Vending Machines of Desire

What is needed are methods of making knowledge visceral. Practices of feeling the transiency of sugary delights, feeling the plight of whales stuffed with plastic as they wash upon the beach to die, or feeling the loss of biodiversity as the loss of our own limbs.

There’s nothing like a vending machine in the lobby of your apartment building to remind you that no matter who or what you imagine yourself to be, you are mostly a brute, unruly, gullible animal.

With each pass through the front door, veering off towards the staircase on the right, my gaze drifts left, towards the large rectangular machine containing bright yellow, orange, and red packages of sweets. They disgust me. So vile and shamelessly designed to prey upon my basic animality. I won’t give them the dignity of names, lest I inadvertently do their marketing for them.

But I shudder with forbidden delight at the daydream of crunching into a certain collection of peanuts coated in chocolate. Despite what I know about this brief ecstasy — how the concentration of sugar affects my brain, heart, and mood; how instantaneously the delight will devolve into disgust, and shame; how the plastic packaging practices are desecrating our oceans, lands, and fellow animals — I swoon, salivate, even lust over the contents of this vending machine.

These moments of friction between what I know and what I feel, or what I believe and what I want, face me with a difficult question: what good is knowledge, anyway? What good is knowing things that do not change how I feel? What use is an education that does not modify, or otherwise transmogrify my basic animality? I side with Nietzsche’s sentiment, who believed humans are tightropes stretched between animals and supermen, though I think Fernando Pessoa said it better: “I am a bridge between two mysteries, with no idea how I was built.”

The mystery of what I might become fades with each crunch of a candy bar, with each failure of knowledge. In these moments I am an animal, and nothing more.

But the mystery is what impels me. The unknown potentialities of being to which the tightrope of humanity fastens. What are the possibilities for us, as impossibly complex, powerful, sentient creatures all here together? If we manage to move forward, where might we wind up?

Knowledge alone does not change me, it is incomplete, each pass by the vending machine reminds me of this. Each craving acquiesced to feels like a step backwards on the rope. And I worry, in the sensorium of present-day culture, the steps back may outnumber the steps forward (to what? I may never know). What is needed are methods of making knowledge visceral. Practices of feeling the transiency of sugary delights, feeling the plight of whales stuffed with plastic as they wash upon the beach to die, or feeling the loss of biodiversity as the loss of our own limbs.

“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions.”

(Mary Oliver)

Vending machine contents themselves are not the issue, but emblematic of a larger inertia. The coevolution of consciousness, our cultural traversing the bridge from where we’ve been to where we might go, is threatened and impeded by vested sociopolitical interests in this kind of inertia itself. There’s a profit to be made by stopping us in our tracks, feeding us junk, showing us standardized movies, busying us with soul-dampening labor, and shackling us with debt so we cannot realistically entertain any other way to live.

Worst of all, I fear there are no old white men in executive board rooms that deserve credit for perpetrating this inertia — only individuals making small choices each and every day. The inertia is mostly a product of people like me, returning to the vending machine.

It’s not that I want to see vending machines ditch candy in favor of Alan Watts books and LSD tabs (though I’d have no quarrel there). Even transient, unhealthy delights can be savored and enjoyed, can find a place in the coevolution of sentience into something more inclusive and rich than what I currently experience.

I do dream, though, of raising our sights en masse from snacks and vacations, to consider how the environments we create condition the kinds of humans we might become. Desire itself feeds off environmental cues. The vending machine is a mirror, I see my built environment reflected therein. I see my cravings, my self-conscious judgment of those cravings, and my inertia. I see myself retreating from the mystery ahead, for the impulsive stupor behind.

And we are, of course, on this bridge together. If I uncrumple a dollar bill from my wallet and buy into all the socioeconomic ramifications a candy bar contains, you are too. Like it or not. But if you must share my gluttony, my prudence is yours, too. Vending machines could, in fact, carry Alan Watts books & LSD tabs if our collective behaviors indicated that such were our desires. The point is not to like the same books or all embrace psychedelics, but to act upon our better natures, to endeavor onward in the cultivation of sentience. Our actions today are the architects of our desires tomorrow, yours and mine, for they shape the landscape we inhabit.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte river, and ourselves— we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

(Mary Oliver)

I am an animal, brute and susceptible. I cannot do this alone, none of us can. We need help. We need communities of support and intention. We need to approach knowledge as grist for the mill of feeling. To overcome sociopolitically perpetuated inertias and move forward into the mystery ahead, we need each other. 

But do not let any of this convince you not to grab a snack from the machine beforehand. Try button E9.