Writing in 1983, George Ritzer argues that McDonald’s exemplified the accelerated rationalisation of the broader society. As constantly reiterated in The Founder,1 a biopic focused on Ray Krok’s franchised expansion of the fast-food restaurant, McDonald’s became a ‘symphony of efficiency’. Over the years, Ritzer’s definition of ‘McDonaldization’ as a process that emphasises efficiency, predictability, calculability, control and the rise of the non-human, has been applied to almost any industry one can imagine.2
Max Weber described this rationalisation in 1904 in a manner that still resonates. For Weber, modern capitalism relies on a redistribution of Christian asceticism towards capitalist aims. In Protestantism, one’s ‘calling’ to a purpose is no longer confined to monastic retreat and instead becomes ingrained in everyday life, expressed by methodical routine. Under capitalism, labour becomes the ‘calling’, an end in itself, ingrained into every facet of life. Utilitarian organisation and endless labour in the service of making money is imbued with moral certainty, and rational efficiency becomes a self-evident virtue.3 As Weber writes:
For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.4
Weber’s description of the ‘calling’ to labour, and the linkage of this extreme rationalisation to machinic and extractive processes, continues to be compelling. Indeed, there is something almost too perfect in the harmony between Weber’s description of the ‘iron cage’ in which our material goods enclose us,5 and Amazon’s infamous ‘worker cage’, an unrealised design that would allow human labour to be integrated within automated facilities.6
Writing again on McDonaldization in 2019, Ritzer seems resigned to the unfettered expansion and intensification of its processes and ideals, while noting the irrational dehumanisation that underlies it.7 Such is the pervasiveness of McDonaldization, and the naturalisation of the compulsion to efficiency, that Ritzer can elucidate this extreme rationalisation simply by describing the overt daily operations of a plethora of industries, replete with personal anecdotes of assembly line eye surgery, Airbnb trips gone wrong and the routine humiliations of academic life within the regimes of calculability and efficiency.8 Ritzer notes that the platform economy only exacerbates rationalisation, such that Amazon is significantly more ‘McDonaldized’ than McDonald’s, via extreme methods of efficiency and the potential for automation.9 Yet Ritzer’s continued focus on production and consumption has almost nothing to say about the increased significance of logistics and the supply chain as the material and conceptual underpinning of contemporary capitalism.10
For reasons unclear, the title character of the Netflix animation Pinky Malinky (2019) is a talking, child-sized ‘wiener’ sausage. While the lovable, enthusiastic Pinky is himself an ultra-processed, planet-destroying snack food, he also has a specific love for consuming tiny packets of Poppins: ‘What are Poppins? Our favourite corn-based food-like snack!’11 That his favourite snack is made from corn seems inevitable given the cheap ubiquity of this heavily subsidised crop. Corn is perhaps the food most clearly imbricated within processes of extreme rationalisation of contemporary food production.12 Spreading from its indigenous origins in the Americas, most corn is now grown from genetically modified patented crop seeds which, rationalised as commodity, can be sold back to the same sites from which it was gifted, as a more ‘efficient’ product.13 Ubiquitous, hardy and with high yields, corn is found in thousands of food and non-food products.14 Corn thus fits neatly into the typical narrative of McDonaldization, but Pinky has something to teach us here about its contemporary modifications.
As Poppins disappear from supermarket shelves, Pinky find himself in possession of the last known box. Rather than profiting from this scarcity, Pinky and his friends use these precious Poppins as part of their efforts to reproduce them, so that everyone in the town can again have access to the snack. Despite variously elaborate attempts (involving photocopiers, racoons, etc.) they are unable to reproduce Poppins. The production process (not to mention the taste and ‘function’ of Poppins) remains mysterious and, indeed, irrelevant, as the episode ends with a blimp-delivery showering the town in packets of Poppins 2.0 — all that matters is the management of circulation and the imbrication of the tiny packets within logistical circuits.15 During the episode, the smokestacks of the Poppins factory are glimpsed behind impenetrable gates, representing production as a vague caricature separate from the everyday reality of the characters. Instead, the characters’ connection to products is defined only by an intense consumerist impulse. Capturing Weber’s idea of the modern person as ‘acquisitive machine’, the slightest impedance of this acquisitive potential causes Pinky to explode (literally) and sends the town into societal meltdown.16 In this fable we learn that the organisation of the supply chain is more important for contemporary capitalist expansion than the production process which, for the consumer, may as well be magic.
To produce the works for her exhibition Empty Inside (2019), Elizabeth Willing began with boxes of her own choice of corn-based snack, Little Bellies, ostensibly designed as a first snack food for babies and supplied in single-serve 12g packets.17 Willing licked each individual puff, and with her saliva as an adhesive agent constructed small rectangular prisms out of the corn-worms. The resulting works, Licks (2019), come in three ‘flavours’: blueberry, strawberry and banana. These unassuming sculptures, sitting on the gallery floor, are akin in size to a small parcel and have the appearance of a pile of packing peanuts still holding the shape of the box from which they have been emptied.18 The title, Empty Inside, could be referring to the missing product among what appears to be a pile of packaging as much as to the snack itself. As Pinky notes: ‘Poppins leaves you feeling empty, like you could eat a million and only want more.’
Willing’s work often uses industrial food products, which are transformed via the participation of gallery visitors to create an aleatory installation in contrast to the careful standardisation of the food. Visitors are invited to unwrap and eat chocolate bars, leaving the packet as part of an evolving wall-based work (Pick-me-up, 2016), or to eat frosted gingerbread directly off the wall (Goosebump, 2011).19 In contrast, the interaction with the food in Empty Inside is solitary and private, as the works are delivered completed (in a cardboard box), ready to be put onto the gallery floor. Willing’s process for Licks is both extravagant in its absurdity and completely banal in its mimicry of the repetitive gestures of assembly line Taylorism.20 The work emphasises the hyper-rationalisation of food and what Raj Patel calls ‘nutritionism’, which addresses hunger not by ending poverty but by focusing on the delivery of individual molecular components of food.21 In this discourse, a piece of fruit, for example, becomes an unknown quantity of nutritional value. Nutritional ‘value’ is defined and quantified by global corporations selling packaged food, which manipulate and quantify this nutritional value via the elaborate processing of subsidised crops. In Willing’s work the food and its packaging are coterminous, and food is inseparable from the logistical entanglements that enable commodification and ultimately define its value.
In daily life, food is increasingly defined by its efficiency, not just in terms of its ‘nutritional value’ but also in its movements. A recent study of the takeaway food habits of young urban dwellers in China found that groups of people would often organise the delivery of food via WeChat; not so that they could eat together, but so that they could save on delivery charges. Similarly, the study notes the habit of ordering more food than desired to meet minimum order sizes associated with delivery.22 As part of individuals’ daily habits, food consumption comes to be defined by logistical management.
Crucially, Willing’s Licks do not express any yearning for a less ‘rationalised’ product, such as a more ‘naturally’ harvested food. Willing simply exacerbates the conditions inherent in the product, presenting it as is. There is no suggested return to nature. T. J. Demos has argued that the conservationist tendency in art, which monumentalises ‘natural landscapes’ via, for example, the introduction of organic farming and urban planting to artistic contexts, tends to divorce these landscapes and ‘natural’ products from the social, economic and technical procedures that produce them. He considers, for example, Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison’s Survival Pieces (1972–74). This work introduced organic micro-farms and fruit orchards into galleries to emphasise the loss of local farms to industrial development. A gallery full of citrus trees, as presented by the Harrisons, is certainly beautiful but turns the ‘natural’ into an abstraction and does nothing to engage with the socioeconomic context in which this is enmeshed. Demos argues for works that reflect a ‘political ecology’, and thus engage with the bundle of discourses that produce ‘nature’ and which can illuminate processes of commodification.23
The image of fruit trees enclosed in a pristine and rarefied gallery brings to mind Eleanor Davis’ graphic short story ‘Nita Goes Home’ (2014). In this story, an ultra-privileged elite live in a utopian dome (think Amazon Spheres24) and indulge in an agrarian lifestyle of organic farming (‘Gaiagrown’). In contrast, the majority live beyond the dome in a polluted world where they wear ‘toxoff’ suits for survival, and where pop-up advertising crowds every experience and genetically modified and cheap fast food is, by necessity, the food of choice. Nita, who lives in the dome, travels outside to her childhood home. Here, she tells her dying father how she recently sold a series of artworks to Maddox Jolie-Pitt (the eldest son of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt), while a bag of the local junk food (Pico Taco) placed next to the bed is a repeated image across panels. Across various interactions in the story, Nita self-righteously criticises this world and its food before returning to her rarefied existence in the dome where she cultivates organic blueberries. Nita’s retreat reflects a refusal to address the structural poverty that surrounds the dome and the enabling conditions of the commodified food that repulses her.25 It is significant then that in Empty Inside Willing refuses a simple return to nature and does not present the gallery nor herself as a rarefied retreat. Instead, the work examines the conditions of the corn-worms. Though physically light the sculptures are laden with labour and the weight of the logistical conditions of their material, approaching the political ecology that entangles the snack.
In an early scene in the movie Nomadland (2020),26 Fern, the central character, stands outside an Amazon distribution centre eating a packet of snack food, having just finished a seasonal contract. A brief wave goodbye to a colleague (‘see you next year’) as they rush by captures her alienation. The snack food she eats, like her work at Amazon, is carefully measured into highly regulated, unsatisfying portions that enable maximum efficiency.27 For Amazon, a company focused on digital and physical distribution, efficiency is the entire business; products are secondary to their circulation. This is neatly captured in Heike Geissler’s reflections on her time as a temporary warehouse worker at Amazon, like Fern. Geissler considers a hat that has travelled across the globe to reach her at Amazon:
Strange products in your hands, for example this baseball cap that already looks so lived-in it could hardly get much more worn. Used- or distressed-look fashion, you get the point, but the cap is nothing but a ragged piece of cloth, more like something for adherents to a radicalized acceleration of the commodity cycle, people who only buy what has to be thrown away because if fails to meet its requirement as a usable product, serves only to move money and material.28
The pure circulation of the throwaway world of Amazon contrasts markedly to the depiction of Fern’s life in the film, where she cares for things and extracts maximum use, fixing rather than replacing her van (against advice), gluing a broken plate back together, knitting potholders. The few objects she has are gifted or traded with others on the economic fringes as she moves across the US on an itinerary of casual seasonal work in the van that is her home.
In a later scene, Fern wanders through the now abandoned company-provided tract house in which she used to live. Located in a derelict factory town with its shuttered industry, we see here remnants of the empty, faded dream of the post-War boom and its promise of security and financial stability. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) is a book about the harvesting of matsutake mushrooms, and their journey to market as a valuable commodity in Japan. Tsing’s research uses this journey to find out what happened to this lost promise, to ponder the loss of the ‘regular’ job that Fern seeks and to ask why and how we now live under twin precarity: precarious employment on a precarious planet.29 Tsing sets the stage for this investigation within the forest ruins where matsutake mushrooms now grow. Such forests, for example in Oregon, were transformed in various ways by their extreme rationalisation under disastrous post-War forestry policies that, obsessed with scalability, intensely managed plantations and rejected the Indigenous knowledge that had long sustained these landscapes:
All they had to do was replace ‘decadent’, ‘overmature’ old growth forests with fast-growing and vigorous young trees which would be harvestable in predictable eighty-to-one-hundred year intervals […] The faster the forest was cut, according to this logic, the more productive it would become.30
Forests were subject to McDonaldization, but both their decline as plantations and their current use as a site for foraging matsutake exemplifies the ascendancy of the supply chain as a process that intersects with McDonaldization. Supply chains have been decisive in the development of capitalism, at least since the fifteenth century and the transformation of the former forests of Madeira into sugar consumed by Europeans.31 Tsing argues that the contemporary logistical refinement of supply chain processes was pioneered by Japanese corporations, and subsequently intensified by their adoption in the US. Crucially, the logic of the supply chain knits together spatially disparate components to find the cheapest sources. No longer requiring a standardised workforce, the supply chain seeks the cheapest product; why it is so cheap, or how it is sourced, does not need to be considered. Within this, wood could now be sourced from locations without environmental and labour regulations and other costly components, leading to the decline of forestry in the US and Japan.32 The contemporary supply chain connects a patchwork of formal and informal processes to source goods and extract resources that are translated into capital (as exemplified by matsutake foraging); as with Poppins, the standardisation of production cedes to logistical organisation. Crucial to the utility of patchworked sources are processes of inventory organisation and rationalisation and the barcode:
Walmart pioneered the required use of universal product codes (UPCs), the black-and-white bars that allow computers to know these products as inventory. The legibility of inventory, in turn, means that Walmart is able to ignore the labor and environmental conditions through which its products are made, pericapitalist [sic] methods, including theft and violence, may be part of the production process. […] Walmart has become famous for forcing its suppliers to make products ever more cheaply thus encouraging savage labor and destructive environmental practices.33
As Pinky finds, pursuing the details of Poppins’ production is fruitless as it is the management of delivery that defines its commodification.
Invariably, in discussions of Cao Fei’s work, it is noted that she was born in 1978 in Guangzhou. The significance of this is two-fold. Firstly, her proximity to Hong Kong exposed her to Western popular culture from a young age, with music videos in particular an ongoing influence on her work.34 Secondly, Cao has witnessed enormous socio-economic change, and the expansion of China within global supply chains.35 Her longform video Asia One (2018) reflects both influences as it follows two lone human employees and a robot within an automated distribution warehouse. Here, UPCs are a constant presence, scanned by the characters and imprinted on their wrists. Akin to the parcels that surround them, the characters silently move through the warehouse, responding only to machinic entanglements.36
Occasionally, the characters eat instant noodles or, in one sequence, a box of individually wrapped wieners (like Pinky) are discovered and eaten only to be regurgitated in revulsion. The ordered monotony of the warehouse is disrupted by a spill of pomelos that, from a broken container, inexplicably begin to roll and litter the warehouse floor. The pomelos seem to introduce a brief respite, and eventually the characters sit together to peel and eat them in a rare moment of sociability. Meanwhile behind them a troupe of dancers perform among the ramps and conveyor belts. This mix of fantasy and the everyday is reminiscent of Cao’s Whose Utopia? (2006), made with employees at an Osram factory, and which includes images of the employees dancing in the factory.37
Cao has remarked on her interest in finding stories that persist despite synchronisation and homogenisation,38 and these two sequences initially suggest a subversive potential in the irrational flood of pomelos and the dancing. Yet, the careful co-ordination of the dancers and the explicit reference to musicals of the Cultural Revolution, which are subsequently shown on background screens, imply discipline rather than spontaneity. If the delinquent pomelos initially offer an interruption to the machinic, the work’s penultimate scene lingers on the pomelos, now neatly arranged and individually wrapped, slowly moving along a conveyor belt. The sequence ends with the human characters, also on the conveyor, lying down, resigned and defeated, at the whims of the vast automation of the logistical apparatus.
Reflecting recently on Whose Utopia?, Cao notes that while this older work explored conditions of production specific to China, it contrasts with the contemporary emphasis on logistics: ‘through logistics you see not only something happening in China, but something we are facing globally.’39 Asia One reflects this shift of emphasis, showing a facility that could be anywhere. Lu Mingjun’s modification of the term ‘Made in China’ to ‘Made in China-Globalization’ signifies the wider recognition within Chinese contemporary art contexts of the supply chain and reinforces the importance of these global entanglements.40
Ritzer’s use of McDonald’s to understand society was a dystopian, yet vivid, argument. Tracing encounters with food across contemporary culture suggests that this metonym continues to offer insights into the growth and modification of processes of rationalisation as they expand via global networks and algorithmic culture.
2019). Weber also finds a deep irrationality in this process, but for different reasons. See: Weber, Protestant, pp. 70–72, 78.