Wax On, Wax Off

A salad barI was having lunch the other day, facing a salad bar, and it occurred to me that here we have a wonderful example of what it means to study signification.

For I would assume that few, if any, scholars would wish to argue that there’s some necessary reason for why this or that item is included within the confines of the salad bar — are there olives? Spinach? One or two types of lettuce? What about tabouli? So, instead of assuming that they each share in some essential vegetableness or saladness, I presume most would see the contents of that stainless steel bar as the result of choice (say, either responding to agency [i.e., consumer needs as evidenced in requests or empty dispensers] or following corporate mandates [i.e., a pre-structured menu provided by the restaurant’s head office]), all of which is arranged together either within that salad bar or on a diner’s plate, not because of some feature they all necessarily share but, instead, because of someone who has done the selecting and then also the arranging (what to put next to what?).

So too with the concept culture, for example — it’s our tool that names not inherently related items but, rather, just what we happen to have grouped together, based on our interests.

That we come to take for granted that the lettuce is the first item we hit when we walk up to that sneeze-guarded bar (after all, lettuce = the salad’s base, no?) is another interesting thing; for it turns out that the salad bar has a start (where the plates are stacked) and it has a finish (the narrative of the salad bar…), making plain that those arbitrarily selected elements ought to be related to each other in a very particular way — salad dressing at the start makes no sense at all. But should you just want some of the chicken salad or diced up boiled egg or some of the fruit that’s always near the end (there’s such a thing as fruit salad, after all), then you’ll just have to patiently wait in line with an empty plate, slowly shuffling to the end to finally get your diced melon long after others have selected their baby corn — either that or you’ll have to start at the “wrong” end (but “right” for you) and swim upstream and thereby risk glares from those who follow the rules and who might see you as cutting in.

We narrativize all sorts of other things too (consider how we talk about history, for example), as if there’s some inherent developmental thread running through things, from first to last — when, if we look a little closer, we may see that we’ve done the ranking and we’ve created the hierarchy, all to suit our current tastes.

With those just mentioned glares in mind, it’s plain that there are moral overtones to following the arbitrary order of things at the salad bar — the users of the system actually police the system itself by means of using it in this way rather than that. Which is not unlike speaking a language or driving on a highway — we ourselves enforce the arbitrary system inasmuch as we use it successfully.

Now, I don’t want to belabor this one edible example — and, say, discuss how nicely it illustrates how a small number of delimited items can be combined into innumerable novels forms (i.e., no two salads look the same), no different from the relationship between an alphabet and a language — but it occurs to me that if you want to study any system of signification, such as culture, then it might pay to start off by first studying, of all things, a salad bar, for many of the elements of those larger systems may be found there, in a simpler but no less fascinating manner, one that might seem a little more tangible, thus making for a good starter before turning to the main course.

Which brings to mind Mr. Miyagi…, for prior to tackling the tougher challenge, it might be a good idea to get a little training in a seemingly unrelated domain — for it may turn out that, unbeknownst to us, much the same skills are used in both situations.


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