Specters of tacology

A prehistory and literature review

Game-studies scholar and philosopher Ian Bogost sometimes jokes (or is it a joke?) that one day he's going to leave it all and found a new field, tacology, in which he will study burritos and tacos.

It is true that this field doesn't exist. And yet burritos and tacos do exist, and academics know this. To the graduate student (that naive, hopeful creature!), they are even a source of joy and comfort: a tasty, filling meal that can be had in several varieties, suiting vegetarians and carnivores alike, all for perhaps five or seven dollars. There may be some regret after finishing a too-large burrito, but the figure of the tacological is a generally welcome inhabitant of our grad-school reality.

What of the professor?

One notices that, with admitted exceptions, our professors are less keen than their students on taquerial repasts. One can surmise why— specters of tacology haunt academia. The junior professor slowly loses his grad-school taste for 2am bean burritos, and things get worse from there. The Distinguished Institute Professor can scarcely pass a taqueria on the street without suffering lurid visions of salsa fresca dripping like blood out of the hated tortilla. Doctorates, lengthy CVs, and prestigious awards give no power to tame or make sense of the pile of carnitas, sitting grotesquely amidst dabs of guacamole that our poor scholar can't help but see in a sickening shade of pale green.

Occasionally a scholar will dare approach, but cautiously and indirectly. Afraid of waking the slumbering burrito, the professor pokes around in the vicinity, gaze averted, studiously disclaiming any interest in the burrito itself while intently studying the ground nearby, as if to diagnose some effect the burrito had once had on something. Hence one finds articles investigating the positive and negative effects on satisfaction and nutrition when school districts trial a taco or burrito option in school lunch menus. "Don't be alarmed", the researcher announces reassuringly, "we have no real interest in the burrito, only in school lunches; whether it's lasagna or a burrito hardly matters to us, to be honest". The research thus proceeds safely. But one can never be too cautious, so the scholar worried about awakening any infernal specters might wish to stick to a tame variant, such as the breakfast burrito, and perhaps even proceed under cover of studying "ethnic" food options.

What happens when the incautious scholar turns an eye towards the burrito itself? As a first step, one may take notice of the burrito, but still claim to not really be interested in it. "I am here only to adjudicate some dispute", says the professor. "There has been a legal dispute involving a burrito, and as a professor of law I must investigate the facts and explain how the law applies". But here already confusion and unease arises. For the professor does not really know what a burrito is.

"Is a Burrito a Sandwich?", asks M. Florestal in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law. Never mind, even that question is too dangerous. Let us trace instead how race, class, and culture, narrowed to the specific field of American contract law, might ground the answer to such a question and explain the attention this legal dilemma has received. One can't help but read the article and feel the good professor is dodging. All well and good, this learned tour, but still may we ask: what is a burrito? The question sits uneasily, puns about "gut-level understanding" failing to lighten the mood.

Though all can sense it, the horror at least lies safely beneath the surface. The law professor may have been spooked, but no great harm. In the future, more prudent professors will take care to simply go out for sushi.

But one will hardly be surprised to find that not all our scholars ended their encounters so fortunate. In any group, there are the brave and foolhardy; the professor who looks at the burrito and says: I am here to study the burrito. We know that our pre-tacological academia cannot study the burrito. Yet the burrito is there, and the rash researcher will approach it.

What can possibly come of such an encounter? You suspect well enough: the pre-tacological burrito can only be encountered as trauma. Rashly staring, eyes wide open, at such an incomprehensible, unbearable presence, our hapless researcher stands transfixed for eternal moments, then recoils. Fragments of the encounter surface in the academic literature.

"Here's Your Burrito and Watch Your Back", barks T. Reuschel in the Missouri Law Review, recounting a violent, desolate scene:

"Timothy Stroot was waiting in line to place his order at Taco Bell when he heard that a woman was being attacked in the parking lot. After informing Taco Bell employees and asking them to call the police, Stroot went to the parking lot to confront the attacker. Stroot spoke briefly to the attacker before a third party, Ryan Parker, attacked and severely beat Stroot. No Taco Bell employees attempted to assist Stroot."

Even our school lunch researcher is occasionally burned. "Mysterious outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness associated with burritos supplied through school lunch programs", worry E. Steinberg et al., writing in the Journal of Food Protection. They warn darkly of "an undetected toxin or an agent", and try to convince themselves that it was not, in fact, what you and I suspect: "mass psychogenic illness".

In his book-length study on trauma and paramedics, T. Tangherlini observes deadpan: "During my fieldwork, I noticed that burritos were one of the foods of choice among paramedics". One can't help but involuntarily imagine the dreadful story behind Tangherlini's taking such notice. He tries to hurry us along with a nothing-to-see-here, but the strange thoroughness of the rationalization in this footnoted aside betrays the trauma: "partly because of the ubiquity of small stands and lunch wagons serving Mexican food, and also because of their low cost, their portability, and the ease with which they can be eaten as 'hand food'", he explains. Yes, indeed, that's all true, Dr. Tangherlini.

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The burrito must be studied, but today it surfaces among scholars only as trauma; and otherwise suffers deliberate, affected disinterest. Can tacology overturn this state of affairs?