A photograph of a fork by Andre Kertesz (Paris, 1928). A fork and a plate are transformed, from two simple and overlooked items of everyday life into a new reality – a mysterious experience, a formal poetry.
An image that easily captures attention and stays long in memory. Maybe because we didn’t expect such a performance from the mundane and the taken for granted around us. Kertesz has masterly simplified here into an abstraction that take us by surprise. Maybe because we sense – reluctantly – that the fork hides so much about us. Things which reflect forms of social life and ways of individual self-discipline, entailed in the development of modern manners.
“My wife remembers vividly her first encounter with Norbert in Cambridge when he talked about the history of the fork and used this simple clue to analyse the process of civilization” wrote A. Glucksmann in an introduction to Norbert Elias’s work.
The famous sociologist, Norbert Elias, investigated the development of the so called civilised personality. By speaking of the ‘process of civilization’ he did not make a value judgement upon the western way of life, not at all. It was a descriptive term for investigating the historical changes in modes of behaviour, in which – the point is – individuals were increasingly expected to exercise stricter patterns of self-control or self-discipline.
Here is a photograph of Norbert Elias taken in 1935 by Gisele Freund (a sociologist and photographer that I promise to investigate more about in the future!). The photograph, which almost surprisingly seems to share something of the same approach found in Kertesz’s ‘fork’, is taken from one of my recent readings: Human Figurations (Amsterdam’s Sociologisch Tijdschrift, 1977).
I think there is no better commentary to our two photographs here, than Elias’ own words about the social history of the fork and western consciousness (taken from an interview to S. Fontaine, published in Theory and Society, 1978).
“First it appeared as an exotic instrument. Five hundred years passed, from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, before the rich and powerful felt the need of its use at table. An eleventh-century chronicle recounts how it caused a scandal in Venice. People were stupefied to see a Byzantine princess bring food to her mouth with ‘small golden forks with two teeth’. This novelty was taken to be sinful. The priests invoked divine punishment, and the princess was afflicted with a disgusting disease. St. Bonaventura declared it to be a chastisement from God.
The fork appeared in France at the end of the Middle Ages (coming via Italy), and afterwards in England and Germany. At first, courtiers who made use of it were mocked. They were, it seems, very maladroit, and half the food fell from the fork ‘entre le plat et la bouche‘. The fork was first used, in fact, to pick morsels from the common place. Even in the seventeenth century, the fork (made either of gold or silver) was a luxury item used only by the court nobility and some rich imitators from the bourgeoisie.
– Why then did people come to use an instrument that was so awkward and badly received from the beginning?
The etiquette books of the nineteenth century tried to provide an answer: because “only a cannibal” eats with his fingers, or because it is “unhygienic.” But these are only later justifications. The real explanation hinges on a very slow and profound change in the subconscious of people in a particular society. These people have begun to construct an affective wall between their bodies and those of others. The fork has been one of the means of drawing distances between other people’s bodies and one’s own. One repulses the body, isolates it, feels ashamed of it, tries to ignore it. It’s a considerable change. For many centuries, this wall did not exist.
[…] It is mealtime. Each one plunges his piece of bread into the common plate, takes a bite, and plunges it back again. The room is much too hot; everyone sweats. There are a lot of sick people. Many, explains Erasmus’s informant, are afflicted with the ‘Spanish disease’ and are more dangerous than lepers. “That’s true”, says another, “but brave men laugh at it.” Thus what today would have been intolerable was rendered possible by this absence of distance between bodies. Another person’s body was not embarrassing; one didn’t feel the need to keep one’s distance. One of the manifestations of the civilizing process is precisely the creation of these distances and the multiplication of constraints and prohibitions. The latter, coming out little by little, have become unconscious and thus automatic. They have come to comprise what Freud termed the ‘super-ego.'”