Eating America: Crisis, Sustenance, Sustainability
Table Of Contents
- About the Authors
- About the Book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Introduction: Prolegomena to any Future History of Indigestion in America: Zbigniew Białas
- Works Cited
- Part One: Food for Thought
- Tarte aux pommes, or, Delicacies Morally Good for You: Tomasz Basiuk
- Example 1
- Example 2
- Example 3
- Example 4
- In conclusion
- Works Cited
- Voluntary Simplicity and Voluntary Poverty: Alternatives to Consumer Culture: Małgorzata Poks
- Voluntary Simplicity
- Voluntary Poverty
- Christian Anarchism and Voluntary Poverty
- Depression America and Voluntary Poverty: The Catholic Worker Movement
- Catalysts for Change in the Civil Rights and the Cold War Era
- A New Society Within the Shell of the Old
- Works Cited
- The Battle over Squash and Beans: Food Justice Activism in a Polarized City: Aneta Dybska
- Works Cited
- Part Two: Consuming Culture
- Consuming the Artist, Consuming the Image: Marina Abramović 2001 MOCA Gala Controversy: Justyna Wierzchowska
- Works cited
- An Abject Guide to America: CSI Lab Autopsy and Stomach Contents as an (Ironic) Index of Interiorizing the Global and the Local: Zofia Kolbuszewska
- Works Cited
- Unhappy Meals: Fast Food and the Crisis of the Underground in American Goth-themed Fiction and Graphic Novels: Agata Zarzycka
- Goths and the Crisis of Commercialization
- Pete Hautman’s Sweetblood (2003)
- Ross Campbell’s Wet Moon (2004, ongoing)
- Aurelio Voltaire’s Oh My Goth! (2002) and What Is Goth? (2004)
- Adam Rex’s Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story (2010)
- Works cited
- Devouring Heroism: An Archetype Crisis in American Pop Culture: Oskar Zasada
- Pirates, gunslingers, and spies, oh my
- Cops and robbers in the seventies
- The explosive eighties
- CGI’s rise to power: the nineties and beyond
- Daring deeds and high scores
- Truth, justice, and special effects
- A heroic conclusion
- Works Cited
- Part Three: Crisis
- Performing Witness: The New Documentary Poetics: Elisabeth A. Frost
- Works Cited
- Writing of Crisis and Crisis of Writing: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934): Jacek Partyka
- Works Cited
- The Pale Horseman: Crisis in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter: Joseph Kuhn
- Works Cited
- Indigestible America and the Crisis of Multiculturalism in Aleksandar Hemon’s Fiction: Marta Koval
- Works Cited
- Humanity in Crisis: Man-made Apocalypse in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood: Anna Gilarek
- Generic considerations
- Utopian solutions: ecotopianism vs. posthumanism
- A matter of ethics
- Works cited
- Food (and) War in Gravity’s Rainbow: Dominika Bugno-Narecka
- Works Cited
- Eating Itself to Death: The USA as Seen by McCarthy and Twain: Agnieszka Kaczmarek
- Works Cited
- Part Four: Sustenance
- “Resistance Is the Opposite of Escape”: Still Life as Sustenance in the Poems of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein: Paulina Ambroży
- This Object is Merely a State: Wallace Stevens
- Not Unordered in Not Resembling: Gertrude Stein
- Works Cited
- “Twas very hard to get down their filthy trash”: Investigating Food and Crisis in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative(1682): Veronika Hofstätter
- Works Cited
- Consuming Latinidad: Mexican Foodways in Maria Ripoll’s Tortilla Soup (2001): Małgorzata Martynuska
- US Latinidad
- The protagonists of Tortilla Soup
- Mexican foodways and family
- Works Cited
- Part Five: Sustainability
- “Steam-driven cannibals … claim us flesh eaters,– wish we were”: Black Sustainability through the Voice in African American Poetry on the Middle Passage: Jerzy Kamionowski
- Works Cited
- Thoreau and the Indians, or a Crisis of the American Ideals of the Wild and Wilderness: Laura Suchostawska
- Thoreau’s concept of the wild and the wilderness
- A contemporary crisis of the ideals of living in the wild
- Works cited
- Marching through Wilderness: Relating to the Environment in an Italian American Perspective: Francesca de Lucia
- The pastoral and the wilderness
- Filicudi: pastoral and anti-pastoral
- Conquering the suburbs
- Norumbega Park
- Works Cited
- Between Taste and Interest: Reading Asian American Literature in the Age of Food Literacy: Dominika Ferens
- Food and Ethnicity
- Interest and Shame
- Interest over Shame in The Book of Salt
- Shame over Interest in The Coffin Tree
- Works Cited
- About authors
Introduction: Prolegomena to any Future History of Indigestion in America
There are, basically speaking, two major models of the body and its boundaries. One – that of a classical man, an eccentric detached body, “a walker in the world but apart from it” (Solnit 21), the classic image of the finished, self-sufficient man. The borderlines separating him from the outside world are sharply defined. On the other hand, there is the grotesque man, incomplete, open, not separated from the rest of the world by boundaries but blending with it - the body outgrowing itself and transgressing its own limits.1 The latter is, of course, a Bakhtinian approach. Bakhtin maintains that at the time of the Renaissance bodies could not yet be considered for themselves; they still transgressed the limits of their isolation. The caesura seems to be the epoch of great geographical discoveries. The formula of the classical man cannot be maintained in all seriousness because whatever acts of the bodily drama do take place – whether before the discovery of America or after it – they take place on the confines of the body and the outer world.2 Travel, colonisation, an encounter with the new world, just like any other encounter, are primarily contracts between the traveller’s body and what is beyond it. There are different theories in relation to it, but whichever theory we wish to adopt, eating is a case in point - here the external world gains entry into the body. In the act of eating and digesting, the body most obviously transgresses its own limits. Bakhtin pointed this out succinctly: “[the body] swallows, devours, rends the world apart, is enriched and grows at the world’s expense. The encounter of man with the world, which takes place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth [is where] man tastes the world, introduces it into his body, makes it part of himself” (Bakhtin 281). In fact the situation is much more complex because it entails not only the question of the “input” of the world into the body but also, just as importantly, the “output” of the body into the world.
We should perhaps start from the very first literary representations of travel. One of the most famous travellers in Western culture was also a notorious liar and trickster; although fictitious, he was nevertheless formidably myth-forming. Odysseus, confronted with the Cyclops’ monstrous body, denies his own corporeality, his flesh-ness. “Nobody is my name, Nobody they call me,” insists ← 9 | 10 → Odysseus frantically, answering the Cyclops’ impatient question.3 The shift from Οδυσ[σεύς] to Οϋτις is more than cosmetic – it is indeed life-saving. “Nobody is slaying me by guile and not by force,” roars the blinded Polyphemos, denying a body’s participation in the process of his mutilation (Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Murray/ Dimock 345). Soon after, Odysseus temporarily withdraws under a no-human-body when in a successful attempt at escaping, he hides his cunning self beneath the mass of Polyphemos’ favourite ram. This example illustrates not only the obvious truth that the paradigm of travelling, survival, sustenance and the centrality of flesh has its roots in ancient times, but also the fact that the traveller’s body – whether hotly denied or not, whether saved or eaten - remains at the very core of the representational enterprise of travel writing. That Odysseus denies the somatics of travelling is understandable because he wants to save his body from being devoured. This is, however, lost on the Cyclops, who is not sufficiently intelligent to understand that no “body” equals no “meat”: “Nobody will I eat last among his comrades” (Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Murray/Dimock 343),4 brags the monster and it remains an empty threat, as, indeed, it must. One may note that somewhat as a by-product, the Cyclops rather than Caliban emerges in the frontline of the long array of native cannibals that people latter-day literary representations.
At Europe’s other end, after many centuries and the discovery of a few new continents, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver, reconciling two opposing careers, is both a rather benign Polyphemos-figure in the country of Lilliput and an Odysseus-figure in the country of Brobdingnag. Swift intro ← 10 | 11 → duces an explorer whose body - at times treading upon the ground and at other times being trodden upon – in effect becoming a field - is almost always out of proportion when judged against the worlds he is exploring. In a comparable literary culture representing European dogmas of the Enlightenment we encounter yet another travelling charlatan. The historical figure of Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Münchhausen (1720 - 1797), when turned into the hero of a Volksbuch, highlights the fate of the body perhaps even more forcibly than do the combined figures of Odysseus and Gulliver.5 Both in Raspe’s and in Bürger’s versions Baron von Münchhausen, “Gulliver Revived,” becomes a caricature of his real-life counterpart, reflecting the travellers’ obsessions and fabrications, the mutations of the body in motion, and the ardent denial of bodily limits and limitations in effect, a prime illustration of somatic monumentalism. Indeed, gargantuan illustrations adorn most editions of the book, both official and pirated. In other words, the traveller’s own body – eating, eaten, treated as potential food, a potential field, or treading upon other creatures’ fields, when represented in writing, when immobilised in the midst of this contract, somewhat like Keats’ figures on the surface of the Grecian urn, is not only and not necessarily a somatic construction. It is a symbolic construct that enters into a relation with the surrounding world, and the nature of this multifaceted alliance – if alliance it is – forms, in the widest sense, the main theme of this essay.
How does this relate to the discovery/invention of America?
Well, the beginning is gruesome. A decomposing body eaten away by elements, being devoured by the world and losing the battle with it is symbolically responsible for Western Europe’s discovery/invention of America, although not necessarily in a way that accords with common perceptions. Not just one body, but to be more exact – two human bodies. Or, to be yet more exact, two dead and floating human bodies. When towards the end of the 15th century two corpses, the features of which indicated a race of unknown men, were thrown by the currents of the Atlantic upon the coast of the Azores, the drifting cadavers attracted the attention of Christopher Columbus and prompted him to believe in the existence of unknown western regions. Alexander von Humboldt refers to ← 11 | 12 → this incident early in the first volume of his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent,although he does not explain how one could recognise the features of the bodies as those of an unknown race after they had been floating in the sea for such a long time (Humboldt 59). Even if we slightly over-interpreted D. H. Lawrence’s puzzling remark from Studies in Classic American Literature that “a white man decomposing is a ghastly sight” (Lawrence 141), a remark that suggests, if indirectly, that there is a racial difference in the aesthetics of bodily decomposition; even if – prompted by this very remark – we concluded that the decomposing drifting bodies were not ghastly, and therefore not those of white people, the resulting deduction would still seem somewhat tenuous.
Today we know that Columbus was a cheat who forged maps in order to prove that Africa extended to the south more than it did and thus to facilitate the financing of his voyages westward; we also know to what extent he was driven by Hermetic beliefs in predestination; therefore it is only the symbolical, not the historical value of the incident that is important for our purpose.6 There is, however, a deeper rationale as to why it makes sense to use such illustrative stories. Since the time of Columbus, travellers’ discourse has abounded in anecdotes. They are, according to Stephen Greenblatt, principal products of a given culture’s representational technology, “mediators between the undifferentiated succession of local moments and a larger strategy toward which they can only gesture (Greenblatt 3). One of my self-imposed tasks is to signal how those isolated flashes indicate larger strategies.
A history of indigestion, and a history of indigestion in America specifically, remains to be written. Such a history would need to focus not only on questions of nourishment but also on questions of taste. Taste, again, creates problems. It is a sense and, like other senses, it provides a primary form of input into our mental system. Through taste we encounter aspects of the physical world and at the same time the language of taste is the language of aesthetics and social sciences. Although cooking and eating were not included in the realm of fine arts when the concept developed in the seventeenth century, today a poetics, psychology, politics and philosophy of food exists. One thinks of such issues as eating culture and the culture of eating, eco-critical attitudes to food, eco-feminist criticism, or postcolonial readings of devouring/devoured cultures. One ← 12 | 13 → could investigates culinary politics rather than culinary culture. Or: one could investigate eating habits and social history. There do exist analyses of problematic relations between food and the understanding of nationhood (Sidney W. Mintz); there are studies of immigrant cuisine, from the sociolinguistic perspective one can locate ethnic boundaries by analysing e.g. talk of food itself. Food choice frequently delineates boundaries between communities, and the experience of eating encounters may either  corroborate existing sentiments or  help negotiate between cultures. For instance there are studies of nineteenth century German critique of American culinary habits where, on the one hand the texts that are analysed offer an example of condescension from the vantage point of European high-culture standards, and on the other hand reveal to what extent and how uneasily the element of race creeps in when German writers are confronted with the Black servant - a necessary component of the American eating spectacle (Heike Paul).
Focusing on the socio-political, one encounters analyses of late eighteenth and early nineteenth novels where female protagonists use food as an instrument of social power (Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, as well as films like Mississippi Masala). Looking at literary representation of food from the semiotic and the political standpoint, critics often undertake an analysis of what food represents in extra-literary terms and what food signifies for members of today’s various diasporas that try to define themselves culturally and politically. Important questions are asked: what work is performed by food metaphors and how do they unleash their polysemic potential, what parallels can be drawn between food and language as ethnic signs. Various authors stress aspects of culinary syncretism, whereby a new quality arises from an instance of cultural convergence.
One might also be tempted to disentangle the “Hungry Gaze”: delineating the relationship between the visual and the kitchenesque. The field is promising not only because we all suffer from le regard deja codé. It is promising because – especially in the context of food - the metaphorical devouring, voracious eye itself has special power: if misapplied, it becomes the principal organ of mastery, penetration and takeover.
It is a separate world in itself to interpret religious aspects of culinary practices, or psychological insights dealing for example with eating disorders.
All these cannot be tackled here. Therefore, I decided to choose, from among the myriads examples of human omnivorousness only a few extreme cases that occur on the periphery of the digestible in a very early period of American history and are related in Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and the Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. This choice lets me add the concept of motion to the concept of digestion. ← 13 | 14 →
Edmund Husserl, in his essay “The World of the Living Present and the Constitution of the Surrounding World External to the Organism” emphasises the very performance of motion as a major cognitive act through which the mobile self experiences and understands its unity in opposition to the rest of the world. The outside is equated with the “beyond-the-body”no-man, the genuine Οϋτις in relation to which the travelling body, held together by bones, muscles and skin, continually changes its position and, by doing so, convinces itself of its oneness and uniqueness.
Remarking on what other people eat, the traveller records the extremes of what can be consumed and makes an indirect statement on what he would not consider fit for his own body. Further, he comments, if indirectly, on what disgusts him, what would result in his own body’s revolt, the convulsion, the retching, the vomiting – i.e. the abjected.
To what extent is the food which is lodged in the mobile body part of that self?
Of all the passages that Humboldt devotes to bizarre dietary habits, perhaps the two most marginal ones (from opposite sides of the spectrum) can be found in the Fifth Volume: geophagy (eating earth) and anthropophagy. Humboldt maintains that Otomac Indians, when hungry, swallow “prodigious quantity of earth” as their principal food or, more precisely-- clay baked in the fire without the addition of anything organic, whether oily or farinaceous (Humboldt 641). The absorption of food normally results in the expulsion of the digested organic matter, whereas, in the case of geophagy “without additives of anything organic” the injected object is, in the end, the abjected object. In other words, the input remains the input at the output, and bodily processes appear to be purposeless, when, at the end of the process, waste is almost the same as food. Traditionally, in most mythologies and systems of symbolic representations, it is the earth that swallows man up and then gives birth and renews. Analysing at length symbolic contacts with earth as the element that devours and brings forth in the process, Bakhtin talks of “degradation.” To degrade, according to him, is to bury, to let the body or part of the body be swallowed in order to bring forth an improved, renewed quality by means of lower bodily strata (Bakhtin 21, 88). Geophagy inverts and ridicules common symbolic language, it nullifies its optimistic, regenerative basis. On the one hand, geophagy is an attempt to defy the universality of “degradation.” It also symbolically manifests the native’s desire to absorb the constitutive matter of the landscape; it expresses the craving to incorporate the land. This desire is not alien to the traveller but the ground is. Thus, the traveller’s revolt against geophagy is both a revolt of the body that accepts the universality of “degradation” and a sign of envy. ← 14 | 15 →
On the other hand, geophagy degrades digestion, and, hence, it is a sign of the monstrous. It suggests a theoretical scenario that could easily have been imagined by Baron Münchhausen or Lemuel Gulliver. Where would the traveller travel if all the land was eaten up, or worse still, eaten up and abjected? There is, potentially, a limit to triumphalism in Bakhtin’s style. When he says that an eating man’s encounter with the world is an act of victory because he devours the world without being devoured himself, and the limits between the man and the world are erased to man’s advantage (Bakhtin 281), one should not forget that:
1.the victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed only if eating is accompanied by digestion. There is no renewal, and therefore no victory, in the case of geophagy,
2.geophagy is not only a sign of defeat but also a sign of the monstrous because it is, potentially, a destructive act in the sense of eating up one’s own habitat. Tendencies to incorporate are frequently destructive and there is good reason why in the psychoanalytic view incorporation is suspect.7
Humboldt gives the example of several cases and theorises that in torrid zones there are many individuals who have an “inordinate and almost irresistible desire of swallowing … fat clay, unctuous, and exhaling a strong smell” (Humboldt 644). Geophagy was reported in New Caledonia and Peru, among natives on the coasts of Guinea, among slaves in Martinique, and on the island of Java, where women ate clay in order to grow thin; they lost their appetite in the process and became, in today’s parlance, anorexic. Humboldt relates all those instances and finds geophagy an object worthy of research, but cannot find a uniform explanation for “granivorous habits” (Humboldt 648-652). Although in the Lewis and Clark journals geophagy is not mentioned directly, Clark does attribute some of the bodily sufferings afflicting the Nez Perces to the fact that they eat their food with sand (Humboldt 373).
Anthropophagy is a much more intricate issue. When the input into the human body is the fragmented human body itself, monstrosity is located within the hint of self-annihilation because the body that can digest the body is potentially self-annihilating. Humboldt insists that the stories of West Indian cannibalism were exaggerated in early reports, but he also insists that anthropophagy is a fact, albeit a regrettable and marginal one (Humboldt 426). Even if the idea of flirting with cannibals remained only Melville’s fancy when he presented Ishmael and Queequeg in one bed there would already be interesting possibilities ← 15 | 16 → for interpretation, as hosts of existing analyses amply demonstrate. But this idea surpasses fiction. Winwood Reade, for example, a traveller to whom the very map of Africa resembled a woman, described his flirtations with cannibal maidens of Dahomey. Making advances to cannibals was an act of endangering one’s body. Not only could it be fragmented but also incorporated through the cannibal maiden’s orifices. It could be digested and abjected at the end of the process, however, having blended at least partly with, or having nourished, the very maiden. And no matter whether the girl is a cannibal or not; flirting with the idea that one is flirting with a cannibal seems to come from the repertoire of sadomasochism and bondage. It requires an anti-surficial attitude toward the somatic, insomuch as cannibalism entails the idea of the body as a dangerous orifice (Reade 54, 383).8 The fusion of the devouring and the devoured body, as well as the borderlines between the image of the body and food, are fascinating issues and they have received a lot of critical attention.9
In a sense one could also argue that geophagy is related to digestive laziness, and the question of laziness crops up because it is a key issue in all representations related to travel and exploration. Some critics maintain that even Clark’s frequent resort to rewriting Lewis’ impressions is indicative of laziness. Extensive travel is an exercise in repetitive acts and the boredom of everyday chores. For days on end landscapes tend to be similar, and motion requires the repetition of almost the same gestures. To give sense to all this discouraging motion, those who travel need to denigrate the culture of non-motion (i.e., indolence). In philosophy this strain starts perhaps with Aristotle, who was said to have lectured while walking, and it progresses more or less continually through the ranks of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who admitted in Confessions that he could only meditate while moving about,10 via revolutionaries like John Thelwall, whose book The Peripatetic appeared around the time of both expeditions in 1793,11 up to Friedrich Nietzsche, who - had he written earlier - would have provided all travellers not only with a telos but also with wisdom. “Sit as ← 16 | 17 → little as possible,” proclaimed Nietzsche in Ecce Homo; “give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely - in which the muscles are celebrating a feast, too” (Nietzsche 239-240). No doubt that would have delighted all explorers, justifying their efforts as intellectual feats. It would have delighted Clark, offering him a noble reason to rely on rewriting Lewis’ entries as a sure method of eliminating too much sitting, although some critics excuse Clark by suggesting that the strategy of rewriting was to provide a copy of the journal in case of sudden loss.
Motion, non-laziness, the very act of geometrically distancing oneself from where one was at a previous moment – all these are measures of the journey’s continuity and success. In a limited sense, applied geometry and applied vectoriality are directly related to food absorption, abjection and refuse. We need to acknowledge that in recent psychoanalytical criticism a somewhat related direction has developed, most evident in the later works of Julia Kristeva. We can adapt Kristeva’s argument on the essentiality of “abjected matter,” by which she would define anything “from finger clippings to faeces, all that we must shed, and from which we must distance ourselves, in order to be.” (Burgin 117).There is an obvious practical side to it when the concept is applied to the activity of travelling, as the shedding and the distancing is a “staying alive” tactic, and Kristeva’s “in order to be” becomes equivalent to “in order to survive” and “in order to proceed.”
This essay, resignedly inspired by the logic of the body and the food metaphor, must end with a note on “decomposition.” On the one hand, I would not like to create an impression that I propose an apology of refuse, rot, putrefaction and decay, neither do I attempt to familiarise disgust. On the other hand, the traveller’s body, regardless of time, place, gender or the amount of fictitiousness involved in representation, consistently gestures towards a tragic formula and there is no optimistic synthesis on offer. If I closed such Prolegomena “compositionally”, I would end with a methodological lie. Wishing neither to mourn nor to celebrate the decomposition of the flesh in the context of the colonisation of America, we should bear in mind that in the times of such expeditions as those undertaken and described by Humboldt or Lewis and Clark, the last, unrepresented act of the drama of eating is when wild animals feast on the choicest offal when human toils are over. ← 17 | 18 →
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Greenblatt, Stephen.Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World.Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
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- 2014 (December)
- Kannibalismus Anthropophagie Nahrung Ernährung
- Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 304 pp.