Confinement is an intangible noun that is felt more often than it is seen. A common effect of confinement is feeling restless or to use a common expression, “stir crazy”. In very specific settings, such as prisons or popcorn makers, the effects of confinement are more obvious. For example, in the 1980s classic comedy “Stir Crazy,” Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor found a way to make long term and unjust confinement behind bars funny. Stir Crazy is also the name of a well-known and beloved hot air popcorn-making machine invented in the late 1970s in the United States. Stir Crazy as what Arjun Appadurai would term a “commodity with a social life” (Appadurai 1986) presents an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between objects, humans and science. In this short essay, I will argue that Stir Crazy paradoxically contains, imprisons, and liberates corn for human consumption in a process of what Tim Ingold calls, “creative engagement” (Ingold 2000: 345) between the corn, machine, and consumer.
Corn is the only grain with a disputed origin (Smith 1999). As with many attempts to uncover histories regarding the disputed origins of things, the academic discussions surrounding corn are fraught with controversy. Yet historians, social anthropologists and archeologists seem to agree that corn has been around for a very long time (roughly 8,000 years) and trace the roots of popcorn specifically back to the Incas, Amerindians and even sixteenth century China (Smith 1999). The controversy surrounding corn in many ways is reflective of its wild, hybrid nature. Its complicated genetic structure and hundreds of varieties reminds us of the “power of things” to provoke human curiosity and shape our relationship with everything from the land, to the economy, to academia.
As a wind-pollinated plant, corn did not lend itself easily domestication and confinement. In “The Origins of Agriculture,” David Rindos (1984) combines the perspective of evolutionary biology with an analysis of cultural change to describe the origins of agriculture. He argues that plants have relied on humans as much as humans on plants. In essence, humans and plants are both the domesticated and the domesticators: humans have modified their behavior due to the biological properties of plants as much as plants have been domesticated and cultivated for human beings. Contrary to earlier perspectives that placed human agency at the center of agricultural revolutions, Rindos argues for a turn to the agency of the crops themselves. For example, he details how isolating small samples of corn caused what is termed as “inbreeding depression” which led to the corn decreasing both its “vigor and yield” (Rindos 90; 1984).
The origin of popcorn makers is less controversial. One of the first popcorn makers was called a “Fire over the Wire,” and made in 1837 out of what today may be known as chicken wire. Corn was simply placed in a box shaped out of wire and held over the fire until it popped (Smith 1999). In 1866, the first patent for a popcorn popper was granted and the first electric machine was made in 1907. There was little advancement in the popcorn machine industry until the 1950s when “E-Z Pop” and “Jiffy Pop” became permanent fixtures in American households. Microwave popcorn emerged in 1976, yet it did not diminish the success of Stir Crazy, the hot air popcorn machine launched around 1978 that is still is popular enough to inspire more than 400 people to write about it on Amazon.com today.
Stir Crazy is a hot air popper meaning that the popcorn pops when outside heat sources convert moisture inside the popper into steam, increasing the pressure inside the machine and causing the popcorn to pop. As the diagram above shows, it has a “popper cover” which serves both to contain the pressure and a bowl for the popcorn when it is done. The “stirring rod” ensures even popping and the “non-stick popping surface” makes it a real crowd pleaser as it is easy to clean. Stir Crazy may have even enjoyed a recent increase in sales after concerns about the “dangerous chemicals” produced in microwave popcorn production was proven to cause a condition termed “Popcorn lung” in microwave popcorn factory workers (Kreiss et al. 2002).
“Popcorn lung” was caused by the microwave popcorn workers’ cumulative exposure to diacetyl, a chemical used in the artificial butter flavoring (pictured above). The confinement of the factory workers in the popcorn factory was responsible for the workers inhalation of “volatile butter-flavoring ingredients” which caused the illness (Kreiss et al. 2002: 330).
In 1978, Clifford Geertz wrote a review of Foucault’s book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” in which Geertz defined the focus of Foucault’s work as being ‘“confinement” in all its particular, discontinuous forms” (Geertz 1978). Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder would be far from laughing in the prisons Foucault describes in his book, yet Geertz appropriately titled his book review “Stir Crazy” (Geertz 1978). This is of course a digression, but a useful one nonetheless for thinking about the ways in which Stir Crazy could be viewed as an instrument created by humans to confine corn to the point of explosion for our own culinary enjoyment. In this analogy, perhaps those last few kernels that remain while all else has been transformed to white puffs could be seen as “deviant”.
Yet the inspiration for this object study does not come from bad 80s comedies, a love for popcorn, or even Foucault. It is inspired by “Popcorn Day” which is takes place weekly in one of Foucault’s favorite institutions – the court system. A twenty-year tradition, my father is responsible for popping the corn every Thursday at 1:00 pm sharp as part of his other work duties at the Kansas Judicial Center.
After witnessing my father in action, I too was captivated by the power of Stir Crazyã and understood what had motivated 427 people to write about it. My father and I stared at the popcorn together as it popped: captivated in the Gellian sense by its ability to transform hard kernels into soft editable puffs, and foster relations between me and my father and my father his coworkers. As Stir Crazy worked its magic, the smell of popcorn drifted out into the attorney’s offices letting them know that it was Popcorn Day. Thousands of years of agriculture, archeological research, scientific experiments, product designers, physics, and politics seemed to converge inside the Stir Crazy machine.
Finally (or inevitably as Latour would likely argue), we have arrived at the human component of Stir Crazy, the object. Designed, bought, and used by humans, it is a product of human invention built around the agency of corn.
Appadurai, Arjun. (1986). Introduction: commodities and the politics of value. In: Social Life of Things. A.Appadurai, ed. Cambridge. pp. 3-63.
Geertz, Clifford. (1978). Stir Crazy. The New York Review of Books. 24 (21&22). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/8291.
Ingold, Tim. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Routledge, London339-348.
Kreiss, Kathleen et. al. (2002). Clinical Bronchiolitis Obliterans in Workers at a Microwave Popcorn Plant. New England Journal of Medicine. 347 (5):330-338.
Rindos, David. (1984). The Origins of Agriculture: An evolutionary perspective. Orlando: Academic Press.
Smith, Andrew. (1999). Popped Culture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.