Cassandre Greenberg: To our future excavators, my virtual bread

17.07.2020

In 2015, at an archeological dig in Jordan, excavators found tiny specks of bread in fireplaces used by hunter-gatherers some 14,000 years ago, a find which suggests human’s pre-historical bread affair started well before evolutionary biologists previously calculated. These time-travelling crumbs may, in their small way, have upended the dividing line between when humans moved from their hunter-gatherer roots to an agricultural society. 

In the time warp of the second decade of the second century, I am inclined to think of the output of thought during this global pandemic as like those charred particles in their abandoned  Stone Age fireplaces. So much of what has been written reads like the collapsing records of late capitalism in the 21st century, all imparting the same underlying message: anything that was mistaken as substantial or whole is crumbling. However, the significance of these crumbs of cognition is yet to be determined, whether or not they are indicative of any dividing line still an indeterminate matter.

With this in mind, it is to our future excavators to whom I write this, the ones who are (hopefully) left, who find themselves digging up our toxic waste under the intensifying sun. These are my crumbs, stale slices that once unearthed, will perhaps serve to remind your future of some of the chaos of our past. I transmit them to you in a state that goes against coherence, and necessarily reflects the partial view that is so much a feature of this present. I have tried my best to save the pieces of thought that seem to hold enough shape despite the rapid decaying of a ravenous new time. I hope that they are now mere ruins – the scraps of an unrecognizable world as distant as the 14,000 years old wheaten remains, arriving well past their use by date – that remind you of a time of which you had the courage to destroy, to build a different world upon. 

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I dream of bread. My unconscious, for whatever reason, is padded with the wobble of fresh dough, while baguettes buttress the architectures of my mind and flour punctuates the plot lines of my dreamscape. These visitations of virtual bread in sleep have been with me since childhood. A reoccurring dream from my childhood took place in a wheat field, a scene that as a kid I had only accessed from a distance, in a travelling car. In the dream I am lying supine in the long grains of the field. It is bright and sunny, and my young body is hidden by the netting of a million leaves of grass. As if it were possible for sensation to function like the lens of a camera, feeling zooms in and out in violent jerks, my sense of my own body distorting. Through a dizzying oscillation in scale, I come to feel as though I am the wheat field itself, and then, just as suddenly, I am as small as a single strand of grain in the soil. At some point in my teen years I stopped having this dream, but the glutenous strands of unconscious thought were not abandoned.

Another, more recent, dream encounter: I am standing in front of a small crowd of people in an office building and I am outlining a script I have written. Suddenly, the character from the script is transformed into a small bun. In the hopes of explaining to the audience the script’s narrative arcs, I start to rip open the bun, peeling away its aerated insides, showing them what I meant to say was there in the soft flesh. As soon as this scene of disembowelment is over, I am returned to an outside where I walk past a kebab shop. A man stands in front of the glass window, swaying in front of a huge cylinder of revolving lamb, chomping his mouth full of air. Lit by the red heat of spinning flesh, I see him rub a piece of the bun across the condensation of the window, sopping up the cooked meat juice from the glass and massaging his face with the sodden loaf. 

If I were a psychoanalyst, which I am not, I would read something significant in the transition from field to flour to freshly baked loaf. I would wonder, what perversity do all this bread-mistaken-for-bodies profess? Perhaps these stages, like the oral and anal stage, are a form of developmental index? What do the multitude of the wheat field or the disemboweled insides of a bun signify? If I were a patient of a psychoanalyst, which I am not, I would likely ignore this questioning, somewhat irritated by such a stereotypical line of thought. I am deeply and irrationally besotted by bread. For me, bread, more than any other food, lends itself to desire, so why would I not dream about it? From this place of breaded narcosis, could anything beyond an irrational appetite be expressed by a mind caked in the remnants of years-old dough?

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The matter of metaphor, its linguistic roots, is located within the Greek meaning “to bear across” or “to carry over”. Anyone who has ever eaten a sandwich knows that bread is the ultimate carrier, it’s hard-yet-soft form providing both significant surface area for the carriage of flavor, and architectural integrity to transmit the wettest, densest and most plentiful volumes of food. Beyond stuffed fillings, deeper still in the history of bread is the presence of metaphor, which is to say a handing-over or a transmission. 

At the advent of the Neolithic age about twelve thousand years ago, in which humans moved from a hunter-gather lifestyle to one of agricultural cultivation and settlement, grain was the most important crop to shepherd humans through the elemental transition into a life that we may recognize as our own. In an article in the New Yorker, ‘How Civilisation Started’, John Lanchester explains: “Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.” From evidence gathered at the sites of early Neolithic settlements, Lanchester presents the theory of a number of evolutionary biologists that there is “a crucial, direct link between the cultivation of cereal crops and the birth of the first states.” The reasons for this are that grain has a cluster of characteristics that, while not unique across other crops, are uniquely combined in grain – only grains, in the words of James C. Scott in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States are “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’” Grain meant the possibility of taxation. It provided the basis for an agrarian calendar. Bread bore us across the years of civilization building, lining the stomachs of ancestors and the pockets of those to whom land could be attributed. Ultimately it is from human-grain interactions, so say these scientific theorists, that we reaped overlords, the concept of capital, the world we have been left with today.  

Whichever species is to blame for this fateful exchange, this arguably causal relationship was responsible not only for the emergence of states but also the birth of written language. In order to keep track of what was being farmed, stored and used, early humans needed to create a technology of order and control. For this they came up with a way to make a formal record, which led to the birth of written language. The written ledger was used by rulers to carry over that which was once multiple and constantly shifting – grain, labour, people – to something legible and traceable, to that which could be bought, sold and extracted. At the very base of language is this violence; there are ears of wheat and germs of grain, and the hands – both willing and forced – that coaxed this so-called ‘basic’ ingredient into the object that has come to signify life’s sustenance.

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Something about metaphor sticks in the throat: metaphor may amount to the transmission of grain, but bread will never only be metaphor. To consider bread as purely a carrier of language is to forget that behind bread is appetite and behind appetite is a whole world of drives and disparities. 

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1665. 

“It was now the beginning of August, and the plague grew very violent and terrible in the place where I lived, and Dr Heath coming to visit me, and finding that I ventured so often out in the streets, earnestly persuaded me to lock myself up and my family, and not to suffer any of us to go out of doors; to keep all our windows fast, shutters and curtains close, and never to open them; but first, to make a very strong smoke in the room where the window or door was to be opened, with rozen and pitch, brimstone or gunpowder and the like; and we did this for some time; but as I had not laid in a store of provision for such a retreat, it was impossible that we could keep within doors entirely. However, I attempted, though it was so very late, to do something towards it; and first, as I had convenience both for brewing and baking, I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread…” 

Daniel Defoe, Journal of The Plague Year, published in 1772.

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2020. 

As many of us have migrated much of our meaningful interaction into the technological realm: that which is ‘trending’ also comes to define – with new intensity – the prevailing social norms. In lieu of rightness as defined by governments, we find another regime of behaviour, the collectivised swarm of algorithmic trends that creates its own orders and norms. Like the wheat of my dreams, bread suddenly proliferated across screens and kitchen tops for the first weeks of lockdown. It entered another virtual realm, that of social media. I scrolled through Instagram’s stuffed feed and the algorithm pulled into view thousands of replicant bread-rolls. There is nothing surprising about the sudden proliferation of amateur bakers. Cooking is one of the central means by which humans distinguish themselves from non-human animals. So deeply interwoven into our notions of human development, the transformation of raw to cooked food has come to signify, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, the move into ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. Cooking is a ritual practice that demarcates not only our birth into the species – babies are ‘buns in the oven’ – but also our entry into the realm of the spirit. According to Milhalis Mentinis in The Psychopolitics of Food, cooking has been throughout history “employed for such cases when somebody falls back into nature or deeply into biology, and, as a consequence, is in danger of ‘rotting’ in his or her absolute rawness”. It is no wonder then that faced with a species-wide biological threat, people took to their ovens with the manic gusto of the gluten-deprived, as though dominion over unsuspecting yeast bacteria would lend them the second-hand ability to compel the world back into a ‘sensible’ microbial order. At no stage has the drive toward food – or what Deleuze and Guattari call the ‘alimentary regime’, which along with the ‘sexual regime’ orders the subjective experience of late capitalism – been more evident than this period when contemporary conditions of sexual freedom have come under new restriction. In place of fucking, people fisted fermented dough, energised by the verve of the newly sexually repressed. 

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Is bread silence? In the late eighties, the American artist David Wojnarowicz made the sculpture, Untitled (Bread Sculpture), 1988-89. The work is a large, commercially produced loaf that is neatly sliced in half, with a thick, bright red thread sewn through its dense insides, as though the artist were trying to do the impossible, to stitch together that which was irremediably pulled apart. In some displays of the work, under the loaf is a newspaper from the time, placing the sculpture in direct relationship to the discourse and language of that era. Around the same time, Wojnarowicz sewed together his mouth, recording this act of self-mutilation in the film Silence=Death (1990) as an affecting, embodied metaphor that literally acted to shut the artist up. Made in the context of the AIDS crisis, the work served as an emphatic message to the public and looked to bring the government and society’s intentional mishandling of the AIDS crisis to the centre of consciousness. Looking at these two artworks, their parallel gestures are striking: the mouth – the organ of speech, and feeding – is confused (and equated) with the object of consumption. Bread is the thing that we stuff our mouths with, and in doing so, perhaps make bread the means by which we are silenced. “Our bodies prime our metaphors and our metaphors prime how we think and act,” writes James Geary in I Is an Other. Bread becomes a visual metaphor for the silenced HIV-positive body through this resonance. The work suggests that the need to be fed can contravene the hunger to be heard. Was the soft loaf the artist’s maquette for his own flesh? I don’t know – the artist died of AIDS-related illness in 1992 – but I do know that in the two preserved images, the bread and body are entangled momentarily, both pliable enough to puncture, both brought together when they should be able to part. 

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According to Kroger, the largest supermarket retailer in the US, sales of yeast had increased from their pre-lockdown rates by 600% as of 6 May 2020. Similarly in the UK, yeast was ransacked from supermarket shelves.

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Known as ‘wild yeast’, sourdough is produced through the fermentation of flour and water over time, and was one of the most popular means of producing a rise until Louis Pasteur’s research into the science of microbes led to the refinement of baker’s yeast in the later years of the 19th century, which allowed for the emergence of mass production in baked goods. 

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Within the contemporary sourdough discourse – dominated as it is by white bakers, some of whom seem to not shy away from the sales advantage of wellness culture’s interest in the gut microbiome – is a fascination with the ‘science’ of sourdough and the microbial life it fosters. On a simplistic level, sourdough is a version of eating oneself, consuming the microbial life that arises on the walls of one’s home and the pores of one’s skin. It is a portrait of its maker and a form of self-consumption. Given the new state of mass microbial terror, ordered to stay inside, sourdough beckons to some with the false promise of fulfilling a state of perfect bodily enclosure.

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Such homebound wholesomeness – with its fortified borders of self and other – has precedents in other historical moments of change, in which a mistrust of the ‘imported’ festers. For example Sylvester Graham, an American dietary reformer in the nineteenth century, who along with inventing the Graham cracker as a mitigant against masturbation, used dietary reform as a means of propagating racist and xenophobic ideas. He promoted vegetarianism and homemade bread and dismissed imported goods for their poor health qualities, encouraging people to buy nationally produced merchandise. Katharina Vester in A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities argues that his reforms were intended to give “some Americans a sense of control over their bodies and fates in a time of dramatic transition” (emphasis added). 

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The true picture of bread will always be layered in labour: our own and that of the human and non-human others who exist alongside us. As Scott Cutler-Shershow says in Bread: “Unless I am also planning to set up as a farmer and a miller, I will always remain – precisely as a baker – multiply dependent on other people and a complexly organised society.”

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In Greek myth the goddess Psyche, fearing failure in her quest to retrieve a part of Persephone’s beauty caught in the Underworld, prepares to throw herself off the ledge of a tower. Before she does this the tower intervenes, providing her with exact instructions for how to cross over into the realm of Hades. She is to carry two coins in her mouth to pay the ferryman, and two pieces of barley bread soaked in honey water to distract the hounds of Hades. The loaves were her toll for transmission into this other world. 

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In the second month of lockdown, I received an envelope from New York. Inside was a small piece of paper printed with text, and a clear plastic baggy containing thin shards of a beige substance. I read through the instructions and then emptied the contents into a glass jar and added some water and flour, then waited. Conceived by the breadmaker and artist Lexie Smith, what she had sent me was 5 grams of dehydrated sourdough culture. Working under the project ‘Bread on Earth’, Smith weaves together the practices of bread production, food activism, and artistic display. Her own baking is recognisable for huge, irregular loaves of bread contorted into frozen arabesques. The folds resemble undulating flesh, fixing themselves together in knots that recall the soft sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. The envelopes of sourdough starter sent all over the world were an extension of her practice as a baker; it came as a direct response to both the pandemic and the awareness of the need for greater food security and sustainable methods of production. My request was one of hundreds that were sent to her in the ensuing weeks. It was uncanny, even creepy, to receive a piece of the singular ingredient that beyond being the basis of her artworks was also made up of some aspect of her person. Here, in my house, a part of her knowledge, her hands, her home, was percolating. This yeasted transmission came across oceans and, once hydrated, it bubbled with what I thought looked particularly like jouissance, an eventuality that lacked the fickleness of the current wheaten surge, with its nagging sense of desired enclosure and narrow ideas of good food.

Image 1: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Bread Sculpture), 1988-89. Courtesy P.P.O.W., New York
Image 2: Lexie Smith, Double Birth. Courtesy the artist.