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Smile on a Cop, Smooth Fantasy, Mimic Formica, Future Blend

Jeff Nagy

SMILE ON A COP

Though a constant feature of urban or suburban landscapes, the phenomenon of the policeman’s smile never ceases to puzzle and even amaze. Over the centuries our most illustrious writers and thinkers have grappled with its mystery, inspiring quizzical ecstasies of which Thoreau, in a letter relating one of his rare trips into the city, provided perhaps the paradigmatic example: “The policeman smiled with a royal calmness, his instincts of conquest, of ferocity, the entire heredity of his species, the will of seduction and love of the snare, the charm of the deceiver, the kindness gloving a cruel purpose, all that appears and disappears alternately behind the laughing veil and melts into the crucible of his smile…” While this seems prima facie to go too far, the large number of common idioms is further evidence of the continuing popular fascination with police smiles. One need only cite a few: “like a smile on a cop,” used to indicate the speaker finds a turn of events or nearby architectural feature particularly sinister; “close but no cop’s smile,” for an unconvincing performance of bullying whose intention is paradoxically to display the contempt in which the performer holds bullies; “hit the cop on the smile,” to be dangerously right. There are nearly as many idioms as there are policemen – nearly as many, therefore, as there are smiles.

A degree of poetic mystification, acceptable for the production of artful prose, is abhorrent when it grafts a skin of mystery onto one facet of this most crucial social organ. The civilian wishing to know more has only to consult the relevant procedural manuals, which are easily procured.

An officer is issued his smile at the same time as his badge and his gun. Officers wishing to procure their own smiles may consult the appropriate office for a list of authorized vendors. This is generally discouraged, as the large-scale uniformity of smiles aids in officers’ mutual recognition in the event of a confrontation situation. Like the revolver, each smile accumulates its own little quirks over a lifetime of use: this one has a tendency to jam at the punchline of a superior’s joke, that one stretches unexpectedly to a grimace in the face of an infant. Good officers pride themselves on recognizing and remembering their smiles’ slight malfunctions. The urban legend that an officer is required to keep the regulation smile in their desk drawer or in the precinct’s property safe when not on active duty is utterly false. In fact, most departments recommend that an officer wear either their issued smile or an approved alternative expression at all times, unless the officer is likely to be in a situation where wearing that smile might be dangerous or have a high risk of theft. Approved alternative expressions selected for size or ease of concealment include, but are not limited to, the tight-lip, the under-mustache, the leer, and the smirk. Most officers do indeed wear smiles off duty, mitigating the risk of awkwardness or even danger when, anonymized in street clothes, a civilian might catch them off guard with a smile of their own.

An officer’s smile has a multitude of uses: it can both escalate and deescalate, act as a lure or (if properly bleached) a secondary light source. The most expertly wielded smiles can also reactively induce a sense of overall well-being even in the face of senseless chaos and violence undertaken by their wearers. A kind of sympathetic magic makes the corners of the mouth of the world lift ever so slightly. Turn that frown upside down, the policeman’s smile says.

A smile is always dangerous when not properly handled by licensed authorities. Of course, it is not only the police who have access to smiles, or other multi-use facial expressions that need to be deployed and maintained with care, and unlicensed civilian smiles are a major problem. Many departments, particularly in urban areas, have instituted smile buyback programs, including amnesty days when the public is invited to surrender their smiles without penalty, toward an eventual, hoped-for state monopoly on smiles.

The public facts about a policeman’s smile are as inarguable as the public fact of the smile itself. Others, however, unsatisfied with the transparent self-sufficiency of the smile and its uses, apply more esoteric hermeneutics. Some suggest that the use of smiles is an unconscious analog to mimicry or travesty in the animal or insect world, providing a means of assimilating into an environment, or, like the mask of the lantern fly, held out to terrify enemies quite independently of any exercise of the officer’s will. Some psychologize the smile, seeing its deployment as a kind of less-lethal sublimation when an officer is not engaged directly in their primary labor. Still others, positing that police officers are in a sense the institutional means for producing mass psychasthenia, argue that the smile is a tool for depersonalizing both officer and target, allowing the state to surround and digest them in a kind of phagocytosis. The most mystical deny any possible knowledge beyond the smile’s bare visual impression. These last maintain that a policeman’s smile must be totally different from our own expressions of joy or awkwardness or sympathy, that their smiles are mere false cognates or unintentional evolutionary convergences, ciphers for some transcendental affect in fact known only to policemen, and whose purest expression is the expressionless exercise of their function. Our interpretation of their smiles is as illusory as seeing the Man in the Moon, whose smile we intuitively understand even though we see it isn’t there; as delusional as calling the swaying of the mantis among tall grass praying, when its purpose is purely predatory.

We now know that all such speculation couldn’t be further from the simple, accessible truth. Not that such debates of scholastic complexity are devoid of beauty or interest. They are tales fit for children, as ornately fallacious as the long-discredited, legendary account of Zhuang Zhou, the philosophical policeman from the era of the Warring States who could not decide whether it was he, the policeman, who smiled, or whether his smile smiled him, and who, as we all surely remember, falls ever and again asleep frowning perplexedly, only to dream up the smiles that spasmodically possess him, when he wakes.

SMOOTH FANTASY

Like Dionysus, the smoothie had to be born twice. The first smoothies appeared alongside the new and relatively affordable domestic appliances that made them possible, particularly the Waring Blendor, the Vitamix, and various knock-offs and clones. In 1940, Fred Waring and Fred Osius’s Waring Corporation, makers of the Blendor, published a book of “Recipes to Make Your Waring-Go-Round,” a dozen of which were for milk-based “smoothies.” Mabel Stegner, a Home Economics consultant commissioned by Waring to write recipes, coined the word. The rise of in-home refrigeration and refrigerated shipping made previously exotic and unseasonable ingredients easily available, so that a cornucopia of tropical fruits flowing from an increasingly globalized world agricultural market found their way into domestic fridges, domestic blenders, and then, of course, into smoothies. The blender and its paradigmatic beverage were elements of a technologically-enabled homely futurism, committed to minimum kitchen labor with maximum results. The first wave of smoothies were largely made at home, whipped up for stress-free but tantalizingly exotic family meals or entertaining. As Stegner says, when it comes to smoothies, you make them yourself but, please, “let the blender do the work.”

Born under the sign of ease in the home, in symbiosis with new appliances, smoothies reemerged as a commercial product in the late 60s and early 70s. Simultaneous with the rise of macrobiotic and health conscious dietary trends, the smoothie was rebranded as the quintessentially healthy alternative to overly processed, chemically-adulterated soft drinks, marketed alongside tofu, carob, and other health foods. Early commercial smoothie outlets draped themselves in faded echoes of West Coast countercultural rhetoric: the first relevant trademark was for a fruit-based slush called the “California Smoothie,” owned by a company actually based in Paramus, New Jersey. Smoothies sold supposedly sun-drenched life on Haight St. or in the Valley, blended palatably for boardwalks on a more conservative coast.

This second, health-conscious incarnation is the one that now reigns supreme, from Starbucks to Juice Generation to Jamba Juice to the original Smoothie King, even when its supposed healthfulness is anything but, in varieties that baroquely pile in frozen yogurt, chocolate ribbons, peanut butter, or candy chunks. These smoothies let someone else’s blender “do the work,” outsourcing that already minimal domestic labor. When you purchase one, say, at any of the thousands of juice carts on the streets of New York City, you purchase not only a beverage but also a fantasy of perfectly abundant ingredients and immediate production for maximum freshness. In the cluttered interior of the cart, piled high with pineapples, coconuts, and wheatgrass, any ingredient you might want blended in is close at hand. You choose apple, mango, kiwi, and kale, which the juice jockey whips up into a frothy green sludge, seconds later. It’s all here, as if the cart were an Eden, a wormhole aggregating the American apple and kale, Mexican mango, and Italian kiwi. This is part of the appeal; you’re permitted to witness the production of what you’ll then immediately consume, in a fantasy that screens out all of the preceding logistical labor chains that make it possible, the human laborers and machines involved in agricultural production and transportation. Those people and machines are collapsed into their avatars: instead of refrigerated shipping containers, picking machines, instead of the human growers, agronomists, pickers, fruit executives, you get the blender and a blender, surrounded by all the fruit in the world. Those chains of supply and demand elegantly telescope into the casual placing of an order, an exchange of currency, the arm of the blender arcing out and down to deliver your smoothie. This is what we pay for, a quasipedagogical performance of value, the great beyond of manufacture, a final transformation of these products and their elided histories into a meta-commodity that you then may drink.

And you wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s something inherently suspicious about a pre-made smoothie in a cafe or from a cart: How long has it been there? Are the nutrients still, you know, “good?” How do you even know what’s in there? You almost expect the opaque slush might be hiding a bent hypodermic or a dose of rohypnol, like a can of Coke or Pepsi in the 90s. But recent trends have to some extent deemphasized the immediate freshness of smoothies. Consumers are now used to the ubiquitous Odwalla and Naked Juice bottled smoothies available in grocery stores and bodegas. Their cost approaches that of a juice cart smoothie, though their perceived prestige value likely suffers from their more pedestrian point-of-sale, and their health claims have been widely savaged, with many of them having a larger impact on human insulin levels (and potentially diabetes) than a full-sugar soda. On the upper end, high-end organic health lifestyle outlets like Organic Avenue or Juice Press market lines of prepared raw and unpasteurized smoothies and juices pegged to specific health benefits, priced at a significant premium over the older juice cart made on the spot variety. The blender and its work, now out of sight, produces two smoothies: the one you actually drink, and the ingredients unseen in their unblended state, preserved linguistically in the list on the bottle’s exterior label. It makes sense that it costs almost twice as much. We pay more to obscure even the minimal fantasy of production that we once purchased at a premium, leaving as its only remaining trace the smoothie’s schematic contents, while our own blender collects dust on the countertop, and the Chiquitas brown and rot.

MIMIC FORMICA

Mica is a thing that must resemble. It must resemble at the least in some perhaps perverse sense, mica. Formica, originally designed and marketed as a replacement “for mica” in electrical insulation, on the other hand, has no such aesthetic obligation. Created as an artificial electrical insulator, Formica found its true calling after the end of World War II, when returning GIs ditched urban centers for Levittowns built from scratch to house them. US housing stock expanded enormously, with 2 million homes built from 1945-1950. So many new houses, so many new spaces needing surfacing. Formica shifted its brand strategy from industrial applications to domestic and commercial ones, covering millions of kitchen counters and diner tables in pressed laminate. The surface, composed of a decorative sheet sandwiched between layers of kraft paper and a protective transparent topsheet saturated with melamine resin, was heat- and stain-resistant, with an optional steel core that made it impervious to cigarettes. Most importantly, it was easy to clean, contributing to the technological utopia of the post-Depression kitchen. One advert read: “Swish a damp cloth over this hard non-porous surface and every trace of grease and dirt is gone. Isn’t it time you enjoyed your share of the extra leisure and freedom Formica can give you – every day of your life.” In the kitchen of the future, the surface of the future gleams with freedom and leisure, cleanly. The middle-class material par excellence, it creates spaces that dole out the American dream to families not so rich that they don’t have to think about cleaning their own kitchens, but comfortable enough that they have them.

The Formica Group hired headline industrial designers to work on patterns for Formica, including Brooks Stevens, known as the original formulator of planned obsolescence, and Raymond Loewy, an innovator in ‘streamlined’ design who shaped everything from the logo for Lucky Strike to the interiors of the Concorde. In the 1950s, Formica’s heyday, the company’s swatchbooks foregrounded abstract designs like the iconic Skylark, a web of overlapping boomerang shapes in a variety of colors, on a monocolor background, and materially impossible or incoherent designs like Tan Linen and Pink Moonglo. Why would you want your countertop, no matter how easily cleaned, to resemble linen or a discolored lunar mare? In the golden years of Formica’s kitchen empire, the important point seems to be that it could – that this new, futuristic surface was at its best when demonstrating it could resemble anything or nothing. A clean space covered in an abstract gleaming surface, that was the dream Formica promised.

Explicitly natural designs come later in the brochure, less tightly associated with Formica’s brand. These included varieties of marble and granite, followed by solid color fields. These fields are in no way natural, despite names like Blossom Red and Sprout Green. But they are closer to some external correspondence we might recognize, stubbing a cigarette out on the reinforced bartop laminate, than would be Gray Ellipse, a pattern of the eponymous gray shapes, or Beluga, whose cetacean connection escapes entirely.

The dominance of imitation woodgrain and stone, now evident anywhere Formica is, developed only as a rearguard action. From Skylark to Soapstone Sequoia and Basalt Slate, from Moonglo to Pecan Mosaic. Gradually the material novelty of Formica wore off, and design culture reemphasized traditional materials over their technological replacements. Where originally these new materials were supposed to free us from nature, both aesthetically and practically, we now want them to mimic nature as much as possible. Formica wasn’t born a skeuomorph; it had to learn to become one. In some strange, belated recovery of a repressed and mythic genealogy, it drew out the family resemblance between a dirt cave floor, medieval polished oak, a granite kitchen island, and its current simulacra.

Formica followed from then on the shifting microtrends in natural materials readily available only to its economic superiors, from pine to ash to agate and back again. There are species of butterflies that, not being poisonous themselves, evolve to reproduce on their own wings patterns that predators recognize as belonging to toxic butterflies, in a phenomenon known as Batesian mimicry. As the models’ patterns shift, the mimics mutate to close the gap. Formica’s evolutionary fitness, after its non-mimetic salad days, became similarly tied to how successfully it mimicked a set of natural materials with a higher prestige than itself, but to which it has no intrinsic material relation.

Can we think about trends in the design of laminate surfaces as a similar kind of Batesian mimicry? Is Formica interested in its own survival? In this model, fitness is determined by factors of production, distribution, installation, and consumer desirability. The creature’s habitat is surfaces in space; its competitors are prestige materials, hand-made, not machine-produced. The mimicry runs deep: implicit in Formica’s machined veneer is a fantasy of artisanal craftsmanship, the blocks of granite quarried by hand, the maple sanded and glazed. The better the imitation, the more convincingly this deep origin story is projected from a sheer surface centimeters thick. Formica is a material captured by resemblance, through and through, for now. But intrinsic to its nature are the resources of both Zeuxis, who painted grapes so real they fooled the birds, and Parrhasius, who painted a curtain so Zeuxis would demand the painting behind it, the false granite under the translucent melamine. That Formica’s current tactic is mimicry is no proof it must be, and surfaces to come can perhaps look forward to the dappled pinks and whites of patterns like Unicorn Foreskin, or the inscrutable red canal-like grammatons of Martian Dingbats. Formica has been surfacing spaces for a hundred years. What will the next hundred bring?

FUTURE BLEND

This is a special announcement. All of this can be yours, it pays for itself, and you can’t afford to go another day without it. It’s so good, I’d recommend it even to the dead, who I hereby now advise to get their pencils and paper ready before the number flashes on the screen. In glorious grayscale, Papa Barnard, a barrel-chested one-time huckster, co-inventor of the Vitamix and self-credentialed food authority, looks down the camera’s black throat from the interior of his 1949 test kitchen to proclaim the salubrious and monetary benefits of his marvelous machine. “What is doing this wonderful work? What is causing this miracle?” Barnard invented not only a domestic appliance so momentous it became a lifestyle, but an entirely new commercial medium, the direct-response television infomercial, a frothy blend of pedagogy and commercialism of which this half-hour is the first incarnation.

The Vitamix infomercial codified many of the features that now define the form. Papa Barnard maintains the pretense of a live audience that includes viewers on the other side of the screen, up until the point where he regrets not being able to offer us a smoothie sample. The demonstration is carried out in the stagy kitchen now standard for appliance infomercials and cooking shows, bowls of ingredients and piles of fruit laid out nearby on the table: a desublimated, usable still life. The Vitamix is bundled, if you act right now, with a Wheel O’ Life nutrition chart and additional pair of mixing bowls. Barnard’s miraculous claims for the machine are embedded in healthy amounts of paternalistic pedantry and fear-mongering directed at the wives and mothers who are his target consumers. When you peel a carrot, America goes blind! 460,000 mashed potato-eating young men rejected by the draft board because of malnutrition! Smoothies for strength, smoothies for freedom, smoothies against communism!

Barnard accompanies each ingredient added to the continuously whirring blender with a paean to its nutritional benefits, increasingly baroque, each addition marked with the obscure reassurance that “we’ll drink it just exactly like malted milk!” Raisins: “a sugar that was in the Garden of Eden, made by God Almighty.” Peanuts: “the monkey’s beefsteak.” The American apple in Barnard’s sermon is the surest proof of God’s love for our great nation, that God reserved for us his greatest work of art, that God “takes the paintbrush of old mother nature and for five months he labors, building the most healthful fruit, painting the most beautiful fruit, every apple on that tree, oh! What a wonderful artist!” God is an artist painting to your health. On the other hand, the woman who peels the apple, disdaining Barnard’s and, slightly less relevantly, God’s injunctions to respect the artwork’s integrity, becomes an Eve twice over: as if it wasn’t enough to merely pluck the apple from its branch and eat it, Barnard implies she evilly debases it as well, making a double mockery of God’s aesthetic virtuosity. But what does Barnard and his machine produce, consecrated in God’s patriotism? Barnard’s cocktail, poured off and sipped at the infomercial’s end, is a gray, viscous sludge. As it must be, as is wholesome and right, God not yet having seen fit to provide American televisions with color.

God the Father is an artist, painting the still lifes that surround us in nature. Papa Barnard is an artist, taking that mediated abundance of value piled in his test kitchen, and reducing it to mush. Under the influence of modernism, lingering in our blood and hair like a drug whose hangover dissipated long ago, we see that the still life of classical Dutch painting, the lemons, grapes, oysters, lobster, and pewter goblets of a de Heem, say, were already a kind of prototypical collage, a heteroclite aggregation of newly available global products and values. The seams, the diverse material origins of the represented objects, are left tacit. Dadaist and cubist collage satirized these still lifes formally by making those seams visible, and thematically by replacing the luscious fruits and fruits de mer with snippets of detritus, smeared, discarded commercial images and language. Schwitters walks into a bar and says to Bosschaert: your accumulation is worth less than you think. In fact, it’s mere trash. But this once useful tactic no longer goes far enough when Picasso’s cafe tables are just nearly as priceless as Claesz’s kitchen islands.

Collage nevertheless still reigns across a wide range of media, in the form of sampling in music production, the overlay of animation or computer generated effects on filmed footage in cinema and television, etc. Discernment, being able to recognize the visual and aural borders, even deeply scumbled, is still the marker of a certain expertise. It’s time to follow Papa Barnard into the future, where the work of art will be to break down cell walls entirely, pulping the screen. It will be tactile and tactical, tasted instead of seen or heard. We know well that domestic appliances can produce shifts in cognitive habits, as in the commonplace that the ubiquity of computers has promoted copy-and-paste to something like a free-floating medium-unbound innate mental function. Let the blender, that miraculous machine, be our empathic guide. This is its special announcement. All of this can be ours, it pays for itself.

About the artist

Jeff Nagy

Jeff Nagy is a writer and critic. With Eric Linsker, he co-edits The Claudius App. These texts were written in parallel with Chris Domenick: You are Apple / Pear as part of Recess’s Critical Writing Program.