GEORGINA VOSS performs a literary Heimlich manoeuvre

2 Sep

Voss, a researcher and writer investigating design, gender and ethics, is currently working on a book entitled Stigma and the Shaping of the Pornography Industry. On Thursday 5 September she spoke at Improving Reality about the power-plays underlying the futurology business. We asked her what agitates her about the way we talk about the future.

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“Write for the Arc blog”, they said; “talk about something that sticks in your craw”. And what sticks in the craw more than Jamie Oliver flobbering on about poor people’s food choices? At next week’s Improving Reality conference I’ll be talking about the social and economic forces which drive and skew notions of reality, touching on expensive chicken and cheap (as) chips. In Oliver’s world, poor people’s food choices are shaped by individual laziness and lack of education, not a great big crunchy socio-economic power dynamic that reduces “choice” down to the thinnest wafer of possibility (yes, Oliver, thinner even than a slice of pukka pineapple).

So let’s talk about food. Let’s talk about who dreams up food for future populations. Let’s talk about a future where food itself has been done away with and we’re chugging down vats of “powdered starch, whey protein, olive oil and raw chemical powders” – meal substitutes which supply all of a human body’s daily nutritional needs. Meet Soylent (really), engineer Rob Rhinehart’s attempt to replace food entirely with a gloopy, gunky meal-substitute drink. Picked up by various tech blogs, not least because of its name, Soylent is, TechCrunch tells us, likely to land a decent round of venture capital funding. It’s also a pretty good example of why notions of improving reality aren’t straightforward propositions.

Soylent, although apparently “delicious”, is textureless gunk designed to be downed and then forgotten. Food, too, is delicious, in many more ways than Soylent can aspire to. Food is also personal and political. It carries enormous social meaning: a demonstration of love, of forgiveness, of seduction. One of my favourite short stories is “A Lesbian Appetite” by Dorothy Allison, in which the protagonist recounts her previous relationships through the food she ate with her girlfriends. Appetites do not exists in a vacuum. I am particularly fond of Allison’s descriptions of Lee, the self-righteous bossy health-food nut, who gets thrown over for Marty, an Atlanta girl who provides chocolate milkshakes and promises of barbeque. Food is also tied up with class politics, race politics, gender politics, and various intersections thereof. We (I) may be capable of pie-ing through a box of Jaffa Cakes in under five minutes, but food leaves its imprint on the world.

Science fiction writers know this, and the way that food gets presented in their unreal worlds says much about our own realities. As my co-authors and I have discussed elsewhere, the original Soylent Green was a comment on the fears and aversions associated with mass-produced algae as a remedy for global hunger. Post-World War Two, recommendations were made to move towards non-traditional agricultural methods, including the large scale farming of algae as a foodstuff. Early NASA research into the use of algae in long spaceflights concluded that the green stuff was suitable as a nutritional supplement but not much else. In Soylent Green (adapted from Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!) the eponymous food is a wafer, issued as a ration and allegedly made of algae to meet the nutritional needs of an overpopulated world. At the film’s climax, the wafer is shown not to be made of plankton, as the ocean’s resources are depleted; it’s made of human corpses instead.

Soylent Green (1973) explores the political dimensions of food substitution, industrialised food production and rapidly growing populations in a way that the coverage of Soylent (2013) has not. Soylent’s invention was borne of Rhinehart’s desire not to have to clean his dishes after he had eaten, and this desire – of a young, employed male in California who finds no pleasure in the purchase, preparation or consumption of food – is not necessarily the desire (or need) of other populations. Abstracting the culture of food into the nutritional qualities of fuel is not just an efficiency process; it imposes a version of reality where eating is no longer a satisfying, social, even sensual activity to be shared with friends and loved ones. Food has become a necessary evil which gets in the way of more important things. Even the “benefits” of Soylent contain certain value judgements: providing it as a cheap nutrition fix for the poor does little to address all the other systemic problems: food deserts, healthcare provision, subsidised industrial corn production… It’s no coincidence that in sci-fi dystopias, mass-produced nutri-gunk is the domain of the poor whilst the rich get steak. And please God, no-one tell Jamie Oliver about Soylent: the last thing anyone needs is a banging recipe for powdered starch slop.

@gsvoss

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