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What Does a New Yorker Think When He Bites into a Hamburger?

Par Caroline Heinrich
Publié par Clifford Armion le 20/11/2012

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"What do you think of when you bite into a hamburger? Mmm, how delicious? Oh boy, this is bad for me? Or: I hope I won’t make a mess. Or perhaps you don’t want to think about anything at all? Maybe you are just thinking, “What a crazy question!”? Or are you trying to figure out what this crazy question has to do with philosophy and, particularly, with Baudrillard’s thought?"

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Caroline Heinrich, born in Buehl/Baden (Germany), studied Philosophy and German at the Universities Munster and Mainz. She began her teacher training in 2005 and graduated in 2007. Her philosophical report entitled "What Does a New Yorker Think When He Bites into a Hamburger?" Microphenomenology of Power Exemplified in the Teacher Training, published in 2011 by Passagen Verlag, is a reflection on her own experiences.


What do you think of when you bite into a hamburger? Mmm, how delicious? Oh boy, this is bad for me? Or: I hope I won’t make a mess. Or perhaps you don’t want to think about anything at all? Maybe you are just thinking, “What a crazy question!”? Or are you trying to figure out what this crazy question has to do with philosophy and, particularly, with Baudrillard’s thought?

(Well,) I agree with you: the question is crazy. Its construction and posing suggests that there is, in fact, an answer – that there is something uniform that all New Yorkers think when they bite into a hamburger. But this is impossible. The question feigns a reference which, in fact, does not exist.

What is interesting about the question, though, is that somebody actually posed it – as a completely serious question, in a training seminar for future teachers in Germany.

First a little background: Teacher training, which in Germany is state run, is supposed to instruct future teachers on how to be good teachers – on how to teach well. Trainees teach their own classes, attend seminars, and demonstrate their skills by sample test teaching. Teacher training in Germany, thus, has all the characteristics of a disciplinary institution, exactly as it is described in Foucault’s work: permanent observation, testing, and surveillance. The power of a trainer in this system consisting of micro-power structures is based on the power to evaluate and on “personnel power,” as Niklas Luhmann calls it. The following sentences, welcoming the new trainee teachers, provide insight into the situation: “For you, the worst thing will be that for two years you and your entire personality will be under observation!” – “Think hard about what your role is and what our role is!” – “You’re always allowed to think!,” but, “Be careful! The trainer may protest.” – “I would not call it a general rule that people walk away from the training physical and mental cripples.”

Back to what’s really interesting: None of the questions that were posed in the seminar – not only the New Yorker question – had any reference whatsoever. Although they were, therefore, unanswerable, the trainees “answered” them. And, based on Baudrillard’s analysis, the result was paradoxical communication taken to its extreme. Baudrillard claims that the “operational paradox” of contemporary communication lies in the “precedence of the operation over the quality of the action.” As a consequence, to communicate better the best is to have nothing to say.” Even worse, the speech acts had reached the lowest point of meaning in the teacher training seminars: One trainee answered the question of what New Yorkers think when they bite into a hamburger as follows: “Does the hamburger belong to me?” The trainer answered: “‘Hamburger’ is a fracture word, where culture appears and disappears,” which is incomprehensible not only because “fracture word” is a made-up term, but also because it has no discernible formal reference to the question, in other words, it was without a real context.

What is interesting, finally, is that the game of Q&A which began with these reference-free questions was a power game. The trainer, then, simply decided which “answers” were “right” and which were “wrong.” And if certain nonsense-answers were “right,” it was because they were presented in the “right” fashion, that is: the respondent kept up the appearance of there being an answer to the question, and demonstrated his insecurity about whether his answer was “right” in his facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. For the trainer, eliminating all content had the positive effect of not having to give any reason for anything and being free to focus on testing the respondents’ behavior. What from the point of view of thought is ridiculous or crazy – to ask what New Yorkers think when they bite into a hamburger – is almost perfect from the point of view of power.

I never answered any crazy questions – which had personal consequences for me – consequences such as a letter in which the trainer complained about my “perfidious strategy of refusal to communicate” and predicted that I would not get a job after my training if I continued to refuse to communicate. The State Department of Education even threatened to initiate disciplinary measures.

The question I want to ask, first of all, is what kind of power we are talking about here.

We are not talking about a knowledge power – neither a power that produces knowledge, nor one that reproduces knowledge. The form of power in the teacher training won’t let discourses circulate; it does not distinguish between right and wrong statements based on the limits of a given discourse; it does not connect discourse and power through “domains of objects and rituals of truth,” as Foucault puts it. No; we are talking about the kind of power that lets discourse and power collapse into a non-discourse in rituals that are object-less and truth-less.

We are also not talking about a legal power in the sense that Walter Benjamin describes – a power which creates law, as is appropriate to the figure of a sovereign leader, who intimidates his subjects and gives them the choice to either accept the laws or rebell against them. No, we are talking about a micro-power which leaves the determining law unspoken in a gray area of standard procedures and training regulations. A micro-power which does not exclaim, I have created the law of paradoxical communication!, and does not state what the punishment in the case of transgression is, but states in a seemingly friendly manner, “My doors are always open…,” and invites you in a seemingly friendly manner: “Come, join in our discourse…” We are talking about a kind of power in which the act of entering the discourse is like entering Kafka’s law; a power which exceeds the borders of reality by disintegrating the linearity of time and the law of causality, because the underlying legal text only becomes readable in the exact moment when a given behavior is declared a violation (“refusal to communicate”).

To start with, we are not even talking about a power that insists on having its way by virtue of giving orders, and on no account a power that enforces passive behavior on the part of the subjects. Rather, we are dealing with a power that plays an absurd game with language as a matter of course and aims in its entirety at the “active reaction” of the respondents. We are talking about the result of a development that has long shifted – and I’m quoting Baudrillard – from “injunction” to “programming by the code, from the ultimatum to solicitation, from obligatory passivity to models constructed from the outset on the basis of the subject’s ‘active response,’ and this subject’s involvement and ‘ludic’ participation.”

And, finally, we are also not talking about an ideological power which censors certain views and opinions, but a power that is constantly talking about freedom of thought without there ever being a single identifiable thought or at least power being identifiable as such. Instead, we are dealing with a power which loses itself in the circularity of crazy questions and answers, one which operates through a “let’s-play-discourses” model, one which constantly hits the ball to you in the process: What would you say? What do you think? In doing so, it performs a turnaround and claims – and I quote Baudrillard again – “YOU are the model!” – “YOU are the majority!” – “YOU are involved, you can use your voice” – this very turnaround, then, “through which it becomes impossible to locate a single instance of the model [and] of power.”

Well, that’s confusing, isn’t it? That is “the hell of simulation,” as Baudrillard puts it, the “hell of simulation, which is no longer one of outright torture, but of the subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning” – a destruction of meaning, because one can no longer distinguish between – and I quote Baudrillard with respect to the term “simulation” – “formerly contradictory or dialectically opposed terms.”

In fact, it no longer actually makes any sense to talk about “power,” since it has been stripped of all visible signs of power and has disappeared into a ridiculous language game. It no longer makes sense to talk about “discourse,” when this discourse is devoid of all content. It no longer makes sense to talk about subjugation to discourse or to power, when the “active reaction” is neither active nor passive in the original sense of these words. It makes no sense to talk about communication and repression if both concepts are equivalent in the banal, brutal shape of a “compression.” It does not even make sense anymore to talk about education and economics, if “communication” and capital are subjected to the same rules. Because, much like a question without reference can only revolve around itself and an “answer” leads into the realm of speculation, capital without reference (a reference, for instance, in a gold standard) only revolves around itself and disappears into speculation. Much as it, therefore, makes no sense to ask the “free-floating signifiers” about a relationship to “production of theories” in those crazy references to New Yorkers, hamburgers and fracture words – it simply does not exist! – much as it makes no sense to do that, it makes no sense to ask the “free-floating exchange rates” about their relationship to “material production” – it does not exist either!

Power in this teacher training situation is above all a metaphor for the powerful effect of simulation.

We can use the example of this kind of power to demonstrate not only the exchangeability of formerly contradictory concepts and separate societal realms (such as education and the economy) and thus, by way of this teacher training, demonstrate the end of disciplinary institutions in their specific function: the end of the prison, because “the virus of confinement has worked its way into every fiber of ’normal’ existence” and the end of the insane asylum, because madness has become pervasive. No, we can also use this example to show why upholding the act of thinking becomes a real challenge in this mad situation of complete simulation. If you are told nothing that you can criticize or question, if you are not ordered to do something that you can accept or refuse, and if all traditional separations and differentiations are dissolved, thinking has come under the threat of extinction.

This only affects people who are still used to the act of thinking. One of Pavlov’s experiments may illustrate my point: After teaching a group of dogs the difference between a circle and an ellipsis, he makes the two shapes more and more similar, until it ultimately becomes impossible to tell circle from ellipsis. Consequently, the dogs go crazy: They slip into a coma, become aggressive, or exhibit signs of great fear. On the other hand, the group of dogs that has not been taught this difference reacts with indifference. – Why, then, should people react differently than dogs?

Back to the teacher training situation, it was extreme and illustrates the most wayward metaphor of simulation in Baudrillard’s thoughts. As such it clarifies why all models of “active reaction,” which we permanently encounter every day – all the surveys, the formatted dialogs and interactive participations – are by no means simply harmless fun, but threaten to subjugate us with their frequency: because they permanently engage and preoccupy us, they take up our time and occupy our consciousness. But not only that: Teacher training in this case demonstrates this effect as a strategy of comprehensive domination. When a person did not react actively the power that had disappeared in the “let’s-play-discourse” model reappeared and became tangible in the threat of Either you communicate or I will ruin your future! It shows that a minimal behavioral aberration such as not giving crazy answers to crazy questions in order not to lose your mind was already seen as a total resistance.

But let us ponder this last point: Let’s ask again what my existential defense of thinking is exactly, my total boycott of questions without reference, indifferent discourses, simulation rituals, etc. – what this “strike without demands” implied.

Did it not imply that I did not accept anything power offered, that I did not strive for anything it could have provided – good grades, jobs, promotions?

Did my “refusal to communicate” not imply giving back to power its not having anything to say through my silence?

And, finally, did my laughter about the question what New Yorkers think when they bite into a hamburger not imply the act of laughing at “power”?

Does the reason for all those helpless reactions on the part of power – which, after all, included the threat of disciplinary measures – not lie in the fact that I myself became a question without reference by not accepting any gifts power made and returning them in a symbolic fashion – a question without reference to which power did not have any answer?

Baudrillard, for his part, states that the root and the essence of power are “the system’s retention of the exclusivity of the gift without counter-gift […]” and that the greatest attack on power is the counter-gift to which it can not respond. I think he’s right.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Walls and Bridges", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est tenu à New York du 11 au 20 octobre 2012.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Caroline Heinrich, "What Does a New Yorker Think When He Bites into a Hamburger?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2012. Consulté le 24/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/what-does-a-new-yorker-think-when-he-bites-into-a-hamburger-

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