Monday, April 18, 2016

Pornification Nation, Part Two

The Boston Globe today published astory on maple sugaring in Vermont. I have lived in Vermont for sixteen years and I have a keen interest in maple sugaring. To me, it’s like writing, or innkeeping, or dairy farming, or any other kind of small, crafty, individual pursuit that characterizes Vermont and Vermonters. Sugaring is an intimate activity, requiring the sugar maker to interact closely with the sugarbush, tapping trees, running tubes or hanging buckets, looking after the health of the trees…it’s the very definition of an organic, human activity. The sugar maker was typically a farmer of another kind who used the end of winter to supplement income with the harvesting of another resource.

It is now difficult to drive around the back roads of northern Vermont without seeing the woods crisscrossed with colored tubing tied to thousands of taps as sugar makers capture every sap run, whether it comes in late November or January or during the more traditional time of late winter/early spring. While nobody wants to begrudge hard working Vermonters some extra cash, as the Boston Globe article describes, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Big Business. Big Business is the harbinger of pornifcation, because Big Business is beholden to one thing only: the bottom line. When this model succeeds, the same thing that happened to Vermont’s dairy operations will happen to its sugaring. Small operators will be bought out, consolidation will occur, the environment—divorced from the intimacy of the sugar maker who was tied to the land by blood and toil—will suffer, and low-paying, futureless jobs will be all that’s left. Soon the iconic Vermonter will be nothing but a corporate symbol distantly reminiscent of a noble and relevant past: the Gorton’s fisherman, Ben & Jerry’s, Budweiser.

In my last blog post, I talked about how we can turn to baseball to satisfy some of our most basic human longings during a tumultuous election year: peace, community, and the meaning of life. I called that blog post “The Antidote to Pornification Nation,” and I only touched on the concept briefly in the text of the blog: 

        [B]aseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification           is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected         ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier           is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a                   Salvador Dali painting come to life.

The notion of pornification is an old one; the concept of porn itself has gone through its own pornification, which is where the term comes from: When we refer to activities around pornography as an “industry,” we acknowledge its commodification, its corporatization. The platform of the corporate moniker also serves as a way to legitimize its descriptor, which can be toxic to the product being commodified, taking it from a small, personal thing, to an industrial-level concept requiring marketing, lawyers, and even regulation. When that happens, humanity is lost. Even in porn.

I’ve written extensively about innkeeping in this space over the past decade. I have shared my observations in a frank and entertaining (I hope) manner. Innkeeping has gone through its own pornification, as it has moved from adjutant to senior on the scale of occupations. When I was a little boy, my father was a lobster fisherman. Years later, he would often comment on what made a lobster fisherman successful, and it wasn’t how many lobsters he caught. He said that fisherman who had a wife with a steady job always managed to do all right and grow their fishing business. That’s because with another steady income, fisherman were able to withstand the vagaries of the ocean and the environment. Of course, with the advent of factory fishing ships, that occupation has undergone its own pornification.

An innkeeping friend recently attended a big conference for innkeepers (another sign of pornification), and he returned to report that he felt out of place among many of his cohort. They were managers, he said, running their inns like portfolio business investments. That’s quite different from welcoming people into your home.

Skiing has been going through a version of this for decades. Skiing almost killed itself the first time through irrelevance. Then it transcended its own costs, pricing out middle- and lower-income American skiers. Then the environment began to change; snowmaking stabilized it then. Finally, skiing has become a real estate and destination park operation, with skiing itself only a sideline curiosity, while zip lines and water parks and mountain biking complement shopping and dining in a Vegas-style experience. While we cannot argue that these new revenue streams have helped the skiing experience, funding new infrastructure and more and better snowmaking, it has also begun the inevitable upflow of money to the top, which can only result in fewer people being able to connect with the organic experience of skiing itself, which started the whole thing.

I wrote about this in my book ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. At the end of the book, I made a prediction about the future, and so far I have not been wrong. I ended the book with a line from the Ringo Starr song “Photograph.” It’s a beautiful song written by Starr and George Harrison, whom many consider the lesser Beatles. But it’s a song that highlights the importance of not always listening to what the zeitgeist considers the biggest and the best, a song that turns the notion of lesser and greater Beatles on its head. When the biggest and the best gather too much gravity, we miss out on something human, something genuine and organic. We miss out on the drip of sap in buckets, the shuffle of cows through the grass. We miss out on Starr and Harrison.

Ringo Starr sang, “Every time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I've got is a photograph/And I realize you're not coming back anymore.” This is the crux of life. All we have is a photograph of the past, and we can’t go back to it. It’s gone. The realization Starr sings about is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful—at least he has the memory, the photograph. It is a song grounded in realism, a realism that allows us to move forward. That realism is missing from our daily approach to living well, and it has resulted in the pornification—or corporatization—of everything.

So if you like Vermont maple syrup on your pancakes—or in your seltzer water, or your vinegar, or your booze—get ready for big globs of porn on your plate. Until we decide to accept the small and simple joys of this life, unless we are willing to stop looking at everything in our environment as a means to get more stuff, we will be treated like the foie gras producing geese that we are: slaves to a system interested only in our narrow market value and our bloated livers.