By Jessica Loudis
  • Jessica Loudis
    Jessica Loudis is a writer and editor in New York. She has written for The Believer, The Baffler, Bookforum, The New York Times Book Review, and a number of other fine literary outlets, and is an editor of the essay collection Should I Go to Grad School? which was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.
Filmstill from Privilege

‘Now I will accept law and order.’ ‘No longer will I criticize or rock the boat.’ We’re going to make Steven Shorter say these things because we want, as we’ve always wanted, the youth of Britain to say them also.
Privilege, 1967

Peter Watkins’s film Privilege is a black comedy set in a not-so-distant future London. Political parties have melded into a single Orwellian mass, and the government maintains order through a disaffected pop star, Steven Shorter. When youthful energies need to be channeled, Shorter performs. When church attendance declines, Shorter is trotted out in favor of religion. When an apple surplus hits England, Shorter is called in to hawk the fruit. Made by a Marxist director at the peak of Beatlemania (six years before Don DeLillo would address the same theme in Great Jones Street), the film is a bleak allegory about the power of media at a moment of increasing authoritarianism. In the image below, the Apple Marketing Board has hired Shorter to make a public service announcement exhorting people to “to eat six apples a day for the whole of the summer.” As Shorter waits offscreen, actors in apple costumes lounge between takes, waiting for further direction.

If the medium is the message, then the image above is doing double duty: television and apples are the media at hand, and both are cast as vehicles of power catering to the interests of an invisible ruling class. Two decades before, authority in England had been manifest, physical—it was royal figureheads, properly accented radio announcements, and public service posters tacked throughout London. By 1967, however, Foucauldian prophecies about decentralized control were coming true, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the media. Television became the preferred means of manipulating the masses, and in the U.S., contemporary advertising came of age by co-opting the tropes of the 1960s, chipping away at the détente between mass culture and counterculture until “revolution” became synonymous with selling sneakers. Watkins’s commercial scene satirizes this brave new world by exposing television for what it was, and he underscored the point by putting his actors in apple costumes. It’s a good joke, and also a classic one. We all know that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but an apple is a bivalent symbol, a natural Trojan horse. Apples are healthy and tainted, delicious and inedible. It’s always possible something more sinister lies beneath its waxy exterior.

* * *

Unlike oranges, cantaloupes, and raspberries, apples have an accepted geographic origin. They come from Kazakhstan, from the apple forests south of Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata, Kazakh for “Father of Apples”) several hours from the border of Kyrgyzstan. Google Street View has yet to colonize this part of the world, but Western journalists pass through with some regularity to lament the area’s rapid development. Condos are replacing trees; roads are creeping into the once-remote region. Construction, however, does not pose a direct threat to apple production: Of the 6,000 varieties documented in the Kazakh forests, the majority, small and bitter, are unfit for eating. Only 157 varieties are in some way related to the fifteen that make up 90 percent of global apple sales.

The apple as we know it is a human invention; like purse dogs and thoroughbred horses, Galas and Braeburns obscure the fruit’s genetic variability, creating the impression that all apples, if not already red and delicious, belong somewhere on that spectrum. This is fiction. Crabapples and thorn apples highlight the extent to which the scrappy, infinitely adaptable malus must morph to fit the supermarket ideal of a gleaming hand fruit. Inedible and domesticated apples have little in common save skeleton DNA, yet neither exists without the other. Wild apples persist due to their overabundance of genetic material (a single fruit contains up to eight seeds of different varieties, making specific species impossible to plant with any intent) and domesticated apples, which scientists crossbreed with their feral predecessors, make apples palatable, appealing to humans and livestock. As to whether a particular apple is edible, it’s often impossible to know unless you have tried it.

The apple’s mythology has always been ominous. Until the seventeenth century, “apple” was the generic term in English for all fruit of unfamiliar origin. Perhaps because of that linguistic ambiguity, or perhaps because of a different kind of semantic slip—malus, the Latin for apple, is only a letter off malum, the Latin noun for evil—apples are seen as nefarious, culpable for the expulsion from Eden. These negative associations persist via the Adam’s apple, which suggests that originary evil was not only ingested, but is forever stuck in our throats. Apples are also linked with death because their seeds contain amygdalin, a substance that releases cyanide when it comes into contact with digestive enzymes. From there, it’s a short leap to the myth of the poisoned apple, popularized by Snow White and revived among war-minded quants in the twentieth century. British code breaker Alan Turing reportedly committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple after World War II, and decades earlier, Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer attempted to murder his Cambridge tutor with a tainted apple.

In the U.S., apples play various roles in the cultural imagination. At once representative of rugged individualism, of knowledge and the perils of its acquisition, apples are also the fruit of democracy, of self-sustenance, colonization, and mass nutrition. 1Folk hero Johnny Appleseed took on legendary status in the early nineteenth century for planting apple trees across the Midwest. NB: the fruit of these trees was mainly used for cider, keeping frontiersmen in a permanent state of mild inebriation. Americans see themselves in apples, and now, in late-stage capitalism, apples reflect consumer trends. In the 1980s, apple juice producers foreshadowed the popularity of organic food by successfully promoting their products as “100% natural,” and in recent decades, pick-your-own apple orchards have come to reflect ideals of locavorism and farm-to-table distribution. 2Snapple introduced its ‘natural’ apple juice in 1980, and for an example of the rhetoric surrounding guilt-free apple production, see the “About” page for Fishkill Farms. To save farms from relying exclusively on underpaid day laborers to cull their crops, Slate cheekily advised: “Encourage yuppies and their progeny to come pick your fruit—they’ll pay handsomely for the privilege, buy more than they’d ordinarily consume, and then shell out for all sorts of other value-added products.” In that vein, Slavoj Žižek observed that apples are not just a fruit, but also a status signifier: “we buy a product—an organic apple, say—because it represents the image of a healthy lifestyle […] ecology itself is branded as a new lifestyle.” 3Slavoj Žižek, “Fat-free chocolate and absolutely no smoking: why our guilt about consumption is all-consuming,” The Guardian, 21 May 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/21/prix-pictet-photography-prize-consumption-slavoj-zizek (accessed 27 March 2015). Attempts to brand apples outside of this discourse have been less successful. In 2004, a company in Washington State patented the Grapple, a flavored frankenapple that “crunches like an apple… tastes like a grape.”

Apples, in other words, have always been slippery signifiers, long associated with narratives of false empowerment.

* * *

“Think different,” implores a boyish Steve Jobs in a 1997 advertisement. *Visual Reference Holding a Red Delicious with an impish half-smile, the young tech king is positioned against a black backdrop to the left of this retired slogan, his company’s iconic logo perched messianically above it. Jobs had taken control of Apple for the second time less than a year earlier, and after a decade of failing leadership, the temptation he offered was clear: cultural cache for consumers (the “Think different” campaign marked the first time a computing company took out ads in fashion magazines), and to his employer, much-needed corporate vision. Though the famous Apple later faded to monochromatic white, in the 1997 advertisement it still retains its original out-of-order rainbow stripes, meant to designate the machine’s groundbreaking ability to display color on a monitor (unprecedented at the time) and to reflect the company ideals of “lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy,” in the words of former executive Jean Louis Gassée. 4Jean Louis Gassée quoted by Rob Janoff in: “Interview with Rob Janoff, designer of the Apple logo,” Creative Bits (3 August 2009), http://creativebits.org/interview/interview_rob_janoff_designer_apple_logo (accessed 27 March 2015).

The founding of Apple, Inc. nearly four decades ago brought personal computing to the masses, positioning computers to be the late-century successor of the television. Never mind a chicken in every pot, there would be an Apple in every home. This ushered in a new model of democratic empowerment, an update to the dystopian future proffered in Privilege: instead of centralized, invisible power mediated through televisions, we would be held captive by smaller screens and tools of our own making. Where apples once had romantic associations with music—namely, Apple Records, which the Beatles founded in 1968—they were now bound to the MP3-ification of the album and the leveling of the music industry. Corporate folklore claims this all started innocuously enough. In his biography, Walter Isaacson reports that Steve Jobs struck upon the name of his company in 1976 after visiting an apple orchard. Jobs, who was famous among colleagues for his bizarre eating habits, was a fruitarian at the time and thought Apple sounded “fun, spirited and not intimidating.”

In 2015, apples are largely synonymous with smartphones and stock valuation. As always, the apple allures with good design and a hint of transgression; and, also as always, it acts as a Pandora’s box, threatening private spaces with unwanted excesses of information. We live in an age of abstraction, but paradoxically, the symbolic and the real frequently collapse into one. Since November, the Polish economy has suffered under a ban on the importing of apples (retaliation for EU sanctions over the Ukraine debacle) and young Polish activists have championed the fruit as a symbol of nationalism, proclaiming, “Patriotism never tasted so good.” 5See http://news.yahoo.com/polish-apples-hit-sanctions-battle-european-glut-sight-220128306.html In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture recently approved the commercial planting of genetically modified apples—ones that do not turn brown once sliced—despite an overwhelmingly negative public response, paving the way for new kinds of suspicious commercial products. Apples have always been enlisted in the service of power while purporting to be the food of the people. Even so, what has been true historically remains true today: anybody can have an apple, but only the select few have the privilege of knowing what’s actually inside.