Because the neighborhood I live in is predominantly Greek, the local grocery stores will carry some Hellenic specialty items: the deli case will be stocked with different makes of Feta cheese, the olive oil section takes up half an aisle, there’s a shelf of thyme honey from Crete and a shelf of paximadi and flat bread, and in the health and beauty products row, alongside the Dial and the Dove and the Ivory are a few different brands of olive-oil soap. I’m partial to Abea rather than Oliva, which bills itself as “aromatic,” which basically means it’s chemical-smelling odor will eventually give you a headache. In general, I like olive-oil soap because it’s hard (it won’t melt in a wet soap dish) and it’s mild (you can wash your hair with it everyday if you wanted) and because it’s deep, earthy green might be my favorite color in the world. But I may also like it because my use of it makes me feel at some level like I’ve shed some layer of ethnocentricity and American provinciality and embraced some larger transnational identity. I think I’m co-opting some integral piece of Greekness, and therby making my presence in their neighborhood less anomalous and less offensive. And maybe I secretly believe I am at once transcending the ethicity they cling to in one magnanimous gesture. They must inevitably remain Greek, while I can pick and choose like a cultural magpie, cobbling bits from different traditions to make something unique to me and altogether cosmopolitan. Of course, in believing that, I’m a fool. The only reason I would think that is because as an American I basically have no traditional ways of my own, no ethnic identity that’s visible to me (no matter how blatant it must be to others). th eonly American tradition is just this: buying products to attain an identity of some sort. Consumer goods lose what ethnic meaning they have when detached from a deep-seated, lived tradition and become just another interchangable sign, no different from the flood of other priducts saturating the American marketplace. In fact, when I use their soap, I am robbing it of meaning for the Greeks, not acquiring its Greek meaning for myself. And at the same time I am contributing to the way America reduces ethnic groups to the products they can bring to market (while thinking entirely within that paradigm), the way a people become in America, for all intents and purposes, their nation’s cuisine. Everything I know about Ethiopian culture, for instance, I learned from the menu and placemats I’ve read in Ethiopian restaurants. My owning the products gives me known of the knowledge of what they mean to their culture of origin, and my using them doesn’t make me a participant in that culture. If I really wanted to participate in Greek culture, I’d have to actually talk to my neighbors and hang out in the cafes with them, I’d have to risk a bit more than simply daring to use their soap in my shower. I’d have to offer more than my dollar in the supermarket.
An unrelated point: I used to make my own olive-oil soap from scratch, which was enormously satisfying but totally inefficient, akin to making one’s own bread. Soap is the perfect example of something that economies of scale makes perfect for industrial manufacture, and insane for making at home. You pay much more for the ingrediants to make soap then you ever would for soap itself, and the homemade soap will never be as good as the mass-produced bars, unless you dupe yourself with the ideology of artisanship (It’s made by an individual craftsman, a person who I could meet, therefore it’s as unique and special as I am). The joy of making soap has to come from the making of it, not the using it or the thrift of it. In a way, it’s more fun to make it once you are aware of how impractical it is. It seems like you are thumbing your nose even more at the technological rationality that rules society. (Adorno would be proud). And not only is it irrational, but the lye invoved makes it dangerous as well. So it has a daredevil appeal — it’s Xtreme. Next, I might start trying to make my own Mountain Dew.