On Ian Bogost, The McRib
Ian Bogost lays out an excellent explanation of the phenomenon of commodities becoming corrupted by favorable methods of repeatable processes that produce an extremely consistent product in The McRib: Enjoy Your Symptom. If you’re not familiar with the McRib (and I wasn’t before reading Bogost’s essay) it’s McDonald’s annually killed and resurrected pork rib sandwich. But wait, I hear you say, pork ribs are rather large, difficult to prepare properly and expensive, and therefore unlikely to be sold at a place known for selling extremely inexpensive and quick food … not to mention the logistics of pork ribs not making a very edible sandwich since the whole point of ribs is that the meat is attached to and in between several very large and very inedible bones. And you would be correct in finding that to be something of a conundrum. Give up? The solution is that it’s not exactly what it claims to be. Unsurprisingly, the McRib is comprised of something McDonald’s simply calls “boneless pork” ground into a “preservative-stabilized solid” and pressed into a mold complete with artificially formed “bones” running through the slab of “rib” meat. If you weren’t familiar with McDonald’s you might gasp and say something along the lines of “That’s terrifying! People need to know about this!” Except that it’s not exactly a closely guarded secret by any measure. It’s quite obvious that it isn’t a literal slab of ribs and McDonald’s is not trying to hide the process that is the making of the McRib. Knowing exactly what it is and represents people line up to get a McRib as soon as its resurrection season rolls around each year. Why? Certainly not because it’s a wholesome food that makes any kind of sense, because it’s not that. It could be because it’s fairly inexpensive and momentarily available but there’s something with considerably more influential power at play here. There’s many reasons people elect to eat a McRib; one of them being simultaneous sheer amazement and abhorrence at its very existence. But perhaps more compelling than that is our penchant for “mechanical predictability,” our love for commodities produced by a predictable process that produces a near-perfectly consistent product each and every time.
People love the concept that the experience of biting into a Big Mac or a McRib anywhere from any McDonald’s will taste and feel exactly the same. Nearly everywhere you go, no matter how unfamiliar your surroundings, there will be always be a McDonald’s nearby and your experience will be entirely familiar. Whether you find that thought comforting or terrifying is up to you. But either way, on the whole the population finds “mechanical predictability” to be quite pleasurable. People flock to get a McRib knowing full well what it’s made of and how it got to be in their paper McDonald’s take-out bag. They are able to look past it being what it is because amazingly, it comes back every year completely unchanged in every way. After being “gone” during its off season it returns unaffected by its departure year after year.
People keep coming back to eat a McRib; drawn to the mechanical predictability its production values embody.