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Fermenters of the World Unite

  • Stefanie Fishel

Article body

No-one wants to admit to living in the kitchen, in domestic territory. And yet the body is bound together in such places.[1]

The body resembles the table, and the banquet, love.[2]

Feminism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”[3] While feminism incorporates a wide range of approaches, movements, and ideologies fighting for equal treatment for women, and those identifying as women, it is also a radical program of political change. Feminism, and the feminists who make these movements, are acutely aware that equality will only come about through transformation. Therefore, feminism is also an emancipatory political project that desires to reshape the world. In fact, as most political, economic, and social orders are built upon, and gain their power and influence from the subjugation of women, demanding equality is a threat to masculinist systems of control and exploitation. They are structured around male privilege and form of social hierarchy that support the status quo.

Given this, some feminist projects recognize that many current political and social institutions are compromised. We can no longer rely on the political forms that have come before to advance equality. Creative thinking and acting is required to make lasting changes that build toward feminist goals. While we are used to thinking about social change as a process that begins with the self, this is not enough. Social change should be approached at the community and individual level. By way of example, treating obesity in North America as a problem of individual consumption and bad nutritional choices ignores the fact that our food systems are built around high sodium, high fat, and high sugar options. Many communities live in food deserts — usually in impoverished areas—with little access to fresh food.[4] This is better approached through policy as a public health problem rather than one of individual choice and preference.

These transformations also need to create wider circles than a single person, or even humanity, to honour, care, and protect the whole range of beings with which we share the Earth. Equally important, feminists should find ways to sustain our collective efforts to transmute our communities, our economies, and ourselves.[5] We must honour that which “assists convergence, favours collusion, binds closer, enriches alloys, discovers new combinations on the spot, and, through synthesis, learns how to know.”[6]

It is in this spirit of transformation that this article progresses. It will start from how food, and processes involved in food making, can be used metaphorically and imaginatively to reconsider feminist praxis and the spaces that can be considered political. I will explore the power of food and fermentation as a situated and material way for women and communities to come together for change and sustenance. Fermentation can aid in imagining a feminist political project of transformation that begins in the kitchen, and it can be a powerful metaphor for rethinking politics and reclaiming public power.

The article is framed by the Food + Feminism + Fermentation conference held at McGill University in Montreal in October 2017. This event gave the participants a setting to reflect upon new political forms and how to sustain means of resistance to the old. The gathering was not wholly focused on sexual difference or domination (important topics to be sure), but rather turned toward the material spaces of where we gather, labor, eat, drink, play, serve, create, knead, bake, brew, preserve, feast, pickle, and cook as crucial sites of feminist praxis. Theorists, baristas, brewers, and restaurant owners — to name but a few — met to think and talk about how their personal spaces embodied feminist political action.

As a theorist and scholar, I have argued that political transformation can be done through knowing the human body as a plural and complex site of politics through its bacterial microbiome.[7] In The Microbial State, I re-evaluate the actual and metaphoric composition of the human body to ask how human bodies might create a more just and equitable political community based on partnerships and collective action. Simply put, the human body is home to millions of symbiotic partners who aid all sorts of processes — from digestion to heat regulation to protection from pathogens. All these nonhuman “critters,” to use Donna Haraway’s term, are unseen, but crucial to our health and wellbeing. The book does this by deploying the metaphor of the Body Politic and the materiality of the body as guide to create counterstories about how we could build healthier communities writ large.[8] Metaphor, more broadly, is a necessary and unavoidable tool for understanding the world:

[Metaphor] takes abstract concepts and makes them comprehensible through bodily experience, cultural definitions, and cognitive processes. This means that much of what we do everyday engages in metaphor and metaphorical thinking. Importantly, metaphor is a conceptual and contextual system as well as a force with physical effects on the human body; it often plays a much more significant role than fanciful wordplay or poetic language.[9]

As I thought about the resonances between my work and food studies, it became clear that there is a metaphorical power to food and eating too. These can act as a medium to thought and give more than physical sustenance. Think of the idioms we use. We chew the fat, but we don’t want to eat humble pie. We all know that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I hope this article does not go pear shaped or that you think I am just putting new wine into old wineskins. Such idioms use our experiences of eating and our bodies to explain other intangible processes. Each of these takes a bodily understanding to tell us something else. To show this connection, imagine chewing the fat: eating slowly to get all of the enjoyment you can and taking your time to pass it in idle conversation. The motion of your jaw when speaking is much like that when eating, and vice versa.

Food and drink can serve as both something real — we eat, we drink — but it is also an elegant extended metaphor about how we might create politics, especially emancipatory projects aimed at joining broader constituencies of community-minded people together.[10] This is care work. This is hard work. It is exhausting, but it must be done. How do we keep our feet hitting the floor every morning even in a world of wounding? Fighting the racist, misogynist, world-killing heteropatriarchy is work that requires energy, hope and sustenance in many forms. We are up against it, to paraphrase Sara Ahmed.[11]

For this conference, we found ourselves “back” in the kitchen, the dining room — and in the café, coffee shop, bar, and the restaurant. This gathering, and the range of women and their crafts — both academic and culinary — served as an example of how feminist academics and activists might come together and educate for critical feminist consciousness and resistance in these spaces. We can remember something that those in the kitchen never forgot: flame and heat, mixing and brewing is transformative. Women who cook, make beer and bread, pour wine — we know about transformation. “This transformation within the flames, this passage from raw to cooked, is connected to knowledge.”[12]

The reclaiming of the transformative power of the kitchen is especially important given that the private realm of the home is space of (not so well) hidden domination and sexism. As bell hooks, cultural theorist and writer, tells us, “unlike other forms of domination, sexism directly shapes and determines relations of power in our private lives, in familiar social spaces, in the most intimate context — home — and in that most intimate sphere of relations — family.”[13] Families include domination, but are also about care and connection. Therefore, they give an opportunity and a “practical setting for feminist critique, resistance, and transformation.”[14] Put simply, if we can’t resist in these spaces, where one can also find love and care, then how can we possibly convince institutions, strangers, or employers not to degrade and humiliate us?[15]

Additionally, feminist practice (and praxis) must be about more than only “naming one’s oppressor or naming one’s pain” but also linking this pain to “strategies for resistance and transformation.”[16] In other words, there is a connection between the self and political reality — the personal is indeed political, the private and public cannot be easily separated — but what can we, as feminists, do beyond this naming? Women need to remember, reclaim, and find new ways to sustain ourselves in these most intimate places and use this sustenance to work to transform the wider world filled with different wounds, conflicts, and domination.

The conveners posed this question in the aims of the conference: “What are the intersections between fermentation and feminism?” I believe that the use of the word “intersection” points us in a fruitful direction. Feminism must be intersectional. We must always keep the layered and overlapping ways our identities can experience oppression, violence, and harm at the forefront. As Kimberlé Crenshaw argues, a focus on the intersection of race and gender “only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.”[17] When faced with traditional gender issues, we must also ask, “Where is the racism?”[18] It is also the case that racism and white supremacist systems create and perpetuate violence against women of colour. By way of example, in Canada, indigenous women face violence on a scale and of a severity that it constitutes a human rights crisis.[19] Strategies of resistance must be diverse and sensitive to these multiple struggles that are often invisible to white communities.

This reflection on intersectionality can then transform conversations about the political, especially vis-á-vis the personal, to reflect the deep complexity of our social and cultural lives. This has an ethical and practical dimension that can be used to nurture our relationships and connections with others in the world. This leads us to the disciplinary and methodological challenges of how to communicate across experiences and diverse communities, with all of whom we have different aims and concerns.

It is not just against the male oppressor that we fight. Racism and race relations in the home play out in bitter scenes that trouble the notion of solidarity among women. White women have made too many gains on the labour and care of black women and women of colour. Intersectionality means more than simple inclusion. White feminists must reckon with our oppression of women of colour in the house and in the kitchen. White women often found their freedom from the home by relying on cooks, maids, and nannies of colour. Additionally, white women in North America have trouble finding solidarity with each other across class and economic lines. “Oppression,” as Patricia Hill Collins writes, “is full of such contradictions.”[20] If women do not fully share a common experience of race and class — and if women can also take the form of the oppressor — it can difficult to come together with common purpose.

Through this lens, feminist politics is multiple rather than singular. It is intersected, layered, complex, and different based on our subject positions. Any feminist approach would have to be grounded in place and time to be emancipatory and participatory. Therefore, I would like to return to the kitchen and to the food and drink that brought us together in Montreal. When hooks speaks of feminism, she sees it as a process of self-recovery and change in consciousness. Feminism, through this lens, is about sustenance and transformation. It is space to engage in situated feminist politics.

One could argue that it is fermentation that situates politics. Fermentation, as a metaphor, can lead us to thinking about the yeasts and bacteria that aid us in these processes. From here, we can begin to see how, at the microbial level, we rely on and are made by our microbial relations. This is richer than merely ingesting the products of fermentation. This expanded and fecund idea of human-microbial relations gives feminists clues and ideas toward building political coalitions through unlikely but productive relations across many lines of difference. Alliances with the microbial world, or the micropolitical, can teach us lessons about the human world, or macropolitical. It can aid feminists in thinking about power and power relations as non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal, and non-anthropocentric. As Maya Hey writes “fermentation can set up a thought experiment where power is distributed amongst a web of relations” rather than located in “one human actor.”[21] The following section will give some examples to this end.

Transformative (Fermentative) Spaces

Socrates, Agathon and Alcibiades speak of love without ever making love, or sit down to eat without actually eating or drink without tasting; likewise they enter directly from the porch, over the threshold, into the dining area, without ever visiting the kitchens. Like the Gods, slaves and women stand near the stoves, where transformations occur, while the barbarians talk.[22]

It has indeed taken the whole history of philosophy, which from its very beginnings had nonetheless intuited mixture and chaos, to rediscover in a glass or a vessel, in a simple, naive, almost childlike way, what was already happening in the kitchen …[23]

Having considered food and feminism, we can turn to fermentation. The last in the title of this conference, but perhaps the ripest topic for how we might think about change and transformation. Many of the topics addressed at the conference were around beer, wine, bread, yogurt, and coffee. We kneaded bread and ate fermented foodstuffs. We drank craft brews made by women who run breweries. These magical foods and beverages come from little critters — yeasts and bacteria — and they create live and active culture that we benefit from. It is a coaxing and creating of life from life. What a wonderful place of freedom and creativity.

Defining fermentation before entering into the metaphorical will aid in this understanding of transformative politics. All living things must have a constant source of energy to perform even the most basic of life functions. Energy can come from the sun through photosynthesis or from eating plants and animals, but energy must be transformed into something usable. The most efficient way is aerobic respiration — this requires oxygen. If there is no oxygen, an organism must still convert energy — these are anaerobic processes. Fermentation, then, is a common way for living things to continue to make energy without oxygen. In fact, scientists believe fermentation is one of the most ancient processes on earth. Before there was oxygen for aerobic respiration, there was fermentation.[24] In other words, fermentation is another way to keep life going without oxygen. Metaphorically, fermentation could be explored as a productive way to keep creating, living, and resisting in situations that deprive women of freedom, agency, will, and are antithetic to life and thriving (or oxygen, to stay true to the metaphor).

Fermentation also provides a productive metaphor for larger transformation. At a real level, making and creating food in concert with multiple critters and other women (and self-identified women too) can address larger desires for transformation. To return to hooks by thinking of feminism as both self-recovery and a way to provide women with real spaces for change, the conference gave us a place to enact feminist, radical politics. In hooks’ words:

Awakening women to the need for change without providing substantive models and strategies for change frustrates, creates a situation where women are left with unfulfilled longings for transformation. We may know that we need transformation, we may crave transformation, but lack a sense that these desires can be addressed by feminist politics or radical politics.[25]

As a model that could provide creative strategies, fermentation and our bacterial relations, in actuality and metaphorically, can give insight into how bodies might be understood as highly sophisticated assemblages that require complex relationships with multiple other people and critters on this planet. Fermentation processes and the microbes that fuel them can call our attention to other lives and how we depend on them. This in turn can aid in creating intersectional feminist projects that can break down entrenched and damaging social hierarchies to rethink our ideas of self and our dependency on multiple others, rather than as discrete individuals.

Bacteria help unsettle the great chain of being with humans at the top or at the center of the universe. A focus on bacteria can break down hierarchies by understanding that “all beings alive today are equally evolved…all have survived over three thousand million years of evolution from common bacterial ancestors.”[26] Homo sapiens is not special, just newer. Life is an incredibly complex interdependence of matter and energy among millions of species and beyond (and within) our own skin. These Earth aliens are our relatives, our ancestors, part of us. They cycle our matter and bring us water and food. Without “the other” we do not survive”.[27] This interdependence spans from the yeast that raise our loaves to the cyanobacteria that enrich legumes with nitrogen,[28] from the ale and lager yeast in beer to the bacterial communities in tree roots that create food in nutrient-poor soil,[29] from the human microbiome[30] and its commensal species crucial to human well-being to the coral microbiome and their dense microbial diversity necessary for coral health.[31]

As evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis argues, humans are the work of “thousands of millions of years of interaction among highly responsive microbes.”[32] This is a dramatic re-rendering of the body that breaks apart our unitary, individualistic selves for one that is chimerical and multiple. As Dorion Sagan writes, “we are all multiple beings.”[33] This new model of being is one where “the body becomes a sort of ornately elaborated mosaic of microbes in various states of symbiosis.”[34] This could inspire feminist practices of celebrating what life shares in common, how similarities and differences could be respected across cultural, political, and species lines, and how our dependence on the other could be nurtured. Difficult projects of feminist solidarity across inequality and difference — such as those evident in the Women’s March or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example — can be appreciated by understanding interdependence and multiplicity together, rather than from entrenched identity politics.[35]

Fermenters of the world unite!

Sustenance through fermentation in the kitchen can project the strength gained in the kitchen into the larger world and wider feminist spaces. Fermentation also reveals that this must be done in partnership with all kinds of critters. Transformation will come not just from within the human body, but rather in the way that a body connects with other bodies, organisms, and environments. Fermentation feeds intersectionality and gets it bubbling to seek interspecies allies as well as human ones.

This creates an understanding that pushes beyond hierarchy, patriarchy, and oppression to engender lived forms of coexistence, resistance and solidarity across species, class, and colour lines. Our political traditions have a tendency to divide when what must be thought is the actuality of the interdependence and entanglement. In Canada this is reflected in activism around indigenous food sovereignty as a decolonial project,[36] increased studies and work around how feminism transforms restaurants and the experience of food preparation and consumption,[37] and urban gardening and community building in Vancouver,[38] to name but a few emplaced examples.

We must resist!

Agitate!

Foment!

Excite!

Ferment!

Fermenters of the world unite!

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