On Catastrophe

and capitalist distraction.

The best book I read last year was My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. It was the last one I bought before moving to Puerto Rico, for what I thought would be a month but ended up being rather permanent. When I read, likely with one of my last martinis as a Brooklyn resident in hand, “There is no history without catastrophe; to outline a history one had to narrate its catastrophes. And what could not be narrated could not be understood,” I underlined “no history without catastrophe” and knew I’d get it tattooed on me. A few weeks later, my life radically transformed, I did.

I know the power of narrating life’s catastrophes, the ways in which narrative allows us to understand what happened when often there’s an urge to bury grief and trauma. (I, a lifelong journal-er, have actually never known that urge.) As Hemon writes, “If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.” 

This line has remained in the forefront of my mind for the last year, as catastrophe, as crisis, have emerged on global and local scales. There were last year’s #RickyRenuncia protests, here in Puerto Rico, and then there were the earthquakes. In 2020, we have a pandemic that has laid bare how dependent we are upon each other, but powerful people have dug their heels into the ever-sinking sand of individualism and capitalism. As always—and by design—these twin ideologies kill the Black, the brown, the poor, the undocumented.

It’s in this context that I have spent much of the last week thoroughly enjoying the series “Yugosplaining the World,” in which academics from the former Yugoslavia write about war and the knowledge that living through catastrophe earns a person, where Hemon’s use of the word “catastrophe” is a through line, as it’s the siege of Sarajevo about which he was writing.

As the curator Shinya Watanabe wrote in 2005, “To think about Yugoslavia gives us a clue in thinking about the future of the post Nation-State world.”

This July marks the 25th anniversary of both the genocide in Srebrenica and the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian War. The introduction to the series notes that while the war was once viewed “by the West as idiosyncratic, isolated events, unrelated to broader process of political and economic transformation in the world,” it is now clear that it was prescient:

Yet now, as the West (and the allegedly democratized East) unravel under the weight of their own unresolved histories – and not just of the successive lost wars, financial crises or the pandemics – it seems that the ghosts of the 1990s are back to haunt us. Nationalism, ethnic and racial violence, populism, militias, lies and conspiracies can no longer be viewed as “the Balkan” phenomena. Instead, “the Balkans” now appears as the vanguard of a common catastrophe (Subotić, Hemon).

We know that there is no time to be overwhelmed by our current myriad catastrophes. The unfathomable is occurring, to everyone, through climate change. Reactions to this ticking of the clock vary, and one that reckons with the totality of it—the experience of disaster; the necessity of maintaining humanity during disaster—doesn’t come naturally to people in the U.S. Blame the individualism; blame the capitalism.

In the U.S., distractions that offer vague, ineffective solutions to the disaster being experienced are preferred. Instead of cancelling rent, mortgages, student loans—everything—completely during a pandemic, we send people back to work as soon as possible to get them off unemployment. Instead of eating a traditional Whopper at Burger King, we go for the Impossible Whopper. Anything to continue consuming, to pretend nothing is happening.

Tech meat, for me, has been a spot of obsession because of just how nakedly it distracts from the problem of climate change while branding itself a solution. Created by those with access to venture capital, tech meat—by which I mean Impossible Foods burgers, Beyond Meat products, cultured meat, all of it—suggests that the “problem” of meat’s greenhouse gas emissions and its role in climate change can be mitigated by the replacement of animal flesh with faux-animal flesh, made in similarly corporate, monocropped, uniform fashion, through technology. To me, this is simply a way of putting off the inevitable necessity of ending capitalism while placating people who simply require the taste of animal flesh. A bean burger could not do.

In light of catastrophe and expensive distractions such as tech meat, I’ve been obsessed with researching the ways in which people have dealt with food in times of crisis during which there weren’t VC-backed technologists at the ready with trademarked “solutions.”

The answer is, attention goes to what grows and what flows. Mushrooms have been cultivated in a Syrian refugee camp when the price of meat went up 650 percent; during the siege of Sarajevo, a local brewery helped people get clean water; as we continue to suffer a pandemic, fridges with free food and mutual aid groups have stepped in to care for their communities; in the Amazon, some are working to reforest and turn the agricultural focus away from modified soy and cattle. Solutions emerge—become obvious, even—when reality is confronted.

Confronting reality and crisis will be an ongoing project. To better understand that project, I’ve been reading more and more thinking on the concept of “degrowth,” defined as “an economic situation during which the economic wealth produced does not increase or even decrease,” in which sufficiency is sought and surplus goes back into the community from which it came; it is understood as an ongoing practice that will result in true decolonization (if it, in fact, decolonizes itself).

As Jamie Tyberg writes in, “Unlearning: From Degrowth to Decolonization” (h/t Rogue Chocolate): 

Our current industrial society deprives communities of their ability to manage the surplus energy they produce by emphasizing the individual above the collective. This conditioning process of individualization has oriented us so far from the systemic level that we are left unable to collectively construct meaning in life or restore our political sovereignty.   

I’ve also been reading, thanks to my friend Tia Keenan, about “Anarkata,” “a response to the political alienation that has been experienced by Black anarcho adjacent leftists who reject both the whiteness of traditional anarchism and the authoritarianism of some forms of Black nationalism”:

To this day, robbery of Afrikan resources remains crucial to how global capitalism operates. Negated from ‘humanity’ then, and exploited as and along with the dirt or cattle or crops—all of which have needs which go unrecognized— Black struggle becomes the “epitome” (as Annie Olaloku-Teriba says) of alienation and exploitation. The destruction of Afrika and Afrikan people is vital to the Euro-colonial system of vampirism, whose technologies need materials, labor and other resources stolen from Afrika.

I’ve been watching Angela Davis speak on veganism (again):

I am sometimes really disappointed that many of can assume that we are these radical activists but we don’t know how to reflect on the food that we put in our own bodies. We don’t realize the extent to which we are implicated in the whole process of capitalism by participating uncritically in the food politics offered us by the great corporations… I do think [veganism] is part of a revolutionary perspective.

These all feel of a part to me: about recovering what’s been stolen, about sharpening our minds to what’s been wrought by this theft and how we can act to undo it.

Historic catastrophe, historic crisis, provides a means to understand what we are experiencing today, but that doesn’t mean it provide answers. The answers to unique crises require dealing with reality without believing someone else will invent the right tools to stave off the inevitable. The individual composes the collective, and we must understand what solidarity really looks like, really feels like. There has been too much pushing of responsibility onto some government that doesn’t actually exist to create the perfect regulatory system that will fight climate change, complementing market initiatives. That’s a fallacy and a fantasy. That’s neoliberalism. “People have the power to redeem the work of fools.” We’re recognizing it.

Learning, reading, thinking are also ongoing projects. But there are visions for a world beyond the one in which we pretend we’re all out here on our own, in which we ignore both history and present in favor of incremental change when there’s no time for such a thing. I’m prepared to narrate catastrophe, and I’m also hopeful—just a little bit hopeful—that we can confront it. 

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will be with Claire Comstock-Gray, perhaps better known as Madame Clairevoyant, whose work at The Cut and book Madame Clairevoyant’s Guide to the Stars are indispensable for those into astrology. We’ll talk about the stars, about food, and about how she’s weathering this crisis.

I did an interview with Uses This about my gear—and found out my preferred notebook-maker, Baronfig, is worker-owned—and I’m aware of the irony of this newsletter being written right after that.

For Tenderly, how to make a giant peanut-butter cup with a shortbread crust.

This Thursday, I’m moderating a panel with MOFAD on the effects of the pandemic on meat consumption—if there have been any! My thinking will likely be influenced by more reading on degrowth. Register!

I’ve gotten some questions about how much I read in a week, and honestly—I don’t know. I sit at my computer all week reading regular media, reading academic work and philosophy, and occasionally cracking a book about food. I am precisely as pretentious as I sound. All this will change slightly as I’m now focusing on my book and will be trying not to take too many assignments (as my bank account allows—subscribe here!); my reading will zero in on what it needs to be to write the book, which will be a lot of cookbooks and food history and vegan thought/zines. Do recommend anything, please!

Weekends I spend trying not to read anything at all about food to give my brain room to breathe. That’s when I read, like, literature, as they call it. This weekend, that was My Struggle, Book 1; a revisiting of Gary Indiana’s collected Village Voice art criticism from the mid-’80s, Vile Days; and Kate Zambreno’s chapbook Toilet Bowl: Notes on Why I Write.

Note: Every book I link to in the newsletter, I link with a Bookshop.org affiliate link when available, meaning if anyone clicks through and makes a purchase, Bookshop kicks me a few bucks, which I then use to buy more books.

I made a stir-fry of red onion, carrot, cabbage, and mushroom (all local), which we ate with a skin-contact Gewürztraminer. We ate, frankly, a lot of Costco frozen vegetable spring rolls. While working, I dipped very juicy carambola into peanut butter, because I cannot be motivated to cook anything for myself all day. I work by the grace of the iced Americanos served at Cuatro Estaciones.

This Wednesday, paid subscribers will have a chance to discuss the ways in which capitalism makes it difficult to confront crises—and what that confrontation would look like in food.