What my dinner taught me about contemporary philosophy

During a brief visit to Berlin several months ago, I excitedly accepted a dinner invitation from two friends celebrating their third wedding anniversary at unsicht-bar, where you dine in complete darkness and you’re served by blind waiters. At the entrance, we followed the waiter towards our table by holding on to the shoulders of the person ahead. We opted for the surprise menu, figuring that trying to guess what we were served would add more fun to our pitch-black evening. The ambience was initially awkward, but jazz and waltz music helped us relax. It wasn’t long before Angela, our friendly waiter brought our meals. We first used our sense of smell, then touch, in attempting to remove the mystery of our meals, before finally turning to our taste buds. My hands were my utensils in tackling my meal, which was a slice of roast beef with pasta and green beans. The food may have been mediocre, but the experience left me wondering whether this restaurant was part of a trend.

Image via Romania-Insider.com

Berlin is reputed for its eccentric fine dining. There’s a restaurant where you pay what you feel the meal was worth (Weinerei), and another that caters for anorexics (Sehnsucht) and employs bulimic waitresses. There’s also a toilet-themed restaurant (Klo, German for toilet), and the more popular, but still unconventional, Hard Rock Café, a casual dining venue built around a theme of rock music, from live bands to interior décor. Later on, it became apparent to me that such uniquely themed restaurants were not only limited to Berlin. In fact, “concept  restaurants” – sometimes called “theme restaurants” – have been a growing global phenomenon over the past three decades. I looked for a common thread among these restaurants, and after on a lot of research and travel, I drew the conclusion that they all reflect a relatively recent worldview prevalent in contemporary culture known as postmodernism.

From the late 17th century, the Enlightenment (also called the Age of Reason) introduced ideals that would be upheld and venerated for two centuries. These ideals included rationality and scientific progress which spawned the Industrial Revolution and mass production, both hallmarks of modernism. During its heyday, the Enlightenment was regularly under attack from different quarters in society, but most still believed in its basic promise of making the world a better place through science and reason. However, amid the horrors of World War II, these grand illusions were shattered. Reason, science and technology were masterfully employed by governments to end the lives of millions. Undeniably, science played a central role in the efficiency of Nazi gas chambers and the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So-called modern ideologies adopted by totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, such as Stalinist communism and Nazi fascism led to mass killings and genocides, viciously annihilating more humans, than ever before in history.

Postmodernism emerged in the 1960s as a disillusioned post-WWII reaction against the failings of modernism and everything it espoused. The uncreative name, which unfortunately stuck,  literally means “after modernism,” an audacious declaration that the modern era is over. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines postmodernism as a “Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; [and] a general suspicion of reason.” Looking back at the war, some philosophers went beyond simply blaming those responsible for destruction and atrocities, instead directing their criticisms at the Enlightenment project and the very ideals of science and reason. Postmodernism rejected the concept of the “meta-narrative” (or “grand narrative”), that is, any universal truth that transcends all peoples regardless of culture or geography, such as a religion or ideology (e.g. communism) or even science itself. There is no objective truth, postmodernists believed, but alternative subjective truths – choose your own, for “what’s true for you, may not be true for me.” Postmodernism ushered in cultural relativism and stressed that because there’s no absolute right or wrong, you are free to choose your own values. In the process of questioning and “deconstructing” many long-held ideas, reality itself was considered a conceptual construction. Postmodernism developed into a comprehensive intellectual and cultural movement, that touched literature, film, music, architecture, and eventually, even restaurants.

Known for embracing irrationality and contradictions, the movement’s perceived anything-goes attitude inspired a joke in  academic circles in the 1990s which went as follows: “What’s a postmodern restaurant? One where the waiters demand a tip before they take your order.” Little did they know that, over the following two decades, restaurants that – intentionally or unknowingly – embraced the postmodern way of thinking would display even more bizarre and irrational behavior. At a restaurant in Japan, Ogori Café, you are served what the person in front of you ordered. Anti-reason  is clearly manifested in the hospital-themed Heart Attack Grill (Las Vegas) which promotes overeating and offers a fatty, high-calorie menu. There’s no deep or greater meaning in having a “Dinner in the Sky,” strapped to a seat and hoisted at 150 feet (45.7 m.) into the air; nor is it clear why customers would want to dine and sip in utter darkness, unless you believe the owners’ flimsy explanation that it enhances the experience. What’s behind such restaurants is nothing but gimmickry, devoid of any real meaning. Alternatively, it’s open for interpretation where you could fill in the blanks with your own rationale.

Well, you ask, if these odd restaurants are postmodern, what’s a typical restaurant from the modernist era? Fortunately for my research, I stumbled upon a fast-food chain that not only emerged with modernism, but came to epitomize that era, so much so that its name gave birth to a social theory studied in universities around the world. That restaurant is McDonald’s. Inspired by the automobile manufacturing industry, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, integrated the Fordist strategy of the assembly line into his restaurants, creating standardized and mass-produced fast food meals. Sociologist George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization and used it in his best-selling book “The McDonaldization of Society” (1993) to explain how its four principles (efficiency, calculability, predictability and control) have transformed many industries beyond the fast-food one, such as banking, health care and education. Reflecting the fundamentals of modernism and embodying industrialization and mass production, McDonaldization became an extremely successful model that was globally emulated. Extreme rationalization and scientific management are at its heart. Rationalization is the breaking of a traditionally spontaneous, creative and informal process into smaller tasks based on efficiency and practicality.

As a complement to Ritzer’s theory, British sociologist Alan Bryman proposed in 1999 that “whereas McDonaldization is a modern phenomenon, Disneyization is a post-modern one.” Based on the Disney theme park formula, he identified both theming and dedifferentiation of consumption as among the main dimensions of Disneyization (used interchangeably with Disneyfication).

Theming is the most visible trend of Disneyization, seen in hotels, casinos, malls, restaurants and of course, theme parks. Las Vegas hotels are excellent illustrations of the trend, for example the Roman-themed Caesar’s or Egyptian-themed Luxor. The exaggerated reality in such places is beyond real; they’re hyper-real, a term coined by French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard to describe a condition where distinguishing between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly difficult. In today’s society, people willingly shun reality and spend large amounts of their time absorbed in a simulation of reality, be it the Internet, video games or so-called “reality” TV shows. Businesses exploit this by constructing realities to draw in customers, such as theme restaurants, where eating is secondary to the experience of being immersed in sights and sounds that blur together reality, history and fantasy. Moreover, the theming itself attests to the characteristic postmodern breakdown of the distinction between matchless, timeless high art and low art, which is kitschy, exploitative and mass-produced. Themes include music (Motown Café), movies (Planet Hollywood), sport (All Sports Café), geography (Rainforest Café), history (Soviet-themed restaurants), nostalgia (British pubs and Irish bars), any number of one-off theme (Harley-Davidson Café). And, in a world where reality is manufactured to satisfy all kinds of customer fantasies, no matter how bizarre they are, you’ll even find restaurants whose themes revolve around death, masochism, the Holocaust, and, as mentioned above, toilets.

Postmodernism, rooted in a pessimistic view of science and technology, is skeptical at best and downright neo-Luddite at worst. Nonetheless, in a great irony, contemporary postmodern society embraces the latest technologies to temporarily alter its very perception of reality in places like theme restaurants.

Hybridization or dedifferentiation of consumption is the removal of distinction between different consumer activities within a particular space. This is exemplified in the combining of playing, eating, and buying in Disney theme parks, or in the architecturally integrated hotels and casinos of Las Vegas. Canada’s West Edmonton Mall and Minnesota’s Mall of America are known for their indoor Disneyland-style amusement parks, turning the shopping mall into a tourist attraction. Similarly, concept restaurants offer customers other reasons to stay beyond eating: while dining, you could get a massage (Sur un Arbre Perché, France), soak your feet in a hot spring (Naraya Café), or do your laundry (Harvey Washbangers). This hybridization extends to the food itself. Italian university professor, Remo Ceserani, recounts a dining experience in Auckland, New Zealand, in what he considered to be a perfect example of a postmodern restaurant:

“We could, combining the various menus [Italian, American, Chinese-Thai, and Japanese], make fanciful creations; we could, I might say, intertextualize our dinners: have, for instance, some sushi with a ratatouillie à la provençal [sic], coconut soup with a pizza al pesto, and so on.”

Since the 1970s, fusion cuisine has become a gastronomical expression of a postmodern zeitgeist that celebrates globalization, diversity and multiculturalism. Even though the hybridization of different cuisines might often seem irrational, in a typical postmodern fashion, it still sends out a familiar relativist message that no cuisine is superior.

Disneyization is adequate to describe only a subset of concept restaurants. Here are other defining features of postmodernism you might find in such restaurants:

- Irony and Parody: An example is Conflict Kitchen which serves cuisine from countries that are in conflict with the United States. Another American restaurant, Dick’s Last Resort, mocks restaurants that go above and beyond to please their customers by being entertainingly obnoxious and rude to their own.

- Pornography infiltration into mainstream culture: Customers of Quebec’s Les Princesses are served by topless waitresses (well, they were, as in 2010  they were ordered to cover up) while porn films play on TV screens. In Rome, patrons of Yoshi eat sushi off a naked woman’s body in an obscure tradition appropriated from Japan called nyotaimori (“naked sushi or “body sushi”).

- Liberation from traditional values and standards: In rebelling against the McDonaldized way of mass culture and mass consumption, postmodern restaurants cater to special interests and niche markets. Cases in point are restaurants with menus entirely based on potatoes (Kartoffelkeller, Berlin), apples (Pomze, Paris), garlic (Garlic & Shots, Stockholm), or cheese (L’Art du Fromage, London), or those who have replaced the conventional waiter with children (Kinderkookkafé, Amsterdam), robots (Hajime, Bangkok) or even monkeys (Kayabukiya, Japan).

- Rejection of authority: A restaurateur’s anti-establishment attitude is best demonstrated in the “underground restaurant” movement – no license, no advertising and no full-time staff. It’s usually run from somebody’s home and operates either on an invitation-only basis or through word-of-mouth and social networking. It has more in common with a dinner party than with a typical restaurant, leading some enthusiasts to call it the “anti-restaurant.”

Postmodernism represents a revolutionary cultural shift in Western society, a fundamentally philosophical product of the fight against oppression and oppressive ideologies. It accepts diversity, welcomes cultural dialogue and seeks to banish stereotypes, and indeed, under it, women’s rights and gay rights have achieved unprecedented progress. Nonetheless, in a metaphor for a worldview struggling to stay relevant, over the past decade theme restaurants – such as Planet Hollywood and Wilderness Café – have shut down many of their branches. Most concept restaurants suffer from a lack of repeat customers and a lack of emphasis on the quality of the food. Ogori Café, or Sehnsucht have both shut down as well.

Despite many positive contributions to our society, postmodernism does abound in paradox and self-contradictions. An ideology of “no ideology” inevitably self-destructs. When I reflect on my first experience in a postmodern restaurant, I regard my dinner in darkness as an ironic symbol of our arrival at a dark cul-de-sac on our intellectual journey.