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Essay

Grocery Shopping at the End of the World

by Molly MacVeagh

Part of the series New Directions in Thing Theory for Literary Studies: A Forum.

When Cedar, the protagonist of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, comes to terms with the impending apocalypse, she makes a grocery list. On her way back to the Twin cities, she’ll need to “hit a big Cub or Rainbow market” for a “stock of powdered milk,” as well as “peanut butter. Durum pasta. Rice, beans, lentils.” She wants liquor for trading, too, “and salt…a lot of salt. We’ll need it whatever we become.” [1] Against the novel’s specter of climate crisis and human mutation, Cedar’s list seems a sensible one—shelf-stable, protein-heavy, alive to the contours of human need and human want. I, too, would take peanut butter to the end of the world.

Yet in the generic context of apocalyptic fiction, there is something surprising about Cedar’s careful attention to domestic provisioning. “The lure of generalized disaster as a fantasy,” Susan Sontag writes, “is that it releases us from normal obligations.” [2] Apocalyptic climate narratives beckon in part because of this release: they offer an imaginative space where collective crisis provides collective clarity, and the urgency of the threat suspends the need for things like dusting, dishwashing, and hashing out policy changes. Early arguments about genre and climate fiction played out along similar lines. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, for instance, he suggests that the literary novel—and specifically the realist novel—is unsuited to grapple with climate crisis. The Anthropocene’s essence, he writes, “consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.” [3] Further, the “calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it.” [4] For Ghosh, this means the improbable events of climate change are extremely difficult to embed in the narrative structures of literary fiction. The sheer improbability of Sontag’s “generalized disaster” and climate crisis’s “unthinkable magnitudes” resist representation in the kind of novel that dwells on grocery shopping. Things may be terrible in these stories, but they are not mundane.

In this argument, climate fiction seems initially incompatible with thing theory. If Ghosh calls for a new climate literature capable of stretching the possible and connecting the disparate, thing theory’s concern with the things-at-hand—and Erdrich’s concern with what’s for dinner—seem an unlikely answer to his call. Yet in the rest of this essay I want to make the case that the everydayness of food consumption and preparation offers a vital site for ecocritical thought, and that thing theory is useful to this thinking. Food studies has often taken up questions of the thing. Books like Lauren Klein’s An Archive of Taste address the material challenges of historical food research, while Kyla Wazana Tompkin’s foundational Racial Indigestion illuminates the way that boundaries “between person and thing” are troubled in kitchen contexts.” [5] Thing theory, however, has shied away from “food objects and food-adjacent objects,” perhaps precisely because of this boundary slippage. [6] I want to treat this slipperiness as an opportunity. First, I will offer several examples of the way recent climate fiction lingers over procuring food. Next, I will read these foodstuffs according to recent new materialist paradigms, before suggesting that those paradigms of connectivity might be more productively considered in terms of destruction and maintenance. Thing theory, I posit, might be uniquely suited to capturing the relations of power and paradox that characterize Anthropocene eating. As literary food troubles the line between subject, object, and thing, it serves as a valuable reminder that sustenance is imbricated with the question of what gets destroyed.

Since Crusoe and his ecstatic lists of things-to-do, survival narratives have often moved the work of feeding and homemaking from novelistic background to the level of plot. Think, for instance, about the foregrounded business of eating in Thoreau’s Walden, or Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Recent climate stories seem to be operating similarly, accessing the “unbearably intimate connections” of life in the Anthropocene through depicting quotidian labor, rather than through that labor’s narrative subordination. In Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, for instance, whole pages of the protagonist’s interior monologue are preoccupied with provisioning. “Once we were in the store,” she muses, “it was time to buy that precious 7 Up, along with some Beef William, also jalapeño peppers, avocados, onions, potatoes, carrots, radishes, toms, cukes, celery, lettuce, eight dozen dessert apples, limes, lemons…bread, grape jelly, peanut butter, tuna fish, tsunami, pastrami, cheese slices, pickles, pickled beans, pickle relish, mustard, ‘mannaize’.” [7] Ellmann’s novel is concerned with rising seas and warming winters. It is also concerned with running out of milk. These concerns sit uncomfortably together, leaving the literary maximalism (1,000 pages of novel consisting of just one enormous sentence) and the apparent plenitude of the American grocery store haunted by the prospect of scarcity. The shelves are still full in Ellmann’s dystopian present, but the threat of tsunami turns up with the tuna fish.

In Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, set in the American future, the grocery shelves are bleaker. At a rain dance gathering, Luz and her partner, Ray, are looking for food:

For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray…Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep. [8]

Here, Watkins indexes the difficulties of dinner in a warmed world not through absence, but through lists of degraded objects. There is food, “for now.” You can even have raspberries if you’re willing to pick out the aphids, or avocado if you’ll risk tears. Ray is moderately successful on his first mission, coming back from the pusher with a “growler of mash, a baggie of almonds and six cloves of Garlic the pusher called Gilroy, though nothing had grown in Gilroy for a decade.” [9] He hears rumors that somebody has Seattle blueberries and asks Luz if she wants to join, an expedition that sets them back two-hundred dollars and a tennis bracelet. Watkins’ grocery shopping, like Ellmann and Erdrich’s, manages to be simultaneously mundane and portentous. Gilroy, California, we learn matter of factly, is no longer arable. But you can still have little baggies of almonds if you’re willing to pay the price.

Taken together, these lists are soothing insofar as they are concrete, insofar as they promise continuity. To make a grocery list is to imagine a future, to engage proleptic hunger, to acknowledge the possibility that you’ll be alive next week to finish the celery. These lists are less soothing insofar as they mark a lack: a milkless fridge, an emptying carton, a missing link in the global supply chain. They are less soothing insofar as their imperative mood reminds us just how inescapable this particular set of obligations is. Eat this. Buy that. Eat something. Or else. As Dipesh Chakrabarty explains, climate change is not a “one-event problem.” It is not the stuff of speculative possibility. In our contemporary moment, climate crisis is imbricated with and implicated in multiple geopolitical challenges. It is more and more the context in which we dwell. Dwelling in crisis means grocery lists are documents of contingency even as they are documents of hope. The things listed therein evoke those supposedly expelled “unbearable intimacies” of time and space in simply expressing the concatenated subject-object relations of cooking and eating. When Luz feeds her found family, it is a kind of interpersonal intimacy, the standard fare of realist novels. But in inscribing that act within narratives of global drought, degraded farmland, and uncertain futures, Watkins also leverages intimacies at a larger scale: the very networks that Ghosh maintains were “long ago expelled” from the novel. Against the backdrop of crisis, the mundane becomes anything but.

This move—finding the unexpectedly vital and potentially enchanting in familiar edible matter—is a common one in new materialist theorizing. As Maria Christou suggests in Eating Otherwise, “the material-based mutability” of this “new” wave of thinking about being “enables, and even invites, the employment of alimentary perspective.” [10] This perspective is visible in Jane Bennett’s suggestion that “enhanced alertness to edible matter can contribute to a theory of vital materiality.” [11] It’s visible, too, in Stacy Alaimo’s suggestion that “trans-corporeality,” or the understanding that the human is ultimately inseparable from the environment, might be best explained through eating. “What are some of the routes through person and place?” Alaimo asks, “Perhaps the most palpable trans-corporeal substance is food, since eating transforms plants and animals into human flesh.” [12] This transformation, Chad Lavin argues, “offers the most intense and material reminder of the mutual dependence of living creatures across the globe.” [13] Food, read through a new materialist theoretical apparatus, indexes a kind of networked relationality that disrupts narratives of human exceptionalism and independent liberal subjecthood.

I find these framings helpful insofar as they can be used to uncover climatological dimensions in almost any novel. Got a dinner scene? Great! You also have a networked portrait of other-than-human interdependence. Some novels actively encourage these readings. In Richard Powers’ The Overstory, for instance, Douglas, who works planting trees for corporate carbon offsets, suddenly comes to terms with the implications of his labor. Those companies he plants for get “good-citizen” credits for every tree he places, allowing them to raise their annual allowable cut. He’s “putting in babies so they can kill grandfathers,” creating “monocrop blights…drive-through diners for happy insect pests.” [14] Shaken, Douglas goes home to bed. When he wakes up, he’s “missed the complimentary continental breakfast by four hours,” but a merciful hotel clerk sells him “an orange, a chocolate bar, and a cup of coffee, three priceless tree treasures that get him to the public library. Planting seedlings has done nothing but green light more colossal clear-cuts. It’s dinnertime when Douggie accepts this fact beyond all doubt. He has eaten nothing all day since his three tree gifts. But the idea of eating again—ever—nauseates him.” [15] Framing the orange, chocolate, and coffee as “tree treasures” returns them to the thickness of their origins. Instead of alienated objects, Douggie’s makeshift breakfast becomes inscribed in a variant of transcorporeal logic. These products came from something and somewhere, plant matter that becomes human sustenance. In the novel’s context of monocrop blights and dead tree grandfathers, the ecological foundations of that sustenance appear under threat. Powers’ thick metonymy puts this meal in contiguous relation to environmental crisis.

Yet speaking of “tree gifts”—especially in a book like Powers’, which is frankly suspect in its representations of race and disability—also occludes the work of the coffee and orange pickers, the trade agreements, the people who transported the products from the fields to Douggie’s mouth. Because of the constraints of narrative (namely: representation is always selection), putting the breakfast products in explicit relation to their arboreal producers deemphasizes the human cost even as it indexes vibrant material relations. Maurizia Boscagli suggests the tendency to fetishize this liveliness is ideologically dangerous. “We cannot stop at the ecstatic response,” she writes, “the chief affects of new materialisms cannot be just fascination in front of the vibrancy and the marvel of a materiality that works by itself, because we declare that its mobility always produces something new.” [16] And as Sarah Wasserman suggests in The Death of Things, although foregrounding distributed agency in more-than-human relationships “has given us provocative new ways to evaluate the importance of objects… it prizes liveliness over death or disappearance and elides the inevitably important role that humans play vis-à-vis objects in each of these realms.” [17] Rather than stand, awed, before the assemblage, Wasserman proposes careful attention to the way “the vanishing object is constitutive of the enduring subject, not incidental to it.” [18] My hunch here is twofold: first, this insight is particularly resonant in the context of ecocriticism and anthropogenic climate change because so much of that discourse toggles between the twin poles of disappearance and endurance. Second, food (a category that rubs uncomfortably against the borders of subject, object, and thing) is well situated to collapse that very polarity, and in so doing, make space for more nuanced conversations about what exactly we are interested in sustaining.

If new materialism’s primary affect is awe, thing theory’s affective stance might be a kind of wry frustration. Here I’m thinking of John Plotz’s point that the approach acknowledges the inability to attribute meaning to the object world where it had also attributed mystery. [19] I’m thinking about Bill Brown’s point that we confront objects’ thingness “when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been disrupted, however momentarily.” [20] And I’m thinking about Priyanka Ann Jacob’s argument that thing theory is fundamentally literary insofar as texts share those thingy properties of “opacity, persistence, fragmentation, and resistance.” [21] These articulations are striking in their emphasis on limits: on the unknowable, the opaque, the non-functional. When Ray makes survival lists in Gold Fame Citrus: “-matches –crackers  -L –water …or –candles –alcohol —peanuts –L –water ….or, often, only,  -L –water,” the objects accreted within them speak to persistence even as they mark a narrative breakdown. [22] As narrative, these lists are unsatisfying: things without a sense of relation, continuity without development. But it is also precisely this frustration that renders them useful in the context of a climate story. As vanishing objects literally constitutive of subjects-trying-to-endure, these unsatisfactory lists enact in miniature the dynamic of continuity amid an apparently ending world.

Let me take the second hunch—that food serves to productively trouble standard thing/object/subject relations—more slowly. Eating, in bell hooks’ now-classic assertion, is about power. Eating the food of the other “is a way to say, ‘death, I am eating you’ thereby conquering fear and acknowledging power. White racism, imperialism, and sexist domination prevail by courageous consumption. It is by eating the Other…that one asserts power and privilege.” [23] Yet for all consumption, particularly “courageous consumption,” can be an act of violence, it is also never a straightforward act of identity confirmation. When you think too hard about your pringles, about the motion of peristalsis or the inevitability of going to the bathroom, the process of eating begins to feel unsettling. As Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd argue, “Each body exists in relations of interdependence with other bodies and these relations form a ‘world’ in which individuals of all kinds exchange their constitutive parts—leading to the enrichment of some and the demise of others.” [24] Here destruction and enhancement happen simultaneously. “Sustenance,” that etymological cousin of “sustainability,” is explicitly a relation of destruction even as it indexes maintenance.

This paradox becomes even more apparent when the focus is explicitly on literary—not literal—food. As Susanne Skubal points out, “while we can note that the sexual fantasy, phone, or even cybersex will ‘do the trick,’ phantasmic food will not nourish, the word is never further than the thing, though irony may find them in the same orifice.” [25] Food in literature—particularly literature of the climate apocalypse—stages its own inability to provide extra-textual nourishment in its formal role as vanishing object. As Sharon P. Holland, Marcia Ochoa, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins explain in a GLQ issue on the visceral, “the logics of desire and consumption in (post)colonial circuits reveal the carnal processes though which our bodies are materialized as queer, through which they are racialized. These processes produce us as subjects and objects simultaneously, and…the theoretical pressure that the visceral conjures as the line between subject and object—the line between my shit and your shit—becomes increasingly obfuscated in a neoliberal, post-neocolonial, environmentally apocalyptic world.” [26] What I’ve been considering here is the possibility that the frustrations of literary food—its inability to nourish, to catalyze narrative progress, to clearly mark the subject—productively leverage this obfuscation. These grocery lists, like Brown’s broken drill, do not carry momentum and so draw attention to themselves. In that moment of frustration, of literary opacity, the messiness of Anthropocene eating comes in through the back door.

Held in tandem with the emphasis on power from GLQ and hooks, thing theory renders the seemingly mundane accumulation of grocery lists and dinner plans in contemporary climate novels an index of the ways in which maintenance work both responds to and entails destruction. Emphasizing the sheer labor of sustaining a human body—the constant change that underlies any semblance of a stable living situation—this theoretical conjunction offers a rejoinder to the line of argument that conflates stability with stasis and realism with limited scale. This has implications for genre, as well as for theoretical method. Against the version of climate fiction that relies on improbable events and suspended normalcy, food’s slide between subject, object, and thing embeds the paradoxes of climate change in the domestic scenes of realism. In tempering the prosaic futurity of meal planning with narratives of global ending, the fictional foods of climate novels emphasize the everyday violence of dwelling in crisis.

Next in the series: “Ovid Rewritten: Objectification, Fragmentation, and Transformation in the Writing of Toni Morrison and Robin Coste Lewis” by Grace McGowan. 


Notes

[1] Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God (Harper Perennial, 2017), 28.

[2] Erdrich, 210.

[3] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016), 63.

[4] Ghosh, 24.

[5] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York University Press, 2012), 17.

[6] Jennifer Malone, “Ready to Eat? Modernist Food-Objects and the Sculptural Avant-Garde,” Modernism/Modernity Print Plus, 2019, https://doi.org/10.26597/mod.0106.

[7] Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019), 291.

[8] Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books, 2015), 17.

[9] Watkins, 16.

[10] Maria Christou, Eating Otherwise: the Philosophy of Food in Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 16.

[11] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010), 40.

[12] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Indiana University Press, 2010), 12.

[13] Chad Lavin, Eating Anxiety: the Perils of Food Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 153.

[14] Richard Powers, The Overstory (W.W. Nortion & Co., 2018), 186.

[15] Powers, 187.

[16] Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism (Bloomsbury, 2014), 14.

[17] Sarah Wasserman, The Death of Things (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 13.

[18] Wasserman, 9.

[19] John Plotz, “How to do Things with Things: Materiality in Theory,” Arcade, 2017, https://arcade.stanford.edu/content/how-do-things-things-materiality-theory.

[20] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” Critical Inquiry, no. 1 (2001): 4.

[21] Priyanka Anne Jacob, “Surfaces and Signs: On the Pond in Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond,” Arcade, 2017, https://arcade.stanford.edu/content/surfaces-and-signs-pond-claire-louise-bennett%E2%80%99s-pond.

[22] Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, 18.

[23] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Taylor and Francis, 2014), 36.

[24] Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (New York: Routledge, 2002), 101.

[25] Susan Skubal, Food and Fiction after Freud (Routledge, 2002), 54.

[26] Sharon P. Holland, Marcia Ochoa, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, “On the Visceral,” GLQ 20, no. 4 (2014): 394.

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