Living-With and Dying-With

Thoughts on the Affective Matter of Food and Fashion

Published in
Issue #01

Introduction

In the essay ‘Why Bacalhau Will Always Taste Like Home,’ Isabel Vincent reflects on growing up in a Portuguese immigrant household in Toronto in the 1970s, where she ate bacalhau (salted cod) several times a week. Bacalhau has long been an essential part of the Mediterranean kitchen, and Vincent would often join her father on Saturday morning grocery trips to the Portuguese fishmongers of Toronto’s Kensington Market, where they would buy large slabs of salted cod. These would then be soaked in the cellar at home, where they were placed in bowls of water over a 48-hour period. Many years later, grown up and living in New York, Vincent returns to the comfort of bacalhau. Mourning her mother’s death and the end of her marriage, she takes the train to Newark’s Ironbound district, a Portuguese neighbourhood, and buys herself a slab of bacalhau. At home, she repeats the process of soaking, and prepares the bacalhau just as her mother used to. She writes: ‘As I removed the first batch of golden brown croquettes from the oil and set them on a paper bag to drain, I split one open and savoured my creation. Crunchy and sublime with a hint of salt, they offered immediate comfort, transporting me to happier times in an instant.’[1]

Just as with Marcel Proust’s ‘petites madeleines’—the taste of which transported him back to his childhood Sundays with aunt Léonie—Vincent shows the visceral power of the memory of our senses; in this case, the memory of taste. Both authors point towards the affective potential of food; the possibility of being moved through use of our senses, which reflects art theorist Simon O’Sullivan’s statement that ‘affects are moments of intensity, a reaction in/on the body at the level of matter.’[2] Here, affect is the initial moment of being moved, being touched. As both Vincent and Proust show, the body’s physiological reaction is connected to both our emotional state of being and the memories we embody.

What we can learn from our relation to food—as Vincent’s and Proust’ examples illustrate—is that engaging with our senses enables us to connect to our emotions, and thus create a (lasting) bond between an object—whether it is food, clothing, or something else—and ourselves. This affective relationship between human beings and material matter is necessarily experienced sensorially. In this article, we will explore the relationship between food and fashion by highlighting the respective role of the senses, the body, and materiality. While we wear material clothes on the body, food literally moves through and in thebody. We feed our dressed selves every day, ‘fashioning’—giving meaning to—our nourished bodies.[3] In the context of the ways in which both the food and fashion industries currently operate, we want to highlight the urgency of doing more justice to both the human and animal dimensions of food and clothing by drawing more attention to the senses and ‘living’ matter.[4]

This way of approaching food and clothing in terms of living matter must be understood in the context of rethinking and redesigning our relationship to the earth and the importance of moving beyond the Anthropocene.[5] As feminist theorist Donna Haraway argues, our current epoch can best be conceptualised as the Chthulucene[6]—a fierce reply to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital—which is, in her view, made up of ‘ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with.’ In the Chthulucene, ‘human beings are with and of the Earth’ rather than being the most important actors to which other beings are subjected.[7] This perspective helps to understand how human beings, food and fashion are ‘at stake to each other,’ which we’ll reflect on in this article. In doing so, we highlight the importance of offering more agency to the affective matter of food and fashion.

Out of Touch with What Matters

The food and fashion industries have similar frictions on a systemic level, on a human and animal level, and on a material level. On a systemic level, both food and fashion are part of our consumer culture and operate largely as unhealthy industries of fast and mass production. In both industries, there is a growing demand for more transparency in the value chain and a need for more local and sustainable production. We have had many wake-up calls regarding the humanitarian injustices and disastrous environmental impact of these industries, which have demonstrated the urgency of alternative systemic approaches. These wake-up calls clearly show that it is unethical to continue to let the mass production of fast-moving consumer goods exhaust the Earth’s resources. It is also important to acknowledge that mass production was initially at least partly idealistic and had the ethical aim of providing food and clothes on a larger scale, making them more accessible to the masses, but this process of democratisation has gone too far.

It is becoming painfully clear that we cannot continue to contribute to the ‘shockingly high cost of cheap fashion’[8]—and of fast food—which entails the dehumanised and de-animalised processes of production. In food factories, it is the technocratic organisation of ‘factory work that compartmentalises and sanitises slaughter, [which serves] to de-animalise and commodify certain animals [and] fosters an emotional detachment from them.’[9] In the fashion industry, even after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than a thousand people, ‘little progress has been made to improve labour conditions for garment workers.’[10] Both the food and fashion industries have already caused too much blood, sweat and tears. How much more can we digest?

Over the last few decades, increased awareness of the problematics in both systems has led to the movements of slow food and slow fashion. The slow food movement has offered an alternative approach to help redefine fashion in its move towards a more sustainable future.[11] Slow fashion is ‘an invitation for systems change,’[12] which also led to a critical fashion discourse to help redefine the principles, values and pace from which the fashion system operates—the rise of vegan fashion being one example. While there are more and more initiatives that contribute to both slow food and slow fashion, most consumers are still out of touch with the actual human, animal and material dimensions of (producing) both food and fashion. When we go to the supermarket, we buy the carefully selected beautiful food that meets the commodified criteria of what food ‘should look like.’ In a similar vein, we also continue to see highly idealised bodies and concepts of the self being sold in fashion’s ‘supermarkets of identities.’[13] We clearly lack a ‘sustainable sensoriality,’ which can be described as ‘the way of understanding a product from the knowledge of how it is made, through its raw material to the end product, rather than just through (the exaltation of the experience of) consumption.’[14] While many animals, human beings and raw materials continue to be objectified and commodified, we remain out of touch with what matters—with the actual materiality of food and fashion, how it is made, by whom, and where it comes from. This is why it is important to move from food and fashion as passive—dead?—objects to be consumed to food and fashion as the active—living—matter that is and gives life.

Consuming Living Beings

Even though we engage with food and clothes on a daily basis through embodied practices of eating, tasting and dressing, we are out of touch with the raw ‘living’ matter of what we eat and wear—not to mention the extent to which we are out of touch with how human beings, food and fashion ‘are at stake to each other’ to borrow Haraway’s terms.[15]

In ‘Blood Processing,’ artist Anna de Vriend[16] reflects on the slaughterhouse as an embodiment of constructed hierarchies between human animals (human beings) and non-human animals. Part of her research is reimagining the industrial slaughterhouse from the perspective of the blood present in this space. Though blood is largely present in the industrial slaughterhouse, its implication—namely, death—is systematically cleaned up, both in the literal and figurative sense. An extreme focus on hygiene regulations is one of the systemics that ensure this, enabling the slaughterhouse to treat the animals as Other as possible—which is, again, an example of de-animalisation. The abjection of killing is thus filtered away to sell the products the slaughterhouse produces and keep a sense of safety and control surrounding the meat industry towards the consumer. The process of othering the animals in the slaughterhouse shows some parallels to the de-humanisation of the anonymous workers in the clothing factories in (Southeast) Asia. Both the animals and the workers are treated as mere cogs (costs of goods sold) in the machine that is capitalism: their fates must be hidden from the consumer to keep the machine running smoothly, in order for Western brands to keep making money.

De Vriend also comes up with a proposal to counter this othering, moving beyond the system of cleanliness and anonymity. She writes: ‘Blood is non-binary, fluid and non-conforming to species, hierarchy or gender. If blood is defined as a liquid that carries life and is in constant motion within an organism, then almost everything on this earth is bloody.’[17] This definition of blood proposes that this is the one trait that we, living organisms, all have in common. In doing so, she transforms blood from representing ‘the abject,’ to borrow Kristeva’s notion,[18] to present it as the fluid matter which is and gives life itself. And if we make this blood visible beyond the slaughterhouse and share it with the outside world, it can teach us a thing or two about death, loss and grief—concepts that are inherent parts of our daily life, yet we find difficult to discuss. Perhaps the consequence is, then, that there is no place for industrial slaughterhouses in our society, which is illustrated by how small-scale farmers give each animal a name, allow themselves to bond with them, and grieve their deaths. Naming means recognising; it means seeing, knowing. This is also the reason why, for example, some fashion designers choose elaborate labels in their garments, naming fabrics and their origins, naming factories where the garments are made, showing explicitly how the price of a garment is calculated, and sometimes even naming the people who made the garment.

Too Good clothing label, 2020

Why the Senses Matter

These small-scale initiatives often revalue the emotional bond between human beings as embodied subjects; between human beings and animals as living beings; or strengthen the affective relationship between human beings and material objects. The senses are crucial in re-engaging with living beings and things that matter—the human and non-human matters that we are ‘living-with.’[19] Here, it is also important to take into account bodily matter: the physicality of the human body as well as the actual flesh and blood of animals. This is the radically material dimension of living beings and living matter, which helps to think through the interrelatedness of human beings, food and fashion.

Central to this sensorial engagement is that we do not just use one of our senses—taste when it comes to food, and sight when it comes to fashion—but all of them. Food and fashion necessarily engage all senses. To truly embody the experience related to the memory, Vincent refers not just to the taste of bacalhau but also the texture of the food: its crunchiness. Proust recalls the ‘warm liquid mixed with the crumbs’ of his madeleine cookie.[20] While the visual is often prioritised, tactility is equally, if not more, important in relation to the matter of fashion. The feel of cloth on our skin greatly impacts how comfortable we feel in our clothes. There is a huge difference, for example, between the feeling of polyester and the feeling of silk on the skin, and between lambswool and cashmere. Tactility also relates to the cut of our clothing: the structure of what we wear greatly determines how we wear it, and how we embody our clothing. ‘Understanding clothing as inextricable from embodied experience in the world demonstrates how it can be that clothes can reorder who we feel we are in their wearing.’[21] Depending on the situation, our clothes can support us, comfort us, empower us, conceal us, reveal us, and offer many other ways of affecting us.

The ‘material, embodied relationship of how clothing feels on the skin and allows the body to move’ is pivotal in deciding what to wear in addition to the ways in which ‘clothing affects the appearance of the body.’[22] This demonstrates the importance of not simply interpreting the fashionable body as a representation of identity but of taking into account the more experiential and sensuous dimensions of fashion and its materiality. Explaining how which the clothes he wears significantly affects the way he feels and presents himself, cultural sociologist Paul Sweetman writes that:

When I wear a suit, I walk, feel, and act differently, and not simply because
of the garment’s cultural connotations […], but also because of the way the
suit is cut, and the way its sheer materiality both enables and constrains,
encouraging or demanding a certain gait, posture and demeanour, whilst
simultaneously denying me the full range of bodily movement that would
be available were I dressed in jogging pants and a loose-fitting T-shirt.[23]

In addition to the cultural connotations of a suit, and moving beyond visual appearance, Sweetman thus highlights the effect of the suit’s materiality on the physical body—and on how he feels and acts.

And then there is the smell of clothing. After a day of wear, our sweaters and T-shirts are imbued with our personal scent. Who hasn’t put their nose in an item of clothing to recall a missing loved one? As Lauren Spencer King writes in Women in Clothes, a 500-plus page book that surveyed women on the subject of clothing and how the garments they put on every day define and shape their lives: ‘After my mum died, for four years I preserved her closet exactly as she left it. Sometimes when I was home, I would just go in there to look around, or have a good cry, because it still held her smell.’[24] In the same book, the power of smell is also discussed in terms of a warning sign by human rights journalist Mac McClelland: ‘And H&M, oh my god, I can’t even be in an H&M, I feel like I’m having a heart attack in there. It smells like . . . To me it smells like diesel or something—gas fumes and textile chemicals.’[25] How apt is this statement considered in comparison to our relationship with food? Smelling is a preamble to eating: if something doesn’t smell good, we won’t eat it. These examples demonstrate the affective power of food and fashion through the senses.

A Continuum of Living Matter

As argued above, both the human dimension (as embodied subjects) and the animal dimension (as living beings) urgently need to be regained in the fields of food and fashion. While arguing for the importance of highlighting this human dimension may falsely suggest an anthropocentric point of view, we suggest that it is helpful to approach the human subject in terms of its embodied and experiential dimension, as well as its sensorial, bodily matter— which may be affected by other living beings or other material matters. This is a matter of giving more agency to the senses, to living matter, and to the affective potential of food and fashion—instead of continuing to let that affective matter become passively commodified, dehumanised or de-animalised.

Both food and fashion are ‘the most intimate avenues in the way we communicate with nature. In the case of food, even more so; we digest it.’[26] This is how we, as human beings, become-with nature and the earth. However, in today’s consumer culture and our neoliberal market-driven economy, we have created an artificial distinction between human beings and nature by privileging human actions over nature, often at the expense or exhaustion of nature and natural/material resources—commodifying them, thus creating that lack of a ‘sustainable sensoriality.’[27] When we think in terms of living organisms, living beings, and living matter, and when we sensorially and experientially reengage with food and clothing, we realise that food and clothing are, in fact, a continuum of living matter. As Kate Fletcher argues in Wild Dress, ‘Garments are separate from neither people nor nature, they work between them […] they enhance our understanding of human embeddedness in nature, our sense of relationship with everything else.’[28] In this sense, in our capitalist society, we need to move beyond anthropocentrism, beyond a human-centred focus where the human is superior to ecosystems in nature—and where human beings have power over nature. We want to approach the interdependence and interrelatedness of living beings and living matter in terms of an equal relationship of entwined matter. Or indeed perhaps, to borrow Haraway’s words, we need to think in terms of ‘becoming-with,’ ‘making-with,’ ‘living-with,’ and even ‘dying-with.’[29]

So, let’s move beyond the process of emotionally detaching ourselves by the act of othering human or animal living beings, and reconnect affectively and emotionally. Let’s move beyond the dominant senses, especially sight, to revalue the underprivileged senses in order to reengage with food and fashion—moving towards the affective power of food and fashion through their raw materiality. After all, food and fashion are the things that we are living-with and dying-with.


Bibliography

  • Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

  • Clark, Hazel, ‘SLOW + FASHION—an Oxymoron—or a Promise for the Future…?’ Fashion Theory 12, No. 4 (2008): 427-446.

  • Cline, Elizabeth, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Penguin, 2012.

  • Entwistle, Joanne, The Fashioned Body. Fashion, Dress and Modern Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

  • Findlay, Rosie, ‘“Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”: Encountering Clothes, Imagining Selves.’ Cultural Studies Review 22, No. 1 (2016): 78–94.

  • Fletcher, Kate, ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change.’ Fashion Practice 2, No. 2 (2010): 259–266.

  • Fletcher, Kate, Wild Dress: Clothing & the Natural World. Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2019.

  • Hamilton, Lindsay & McCabe, Darren, ‘“It’s Just a Job”: Understanding Emotion Work, De-animalization and the Compartmentalization of Organized Animal Slaughter.’ Organization: Animals and Organizations 23, No. 3 (2016): 330-350.

  • Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

  • Heti, Sheila, Julavits, Heidi & Shapton, Leanne, Women in Clothes. London: Penguin,2014.

  • Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by L. Roudiez.New York: Columbia University Press, 1982 [1980].

  • O’Sullivan, Simon, ‘The Aesthetics of Affect. Think Art Beyond Representation.’ Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 6 No. 3 (2001): 125-135.

  • Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time Volume I: Swann’s Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrief and T. Kilmartin. New York: The Modern Library, 1992 [1928].

  • Sweetman, Paul, ‘Shop-Window Dummies? Fashion, the Body, and Emergent Socialities.’ In Joanne Entwistle & Elizabeth Wilson (eds.), Body Dressing. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2003, pp. 59-77.

  • Vriend, Anna de, ‘Blood Processing.’ APRIA, forthcoming Fall 2020.

  • Woodward, Sophie, Why Women Wear What They Wear. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Footnotes

[1] Isabel Vincent, ‘Why Bacalhau Will Always Taste Like Home,’ 1843 Magazine, October 31, 2019, https://www.1843magazine.com/food/world-in-a-dish/why-bacalhau-will-always-taste-like-home.

[2] Simon O’Sullivan, ‘The Aesthetics of Affect. Think Art Beyond Representation,’ Angelaki. Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 6, No. 3 (2001), p. 126.

[3] As fashion theorist Joanne Entwistle argues in The Fashioned Body (2000), dress is regularly viewed as ‘one of the means by which bodies are made social and given meaning and identity,’ which could be understood as a way of ‘fashioning’ the human body. See: Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p. 7.

[4] We would like to stress the fact that we are aware of our position of privilege and how this relates to having and not having agency. This is also something we discuss in our ongoing correspondence ‘Fashion in Times of the Coronacrisis, and Post-Crisis’: https://fashionprofessorship.artez.nl/activity/fashion-in-times-of-the-coronacrisis-and-post-crisis-an-ongoing-conversation/.

[5] The ‘Anthropocene’ is a term used to describe the era in which the actions of humankind have great impact on the Earth and its climate, leading to the exhaustion of natural resources, imbalanced ecosystems, and endangered biodiversity.

[6] In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway proposes to think in terms of the ‘Chthulucene’ to move beyond the Anthropocene, and to think through how the human and non-human are inextricably linked.

[7] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 55.

[8] Elizabeth Cline, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (New York: Penguin, 2012).

[9] Lindsay Hamilton and Darren McCabe, ‘“It’s Just a Job”: Understanding Emotion Work, De-animalization and the Compartmentalization of Organized Animal Slaughter,’ Organization: Animals and Organizations 23, No. 3 (2016): 330-350, p. 330.

[10] Jana Kasperkevic, ‘Rana Plaza Collapse: Workplace Dangers Persist Three Years Later, Reports Find,’ The Guardian, May 31, 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/may/31/rana-plaza-bangladesh-collapse-fashion-working-conditions.

[11] Hazel Clark, ‘SLOW + FASHION—an Oxymoron—or a Promise for the Future…?’, Fashion Theory 12, No. 4 (2008): 427-446, p. 444.

[12] Kate Fletcher, ‘Slow Fashion: An Invitation for Systems Change,’ Fashion Practice, 2, No. 2 (2010): pp. 259–266.

[13] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p. 83.

[14] Guilio Ceppi, ‘Slow + Design Manifesto’ (unpublished), 2006, p. 20, as cited in: Clark 2008, p. 440.

[15] Haraway 2016, p. 55.

[16] The essay ‘Blood Processing’ by Anna de Vriend is part of a larger research project that came into being as part of the Honours Programme of ArtEZ University of the Arts. The essay will be published online by APRIA as part of their first open call.

[17] Anna de Vriend, ‘Blood Processing,’ APRIA, forthcoming in Fall 2020.

[18] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. Roudiez(New York: Columbia University Press, 1982 [1980]).

[19] Haraway 2016, p. 2.

[20] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time Volume I: Swann’s Way. Trans. by C. K. Scott Moncrief and T. Kilmartin (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), p. 60.

[21] Rosie Findlay, ‘“Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”: Encountering Clothes, Imagining Selves,’ Cultural Studies Review 22, No. 1 (2016): pp. 78–94.

[22] Sophie Woodward, Why Women Wear What They Wear (Oxford: Berg, 2007), p. 3.

[23] Paul Sweetman, ‘Shop-Window Dummies? Fashion, the Body, and Emergent Socialities,’ in: Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson (eds), Body Dressing (Oxford / New York: Berg, 2003): 59-77, p. 66.

[24] Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes (London: Penguin,2014), p. 389.

[25] Ibid., p. 174.

[26] Louise Fresco, ‘Interview: Food & Fashion and the Impact of Science,’ APRIA 0 (2018), online publication: https://apria.artez.nl/crossovers/.

[27] Giulio Ceppi, ‘Slow + Design Manifesto’ (unpublished), 2006, p. 20, as cited in: Clark 2008, p. 440.

[28] Kate Fletcher, Wild Dress: Clothing & the Natural World (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2019), pp. 8-9.

[29] Haraway 2016, pp. 2-5.

Daniëlle Bruggeman

Daniëlle Bruggeman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Fashion at ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem. She teaches on the M.A. Fashion Strategy at ArtEZ and leads the Centre of Expertise Future Makers. The Fashion Professorship aims to develop critical theories and practices in order to explore, better understand, and rethink the cracks in the fashion system and the role that fashion plays—and could potentially play—in relation to urgent socio-cultural, environmental and political developments in contemporary society. Bruggeman holds a PhD in Cultural Studies, which was part of the first large-scale interdisciplinary research project on fashion in the Netherlands, ‘Dutch Fashion Identity in a Globalised World’ (2010-2014) at Radboud University in Nijmegen, which was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. She has been a visiting scholar at Parsons New School for Design (NYC) and at the London College of Fashion. She has published on topics like the fluid, performative and embodied dimensions of identity, (Dutch) fashion photography, and fashion as a new materialist aesthetics. Her publication Dissolving the Ego of Fashion: Engaging with Human Matters (ArtEZ Press, 2018) presents the main research themes of the Fashion Professorship.  

Hanka van der Voet

Hanka van der Voet works as a researcher, writer, publisher and educator in the field of fashion. Her main focus is fashion media and fashion language, and the power structures involved. Van der Voet is founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine Press & Fold | Notes on making and doing fashion, where she collaboratively explores alternative fashion forms and narratives. The magazine provides a platform for critical fashion practitioners who actively seek out the cracks and fissures in the current fashion system to propose new opportunities for making and doing fashion. She is also a founding member of Warehouse, a collective consisting of Elisa van Joolen, Femke de Vries and Hanka van der Voet, which aims to provide a platform for critical fashion practitioners through organising expert meetings, reading groups and exhibitions among other things. Van der Voet is senior lecturer on the M.A. Fashion Strategy at ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, and a researcher at the ArtEZ Fashion Professorship.