In May 2016, I handed Metabolic Living to the individual I call Mary in its pages. For years she had guided me through the neighborhood that anchors the book, through homes and clinics and their connective spaces. Now, she flipped through the book’s pages. A lot of text, a picture here and there. She looked up. “No recipes?”
I had no good response at the time. What sort of recipe would be adequate to lead a reader through a book of tastes: tastes of the creep of metabolic disease, of body-city blurs, of people eating food and of disease eating people? The food in Mumbai and the Mumbai in food are connected domains of absorption, and most days, people can sit with that. But diabetes and obesity unseat comfortable mix-ups. In hopes of a fix, expert and lay knowledges demand a rewind from a recipe’s end product. Surely there’s a discernible problem in there. Just keep breaking things down, we are told. There must be a recipe in there, we hear. Maybe you can find it through reverse-engineering, a recipe pushed backwards.
It is tempting to let ethnography mirror these demands for elemental beginnings and rewinds. But as the respondents in this Forum note, that is a tricky proposition. Each offers a different take on the scramble of mixture and bare ingredients in the book. Each offers a challenge as to how to read and write the metabolism moving forward. I am deeply grateful for their thoughts.
The comments converge on questions of porosity and absorption, which are the book’s central themes. How much openness is truly viable? How do people and places concretize a tussle over the margins between body and environment? The commenters parse these questions generously, through cases of alimentary uncertainty in real-time events, in philosophy, in global politics, and in ethnographic method. My hope in writing Metabolic Living was precisely to provoke questions like these. A recipe is a directive, one easily followed (ideally). But during fieldwork and while writing the book, what became clear was the impossibility of a clear recipe for injured metabolisms and their redress. The book, then, focuses on how people live out that problem.
People with metabolic disease are eaten alive, physiologically. In clinical contexts and elsewhere, they face demands to unscramble their mixtures—of political formations, of daily rhythms of food and work, of hopeful answers found in biomedicine and surgery. Confusions between cause and context proliferated. Yet no recipe was at hand for people to explain that confusion. The demand for an explanation, though, left marks. The book traces how people must still live (and eat) amidst ever-changing and ever-increasing expert knowledges about morbid and mortal body-environment haziness. The commenters take this incongruity in several compelling directions.
Heather Paxson’s lucid and prescient thoughts take us to border zones. “Food does stuff to people,” she writes. The people in her essay here are not patients, however, and this is one of its sources of insight. The people are travelers, and also the USDA and Border Protection inspectors who make food a problem of geographic uncertainty. “To be sure, absorptions of ‘foreign bodies’ into the American ‘homeland’ happen all the time via designated ‘points of entry’ (airports, shipping ports),” Heather writes. A mango seizure in an airport basement rescales the absorptions between what counts as element what counts as mixture. From the body-city, street-mouth pathways that occupied me, Heather’s comments take me to the hours of air travel that enabled the book to in the first place. At each end of the journey, there are always pangs of anxiety. There are treats to bring for relatives, informants, and mentors. Obligations to fulfill. Heather accounts for the many different desires to regulate the stuff of obligations. In doing so, she demonstrates how the passage-points of border zones crystallize a sensorial politics of control.
This is especially evident in Heather’s recounting of the film Mango/India, where she questions the slash between the film’s titular elements. A Border Protection guard bisects fruits to inspect them. Seeing requires cutting. The guard cuts the final product open, back to its seed. She is alert to pests who may have hitched a ride. The guard tries to rewind, to think back to the elements. But if the alarm goes off, it’s really the combine that gets chucked.
What, then, constitutes causality when things are taken out of their ordinal position (first, second, third; third, second, first), and turned back into plain-old cardinal positions? What happens when morbidity, and recourses to stem it, feels like a game of duck-duck-goose? Ed Cohen’s wonderful essay notes parenthetically that “although whether obesity is a cause or an effect of metabolic disorders remains an open question.” This insight is open, indeed, and draws upon his fascinating writings on vital and mortal milieux to address a broader concern: What kind of ethnographic analysis and writing can face this looping of cause and effect? Ed’s thinking about the blur of cause-effect reminded me of Carlo Ginzburg’s reflections on conjecture: “When causes cannot be repeated, there is no alternative but to infer them from their effects” (1979: 23). So it is with metabolic disease, too: food, like the bodies eating it, is pre-disease. A preamble to morbidity. A precursor to the zigzag paths between living and dying.
Ed delves into the political valences of this tangle. His reminder that Claude Bernard was a committed vivisectionist is striking. The one who opens the body to discern its insides is surely the one to declare inside-outside recursivity complete. Ed explains how an incommensurable notion—outside/inside—can become a force of governance. This surfaces in his own work on immunity. But it is quite resonant for India as well. For many South Asian Studies scholars, the “public” of contemporary India has been an ingredient problem, a question of which elements can add up to a sensible aggregate. In Mumbai, this is the basic stuff of daily events: whose claims to the city incorporate as an acceptable urban form? For Ed, though, there is a challenge here: it is actually “public health,” that deserves analysis, not simply the public. The public is always in compounded relation to bodies and vitality. Ed kindly notes that the book “helps us to understand that governing from the inside out leaves a lot to be desired.” The shape of that desire is where I now turn, thinking through the reflections that Stefan Ecks offers.
Stefan points out the book’s preoccupation with “an incomprehensible agency of the individual ‘metabolism’.” He shares with me inspiration from writings in South Asian studies that take food as the hinge between self and society. The challenge I faced in my own fieldwork was that “science” qua biomedicine upset any comfort one might take from such models. This is because of the forensic force of nutrition. For instance, nutritionists walked patients backwards through the day in order to uncover some hint of bodily rupture. Stefan’s interest lies in “the different knowledge effects of metabolic sciences” in Mumbai. My answer to that interest is to suggest that metabolic science is not a mix terribly amenable to isolation. This is a problem facing ethnographers, too. Anthropologists want answers to questions about meaning (such as Stefan’s interest in knowing “what does that mean, exactly?” in reference to people in Mumbai naming body-work as slow or imbalanced.) I am reminded here of Katie Stewart’s reflection on people’s “vaguely relevant descriptions of the ungraspable things.” For Stewart, reports of things felt or seen “are like bread crumbs left to initiate the very recognition of a problematic that has to be walked around and examined from angles and lines of egress” (Stewart 2016: 34). Movement is key here (and indeed, my questions into how a person possibly sensed metabolic disorders often were answered with the pithy chalta hai, “It’s going.”) Stefan asks questions aimed at precision, but what is the nature of this ask? My sense is that our current toolkit of inquiry has a static fuzz to it, rather like forensic inquiry of certain sciences of the body. The tools at hand offer us certain questions: “How did we get to Z from A? Surely, we must go backwards to trace it.” And that, I agree with Stefan, is a necessary pursuit. Sometimes. But metabolism has no emergency brake one might pull in the name of inquiry. It’s fidgety. One must find precision in movement.
In movement, one might be able to work out of the problem of too-open or too-closed, one of the driving thoughts that Bharat elaborates. Bharat unpacks this question through food writer Madhur Jaffrey’s wisdom. It is the wisdom of substitution: “Missing a vital ingredient? No problem, (Jaffrey) explains, soothing the anxious home cook while laying out an array of alternatives.” So many of the dietitians I observed did precisely this, substituting this for that, atta (wheat flour) instead of maida (white flour); baked snacks instead of fried ones; more vegetables instead of more rice. The soothing of Jaffrey’s cookbook prose comes from implied comfort that you can scramble the ingredients and things will still wind up ok. Bharat is likely unaware that I received a copy of Jaffrey’s memoir Climbing the Mango Trees as a going-away present on the cusp of fieldwork. The book, and Jaffrey’s mode of taste-memory-pedagogy has been a longtime friend. It is a delight to return to in Bharat’s writing.
Bharat raises the issue of “remaking oneself and others” through cooking. Like Cohen, he stays with the trouble of the politics that emerge in remaking. One has to be open for remaking, willing to eat the dry crackly snack instead of the (likely) more satisfying fried one. Crucially, Bharat hovers on the potential of being closed off to rearrangements: “there is also a value in closedness, in creating and maintaining selective porosities within tragic milieus that are figured as simultaneously nutritious and toxic.” He titrates this in the face of anthropological accountability to current events the US, India, and elsewhere where one can quickly succumb to nourishing one’s own likeness, and walling off others in the process.
“Absolute closure is impossible,” Bharat writes. The task at hand might then be to proceed with close attention to the things that are more “gateways” than “obstacles,” to use Heather’s contrast. If you can’t close the cookbook, and paging through it in order brings no relief, perhaps it is time to release a bit from attachment to the procedural or forensic force of recipes. The liveliest option may be to open the book, to wherever it may go, and stay.
Ginzburg, C. 1980. “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.” History Workshop 9: 5-36
Stewart, K. 2016. “The Point of Precision.” Representations 135: 31-44.
Harris Solomon is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Global Health at Duke University.