Kinder Surprise, one of the most popular chocolate products on sale all around Central Europe, are empty egg shells made of chocolate and wrapped up in brightly colored foil; after one unwraps the egg and cracks the chocolate shell open, one finds in it a small plastic toy (or small parts from which a toy is to be put together). A child who buys this chocolate egg often nervously unwraps it and immediately breaks the chocolate, not bothering to eat it at first and worrying only about the toy in the center. Is such a chocolate-lover not a perfect case of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s dictum “I love you, but, inexplicably, I love something in you more than yourself, and, therefore, I destroy you”? And, effectively, is this toy not l’objet petit a at its purest, the small object filling in the central void of our desire, the hidden treasure, agalma, in the center of the thing we desire?
This material void in the center, of course, stands for the structural gap on account of which no product is “really it,” no product lives up to the expectations that it elicits. In other words, the small plastic toy is not simply different than chocolate (the product we bought); while materially different, it fills in the gap in chocolate itself, i.e., it operates on the same surface as the chocolate. As we know already from Marx, the commodity is a mysterious entity full of theological caprices, a particular object satisfying a particular need, but it is at the same time also the promise of “something more,” of an unfathomable enjoyment whose true location is fantasy. All advertising addresses this fantasmatic space (“If you drink X, you will experience not just a drink, but also…”). And the plastic toy is the result of a risky strategy of directly materializing, rendering visible, this mysterious excess: “If you eat our chocolate, you will not just eat a chocolate, but also have a (totally useless) plastic toy.” The Kinder egg thus provides the formula for all the products which promise “more” (“buy a DVD player and get 5 DVDs for free,” or, in an even more direct form, more of the same—“buy this toothpaste and get one third more for free”), not to mention the standard Coke bottle trick (“look on the inside of the metal tab and you may find that you are the winner of a prize, from another free Coke to a brand new car”). The function of this “more” is to fill in the lack of a “less,” to compensate for the fact that, by definition, a merchandise never delivers on its (fantasmatic) promise. In other words, the ultimate “true” merchandise would be the one which would not need any supplement, the one which would simply fully deliver what it promises—“you get what you paid for, neither less nor more.”1
The idea of a void in the middle of a dessert has a long history. In Elizabethan England, with the rise of modern subjectivity, a difference emerged between the “substantial” food (meat) eaten in the great banquet hall and the sweet desserts eaten in a separate small room while the tables were cleared (“voided”) in the banquet hall. Eventually, the small room in which these desserts were consumed came to be called “the void.” Consequently, the desserts themselves were referred to as “voids,” and, furthermore, in their form, usually in the shape of an animal and empty on the inside, they came to imitate the void. The emphasis was on the contrast between the substantial meal in the large banquet hall and the insubstantial, ornamental, dessert in the void: the void was a “like-meat,” a fake, a pure appearance. It could be, for example, a sugar peacock that looked like a peacock without being one (the key part of the ritual of consuming it was to violently crack the surface to reveal the void inside). This was the early modern version of today’s decaffeinated coffee or artificial sweeteners, and the first example of food deprived of its substance so that in eating it one was in a way “eating nothing.” The further key feature was that this void also provided the space for deploying private subjectivity as opposed to the public space of the banquet hall. The void was consumed in a place to which one withdrew after the public ceremony of the official meal; in this separate place, one was allowed to drop the official masks and abandon oneself to the relaxed exchange of rumors, impressions, opinions, and confessions, in their entire scope from the trivial to the most intimate. The opposition between the substantial “real thing” and the trifling ornamental appearance that only enveloped a void thus mirrored the opposition between substance and subject. No wonder then that, in the same period, the word void also functioned as an allusion to the subject itself, the Void beneath the deceptive appearance of one’s social masks. This, perhaps, is the first culinary version of Hegel’s famous motto according to which one should conceive the Absolute “not only as Substance, but also as Subject“: You should eat not only meat and bread, but also good desserts.
[Extract. Appeared in Cabinet Magazine, Issue 11, Summer 2003]