Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Mundane Wonderment: the myth of the microwave

The microwave, that most mundane and mysterious of appliances, occupies a prominent place on the counter of the North American meta-kitchen. It is absolutely accessible, able to be operated by children without supervision. At the same time, as a plastic and digitized machine it is pure artifice. When it is activated the interior comes alight, but we are fairly certain that this light is not what is affecting our food. In fact, we are not clear on what is going on, though we are impressed by it. The microwave “zaps” our food (a descriptor reflecting this titillated vagueness). Material inputted cold, hard and unappetizing, like by magic, emerges warm, soft, and comfortable for us. Aside from initially setting some very unspecific parameters, we as users are uninvolved.

The microwave signifies the concepts of convenience and, derivatively, agency free from responsibility; put another way: mundanity. It also signifies concepts associated with modernity deriving from the already heavily mythologized objects that compose it: the plastic and the digital. Further in this vane, it signifies concepts associated with the elements composing its function, notably science’s harnessing of the awesome natural phenomenon of radiation. Interestingly enough, this also emerges to a degree from the microwave’s convenience, although not exclusively. Thus the place in contemplation of microwave-as-tool is marginalized as microwave-as-signifier imposes meaning (convenience, mundanity, impressiveness) on us through the language of myth. We will examine this to expose how these meanings, masquerading as natural components of the object, are historical and contingent, joining Roland Barthes in his quest for demystification.

Turning now to the microwave as a symbol for/signifier of convenience, what is the process of “cooking” with the microwave? We place the “raw” (in a broad sense) food – which is often pre-prepared and stamped with specific microwaving instructions – on a plate, open the door of the microwave, close the door, then use a simple digital interface to, at the very most, set the degree (unspecified by units) to which we want the microwave to function, and the amount of time we want it to function for. I say at most because on newer microwaves it is possible to simply press a “popcorn” or “baked potato” button whose function is pre-set, freeing us from the responsibility of setting any tangible parameters at all. The act of cooking becomes proletarian. You are the assembly line worker who places the raw material on and then activates the conveyor belt. There is no demand on you to understand the entire process because you do not need to affect it. Cooking becomes mundane and mechanical.

This mundanity is in sharp contrast the broad range of knowledge and skill that has traditionally been associated with cooking. We must emphasize here that convenience only makes sense when it is contrasted to a historical conception of a process being complicated or involved. It is not some sort of a priori Platonic form – which Barthes would label “natural” – that has attached itself to the microwave, though it is easy to forget this. To illustrate the point let us use the prosaic example of the oven, the appliance directly preceding the microwave historically, and most related to it in functionality. We specify temperature (in units of Fahrenheit or Celsius), we recognize the elements as the source of the heat and can manipulate them by using alternatively the bake or broil functions, and we monitor the food, adjusting temperature and function accordingly, maybe even basting now and again. Failing to understand how manipulating these many variables will affect the food will prevent the food from being edible. A cook who uses an oven therefore bears full responsibility for the food and must be skilled–an artisan as opposed to a prole. Conversely, it is the microwave, not you, that burns the popcorn and needs to be fixed.

In the same way that not everyone could be an artisan, not everyone could cook prior to the microwave and other such modern culinary equipment. The wealthy hired others to do it, the poor had limited diets. The further back you go in technological sophistication (a generally linear historical progression), the greater the degree to which this is true. It is from this progression that the concept of mundanity comes to have meaning and attaches itself to the microwave which now signifies it to us.

Let us now turn to the microwave’s modern wondrousness. How does such a concept come to be signified by a cooking tool we have just established as also signifying the mundane? One of the implicit promises of technological progress is convenience in the realm of the mundane, supposedly freeing us for more noble pursuits, or simply leisure. Jane Jetson needed only to press a single button to produce a balanced and beautifully presented meal, freeing up the rest of the day for… well that’s not really specified, she doesn’t seem to be employed, but we’re sure that it is something more important and rewarding than cooking. This follows from the discussion in the previous section because it was the proletarianism of cooking that sapped away its reward as an exercise and that attached the concept of mundane as signified by it.

Why has the microwave come to be seen as the standard bearer for this ideology of the modern in the kitchen? It is designed to look artificial and futuristic. As we overcame our initial skeptical hesitation, the wood paneling and oven-like analog dials that marked early models disappeared in favour of clean plastic – that miraculous substance – and digital interfaces. These interfaces are similarly miraculous and are amplified in this by Kraftwerkian chirps and beeps that are inevitably elicited by their operation. The concept of the miraculous is central to this discussion. A miracle is a radical and sudden change in nature (as perceived) and inevitably induces wonder.

Plastics and programmed digital things are miracles of human ingenuity, signifying for us the measure of our power to control nature (the a priori substance of things). And further, they are the “magical artifice of the common,” where magical artifice was before always presumed to be grand. A fortiori the functional aspect of the microwave: We see in the microwave’s function a miracle of ingenuity performed actively before our eyes—radiant energy harnessed and put to work for humanity.

Radiation itself signifies for us that which is most powerful in nature, a celestial force emanating from the Sun, or the power emanating from the thermal reactions taking place at the core of the world. It is an object of wonder and mystery to those who know of it, but even for those who do not know radiation to be at the core of the functioning of the microwave (or even what radiation is) see a man-made miracle so awesome that it is completely beyond the reach of their proletarian comprehension. For these, this greater abstractness if nothing else lends itself to still greater conceptual distortion.

It is important again now to step back and take stock. Is this self-wonderment essential to the microwave? Certainly not, the concept again emerges from a historical process and will wane as history follows its linear course, id est like any myth it is historically contingent, and thus cannot be “eternal.” Again, for the concept of wonder in humanity as signified by this tool to make sense, the microwave must be contrasted to former modes of food preparation going back to the consumption of raw fruit from the branch of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the science implicit to it needs to be contrasted to a belief in God, et cetera. It is very plausible that immediately following the initial harnessing of fire as a tool it bore a weight of signifying baggage similar to what is born now by the microwave, the difference being that fire was literally of the Gods and stolen for us by a titan. We dared not wonder at ourselves, we wondered at them. Nevertheless, fear resulting from its being only partially domesticated laid the conceptual grounds for the contrasting mundanity of the microwave. Our wonder at fire signifying the gods’ mysterious power roots the current concept of wonder at our own mysterious power. The wonderment that was signified by fire has inevitably decreased as we consolidated its domesticity and came to broadly understand it. Similarly, the wonder of the microwave fades. As the wonder as signified fades, we are left only with its proletarian mundanity. Perhaps this is why scorn at the microwave seems now to be increasing in urbane taste.

We do not, however, typically think of this historical source of these signified concepts when we look at the microwave, although we sense that their weight derives from something tangible. If we fully recognize this history the myth of the concept as a natural part of the object evaporates (allusion to as opposed to statement of history is the source of its strength). We feel the concepts in their shapeless association with the object. Ultimately what must be understood is that we do not need the signifier object to understand the signified concepts which, as we have shown, articulate the current product of larger and external historical processes. Instead the concepts define our understanding of the object beyond its “natural essence,? in the case of the microwave, its pure form encompassing its nature both physical and functional (as food affecter). The concepts signified thus broaden the perceived form of the object so that it is distinct from its natural essence. It is a synthesis of the independent pure form and the independent concepts. The microwave goes from being a food affecting product of technological sophistication to being a convenient, mundane and wonderful food affecting object. It stands now exposed.


11 Responses to “Mundane Wonderment: the myth of the microwave”

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