Consider the potato

In affluent societies, consumption is about creating identity rather than meeting human needs, argues Clive Hamilton. And to reinforce the point, he invites us to "consider the semiotics of the potato today". According to Hamilton, today’s shoppers can choose from 15 varieties of organic potato with shapes and colours "carefully selected to appeal to different market segments." While it was once just a starchy staple, the food has now become a lifestyle accessory — a way of telling other people who you are.

One of Hamilton’s big themes is that "consumption no longer occurs in order to meet human needs; its purpose is now to manufacture identity" (p 95). Some critics think this claim is exaggerated. In an article for Overland, socialist writer Tom O’Lincoln scoffed: "as if people buy potatoes only to look cool" — a response Hamilton dismisses as hopelessly naive:

Unattuned to its subtle methods, O’Lincoln seems oblivious to the subversive effects of marketing. It is true that, not so many years ago, a potato was just a potato. But consider the semiotics of the potato today. Despite its ordinariness, consumers now demand much more than a mere vegetable. The varieties, shapes and colours are carefully selected to appeal to different market segments. Blemishes have been bred or selected out. Potatoes are promoted by supermarkets as part of the ‘fresh food’ that discerning and health-conscious consumers will want to buy. Vegetable sections have special lighting to highlight the ‘natural’ colour and palatability of potatoes. For many, the type of potatoes they buy is an expression of their lifestyle and the way they see themselves. So we can go to an organic vegetable shop and select from around fifteen varieties of potato knowing that whichever we choose we will be treating our bodies as temples. The marketing of the vegetable has been designed to elevate it above that of the modest tuber O’Lincoln still sees. Buying potatoes will not make you cool, but it can make you a lot of other things. And potatoes are the most mundane of fresh foodstuffs. If we turn our minds to the fruit and vegetables surrounding the potato, the semiotics become even more complex.

But the truth is, the potato used to be a much more semiotically interesting vegetable than it is today. In its ancestral home high in the Andes, it is impossible to understand traditional culture without first understanding the potato. But in the affluent north, markets and industrialisation have peeled the meaning away.

While Hamilton claims that advertisers "long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of his useful features" (p 81), this is pretty much what modern potato marketing is all about. Marketers offer recipes and guides showing consumers which potato varieties to choose for roasting, boiling, mashing or frying. The United States Potato Board spent two years researching consumer attitudes and finally decided that their key message should be: "potatoes are good for you". And rather than segmenting the market, they concluded that their best shot was with a woman called ‘Linda’:

After exhaustive market research, the industry determined the "sweet spot" for potato consumption remains a target consumer epitomized by a consumer target identified as "Linda". "Linda" is a mother with children under 18 years old at home. "Linda" is heedful of her family’s taste when it comes to eating and is concerned for her and her family’s health/wellness. She tries to buy healthy foods, but is aware of price. And even though she doesn’t have a lot of extra time, making dinner at home is important to her. "Linda" is a person who will make a difference for potatoes. She is most open to our message, and ultimately is most likely to eat more potatoes and spread the good news to her friends and family.

According to Tim O’Conner, a marketing advisor for the U.S. Potato Board in Denver, one of the biggest hurdles the industry faces is the perception that potatoes are fattening. "Twenty-five percent of women believe potatoes are fattening", he says. For decades potato marketers have struggled against the belief that people who eat potatoes end up looking like them. For example, in the January 1929 edition of the American Potato Journal, Paul Kempter wrote:

We all know that the prevailing mode of the slender waistline has been a tremendous detriment to the consumption of potatoes. Nobody acquainted with the elementary principles of dietetics will deny the fact that potatoes eaten in great quantities, have a tendency to fatten. On the other hand they also admit that potatoes wisely used in our daily diet are important to our well being, and as I shall prove to you, they are absolutely indispensable to those who want to be well and look well.

Apparently Kempter’s proof wasn’t enough. With the low-carb diet fad gathering pace in the early-2000s, the American potato industry hit back with fact-laden campaigns designed to convince consumers that potatoes are healthy. Australian marketers faced the same challenge. According to AUSVEG’s Matthew Wickham, Australian consumers needed to be educated about the nutritional benefits of fresh potatoes (pdf).

For marketers, there is nothing complicated about the semiotics of the potato. Potatoes tend to be round, pale and lumpy. And while many consumers in affluent countries like the US and Australia are also round, pale and lumpy, they would prefer not be. Potatoes are also starchy. And unfortunately for potato marketers, it is widely believed that the consumption of starchy foods leads to personal roundness and lumpiness. Advertisers have spent so much of their time discouraging this idea that they have had little left for the more subtle marketing techniques Hamilton frets about.

So it seems as if O’Lincoln is right. In countries like Australia, potatoes are devoid of commercially contrived cultural meaning. If they signify anything at all, it’s comfort, frugality and old-fashioned home cooking. As Matthew Wickham complained "Spuds have a Humble/Lowly Image". So amidst all the buzz about Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, potatoes have been left behind. Industry people are left hoping that comfort food will become fashionable or that Peruvian will become the new Thai.

Peru and Bolivia are the potato’s ancestral home. And it’s in the least commercialised parts of South America that potatoes are semiotically interesting. In traditional Andean villages, potatoes really are an expression of people’s lifestyle and the way they see themselves. While organic vegetable markets in Australia might have 10 or 15 varieties of potato for sale, traditional communities in the Andes cultivate thousands of different varieties.

According to Alejandro Argumedo, a Peruvian plant scientist and social activist, "Potato is not just food. Potato is also spirituality; it’s culture … There are songs, dances, ceremonies. So this is a potato land … a culture of potato." When ethnomusicologist Henry Stobart traveled to subsistence farming community in Bolivia, he tried to engage the locals in a conversation about their musical traditions. But somehow the conversation always returned to potatoes. Stobart found that it was impossible to understand the seasonal cycle of musical genres, dances and instruments without understanding the life cycle of the potato. "For my hosts", he wrote, "the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own."

In the hyper-commercialised communities of the affluent north, the potato has been stripped of its meaning and enchantment. It is now just another bland starch that a health-conscious woman called ‘Linda’ serves to her family. Hamilton argues that modern marketing builds symbolic associations between products and the emotions and aspirations of consumers, but in reality, our system of commercialised production and exchange has processed many of these associations out of everyday products.

Like bakers adding fibre to white loafs, advertisers struggle to put the enchantment back into everyday products. They try to invest ordinary objects with meanings — meanings which allow consumers to to express themselves by buying and using the product. So, as Hamilton observes, "The art of the successful modern consumer is to consume in a way that says ‘this is who I am’ without it being apparent that the statement is being made" (p 82). But there is nothing new or insidious about people using material objects to announce their identity or to communicate something about themselves. Even animals ‘waste’ resources in order to send messages to each other. Peacocks, for example, divert scarce resources into growing and maintaining large colourful tail feathers — feathers that have no ‘practical’ purpose. Like a consumer maneuvering a large four-wheel-drive through a city parking station, the peacock finds itself handicapped by its ungainly tail. But just as expensive cars, clothes and houses can signal market prowess, a large tail signals good genes.

In traditional societies people’s choices about what to express are tightly constrained — as are the identities they can assume and virtues they are allowed to pursue. What has changed is that people in affluent market societies have more choice about who they are and what they want to become. It is not surprising that people now demand goods that allow them to communicate the qualities of their ‘authentic inner selves‘ to others. Commercial products such as novels and music help people to find others who share their beliefs, values and feelings.

Economic growth doesn’t need to be about creating greater quantities of stuff. An economy can grow by adding meaning to objects. Products which are rich in meaning and associations have greater value than those which serve purely utilitarian purposes. So by embedding ordinary objects in a web of cultural meaning, advertisers add value without having to create anything physical. Even the potato can be re-enchanted.

Hamilton’s complaint is that advertisers create dissatisfaction in order to sell us stuff we don’t need. They tell us we’re fat so that they can sell us gym memberships, they tell us we smell so that they can sell us deodorants and they tell us our kids don’t know enough about China so they can sell us broadband internet connections. So instead of satisfying our wants, marketing multiplies them and makes us miserable in the process.

If only we could stop wanting things we don’t need, says Hamilton, we could get in touch with our authentic selves, start growing, and become the people we were meant to be.

It all makes sense if you consider the potato. Like the potato plant, human beings need certain things in order to grow and reach our potential. Potato plants should not aspire to be Christmas trees. Adorning themselves with trinkets is a distraction from their true purpose in life — to produce big starchy tubers. According to Hamilton, human needs, like the potato’s, are relative simple. If we could only stop being distracted by trinkets, we could discover our true purpose and concentrate on personal growth.

For Hamilton, true freedom is about submitting to our inner nature — the unique potential we were born with. We shouldn’t struggle and try to become something else. Choice is an illusion. So soak up the sun, reach for the water, and let Hamilton take care of the manure. Discover your inner potato and be free.

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37 Responses to Consider the potato

  1. clutterbells says:

    Very interesting. My relatives were potato merchants in Scotland and felt that no meal was complete without a potato. Despite years of growing up with potatoes, I had never thought about these kinds of sophisticated marketing techniques in the context of a potato. It is just that, a potato. Sort of like buying wine for me. Price and gut feel. Not too sophisticated.

  2. Patrick says:

    The point being that Hamilton is a potato, but certainly not a Kipfler or Dutch Cream or Bintje?

    Or that Mrs Hamilton does all the cooking – how impressively post-modern!

  3. murph the surf says:

    I look forward to Mr Hamilton’s take on the pet food industry.
    Where once PAL and CHUM and maybe BUSH’S Meat for dogs was the extent of the choice (apart from a bag of bones from the butcher) there are now probably over 300 different foods available.
    While your choice of pet can say a lot about you I have no idea why people fall into the marketing scams that convince them that such a wide range of foods are needed by their pets. Dogs really aren’t that fussy .
    Cats are educated to be fussy by their neurotic owners .
    Oh and the pet food industry is also responsible for the obesity of many pets and their subsequent need for weight loss diets. Got them coming and going on that one.Same thing goes for bladder stone control diets – dry foods cause them and then we supply you with a modified product to avoid the same thing.
    I think the idea that animals waste resouces needs to be considered a little more carefully. The only objective any animal has is to reproduce ( this is the geneticist’s way of basing things anyway). As your link explains only the strongest and healthiest males can afford to use energy to build a bright plummage and so attract mates.The plummage may be an impediment to escape sometimes but if you have reproduced you have succeeded in life’s scheme and an early but avoidable death has no value but also has no cost . You reproduce you win.

  4. AdrienSword says:

    For Hamilton, true freedom is about submitting to our inner nature the unique potential we were born with. We shouldnt struggle and try to become something else.

    It’s a unique attribute of capitalist society that it produces people who think our inner natures are some kind of Utopian filed of daisies.

    Funnily enough I remember having a conversation with an environmental scientists where he was elucidating on the effect of industrial agriculture on variety. Due to monoculture the varieties of thing like the potato had shrunk drastically over the last century or so. The awareness amongst consumers of the pitfalls, nutritionally and aesthetically, of monoculture has created demand for more variety.

    Hamilton seems to constantly overemphasize the surface aspect of capitalist culture. He assumes that the use of commodities to enhance and create identity is somehow the product of mallrat culture. It isn’t.

    I’m sure there pretentious dopes out there who serve fancy potatoes so they can brag about their exotic dinner parties at which various caricatures of urbanity competed for prominence by reference to overseas trips, referring to various places in the world in exactly the same way that they talk of designer jeans. There are people whose stuff owns them. They are boring.

    However there are also people who know that one type potato isn’t the same as another. There are subtle differences and that’s why we buy different varieties. Because eating is part of our inner selves and as humans we cultivate the experience to enhance our pleasure.

  5. Patrick says:

    The differences aren’t even subtle!

    But Adriensword, despite a promising start, has missed the bigger point, which is that Hamilton’s worldview is fundamentally distorted.

    The first line in Don’s post gives it away:

    consumption is about creating identity rather than meeting human needs

    What a weird opposition to set up, as if ‘identity’ wasn’t a need.

    And what a weird premise, that sexual attractiveness was ‘unneccessary’ or only desired as a result of marketing.

    I’ll add to my conclusions above (ie that he is a couch potato and doesn’t cook) that Mr Hamilton, not having any other obvious way of attracting females, has settled on the elitist snobbery of the overly-well-off intellectual. (By overly well off I mean it would do him good to actually try and shop to a limited budget).

  6. TimT says:

    I had a bit of a Clive Hamilton moment in the cafe the other day, resulting in this cranky post about labelling on juice bottles.

    Talking and thinking it over afterwards, it struck me that a lot of the labelling on food products nowadays isn’t so much an attempt to force false distinctions on consumers as a response to false distinctions that have been created by politicians and special interest groups.

    Hence the following:
    ‘GM free foods’ and their implied opposite, ‘GM contaminated foods’.
    ‘Organic foods’ and the implied opposite, ‘artificial/non-organic foods’
    And so on.

    I really really detest how ‘special’ brands seem to be elbowing out the staples on the shelves of the supermarket nowadays. It’s very easy to get ‘lite cream’ (oooh how I hate that mispelling), ‘lo-fat cream’, ‘diet cream’, or a version thereof; or the alternatives, ‘rich cream’, ‘double cream’, and so on. What about just CREAM, for heavens’ sakes? Partly this is just my crankiness – I’m confused by all these labels and want them to be simpler. But I can also see how marketers are targeting what they see as a certain demographic – those who are ‘health conscious’, ‘weight watchers’, etc – and they simply assume that I’m part of one of those demographics. It’s a new class distinction. A class distinction that I want no part in.

  7. AdrienSword says:

    The differences arent even subtle!

    In appearance no. In taste – yes.

    But Adriensword, despite a promising start, has missed the bigger point, which is that Hamiltons worldview is fundamentally distorted.

    Everyone’s view is fundamentally distorted. You only notice if the values expressed therein are sufficiently different from one’s own. There’s a certain malaise in modern culture, a spiritual hollowness or disatisfaction, whatever. Hamilton merely expresses that thru one of the more common themes – the emptiness of consumerism.

    To be sure there are people who shop therefore they are. And it’s empty. Shopping malls are stuffed full of people with lots of bags and `miserable faces. At the same time Mr Hamiltion fails to appreciate the myriad opportunities for much deeper misery available to those in pre-industrial society.

    Unfortunately these kinds of discussions always polarize between those who assert some kitsch celebration of capitalism and those who blame it for all their problems.

  8. Patrick says:

    At the same time Mr Hamiltion fails to appreciate the myriad opportunities for much deeper misery available to those in pre-industrial society.

    This was highlighted at a conference in which Hamilton made his usual bloviation about supermarkets, and a Somali woman got up and said that having arrived in Australia only some years ago she still thought that supermarkets were the nearest thing to heaven on this world.

    But I think you are being too glib about worldviews. ‘Modern’ society, whether kitschly capitalist or social-democractic or whatever you think it is, has brought about improvements in absolute (and median, mean, overall and every other kind of measurement) welfare compared with even fifty years ago let alone a century ago, that is simply beyond any measure of ‘happiness’.

    Accepting this is not an indication of a ‘worldview’, but of cognitive capacity and some vague awareness of the world. Now maybe that’s just my worldview but you have to draw the line between sentience and mere idiocy somewhere. So yes this is polarised, but it should be.

    Finally, I can’t resist:

    Shopping malls are stuffed full of people with lots of bags and `miserable faces.

    I hear/see this a lot. And I don’t go to shopping centres a lot. So maybe it is right. But when I do go to shopping centres I don’t see this. So I don’t really believe it. Do you?

  9. conrad says:

    Despite this rather complicated analysis of potatos, if I look at the rather large number of customers my local fish and chip store has, there seems to be a massive over-representation of parents with kids and groups of teenagers. This leads me to suspect that a big reason people buy fish and chips at least (and not the other 20 things available on my street), is that kids like them, they’re cheap, and cooking them is quite quick — all rather practical concerns. I’m not sure who buys them because they are trendy, cool, or organically grown (I’m not even sure where I can buy such potatos), but they sure look like a rather small minority to me.

  10. Patrick says:

    I’m lost, conrad. I think Hamilton and everyone else on this thread had in mind buying raw potatoes in markets (or maybe even supermarkets), or at best asking the waiter what kind of potatoes went into the dish (in the rare case he hadn’t already volunteered the information).

  11. NPOV says:

    If you want miserable faces in a shopping mall, the best place to look is usually the food court. Probably something to do with the lack of potato varieties available there.

  12. AdrienSword says:

    a Somali woman got up and said that having arrived in Australia only some years ago she still thought that supermarkets were the nearest thing to heaven on this world.

    Yeah I understand this.

    I grew up in the 3rd world. The first week I moved to Sydney I went to the cinema and we got McDonald’s before the movie started. I thought it was great! So space age. These groovy styrofoam containers. These lines of clean, futuristic looking food. And there was an electric sign that told you when your movie was about to start! And there where 6 movies showing in the one place at the same time! And the cinema was air-conditioned with plush seats and the sound….!

    Fantastic!

    But I think you are being too glib about worldviews.

    I’m typically too glib about everything. :) .

    Modern society, whether kitschly capitalist or social-democractic or whatever you think it is, has brought about improvements in absolute (and median, mean, overall and every other kind of measurement) welfare compared with even fifty years ago let alone a century ago, that is simply beyond any measure of happiness.

    That the material standards of the modern world are a vast improvement is not in doubt and people forget this pretty much because they’ve never seen what the Somali woman has seen. But there’s accompanying data to suggest that a malaise like widespread depression is specific to the modern world as well. Remember: every silver lining has a cloud. It’s just the way things are.

    So I dont really believe it. Do you?

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to say everyone in shopping malls is miserable just that the miserable shopaholic is a standard feature. There’s a considerable number of ’em.

    One of the things critics and supporters of capitalism forget is that its great strength is that it can take criticism and that it’s flexible. Pointing out how soulless, devoid of beauty and inhuman some post-industrial wasteland of a 7-11 land suburban sprawl is doesn’t destroy the whole system. It does however point out a problem that can be addressed by that system if there’s someone who pays attention. (And pays to fix it)

    I don’t know why people like Hamilton gets all the rah rah cap’tlism people up in arms. Capitalism doesn’t exactly look fragile from where I’m standing.

  13. Patrick says:

    Glibness and supermarkets
    Yes you are rather glib, it seems. I don’t recall ever having the same feelings about McDonalds as about supermarkets, or flour without weevils in it, or fresh milk. After all I believe that nearly every miserable corner of the world has its own relatively fast and cheap food (the Pacific Islands certainly all do). They don’t have the other items.

    depression and clouds
    I think depression is rather like vegetarianism – a luxury born of capitalism’s vast capacity for production. Britain, with a comporable population, spends about the annual production of the Congo on healthcare, IIRC. I’ll bet there are more depressed people in Britain.

    It is kinda like cancer – yes it is bad, but then again it is only bad because we are living so long. You probably wouldn’t care about cancer if you died of a tooth infection at 38, or didn’t survive to five, etc.

    At worst these are spots of tarnish, not clouds. There is no downside, just further room for improvement. The comparator is not heaven, as much commentary (including yours) implicitly assumes, it is any other known real state of being.

    capitalism, ra-ra-ra and hating Hamilton
    I’m not so much ra-ra cap’tlism as afraid of/disgusted by what people like Hamilton stand for. Shorn of the leaden graceless mumbo-jumbo he stands for restoring a world of misery and suffering that most of us are grateful to have never known. It is always worth pointing this out, imho.

  14. Tel_ says:

    The only objective any animal has is to reproduce ( this is the geneticists way of basing things anyway). As your link explains only the strongest and healthiest males can afford to use energy to build a bright plummage and so attract mates.

    Read “The Red Queen” by Matt Ridley, everything you ever need to know about sex and peacocks (well actually, peacocks make a spooky sound in the middle of the night and he doesn’t warn you about that in the book, but I digress).

    In terms of small quantity supermarket purchase (i.e. Joe Sixpack consumer and his wife Jane), dry white rice and typical potatoes sit even, at about $3 per kilo (the spuds are probably 40% water) and generic brand flour sits down at $1 per kilo, so the market has decided that calories in a potato have higher value than calories in other forms (sadly, the flour is probably cheap primarily because it requires some skill to cook, potatoes probably have higher value because they require no skill to cook).

    I dont know why people like Hamilton gets all the rah rah captlism people up in arms. Capitalism doesnt exactly look fragile from where Im standing.

    Yeah, if you believe in the principle then don’t risk your neck defending it… let it defend itself.

    Then again, I believe in honesty, transparency and fair dealing and I doubt that they are strong enough to stand for themselves, but nor do I want to live in a world of lies and backstabbing neither (for the record, yes I do regularly ask myself whether I’m the stupid one).

    I see that individual freedom is being eroded away, and it’s just so tempting for anyone with a bit of power to justify their existence by banning this or requiring a license for that or special regulation for the other. Yes there will always be capitalism in one form or another but we might find ourselves at the stage where real people can’t legally trade with other real people, you just buy your pre-packaged product from the megacorp and choose your lifestyle from a short list handed to you.

    We all know that the prevailing mode of the slender waistline has been a tremendous detriment to the consumption of potatoes. Nobody acquainted with the elementary principles of dietetics will deny the fact that potatoes eaten in great quantities, have a tendency to fatten.

    Linda isn’t exactly a waif.

  15. mdick99 says:

    Tel,

    you lose all credibility when you make statements like:

    potatoes probably have higher value because they require no skill to cook

    You obviously didn’t go to boarding school or shared a house with some of the cooks that I have. There are many ways to ruin potatoes :-)

  16. Tel_ says:

    You obviously didnt go to boarding school or shared a house with some of the cooks that I have.

    Obviously not. I’d be interested in a quick straw poll of hopeless cooks and their buying habits. Did any of these acquaintances of yours buy a bag of flour?

  17. NPOV says:

    “vegetarianism – a luxury born of capitalisms vast capacity for production.”

    Right – tell that to, oh I don’t know, about half a billion Indians.

    And the idea that “depression” is a luxury could only come from someone who has no experience with mental illnesses, which have existed long before capitalism.

  18. NPOV says:

    (Indeed, I’d be highly surprised if depression was more common today than it was 100, 1000 or 10000 years ago. For a start we have drugs to treat it now.)

  19. Patrick says:

    That Indian counterexample is a good one, NPOV. Doesn’t convince me though, there are about 150 comments on a nearby thread about the irrationality of religious beliefs.

    I know my comments about depression seem insensitive and shallow. But I am not convinced otherwise.

  20. NPOV says:

    The fact that the vast majority of the world’s vegetarians are that way because of religious beliefs (irrational or otherwise) doesn’t convince you that vegetarianism is not in fact a “luxury born of capitalism’s vast capacity for production”?

    Actually, I’m not even so sure the vast majority of the word’s vegetarians are that way because of religious beliefs – a pretty decent percentage are that way because they can’t afford meat.

    As for depression – there’s actually a good amount of evidence that depression is recently on the rise in many Western nations, but what’s not clear is to what extent this is an artefact of better diagnosis/increased willingness to admit a problem, or that aspects of modern society impose on individuals. The idea, however, that there’s any significant number of people suffering depression simply because the luxuries of abundant production and excess spare time allow them to do so (implying that if they were to return to a life of subsistence agriculture or hunting & gathering their depression would be cured) doesn’t seem to have any evidence behind it that I’m aware of. There’s certainly lots of things about modern life that could potentially trigger depression that weren’t such an issue in previous generations – whether it’s chemical pollution or excessive work pressure or technologies that interfere with family relationships or isolationism caused by increased urbanisation: I’m sure scientific studies have been done but it’s not a subject I pretend to be particularly familiar with.

  21. mdick99 says:

    Tel,

    well the cooks at my boarding school used flour all the time and did a pretty
    average job with meals based on it as well, there were some dumplings they did that were barely edible even when I was a voracious 16 year old.

    In terms of the hopeless cooks, they weren’t allowed to do the shopping for the household, but one of them did learn to do quite reasonable scones in the end and in self-defence we taught them how to cook potatoes, e.g. peeling the potatoes if you want to do mashed potato, don’t put whole potatoes in for roasting, etc.

  22. Patrick says:

    NPOV, I humbly propose a third proposition – that throughout most of man’s existence anyone who got ‘depressed’ and decided that they just couldn’t face the day’s labour pretty much just died. Faced with a such a powerful incentive, I suggest that the overwhelming majority of people simply decided that they could go on with it after all and got over themselves.

    It is impossible to read that and not think that I am being terribly condescending and ignorant towards sufferers of depression, but I would love you to at least try. I don’t mean to deny that people who do suffer depression suffer genuinely and have a medical condition.

    I just mean that 300 years ago they probably would have self-treated their medical condition a bit better since the alternative was so utterly miserable (and since everyone would have expected them to). After all I am not suggesting anyone forgo any advantage afforded by modern medical science merely because their ancestors coped without.

  23. NPOV says:

    That’s assuming that depression primarily manifests itself as inability to work.
    But plenty of people suffer quite serious depression without it too seriously affecting their work habits. OTOH, I have a friend diagnosed with OCD who suffers frequent depression for whom it’s hard not to think that being forced to work for a living would probably do him some good – which is not to say that I believe disability benefits are a bad thing in his case, as there’s every reason to believe that if they were withdrawn he would simply resort to each relying on his family, or worse, winding up in some sort of institution, or even homeless.

    And why the quotes around “depressed”? You really have never spent any time with anyone who’s suffered genuine depression, have you?

  24. Patrick says:

    Um, you knew the answer was going to be ‘yes I have’, didn’t you?

  25. NPOV says:

    Well I can only hope you weren’t as shallow and senseless with them as you admit to coming across now.

  26. NPOV says:

    (Oops, that was meant to be ‘insensitive’, but ‘senseless’ might not be entirely inaccurate either).

  27. melaleuca says:

    Patrick says:

    “Faced with a such a powerful incentive, I suggest that the overwhelming majority of people simply decided that they could go on with it after all and got over themselves.”

    Your comment is fatuous since the lay term “depression” covers a multitude of mostly spectrum disorders that have different causes. One can’t simply “get over” a severe organic depression any more than one can simply get over cancer or an amputated limb.

    Anyway, your comments on this site suggest you are in your teens or early 20s, hence your insipidness is forgivable :)

  28. Patrick says:

    Insipidness, melaleuca? I would have thought it odd to bother replying to an insipid comment!

    And ok, I take your point that the lay term depre…etc. But that hardly really helps me. If anything that probably bolsters my argument, since on that basis the argument might be that ‘there is a core of “hard” depressions which have probably always existed but the excess productive capacity of modern society has assisted the growth in a number of “soft” depressions which historically weren’t a factor since people simply couldn’t afford them‘.

    Doubtless you disagree.

    NPOV, I probably wasn’t.

    I dont mean to deny that people who do suffer depression suffer genuinely and have a medical condition.

    Why would I be insensitive to their suffering just because I don’t think it would have been such a big deal a few centuries ago? After all, as I also said:

    I am not suggesting anyone forgo any advantage afforded by modern medical science merely because their ancestors coped without.

  29. AdrienSword says:

    Patrick – After all I believe that nearly every miserable corner of the world has its own relatively fast and cheap food

    Yeah Cairo had KFC and Whimpies (like a British MCDonald’s). A Grade 10 class went to Whimpies in the city after visiting the Pyramids one day. They all got heppatitus.

    It is always worth pointing this out, imho.

    Yeah I totally agree. I don’t think Hamilton actually realizes it. I’ve known some deep greenies in my time. A lot of them are scientists, but for some reason in matters political they simply don’t think. There’s no way in the world most of us even could go back to a medieval life let alone should.

    I’m a ‘greenie’ in terms of being concerned with sustainability and a conservationist (different things). But the Green Religion is appalling. And so is cap n’ trade.

  30. Patrick says:

    I do regret, actually, that ‘greenie’ now has almost nothing to do with what I grew up thinking it meant, to wit, ‘conservationist’.

    I used to be a member of Greenpeace. Then they decided that they would target nuclear power (having not done so for the period of my membership). So I was supposed to support an organisation whose priorities where eradicating nuclear power and banning whaling …? I simply couldn’t believe that represented a significant step forward for environmental sustainability and I quit.

  31. Amanda says:

    The real fast and cheap food in Cairo is at the kosheri. Three words about kosheri: NOM NOM NOM. The children would have avoided getting diseased and actually had a cultural experience to boot.

    It has lentils, which would please Dr. H., but no potato.

  32. Patrick says:

    In the Pacific Islands it seemed to be home-made donuts which were the cheapest fastest food!

  33. AdrienSword says:

    I do regret, actually, that greenie now has almost nothing to do with what I grew up thinking it meant, to wit, conservationist.

    I think it means three things.

    1. You’re concerned about the impact of humans on the ecology that sustains us.
    2. You want your kids to be able to fish in the same lake one day (conservation).
    3. You believe there’s a spiritual imperative to roll back human technology.

    It seems we have to be #1. #2 is optional and aesthetic. #3 leads to a lot of batshittery and often promotes all sorts of political romanticism which has nothing to do with #2 or #1. I’m #1 and #2 but not #3. I was once at a party with a chap who, learning that development would soon be approved in a Qld rainforest, actually suggested burning the whole thing down!!!

    He kept saying it would show everybody that ‘we loved it so much we’d prefer to destroy it rather than see it degraded!

    It would show everybody all right. :)

  34. Tel_ says:

    And the idea that depression is a luxury could only come from someone who has no experience with mental illnesses, which have existed long before capitalism.

    Depression itself is not the luxury, the luxury is that anyone might be interested enough to notice. Then again, same could be said for cholera. As we run out of highly lethal diseases to find cures for, we step down to studying less lethal diseases. Mind you, sepsis still kills more people than depression but weirdness is to be expected in a complex world.

    NPOV, I humbly propose a third proposition – that throughout most of mans existence anyone who got depressed and decided that they just couldnt face the days labour pretty much just died. Faced with a such a powerful incentive, I suggest that the overwhelming majority of people simply decided that they could go on with it after all and got over themselves.

    History offered a smorgasbord of distractions to entertain the mentally ill: crusades, jihad, persecution, witch hunts, or just starting a new cult. The modern world is so rational, so scientific and ordered. People laugh at you for trivial things like gazing into crystals, or howling at the moon. How is a poor loony-tunes going to find life round here? I suspect that as science gets more advanced, there will hit a threshold where the great majority of people cannot comprehend the majority of technology, and mysticism will once more become the norm. Our education system is no doubt contributing to this. I once started a study on how many people secretly thought that photocopiers were sentient, but found it too difficult to collect source data.

    More seriously, there’s a strong statistical link between long term stress and mental illness (particularly depression) and, while the world has always been stressful to those on the bottom of the heap, there’s immense relief available merely from finding the cause of your stress and striking them with sharpened iron. This form of therapy used to be tremendously popular, but now we must take expensive drugs instead.

  35. AdrienSword says:

    And the idea that depression is a luxury could only come from someone who has no experience with mental illnesses, which have existed long before capitalism.

    I don’t see how depression could be a luxury. But luxury can produce ennui.

    The idea, however, that theres any significant number of people suffering depression simply because the luxuries of abundant production and excess spare time allow them to do so

    There was an article about this a long time ago. I forget where it came from but it was an intelligent piece on depression for general readership.

    First off there most definitely is a correlation between complex and affluent society and depression. It doesn’t exist in tribal societies.

    Second the biochemical explanation is that human animals is set up to struggle in an ecology that poses many constant threats to their life. This produces an increased alertness, a lot of exercise and a certain triumphalism in surviving. Members of Special Forces report feeling this way during and after battle. The regional manager of a carpet emporium doesn’t.

    The way the article says it is that you feel much better off emotionally if you have to escape the claws of saber-toothed tigers on a regular basis. The downside is that the cats sometimes get you.

    Perhaps for that reason depression may not be known to tribal peoples but hysteria is commonplace.

  36. Patrick says:

    I largely agree. I suspect however that evolution in cat-escaping societies placed a premium on the absence of hysteria, excepting notably the Vikings.

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