This post features Angelo Fick talk at The Future (s) of Food panel discussion hosted by Food Politics and Cultures Project within the Centre of Excellence in Food Security in collaboration with Human Science Research Council that took place on 5 July 2017.
My approach here comes from my own position in the philological disciplines, and so my concerns are with meanings rather than the necessary but political-economic concerns which are often at the centre of work on food.
My concern is with the encounter with food which for me is an individual as well as a political encounter. Food is about that encounter between the private and the political, the individual and the world, and eating even in communal situations is about the self and the larger group. Eating food is about the intake of a substance into one’s body: at the same time, the deeply personal act of eating said food as well as communal and political acts of growing, gathering or procuring the food, preparing it or buying it. So food exists at the intersection of the private and the public. It is about crossing boundaries, in that moment of encountering the world, both at the level of the world coming into one and one engaging with the world through its material production but also its ideological reproductions as Donna Andrews spoke to earlier.
In that sense, I am interested in the individual level at which the larger debates Ben Cousins and Stephen Greenberg invoked. The larger political economic space in which food is produced, exchanged, traded, denied people, given to people, sold to people, etc. has an impact at the level of something which you hold in your hand or at the end of the utensil and put into your mouth or the mouth of somebody else, whether it is a child or an elderly person.
Food is therefore not just that large political debate but it is actually a deeply intimate and personal and universal human experience.
Food is a human process at the process of gathering for those communities that gather food in the wild, the process of growing food whether for oneself or others near or distant, at the point consumption, at the point of digestion (or indigestion).
Food is political precisely because of conceptions of ‘race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and economics,’ and how these impact on how we view, consume, talk about and don’t talk about it, whether in or about the moment of gathering growing, consumption, digestion or indigestion. Who eats, how do they eat? When do they eat? What do they eat? And whom do they eat for? Children eat because we force them to. There is that moment where you have to play a little game and make a little mouth and play the ‘choo-choo’ train game for the child because you don’t want to be that bourgeois person whose child is underfed or overfed because policing happens on how we feed children, when we feed children and whether we feed children or the elderly or ourselves. Think about the policing and the political and personal ease and unease around breastfeeding.
This is not just about invoking that scene from Luis Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la libertée (1974), where food is the private moment to be had in the cubical, its intake a moment of shameful delight and delightful shame, and the evacuation of your bowels is what you do in communal spaces around the living room table. However, the inversion of taboos in the film is instructive of the rituals around this universal phenomenon. We have invented the most elaborate codes which make up the policing regimes around food for ourselves for others. People who eat as we do, and people who do not, familiars and strangers: along such axes of difference politics and power determine the fully human from its others.
Food also functions as location: is food local or do we import it, and then from next door or from far away? Everyone, of course, consumes food at a local level wherever that locality or location happens to be, and sometimes at the point of growth or production, or something some distance away. I have for a long time held that location is also locution, and as such mediation of food and its paraphernalia is important, given how we figure consumption, for ourselves, and for others. This is not just about the advertising industry and the gastro-porn it creates, or the iteration of such in recipe books. People using Instagram or social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate what food they are eating, what food they are not eating, what food is distasteful to them, whose food is disgusting, and whose food makes them feel envious. Perhaps an eleventh commandment in this post-millennial period should be about something like not coveting your neighbour’s food.
Food is also a metaphor for politics precisely through that policing in public, whether it is pleasurable policing or punitive policing. The generational politics of food is also significant: is what our immediate ancestors ate, the food we eat, and how is this related to that international political economy of food, its trade and mediation, its figuration in the products of the cultural and entertainment industrial complexes, whether in film and television, or in magazines and recipe books. People think of specific food items today as staples of contemporary South African diets, but actually, they are imported. Here I think of Felipe Fernando-Armestes whose work on the history of how maize comes to be a global staple when actually it is a meso-American product which has gone through extensive genetic engineering over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ and its varieties are South African and if you don’t eat maize as a staple then you not being particularly South African. It is as if the maize product is misunderstood as so deeply and falsely precolonial South African that there the real political economy of the food is ignored.
Here I think of Felipe Fernando-Armestes whose work on the history of how maize comes to be a global staple when actually it is a meso-American product which has gone through extensive genetic engineering over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ and its varieties are South African and if you don’t eat maize as a staple then you not being particularly South African. It is as if the maize product is misunderstood as so deeply and falsely precolonial South African that there the real political economy of the food is ignored.
Maize also becomes the sign of South Africanity, pace Roland Barthes. It becomes the sign for a kind of nostalgia, as if ‘what went before’ is untainted and free from any pollution of material history. You eat the food that your immediate ancestors ate to show your authenticity whether it is curry, pickled fish or mopani worms. The moment of your performing and displaying such food consumption as a link to a past is often uncoupled from the material and political histories of food. In The Boondocks’s “The Itis”, this is perfectly allegorised and satirised around the slavery origins of what is considered ‘soul food’.
Food is also a metaphor for economics. Antonadia Borges, a social anthropologist from Brazil doing fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal, recalled that the people who ate the puffed up corn snacks on sale at roadsides actually called them ‘poverty’ because they were not the brand name crisps which came in sealed packages. These subjects were clearly aware that they were consuming these cheap sugar puffed corn snacks because they were poor and used that as a metaphor for the politics of consumption, and read that as a symptom of their position in the South African political economy. Multiple levels of mediation and self-analysis explain how what looks at a superficial level like low comedy is actually a sophisticated understanding of the symbolic value and significance (in the semiotic sense) of food in the larger social and political economy of the country.
Food also functions as metonym for nationality, and nationalism. This idea that multinational corporations can sell you your ‘national’ food becomes a Lacanian-Žižekian event, where the consumer is asked to enjoy your symptom as yourself; you are the food, the food is you, because of the context and content of consumption, all of it constituting an uncanny psychiatric cabaret. In South Africa, think of the refiguration of Heritage Day – itself a problematic concern – as ‘National Braai Day’ by a construction calling itself ‘Jan Braai’. What is the bathetic process by which human beings are asked to allow themselves to be fully interpellated into such a regime of consumption that the ‘braai’ (between campfire cosiness and Vlakplaas horror, between hypermasculine overcompensation and the re-imagined idyll celebrating the ordinary which requires the extirpation of life forms as ritual to mark camaraderie) becomes the metaphor for the social cohesion longed for but unachieved in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa? Is this culture as cannibalism, consumption as abnegation?
Food also functions as political metaphor. ‘They have eaten for twenty years’ says Julius Malema, ‘it is our turn to eat’. This phrase has recurred in South Africa many times. When we see politicians with their unfortunately enlarged stomachs and people say ‘that one has the politics of the stomach’, the conflation of obesity with corruption works through the use of food as a metaphor for overconsumption, under consumption, deprivation and wasteful and fruitless expenditure in this most unequal society in the world. The language itself is revealing.
And then there is food as sustenance, and we have to ask ourselves whether our current notion of food is sustainable. The dominant conception of food in this culture is that it is about consumption, whether it is grown or bought, sold or gathered. The notion that we have as the UN found only 12% of arable land in this country with 55 million people to feed ought to influence the way in which food is conceived of by us as individuals and as communities. Here I am not just talking about the over packaging of supermarket food or the individual, political and ecological significance and consequences of meat based diets, or potato based diets, or rice based diets. Are these sustainable in the longer term because making them more affordable in the shorter term might be sustainable at an economic level inside the capitalist regime, but it certainly not sustainable at a production level for a planet under very huge climate change challenges.
The synchronic and diachronic questions which we need to ask ourselves about food and its symbolic and material histories are important for me. Where did the maize really come from before it becomes a staple and a sign of Africanity in South Africa? How did it get here? And what does it mean to have two seasons of a bumper crop of maize in South Africa? What does it mean when genetically modified organisms as food have had the consequences we have seen in the Nile Delta, for example, and the longer term political instability that follows from non-reproducing seed as the new kind of food? What relations of dependence and deprivation are we engendering under the new transnational, supranational, and multi-national corporate regimes determining food production, consumption, and social reproduction? What are its current and future trajectories where food is seen as integrally related to only profit and survival so we are not willing to take pleasure in the food you eat and whether you enjoy the food that you make but simply are you fed enough to operate as a functional digit in the current economic system and how sustainable is that over the next couple of decades?
For me, that leads into a discussion about food as order and disorder. Here both as political order and disorder, as well as psychological order and disorder. The idea of food wastage is not only what the very progressive people see as the dumping of large amounts of food in European spaces that could come through to the ‘Third World’ or developing world or the dumping of food out of our own kitchens. But we forget that leaving tea at the bottom of our cup is also a kind of wastage particularly in places like Cape Town which have water challenges that prefigure the rest of the world across the rest of this century if we take the research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings and recommendations seriously.
So the disorder is both political and psychological and it is often that psychological disorder required in contemporary food production and food consumption by individual subjects however progressive we may think of ourselves because we can’t possibly deal with the fact that our own food consumption levels are actually deeply wasteful.
We have this cognitive dissonance where we deny that we produce this waste and we have this over-consumption in the local which leads to deprivation elsewhere.
The taste of food and its pleasures and the discussions of food as taste which we see in television programmes and the endless reproduction of pornographic images of food (‘gastro-porn’) in a country of food insecurity in a society where food deprivation which has become a new norm is a political obscenity. In South Africa, we are surrounded by images of food as luxury on billboards on the side of the road, in newspapers and magazines, on television. It is the semiotic praxis of food as abundance that is everywhere and yet nowhere and so we are living in an age where Buñuel has much to teach us because it is tastelessness as a critique of taste. The tastelessness of a billboard advertising an American fast food chain placed on a school ground in Samora Machel in Cape Town comes to mind. It is placed in a space where people are going to sleep at night hungry and have to spend their evening in the golden glow of a chain advertising junk food as largesse in a space of nutritional and food insecurity.
It is the presence of food in two-dimensional images which function as a critique of the absence of material food. The fact that on the other side of a horse farm which used to be a dairy lay the Philippi Wetlands, is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of poor people for a long time, becoming a space that is commercialised, commodified, which will lead to the deprivation that is seen as development and as food production provision through cold storage chambers for the bourgeoisie. That tastelessness of cold storage buildings displacing arable land, which itself displaced the natural landscape, and the attendant loss of food production for a whole group of people who could get access to affordable food and no longer do cannot be understated. It epitomises the physiognomy of bourgeois (dis)taste which is at the centre of my own dysfunctional political and personal relationship with food, and which is the ground from which I am keen to pursue dialogues on food in South Africa and on this tiny blue marble spinning out its insignificance in this lonely neighbourhood in the universe.