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Wait, Wait

June 17, 2012

So we ended last week on the theme of waiting. In case you are not into maintaining a thought over such a long pause, I’ll provide a handy link to last week’s blog here. Last week I concluded with the thought “I guess we’ll just have to wait.” Not skipping a beat, we move directly to the activity of waiting as memorialized by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness.

As Thornapple Blog readers are all fully apprised in the details of the postmodern movement and its forebears, I need hardly mention that Sartre’s interest was fixated on the performance of one particular waiter who was attending him at a nameless Parisian bistro. In Jean-Paul’s accounting, the waiter’s consciousness was fully occupied by the act and process of waiting, a performance dictated by the formal role that waiters in fine eating establishments were expected to instantiate in their very being.

We could at this point launch into a tangent on the distinction between a waiter, who literally stands by to handle trivial needs, and the maître d‘, who takes the food order and is actually in charge of the dining experience. It’s a point worth noticing, but I will press on.

Sartre’s waiter is occupied with creating an appearance of deference and efficiency, executing stylized movements in the performance of such quotidian acts as pouring a glass of wine, removing the soiled tableware or helping madam into her seat. Sartre recounts the episode at some length in establishing his idea of inauthentic being. The waiter is so occupied with the form and appearance of his activity that he must create a kind of divided consciousness in which the role of waiting table is an essentialized ideal to which his own embodied activity aspires. The waiter, in short, wants to be in the sense of being a thing, a being whose existence is fully determined in advance of the human being’s creative encounter with being through the act of becoming oneself. Oneself as another, as the philosopher Paul Ricour would later put it.

European philosophy became obsessed with alterity—the encounter with the other—in the years after Sartre published Being and Nothingness. But the waiter is not so much encountering others (the people at table, for example) as he is placing this stylized activity of waiting between himself and others. And this is what makes waiting “inauthentic” in Sartre’s view.

Of course, few of us in mid-Michigan ever encounter a waitperson so preoccupied with their activity as a professionalized performance. We are lucky if they show up and treat us with any degree of courtesy at all. “My name is Mindy and I’ll be your server.”

Well, my name is Lono, and I’ll be your customer, Mindy!

This is not to say that they are more authentic in Sartre’s sense. His point about the way that people live in a fog that actually prevents them from encountering others around them as human beings seems as valid as ever.

So, what’s the special, Mindy?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

4 comments to Wait, Wait

  • John

    The Sartre – food connection recalls a joke that I had heard years before I finally ‘got’ it. Sartre argued that one couldn’t derive existence from essence (as against folks who order their food off the a la Descartes menu); a thing must exist before you can say anything about it. Or so some philosophy prof led me to believe; to me Sartre reads as if translated from French to Klingon and then to English with the help of Babelfish. Anyway, it seems Sartre goes into a cafe and the waiter comes over and says “Good morning, sir. What may I get for you?” Sartre replies that he’d like a cup of coffee, no cream. “I’m sorry,” replies the waiter, “we’re out of cream today. Is coffee with no milk acceptable?”

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