Food represents the encounter between the private and the political, the individual and the world. Whether growing food, preparing it, producing it, gathering or procuring it, or even consuming it, whether alone or with others, in all these instances the private and the public aspects of food intersect.
Eating food constitutes the intake of a foreign substance into one’s body. What was public becomes private, what was out there literally becomes internal matter. A boundary is crossed in that moment of the individual encountering the larger world, both at the level of the world coming into one and as one engages with the world through its material production
The larger political economy in which food is produced, exchanged, traded, denied people, given to people, sold to people, fed to some and taken from others is concretised when you hold the food 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 about food scarcity, food insecurity, food surplus, or the use and abuse of food in macro- and micro-political negotiations, but it is actually a deeply intimate, personal and universal human experience.
Food is thus integral to human processes, from the point of gathering in some communities stretching from ‘pre-history’ to the present, in the rituals of growing food whether for oneself or others near or distant, at the point consumption, at the point of digestion (or indigestion).
Food is politicised through conceptions of ‘race’, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and economics. These shape how we view, consume, talk about and do not talk about it, whether in or about the moment of gathering growing, consumption, digestion or indigestion. Who eats, and when? How and what do they eat? And whom do they eat for? These are not just different between polities, but within polities and the smaller organisational units within such, even down to the level of families.
Children eat because adults force them to. Humans engage in play when feeding children, partly to signify the pleasure of food consumption, but also to maintain our own image as competent carers, especially in the hyper-visible age of bourgeois image-management. Think about the policing and the political and personal ease and unease around breastfeeding. Think about the individual and communal distress around loss of appetite.
One thinks of a scene from Luis Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la libertée (1974), where food is the private moment to be had in cubicles, its intake a moment of shameful delight and delightful shame, and the evacuation of bowels is done in communal spaces around the living room table. Inverting taboo 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. Whole moral codes are centred on food consumption. There are people who eat what we do and people who do not, familiars and strangers; folks who eat as we do, and people who do not: along such axes of difference politics and power determine the fully human from its others.
Food is also location. Everyone, of course, consumes food at a local level, wherever that locality or location happens to be, sometimes at the point of growth or production, or some distance away. Location is also locution, so it is important to pay attention to the mediation of food and its paraphernalia, 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 figuration of such in the glossy hyper-real images in recipe books and magazines. People use social media like Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook to signal what food they are eating, what food they are not eating, what food they find distasteful or disgusting, and whose food inspires envy.
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. Do we eat what and how and when our immediate ancestors ate, 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. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto traces how maize comes to be a global staple when its origins lie in Meso-American agricultural adaptation over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ (or ‘mielie’) and its varieties are South African and not eating maize as a staple renders your South African particularity suspect. 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 has to be occluded if not erased.
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 Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks’s (the episode titled “The Itis”) the origins in slavery of what is considered ‘soul food’ is allegorised and satirised.
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 factory-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’.
By what pathetic processes are human beings asked to allow themselves to be fully interpellated into such regimes of consumption that the ‘braai’ (between campfire cosiness and Vlakplaas horror, between hyper-masculine overcompensation and the reimagined 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.
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?
This leads into a discussion about food as political order and disorder, as well as psychological order and disorder. Food wastage is not only what progressive people see as the dumping of large amounts of food in European spaces that could come through to the ‘Third World’ or the developing world, or discarding food from our own kitchens. Leaving tea at the bottom of cups 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.
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. We have cognitive dissonance, denying that we produce this waste and we have this over-consumption in the local which leads to deprivation elsewhere, which in places like South Africa can be uncomfortably close by.
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 index of 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 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 in a school ground in the Samora Machel section of Phillippi 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 multinational corporation advertising junk food as largesse in a space of nutritional and food insecurity.
The presence of food in two-dimensional images functions 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 lie 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.