Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Soupe au Cochon (or, A Wrinkle in Time)
Time is a substance; it accretes unevenly to objects, clings, seeps and penetrates, abrades. Like the molecules that in their aggregation give an object its heft, its solidity, time (as duration, as movement into futurity) is essential to an object's materiality. Just as friction or chemical reaction may erode an object's features, may alter its substance and form, temporality can be lost as an object mutates, headed either towards an oblivion of insubstantiality or a renaissance of new use that obscures its elder lives. Time could in fact be described as the infinite history of an object's materialization. Thickness of temporality, combined with the potentialities imbued by its physical composition and form, also ensure that an object asserts what amounts to a will as it moves through and is moved by the world.
Every object is therefore a temporal archive, a repository for multiple pasts and a trigger for potentially explosive futures. Even food, the most ephemeral of objects, can serve as such an archive, its dormant histories awakening to reassert themselves in surprising ways. Take, for example, pork. The pig carries its close association with humans in its genes: it doesn't fear the creatures who have domesticated it, and will happily cohabitate with them. Yet the pig also does not forget the omnivore of the woods from which it was shaped. A friend and foe at once, the pig carries with it all kinds of conflicting histories, much of it shaped by its own intimate otherness to the human – an intimacy furthered as the animal is transformed from a living creature to consumed nourishment.
In an age that lacks refrigeration the pig is a convenient storage device: feed it, fatten it, and when the need for sustenance is felt slay and eat it. Complexity enters this simple formula when the pig crosses a cultural border, devouring things that are forbidden to some humans, such as corpses or infants (Karl Steel has written astutely on this). And what of societies that do not consume pigs, peoples who in some ways define themselves by their abstinence from pork? What happens when Muslims and Jews mingle with those who eagerly partake of pig flesh? The animal, history repeatedly demonstrates, will become a powerful embodiment of belonging and exclusion – yet often in a way that confuses categories rather than keeps them cleanly separated.
In the Middle Ages, for example, pork could stand in for Christianity itself. Gerald of Wales once described a demon who announced that his favorite people to possess were Jews and demons, since he didn't care for the pork inside other Italians, making that common Christian food a strange equivalent to the Eucharist (Jewel of the Church 1.18). To penetrate a naval blockade of Acre, some Muslims shaved their beards, donned western clothes, and placed pigs aboard their ships, distilling the visible essence of being a Christian into sartorial choice, grooming, and consumption of pigs (Robert Bartlett, "Hair in the Middle Ages" 59). In a Middle English romance about Richard the Lionhearted, the English king mistakes the roasted Saracen he has been secretly fed for an especially tasty pig. Geraldine Heng has written at length about how this spectacular episode differentiates the Christians from the Muslims (Empire of Magic 63-113), but at the same time the cannibalism weirdly amalgamates the two identities. Similarly, as the Judensau the pig could become a metonym for the Jew, so that Jews and pigs eventually become closely associated rather than cleanly separated.
Back to the temporal archive: pork is a food central to Christian identity, a demarcative use that is positively medieval. Is it no surprise, then, that rightwingers in France -- people who are fond of imagining a medieval purity of the French and of Europe that in fact never existed -- have taken to serving pork-based soups to the poor in order to exclude impoverished Muslims and Jews from their charity? Craig Smith reports in the New York Times that "la soupe au cochon" has been christened "identity soup" by those who serve it (many of whom belong to the extremist Bloc Identitaire, whose websitefeatures feral pigs; if you want to see how simultaneously obnoxious and frightening these people are, check out this).
The Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims of today's Paris are not the same as the Jews, Christians, Muslims of the Middle Ages, but that pig soup and the lines of community and exclusion it is supposed to materialize really are part of the food's enduring medieval temporality. Spooning out dishes of pig soup won't work, of course, to bring about the wished-for boundaries and purified spaces; it may even provoke violence (in anger over exclusion, in anger over the fact that the soup isn't magically doing its demarcative job). This "traditional" meal of pig flesh is served with exuberance, and as if in perfect innocence ("la France n’est pas encore une république islamiste" the racists declare sweetly, ladle in hand). Yet la soupe au cochon marks a frightening return of medieval rhetorics of antisemitism and Islamophobia, demonstrating the ways in which an object as seemingly inert as bowl filled with pork can carry into the present its own little wrinkle in time.