Abstraction and Potato Chips

I suggested in an earlier post that we live in an abstract society. There is perhaps no clearer indication of this than President’s Choice “Greek Feta and Olive” Potato Chips.

Like, what the hell is that?

Potato chips used to be potatoes. According to folklore, they were invented when a restaurant owner deliberately over-cooked and over-salted thinly sliced potatoes. They were the logical conclusion on the chain that stretched from the baked potato to the french fry. If someone didn’t know the word “chip” they could have just said “salty fried potatoes” and everyone would have known what they were talking about. Think about describing a package of Lay’s salt and vinegar chips as “salty fried potatoes”. Not only would you seem bizarrely pretentious, no one would know what you were talking about. Somewhere along the way, chips stopped being potatoes.

After some extensive Wikipedia research, it seems to me that there are two key developments in the history of the potato chip that explain this transformation. The first is mass production. Potato chips gradually made their way from restaurant items in the 1860s and 70s into widely distributed consumer products. In 1920, Frank Smith founded a company devoted to the production and distribution of potato chips in London. They were distributed in sealed, greaseproof bags – a major innovation.

So people of my grandparents’ generation would have been exposed to “chips” when they were children. But it was not until the 1950s that the modern potato chip was born.  Joe Murphy and Seamus Burke succeeded in developing a process for seasoning chips during the manufacturing process. “Salt and Vinegar” and “Cheese and Onion” Chips were born. Even though by this time potato chips were a totally unique product, you can still see the ghost of the potato lurking behind these choices of flavours. Basically, you’ve got a baked potato chip and a French fry chip. Flavours like sour cream and onion, cheddar cheese, and even barbeque carried on this lineage.

At some point, however, chip companies got over their infatuation with potato-inspired seasonings. They realized that most consumers – certainly including myself – did not regard the chip as a potato, but rather as its own, unique food. The chip then becomes a delivery mechanism, a canvas on which the food engineers are free to paint whatever taste combination they see fit. And so we arrive at the “Greek Feta and Olive” chip. The potato is gone. It has been replaced, on the one hand, by a mass manufactured ‘chip’ the delivers crunchiness and convenience in snack-sized portions with a nearly endless shelf life, and on the other hand by a complex chemical seasoning that distills the taste of entire meals like Greek salad or buffalo wings into a thin powder. If aliens landed in Loblaw’s today, they would not see the connection between the potatoes in the produce section and the chips in the snack-food section. A hundred years of business and consumer innovation have driven a deep wedge between these two foods.

This is how technology works. Each technological innovation – like mass production of chips – provides the raw material for the next set of innovations – like flavour-powder. The trick, if you are a capitalist, is to make your product in to a raw material for something, to make it cheap enough and useful enough that you can grow whole industries – like the sour-cream-and-onion industry and the salt-and-vinegar industry – based on your product.

But this kind of innovation involves a conceptual shift. It involves forgetting that the potato is a potato – because it’s obvious to you, as it was not to your grandparents, that chips are really different things from potatoes.

And that conceptual shift produces its own kind of alienation. Our material culture, including especially our food, is shockingly removed from the ‘original’ materials and practices that laid the foundations. Abstract art is a clear example of this. At a certain point, it becomes obvious to artists that a ‘painting’ bears no relationship at all to the world that it supposedly represents; a painting, like a potato chip, is its own form, its own language, its own site for innovation. But for people who haven’t made that shift with the artists, for people who are still looking for the potato, this new set of innovations is difficult to grasp.

Similar transformations take place in any tradition of political or artistic discourse. And these shifts, I think, are one of the major reasons people can’t talk to one another. Political or ideological groups go through a process of transforming and transmuting their own concepts. The concept of patriarchy is a good example. In mainstream discourse, it means a fairly overt and well defined set of social relations that privilege men; the Catholic Church is patriarchal. But for many feminist activists and scholars, patriarchy is a much richer, more malleable, and more insidious category. They took that basic idea, and thought through its consequences. It became a tool of analysis – no longer a specific type of society; it became a way of looking at all societies. How is this or that society patriarchal? How does this or that social relation entrench existing power structures?

But like abstract art and weird potato chips, people who haven’t made the necessary conceptual shift get left behind. When someone on the internet states that Miley Cyrus entrenches the patriarchy, people get confused and annoyed. And often, the original poster gets annoyed at the other commenters’ inability to understand what is, given her understanding of patriarchy, a banal and uncontroversial point.

So this kind of chain-of-conceptual shifts, this transmutation from a potato to a chip, both separates us from our world – from honest-to-god potatoes – and from each other – by creating ideological groups that have a hard time talking to one other, because they are speaking at different levels of abstraction.

But it ain’t all bad. After all, a reasonable definition of “progress” is precisely the ability to enable this sort of new innovation – where today’s ideas build on yesterdays innovations. And in that sense the abstraction is just the flip side of living in a culture that also produces lots of pretty awesome stuff – like greek feta and olive potato chips.


One thought on “Abstraction and Potato Chips

  1. Pingback: Great Article about the Tea Party, and some thoughts | The Abstract

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