Twinkie Dies in the Wreck of Innocence

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In Godfrey Reggio's 1982 art film Koyaanisqatsi, a Twinkie factory's packaging line serves as one of Reggio's potent symbols of the human species struggling toward self-alienation.

A worker tends to a mechanical stream of Twinkies to a near-robotic Philip Glass musical accompaniment. The worker herself seems part robot. She is the genius biological form of homo sapiens sapiens, dressed in a hair net and serving as a hopeless slave to a technology that produces ... Twinkies.

The Twinkie itself is the star of that brief scene; the message turns not only on the mechanical, dehumanizing work of the packaging line, but also the Twinkie's role as an artificial creation -- a machined food. The sad humor would not be nearly as potent if the product were, say, bicycle tires or anything else usable, recognizable as "real."

I've been thinking about that scene a lot lately, reading the news of Twinkie maker Hostess going under. The latest headlines: After dutifully retreating into mediation with its employees (forced by the bankruptcy judge), the company's executive team emerged to say (surprise!) the mediation was not successful and liquidation of assets must proceed.

The situation is a grim testament to the empty bargaining position of labor in our country, yes, but on a more positive note, the failure of Hostess appears to me as a part of the sea change in American culture, the decline of artificiality for its own sake.

In his book, Twinkie, Deconstructed, available on Amazon, author Steve Ettlinger delves into the origins of the snack cake's three dozen ingredients. Not all of them are food products or innocent minerals like iron.

Some, like food colorings, a preservative and a food-grade adhesive are, as Ettlinger points out, "more closely linked to rocks and petroleum than any of the four food groups."

Shortening (vegetable and/or animal, we're told) is used for the "cream" center. Not cream.

And of course, America's most ubiquitous food, high-fructose corn syrup, is used as the primary sweetener.

None of this makes the Twinkie especially bad for you. It's not a good source of nutrition, but it's not particularly poisonous either.

The product was born innocently in the 1930s as a snack cake with a banana filling, but as Hostess grew beyond humble origins, the Twinkie matured from a niche bakery product into a mass consumable.

This was an age -- the 1940s and 1950s -- when consumers trusted industry more or less completely. Our homes, our food, our clothes were all cheaply manufactured. Out of what? Who knew? The decisions over materials were made well out of the public eye and rarely, if ever examined.

As a result, many products became a physical form of fiction: the hot dog made to resemble sausage, polyester clothes made to resemble expensive natural materials like silk.

This culture saw industry as a key to a brighter future. Man-made products were better than natural products. The Twinkie fit in perfectly, it's alien shape and mysterious ingredients only making it that much more attractive.

Hostess brilliantly saw how to feed our adoration of this man-made future, advertising its Twinkies in the pages of serial superhero comic books like the Fantastic Four, Green Lantern and The Flash. (You can see a small collection of these ads at geekosystem.com.)

But since then, the tide has turned against the Twinkie. The rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s made us begin to question how products are made, where the materials come from.

That process of questioning has not abated in the last 50 years. If anything, it has escalated. The 2004 film Super Size Me is only the latest, most public display of this growing cultural suspicion of mass production -- a suspicion that has successfully pressured the film's target, stalwart American junk food icon McDonald's ( MCD), to be more upfront about the contents of its goods, as reported in 2004 by MSNBC.

In short, the Twinkie was representative of our faith in industry, our trust in the assembly line and in the promise of the artificial. Eating Twinkies was like eating the host at Catholic mass: a sign of belief, of giving ourselves to the system that supported us, protected us, a sign of our yearning to become one with the creator.

The environmental movement brought our age of industrialization innocence to an end and marked the beginning of the end for products like the Twinkie.

Remember how the Twinkie was used in the 2008 Pixar classic Wall-E? In a future Earth transformed into a garbage dump by human excess and abandoned by humans, the adorable robot totters around utterly alone except for one other: a pet cockroach. A routine, massive duststorm sweeps in over the ruined city, forcing the pair to seek shelter. Once inside, Wall-E breaks open a Twinkie package to serve as a playground for the little guy, who dives into the artificially colored, corn syrup-sweetened, vegetable and/or animal fat shortening center with expectant glee.

Not your great-granddad's Twinkie. But they do stay fresh forever, don't they?

My guess is that the Hostess executive team's reluctance to sacrifice their profits on behalf of their employees has a lot to do with this cultural transformation. They see the writing on the wall and they don't think they can sustain Hostess as we know it into the future we are building for our children.

What the employees want doesn't really matter now because no bargain can save the company with its current management. It will have to change with the times.

If the Twinkie survives, it likely will have to become something else. To be reinvented to fit again into our vision of ourselves.

Maybe we will eventually see a return of trust, a born-again faith in the products as they are handed to us. Maybe, but I doubt it. Innocence doesn't return easily.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.