In Uyuni, Bolivia, there’s a large expanse of land covered with salt crust and several inches of water. The expanse extends beyond one’s range of vision and merges with the sky while also doubling it in reflection. You may be familiar with the image; the horizon disappears and the standing body looks suspended in a sublime void.
What is the horizon anyway? Is it not a geometrical figment conjured to keep the terra firma separate from the sky, and preserve the division to enable imaginations of transgression and romantic transcendence? That line in the distance is ever-elusive. Can we move beyond the centrality of the horizon in our imagination and find a new language for beings that occupy the fissures in our binary constructs? A misplaced comma, a non-sequitur, words that spill beyond margins, the subaltern body in the kitchen, her vernacular twang. Disruptive oralities.
Does the horizon make sense when we think of the microbe? The microbe inhabits both the surface and the depth, in effect, permeating all conditions of visibility, including darkness. Darkness cannot be punctured to be seen; it houses other logics of happening.
When one enters ‘dark’ media like soil, a lot of the noise from the air is filtered. The fungus thrives here; this inverts (and maybe obviates) the function of the sun, which is seen as essential to growth and evolution. We eat the fungus nevertheless, and prepare varying recipes for the pleasure of its ingestion. As we drank mushroom soup a few metres away from Maksud’s Fungal Garden where weightless spores continued to mate and pollinate, conversations ensued about its ontological enigma, its indifference to human tending, and its capacity to proliferate in sensorially evocative forms. In wild ferment, the spores leap through membranes into the broth in our mouth; migrating consciousness. The decomposition of the fungus is an act of disappearance, and its edibility an accidental discovery.
Pickles draw on the function of microbes as well, where they get entangled in a hierarchy of taste and taboos. The pickle is a product of fermentation, and carries the taste of arrested rot. Smell and flavor yield a sense of time as the fermenter, following the initiation and hermetic sealing of the item, waits. Jyothidas and his team would often let the maggots fester, prolonging spoilage while moving beyond the imperative of edibility. We create compost from organic waste, its richness increasing as it perishes. What we eat also carries the shit and fluids of non-human species of being, their porous trajectories suturing the end of one process with another, resulting in a string of ecological dilations across simultaneous times; death, disease and regeneration become overlapping histories.
Boris Charmatz talks about ‘de-glaciation’, where the body melts from a vertical position to a flaccid state, while acknowledging (and accommodating) the potential losses of balance, the fragility and the precarity of an absent finality of ambition. The process is intended to bring upon the subject a feeling of absolute submersion into (and with) the gaps and fissures in its organs, and thus escape the regimented gaze. The collapse is then generative, opening up the possibility for movements not recognized beyond consolidated regimes of action and thought. The body can be liquefied, its physiology claiming an opacity to dissection in resistance. Many historically consolidated ideas around the body are nullified then; in their molten skein, the parts breathe.
What is the edible body?
In our immediate context, urban, upper-caste subject positions are articulated through consumption patterns. Meat becomes an abject item, its consumption delineating and confirming difference. When the meat of a non-human actor seeps into the human body’s intestines by way of choice, hunger or routine, it disrupts the fiction of the self as autonomous; the epidermal envelope is not definitive. It also breeds a casteist fear of contamination; in effect, the skin is attributed alive-ness and porosity.
The precarity of the self established, embodiment becomes prone to regulation through the act of eating. There are ‘abject’ edibles: pig blood, its trotters, the eyeballs of a fish, the entrails of a bovine, joothan. They are upper-caste discards for consumption by Other bodies, and the foraged become new ingredients. A prescribed shame looms over their ingestion. The Brahmin body is disciplined and punished to curb desire, appetite and (potential) transgressions. The Brahmin body wants to be moral by rejecting the ingestion of the non-human. But the bacteria is already inhabiting his guts, and probably dreaming on his behalf too.
Marginalised bodies carry the burden of difference. Bhagwati Prasad’s white tent resists the burden through a visual excess, producing the conditions for an equal jahan. A collage of drawings covers the goatskin; a continuous line that forms knots of machines, aliens, flowers and hybrid beings as it travels across the parchments in a frenzy to occupy space. The inscriptions invite a contract of attention; they are ruminations, projections and whimsical speculations. There’s no demarcation or achutya; the illegibility of the forms collapses hierarchies that come with constructs of transparency and adherence. The material becomes the event. The hide came into being through its transfer between hands, locations and media; it is also context.
Prasad invites us to sit inside the tent as we take helpings of his preparation of rice and pork, cooked slowly over 6 hours on site in a specific arrangement and proportion of spices recalled from memory. The tent is ‘becoming’ everyday as conversations ferment across thinking bodies. The skin is not dead either; it pulsates in use in both drums and canopies. We are perhaps occupying the belly of a cumulative beast as we speak; it is skin, creature, armature.
The tent evokes tanner-mystic Ravidas’ Begumpura Palace, which promises an equality across beings, not unlike the flavor of umami in food that resists the binary logic of sweet and savoury. Umami was unrecognized for a long time, and its addition to the culinary lexicon points to the chemical heterogeneity of food and their registers on our palate. The receptors on our tongue translate tastes for us into a language we can understand. Are there tastes outside the ambit of our legible capacities? Taste is intimate as it is the closest contact with the body; the tongue erases distance and consummates desire. Umami, in the complexity of its ‘meaty’ register, carries an intensity of caste, which extends to the political connotations of tannery in the constitution of this Palace. Other intensities filter in through the unsealed entries of the windows.
The flesh is a digestive morsel, its microbes constituting the same matter as the sky and its constellations. The human is a single point in a cartography of extinctions and regenerations; the circular iteration of time is above and beyond the bracket of its life-span. Our bodies are, in the words of Paul Preciado, ‘somatic-political fictions’, where even our feelings and emotions result from informatics control and manipulation. The body no longer inhabits the machine, the code or the data, but is intensely inhabited by them. The fertilizer used by the farmer to spray on crops then permeates the body through molecules that enter their immune systems and activate somatic navigations of power, surveillance, control and capital. Boundaries dissipate, ecologies mutate.
The body keeps melting.
The farmer’s body depletes from want of nutrition. Debts accumulate. It’s a real, unfathomable world premised on the paradoxical tensions of production and scarcity within the same body. Food can carry a trans-generational experience of pain from sustained paucity and invisibility; the hand and the mouth belong to different bodies. The Gram Art collective served food that was sometimes inedible. The menu demanded that we look at the item we consumed so that it reflected our privilege. We chewed on. The invisible hand of the producer had materialized; there was now labour in consumption.
The peeling, boiling, scraping, cutting and fermenting evolved as community acts, which created new producing and consuming publics that did not rely on, but navigated mythologies of difference across bodies. The durational act of making (and chewing) converted the commonplaces of kitchen work into stewing periods for thought and bonds. No concrete thresholds map this transitory space. The sensory pool of the olfactory, waste, leftovers, contagion and noise festers as hierarchies begin to thaw.
Maksud Ali Mondal, Fungal Garden | Jyothidas KV, Can You Feel the Bubble? A Call for Collective Fermentation | Bhagwati Prasad, The Stutter of Food and Living Equality Hours (a series of conversations housed in the tent) | Gram Art Collective, Climatical or Political?
Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century, NYU Press, 2012.
Paul B. Preciado, “Testo-Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics”, e-flux journal #44, April 2013 (https://www.e-flux.com/journal/44/60141/testo-junkie-sex-drugs-and-biopolitics/)
Elvia Wilk, “This Compost: Erotics of Rot”, Granta Magazine, July 2020 (https://granta.com/erotics-of-rot/)
Boris Charmatz, “the melting of the individual”, Terrain (http://www.borischarmatz.org/?la-fonte-de-l-individu)
Living Equality Hours | Notes (https://fivemillionincidents.blog/2020/02/19/living-equality-hours-notes/)
All Images Courtesy: Annette Jacob
Cover Image: The human digestive system and its microbial constituents, painted on fabric by Actant Jyothidas and team.