GUEST WRITER SOPHIE LEWIS: The Cake Phase of the Commodity-Form
A witch-dunking pageant for consumer comestibles
A GUEST WRITER THIS WEEK. VERY EXCITING.
Here, friends, is Sophie Lewis, known for many things including correct opinions about that octopus movie. She is a fantastic writer and also, it must be said, deeply weird. I am honored to feature her, writing about Netflix’s Is It Cake?
The Cake Phase of the Commodity-Form
I can’t say I honestly blame Karl Marx for not having been far-sighted enough to open his magnum opus: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of cakes, its unit being a single cake.”
Nor did I anticipate that watching Is It Cake? on Netflix would teach the members of my household to understand the Marxist account of the capitalist commodity and empathize with how it’s doing right now, which is to say, badly.
For those not in the know, Is It Cake? is a kind of witch-dunking pageant for consumer comestibles: if she floats, she’s a cake, if she drowns, she was probably still also a cake. That’s probably not that helpful, though, at this stage in the explanation.
The gameshow might just as easily been called Spot the Sponge, Guess the Gâteau, or Unmask the Margarine. Producers assemble line-ups of rubber ducks, designer purses, hamburgers, chess boards, and bowling pins, some of which have been midwifed into existence with the help of modeling chocolate, fondant and a rising agent by America’s most diabolical petty bourgeois artisans.
There are nine “hyper-realist” pâtissiers competitors on-set—so, nine horsemen of the commodity apocalypse. Like eldritch, Doomsday inversions of contestants on The Great British Bake-Off, these individuals supposedly have but one goal: to succeed in preventing the judges from knowing that their cake is a cake. The point is to make a cake so convincingly resembling a mass-produced inedible object that a team of properly suspicious and prompted adults are utterly incapable of telling which is which.
That’s what they tell us the point is, anyway. There seems no particularly good reason to trust anything that con artists at the height of their powers say about what they are actually undertaking. Thus, what they are actually undertaking might well be, if you ask me, the application of a band-aid to an economic epoch in its death throes.
In any case, the objects they produce are placed beside four “real” commodities (of which their cake is a lovingly rendered simulacrum) on a series of plinths before a jury of D-list celebrities, who pretend to countenance the probability that only one of the objects on the dock possesses a confectionery nature. A verdict is reached: Number 4 is a cake! The court jester of the end of capitalism, a.k.a. angel of the dawn of history, Is It Cake host and Saturday Night Live cast member Mikey Day, hovers his blade over the suspected element. His arm descends… and the blade glances off with an unsatisfying click.
“IT’S NOT CAKE!!” bellows Mikey Day, hacking futilely at the artifact. A sum of money is promised to the successful “baker.” The knife of Netflix then slices home into the “real” cake (or, shall we say, “fake” handbag.) The dust of generalized epistemic panic begins to settle. Small platefuls of buttercream-laced genoise are conspicuously consumed with forks. Viewers at home are called upon to accept into their hearts one single cake-identified cake among an immense accumulation of putative decoys. The fantasy that market society might survive is—temporarily—extended. At least until the next episode, when three more illusionists, bearing eggs and edible paint, step forward to continue weaving the web of socioeconomic deception holding civilization together.
In the grand spectacle of the end of the current capitalist era, it is not simply that all commodities are exchangeably equivalent, nor—as insisted in the 1960s—that all have been reduced into images. At this point, all images are inherently interchangeable. Is it a bowling pin or is it cake? Yes.
My wife and I are six episodes in. We have screamed, we have wept, we have felt oddly unclean. There was one time when it wasn’t clear for a few seconds if the thing was or wasn’t cake, and our oldest cat’s blood pressure very nearly succumbed. We expect the show’s finale will involve not the crowning and paying of one victorious baker, but rather Mr. Day pointing the tip of his knife right at the camera, demanding to know whether the Netflix show Is It Cake? is or is not, itself, cake, rending the fabric of our laptop screen. We are hoping for red velvet.
All of which is to say, friends, it seems to me it would behoove us to be somewhat gentler with our commodities at this sensitive time in their lives. It is clear that their very status as stable images of stable things is no longer assured. Under such conditions, threatening them with swords on international television feels unnecessarily callous. And booking the sadistic spectacle of Is It Cake? into a second season certainly smacks of a cocky confidence in their permanence, even in the short-term, that we cannot, at this moment, empirically support.
In the future, archaeologists from far-flung planets will no doubt comb through the digital rubble of the Earth and find clues to the history of capitalism’s demise in the tragically ignored warnings of those early twenty-first century Cassandras who insisted, on the internet, that “everything is cake” only to be widely derided as alarmists.
Their history books will recount the rise, among humans, of the temple rituals “Cake or Cash” and “Find That Cake” (the warm-up rounds for the show's main event), speculating that these were emergency responses to the widespread collapse of commodities’ ability to believe in themselves as distinct, possibly non-cake entities.
They will theorize that these arcane ceremonies attempted—much too late—to stem the tide of cognitive dissolution and metaphysical monism. Terrified, the financial gurus of 2022 persisted in recording streamable popular entertainment vehicles in which they placed commodities tenderly on spot-lit pedestals of honor and coached them imploringly towards regaining some modicum of faith in themselves as “n., a thing (which, through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind) that is exchanged for something else.”
Are you a cake, little one? they whispered, or are you a pair of Converse™ valued at $75.99? It’s OK, you can do it, repeat after me: I am one, or the other. I am one, or the other. Everything is not cake. Only some things. So, I ask you again: are you a cake?
The history books will tell how, finally, there came no reply. All that was solid melted into ganache. We are all the great post-proletarian cake, and so can you, the masses chanted, pouring through the streets.
There was only the bubbling sound of the oceanic batter of communism lapping at the studio gates.