As a frequenter of Panera, I have ample opportunity to ponder the food propaganda plastered everywhere in the form of photographs, pseudo-paintings of bread, and depictions of intently focused artisan bread-makers. One day, while glancing at the tagline above the photo of a steak-and-egg breakfast sandwich, which read “Grilled like no other,” I couldn’t help but think of the insistent refrain from the book of Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Of course, Panera doesn’t really believe that there is no steak-and-egg-sandwich like their steak-and-egg-sandwich. They just want me to buy their product.
Does advertising have the capacity to be meaningful art? I don’t doubt the skill of the photographers or cleverness of the food artists. The propaganda is well-wrought: it works. Its end, though, is manipulation. The goal is to persuade consumers of the desirability of a particular product so that the consumer will give something in exchange for what is advertised. Advertising, then, goes a step further than simple persuasion: its purpose is to make a sale. Its end is monetary gain.
Does this telos of manipulation exceed the photograph’s aesthetic qualities and render it merely a sophistic ornament devoid of real content? The image is conceived of and forged as a tool of power. Does the telos of power turn the picture into nothing more than an outward adornment of a false, content-less image? Though this image may give to the viewer as well as take, the giving is understood as an exchange of goods. The image put forth by the advertiser promises the consumer that the company will provide good food and a pleasant atmosphere in exchange for money. The relationship of advertiser and consumer is founded on utility and control (granted that control goes both ways, because the consumer is able to choose what to buy.) If the aim of the image is control, is it rendered incapable of the meaningful relation of art?
Perhaps more problematic than the image’s power to persuade, however, is the fact that the object advertised by the image does not have the power to deliver the happiness or contentment promised. Propaganda is not always fallacious, as propaganda can be used to persuade us of something true. Yet when persuasion turns into false representation, we find ourselves moved by falsehood, shaped by unreality. How is such persuasion even possible? How is it that what is can be shaped by what is not? How can false advertising succeed when it contradicts its own existence? If we are real, how can we be shaped by what is false? Does belief in false advertising contradict our own existence?
Maybe it does contradict our own existence. Maybe it is impossible for falsehood to shape reality. Maybe our belief in false advertising means we aren’t real at all.
The question of what constitutes “false” and “true” representation, of course, goes part and parcel with the idea of representation itself, because the image and the subject it represents are distinct entities. No amount of factual accuracy achieved by the image can make it synonymous with its subject. The image of the steak-and-egg sandwich does not equal the sandwich, any more than Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” painting equaled a pipe. The question of what is “false” and “true” representation raises many questions. Is the image/subject distinction a necessary tension within the nature of representation? Is the belief that the image must equal its subject in order for it to be a “true” representation wrong? Can the image actually equal its subject?
If the image/subject distinction is a necessary tension, then the image of the sandwich and the sandwich itself live in tension because they are separate things. The sandwich promised by its image cannot exceed its own existence. It cannot be more or less than it is. In this context, the image does not influence the sandwich itself, only our perception of it. When confronted by the reality of the sandwich as it is, we find it different from the image presented to us; even if we think it a damn fine steak-and-egg sandwich, it is less than what we were promised. The sandwich has not been altered by the image, but we have been changed. We tremble at this wrinkle in the fabric of existence, for how is it that we have been altered by non-reality? Further, how do we straighten the wrinkle? If we take and eat the food, believing it is other than what it is, we eat unreality and it poisons us. How do we accept the sandwich for what it is?
There is a way: we can eat with thanksgiving. The sandwich is not the maker or bearer of joy. Thanksgiving to the Giver of good gifts consummates the eating and transforms it into doxology. Doxology enables us to encounter reality. We do not see it for what it is, as if we could (of our own accord) manipulate the perception of our eyes. We do not see it, we eat it. We take it into ourselves and give thanks.
Without thanksgiving, my desire for the sandwich is a dislocation of reality, because I am looking to a god that cannot deliver. I expect nothing from no one. I eat and am not satisfied, for I am only “being within myself,” not “being beside myself.” Without thanksgiving, I am possessed of atheistic madness.
With thanksgiving, the power of the image is vanquished, for although we do not see the sandwich for what it is, we eat it for what it is. But when we do not see it for what it is, we do not know if what we eat is death or life. To eat with thanksgiving, however, is to eat with the expectation that whatever we eat—whatever passes through us in this transitory life—will be transformed. To give thanks is to confess that nonexistence cannot stand alongside existence –one must swallow the other. If we are real, we cannot eat falsehood. If we are false, we cannot eat reality. And yet, paradoxically, we eat both. We expect that any image formed as falsehood will be turned into reality, that this species that appears to be bread and wine—that is bread and wine—will somehow also be body and blood.