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  • On Death and Donuts:Irony and Ecology after September 11
  • Susie O'Brien (bio)

Number of Pop-Tarts dropped on Afghanistan as part of U.S. airborne food aid in the first month of bombing: 1,101.

Harper's Index

Among the broad cultural consequences of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 was a hasty reconfiguration of public discourse. In addition to the self-censorship of many corporate advertisers in the weeks following the attacks, environmental groups announced the cancellation of campaigns, reflecting a consensus that "now [was] not the time for these debates" (quoted in Mittelstaedt 2001). These major changes were accompanied by a general shift in tone described by many commentators as the "death" of irony, in favor of a return to depth and sincerity. In the midst of this reshuffling of cultural priorities, as the media tiptoed nervously around the reintroduction of subjects not immediately related to September 11 and its aftermath, stories about food began appearing with curious frequency. In the Toronto Star, for example, tucked in between stories about the search for Osama bin Laden and the threat of further attacks, was an article about the opening of the first Krispy Kreme donut store in Canada (Cotroneo 2001). The image of excited suburbanites frantically jockeying to get their free samples of Original Glazed suggests that, contrary to solemn pronouncements about how we were all going to re-embrace wholesome, life-enhancing principles, our supersized appetites for the uniformed kitsch of the donut chain, empty carbohydrates, and artery-clogging lipids were unabated: nothing had changed. After September 11, however, that scene of eager consumption takes on another, weightier [End Page 148] significance. The eating of those warm, soft, Krispy Kreme donuts—in fact the eating of comfort food generally—is enlisted to demonstrate a commitment to the goals of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, thereby explicitly politicizing the otherwise guilty pleasure of eating sugar and lard with the significance that, in doing so, we were somehow contributing to the defense of Western civilization. The Krispy Kreme became as American as apple pie. Not to chow down big became un-American.

Without overstating its relevance as a barometer of contemporary culture, I cite the Krispy Kreme story as a way into thinking about changes in public discourse, post-September 11, and the implications of those changes. Specifically, I want to explore the significance of two seemingly endangered ways of thinking—ecology and irony—with a particular focus on their relevance for looking at the cultural politics of food. In brief, I argue that irony and ecology both offer ways of challenging an uncritical acceptance of the inherent superiority of Western culture and the economic system that sustains it. The critical thrust of both irony and ecology explains their semi-official banishment, as it also explains the converse argument that we need them now, more than ever. This essay endorses that argument—mostly. However, as modes of thinking that are deeply implicated in global capitalist culture, irony and ecology are each insufficient as ways of engaging its contradictions. Ultimately, then, this essay seeks to advance a critical perspective in whichecology and irony work in tension with one another, gaining insight through the mutual illumination of one another's differences. After outlining some of these differences, the final section of the paper returns to the phenomenon of the ever-expanding Krispy Kreme donut empire, employing irony and ecology to establish its broader significance in the context of post-September 11 global politics.

Following September 11, both ecology and irony disappeared, more or less conspicuously, from public view. In the case of ecology, the disappearance was more subtle: announcements of campaign cancellations by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club received little media attention, thus apparently confirming the sense, on the part of these organizations, that the environment had, quite justifiably, fallen off the public agenda. Irony's departure was more spectacular, heralded [End Page 149] by dramatic headlines in Time, and the announcement by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, that a "seismic change" had occurred; that we had witnessed "the end of the age of irony" (quoted in Kingston 2001). The gist of...


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