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.


Anonymous said...

hey, JJC. If one wanted to quote from this post, how would one do this? Is this still part of the opening to your book? Is this the keynote to the conference? Do you prefer that we cite the blog? I'm working on my lovely piece on raping animals, and hope to use your stunning quote about animals, embodiment, and exclusion to open a discussion of raping apish foxes.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

HD? Weren't you that modernist poet who was a patient of Freud? I like your stuff.

(Though I admit it was always obvious to me that hd is an admired colleague).

I would cite the post by its title and URL, in this case http://jjcohen.blogspot.com/2006/02/la-soupe-au-cochon-or-wrinkle-in-time.html I think that's fairly standard practice (?)

This post wasn't composed apropos of anything, just off the top of my head this morning after reading the NYT. I may use it, though, as part of my Afterword for Reality, Television and the Middle Ages -- I'm not really sure.

Glad it was of use to you!!

And please share your rapist animals stuff with me.

Anonymous said...

you wrote this today? off the top of your head? damn.

and, you can see why one might want to seem anonymous when working on apish rapish foxes. i fear i'm going to become known as the crazy ferret lady. (or, more realistically, as the bad speller.)


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't mean to be so flippant: the ideas have been going around in my head for a while, and the catalyst was the NYT article.

Really I should clarify and state that in my career I have had only one idea and I keep reissuing it with spanking new packaging.

My other fault is that my attempts at jokes are so obscure that they are not remotely funny. Here is the h. d. I was talking about, the one you are clearly not. Some people look back on the 1980s as a time when they liked the synthetic beat of New Wave music, others (like my students) fondly remember the 80s as the decade they were born in. I relate to them as the time period when in college I had an intellectual crush on H. D.

Among other things.

Anonymous said...

you're funny. oh, i am familiar with that hd... in college, i would use a strategically placed copy of "helen in egypt" to scare the bejebuzes out of male suitors. then, in grad school, i thought it gave me some sort of cache. sadly, i've never READ it; i've only used it as a prop. but, considering your musings on objects... i now realize that, somewhere along the way, i've lost it! i wonder where it is?

(and your stunning productivity has made me wonder how to start writing every day in some hybrid format. my defunct blog, however, was about the very un-hd topic of knitting.)

Karl Steel said...

I got the HD joke too, but I keep getting Hilda D. mixed up with Eliza Doolittle. Can you set any of her works to the songs of My Fair Lady?


Wow. Great stuff. Nothing to say about 'time' except a happy memory of yesterday, where, while teaching Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle yesterday, I got a legitimate chance to write “polychronicities” on the board next to “anti-teleological”...

Thanks for the props, JJC (as I begin to unmask myself, a little, but only here). I'd say that so far I've presented clumsily on anthropophagous pigs, but if anyone's written on this problem, it's Claudine Fabre-Vassas, who may well have anticipated me on nearly every point. Thank goodness for my career that she's not a medievalist and apparently unable to read Latin. If she's still kicking and has written nothing about these appaling--forgive me for a Seinfeld reference that also violates Godwin's law--soup nazis, I'll eat my hoof.

And here I don't make an argument so much as I throw a lot of material out to see what sticks to your mind: The pig's close association with humans is also an inner (I say hah! in reference to the post I just threw up on your 'Against Allegory') homology with their human masters. Its anatomy is troublesomely similar to ours: hence the medieval medical pun on corpus and porcus.* Perhaps because of this internal similarity that allows it to eat everything (and a great deal more) that we do, the pig's a symbol of gluttony, and hence also a manifestation of eating itself. From this moral meaning, the pig's necessary eating—for what use is a pig that won't eat?-- becomes an excess of pleasure. So too is the necessity of eating pig (against the Jews, against the Muslims) also an excess (among other ways, in being an symbolic addition to an eating morally respectable when done merely to sustain the body), and hence a pleasure, and hence to be resisted even as it must be indulged in. When a pleasure is compelled, what kind of pleasure is it?

And what do we do with a required identity marker for (Gallic) identities that should already be known? What do we do with an identity marker that disappears into, and forms, the body of the eater?

On the Judensau: any ideas on why this image appears only in the areas around the Rhine (and Germany otherwise?). It's surprising that this porcine imagine shouldn't be in Britain, given the great popularity there of the story of the young Jesus and the Jewish pigs in the oven.

*See Pastoureau, Michel. "L'animal et l'historian du moyen âge," 13-28. In Berlioz, Jacques and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu, eds. L'Animal exemplaire au Moyen Âge (Ve - XVe siècle). Collection "Histoire." Rennes: Rennes UP, 1999. See, in the section "L'animal le plus semblable à l'homme: le cochon," "le jeu de mots ana-grammatique porcus/corpus revient plusieurs fois dans certains de ces textes" (19 n20)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Re: soup nazis, biy was it tough to refrain from using the line "No soup for you!" in that post.

Thanks, Karl, those are useful references. I like your emphasis on the pig's homology -- its initmate anatomy if you will. And I suppose it work two ways, in that there are trult porcine homo sapiens. When it comes down to it all of us mammals can (size aside) be tough for an outside observer to tell apart.

As to the Judensau ... wish I had an easy answer for that. Jews could be owls, maybe hyenas in England, but not pigs. That non-equation does deserve thought.