The New Gastronome
The Science of Experiencing
by Philip Linander
by Philip Linander
“… so it’s the task of every human being to come to understand these surroundings, thus practising self-knowledge through knowledge of the world. Macrocosm and microcosm, as ancient alchemical traditions called them, belong together in a real sense. And, as Beuys repeatedly stresses, the cognitive process is the starting point for every meaningful process of forming and structuring that works in harmony with the human being and the world. If the human being desires to be an artist – and everyone can become an artist – he also has to try to understand the nature of what surrounds him (Harlan, 2012)”.
Gastronomically, I use the philosophies of food and body to explore that lethal step that can reconfigure our hierarchical, distanced, and risk-free relationship with the world. I use an urban individual, i.e. me, as a guinea pig, by vulnerably placing myself inside the cunning drama of a bodily confrontation with nature and care. It is an exercise in marginality, in facing away from polluting safety, away from the centre and, instead, out towards the transformative threshold of body and identity. Because the only way to heal an illness that stems from estrangement is to try and approach otherness. Contrarily, from the very structure of urban areas, it is clear that their inhabitants are constantly pushed towards the centre in a hierarchical fashion.
Learning how to approach a place where the self becomes other is crucial in staying in tune and in harmony with our ongoing environment. It is also the aim of any agroecological project. The more central, unified, and safe we become, the less we interact with the margins of our bodies and identities. The further away we push ourselves from a place where feedback from nature can be assimilated to create the basis for new directions, relationships and ideas. For urbanites, healthy and non-extractive agriculture represents one tool that can be used to fight this lack of creative spark. In more poetic words: if agriculture and humanity are currently dying because we lack interaction, we can give each other new life by letting our realities once again become more entwined.
It goes without saying that no such relationship will happen as long as the farm uses unsustainable, poisonous and harmful substances in their practices. But even in the most pretty scenario, agriculture is a huge step for most people on the planet to take. From an urban perspective, how does it feel to close this gap? How does it feel to be possessed by the land and the animals? The hardest part is probably not to work together, but rather to take the first steps towards one another. Many mental and bodily ingrained habits will make this approach feel uncomfortable. The smell of animal droppings, the presence of birth and death as well as inadequate jokes could all be examples that make the urbanite want to look away, to be away. The unsmooth surfaces of wood, stone and grass will put up resistance. The capricious behaviour of animals will be an unmerciful reminder of inability. To go back to commodification, to slip right down a smooth straight line of the asphalted and heated city, be it a street, a commuter train or the magnetic strip of a credit card, will all suddenly sound appealing. With no psychological or material diversity in sight, there will be nothing to challenge or threaten those identities that believe themselves to be their own eternally unified, simple, clean, coherent, discrete and normal selves. It’ll be one deathly ghost party.
“Many mental and bodily ingrained habits will make this approach feel uncomfortable. The smell of animal droppings, the presence of birth and death as well as inadequate jokes could all be examples that make the urbanite want to look away, to be away.”
But we need a real fun party, where new guests can arrive, and others are invited. One that grows, one that bursts of energy. And we need science to do the farming macarena with us. Agroecology has already sent the invitations, and this time, it’s the scientists, not the farmers, who need to RSVP and show up. If the relational truths of our lives were acknowledged, we could feel more capable of engaging with real people and materials instead of reinforcing oppressive and static imaginaries.
In circular reciprocity, we imitate the natural processes of life, but a linear and hierarchical way of thinking has us moving away from living in harmony with nature and its resources. Capitalist consumerism doesn’t want to know of the ephemeral bodily needs, as it strives for individual purity through consumption of objects that cut the constraints of that which is bound by decay and responsibility and all that demands attention and patience. Through attentive proprioception, haptic aesthetics and sensory knowledge, we can find a way to align the understanding of our personhood, i.e. the quality or condition of being a person, with the relentless goings-on of life. Employing the body takes us out of abstraction. To employ our bodies within a tangible set of relations, like that of the farm, where the dependent and interested relationships are felt through the body, is to kick-start such an exit and give ecological literacy to anyone who decides to show up, despite their current inadequacies. The farm becomes the substrate that we, with the aesthetic attention of a craftsman, use to shape ourselves in correspondence with its social and ecological economy.
Much of the above carries a line of thought that was developed by a number of thinkers in recent decades. In an effort to combine some of them within a practical and heuristic tool-kit, I propose the following set of standpoints: Fritjof Capra’s systems view of life, Richard Shusterman’s somaesthetics project; Tim Ingold’s philosophy of correspondence and earth-sky; Mariana Ortega’s critical world-travelling; as well as Joseph Beuys’ extended concept of art and his social sculpture. In order to reconcile them all in one place and time, I propose my own embodiment at a farm, as the playground in which these influences can meet and effectively do their philosophies, and, thus, give them real life as they finally reach their transformational and ameliorative potential in a real human being. To creatively and artistically employ my own urban body and identity to the conditions of agriculture becomes a strategy for resistance to rural commodification, and it is one of few practices that allows the urbanite to prove useful in the search for a more healthy and sustainable life, without reinforcing the destructive, blinding (stigmatizing or romanticizing) dichotomies that live within our urban and patriarchal paradigm based on the idea that life means competition and domination. To physically engage in caring, identity-defining functions makes us more able to reach the roots of the ecological crisis, as we allow our bodies to change while, at the same time, we accept the identitarian struggles that come with that change. We become participants in the reality that we are trying to save and, therefore, stand a much better chance of achieving our goal.
Today’s science and politics, however, are still rooted in the idea that dead things can teach us everything there is to know about life: its ability to promote the values of objectivity and detachment that favour clarity and certainty has long been encouraged by western epistemological thought, that for the most part denies the legitimacy of subjectivity in sensory knowledge (Perullo, Aesthetica, 2018). It is maybe not surprising, then, that sometime between the time of Leonardo da Vinci and that of Francis Bacon, as global travelling increased, the science that could legitimize colonial exploitation was the most successful. It was a science that could promote individual power as rooted in a hierarchical separation between human and non-human, man and non-man, urban and non-urban (Capra, Mattei, 2015).
“In more poetic words: if agriculture and humanity are currently dying because we lack interaction, we can give each other new life by letting our realities once again become more entwined.”
And then came the climate crisis, and the now-more-than-ever comfortable human had finally decided to contemplate the implications and quality of its wealth, tamed to lie dead at its feet. This knowledge can now look back at itself, its faults and possibilities. The recent understanding of the magnitude of the climate crisis has put this ‘fast’ knowledge in a very silly situation, where its intelligence is scorned for having caused the crisis but praised for having discovered it, and is, at the same time, asked to stop it (Orr, 1996). It is like trying to lift a chair while sitting on it. Who sits at a party, anyway? I, for my part, decided to dance!
For four months, working in an agroecological farm where the surrounding nature was invited to the party, I tried to add some warmth to cold science. How do you know when you are producing warmth? You sweat! And if you sweat, something in your surrounding is putting up resistance. The friction experienced contains useful information, feedback on how to become increasingly efficient with that energy. Your movements and breath get smarter, more rhythmical, for every day and every drop of sweat. This correspondence between the self and the other can also be called sustainability.
Translating my own ‘experiencing’ into a scientific record is somewhat of a contradiction in and of itself. Nevertheless, it is possible to use slightly more animated ways of communicating an experience than just numbers and words. Therefore, during my time at the farm, I repeatedly took analogue pictures of my hands and body, kept a handwritten diary, and shot one-minute Instagram videos of myself. I wanted to show how my body reacted to this new environment, threatening and shaping me inside and out. Like this, I avoided a too static representation of reality, and I allowed for the immanence of my findings to survive in the realms of scientific research that needed a new language. In more academic terms, I turned to the non-verbal methodology of visual autoethnography by means of non-historical repeat photography of my body and hands and surroundings to report my findings. The aim was to find a new language that would move beyond the reductionism at work in modern Western thought systems. The ‘experiencing’ itself was later on gathered in an artistically crafted book with photos and QR-codes telling its story, the title a decaying piece of birchwood bark, the subtitle “The Dairy Diary”.
Upon my arrival at the farm, there was nothing I could say or explain in order for them to see the person that I steadfastly knew myself to be. The only thing I could do was to show them who I was becoming, by working, by making mistakes, by trying not to get sick or hurt and, by trying to enjoy doing the tasks until I learned them, and even then, by keeping in mind that seasons change and the practices change with them. Something that was right one day was wrong the other; keeping a specific door shut at all times suddenly became a question of life and death. As August rolled into September, a cow could easily catch infections, and her milk could quickly turn sour, standing in a draughty barn. Everything was sudden, and the past was the past.
“But I …”, is the most common reaction. Naturally, this reaction is a big waste of time, as it is not about if you knew or not. It’s about if the job was done or not. To get ill or to hurt myself would also have been a really bad thing, that the farmers would have been devastated to learn about and nobody wanted to happen. This was not entirely because of my own misfortune, instead, it was about all the things it would render me incapable of doing. At first, this seemed like somewhat of a harsh environment, but to feel cared for because of my role in this farm, gave a lot of meaning to me and motivated me a lot to stay out of harm’s way.
Learning to have my ego so overlooked was heart-breaking, but at the same time, I felt something clearing up within me as if I was shedding an old personality. These are the awkward, risky, liminal and pathetic first steps in what I believe to be the path towards a sustainable future. Steps that are hugely overlooked in the current debate about sustainability. Those shy steps of actual contact, of disturbing friction and uncomfortable laughter.
My research did not try to explain the conditions in the countryside; it needed not to problematize rural development nor question urbanization. It merely wanted to place the most concrete example of a human being that I could get my hands on, which could only be myself, inside the experienced reality of all those things. Risking heavily to come across as arrogant, but without feeling ashamed for crediting myself, I have invested my cultural and urban privilege in these fields of relationships. Self-irony and somatic creativity turned out to be my main tools for achieving a lasting, functioning and rewarding relationship with the farm. By letting myself be defined by the people and the animals at the farm, I could feel my ego dissolve, as I would start to share their interests. These interconnections became extremely visible when I would interrupt that seamless lifestyle. Returning after having been gone for longer than a day was extremely hard for my psyche and my body, as no person or animal at the farm would wait for you to come back into the constantly changing rhythm of things.
Pulling ourselves away from an unsustainable situation is to force ourselves upon the roughness of reality. As we allow ourselves to be shaped by it, we are also being morally sculptured to fit the ongoings of nature, which means to survive. My working hands become an expression for this, mediated through their calluses and scars, emerging from interaction with the world that sustained me.
“I turned to the non-verbal methodology of visual autoethnography by means of non-historical repeat photography of my body and hands and surroundings to report my findings.”
Both my hands and my body proved to be malleable. Together with my thoughts, expressed by means of video and the pictures of the surroundings, my physical appearance changed with the seasons. Lines of the hands started to emerge after a couple of weeks and told the story of continuous efforts. To streamline my way of being, walking, talking, eating and sleeping in accordance with the farm did not only entail long processes of the every day; the stepping stones in this process were also critical moments of incredible physical efforts that I never before had experienced. These were short moments that, in the beginning, made me feel weak, but that later into the experience gave me great self-confidence. The gravity of these situations, and their embodiment, made them differ from previous physical efforts. Whether it was hammering a nail, saving a calf from its aggressive mother or avoiding large quantities of grains to spill over, I was morally constrained not to fail and, in order to succeed, I had to employ the full potential of my body. The ‘burden’ of this multiplication of my identity, as my interested relationships multiplied to extend to the animals’ well being, for example, became visible in the muscle tissues of both hands and body.
Another psychosomatic transformation took place in the borderlands between my farming and urban self, as I would walk on the country road to and from the village that would bring me to the city of Stockholm. Going and coming back from the isolated farm was also a solitary and primordial sensation where I experienced a new relationship with darkness, light and space.
The porosity of materials, the multiplicity of our identities, and our bodies’ malleability are to be found in their margins. It is the liminal, and, therefore, creative aspect, the experience of all of these parts of us that can truly open up for a possibility to find a hybrid between urban and rural dichotomies, self and other, respectively engendered as they are by capitalism and consumerism, on the one hand, collaboration and care on the other. In times of great agricultural and identitarian crisis, this embodied experience of the margins is what I believe to be our only concrete hope, considering the increasingly hostile future for our species.
Harlan, V. (2012). What is Art? Conversation With Joseph Buyes. Forest Row: Clairview Books.
Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The Systems View of Life. New York: Camebridge Univeresity Press.
Shusterman, R. (2008). Body Consciousness: A Philosophy Of Mindfulness And Somaesthetics. Boca Raton: Florida Atlantic University.
Ingold, T. (2013). Making. New York: Routledge.
Ortega, M. (2016). In-Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Perullo, N. (2018). Aesthetica. Filosofia del Cibo e Comunicazione Gastronomica cds. LSG08. Pollenzo: Università degli Studi delle Science Gastronomiche.
Capra, F., & Mattei, U. (2015). The Ecology of Law: toward a legal system in tune with nature and community. Oakland: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Orr, D. W. (1996). Slow Knowledge. Conservation Biology, 10(3), 699-702.
Curtin, D. W. (1992). Food/Body/Person. In D. W. Curtin, & L. M. Heldke, Cooking, Eating, Thinking (pp. 12-13). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.
Photos ©Philip Linander