Food Porn on Tumblr: A Mediated Cornucopia of Fantasies, Desires, and Excesses

Curator's Note

If food was once considered merely as sustenance, today it is a fetish object driving visual, literal, and, especially, simulational hyper-consumption. From Twitter to Instagram to Tumblr, perhaps nowhere does this convergence between food and media become most apparent, or more titillating, than within food porn. As the highly aesthetic, spectacular, and often sensual ways that food is displayed within media and popular culture, food porn is constituted by “the erotic” at the intersection of desires, pleasures, and fantasies. For example, this series of images taken from the Tumblr blog Kiyoaki not only illustrates the participatory nature of food porn—because today many of us upload, curate, reblog, or simply peruse images of food and dining on Tumblr—but moreover it demonstrates how food porn functions as a heady form of seduction. In other words, as we are being tantalized by glancing through the accompanying, aesthetically-pleasing images of honey drizzling in yogurt, chicken sizzling away in a pan, or the colorful bounty of fruits and vegetables, we are being drawn further into this experience since we are also voyeuristically participating in imaginary, idealized foodie lifestyles, which most likely will never come to fruition. In this sense, I propose that along with these vicarious, simulational fantasies, food porn subtly promotes a rhetoric of excess because it frequently fuels our foodie desires through the use of aesthetics and pleasure. By encouraging us to continually seek out these kinds of experiences in our daily lives, whether it is through uploading photos of our lunches to Instagram or gazing at countless food blogs on our lunch breaks, food porn creates and reinforces perpetual longing and desires that are simultaneously driven by the pleasures of food, yet extend well beyond food itself into other forms of conspicuous consumption. Therefore, as a cornucopia of mediated foodie delights, food porn also demonstrates wider cultural meanings about the nature of our desires, fantasies, and obsessions with excess in all of its myriad forms.


A fascinating post, thank you. It reminds me of the Danish media scholar, Mads Julius Elf's theory about "the Tantalus effect". (The book, "Tantaluskvaler" is as far as I know only in Danish). Elf argues that the Greek myth of Tantalus is a good analogy through which to understand our relationship with (the representation of) food and appetite. It's, in a word: tantalizing. 'In reach' and 'out of reach' at the very same time. Tantalus, in the myth, is being punished by the Gods: he is surrounded by delicious food and fresh water. But he cannot eat or drink. This is how Tantalus is described in the Odyssee - which seems so appropriate to your post and arguments about the excess of food porn: "And I saw Tantalus too, bearing endless torture. He stood erect in a pool as the water lapped - parched, he tried to drink he tried to drink, but he could not reach the surface. no, time and again, the old man stooped, craving a sip, time and again the water vanished, swallowed down, laying bear the caked black earth at his feet - some spirit drank it dry. And over his head leafy trees from high aloft, pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red, succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark, but as soon as the old man would strain to clutch them fast a gust would toss them up to the lowering black clouds."

Thank you for this post, Carlnita. You make a keen point that these highly aestheticized images of food catalyze and express our fantasies, not only about food, but about the lives—or lifestyles—for which they serve as metonyms. In this light, Helle's image of Tantalus strikes me as an apt one for the experience that they promote. I do wonder if the only result of these images is to create, as you put it, "perpetual longing." It also seems to me that all of us who are snapping pics of lunch and uploading them to Twitter might be fulfilling desires, for a fuller and more aestheticized experience of eating, one that involves multiple forms of attention and pleasure, or for entering into a creative act among other creators. I appreciate the power of calling such images "food porn," but I also wonder what might get revealed if we compare them to other genres, such as 19th century watercolors, in which both professionals and hobbyists participated in a creative practice that involved registering their lived experience in and through art. In that light, maybe these images let Tantalus take a drink.

This is a great conversation here, starting with the excellent post by Carlnita and then followed by Helle and Eric's excellent responses. Thank you all. "Food porn" is definitely a provocative lens through which to see these highly aesthetic images of food on Tumblr blogs and other visual media. I can also see the way that food porn might "promote a rhetoric of excess" that pushes us to a place of continual longing for the pleasures and desires of conspicuous food consumption. The figure of Tantalus provide by Helle seems like a productive way of imagining this relationship, and as Eric points out, highlight the way that this fantasy also implicates a desire for a particular lifestyle. I think it would an interesting project to follow Erics suggestion of comparing the aestheticized image of food to another genre, such as watercolor, but I worry that doing so would minimize some additional aspects of thinking about food as porn. First, what strikes me about porn is the problematic relationship that is created between the subject viewing the porn and the object within the porn (i.e. the objectification of people within porn). This replaces an erotic, subject to subject relationship. Now obviously food is not a "subject" in the sense that those in porn could be. Yet the comparison highlights something similar to what it seems to me Sarah is getting at in Monday's post about "pink slime": that is, there is a decontextualization that removes us from fully understanding the integral nature of food for our survival, as well as the processes that make the food that sustains us. In the case of food porn, there is often a focus on food processes (this is how to make this food), but the aestheticizing of those processes and the resulting products still turn food into something to be looked at, an external object, rather than something with which we must have a relationship in order to survive. Second, the focus on food porn might allow us to also see the way that the rhetoric of excess occurs at the intersection of technology and food. Like the "pink slime" discussion started Monday, most of our food is the result of industrial, highly technological practices. While food porn tends to celebrate non-industrially processed foods, all food is nevertheless implicated by the industrial system, the very system that helps us lose our relationship to food in the first place by turning it into an object that simply appears for us to consume. OAt the same time, it is through technologies like the Tumblr that we are able to also aestheticize and further objectify food. Finally, as with porn, I wonder if food porn perpetuates an unrealistic expectation that all food should look and be experienced a certain way. Just like porn tends to glorify a particular kind of woman, and sets a script that people come to expect for sexual encounters (more frequent oral and anal sex, for example), so might food porn tend to push consumers into a similarly skewed relationship to food, where expectation is based on the perception of what seems "normal" or "desirable" rather than what we want, what's historically appropriate, economically and environmentally accessible, etc. Instead of living our authentic connection to our erotic desires for sex or food, we find our pleasure in seeing ourselves follow the cultural scripts of what is desirable sex or food. In the end, we have two possible route for Tantalus. Either he finally reaches the food and takes a bite, only to discover that the gorgeous food is hollow, or he can only see himself taking the bite, never experiencing it for himself. All this is to say that the linkage of food to porn is a thought provoking one, and I appreciate both the initial framing done by Carlnita as well as the additional comments from Helle and Eric. It seems there is much more we can do to extend this metaphor, as well as to discuss the points of connection between this and Sarah's post in terms of the relationship between pleasurable and unpleasurable visuals of food.

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