Food Pasts, Food Futures The Culinary History of COVID-19

It is possible, as Walter Benjamin suggested, that “boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” But we might sharpen the proposition: “pandemic lockdowns are the hothouse-incubator that force-hatch the egg of foreboding.” Something like this is closer to the recent lifeways of many. Including the authors of this criti-fictional course-syllabus from the year 2070 — a bibliographical meteor from the other side of a “Remote Revolution” that, we are told, transformed social and economic life across waves of COVID-19. Focusing on food culture and agriculture (and zeroing in on the nexus of capital, consumption, labor, and taste), this essay-in-the-form-of-a-reading-list uses ludic futurism to slash-critique the world of now. One thinks of the work of Karel Čapek and Stanisław Lem — both of whom pioneered literary experiments in science fiction as a form of cultural criticism (for more on this conjunction, check out this Histories of the Future project). Read on, imagine the course, and dream the reading! — D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

Published

September 9, 2020

Buonamico Buffalmacco's Il Trionfo della Morte (The Triumph of Death), part of his fresco cycle in the Camposanto in Pisa, painted ca. 1338 — Source.

SYLLABUS
HIS595 / FUT595
Food Pasts, Food Futures: The Culinary History of COVID-19
Co-taught through the Global Experimental Historiography Collective 1
Fall 2070

The COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s was a period of immense change—on par with the Second World War or the Industrial Revolution in the scale (global) and the extent (fundamental) of its impact. Any student who wants to understand the century we live in (one distinguished by the seemingly inescapable forces of anthropogenic climate change and the incursion of digital technologies upon private life) or simply to grasp the shifts their grandparents experienced in their lifetimes must first understand the historical period that has been termed the “Remote Revolution.”

The first portion of our course will be about understanding what actually happened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: How did the practices of cooking and eating change in the Remote Revolution? What does the emergence of the category of “essential workers” in the early stages of the pandemic tell us about the labor relations of that time (and how they’ve changed)? How do we understand the role of technology in facilitating the “remoteness” of this revolution? Can the rise of the agricultural “intentional community” movement be understood as genuinely resisting this trend? How did efforts to both curb the pandemic and to imagine a future beyond it draw on intellectual and practical tools generated by an ever evolving environmental movement—particularly in its responses to climate change?

In the second portion of our course, we’ll step back and address important historiographical questions: Was the Remote Revolution truly “remote”? Was it even revolutionary? To what extent did early historical accounts of the pandemic and its effects lapse into catastrophism or technological determinism?

In our final portion, we'll consider the merits of Future Studies as a discipline and its growing power as a set of methods for imagining life in the wakes of formerly unimaginable crises. We’ll encounter several authors who wrote of futures shaped by climate change and disease over a period of more than 150 years. By the end of the course, we will ask: How can an understanding of the future inform our interpretation of the past? How can past futures deepen our engagement with present futures (and future ones too)? With all these pasts and futures spinning about us, how can we better understand where we are now?

Reading Assignments

PART I: FOOD IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

What are we talking about when we say “Remote Revoution”? These first five weeks will trace the impact of the distancing / individualizing / isolating events traditionally attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Week 1: Introduction to the Remote Revolution
To begin the course, we’ll situate ourselves among those who experienced the pandemic firsthand: What did contemporary observers perceive to be the predominant social shifts taking place? Which changes did they expect would last the longest? How did they imagine the future, near and far? We’ll consider Bergman (writing at the height of the pandemic) on the influence of personality on contentment in isolation, Kruse on gubernatorial power, and Butler on medicalized analogies and the nature/culture dichotomy in environmental discourse.

Week 2: Cooking and Eating
The practices of cooking and eating were fundamentally changed—unequally, and in a variety of ways—by COVID-19. In our primary readings this week, Tang introduces the ways home cooking came to be facilitated by internet recipe communities. LaDérive instead argues that home cooking came to be utilized as an opportunity for displaying and enacting cultural capital through social media-mediated conspicuous consumption. Weisberg documents how pandemic-induced food insecurity exacerbated preexisting climate-driven concerns about the food supply and reinvigorated debates about food safety. Our secondary readings explore the consequences of a heightened (or eliminated) awareness of the sociocultural significance of smell and taste.

Week 3: Shocks to the Supply Chain
The long-term economic impact of the pandemic revealed great "contradictions" in the early twenty-first century world order. Scholars of the category of labor deemed “essential”, including Nuñez, have spent their careers teasing out the often hidden ways in which members of a labor force known primarily for its precarity and exposure to illness were nonetheless “agentive creators” of community. This week, we also interrogate Clancy’s classic Marxist critique of the Remote Revolution.

Week 4: Food, Isolation and Technology
The role of technology in the pandemic-borne cultural upheaval remains a subject of intense debate among scholars (we'll explore this in greater detail later in the semester). This week, Sage will introduce us to the idea that digital technologies served as both facilitators of "social distancing" and crucial sources of connection. Stefan’s work reveals the role of taste-tracking technology in cultivating heightened flavor awareness, and eventually changing the taste preferences of the tracker’s users.

Week 5: The Contradiction of the Commune
Between the pandemic’s first and second waves, the practice of intentional community formation confronted the problem of social isolation. Meanwhile, public health scholars and journalists debated the effectiveness of quarantine “bubbles” or “pods” as intermediate social networks. This week, we read two scholars as they trace the origins of communal living to the 1960s counterculture and the environmental movement (Punarjanma), and far beyond to earlier traditions of monastic asceticism (Vulpes).

PART II: REMOTE REVOLUTION and the HISTORIOGRAPHY OF EATING

Beginning in the mid-2040s, critical readers from a variety of fields began to find fault with the central tenets of Remote Revolution scholarship. In each of the next four weeks, we will examine arguments that both question and defend 1) the existence of the “Remote Revolution” as a historical phenomenon, and 2) the value of its nomenclature. In weeks 6 and 7, we will weigh the accuracy and appropriateness of the labels “Remote” and “Revolution,” respectively, while weeks 8 and 9 will address the broader trends of technological determinism and catastrophism.

Week 6: Rethinking “Remote”
We’ll continue to read Vulpes this week, focusing now on the introduction, where she situates her work in contrast to prevailing narratives of pandemic-induced remoteness; she is among the first to challenge the terminology of “Remote Revolution.” Potosi, writing much later, argues that the term “Remote” is a euphemism for the digitally-mediated infiltration (corporate and state) of ever more realms of lived experience and thus counters Vulpes’s notion of a countercultural movement that has eluded these forces.

Week 7: Rethinking “Revolution”
To what extent were the post-pandemic changes really a revolution? Lopez identifies technological shifts that cast the pandemic as a major cultural and culinary diversion. Rayner uses a case study of the Japanese restaurant Ichiran and its solo dining experience of “taste concentration counters” to suggest that individualization had a longer history than many had assumed.

Week 8: Technological Determinism
What drives revolution? Technology is a frequently posited culprit. This week examines two scholars who credit technology to different degrees: according to Brenner, tech is a primary driver of societal change, while Marcel asserts that technologies such as "Taste Trackers" changed the individual experience of taste and smell. If you have time, look back through your readings from weeks 6 and 7—how would those authors react to Brenner and Marcel?

Week 9: Criticisms of Catastrophism
Further historiographical critiques frame many early histories of the Remote Revolution as “catastrophist.” Patel and Celig each tackle the catastrophist narratives that emerged around the decline of the restaurant industry and communal dining. Patel attacks this same catastrophist narrative by exposing evidence of social and economic shifts away from 20th-century group dining practices that appeared as early as the 1990s. Celig argues against broad-strokes histories in general, pointing to the fallacies of technological determinism and their failure to acknowledge processes of remoteness that predate the pandemic. Patel can get jargony; take your time with this one!

PART III: FUTURES OF REMOTE REVOLUTION SCHOLARSHIP

The Remote Revolution—if, by now, we are inclined to call it that—has brought about many changes in social organization, technological systems, and practices as fundamental as eating. Few forces barring climate change have had such a profound impact. As students of history, it is our job to make sense of this. However, to understand such rapid and sustained transformations, it may serve us to think not only backwards in time but forwards. After all, our history has been shaped by how its participants envisioned their imminent future, often in the context of environmental catastrophe and transformation. The role of these visions, and their relationship to the past, is the purview of a much younger discipline that can both deepen our understanding of the past and enable us to prepare for our own future. An introduction to Future Studies.

Week 10: The History of the Future
This week we will examine three examples of a Future Studies perspective. Wells envisions (and accurately predicts) the coming transformations of the twentieth century, Gates eerily predicts the coming COVID-19 pandemic and Callisto examines the political power of predictive models.

Week 11: Students of the Future, Outside the Academy
Future Studies holds promise for examinations of the Remote Revolution and our changing relationship to food, but the treatment of these themes is notably absent from academic literature. This week, we look at Koffi's acclaimed speculative epic, which explores the world-building potential of hunger and food scarcity in West Africa made unrecognizable by climate change, and Recipes of Anticipation, which presents a collaborative effort of cooks and food writers in 2021 to make sense of how COVID-19 had already and might, in the future, impact food. These are exemplary works of Future Studies outside the academy; they have much to teach us academics about the power of the subjunctive tense in examining impending changes to the way we eat and live.

Week 12: Remote Revolution, in Retrospect
This week we will closely examine a seminal document produced on the 50th anniversary of the Remote Revolution: a roundtable discussion between six of its most prominent historians. We have encountered many of them at some point this semester—Celig, Vulpes, Brenner, Potosi, and Marcel—and now get to see them in direct conversation (and confrontation). How have five decades shifted the historical discourse around the Remote Revolution? What new avenues remain unexplored in our understanding of this critical period? What insights will the next 50 years bring?

  • Secondary Sources:
    • Brenner, Charles, Delphi Castro, Erin A. Celig, Madeleine Marcel, Pat Potosi, and Julia Vulpes. “Roundtable on the Remote Revolution: Discussing 50 Years of Historiography.” Public Domain Review, 20 July 2070.

CULMINATING ASSIGNMENT:

Over the past semester we have immersed ourselves in accounts of the Remote Revolution, described the challenges and limitations of the discipline of history, and begun to contemplate the potential of Future Studies. In our final assignment, I want you to throw this all together: imagine that you are a class of history students in the year 2020, looking forward to today. How might you, at the very beginning of the "Remote Revolution," envision the changes that will transpire over the coming 50 years? How would you use historical methods to examine the possibilities of the near future? How would you situate yourself in the emerging field of Future Studies? This may take the form of an imaginary discussion between academics, a short documentary, a sci-fi story—even an annotated syllabus. Have fun with it.

Due at 11:59PM on May 15th via AmazOnTime. No late submissions.

1. The Global Experimental Historiography Collective is a multidisciplinary initiative (housed at Harvard but engaged in teaching and research worldwide) that seeks to explore the bounds of humanistic methods, and is chaired by Madeleine Marcel, Harvard’s Firmenich Professor of Sensory Sciences. The Collective is grateful for the generous support of Harvard College by Microsoft and individual donors.

The Global Experimental Historiography Collective is a project by Stav Bejerano, Caroline Castleman, Mika Hyman, Jasper Jarecki, Alissa Nalewajko, and Peter Schmidt.

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