May 11, 2009

Being Abundance: Some Critiques, Concerns, and Loose Predictions for Norcals Woo-Woo Industry

woo: concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.

Northern California's Woo Industry

For those looking to make a living by means involving the use of crystals, offering office feng shui consulting, selling fleur de sel and raw cacao marijuana truffles, serving food prepped so as to not violate the energetic lifelines of onions, hanging business executives upside down over a ravine until they confess their deepest fears and desires, or teaching owner-pet partner yoga, Northern California is the spot to be. An enormous excess of wealth combined with a larger-than-usual consumer base that places higher-than-usual stock in lifestyle values around holistic health, “green” products and services, “alternative” spirituality, “human potential,” and general new-ageyness make Norcal ground zero for the Woo Industrial Complex (WOOIC).

Much as I would like to be your first source for the best-of-the-best in woo-witchy Marxist political economics, I lack some assessment-making skills for really summing up the role of the WOOIC within the political economy of the Bay Area. What I can say is this: a lot of people here are making and spending their money in some woo-ass ways and it is a far bigger part of the economy here than actually gets talked about.

I’m hardly in a spot to draw hard and fast lines. Recent schemes for making extra cash dreamed up by myself and friends have included things like adult baby-burping for somatic release, agave-sweetened lavender lemonade and advice stands in Dolores Park, and you-tube video DJing at area cannabis clubs. And I’m not about to say that I don’t live here in part because I can eat food grown within 100 miles or say public health and holistic health care in the same sentence.

I’m far from too crudely materialist or insufficiently woo to appreciate woo’s appeal (as if the blog does not stand as proof). A quick look at my own woo resume would turn up that: My roommate and I own a special cape to wear while dancing to Stevie Nicks. I attend a school where people may be able to get master’s degrees in transpersonal psychology and drumming. I have full moon rituals and a google calendar track for my menstrual cycle. I pretend to be gluten free, went to herbal medicine school, and keep Pema Chodron books in my bathroom. I consult with an astrologer. Probably worst of all, I worked at a restaurant where all of the menu items were named after affirmations and did not quit within the first week.

Woo and I are well acquainted.

So what's the bone to pick with the WOOIC?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how poorly positioned the people pushing the Woo Industrial Complex are to make much useful meaning out of this economic moment. I’m noticing how profoundly depoliticizing and generally lacking in a materialist analysis woo-world is, and it’s time to try to actually break that down.

It’s hard to know where to start.

A short list of problems associated with the WOOIC and woo itself might include:

• Rampant white supremacist cultural appropriation and a problematic propensity for buffet-style spirituality.
• New and more sophisticated ways of fucking over workers using bizarre spiritual bypassing.
• Phony and weird anti-technology beliefs.
• Reductionism of feminist critiques and analysis into essentialist versions of the sacred feminine.
• A creepy Protestant-esque sense that things are right and people with economic privilege deserve their wealth because of right-consciousness or good acts.
• Bizarre and baseless progress narratives.
• False beliefs in notions of sustainability.
• Problematic beliefs that the world is a story we tell ourselves so we can “choose” to disengage from un-cute economic realities.
• Finally, shock, dismay, or even denial at the fact that the WOOIC is bound up with the same problems associated with capital accumulation that it sought to avoid.

Foreriders of the apocalypse bring message of human transformation from afar

As an industry, the WOOIC concerns itself with offering lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living during late capitalism, but it does so without offering any useful materialist analysis or critique of capitalism. In this respect, it has a potentially profoundly depoliticizing effect by concerning people with envisioning desired worlds through consumer choices without connecting those visions to a respect for the work of making serious bids for power.

Frequently this “visioning” involves a fetishistic romanticization of pre-capitalist and indigenous societies and cultures. Indigenous peoples are framed as the unself-interested victims of colonial domination, too lacking in deceit to have conceived of the unfortunate and brutal fate that would befall them—let alone pose any meaningful or lasting threat to empire. Much of new-agey culture treats indigenous and non-Western spiritual traditions as artifacts of dead-and-gone or good-as dead-and-gone peoples that there is no ongoing need to have accountability to—rather than cultures that are alive, struggling, or possessed of their own internal contentions.

By these calculations, it is now up to Western new-agey folk to resurrect these “forgotten knowledges” which likely contain overlooked details capable of ushering in new evolutions in human “consciousness.” This set of beliefs is prone to naturalizing capitalism and empire—seeing them as completed projects, rather than ongoing processes—and thus, releasing new-agey folk from the need to assess complicity in the destruction of the cultures they romanticize, or have any meaningful critique of the mechanisms of empire. Certainly, it does not equip people with a sense of solidarity with ongoing struggles for indigenous sovereignty.

Despite the distrust of capitalistic and “scarcity-based” modes of consciousness, the WOOIC at once naturalizes capitalism and believes that the ills of capitalist domination that have befallen the planet will be ended through evolutions in “consciousness” rather than redistributions of wealth or power. In this model, “conscious” capitalism and “sacred commerce” become possible proselytizing forces for this proposed evolutionary shift in human consciousness. We’re working with global capitalism here, people.

Gratitude-speak and class-contortionism

This consciousness “shift” obviously must begin first at an individual level. The path for the “shift” most compatible with the bottom line of the WOOIC is for an individual to stop “telling themselves a story of scarcity.” In this model,nobody needs to be especially critical of their wealth or economic privilege if they believe they are deserving and live with gratitude.

I received one such a loving lecture while lying in savasana last week. It was not met with a chorus of criticism when delivered to a room of people who had mostly paid seventeen dollars for their am yoga class.

The WOOIC works first by obscuring consumer’s ambivalence about “conscious consumption” through astounding feats of class-consciousness contortionism. Using a protestant ethic of “good deeds,” consumers who choose to take care of themselves by eating organic food, supporting local businesses, or investing in their spirituality deserve the level of class and economic privilege they enjoy. Further the only way to keep deserving it is to keep consuming “consciously”—ie, supporting the WOOIC.

Capitalism gets sacred

Sacred commerce, is composed of the belief that the exchange of capital has the potential to be a sacred exchange of life-energy. Several business models currently exist that see themselves as having a “fourth bottom line”—the transformation of the spiritual lives and consciousnesses of their employees and customers. I had the displeasure of working for one such company. A few highlights of working at CafĂ© Gratitude included:

• Being told to stop telling myself a story of scarcity while working without health insurance and living with massive medical debt.
• Being required to attend unpaid new-age workshops.
• Experiencing a general attitude that I should be “grateful” that my employer would take an interest in my spiritual development (we aren’t even going to go down this historical road).
• A paternalistic idea of what that “development” should look like, so that they could be justified in forcing workers to ‘push through resistance’ and participate in types of emotional and spiritual engagement against their will.
• Watching other employees work for free or work unpaid overtime in service of the organism of the company. This is part of a larger technology of union-busting and undermining worker control utilized in the WOOIC. Another great example of this is the “Team Member” policy at Whole Foods which establishes a sophisticated system of worker-on-worker policing.
• Being told that the owners of the company were able to open several new locations and rapidly expand their business because of their spiritual enlightenment and not because of their access to capital or profit from workers’ labor.
• My personal favorite was being told that I could not be helped and was “choosing to tell myself a story of negativity” after threatening to call OSHA when the company repeatedly failed to cover up a drain hole in the kitchen floor and I became the fourth worker to twist my ankle by falling in it.

The WOOIC meets economic crisis

Because the WOOIC lacks any materialist analysis beyond where its own profit margins are concerned, my prediction is its adherents will have scarcely little idea what to do with the current period of economic crisis.

Here are a few observations and predictions for how the WOOIC is equipped to view capitalism's crisis:

• This period will be viewed or even romanticized as a time to reconsider what is really important (ie, our consciousness, not our consumer desires), without acknowledging the major suffering of working families or unemployed people. The period will not be viewed as one for either chipping away at capitalism or even supporting solid economic justice initiatives.
• New notions of alternative economies will be developed. Especially "gift economies" but these ideas won't include an analysis of who these new enclosures do and do not include or of expropriation in general. In this case, everyone in a new age gift economy can be rubbed raw by so many massage therapists, but not much else.
• There will be numerous suggestions of retreat into simplicity or sustainability without understanding the imperatives of accumulation and consolidation or the reality of globalization.

Obviously, these could rapidly shift if a lot of boug-a-tron woo-sters start to feel the burn in serious ways. I don't like to be such a Debbie downer, and wish I had more creative solutions for marrying lifestyle politics that make us want to be alive with anti-capitalist analysis. Tale as old as time. Let me know what you've got, folks.

And finally....

Some words on anti-woo

We did not get entirely deep with the problems with woo (future post), but I think it is important to say that obviously the idea of being entirely anti-woo has its own set of problems

Anti-woo leaves no space for nuanced relationships with woo. It leaves little space for curiosity about how people are making it through this bullshit. It assumes people all arrive at woo in the same way, and that they lack legitimate cultural claim to such ideas or practices—that they even relate to woo as woo.

Anti-woo forgets that many ideas or practices cast as woo have a legitimate cultural basis. Further, anti-woo fails to acknowledge that concepts like legitimacy and cultural purity are very complicated to begin with. In gens, all-out reactionary anti-woo runs the risk of upholding epistemological and cultural values that are all-around pretty nasty. Ones we've seen before.

To get out of this mess, we’re gonna need all the help we can get. We aren’t about to be saved alone by leftist men with bad haircuts who have no curiosity about who the supposed masses actually are. This may mean that if we weren't already, we may need to get woo about it, folks.

The case for woo needing a materialist analysis has been made loud and clear. But materialism can’t stand alone because we’ve got a mystery to build. Besides, does anyone else feel there's is a deep woo-ness--a dynamic and internal intelligence--to the material makeup of stuff and things anyway?

I'm not giving up on woo.

I want to hear from you.

May 7, 2009

The Lactobacillus Diaries: The Untold Scandals Behind Fro Yo’s Self Reinvention

Recently while heading home from the beach on a warm day, I stopped for a bubble tea at Quickly on Geary where I was greeted by signage proclaiming the arrival of a “new generation of frozen yogurt.” While I had heard tell of fro yo’s bizarre self-resurrection in New York and LA, the fad had yet to hit SF, probably on account of the fact that it is secretly freezing cold here all of the time.

My only contact with fake-Pinkberry in SF was with a high-end imposter, Ce Fiore, which on too many occasions had lured me into the mall while running work errands downtown. I had been forced to swear off future trips after a confrontation with a man trying to sell Israeli nail care systems from a mall kiosk which involved some non-consensual nail buffing, insults about lesbian nail bed disrepair, and an attempt to take away my fro yo during said demonstration (it was actually more epic than it sounds. BTdubbs, read about boycotting Israeli goods here).

So, as I sat with my .59 cent Quickly fro yo cup, my mind wandered to all of the ugg-clad ladies paying six dollars for their Pinkberry fix. I figured it was well worth the wait now that the fad of designer frozen yogurt had ushered in its inevitable scion: knock-off designer frozen yogurt. Indeed, Quickly, the woman-owned Taiwanese bubble-tea giant with over 2000 stores worldwide and over 14 in SF alone, announced the upcoming arrival of fro yo at multiple Bay Area locations.

But there was one other thing I couldn’t miss: the numerous posters and brochures proclaiming not only fro yo’s re-arrival, but it’s authentic yogurty-ness. Quickly had printed several versions of postcards with pictures of cows and happy women, making claims to the alive-ness of their live cultures and the details of their non-powder dairy sources. This was my first clue that fro yo’s second coming was fraught with more drama and intrigue than may meet the eye.

Ever interested in live cultures, all things related to healthy crotch Ph, fake-sinful lady indulgences of all sorts, and the drama that makes it all go round—I couldn’t resist some research. Consider us the Veronica Mars of your Cathy comic strip.

A Brief History of Fro Yo

Fro yo materialized sometime in the late seventies—no doubt the doing of some hippie fermentation enthusiasts. It was less than well-received by a world with a palate too unevolved to appreciate its signature tartness. Fortunately for fro yo, it’s chalkier, less-live-cultured cousin was developed by the time the eighties fat-free craze hit, racking up fortunes for chains like TCBY and ushering in a new era of supposed “guilt-free” indulgence.

With the increase in lower fat ice cream technology and the emergence of carbs--rather than fat--as the new threat to diet democracy, fro yo became largely relegated to retro-future corners of weird university villages. Tasty D Lite, a favorite of skinny rich women in upper Manhattan, remained the single mysterious survivor of the general extinction of softly-served frozen desserts.

Now, most well-mannered dessert fads would have gracefully accepted their fate by now, but fro yo has miraculously managed to dust its chalky-ass self off in time for another round as our favorite "food of the future." And really, would we expect anything less from the Cher of dessert fads? After all, this is a food which, despite having always been somewhat weird, only very questionably healthy, and perpetually overpriced—spawned several competing national chains for decades.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the apparent cultural amnesia that allows fro-yo to reposition itself as such a future-food, but then could hardly contain my excitement when the Quickly in my neighborhood got a soft serve machine. Why fight it? It’s good to see you again fro-yo.


So how did fro yo manage to turn the beat around? The answer is deceptively simple. Fro yo went back to it’s roots: it got tangy.

Sure, there’s the whole new line of toppings. People acting like they have never seen Captain Crunch or a kiwi before. The question here is: is it new toppings we want, or just new-old ways of topping ourselves? Lady Tigra's Pinkberry rap says it well:

Sorry ice cream, I'm dreaming of a different dessert
Pinkberry shaved ice and frozen yogurt
It doesn't feel like I'm cheating when I'm eating it
Cuz it's healthy; I'm feeling better already

Now, we know that frozen corn syrupy crap pooped out of a noisy machine isn’t healthy just because it has some vitamin C and decent bacteria thrown in. But really, what’s better than being a good girl and a bad girl at the same time? Not much. And so it goes.

Seriously, I like eating fro yo and imagining the private satisfaction of so many women as they too enjoy this “guilt free indulgence.” It’s almost this weird form of private-public collective-unconscious mass lady-masturbation. Thinking about each other eating frozen yogurt while eating frozen yogurt. And so there’s a hook even for lovers of dairy fat and body fat both: being the fro-yo eating fox in the henhouse that is actually a henhouse full of other fro yo-eating fox-hens.

The New Era

As if fro-yo’s miraculous reinvention weren’t interesting enough, its rise to fame is littered with untold secrets involving powdered lactobacillus, lawsuits, fake yelp accounts, stolen fonts, and a tangled web of intrigue and threats made by men brandishing cigars between Redmango and Pinkberry knock-off kingpins. TJJET is no stranger to the tangled web of yelp, the better businesses bureau, and organized crime (See Mira's upcoming post: "Psychic pain holds for protecting your credit from scamming self defense schools.")

The tang as we know it started when restaurateur-designer couple, Shelly Hwang and Young Lee, decided in 2005 that it was time West Hollywood had designer fro yo. They launched the first of LA’s now 72 Pinkberry stores. Hailed as the yogurt that “caused a thousand parking tickets,” the brand caused outcry with West Hollywood neighbors who were tired of women in Uggs double parking to wait in line for an hour for overpriced fro yo. Not to mention the Pinkberry cups that began blowing through the yards of West Hollywood like swarms of paper locusts.

Pinkberry brought fro yo back in tangy new flavors like pomegranate and acai (hello, what is acai flavor, really?) and outfitted them with toppings like fresh fruit and mochi. Hwang and Lee have pitched giant containers of fro yo as a new sort of meal and their stores—with a signature interior design aesthetic, cozy furniture and wi-fi—as the new coffee shop. We are talking Starbucks-esque ambitions.

Though Pinkberry credited itself with having invented a fro yo for the new millennium, it was itself a knock off of the Korean chain, Red Mango. Ironically but not surprisingly, further knock offs popped up all over So cal. Many with “pink” or “berry” in the name and uncanny design similarities. All equally tangy.

Around this time, it was discovered that Red Mango was actually made with an Italian powder, not real dairy. This led to speculations about the real-ness of the dairy products used in Pinkberry. After all, the supposed live cultures were the whole reason we’d given ourselves an excuse to fall for fro yo again.

After an LA times lab-sting revealed that Pinkberry did not contain the number of cultures needed to meet California’s definition of “yogurt,” there was a lawsuit regarding Pinkberry’s live culture claims, which sent all new tangy yogurt companies into a hustle to ensure customers that theirs was real yogurt. It was then that a competitor accused Lee of approaching him after hours and threatening him with bodily harm while brandishing a cigar.

Lee counter-sued. An out of court settlement demanded the competitor admit to stealing Pinkberry’s font, name, and general design concept, that they deny all connections to Pinkberry in their advertising, AND that the competitor admit to posting fake yelp reviews to his own site while posing as “a regular yogurt eater” going by the alias yogurtfanatik. So far yogurtfanatik has not come forward.

Meanwhile, Pinkberry, having restored the authenticity of their yogurt with a new recipe, is now endorsed by the National Yogurt Board. The yogurt-pushers have since tried to distract us from the probiotic dramas of yesteryear by beginning a mad dash to win celebrity loyalty. At last report, Red Mango had installed a machine in Leonardo DiCaprio’s office, but the pictures will speak for themselves.

Obvi, this is to be continued.