the witchcraft complex work? Very simply. Emile Durkheim and his school, notably Marcel Mauss, observed that in tribal societies, any individual member who was judged to be deviating from social norms, for example by breaking certain taboos, would sooner or later be challenged on his or her behaviour by another individual member of the tribe, who "emerges from the social chorus" and claims to speak on behalf of the tribe. This "moral entrepreneur", depending on their ability to judge and/or sway the public mood, may represent the authentic voice of the tribe, or may be attempting to simply garner social status. This is a high stakes game that may result in the accusee being ostracised - a social death that in most low-resource environments will presage actual death.

The accusee does have one potential defence, however: to accuse the moral entrepreneur of witchcraft. The exchange may go something like this:

Moral Entrepreneur: "We have reason to believe that at midnight last night you trespassed in the sacred grove."

Accusee: "Only a witch could see what happens on a moonless night."
Now we can take this model and see how well (or not) it applies in a modern context, this being the apparently trivial Twitter row between the Michelin-starred chef Claude Bosi, and the hapless blogger James Isherwood, who reviewed his Mayfair restaurant "Hibiscus". Now two things should be made clear at the start. Firstly, that all critics, all commentators, all pundits and all bloggers, no matter how humble and little-read, essentially perform the role of moral entrepreneurs within the mediated discourse of contemporary society. They all claim, whether they are aware of it or not, to speak on behalf of the social chorus, or some portion of it. Secondly, the two Michelin stars that Bosi's restaurant has been awarded have the primary function, as status indicators, not to denote "quality", but to magically ward off social attacks, especially from those considered to be of low status. What they essentially signify then is that the establishment will tolerate a moderate level of criticism from an individual of sufficient status, who is able to decode that a certain quality-minimum has been established as par for the course. A Giles Coren, say.

So Isherwood, "an average punter", dines at Hibiscus, and then posts "an average review" (three stars out of five, the scamp) on his blog Dining With James. He then re-publishes the review on Trip Advisor. According to the Huffington Post, Isherwood's piece contained the following description:

"The crab came wrapped in breadcrumbs but they were so over cooked, it was just like a crab flavoured Findus crispy pancake, with the smallest dollop of puree, its role on the plate was irrelevant."
From Bosi's point of view, this could only be interpreted as an extremely malign social attack. A complete nobody, not even an initiate, visits his hermetically-protected magical workshop, and seeks to usurp social power, to steal his mana, by comparing his exquisitely prepared gourmet fare, in a diabolical reverse-alchemical process, to the basest factory-produced fodder (Findus crispy pancakes!). Isherwood's perceived deviousness in this matter is only enhanced by the fact that Bosi had asked him in person if he had enjoyed the meal, to which he had replied "yes".

Alas for Bosi, the witchcraft accusation is not available to him as a defence. The two nearest modern equivalents, the racism accusation and the paedophile accusation, are far less generally applicable and thus are also not available. He has no option but to appeal to the social chorus.

Therefore, he goes on Twitter:

@James_Isherwood Honest? You came to my kitchen and I asked if everything had been ok and you say yes. Like your honesty ..!!!
Bosi's purpose here is not actually to confront Isherwood directly, though it may appear that way. What he is doing is attempting to re-direct the social attack back towards Isherwood by leveraging his social status to encourage influential members of the social chorus to support him. This is a risky move, which he must not overplay. Isherwood responds ingenuously (or disingenuously, depending upon where you are standing):

@claudebosi I don't remember that! But was mostly an enjoyable meal just one small part of it wasn't to my taste! .
From Bosi's point of view, this kind of response must be infuriating. Isherwood is playing the "nice guy" but refusing to retract his demonic attack. This lures Bosi into revealing the scale of his frustration:

@James_Isherwood nice way to gain respect with chefs...!! I think your a Cunt and this its personal sorry...!!
A fatal mistake. Despite belated back-up for Bosi from fellow high-status chefs such as Tom Kerridge and Jay Rayner, Isherwood, despite his temporary absence from Twitter, has either guilelessly, or guilefully, successfully stolen some of Bosi's mana and enhanced his own social status. His moral entrepreneurship has been highly profitable. Although they will no doubt deny it, there will now be more than a few of London's best chefs who will be keeping one eye on Dining With James.

The moral combat over, it is left to The Guardian's Luke Mackay to play the arbitrating role of the wise tribal elder:

"Yes we know a restaurant lives or dies by its reviews, yes we know that Trip Advisor is unedited and sometimes destructive. But calling a paying customer a "cunt" on a public forum for not liking his starter? That's going to kill you before any pee-wee blogger.

"If you demand the "respect" of your customers you are a self-important idiot who has positioned the art of cooking up there with fighting in the trenches or treating the sick.

"It's not. It's cooking. I do it, you do it, and my 90-year-old nan does it. It's just cooking."


William said...

Out of curiosity Phil, have you ever read Evans-Pritchard's 'Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande'?

Phil Knight said...

No, but I do know about it - basically his attempt to apply Durkheim/Mauss/Hocart/Levi-Strauss's ideas in the field.

It's a book I need to get round to, tbh.

William said...

It's definitely worth reading. By the time you finish it you, he's pretty much convinced you that using chicken oracles is a rational and efficient way of running a society.

Phil Knight said...

They can't be worse than econometrics!

Paul Hebron said...

Really interesting, read bits about magic rituals, but I shall have to read more!