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[13.0] The Great A-cake-ening (Part 1)
Can cake be our canon?
At first glance, it may appear contradictory that the term decadent applies both to sweet tooths as well as societies on the cusp of collapse.
Like, how does a soufflé relate to a coup d’état apart from some flirty French accents?
The answer, I posit, is cake.
Perhaps you, too, recall a delicious yet terrifying intermezzo between that god-awful “Imagine” rendition and the infamous Bean Dad debacle. I speak of the Great A-cake-ening of 2020, in which every conceivable object under the sun was transmuted into hyperrealistic-cake-form only to be sliced open, its (decadent) innards displayed for the viewer:
Crocs? Cake. A roll of toilet paper? Cake. White Claw? Cake, thank God.
As with many social media flashes in the pan, and as is ad-driven media’s wont, a slew of punchy explainers tried to make sense of the craze. What pocket of our lizard brain or form of accelerated civilizational decay made sense of cake’s virality?
Should we listen to Dr. Rebecca Rialon Berry’s psychological explanation in O Magazine, in which the stress of the cakey optical illusion compels the viewer to joke their way through heightened cortisol responses?
Or should we take Refinery29’s conclusion as a call to arms?
None of us have ever lived through a year like 2020, when everything feels both totally fucked and surprisingly possible all at once — kind of like what it feels like to see a plastic shoe cut open and revealed to be a chocolate cake. But maybe the most important questions a lot of people are asking themselves now are: Have we just not been paying close enough attention this whole time? Has everything always been like this and we’re just now beginning to see it? Was everything just cake this whole time?
But lo, dear reader, what is and is not cake is actually somewhat scriptural. Both the prominence of the cake fad as well as the ensuing moralizing thereof square cogently (and deliciously) with JZ Smith, preeminent scholar of religion and all around great guy:
In “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon,” Smith argues that the interpretation of limited sets of information—which, in certain cases, become canon—is an innately religious phenomenon that drives religious practices forward. It is also a cultural undertaking that can compel us to consider religion’s intrinsic relationship to human labor. Here’s the original quote if mind-numbing academic parlance is your thing:
The radical and arbitrary reduction represented by the notion of canon and the ingenuity represented by the rule-governed exegetical enterprise of applying the canon to every dimension of human life is that most characteristic, persistent, and obsessive religious activity. It is, at the same time, the most profoundly cultural, and hence, the most illuminating for what ought to be the essentially anthropological view point of the historian of religion and a conception of religion as human labor.
Smith helps us understand where the boundary lies between “canonical” and “not canonical.” Crucially, canon is a “subtype of the genre list.” Most lists are open-ended, and “have neither a necessary beginning nor end save that provided by the duration of the attention of their compiler or the use to which the list is to be put.” The list as a form of information accrual is largely ad hoc, if not inchoate. When compilers tire of their task, the list may be complete in its length, but not exhaustive or closed.
A subset of lists are catalogs, which function primarily as a means for information retrieval. Think of encyclopedias, for example, which explain the correlation between objects through cross-reference.
In a sign that we’re on the right track, Smith connects this taxonomizing penchant to cultural understandings of food:
A given foodstuff represents a radical, almost arbitrary, selection out of the incredible number of potential sources of nutriment that are at hand. But, once the selection is made, the most extraordinary attention is given to the variety of its preparation. That is to say, if food is a phenomenon characterized by limitation, cuisine is a phenomenon characterized by variegation. This most important and suggestive rule may be simply tested. Make a list of the most basic foodstuffs regularly eaten. It will be a short one. Then make a list of the modes of preparation, the names of specific dishes that you know. Whether you are thinking of bread, pasta, wine, cheese, beef, potatoes, or chicken, your list will stagger the ingenuity of a Linnaeus!
Smith argues that scholars of religion conflate the relationship between basic (e.g. foodstuffs) and secondary (e.g. cuisine) elements. A mistaking-tree-for-forest-type transgression. They approach the basic elements as primordial, while thinking of secondary ingenuity (turning the list into a catalog) as an unsophisticated, almost automatronic effort, as though people do not influence the religions they practice.
But secondary interpretation is not a degenerative undertaking: the same primary elements can be deciphered in strikingly creative, diverse ways to speak to the particularities of different eras and agendas. Religions stay relevant and powerful through this ongoing enterprise. In the context of our inquiry, this tells us that cake as a runaway meme hinges upon historical developments, technological conditions, and human actors. The platforms we occupy thrive off such exegesis.
The cake legerdemain’s popularity took off on Twitter; this makes complete sense. Twitter is the list to end all lists, never-ending precisely because of its almost unlimited pool of human attention and the archival urge that sustains it. Before algorithms ruined its disconnectedness by recommending tweets rather than unfurling them in chronological order, Twitter was a disjointed accrual connected only by the passage of time. But that was enough for the user experience to make sense. Now, with esoteric, algorithmic attempts to make Twitter a (self-)referential, thematic feed that feels uncanny and simulated, users may feel a magnified imperative to make more ordered sense of the site and the connection between one tweet and another.
What the cake craze revealed was an attempt to transform Twitter from a list into a catalog: a return to some theme explaining its sequence and our experiences therein. In the noise, we tried to make sense of a niche, sweet subset—cake—to interpret our larger cybernetic environment. We yearned for a referent to build a codex, and, as long as our attention buoyed it, it survived and proliferated. Objects had to refer to something; users needed some closure. Hence, at least for a fleeting moment, a multitude of cake “jokes” that departed from Tasty’s original video format:
But it’s precisely the occultist dynamism of Twitter that makes for our continued unmoored relationship with the content that crosses our retinas. The internet will never be canon, Smith would argue. “The only formal element that is lacking to transform a catalog into a canon is the element of closure: that the list be held to be complete,” he wrote. Given its drawn-out explosion, how on earth could we ever consider any pocket of cyberspace closed?
This nagging openness, then, sheds new light on the uncanniness of the internet. The internet may have morphed into a universe both-fake-and-real over time, but this was driven by attempts behind the curtain to catalog the internet in the name of attention rather than comprehension. Crucially, we do not benefit from the catharsis of our cross-referential pursuits as much as platforms do financially from our increased engagement. The logical gaps are thus certain to fester rather than soothe.
In the context of religious studies, Smith further asserted that a professorial tendency to emphasize the significance of symbology within religious worldviews gives power to the academic interpreter rather than the religious group being studied. By looking to enigmatic dimensions instead of prosaic, expository discourse, those who interpret religions grant themselves outsize influence on how that religious group is encapsulated and explained.
Perhaps this warning, too, relates to how we attempt to make sense at particular impasses on the information superhighway. Rather than coming to a collaborative understanding, various groups jockey for control over how we engage with the truths of the internet—from meme groups, to newsletters, to terrifying conspiracy theory rabbit holes. We lack a shared understanding of the internet: in large part an outgrowth of the hidden but obvious power of tech giants in how we engage with our screens and each other. A chasm destined to remain as long as the tech industry finds profit in societal decadence.
A return to the food-cuisine matrix compels us to contemplate cake’s material and social formation over time as well. This particularly strange cake episode doesn’t merely rely on the developments of “Big Tech.” Cake as a material thing itself was only made possible by the invention and industrialization of refined sugar in the 1600s, a brutal process sustained by colonization and enslavement, namely in the Caribbean.
In part two of our cakey query, we’ll dig into the historical development of cake as well as the technologies that permitted its emergence as a tool of diplomatic and imperial power in the halls of Versailles. Things get decadent, decadent, and revolutionary.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.