Monday, May 3, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Today I have been Spring cleaning. It was not brought on by the fact that it has become Spring, really, but I did feel compelled to take stock of my possessions and decrease them significantly. We keep too many things. Anyway, as I did so, I came across a very old evaluation of my performance at a job. Before I tossed it, I read the evaluator's comment that my chewing gum was not so professional. A fair enough point, I guess, but the supervisor's displeasure was not what caught my attention. Rather, the comment unearthed in me a philosophical question to which I have never found a sufficient answer: Is gum candy?

The question comes naturally to me, because my studies in the humanities and social sciences demand that I seek to know how cultural objects are classified. And, my training tells me that if I do classify gum, or even better, if I find out how it has historically been classified, some epistemological questions arise of gum-cum-candy. How have we come to know candy, and how does or does not gum fit in?

Almost without thinking, one might easily conclude that gum is not candy-- for the obvious reason that candy is fully consumed (is eaten), while gum is merely chewed and then discarded. This is a useful distinction. You don't find a whole lot of chewed up Milky Ways stuck to the bottom of school desks. In a way, then, candy is food, and gum is not. Hell, gum like Extra even says right there on the packaging that gum is 'not a diet food.' It contains no sustenance for the body; and certain candies, at least, supply some nourishment. But even the most elementary consideration shows that this binary of swallowed/digested vs. not-swallowed/digested does not take into account the cultural relationship between gum and candy. There are significant social and historical linkages that suggest it is not so far-fetched to consider gum a relative, if not a kind of candy. Let's break down the arguments for and against gum-as-candy through a number of different nodes of investigation.


Let's begin by examining what these things are. Both gum and candy are super sugary (or increasingly,[sigh] super sweetened) mouth diversions. They delight the palate and can send endorphins rushing through our brains. A possible difference between them is that candy is teleological. When you get a pack of Skittles, your purpose is clear, and there is an end in sight: once that last purple orb is eaten, there is no more rainbow. Gum, on the other hand, has a practically indefinite lifespan. One can chew and chew on it, and past a point, there is not much loss of mass and chewability remains pretty constant. One may have a reason to chew gum (bad breath, dry mouth, nerves) but I am not sure that one can always project an end to chewing. That is, unless one considers loss of flavor. In this understanding of gum, perhaps one finds its 'candiness'-- because, really, unless one is distracted or has a need for an oral fixation, gum usually is not chewed once flavor is lost. So perhaps, in that respect, gum does have a certain teleology. Of course, the makers of gums like 5 and other super-long-lasting brands are muddying the waters even further.

Actually, I wonder not if this is candy so much as if it is from this earth-- look at that explosive gum!


Both gum and candy have traditionally been marketed as (and are) between-meal snacks or treats, and usually come in portable packaging. One need only think of the candy aisle in a gas station or the impulse area at the grocery check-out to remind yourself how the two are paired and sold together. However, gum is often marketed in disparate ways to candy, as in the case of teeth whitening/mouth cleaning functionality and long-lasting-ness. Despite these facts, though, it would seem unnatural to us to find gum, say, in the toothpaste aisle of the grocery or drug store. Gum is part of the candy aisle, and has been for as long as most of us can remember. (I do want to pause here to say that I understand that another gray area is the mint. Indeed, if one were inclined to argue that gum is not candy because of functionality, that person might also have to argue that mints aren't either--that much gum and most mints are part of a category one might call 'dental maintenance,' or 'breath freshening.')

Another marketing difference is the demographic to which candy and gum are sold. With the exception of chocolate, candy is generally sold to a younger demographic than gum. Sure, there are adults in Starburst commercials, but they are usually young adults. And a lot of candy commercials utilize cartoon and other colorful figures to sell to kids. Gum has a wider appeal-- an older one. Some kids chew gum, but I think, would mostly rather have candy (though this is debatable). And old people continue to chew gum. And they are the ones who care so much about the sugar-free craze going on in gum-land. There are a few sugarless candies, but they are not popular and are anathema to most peoples' ideas of what candy is and is meant to do for us.
Candy? Gum? What are these abominations?


Finally, we come to perhaps the most slippery area of this debate: hybridization. What happens when gum and candy come together? It's like the pizza bagel-- is the thing a bagel with pizza toppings, or is it a bagel-crust pizza? Two interesting examples come to mind: the Charms Blow Pop and the Razzle. The Blow Pop is immensely popular. There's something about the union of hard candy and bubble gum that appeals to us in a major way. Is it, perhaps, that the Charms corporation seeks to break down the divisions of the candy aisle, to show that gum and candy need not come in separate packaging? Do we derive a kind of pleasure in not having to choose how to spend our hard-earned money, and can have our candy and chew it, too?

Portable, crunchy, chewy... Blow Pop, I salute thee.

Possibly, I would argue, but I am not sure that the Blow Pop is actually that hybrid, depending on consumption habits. I usually end up biting into the pop before I reach the gum, and that mashes shards of candy into the gum, for a few moments blurring the lines of what it is I am chewing. Because I am biting through candy shell, my mind and mouth want to swallow the candy-gum mass; however, I know that gum is not meant to be swallowed. If my elders weren't lying to me, I already have a 5 -lb gum tumor somewhere in my intestines, and I don't need to add to it. But, most people, I think, suck the sucker part until it is gone and then chew the gum. The line on their consumption experience is not so blurry as mine. There is a distinct end to candy and a move into gum.

Not so with the Razzles. Here is a self-conscious effort on behalf of the candy's producers to blur the line between candy and gum, to erase distinction and force us to deal with our preconceptions. Through a top-secret process, the Razzles people make a gum in powdered form, and they mold the gum into a SweeTart-like circular 'candy.' Indeed, when one bites into a Razzle, the brain is fooled, through sense memory, into thinking, "Hey, this is a nice fruity candy." However, as one continues to chew, the mouth's saliva reacts with the powdery candy and transforms it into gum. The powdery texture is lost, and the brain recognizes the rubbery texture of chewing gum. The urge to swallow, pretty powerful upon first bite, abates, and one settles into chewing mode. The Razzle, therefore, in a matter of seconds, makes a powerful statement about the slippery-ness of simple classification. It shows that essentialist conceptions need to be problematized and that one can never get too comfortable with binaries.


So, what have we come to at this point? Is gum candy? I am not sure. And, a cursory informal survey of a number of my friends and colleagues resulted in an exactly 50/50 split on the issue. So, it seems that this question remains a pretty personal issue. However, it also clear that from a cultural perspective, at least, there are as many intersections between gum and candy as there are distinctions.

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