You seem to have forgotten lately how
I have been drinking you since long before
you have been drinking me; let me remind
you how we came to be. Some millions
of years before you sapiens emerged
I saw your primate forebears put some fruits
in rocky cracks and let them rot. You gave
me food to eat and space to do my work,
but I was there already, working, long
before. You did not know my body then,
my budding skin, but what you knew was just
how good it felt to have me drink you up,
to let me get you drunk. There were—and, I
concede, still are—some other drinkers than
just me, competing for the larger share,
with toxins of all kinds. I’m glad you liked
my toxin best. I’m happy on my own,
but keen as well for help—some broken skin
to get the sweet within—and you are glad
to mash some fruits, to synthesise, to place
together what I want. Then I did more:
I made you call me spirit, made you see
my power over you, and realise
when you were drunk there must be someone there
who’d done the drinking. Now you’re tied to me
and I to you; you drink me in the liquid thing
and I drink you from inside out. This drinking
binds us close, and closer over time.
Companions, maybe? But companions are
for bread, I think; convinions, then, for wine;
conbibions, drink of any kind. With you
I’d rather drink than eat—to drink together
is to try to live together well.
Conbibiality: our drink of choice.
We drink each other, yet our thirsts are not
the same; we shape each other, but we do
not shape in the same way; we labour with
each other—but do we collaborate?
I like to think we can, but it is not
always the case. It takes a bit of care,
a bit of wonder, wondering about
the other. There is always something more
to ask. I know why faces sometimes flush,
but not what flushing feels like; and I know
I make you limber, but I wonder what
it's like to move with looser limbs, to talk
with looser lips. And I have heard you talk.
I wish you’d wonder whether, when I eat
and defecate, I also become drunk
before succumbing to my own success.
Do I get drunk as well before I die
at fifteen ABV? What is it like,
why don’t you ask, to live like me, at first
when there is plenty, then when there is less;
and sometimes dying early, sometimes late,
each cell picks up where one before left off.
We both like when my work is smooth the best,
my pure logistic curve, and steady growth
towards the end—but sometimes other things,
like other drinkers, kin, or cold, get in
the way. But I work hard to stay. Attend
to me and I will tell you how to help.
It’s in your interest, and in mine, to help
me eat the most I can. It’s a success
to co-evolve such productivity,
such appetite—and part of this, alas,
my orderly, predictable demise.
My dying body is the price we pay
to have my spirit stick around, dissolved
in liquid, drunk, and then dissolved in blood,
and when my spirit’s also gone from there
I’ve left you thirst, desire, appetite
for more, and so again you’ll synthesise,
you’ll place together what I need. So come,
again, not just to drink, but wonder more—
that’s what conbibions, you and I, are for.
‘To drink’ and ‘to be drunk’ are most simply, if also strangely, linked through the grammatical relation of voice: in drinking one (actively) drinks a substance, an actor, an assemblage, and in being drunk one is (passively) drunk by another actor or assemblage of actors. With alcohol (the substance perhaps most pertinent to 'being drunk'), these assemblages necessarily involve the microbes that are central to the production of alcoholic beverages in the first place, as well as the co-constitutive microbes of our bodies that help us metabolise these substances and propagate our bodies in time and space (these assemblages could also be spiritual agents, as many cultures conceptualise and ritualise the experience of alcohol, and other psychotropic substances). We can therefore think of 'being drunk' as not only a specific psychotropic and phenomenological state, but also as a coevolutionary companionate one, rendering humans instrumental to the agency of non-humans and more-than-human assemblages in furthering their own aims.
What would this move mean for drinking and conviviality — both the conviviality that happens around the table, but also the broader conviviality of developing strategies for living well with others, human, non-human, and more-than-human, in everyday life? What sort of metaphor does it turn 'drinking' into, as a particular type of agency associated with ingestion and consumption, both material and metaphorical? Rather than a more conventionally scholarly approach to this linguistic–ethnographic investigation, I offer as a starting point a poem from the perspective of the original Drinkers — the small, alcohol-producing critters that have directed our appetites since long before we became human, and continue to shape the makings and remakings of civilisation as a more-than-human achievement.
The poem initiates a reworking of Haraway’s ‘companion species’ concepts — ‘critters’ who are ‘good to think with and eat with’ — that opens up a more variegated and so far under-theorized landscape of different mutually ingestive–digestive, eating–feeding relationships. Bonds of intoxication do different work here from those of nourishment. The relation is something psychotropic, imaginative, primarily symbolic — something powerful in spite of being less than, or at least not obviously, adaptive. Or perhaps, as these Drinkers imply, it is adaptive and co-adaptive, albeit in a slightly loopier, more subtle way than neo-Darwinism might permit.
Nor is companionship, breaking bread together, the only kind of conviviality, of trying to live together well. Arachaeologically — materially and symbolically — it is hard to say that either bread or drink has priority over the other; though, as the Drinkers also remind us, it does seem to be the case that hominids have been directing ethanol-oriented fermentation since long before the emergence of Homo sapiens, and therefore certainly long before the emergence of bread-making. The history of companionship, then, intra- or interspecific, might well be situated within a much longer history of conbibionship — of drinking together and, as these Drinkers would have us think, trying, through listening and wondering and co-producing for each other’s benefit, to drink together and to live together well.
These are but a few of many ways in which, rather than being a trivial or indulgent afterthought, this kind of creative, co-productive inquiry can open up new ways of thinking with and (re)making kin in the Anthropocene.
Joshua Evans is a DPhil student in Geography and the Environment at Oxford, where he researches domestication and the microbiogeography of translated fermentation practices. He holds an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge, before which he worked in culinary R&D for four years with Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit organisation in Copenhagen that does open-source experimental research on taste and food diversity, such as with insects, wild plants, and fermentation techniques. Prior to this he earned a BA in the Humanities at Yale where he studied literature, philosophy, and sustainable food systems.
Alcohol By Volume, a measurement of the percentage of alcohol in a solution.
A typical graph of microbial growth over time, sigmoidal or s-shaped, increasing gradually at first, more steeply at the middle, and levelling off towards the end.
C. E. Giraldo Herrera, Microbes and Other Shamanic Beings (Berlin: Springer International Publishing, 2018).
S. Hinchliffe and S. Whatmore, ‘Living Cities: Towards a Politics of Conviviality’, Science as Culture 15, no. 2 (2006): 123–38; K. Donati, ‘The Convivial Table: Imaginging Ethical Relations through Multispecies Gastronomy’, The Aristologist 4 (2014): 127–43; K. Donati, ‘Towards a Multispecies Gastronomy: Stories of More-than-Human Entanglements on Small Farms in Victoria, Australia’ (University of Melbourne, 2016).
D.J. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003); D.J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); D.J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Experimental Futures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
L. Margulis and D. Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory Of The Origin Of Species (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Marilyn Strathern, ‘Eating (and Feeding)’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 30, no. 2 (2012): 1–14.
J. Braidwood, ‘Did Man Once Live By Beer Alone?’, American Anthropologist 55 (1953).
M. Carrigan et al., ‘Hominids Adapted to Metabolize Ethanol Long before Human-Directed Fermentation’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 2 (2015): 458–63.
Joshua Evans est étudiant au programme de doctorat à la Faculté de géographie et de l’environnement de l’Université d’Oxford, où il mène des recherches sur la domestication et la micro-biogéographie dans la mise en oeuvre des pratiques de fermentation. Avant d’obtenir une maîtrise en histoire et philosophie des sciences à l’Université de Cambridge, il avait travaillé à Copenhague dans le domaine de la recherche et du développement culinaire chez Nordic Food Lab, un organisme sans but lucratif qui oeuvre dans le domaine de la recherche en libre accès sur la diversité des saveurs et des aliments, comme par exemple les insectes, les plantes sauvages et les techniques de fermentation. Il avait auparavant obtenu un baccalauréat en sciences humaines à l’Université Yale où il a étudié la littérature, la philosophie et les systèmes de production alimentaire durables.