Anthony Bourdain & Puerto Rico: An Island of Non-Identification
By Maison Allen
The late Anthony Bourdain was a famous chef who recognized food as a universal topic. After making a name for himself in the culinary world with his book, Kitchen Confidential, he started to travel the globe to learn more about international cuisine. His show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which aired from 2013 until after his death in 2018, is more than just a standard cooking show for foodies to learn about exotic cuisine; Bourdain dove into sensitive topics about politics and tradition while uncovering cultures lesser known to an American audience . In his show, Bourdain sought to experience life as the locals do, discussing more than just their signature dishes and gaining a deeper understanding of their cultures. The exigence behind learning about small, unfamiliar locations comes from the stereotypes one assumes about other cultures, which exist between many Americans and citizens of the countries they disregard. In one particular episode from season ten, Bourdain visits Puerto Rico and exposes the disconnect between Americans who discuss Puerto Rico as a travel destination and those who understand Puerto Rico to be a home with valid issues that need to be addressed. Through his show, Bourdain expands the thinking of those who watch it as he unearths a narrative of a nation that faces strife as a colony of the United States. Because he allows the natives in the show to describe their experiences for the audience, he is able to exemplify the ways in which narratives function most appropriately when being conveyed by those who are integral to that narrative. Looking at Parts Unknown with a rhetorical lens allows for an analysis that looks beyond the simplicity of a food show; each decision made helps the perception of the narrative by appealing to the ethos and pathos of the viewer. To find commonality between the American and Puerto Rican citizens is to begin to acknowledge the privilege American citizens have and to open a dialect about how the country can do better in aiding a territory claimed by the U.S. By talking with locals and learning about their lifestyle, Anthony Bourdain creates a narrative that evokes understanding from the audience by forming what rhetorical scholar Krista Ratcliffe refers to as a “non-identification” with the Puerto Ricans and those watching the show.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is comprised of twelve seasons, each with eight episodes. For this essay, I chose episode six of season ten for criticism because season ten is one of the latest season, readily available on Netflix, and episode six, in particular, has clear political significance. By choosing one of the latest seasons, I was able to understand the kairos surrounding the episode better which aired on cable television on November 6, 2017 on CNN. And by choosing an episode of political significance to the U.S., I was able to dissect the many layers of this episode, not just by examining the food, but also by looking at America’s relationship with Puerto Rico.
In this episode, Bourdain travels to Puerto Rico to examine the lifestyle and culture of the natives through their food and their everyday experiences. An important aspect of this episode that Bourdain explains as he introduces the episode is that Puerto Rico is economically unsound. This theme continues throughout the episode and the audience better understands this as the locals interviewed give insight to how the poor economy impacts their lives. The poor economy, according to the citizens interviewed, has caused the island to become run-down everywhere but where Americans come to vacation. This particular episode of Parts Unknown has more depth than most other episodes because it investigates more than their native food; it tells the story of an island of people cast into the shadows by the country that laid claim to it.
In the true fashion of his show, the episode is comprised of Bourdain sitting down for a meal with his interviewees, making them feel comfortable before asking them potentially difficult questions about their homeland. Over some traditional Puerto Rican food, the interviewees explain to Bourdain that their country, poor and underdeveloped, receives no aid from America, despite it being a territory of the country. The greatest message comes from those interviewed, who explain that the island needs to be self-sustaining through supporting local business, instead of relying on American corporations. The people interviewed emit pride in their nation, despite its unfortunate state, and give a different perspective to the audience that may have preconceived notions about Puerto Rico. And while the filming of this episode took place months before Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island and inhibited the citizens’ lifestyle indefinitely, it is still crucial to contextualize this episode around that major event as it makes identifying with Puerto Ricans all the more necessary.
To better understand the exigence of Bourdain’s show and this episode, I will observe this artifact to observe how understanding is created between contrasting groups of people through exposure to their perspective that leads to a greater sense of empathy. The concept of identification is the brainchild of rhetorician Kenneth Burke who perceives it as a combination of different discourses that ultimately influence one’s identity. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke asserts that identification is more powerful than persuasion and can be a tool used by rhetors to create commonality between them and their audience (1325). In Burke’s theory, there is a way to find common ground between any two people and, therefore, there is room for identification which leads to a rhetorical situation. Along with finding commonalities, Burke’s theory includes another component: the terministic screen. This is the lens a person uses to narrow down information and analyze the motives or values of a rhetorical situation (Burke 1342). Because each individual has created their own lens based on their life experiences, there is room in identification for confusion and misinterpretations based on the specific ideology of those attempting to identify. And naturally, an issue that arises with identification is the obvious counterpart of division. By identifying with one group, a person naturally ostracizes themselves from another, allowing for division to occur. This division becomes a problem when one looks at cultural differences that are the result of identifying with one’s own particular country or culture.
And while Burke created the initial theory for identification, Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of non-identification, a response to Burke’s idea, fits the purpose of this criticism better and relates to the objective of the artifact. While both theories were crucial in better understanding identification, her theory challenges concepts of identification from Burke and disidentification from Diana Fuss. In her book, Rhetorical Listening, Ratcliffe explains that Burke’s theory of identification “foreground[s] personal agency and commonalities,” which ignores the differences that individuals may have as people with different identities, while Fuss’s theory of disidentification “foreground[s] differences” that leads to misunderstandings between groups of people (48). Instead, Ratcliffe proposes non-identification which comes from active, conscious rhetorical listening–a concept Ratcliffe states is a “stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in cross-cultural exchanges” (1). Non-identification is a byproduct of identification but instead of assuming commonalities, one is able to acknowledge their own shortcomings and allow for rhetorical listening that promotes understanding of a culture, in this instance. By looking at the concept of non-identification in the context of this assignment, I will be able to determine the ways non-identification is promoted in Parts Unknown in order for the complete narrative of the Puerto Rican people to be conveyed while using commonalities and differences for “cross-cultural rhetorical exchanges” (Ratcliffe 73).
While an identification could be made between the audience and the locals, the rhetorical strategies Bourdain employs lead to a non-identification. To better understand the narratives of the Puerto Ricans, a non-identification must be made. In this episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain acknowledges that disidentification, or “an identification that has already been made and denied in the unconscious,” exists between the audience and the Puerto Ricans and enables them to form non-identifications (Ratcliffe 62). The entire premise of Parts Unknown is to promote empathy and understanding to the audience that may believe stereotypes about a particular place. Instead of asking the audience to identify with a group they have presumably already disidenitified with, they are tasked with listening to the subjects of the show and learning from them. This particular episode helps strengthen Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of non-identification that invites the audience to embrace their lack of knowledge of the lifestyle of Puerto Ricans, and instead asks them to listen to the narrative that is being conveyed, rather than make sweeping generalizations about a group without first-hand knowledge. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, and this episode particularly, bolsters Ratcliffe’s concepts and creates a window that allows rhetoricians to observe identification differently.
Before one can understand how a non-identification is formed, it is imperative to first examine possible factors that allowed a disidentification to ever exist. Puerto Rico, as a territory of the United States, enjoys many of the privileges of United States citizenship, although according to Bourdain, it more closely resembles a “half-assed citizenship” in which the citizens cannot vote for president, Congress, or in any national elections. Rather than being embraced as the “51st state,” they are referred to as a colonized territory that, according to those interviewed, is not taken care of by the U.S. government. Without understanding what it means to be a territory of the United States, one could assume that Puerto Rico enjoys rights of U.S. citizenship without having to actually be citizens. This episode shows, however, that Puerto Ricans do not benefit from the island’s colonization, which has actually led to many detriments. One assumption could be that America is “bailing them out” by taking on their $72 billion debt which would make them seem lazy and irresponsible, despite the fact that individual citizens have a limited role in the country’s poor economy. To disidentify with Puerto Ricans means that the audience has to have preconceived notions about what they believe the Puerto Rican narrative is. Because many Americans who have the privilege of enjoying this series assume themselves to be entitled (meaning they are in a more advantageous position than those in Puerto Rico), it is easy to believe stereotypes about Puerto Ricans and abuse our privilege of vacationing in their neglected homeland. And while not all Americans have a negative perception of Puerto Ricans, there is still a cultural divide that blocks us from grasping their narratives. As stated by an interviewee, Laura, Americans “are selling us as only a good resort to have a piña colada in the beach and that’s it.” The sentiment expressed by many locals in the episode is that Americans like their island for its natural beauty but do not appreciate Puerto Ricans as citizens of America.
And while both groups of people must work towards better understanding each other, Americans, coming from a position of privilege, should seek out information about Puerto Rico in order to become more accepting and understanding of their conflict. As stated in Rhetorical Listening, “people from dominant cultures often possess the unearned privilege to choose to learn about nondominant home places” (Ratcliffe 63). Because Puerto Rico is an American territory, there is a certain level of knowledge about the U.S. that must be acquired by Puerto Ricans since they are so dependent on the nation. However, it is unlikely that most Americans have a firm understanding about the culture and economy of Puerto Rico which has caused them to view it through a selective lens that only sees the island as a vacation destination and does not put much thought into the lives of the citizens. Ironically enough, this causes a disidentification for the Puerto Ricans as they too have preconceived notions about Americans. The misunderstanding of each other’s cultures is what makes the narrative Anthony Bourdain constructs even more powerful as he attempts to help them find common ground and understanding.
Bourdain travels through the island, trying food and interviewing locals which allows them to express their own perspective on Puerto Rico’s economic and political climate. This creates an opportunity for the audience to listen to a perspective they’ve never heard and learn from the source, an opportunity for non-identification. The episode opens with footage of beaches and towns in Puerto Rico, narrated by Bourdain, in which he gives brief background on Puerto Rico as an American territory. This cuts to clips of news broadcasters discussing the detrimental state of the island’s economy which sets the stage for the focus of the episode. It is not until about 10 minutes in that Bourdain even discusses the native food with the locals as he typically does in his show. Instead, he is more interested in their political climate and asking eye-opening questions about the fate of Puerto Rico that many Americans may not even be aware of. Each person interviewed gives their own heart-wrenching perspective on the devastation in Puerto Rico and appeals to the pathos of the audience. Bourdain sits down with a journalist who tells him he believes no one outside Puerto Rico has any sympathy for them and they are only seen as a vacation destination. He also has lunch with a school teacher who is brought to tears as she tells Bourdain about the lack of funding for her students, as each year, more schools are shut down. As he travels to different areas of Puerto Rico, such as farms, beaches, and the satellite island of Viequez, he has similar conversations about how their lives are affected by the island’s crumbling government and provides insight to those of us who may not have even known this was an issue.
In Parts Unknown, the food is often a vessel for conversation that allows Bourdain to learn more about a region’s culture. In this episode, Bourdain gets steamed crabs with a sausage maker who talks to him about the hardships of being a business owner who relies on American exports. He also meets up with farmers who cook him a meal and discuss the importance of buying local products. But the primary focus on this episode is not the food; rather, it is the people who are suffering while most of us do not even notice. All too often, we get wrapped up in the food and exotic aspects of a culture, and we forget to properly appreciate and learn about it, which is often how cultural appropriation begins. But what Bourdain does in his show is more culturally sensitive as he displays the lives and culture of the region he’s observing which forces the audience to learn about the people, instead of just enjoying the exotic food. His show teaches the audience about food as means of communication, opening a conversation about Puerto Rico that evolves into a more complex experience for the viewer. The food on Bourdain’s show is the ethos; it is universal and helps us find commonality.
The purpose of the episode is to create a non-identification with the audience and Puerto Ricans. Assumptions and stereotypes are how disidentifications come to exist, as well as identifications that, according to Ratcliffe, “are arrogant and coercive–as when the U.S. defines freedom in terms of U.S. democracy and imposes this definition on other countries without consulting those countries’ traditions” (71). But by choosing to find commonalities, as well as understanding differences between cultures, like America and Puerto Rico, the audience gains the ability to learn from and actually listen to those speaking directly about their lives. The only true way to know and process the experiences of Puerto Rican citizens is by first acknowledging that there is a disconnect, that bias and stereotypes exist, then becoming open to the ideas of people who know their culture best. This is what Bourdain does throughout his show; he doesn’t visit foreign countries and explain what it was like; instead he listens to the natives and captures their experiences on film. But more broadly than in the context of Bourdain’s show, non-identification allows those in a specific discourse community to educate a possible counter-community through non-identification that forces the listener to confess their deficiencies and humble themselves in order to expand their minds when learning from the primary source (the people living in this experience).
Burke forces identification by focusing solely on commonalities, while casting the differences aside, and although this is admirable, it cannot work when discussing cultures. There will always be a dominant and nondominant culture and it is likely that the dominant culture’s imperialistic ways will override the identity of the nondominant culture (Ratcliffe 57). Therefore, instead of allowing their differences to diminish when commonalities are found, the nondominant culture is forced to morph into the dominant culture and lose all its individuality. In this case, America’s conquest of Puerto Rico and the tourist industry surrounding the island has led many to believe that it is only a vacation destination and a land with resources to harvest, thereby minimizing the native culture and identity. On the contrary, Ratcliffe fully embraces commonalities while simultaneously, opening a dialogue for differences to be shared. What Burke’s theory does is destructive; it forces commonalities where they may not exist and posits manipulation from those in a position of privilege and power in which they can strategically force common ground in order to forward an agenda. We cannot assume that Puerto Ricans are “just like us” because then we are blind to their needs and struggles (especially their added struggles after Hurricane Maria), and where there is no visibility, there is no solution created. Fuss’s concept of disidentification encourages false and hateful assumptions, ignoring the real identities of those involved, once again placing those in privilege into an advantageous position in which they can foster discriminatory beliefs based on no first-hand knowledge.
What Fuss’s postmodern theory suggests is that identification “infects” one’s identity and paves the way for statements of commonality such as “they’re just like us after all” when in fact, those from another discourse community, or in this case, another culture are not like “us” and accepting the ways they are different is how true understanding blooms (13). Identifications are all too often forced because we want so desperately to make sense of the world around us and so we try to conceptualize places, people, and things in whatever way makes sense through our terministic screens. However, this is often how wars are waged and anger prevails. Indeed, identification can be as risky and disruptive as disidentifications (in which a community is renounced) because they pave the way for “annihilating the other as other,” creating the mentality of “you’re either with us or against us” (Fuss 4). But further emphasizing differences alone, as Fuss suggests, is not enough to understand those from different cultures or lifestyles. While it is surely important to avoid glossing over differences, focusing solely on the ways one is different from the other destroys the possibility for understanding. So where Burke’s theory would suggest ignoring the struggles of Puerto Ricans, Fuss’s theory causes them to be visible but still does not give us the tools to be able to solve them. For those in positions of privilege, like the Americans watching Parts Unknown, to help to dismiss the problems of those in non-dominant cultures, there must first be a learning period in which non-identifications can form in order for proper, constructive problem-solving to commence.
To fully grasp why non-identification aids the narratives of discourse communities best, one need only think of two words: rhetorical listening – the cornerstone of Ratcliffe’s book, which works as a guide in employing rhetorical listening. Frequently, disidentifications and identifications are made in the unconscious (although there are instances where one could choose to relate to another person) but with rhetorical listening in mind, one can dynamically and willingly make the conscious choice to hear, with an open mind, what another person or culture is saying, feeling, or believing. Non-identification promotes this conscious and active participation is cross-cultural relations by assuming there are gaps between communities and allowing people to move in and out of said community, thus altering their worldview and strengthening their capacity for empathy and humility that comes with learning from others. Bourdain’s efforts to question those he interviews exemplifies rhetorical listening; rather than pretending to understand the plights of Puerto Rican citizens, he exposes his ignorance through questioning. And in exposing that ignorance, he opens a dialogue for open-minded learning. The greatest lesson the audience can learn from Anthony Bourdain and my readers can learn from this essay, is that this rhetorical listening doesn’t come from speculation and it must exist from knowledge gained by learning. This choice of non-identification forces interdependency Much like how one person cannot be an expert in all fields, one culture cannot fully understand the cultures they are not “experts” in and must be open to learning as a student is open to the information being taught by a professor well-versed in the subject matter. Because of Ratcliffe’s ideas, we can assert “our agency to engage cross-cultural rhetorical exchanges” that forces “action motivated by accountability” (Ratcliffe 73). Non-identification humanizes those in non-dominant cultures, allowing them to speak their truth to those who want to actively listen, opening a plane in which rhetorical situations can thrive and the rhetor (or culture) can educate the audience.
In Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain fosters a discussion around the lives of the people of Puerto Rico. In doing this, he asks his audience to form a non-identification with the locals that shapes an understanding and appreciation for their culture. And while his efforts alone will not solve racism and end bias towards those the United States has colonized, it could be a starting point for those who wish to renounce their ignorance and assumptions in order to constantly learn more about Puerto Rico from those who live there. Bourdain himself, in sitting quietly as those he interview tell their stories, shows how he is able to make non-identifications with them. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we as Americans understand those in our own territory; after the devastation Puerto Rico faced due to Hurricane Maria, it is our moral obligation to cast away biases, stereotypes, and assumptions in order to listen to the needs of Puerto Rico.
For countries that have been colonized, non-identification allows them to hold onto their traditions and culture, something that is often tragically lost in the whitewashing of conquest. Places like Puerto Rico require those of us from dominant cultures to listen rhetorically in order to appreciate their cultures, rather than appropriate them (or erase them all together). On a global scale, non-identification could be seen as an ethical way to explore the world around us. All too often, larger, stronger countries or cultures exploit other cultures for their resources, food, traditions, and land. Historically, these larger countries have conquered smaller nations in hopes of reward from this new land. And while traveling and trade is an excellent way to share and combine cultures, we must be careful as to not abuse or mistreat the cultures of the less privileged nations. Rather than coming into these new lands ready to consume their culture, it is essential to listen rhetorically and form non-idenitifications so that we may not warp a nation’s esteemed culture and practices for our own use without understanding their significance. We should look to Bourdain in Parts Unknown to understand how to ethically explores the world.
Rather than simply preparing exotic cuisine and explaining the significance the dish has on another culture, Bourdain submerges himself in unfamiliar cultures and lets the people that know best do the explaining. While Bourdain is technically the central focus of the show, it could be argued that those he interviews and the countries he visits are the true stars. His ability to remain humble and submissive in instances where a native is explaining their food exemplifies a morally sound exploration of the world. Of course Bourdain as an internationally renowned chef could probably describe the dishes to the audience with passible accuracy, but knowing that he does not have connections to the food’s origins, he encourages others to explain their own culture first-hand. By engaging and learning from the natives, Bourdain is doing his research and avoids overstepping in situations where another perspective is necessary. Instead of forcing our traditions as imperialist Americans onto weaker countries, we can learn about their strengths and capabilities on the global plane and offer our strengths as aid in place of their weaknesses. Non-identification allows for discourse communities to act fluidly and freely from one culture to another, embracing the divide that exists while being influenced by it through active efforts.
Furthermore, when discussing the contribution to rhetorical studies that non-identification makes, one is able to point back at Parts Unknown as an example of Ratcliffe’s work implemented in a real life application. Bourdain’s show creates an ethical conversation about what the thoughts and feelings of the Puerto Rican citizens are, without interference by preconceived notions or stereotypes. By discussing how non-identification welcomes education and tolerance, this essay augments Ratcliffe and Rhetorical Listening by displaying the cultural benefits of humbly learning instead of assuming. Personalities are fluid and by understanding another culture through listening to their narrative, one can enrich one’s own narrative, allow it to become more worldly as one enters a discourse community as a visitor. Instead of allowing identification to proceed with its partner, persuasion, rhetorical listening forces the audience and the rhetor (who are interchangeable) to make conscious efforts to accept or deny the information being presented after opening themselves up to the idea that they might not have all the knowledge already. And while Burke and Fuss’s theories still hold validity and were essential in starting a discussion around identification, Ratcliffe morphed it into an entirely new concept, one that takes commonalities as well as divisions and sets the stage for one to have agency over their own lives by accepting the differences as a means for understanding.
Maison would like to thank members of the Moravian College English and Writing department at Moravian for all of their encouragement and instruction throughout her undergraduate career. She would like to also thank Dr. Crystal Fodrey for her help during the writing process of this essay.
Burke, Kenneth. “From A Rhetoric of Motives.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times to the Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, 2nd ed., 2001, pp. 1324-1340.
Fuss, Diana. Identification Papers. Routledge, 1995.
“Puerto Rico.” Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season 10, episode 6, CNN, 6 November 2017. Netflix.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Maison Allen is a recent graduate from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where she studied Communications and Social Influence with a minor in Studio Art. She has a significant interest in political and social issues and often focused her writing around gender and race inequality. Her hope is to work in politics and activism and continue using rhetorical studies to communicate effectively.