Baudrillard’s Vanilla


By: Andre Lopes Massa

Every grocery-shopping trip always end up with the same dilemma every time we get to the desert section: which flavor of ice cream should we buy? As you begin to look towards the ice cream section, you begin to notice the multitude of ice cream brands and sizes of vanilla, enough to overwhelm you over the minute differences advertised on each carton of ice cream to draw you towards it. In the end, we just end up buying the cheapest kind because all vanilla is the same at the end of the day and it’s such a common flavor that it can be found almost everywhere and that its something universally recognized. Or is it?

Contrary to popular belief, vanilla is extremely rare, can only grow in certain climates, and has a small timeframe for which it can be extracted from the beans. It was actually first cultivated by the Aztecs to flavor their drinks as the region had suitable climate to cultivate the crop, a factor that contributed to Mexico being the main producer of vanilla well into the era of Spanish colonization. (Rao 2000). Manyfailed attempts by Europeans to cultivate the crop in colder climates lead to the development of artificial cultivation processes of vanilla as a crop by Professor Charles Morren in 1841 in France, a development that lead to the successful proliferation of the crop in areas such as Tahiti and Madagascar. While these developments lead to the crop itself surviving across the globe, pure vanilla flavor itself was still too hard to extract from the beans, as of the 12,000 tons of vanillin consumed annually, only 20 tons is extracted from the beans itself. (Rao 2000). As a result of the low success rate of vanilla extraction combined with the huge demand for everyone’s favorite desert, 99% of vanillin has been made up by chemicals such as lignin, a waste chemical largely produced in Chinese factories. (MIT Tech Review 2013). So, while many of you may think you’re eating actual vanilla, what you are really licking of your spoon is a copy of the flavor, one devoid of any origin and meaning.

We have come to regard what we substitute for vanilla as taking the place of the real thing, a phenomenon everyone’s favorite French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed with his critique of the proliferation of hyper media culture. For Baudrillard, the over saturation of media culture has created an information overload whereby we have lost the origin of what is considered “real” in favor of the consumption of the information we are bombarded by everyday that forms our perspectives on everything within our daily lives. The same analysis can be extended to vanilla ice cream through Baudrillard’s 4 stages of how an object becomes a simulation. (Baudrillard 1983)

The Image- For Baudrillard, this is the stage we come to conceptualize an object and its properties. This could range from a picture of a hamburger to a famous piece of art. In the context of the simulation that is vanilla ice cream, this is the stage whereby laboratories will begin learning as much as possible about vanilla beans in order to replicate the flavor artificially. They’ll start by analyzing the molecular structure of vanilla to get an idea of how to come close to the taste and base the development on those results, starting the move away from the origin of vanilla to a reality of vanilla characterized by its absence.

The Copy- For Baudrillard, this is the stage whereby we mask and lose connection with the profound reality of the object. In this stage, scientists have finally cracked the molecular structure of vanilla and discovered that lignin can create a flavor that is just as good as the real thing. Factories may still use some pure vanilla extract from beans in their ice cream, but the presence of lignin begins to dilute our ability to distinguish between “pure” vanilla and the factory wastes that taste like vanilla.

Simulacra- For Baudrillard, this is the stage whereby the copy begins to mask the absence of reality through the erasure of its origin. As companies that mass produce vanilla ice cream flavored with lignin realize that its becoming too expensive to use some pure vanilla extract from beans in their product, they begin to phase out any traces of “real” vanilla in their ice cream. They may administer taste tests of pure vanilla ice cream and lignin-saturated ice cream and find out that people can’t tell the difference in taste or may even prefer the ice cream saturated with waste from a Chinese factory. These taste tests now begin to form the basis by which the absence of vanilla is completely masked. Slowly but surely we can no longer distinguish between the stuff from the beans and the stuff from factory garbage cans. The absence of extract from vanilla plants begins to mask that there are even seasons at all as the artificial flavoring can be produced any time, anywhere, eroding the origin of “vanilla” as it has proliferated to such a degree that the meaning behind it is lost. Everything now becomes a lie.

Simulation- For Baudrillard, this is the scariest stage of all, it is a stage where constantly feed into the erosion of the Real without ever realizing it. It is in this stage that we become mindless consumers no longer concerned with the purpose behind consumption but merely consume for the sake of subjecting ourselves to the simulation that is now vanilla ice cream. We are doomed to wander the desert of the Real with no hope of ever finding the origin of “vanilla”. In this stage, any traces to the original object are completely erased and we become “seduced to the object”, that is, we begin to prefer the mass-produced, ever available and accessible copy of that reality. We are no longer able to distinguish between what is real and what is not, we are only doomed to meaninglessly accept that fact and live within it. Once factories begin to phase out vanilla extract completely in favor in lignin, the masses begin to become duped by the lie within the ice cream. Suddenly, companies are now able to advertise their fake ice cream by labeling it as “pure vanilla extract” even though the slightest trace of vanilla isn’t even present, yet we have lost any ability to discern the two. The signs and signifiers that constitute vanilla are no longer “objective” or “real” to us; rather they are blurred and dissolved of any real origin. Our sense of what is vanilla is now shaped by the artificial flavoring we consume on a massive scale, a point at which we become seduced by the simulation of vanilla to the point where lignin is now vanilla. We, as the masses, have been duped but we willingly participate in the lie in the hopes that we avoid finding out everything around us is inherently meaningless, a mere simulation of what was once reality. We are afraid of realizing that we live in a meaningless reality and, much like the polls that come out during election season to allow the masses to participate in the simulated game of politics, we are eager to put our input in taste tests to artificially recreate the meaning eroded in the lignin filled vanilla ice cream. We are quick to label it “pure vanilla extract” in order to continue the game as if it’s an act of denial to cope with the realization that we are living a lie, happy to accept being seduced by the lignin masquerading as vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla ice cream is just one of the many ways Baudrillard’s commentary reveals the stark reality we live in today. Much like the ever-growing amount of vanilla ice cream on the shelves in grocery stores, we are bombarded every day by large amounts of diversified information from the web, cable television and even newspapers. Every day we are told that global warming has either left us on the brink of human extinction or that everything is fine and that it’s nothing to worry about. Republicans and Democrats seem to play out political spectacles of brinkmanship in front of our TV screens but we have no idea where they come from or why they play out the way they do. The fundamental question becomes how do we sort through this information? The answer is quite depressing; we can’t and never will be able to. As with vanilla ice cream, we have reached a point where media culture has erased any sense of origin, making it impossible to have an objective account of what goes around us. We are only at the mercy of what the media decided to tell us, of how they want to paint the world, such as the exposure to the Gulf War whereby the media’s manipulation of events during the 1980’s made it seem like it was an equal battle on both sides when it was really a wholesale slaughter Iraqi’s by U.S soldiers in Kuwait. Yet we were helpless to believe anything else other than what the media showed us. (Baudrillard 1995). The erosion of meaning and origin is what allows things like Disneyland, with all of its Mickey Mouses and Snow Whites, to synchronize all aspects of culture and time into one place to mask the absence of meaning. It’s as if there is no division of time and reality but the beaming face of Cinderella waving at us makes us believe as if its just as real as the surrounding Los Angeles area, her enchanting wave symbolizing the very seduction to the simulation of Dsineyland we willingly consume to fill the void of meaning. (Baudrillard 1996). We now live in the hyperreal, where nothing has an origin and where we are only meant to consume the saturation of information we have found ourselves left in but perhaps its not so bad. Perhaps, if we just learn to accept the reality that we live in, we can find enjoyment in licking our spoons after a delicious desert of vanilla ice cream. After all, it still tastes good. Just be careful what you eat and listen to, it may just all be a lie. Maybe.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York City, N.Y., U.S.A.: Semiotext(e), 1983. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean, and Paul Patton. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. Print.

“Green Chemists Synthesise Vanillin From Sawdust | MIT Technology Review.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 17 June 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Jean Baudrillard, Jean. “Jean Baudrillard – Disneyworld Company Translated by Francois Debrix Liberation, March 4, 1996.” Jean Baudrillard. The European Graduate School, 4 Mar. 1996. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Ramachandra Rao, S., and G?A Ravishankar. “Vanilla Flavour: Production By Conventional And Biotechnological Routes.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 80 (1999): 289-304. Print.

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2 Comments

  1. This article begs the question though, that if people actually find that lignin is just as good or better than real vanilla… what’s all the complaining about? There is a clear repulsion in the article for “waste chemicals”, but is “purity” of source and origin really worth all the trouble? What is inherently wrong about reusing byproducts? Not only that, but a quick look-up of lignin shows that the real vanilla plant actually uses this chemical in its own extract form of vanillin (lignin is used in plant cell walls and the like). We simply consume a purer form of vanillin. Not as repulsive as one might think, hm?

    The article implies that the offense of our modern consumption habits lies in substituting “fantasy” with “reality”… but first I’d like to see why that’s so bad in the first place. Then explain to me if there even is an objective reality when we can only experience our world through chemical reactions on our tongues. What can we do if our tongues can’t distinguish between vanillins?

    Interesting piece though! I think there is a lot to discuss with our dilemma of information overload, but not perhaps when it relates to the things we eat and enjoy. 🙂

    1. Clara, you raise some interesting points and kudos to you for doing some follow up research on my claims. However, for Baudrillard, the issue of the origin of meaning does not necessarily connote a repulsion towards the simulation, but asks the question of how we relate to the media and the information around us. Baudrillard’s claim is that we have already saturated reality with so much information and copies or created a mirror image of reality as he would describe it in his book the Intelligence of evil that it has become impossible for us to ever reconstruct what reality ever was. Vanilla ice cream is my way of trying to communicate how the saturation of information has led us to living in the hyperreal as Baudrillard would claim. Think about it in terms of vanilla ice cream. You may be right that there exists some form of lignin in pure vanilla extract from the plant, but the question Baudrillard asks is what happens when we begin to phase out all traces of the plant in favor of using just lignin? That is what Baudrillard calls the simulacra, the third stage of how an object becomes a simulation. The origin of vanilla no longer exists, destroying our potential to distinguish between the stuff from the plant and the stuff we come to know as our favorite flavor, setting the stage for its proliferation into our consumer market and media. Now, you bring up what’s so bad about living in the simulation, but I don’t think it’s a question of whether is good or bad, but rather our orientation towards it. Like I mentioned before, for Baudrillard, reality can no longer be reclaimed because we are simply floating on its fragments while we have become seduced by object which, in layman’s terms, the simulation of vanilla itself has bred a complicity within it that prevents us from even ackowleding the lie that is the media in the first place. But, what we can do, and I touch upon this a little in the article, according to Baudrillard, is to fully embrace our position as meaningless consumers within the hyperreal because when we still find happiness while simultaneously acknowledging that everything may be a lie can be the most radical joy we can create for ourselves in the hyperreality we find ourselves in. Perhaps we may even be able to feign complicity with the circulation of meaningless signs and symbols that surround us by producing them ourselves to seduce, or turn away from the truth, power around us. I am more than happy to discuss Baudrillard’s theory of seduction with you at any point if you so please but in short, you can still enjoy eating the vanilla ice cream that we all enjoy so much, because we may be able to find joy in it. Appreciate the comment Clara and I hope I answered some questions for you 🙂 -Andre

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