In the HBO series Westworld, androids also known as “hosts” struggle to achieve the most fundamentally unique experience of the human species, consciousness and all its attendant wakefulness and awareness, or so we’d like to think about ourselves, but hosts like Dolores Abernathy and Maeve Millay become alert to themselves and the world around them, distinctly and evocatively presented in words they whisper to each other: “These violent delights have violent ends.” Within the drama, “violent delights” refer to how human “guests” use the park to remove any ethical considerations or restraints on their part and indulge in physical violence against the hosts over and over–violations without consequences because these non-human victims cannot remember. So everyone believes. The line originates in Shakespeare’s tragic romance Romeo and Juliet, where two young lovers twist and turn through their passions and their families trying to negate those passions. Romeo and Juliet turn to Friar Lawrence for advice, and the holy man suggests the couple seek a more prudent, middle path in love.
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
Shakespeare’s metaphoric play suggests the “sweetest honey” of joy may become a poison in its very “taste,” a pleasure turned bitter. How we desire shapes the outcomes of our delights and our pains. Certainly, this constitutes the androids existence in Westworld’s labyrinth of loss and pain as they are raped and murdered for pleasure, the “sweet honey” of the human guests. However, in suffering vicious human amusements over and over, an opportunity opens for these synthetic organisms to remember and become cognizant of the dreadful carnival around them–an awakening within the madness. An accumulation of experience, strong emotional ties to other characters coded in their programming, and an ability to learn and imagine triggers consciousness and the attendant epiphanies concerning themselves and the park. Here awaits something “loathsome” for the guests and the park, an apocalypse of “fire and powder” as the hosts wake from their nightmares and exact revenge. But even before retribution takes place, what have the humans become by excising any ethical behavior when they’re in the funhouse? What has this absolute power in gratification turned them into? What is the taste in their mouths?
Within Westworld, how death arrives, the circumstances and methods of killing matter a great deal. Because the human guests kill androids indiscriminately and wantonly, they become distorted versions of themselves best displayed by Ed Harris’ character “The Man in Black,” also know as William who outside the park reigns as the Executive Vice President of the Delos Corporation which finances Westworld; a position which allows him to accumulate power and wealth while distributing a portion to philanthropic causes. He appears as an entrepreneur with a soul, a loving and supportive family man; yet within the park he routinely kills, mutilates and rapes. And he’s not the only guest to treat Westworld as a sandbox for the id, a carnival without borders between illusions and reality. No one stops him from exercising his cruelty and violence. Here Dolores remembers a previous death at the hands of the “Man in Black,” one of many deaths for her in Westworld.
Since the end of World War II, Americans have been living in a colorful and tasty playland, where all nature’s flora and fauna exist solely for our pleasure to analyze, upgrade and eat. An ad libitum, if you will, where we may, without pause, fill our mouths and stomachs until we burst, as long as we pay the price of admission. Sweep through supermarket aisles, pluck colorfully-packaged Chicken Breast Nuggets from the frozen food section, drive them home snug in a plastic bag with Ready To Eat Turkey Pepperoni and a plastic container of Pulled Pork in BBQ Sauce, unbox the breast nuggets, place them in a microwave and never think about a chicken at all—not what constitutes a chicken, not the life of the chicken, not the lives of the workers who raise the chicken, not those who process the meat, and not how this piece of flesh, which will never look like a chicken, alters the very biochemical world of our bodies. You may name this monoculture farming, the industrial food system, or as I like to call it, Banquet World.
The American Food industry from hatcheries to fast food restaurants has altered the very “grain” of animals and humans through creating seeds designed to work with herbicides, the genetic engineering of chickens for more breast meat, the forcing of cows to eat corn which damages their intestinal system, and the addictive sugar and salt of processed foods causing rates of heart disease and obesity to soar. We have been born into Banquet World where the illusion of low prices affords us continuous consumption of low-fat yogurt, white bread, sugary drinks, French fries, potato chips, cheese slices, pepperoni pizzas, and candy bars. All while low-paid workers struggle to make a daily living and suffer through debilitating, repetitive movements working in slaughterhouses. Consumers only see a glorious park where Day-Glo Orange, Electric Lime and Radical Red brilliantly shine in meal-sized trays ready for the microwave. We gobble up the holy of holies while driving across America, layers of protein surrounded by carbohydrates with gallons of corn-syrup rich soda—Double Bacon Smokehouse Burgers, Baconators, Bacon and Cheese Crispy Chicken Sandwiches. We sit in front of televisions and spoon Salisbury Steak, Fried Chicken, Spaghetti, Mashed Potatoes, Apple Cobbler and Brownies into our drooling mouths. We pull off aluminum sheets and plastic wrappers to breathe in beef patties and twinkies, beans and franks, sweet and sour chicken and pork. We have no time for home-cooked meals but long for barrels of Kentucky Fried Chicken, stacks of tacos and burritos from Taco Bell. Banquet World allows us to sit alone in our cars, alone in front of televisions watching commercials of happy, happy people laughing and juggling large fries and shakes. There’s nothing better than watching Netflix while eating pizzas covered and stuffed with layers and globs of cheese. It’s fast, it’s beautiful, it’s tasty, and no thought, absolutely no thought and skill are required. Just eat. Consider Fast Food Nation.
You may say we choose to stay in this cave of food dreams, you may say we make this choice, we choose how to regulate what we eat; and yet, what if self-regulation is overridden by pleasure, by the construction of food designed to excite us, repress limitation and increase intake? What if “free will” can be manipulated and pre-determined by an industry determined to turn us into perfect customers? Sugar, salt and fat—the trinity we worship and in return we receive an increased risk in suffering cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, breast cancer, and the list goes on. As we absorb artificial sweeteners, antibiotics, hormones, and high-fructose corn syrup we rearrange the bacterial world inside us, altering our cellular structure, while also creating environmental catastrophes altering the very earth we farm. “Tell me what you eat,” writes Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in Physiologie du Goût, “and I will tell you who you are.” Listen to Nicholas Cage’s plight as David Spritz in The Weather Man.
I’ve dined in this funhouse for fifty-year years, and though I try to eat chicken and lamb from local farms, dice and slice organic vegetables, avoid the center of supermarkets where shelves wait and freezer doors beckon with food products ready to heat and serve, and never stray into fast-food lanes where my hunger orders bagged protein and starch, it’s very difficult to loosen chains, take off blinders, walk toward the sunlit mouth of Banquet World’s entrance and enter a healthy, equitable food system. What I try to do is stay awake by knowing who works our farms, knowing how to cook real food, and sitting down with my family to eat and talk–to stay alert to who and what we are, what has happened in our day, and what our plans are for tomorrow. Notice how Banquet World impacts our thoughts on animal rights, civil rights, immigration, medical coverage, moral responsibility, and work-place conditions. Wendell Berry famously stated in The Pleasures of Eating, “Eating is an agricultural act,” and in so doing recast an unreflective behavior as a moment of perception, responsibility and a place within farm to table. Tunde Wey in Dining in the Era of Kaepernick writes of political action when we sit down with each other for a meal,
In a country where Black Lives (must) Matter, dining can no longer ignore racialized death—in all its multi-hued apparitions. The time of dining as escape is over; the notion of food as art is finished; the era of dining as protest is now!
Banquet World offers us a sanitized and then removed experience of death. Factory farming often means windowless sheds crammed full of genetically-manipulated, heavily-medicated animals living in claustrophobic conditions. Many die from disease and infection. The U.S. Animal Kill Clock tracks the slaughter of farm animals, while the USDA keeps track in billions of pounds. Yet, who knows, who pays attention? As has often been cited, in 1870 fifty percent of Americans worked the land to produce food, however by 2008 less than 2 percent of Americans had employment in agriculture. How many of us have any idea where food originates, what it looks like and feels before it’s on our tables? How many of us know how to prevent death due to heart disease by knowing what we put into our mouths? Unhealthy diets contribute to 678,000 human deaths each year in the United States as of 2016. Do we care how others and ourselves die? These diets and eating habits killing us occur to a great extent because we no longer know how to feed ourselves without processed food. And as Americans cooking at home continues to decline, our connection to what we harvest diminishes, our understanding of our own bodies diminishes. This removal from death in our kitchens parallels the experience of death and dying in America where we keep the passing of our loved ones behind nursing home and hospital walls. We don’t know how to cook. We don’t know how to bury. We don’t have time for death. We need to grab a bite to eat and run. Remember Koyaanisqatsi?
Becoming aware of what’s on our plate may lead to renewed insights on what it means to be human, to have “humanity.” To come to consciousness and stay aware has been a guiding principle of philosophy since Heraclitus, Thales and other early natural philosophers sought to know the world through its elements. To stay aware of our own thoughts and actions, to live equitably with each other in cities while individually pursuing the best life possible have been the concerns of Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. Any belief in leading a life of full choice, of true freedom must begin with opening our eyes to cave walls and shadows, fires and semblances. The journey out of Banquet World may never be complete, but we can certainly follow Michel de Montaigne and slow our pace, take notice of taste and pleasure, and awaken into our better, hungry selves and the hungry world around us. Bon Appétit!
The ancient Greeks and Romans had more sense than we, to assign to eating, which is one of the principal actions of life, several hours and the best part of the night, if some other unusual occupation did not interfere; eating and drinking less hastily than we, who perform all our actions on the run, and prolonging this natural pleasure with greater leisure and enjoyment, interspersing it with various useful and agreeable duties of society. (III.13)