The New Inquiry Vol. 48: Appetites

This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 48: Appetites. View the full table of contents here.

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THE chief distinction between human and monster is the scale and ferocity of their appetite. When we talk of the monstrousness that marks greed and addiction, we are referring to appetites out of proportion. To be unable to rein in desire, even when it is violent, criminal, self-destructive, is to become morally other.

Yet even as society moralizes against appetite, economic relations militate its increase. Scientists fill food with salt, oil and chemicals that make it irresistible; ads clutter every visual field; the self-driven 80-hour-a-week entrepreneur is seen as the peak performing subject. The most basic assumption of neoclassical economics is that the consumer appetite is limitless, voracious enough to inevitably consume anything we can produce.

Liberal society claims that the rule of law and the social contract protects us from each others’ appetites. But such a containment is impossible, and so the law becomes a way of deciding whose appetites are legitimate hunger and whose are criminal obscenity. Appetite’s contradictions are opportunistically seized upon, if not deliberated generated, to discipline those unruly poor, nonwhite, nonmale people whose appetites crave a different world.

But it’s more than just a contradiction facing individuals. With appetite as the prompt, disgust is a byproduct. Revulsion can trigger appetites that seek reform or redress--or a self-imposed starvation out of spite towards what you’re being served. A shared irrepressible desire for freedom and justice mark all revolutionary struggles. And an appetite for blood and domination can describe the collective sensation that justifies war and animates Trump rallies.

Appetite is a force that dictates, whose regulation splits our days and desires. We either submit to this force or dedicate ourselves to disciplining it. It persists when hunger is satiated, demanding the excesses of emotion and experience that can be turned into art, dance, sex, and friendship. Society is cooked in the gap between appetite and need.

In their essay “Meat Market” for this issue, Britney Summit-Gil and David A. Banks take Anthony Bourdain’s new eponymous Market in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea as a sample of the contemporary taste for authenticity. By shipping in the representatives of the kind of far-flung global cuisine Bourdain has built his television celebrity on, the market will seek to provide consumers an encounter with the aura of “real” food. But only the reality of Bourdain’s cultural authority may survive the journey.

Christine Baumgarthuber reviews Cuisine and Empire, a recent book that aims to account for the food that fed and flowed from colonialism. It traces a tendential liberation from the labor-intensive, nutrient-poor fare that most people ate most of the time, and the transition to a meaty, fatty diet enjoyed by the colonizing countries as they experienced an explosive growth in territory and population at the expense of most of the rest of the world. The insatiable nature of European expansion was reflected in its changing appetites; what it chewed up along the way may still be tasted on its breath.

One of those changing habits is the French taste for horse meat, which emerged in the late 1800s as a positivist hygienic movement: It seemed a more humane to end workhorses’ lives in an abbattoir rather than a glue factory, plus the urban poor needed cheap protein. But the taste for mare has faded, and the once prevalent horse butchers are disappearing. Chloé Roubert interviews one of the last in business in Paris.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a document from the grain-heavy era first published in 1499, shows that architecture too is an arena of desire. This hypererotic epic is as much about buildings as about bodies, with its ur-flâneur protagonist consuming the city in a way that undoes the “colonial and propagandist objectification of building as tool of control,” according to Monica Datta’s essay “City Hunger.” Rereading this book now, she writes, gives us a way to counter living in “a forest of ruin.”

In “Unfit for Consumption,” Remina Greenfield reads the way that women, disgust, and desire intersect in the charged space of the subway ad. Controversy over images of grapefruit and eggs meant to advertise “underwear for people who menstruate” shows the way that images of woman as consumer rather than consumed are taken to be obscene.

Yurina Ko explores the anomalous female appetite in an essay about small women in competitive eating contests. The spectacle of a small girl eating more than her weight in ribs enthralls because of the contradiction she presents — the adult child who seems to defy logic and limits. An illusion sustained through disordered eating.

In Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, the protagonists experience an eating disorder of a different kind: They have forgotten how to feed themselves. Malcolm Harris’s review treats the novel as a parable of how capitalist intermediation of the social process of feeding one another has broken the link between appetite and the hope of satisfaction. And in Chantal Akerman’s films, as Brittany Stigler explains, rituals of cooking and eating correspond with displaced sexual desires or internal disturbances and intimate the muffled violence that organizes the domestic sphere.

The supply chains that satisfy consumer tastes bear with them a masked military history. In “War Comes Home for Dinner,” Jesse Connuck reviews a book written by a mother who became curious about the pre-prepared lunches she was packing for her children and discovered just how much of it was based on military technology.

The ultimate in capitalist disintermediation of the food chain may be lab-grown meat. In “Bloodless Coop,” Sam Smith looks at the anxieties around the consumption of manufactured flesh, examining religious and ethical as well as economic debates. “Test tube meat” must seem natural enough to eat while also seeming to improve on the current violence and waste endemic to human management of the food chain. How will meat sate our bloodlust if those juices never coursed through a living being?

The question of whether appetites always hinge on containing, mitigating, or unleashing violence has serious implications for the ways in which our wants are interknit with others’. If appetites were truly unleashed, would monstrous excess spill into collective creativity? Would we find the end of want? Would we know at last what we really want? How much of appetite is just an assertion of who gets to ask for more?

A hearty appetite meets the contradictions of a society bent on cultivating hunger, makes one able to stomach the way death is portioned out socially along lines that trace past atrocities, and to let it all pass through you so you’re ready to ask for more. Appetite binds you to the social and develops a taste for it in you, and for you in it. The real difference between a monster and a human is that we can't cannibalize a monster.