“Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge,” Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement (2016); “[t]o recognize, then, is not the same as an introduction” (4). Dashing for cover under the eye of a tornado in Delhi 1978, we, as readers, follow Ghosh into unfamiliar territory, from outer space and Star Wars onto the shore of the Padma River in Bangladesh. Over the next 160 pages, Ghosh asks: why does modern literature avoid the topic of climate change? His answer—that modern literature created, and preserved, an aesthetic discontinuity between human and nonhuman responsibilities—marks out a challenge for food studies: how best can the field narrate the anthropogenic constructions of industrial agriculture and food systems?
The Great Derangement delivers an ecological critique regarding how fiction, ethnography, and the novelistic setting work together to preserve imaginations of the ecological world and our moral place within it. Its use of literary criticism, political theory, environmental history, and environmental geography demonstrates a key point: that the ethical and moral debates within our narrative practices are essentially a matter of aesthetics.
Ghosh describes the literary aesthetic and its hold on a modern ethics of human sovereignty through three broad arguments about our storied selves, our historical, ecological injustices, and our political discourses. As he points out, the narrative of human action and collective aptitude was central to the call for global climate action in the 2015 Conference of the Parties Paris Climate Agreement. But in comparison with Pope Francis’s Encyclical, he says, the Paris Agreement becomes recognizable as a homogenizing, controlled narrative of faith in universal human knowledge’s ability to transform the future. In contrast, the Encyclical, a religious document, acknowledges that radical change is only possible when accessed from outside the rational space of human sociopolitical spheres—an awakening beyond the sovereign self: spiritually, religiously, or otherwise.
Ghosh is not dismissing the importance of detailed, concrete modifications of policy. What he suggests is that political change today requires, not greater specificity, but an aesthetic reorientation: toward an expanded sense of narrative continuity that cuts through the delimitations that we have placed on moral and ethical discourse within the circumscribed boundaries of rationality. This call is a unique challenge for interdisciplinary food studies. To what extent, Ghosh might ask, does food studies present a space for researchers to transcend their positions as observers, participants, artists, activists, researchers, policymakers? To what extent does it bridge imagination and reality, culture, and (arte)fact?
While The Great Derangement pays no special attention to food, the ecological stakes that it presents are of particular importance to the current state of food studies. Speculative excitement around food runs deep within the methodical clairvoyance of food futurists and vital food materialists on the one hand and the ritualistic caution of political economy and agrarian studies on the other. However, these approaches consider phenomena that are not mutually exclusive. The ontological significance of food and the negotiation of land use, sovereignty, and justice are interdependent. The vitality of food objects—such as a tasteless, phytonutrient-deficient tomato—implicates the vitality of food systems; the ecological costs and injustices of abstract sociopolitical discourse manifest in steroid-laden early adolescents and children who receive food aid in the form of monocultures. What Ghosh suggests is that the narrative unit of analysis may converge with a broader one of imagination. Just as work on urban agriculture and agroecological transitions needs to consider how food-growing affects the landscape, studies of food’s vitality also need to attend to actual struggles of austerity, poverty, and justice.
As Ghosh shows us, the non-speculative can be written through the aesthetics of spectacle. The path for the former is well-illuminated: sites of consumption continue to enable voyeuristic ingestion. The latter path, however, is less explored. Ghosh shows us one particular option: by exposing the visceral reality of environmental change on the human self, he holds together the tension between observation and participation-through-representation, ethnography’s eternal and internal dilemma. Ghosh also suggests other ways forward: instead of writing narratives that reinforce ecological spatial discontinuity (of nation state but also the ecological landscape as scene)—perhaps swap that with a bioregional mise-en-scene? Instead of writing novels with a resolutely stoic linear plot and overdetermined characters, perhaps aim for the generative, where the reader builds with the writer? Experimental narrative presumes an experimental audience, thereby projecting this reading public into the world. Given calls for better scientific communication about climate change, transmitting continuities between the world and imagination through food scholarship is no longer a matter of superfluous aesthetics.
Huiying Ng explores links between urban agriculture, open/welcoming spaces for new imaginings of urban life, and community resilience. She is involved in non-profit and research work and is finishing a Master’s at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, on agroecological learning assemblages in Southeast Asia. She is part of the Foodscape Collective, a Singapore-based group that works to learn about and imagine alternative food systems, and TANAH, a nature-food duo. She is guided by ideas of ecological and activist citizenship, autonomy and human motivation, and works toward creating the social environments necessary to support them.