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December 21, 2003: The Globalization of Everything but Paris

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A column on good cheese and the "McMerde" double bacon cheeseburger in France (left), and a column on pretty pictures of Paris (right)

A fascinating book - Camembert: A National Myth by Pierre Boisard, translated by Richard Miller.


Say what?  Really.  Cheese as metaphor.

Here cheese is discussed, and more importantly the modern world becoming much the same everywhere.  That KFC in Hong Kong, that Starbucks in Bali the implications of globalization are really startling.

The heading of the review from the Guardian:


Steven Shapin muses on what the transformation of Camembert cheese, from Norman specialty to international supermarket staple, can tell us about authenticity in a globalized world.  Steven Shapin, who teaches sociology of science at the University of California, San Diego, was raised on cheese and baloney sandwiches.

Breaking the mould
Monday December 1, 2003, The Guardian (UK)

Camembert: A National Myth by Pierre Boisard, translated by Richard Miller. California, 254 pp., £19.95, June, 0 520 22550 3

Excerpts, to whet your appetite, so to speak...


In 1999, when the French peasant leader José Bové trashed a McDonald's under construction near Montpellier, so becoming a national and, soon, international resistance hero, one motive for his virtuous vandalism was cheese.  The Americans had unilaterally imposed trade restrictions on the excellent local Roquefort, and, if there was going to be no Roquefort in the US, there was no reason to tolerate the "McMerde" double bacon cheeseburger in France.

American multinational muck was malbouffe: bad to eat, bad for the peasant farmers in la France profonde who produced the proper stuff, bad for France.  The sentiment was popular, and that's why Bové spent only six weeks in jail, and why Lionel Jospin called his action "just": the defence of fine French food against American anti-cuisine was recognised as a moral act.

Invited by Ralph Nader later that year to the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, Bové underlined the point, smuggling some unpasteurised Roquefort past American customs officers and posing for the cameras eating a Roquefort sandwich in front of a local McDonald's, which was duly vandalised in its turn. " You are what you eat," Bové said, "where you live and what you do. We are peasants and citizens, not shareholders, not servile slaves at the mercy of agribusiness."  The peasant-shepherd - the Astérixian champion of local food - has become world-famous, and you can download his dicta in defence of localism from that least local of media, the world wide web.

So here's a way into the tensions and paradoxes of the way we eat now: globalised food has secured its spread across the dietary landscape by managing two tricks at once.  First, as it has become globalised, so it has become homogenised: it is the same everywhere, or, more accurately, widely believed to be the same everywhere.  The natural home for a McDonald's is the international airport lounge, and the Economist can find no better way of assessing the real value of world currencies than comparing the local price of a Big Mac against a US standard.


Yep, everything is getting to be the same, everywhere.  A good thing? Predictability is often good. But there is a problem -


... the homogeneity of the globalised product is necessarily a relative matter, and belief in its stability may not be supported in reality.  Though it is evidently a great secret, I'm told that McDonald's buns have a lot more sugar in Britain than they do in the States; there is, of course, no beef (Hindu sensibilities) or pork (Muslim) in the Indian "Maharaja Mac"; the mayonnaise has no egg in it (for vegans); and, when Bové did his splendid work on the Montpellier McDonald's, the local company representative was at tactical pains to stress difference, assuring the demonstrators that the burgers were an authentically local product, containing only French beef "from the farm".

Second, globalised products such as the Big Mac and Coke have secured their spread across the world by travelling in the special channels carved out by American power, capital and culture.  While Big Macs are now everywhere - you can avoid them in Bhutan and Afghanistan, but that's a high price to pay - it would be impossible to explain their global distribution without attending to those channels and to their identification with the powerful idea of America.  Just as Château Lynch-Bages has a Pauillac Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, so the Big Mac is AOC USA.  You can't account for why so many people throughout the world want to eat it - or, indeed, why so many others use it as a reference for globalised abominations - without understanding their ideas about the place called America.

In these respects Camembert is a lot more like the McMerde burger than you might suppose. ...


Read here the long history of Camembert.  The author and a few folks he interviews say the modern industrial product is, frankly, crap.

But it travels well.  Foodies should read the whole thing.

Click here for large high-resolution version....

"Paris Through the Window," an oil on canvas by Marc Chagall, one of 1,500 illustrations from the two-volume book The Art and Spirit of Paris. (Abbeville Press)



Abbeville Press has just published The Art and Spirit of Paris - at 1,654 pages, with 1,500 illustrations, and essays by eleven scholars in two boxed volumes.

It weighs twenty-six and a half pounds.
It will set you back $297.50 to $425.00 depending on where you buy it, and when.  I suspect it won't be on the remainder tables soon.
The publisher Robert Abrams:
The objective was to pull together two millennia of great artistic productivity, to find themes that run throughout the period and to show the thing as a whole rather than in fractured glimpses.  And in pulling the whole thing together, the goal was to experience the city that contains it.  Paris itself is a great work of art and beauty.  The people of Paris coined the term l'art de vivre, and I think that's what their emphasis on culture is all about, the art of living.
And this is living large.
This not exactly a history of French art nor a "straight" Parisian art history.  It's between the two? 
The book "is very much about the city," Abrams says. The premise is that the artistic legacy of Paris is essential to the look and feel of the place.  "People experience Paris itself as a whole. As much as one can do that in a book, that's what I tried to do."
Well, you can amble through the Gallo-Roman settlement described by Julius Caesar all the way to the 1999-2000 celebrations of the new millennium through the prism of Parisian painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts, photography, fashion, design and theater.  And there are photographs, from Joseph Martin's panoramic frontispiece, "View of the Seine," picturing Paris at night as a sort of dazzling jewel, to the closing black-and-white shots of ordinary folks at cafes and brasseries.
Michel Laclotte, the book's editorial director, was in charge of putting it all together.  He's a former director of the Louvre and outlined major themes: Paris as an urban environment, a center of the decorative arts, a battleground for artistic debate and a hub of entertainment, or spectacle. 
Sounds boring.  But there's stuff like this:
  • Venceslas Kruta, a director of the École des Hautes Études in Paris, notes that images on ancient Gallic coins inspired Picasso some 2,000 years after they were cast.  Oh.
  • Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, director of the Musée National de la Renaissance in Ecouen, France, describes the 13th century chapel of Sainte-Chapelle as a "radically modern" structure. Really?
  • A section on "Libertinism and Luxury" features elaborately decorated salons and bathhouses designed as Roman temples and Chinese fantasies, which sounds like Hollywood to me.
  • Andrew Carrington Shelton, an art history professor at Ohio State, points out that an obsession with prostitution during the Third Republic (1870-99) shows up in the work of avant-garde artists, including Impressionists Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Yeah, we know.
  • In a section on "Science and Style," Jeffrey Weiss, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery in Washington, interprets the Eiffel Tower as a metaphorical viewpoint as well as a physical one. "Both celebrated and reviled in its day, the Eiffel Tower was addressed at once as a technological advance and an aesthetic abomination that violated the city's great beauty," he writes.  "Ultimately, modernism in Paris was accompanied by a profound sense of cultural ambivalence and loss, sentiments that were often evoked to lament the changing aesthetic identity of the city itself."  Ah yes, you could look up the recent vote that once again forbid tall buildings (skyscrapers) in the city center just a few weeks ago.

Were I a rich man, I might buy a copy.  But it would probably crush my coffee table.

Click here for large high-resolution version....

"The Great Wheel of Paris," a lithograph by Albert Dorfinant created to publicize the Exposition Universelle of 1900.  (Abbeville Press)