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.