Monday, April 18, 2011

go natural

I was not alone when I first saw the new Wendy's ad for their 'Natural Cut' french fries and wondered what the heck that meant.  According to a recent article on Yahoo! Finance, what it means is that "inside the processing plant, the potatoes skip the step of getting steamed at such a high temperature that the skins burst off. Wendy's spuds go straight to the high tech cutters where they're sliced." Au naturel, indeed. The thing I started considering is... what exactly is "natural"? Is it a word like "authentic" which, for anyone who has taken collegiate or graduate level anthropology or sociology courses knows, is something people, nations, and adventurers seek and, in fact, seek to create... nullifying the authenticity ipso facto. Indeed, Theodor Adorno thought long and hard about authenticity. In his foreward to Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity, Trent Schroyer describes how:
His basic thesis is that after World War II this philosophical perspective became an ideological mystification of human domination -- while pretending to be a critique of alienation. Use of existentialistic terms became, Adorno argues, a jargon: a mode of magical expression which Walter Benjamin called an "aura." In the aura of existentialism the historical need for meaning and liberation was expressed, but in a way that mystified the actual relation between language and its objective content. Adorno's critique focuses on the jargon's incapacity to express the relation between language and truth, in that it breaks the dialectic of language by making the intended object appear present by the idealization inherent in the word itself. The jargon, therefore, falls into an objectivism that conceals the difference between philosophical reflection and the in-itselfness of the object of reflection. Such objectivism loses the intent of reflection to maintain a self-consciousness of the mediation of fact through the thinking subject. Consequently, in the jargon objective consciousness is compressed into self-experience, and an idealism results.
In short, the 'authentic' becomes an empty term, an aura that one can seek through 'authentic' tourist experiences, but is ultimately jargon detached from meaning... and therefore lacks the presentation of any kind of truth. Similarly, 'natural' has become more convoluted syntax than language characterized by direct, unobscured meaning.

I am always telling my students to define relative terms. You can't just write "George and Lennie do not have a normal friendship" if you don't define what is this 'normal' of which you speak, I tell them. Similarly, natural (and especially in the vague haze of positivity in which we so often are smacked with it) presents the same problem. Does 'going natural' imply 'going native' (which is most definitely a more offensive, and yet more directive term)? Does it mean natural as in everyday? Or as in artless, ingenuous, unpretentious? Is it only a term which we are to relate to our diet? As in, eating organic, local, whole foods?

Even if we limit the phrase 'go natural' to the world of food and consumption choices, we are still left with much that is up in the air. An Australian company, Go Natural, assures its audience that natural is all about ingredients, but can still include "foods from the super healthy through to the extremely indulgent." Well, it seems we are in a process of definition by negation. Natural becomes what it is by what it is not... which still leaves us in a rather big void. It gets even more confusing if we try to turn to the process to define natural. A July 1, 2010 article on explains how both artificial and natural flavors are created in laboratories. In fact, it turns out that:
The distinction in flavorings -- natural versus artificial -- comes from the sources of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural... Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilizes. Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. The search for 'natural' sources of chemical often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical... Furthermore, the process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist's laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.
Mark Bittman, and his many food manifestos, recently posed a similar question on his blog. In his own attempt to evade the difficult question, he redirected readers to Marion Nestle and her "Food Politics" blog. In her March 25 entry, she asked the question "Are processed 'junk' foods in trouble?" Her suggestion buoys the theory of the attraction of 'authenticity' in the implication that 'natural' has become more of a marketing technique than a word with weighty meaning.

But, I am not here to try and solve this puzzle. Rather, I wanted to try an interesting thought experiment and hope that you too will shed some light on your own personal definitions of 'natural.' Going to the authority of, I found 38 definitions for the word. Who knew natural was so unnaturally complicated? In order to fulfill tomorrow's theme and 'go natural,' I thought I would suggest a more proactive path to take with each of these various definitions in hope of elucidating the term and bringing it back out of its jargony-soupy-haze into a word and phrase we can more clearly grasp.

First, we start with natural, the adjective...

1. existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial)

"GO NATURAL": Go outside and sit on a rock. Having been a geology minor, I can tell you that rocks are assuredly "formed by nature" -- water, wind, air, salt, weight, time... so we are pretty safe on this one. If you can't find a rock big enough to sit on, at least pick one up. Hold something incontrovertibly natural.

2. based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature

"GO NATURAL": Hmmm, well, this one already takes us on a more confusing, windy path. Isn't most everything and anything 'based on the state of things in nature'? The example sentence in this case suggests that this definition has to do with natural happenings... "Growth is a natural process." Well, not for everyone, I would argue. I've met some pretty immature 30-some-odd-year-old men. Perhaps we are meant to take this more concretely. In that case, I say, throw that rock you were holding. That would be an act 'based on the state' of that rock. And, if you were sitting on a rock, well, just remain sitting comfortably until we can sort this all out.

3. of or pertaining to nature of the universe: natural beauty

"GO NATURAL": Easiest one yet. Go to the nearest bar. Get tipsy enough that your spinning matches that of our tilted globe. Find the nearest 'natural beauty' -- this could be a 'natural blonde' or a brunette... doesn't really matter... you won't remember anyway. Drop her (or him) your best pick-up line, something along the lines of: "Was that an earthquake or did you just rock my world?" Take said beauty home and enjoy all things 'pertaining to the nature of the universe.'

4. of, or pertaining to, or occupied with the study of natural science: conducting natural experiments

"GO NATURAL": Please look back at #3. Need I say more? Continue conducting natural experiments.

5. in a state of nature; uncultivated, as land.

"GO NATURAL": This one might prove an interesting and worthy experiment. Try -- and I am speaking in all seriousness here -- to find a tract of land or piece of the earth near you that is uncultivated and existing in its utterly 'natural' form. This one, of course, requires you to recognize that uncultivated bears the suggestion of lacking human meddling. On the other hand, uncultivated can also mean lowbrow or artless... in which case, return to #3.

6. growing spontaneously, without being planted or tended by human hand, as vegetation

"GO NATURAL": For some reason, this one reminds me of Sam Shepard's eerie gothic play, Buried Child. Says Hallie, the rejected matriarch of the unforgettably dysfunctional family:
You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. It's all unseen. You just gotta wait till it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong enough. Strong enough to break the earth even. It's a miracle.
Go read the play. Even better, go see it. It will haunt you for weeks. You will never forget it.

7. having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives

"GO NATURAL": Buy certified-organic ingredients and make a meal that contains no additives or preservatives and has not been processed. Take it slow and enjoy the process. Taste food as it is meant to be tasted. Savor the meal and the people with whom you share it. Make it for your husband. Or your wife. Or your children. Or your grandmother. Or your best friend. Or, if you can't find or think of anyone else, that natural beauty you picked up in a bar the other night. Who needs fast food when you can turn it into another winning pick-up line! "You be the Dairy Queen and I'll be your Burger King: You treat me right, and I'll do it your way."

8. having a real or physical existence, as opposed to one that is spiritual, intellectual, fictitious, etc.

"GO NATURAL": Plan a canoe trip. There is nothing more concretely physical than paddling all day against the wind, over the rapids, under the blazing heat, of portaging up and down mountains with a canoe balancing on your head, of sitting by the campfire at night becoming mesmerized by the flames as they pop and spark blue into the darkening night. Of course, in my humble opinion, while certainly not fictitious, this experience can also become highly spiritual. There goes all hope of separating those two.

9. of, or pertaining to, or proper to the nature or essential constitution: natural ability

"GO NATURAL": Try to remember what you were intrinsically good at as a child. For me, it was swimming, swinging all the way across the monkey bars unassisted, assuming a rather annoyed stance with arms crossed and lips pouting (hopefully not too often -- sorry Mom and Dad! :) ), being independent, and creating, directing, and acting in elaborate films with the neighbors. I think I was also a decent writer, because I never experienced intense pain of the scholastic variety.

10. proper to the circumstances of the case

"GO NATURAL": Check with a lawyer on this one. In my case, this would be my cousin. And I'm sure he would have some snarky reponse at the ready. And, yes, he does really like the word snarky.

11. free from affectation or constraint

"GO NATURAL": Go back to aforementioned lawyer in order to witness the total opposite: completely affected and constrained behavior and language. Yes, I just made a joke that stereotypes lawyers. It's okay. I'm a blonde, so I get it. And being completely comfortable in my own skin and hair color, I can even make those jokes and then laugh at them.
Three blondes were walking through the forest when they came upon a set of tracks.
The first blonde said, "Those are deer tracks."
The second blonde said, "No, those are elk tracks."
The third blonde said, "You are both wrong. Those are moose tracks."
The blondes were still arguing when the train hit them.
12. arising easily or spontaneously

"GO NATURAL": This one accords the perfect opportunity to smash your alarm clock and sleep until you wake naturally tomorrow. This is definitely the way life should be, the way we all should greet the day, pulled out from within, rather than being shocked out of a perfectly good, but totally unrepeatable, dream to an obnoxious, bleating alarm clock's incessant beeping. Try this tomorrow... but don't yell at me if your boss flies off the handle when you are three hours late. ("Oh!! 9am? I thought the meeting was at 9pm and I was just 10 hours early!) Also, you might need to go out and buy a new alarm clock.

13. constant with the nature or character of

"GO NATURAL": Isn't this what we would otherwise call consistent? Perhaps this is meant to address something like the natural course of a river, the natural reaction to a joke, or natural selection. In this last case, we sometimes give it the misnomer, survival of the fittest. Speaking of survival of the fittest, there are these cool races out there. They go by various names: Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Lashing Your Eyeballs to Prickly Cacti and Running Through Hot Coals... Anyway, train for one... because 'you do not whine - kids whine.'

14. in accordance with the nature of things: It was natural that he should hit back.

"GO NATURAL": Gotta love the example here. Is that ever natural? I guess I can think of scenarios... not ones I want to detail here. Sounds rather 'eye for an eye' though. Being as I am not sure I know what "the nature of things" is and being as I can only pose questions that help us to ponder that very phrase, I think... for #14... perhaps you should go back to the bar... I'll meet you there. I'd like a gin and tonic, Bombay Sapphire if they have it, with a twist of lime.

15. based upon the innate moral feeling of humankind

"GO NATURAL": Now we are getting into C . S. Lewis territory. For in Mere Christianity, his thoughtful consideration of religion and his explanation of how he went from an atheist back to a Christian, he reflected: "If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own..." his theory, of course, being that if all these religions and civilizations developed the same moral systems independently, then there must be something greater guiding all of us. Even if you are not Christian or not the least bit religious, this is still a wonderful read. Read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

16. in conformity with the ordinary course of nature; not unusual or exceptional

"GO NATURAL": Become ordinary. Become one of the anonymous in the masses. Become a face in the crowd. This may sound facetious, but there is actually quite an art to be cultivated here. Yes, become a flâneur. For when you participate in the text of the street as it writes its symphony, you can also detatchedly observe and, in such, become a sort of narrator. Thus, there can be a power in your very unexceptionality. Expect a future Tomorrow's Theme to deal directly with the art of the flâneur.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world -- impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. -- Baudelaire
17. happening in the ordinary or usual course of things, without the intervention of accident, violence, etc.

"GO NATURAL": Oh sure, now you tell us that you were just kidding about it being 'natural' that he should hit the other guy back. I knew I had a funny feeling about that one... and the accident thing? What about natural disasters? Geez, I suppose there is no accident there. Actually, I guess you could argue there isn't. I mean, in those cases, we (i.e. humans) are often the accident. I took a great course in college in the Geology department about just this sort of thing. I don't recall the course's title. I think it was something like: "Freakin' idiots who build million dollar homes on the narrowest spits of land where they are obviously interfering with the natural process of beach erosion or other lame-o's who build similarly expensive homes on top of cliffs which have a history of landslides or in flood plains and then are surprised when they wash away"

18. related only by birth; of no legal relationship; illegitimate

"GO NATURAL": Whoa! Slow down there, buster! Did we just slide from lovely thoughts of your natural brothers and sisters to the entire issue of illegitimacy in the same dictionary definition? And did you know that illegitimate also used to mean acting in plays that were technically called 'musicals' because they added a couple of fluff songs in order that they weren't categorized as being straight-up dramatic plays?... reason being because only certain playhouses were legally able to put those on. Go write such an illegitimate play. Or just go to Broadway and see a real musical... or perhaps an illegitimate one.

19. related by blood rather than adoption

"GO NATURAL": True, but this is where taking natural literally gets stupid. Adoption is a beautiful thing when done right and carefully. It's unfortunate that generous, loving parents exist who want to raise a child and can't because of an adoption process that is unwieldy, extremely expensive, and way too time-consuming. Go give some love. Become a mentor... or a Big Brother... or any similar such organization.

20. based on what is learned from nature rather than on revelation

"GO NATURAL": Since most of us probably aren't having revelations on a normal basis, this one seems relatively attainable as is. But get this. There's an intriguing circularity here that I am not sure you are aware of. On, the "what" in the above definition is underlined. That interested me and when I clicked on it I came, not surprisingly, to the definition of what. The 15th is my favorite: "British: don't you agree?: An unusual chap, what?" ... but it is the 17th that completes the circle: "the true nature or identity of something"... the what, the how, the who, the natural! Do something circular in honor of not having to have revelations... perhaps hula-hooping.

21. true to or closely imitating nature

"GO NATURAL": Wait. Is this for real? What happened to "formed by nature," and "in a state of nature," and "in accordance with the nature of things"? I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery because, in this case, imitation is sincerity itself. This means that there is no distinction between a natural blonde and a 'natural' blonde. I guess this means we should celebrate with another blonde joke.
BLONDE: "Excuse me, what time is it right now?"

WOMAN: "It's 11:25PM."

BLONDE: (confused look on face) "You know, it's the weirdest thing, I've asked that question thirty times today, and every time someone gives me a different answer." 
22.  unenlightened or unregenerate

"GO NATURAL": Considering that we all want to be enlightened, I suggest that we try to become more enlightened. Seriously, I think this one reflects badly on us. I mean if being unenlightened is the normal, the natural state of things, then perhaps we need to change normal altogether. Sit under a Bodhi tree and unfetter yourself from the wheel.

23. being such by nature

"GO NATURAL": Well now is getting all snarky on us. Defining a word with itself? That is one of the first no-nos of vocabulary building. Speaking of which, those who have a stronger vocabulary tend also to have a higher IQ. Pull out those cards and work on some vocab. I'm just saying... or read Schott's column in Times: Schott's Vocab... and be introduced to unusual lexicon in a more palatable way.

Go natural, indeed. I'm going to stop at 23 because the ensuing definitions have mostly to do with music, cards, color, or Afros... no I'm completely serious on that last one.

Anyway, it is way too nice outside and in anticipation of 'going natural' the best I know how, I am going to reintroduce myself to natural sunlight, natural forces like the wind, natural sounds like birds and kids playing outside, and natural processes like me moving my feet back and forth and swinging my arms... a.k.a. walking... or in this case, strolling, ambling, or promenading... so that I can invite other natural tendencies... like my natural tendency to think and over-think and digress... and to thank god that I wrote this entire entry about 'going natural' without mentioning nudist colonies... until now... shoot!.... so, off I go... until tomorrow... when we meet again... naturally!


  1. Yay! Y'all mentioned me twice!

    Nicely written and very thought provoking.

    Very truly (and affectedly, and constrainedly, and oh, oh, oh! snarkily, and of course naturally) yours,

    Lawyer cousin

  2. Well, of course I did! You are worth mentioning many more times than that, lawyer cousin! ;)