Expectations and Experience – Rebecca Hannigan

My dad flips the thick plastic menu in his hands like he isn’t sure what to do with it. He leans back and straightens the arm attached to the hand holding the menu, squinting at the menu, as if to optimize visibility of the tiny printed text, as if to make up for years spent wearing out his eyes, as if to make up for low light in the restaurant. He flips and squints and scratches his head.

“The Denver Omelette?” he reads as if it were written as a question. “Is that made with eggs?”

Instead of answering with the ostensibly logical “Yes,” I pause, swallow, play with the unfolded napkin in my hands. “I’m not sure,” I say. Instead of allowing you to continue thinking that both my dad and I are, essentially, idiots for questioning the primary structural component of an omelette, a standard American (although originally French) breakfast option with which we are both well acquainted, let me offer one more fact that emphasizes the significance of this moment. We are in a vegan restaurant.

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My immediate thought is “just order it and eat it, and you’ll like it no matter what,” because I know my dad doesn’t know much about meat substitutes, and I don’t want to scare him with a description of fermented soybeans or wheat meat; I just want him to be open minded about the menu, pick something, and enjoy it, which is not difficult to do at this restaurant, a vegan hotspot that deftly deals with any alternate-meat food item and makes something delicious out of it.

It’s not likely though, that my dad will enjoy what he orders if I tell him it is an alternate-meat option, simply because he has never tried alternate-meat options in any setting – restaurant or at home (he has rarely eaten a meal without meat at all) – and is inclined to assume that such things are disgusting, strange, or unnatural.

I understand why he’s inclined to stand by these assumptions. He’s never had reason to believe otherwise. He’s never had reason to believe that alternate-meat products are delicious, because he’s never had an experience to show him that they are, because he’s never allowed himself to expect such an experience to be delicious. The sad fact is that as a result, he will most likely never come to believe in their goodness – nutritionally, environmentally, or culinarily – simply because he has an expectation of such products that they will disappoint, and so, as a result, they will disappoint. HIs expectation will be fulfilled with every encounter.

This is what I want to understand: expectations, and how they shape experience.  

Obviously, this has more meaning than while ordering food in a vegan restaurant. I’m thinking about what we expect from each other. I’m thinking about what we expect from people we don’t know, from people we don’t understand. I’m thinking about what we expect from people with whom we have never had a positive experience, and, as a result, never will.

Do expectations subconsciously (and/or consciously) determine whom we love and allow ourselves to love, whom we hate and allow ourselves to hate? And whom we fear?

Brian Massumi has something to say about this in “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact.” He discusses threat, specifically, pointing out the way that today’s media is fixated on predicting the future, rather than explaining or clarifying the past. By focusing on events that have not happened, news sources maintain powerful control over us by filling us with fear, manipulating our emotions by making us obsess over issues (disease, attacks, crimes) that have not happened, but could potentially happen, thus keeping us in a state of suspended terror which will only go away if the terror does happen.

There’s no way to win. Either the terrifying event does occur, and we are horrified, or it does not occur, and we continue to worry that it will.

Massumi explains this more eloquently. He writes, “Whether the danger was existent or not, the menace was felt in the form of fear. What is not actually real can be felt into being.” (53-54). He discusses the War on Terror and Bush’s response to the allegation that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Although no WMDs were found, the invasion was justified by the fearful possibility that they were there.

What other invasive actions are justified by fear? How many times will claims of “self defense” be accepted and allowed to take the lives of innocent (most likely – unfortunately – black) young men? If a neighborhood watchman in Florida tells himself he sees a dangerous teen walk by, then in his reality, he sees a dangerous teen, so he reacts de/offensively, and, as a result, is rewarded for keeping anything dangerous from happening.

On an even larger scale of “self defense,” how many bombs will America drop under the guise of “prevention” before realizing that such attacks are actually proliferation?

Massumi says, “Defensive preemptive action in its own way is as capable as offensive preemptive action in producing what it fights.” (57).

If you walk along the street expecting to see criminals, then you are much more likely to see criminals. If Yelp tells you that you’ll have a pleasant dining experience, you are much more likely to have a pleasant dining experience.

Your expectations are the stories you tell yourself about yourself and your surroundings, and by telling yourself, the stories come true.

I have to be honest with my dad. I can’t tell him that yes, the Denver Omelette is made with eggs, no matter how much I want him to have the same delicious expectation of this dish that he has when he orders a dish with eggs, because that’s not what it is. But by being honest and asking him to try it anyway, there’s a chance that he will. There’s a chance that he will realize that the story he has always told himself about tofu or vegans is not the only story to be told, and that by listening to other versions, he can potentially discover a new favorite food, or, if nothing else, he can leave the restaurant with a slightly altered view, perhaps even nodding and smiling at the dreadlock-headed hostess at the front.

thoughts coming from

  • ESC discussion of Thirteenth, a documentary about mass incarceration found on Netflix which EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH
  • ESC discussion of “The Danger of A Single Story” by Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie which, also, EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
  • Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: the Political Ontology of Threat.” The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press: 2010. http://hemi.nyu.edu/courses/sp2016-performance-and-activism/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/02/02242016-Massumi.pdf
  • real restaurant experience with Dad when Dad came to town, thanks Dad
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