I’ve got the second-best title in the world. There’s a guy who works in the Natural History Museum and he’s the cura­tor of cock­roach­es. But I get invit­ed to more par­ties, so hey.

Thanks to you all for com­ing, and for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to put our heads in the same space around food and lit­er­a­ture and agri-tech. I’m a lit­er­ary crit­ic, and it’s great to be able to bring lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and techno-ethics togeth­er at the Congress. One of the things I’ve noticed about C3 events is that solu­tions often seem to present them­selves at the inter­sec­tions of dif­fer­ent kinds of knowl­edge and prac­tices.

I’m going to be talk­ing about how the arts engage eth­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly with the tech­niza­tion of the food chain, the chain or flow of sus­te­nance from field to din­ner plate. This is an inter-disciplinary talk but don’t wor­ry, I won’t be claim­ing quite that poems and paint­ings are com­pu­ta­tion­al machines for work­ing out social pol­i­cy, because that would be crazy. But if I’m not will­ful­ly mis­un­der­stand­ing Joscha’s excel­lent talk on the com­pu­ta­tion­al uni­verse, it seems that a like­ly can­di­date for the sub­strate of con­scious­ness is the numi­nal, the realm of ideas, and that’s pre­cise­ly where art and lit­er­a­ture lives. So it’s the ide­al place for deep pro­cess­ing of eth­i­cal issues, the big issues like food and tech.

I’m going to start with a gen­er­al point. In 1783, the English poet George Crabbe described the bru­tal real­i­ty of inequal access to food. This is how he put it:

Where Plenty smiles – alas! she smiles for few,
And those who taste not, yet behold her store,
Are as the slaves that dig the gold­en ore,
The wealth around them makes them dou­bly poor
George Crabbe, The Village (1783)

Maybe that sounds famil­iar, because if Crabbe fell through a worm­hole and arrived in the present day, he’d feel depress­ing­ly at home.

In 2014, almost a mil­lion peo­ple in the UK were forced to rely on food banks. It’s amaz­ing that while agri-tech is bring­ing all kinds of awe­some new capa­bil­i­ties online, from syn­thet­ic food to cis­gen­ics and agri-robots, an all-party report con­clud­ed that hunger now stalks the UK. Actually, there were more than enough calo­ries to go around. But the equiv­a­lent of fifty mil­lion meals a month went not to the hun­gry but straight to land­fill or the incin­er­a­tor.

We can talk about the reg­u­la­tions that com­pel super­mar­kets to do this, and we can play with the idea of regs that might stop them from doing it, but actu­al­ly there is anoth­er lay­er of debate under­neath that. Because what we seem to be wit­ness­ing, and not just in Britain, is the new social­iza­tion of hunger. Hunger pre­sent­ed as the inevitable con­se­quence of aus­ter­i­ty. Hunger that allows us to believe in aus­ter­i­ty. Hunger as a deeply-embedded sub­rou­tine of cul­tur­al cap­i­tal­ism.

So where’s agri-tech in the equa­tion? It seems to be where we’re plac­ing our faith.

Technological advance­ment will be the only way we can meet the com­ing growth in demand.
Julie Girling (MEP), (European Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture com­mit­tees) [link]

That’s the European Parliament.

…the reori­en­ta­tion of tech­nol­o­gy [as] the key link between humans and nature.
UN Documents, Our Common Future

The UN adopts a rather more con­cep­tu­al­ized posi­tion, see­ing tech as the key link between humans and nature. But what I and my co-researchers Jayne Archer, also a lit­er­ary crit­ic, and Sid Thomas, a plant geneti­cist, sug­gest in our new book is that art and lit­er­a­ture already pro­vide that deep pro­cess­ing link between humans and the bio-physical world. Moreover, that art opens a shared space of imag­i­na­tion that can be as rad­i­cal as we need it to be.

Food secu­ri­ty is a decep­tive­ly sim­ple term. But it’s a daunt­ing­ly com­plex prob­lem, and it encom­pass­es land own­er­ship, soil cli­mate, cli­mate change, mar­kets, poli­cies, and any solu­tion lies at the inter­sec­tion of a num­ber of dis­ci­plines. We’ve got to bring togeth­er food pro­duc­ers, sci­en­tists, agri-tech, dis­trib­u­tors, plan­ners, and we argue, artists and writ­ers. But first we have to res­cue some of our canon­i­cal authors from the her­itage indus­try. Authors who were once sharply crit­i­cal of ortho­dox pow­er have been re-packaged as our nation­al poets and painters, and are giv­en back to us in ways that make their art appear to sup­port the codes and val­ues of the dom­i­nant inter­ests that they once chal­lenged. Literary crit­i­cism can help us there with our counter-narratives. Because the truth is many of our best-known painters and writ­ers, their rela­tion to the pol­i­tics of hunger, to ear­ly forms of agri­cul­tur­al tech­nol­o­gy, was a lot clos­er than ours, and their expe­ri­ence is rel­e­vant to the big actions that we need to define and take.

Consider Williams Shakespeare. Last year we made the news­pa­pers with some research on Shakespeare’s busi­ness deal­ings. We argued that these deal­ings informed Shakespeare’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of food and bio-resources in the plays. It upset a lot of peo­ple who were actu­al­ly quite hap­py with their image of Shakespeare as a safe writer, some­body who wrote on the big abstract themes like love, ambi­tion, and envy. In fact, that san­i­tized “PR” ver­sion of Shakespeare began from an ear­ly stage.

This is his funer­ary mon­u­ment in Stratford, and it presents a famil­iar pic­ture of a man of let­ters, his arm poised preg­nant­ly, quill in hand above a vel­vet writ­ing cush­ion com­plete with gold­en tas­sels. But actu­al­ly this isn’t the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the mon­u­ment. It’s an 18th cen­tu­ry refurb, and it responds to Shakespeare’s by then already-developing rep­u­ta­tion as a nation­al poet. The orig­i­nal mon­u­ment, which was com­mis­sioned by peo­ple who actu­al­ly knew Shakespeare, remem­bered a rather dif­fer­ent man. A grain mer­chant. A tax avoider. A man who use the prof­its from his plays to invest in the grain mar­kets, which at a time of famine Shakespeare hoard­ed in that all-important piece of agri-tech, a barn. He hoard­ed it there until the prices rose, and he was pros­e­cut­ed for it.

In the orig­i­nal mon­u­ment, the vel­vet writ­ing cush­ion is a sack of corn, and those gold­en tas­sels are actu­al­ly roughly-tied edges. And maybe it won’t sur­prise you then to know that ref­er­ences to food prices and the soci­etal impact of unequal access to food are bound in Shakespeare’s plays, and we should take them seri­ous­ly.

But let’s con­sid­er these themes first in a con­tem­po­rary nov­el, Daniel Suarez’ thriller Freedom™; it was pub­lished in Germany as Dark Net. I’m sure many of you’ll know it picks up a year after Suarez’ first nov­el, Daemon, a year after Matthew Sobol, the mad hack­er (Is there any oth­er kind?) has unleashed a bot on the world’s multi-nationals, includ­ing a thinly-veiled Monsanto. After the chaos, dark­net com­mu­ni­ties have arisen, and in a key set piece near the begin­ning Suarez, who is of course a tech­nol­o­gy con­sul­tant, gives us a vision of a tech-based food- and energy-independent soci­ety. Thanks to my daugh­ter for mak­ing this slide:

In it farmer Hank Fossen shows us around one of the new dark­net farms, and with a sweep of his arm he describes a green vista of tech-led sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Fossen’s own daugh­ter is glimpsed off to the left, instruct­ing the newbs in hybridiza­tion and genet­ics, while oth­er dark­net farm work­ers are out in the grass prairies, all with D-space call­outs float­ing above their heads, vis­i­ble to any­one who’s wear­ing dark­net glass­es.

Fossen turned into the farm’s long grav­el dri­ve­way. There was an ornate D-space 3D object in the shape of a cor­nu­copia burst­ing with veg­eta­bles and fruits hang­ing above the entrance. He looked out to sev­er­al acres of grain and oth­er plants, wav­ing in the breeze. We use a mix of crops and ani­mals to recharge fer­til­i­ty. We’re rais­ing the ani­mals on grass – not corn. It grows nat­u­ral­ly here on the prairie, so it’s turn­ing solar pow­er into beef — no fos­sil fuels nec­es­sary … It’s all an inte­grat­ed, sus­tain­able sys­tem.”
Daniel Suarez, Freedom™

This is a nice and fair­ly stan­dard utopic vision. I’d like to live there, right in that slide. But tech­nol­o­gy isn’t the answer, and the nov­el seems to know it. It’s not the whole answer. Because the dark side of D-space, the dark side of the fab labs and the remote sens­ing, is the anti-hero Loki Stormbringer, whose lethal drone motor­bikes evis­cer­ate any­body who oppos­es the vision.

So the tech in this appar­ent­ly idyl­lic scene of sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ty is half-insight and half out, occu­py­ing entan­gled posi­tions on two sides of an eth­i­cal bound­ary. Suarez’ vision of a tech-driven agrar­i­an Utopia isn’t fan­ci­ful. Much of the tech’s already with us or emer­gent. The last twen­ty years have seen incred­i­ble advances in syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. Think human bac­te­ria cheese. Vertical farm­ing. Gene tech, new mod­el­ling tech­niques for phe­no­types linked to sus­tain­able ani­mal pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Drones that mon­i­tor nitro­gen lev­els in fields. Predictive farm­ing. Agri-informatics. Open-source farms. At MIT they have an open-ag project which is work­ing towards the cre­ation of the glob­al agri­cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion com­mons. And there’s some amaz­ing research into agri-robots at the European Agri-robots Network, where Simon Blackmore’s team is work­ing. They’re pro­duc­ing a new, light-weight gen­er­a­tion of robots that fol­low the con­tours of fields rather than forc­ing farm­ers to plant in straight lines to suit old­er machin­ery. These robots spray only the part of the field that’s actu­al­ly infect­ed with dis­ease, rather than the whole field.

My own uni­ver­si­ty, in the wake of recent European food hygiene and fraud scan­dals such as Horsegate, has devel­oped hyper­spec­tral analy­sis tech­niques for detect­ing con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of meat using flu­o­res­cent mark­ers. Aberystwyth is also home to a major plant breed­ing and phe­nomics lab, kit­ted out with high-resolution metabolomics tech­nol­o­gy, and that uses con­tent plant phe­no­typ­ing to design smart crop vari­eties that are more resilient to chang­ing cli­mate. So it’s a brave new world of knowledge-led devel­op­ment that should improve not only food safe­ty but also access to food.

John Constable, The Hay Wain

But to return to Fossen Farm. Suarez’ vision of a knowledge-led sus­tain­able future reg­is­ters tremors of anx­i­ety pre­cise­ly about the tech that’s sup­posed to sus­tain it, and in that respect the nov­el belongs to a long tra­di­tion of art and lit­er­a­ture depict­ing scenes of agri­cul­tur­al work. One of the best-loved, though we’d argue most mis­un­der­stood, exam­ples is John Constable’s paint­ing The Hay Wain, from 1821. It’s a visu­al pre­cur­sor to Suarez. The pas­sage I just read out belongs in this tra­di­tion. The Hay Wain is one of the worlds most rec­og­niz­able paint­ings and seems to offer a calm, com­fort­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of abun­dance and time­less­ness, and in many ways it’s come to stand for the estab­lish­ment. And for that rea­son, it’s been the tar­get of sub­ver­sion. In 1980 the artist Peter Kennard hacked it to make The Hay Wain with cruise mis­siles. And last year a mem­ber of the British polit­i­cal group Fathers For Justice glued a pho­to of his son (pix­e­lat­ed there) on the can­vas:

USE 31c3 Keynote presentation.015

But iron­i­cal­ly, we’ve lost the abil­i­ty to per­ceive the painting’s own rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. So let’s look more close­ly. In the fore­ground is a piece of then-contemporary agri-tech, an unladen hay wag­on, an exam­ple of how art deliv­ers back to us, in a mate­ri­al­ist sense, a sense of how we fit into the human race, in the idiom of the tech­nol­o­gy of the time we find our­selves in. Agri-robots now, hay wains then. But despite the painting’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, it’s every bit as rad­i­cal as Suarez’ nov­el, and it’s mak­ing more or less exact­ly the same point. Because the hay wag­on has a far more con­tentious coun­ter­part, tech that’s also just out of sight but def­i­nite­ly not out of mind, and it’s actu­al­ly the key to the nexus of social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic ener­gy that’s been cod­ed into this famous can­vas.

Let’s take a step back. The first thing we need to know is that the painter, John Constable, was the son of a miller and a landown­er, and it’s his father’s fields, his father’s tech, his father’s work­ers, that we see in the paint­ing. Indeed a cyn­ic might say that the role of pub­lic art on this scale is pre­cise­ly to incul­cate us into the val­ues of a world of con­cen­trat­ed wealth and sharply-demarcated soci­ety. But leav­ing Constable’s own pol­i­tics aside for the moment, let’s try to lis­ten to what the painting’s actu­al­ly telling us. Let’s pro­duce a counter-narrative. Because almost every­thing we’ve been told to think about this idyl­lic scene, every­thing we’ve been told by all those bis­cuit tin lids and mobile phone cas­es, is actu­al­ly wrong, start­ing with the painting’s offi­cial cat­a­log descrip­tion, which tells us that the hay wain is stand­ing in the water.

If the wagon’s sta­tion­ary, it’s not because it’s been posed aes­thet­i­cal­ly for us. If any­thing it looks like it’s become stuck, per­haps in mud, the riv­er swollen from the rain that’s already begun to fall fur­ther upstream. Constable paint­ed the hay wain in an unusu­al­ly wet year, and it caused big prob­lems for farm­ers in the region and drove down laborer’s wages, includ­ing the wages of every­one we see in that paint­ing. The wag­on should be going hell for leather, as becomes clear once you real­ize there’s not one but two hay wains.

So the title of the paint­ing is also a lit­tle bit dodgy. There’s the sec­ond one, off to the right, it’s tiny. And while one is load­ing the oth­er is unload­ing because what’s Constable’s depict­ing here is dynam­ic process, not a sen­ti­men­tal still life. So we know where the wagon’s going, but where has it come from? Where has it just unloaded its hay? The can­di­date that’s usu­al­ly offered is Constable’s father’s water mill itself. But mills grind wheat and bar­ley, they don’t mill hay. You can’t mill hay. The piece of tech that’s out of sight is behind Constable’s easel. It’s a barn.

That’s the tech the paint­ing strug­gles with. It’s the tech that adds val­ue to the grass that’s being har­vest­ed. The tech which, as Shakespeare knew, turns a crop into data, abstract­ing it from a field and from a local econ­o­my into the realms of mar­kets and price index­es. And it’s the tech which for that very rea­son was the first thing to get burned down in times of food unrest. Basically, Constable’s father is mak­ing a killing off the backs of those low-paid hay mak­ers and wag­oners.

This paint­ing isn’t so much art, it’s evi­dence, and those wag­oners are doing their best to get going again, for good rea­son. They want to keep even their low-paid jobs, because while we may not have a Loki Stormbringer, we do have an approach­ing storm:

And as an agri­cul­tur­al jour­nal from the peri­od explains, it was the hay mak­ers’ and wag­oners’ respon­si­bil­i­ty to get the crop in dry.

In the case of approach­ing rain, when the hay is fit for car­ry­ing, every nerve is, or ought to be, exert­ed to get all the carts and wag­ons loaded, and drawn into the barns.
John Middleton, General View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1813)

So this isn’t a myth­ic field, it’s not time­less, it’s not a patri­ot­ic image of Old England with a sen­ti­men­tal, historically-stranded piece of farm equip­ment in the fore­ground. Rather, the field and Constable’s paint­ing itself exist at the trou­bled inter­sec­tion of agrar­i­an mar­ket eco­nom­ics, social ethics, and agri-tech. Agri-tech that priv­i­leged landown­ers while dis­en­fran­chis­ing work­ers and whole com­mu­ni­ties, because behind the unseen barn is a region of England that was still recov­er­ing from vio­lent food riots five years ear­li­er, which had seen many hayricks and barns burned down. Two local agri­cul­tur­al work­ers were hanged, and oth­ers were trans­port­ed to Australia. And just one year lat­er in 1822, the region erupt­ed again in so-called bread or blood” riots. Perhaps some of Constable’s own work­ers were involved in that direct action.

So the lon­gi­tu­di­nal sto­ry that art and lit­er­a­ture is telling us is unam­bigu­ous. A dys­func­tion­al food chain has only one out­come: food unrest. And in an age of infor­ma­tion, on a poten­tial­ly mas­sive scale. So of course we’re right to look to tech to increase yields and to reduce envi­ron­men­tal impacts of agri­cul­ture. But if we’re going to devel­op the resilience we need as we attempt to man­age the bio-physical world in the dif­fi­cult times that are sure­ly com­ing, what William Gibson’s new nov­el The Peripheral calls, with infi­nite irony, The Jackpot, the simul­ta­ne­ous arrival of cli­mate, cap­i­tal, and crop dis­as­ter, then we need to expand out think­ing about food sys­tem into the imag­i­na­tive world, because the alter­na­tive isn’t pret­ty. And it’s already hap­pen­ing.

As Constable and his father knew only too well, the canon­i­cal response to hunger is the food riot. The sit­u­a­tion in the UK at the moment is par­tic­u­lar­ly incen­di­ary around food banks because, as in Crabbe’s poem, at the same time as the new under­class of the hun­gry is dri­ven to char­i­ty hand­outs, it suf­fers the indig­ni­ty of watch­ing as the top few per­cent enjoy what Thomas Picketty calls ver­tig­i­nous growth.”

In 2012 London expe­ri­enced a week of riot­ing. In the media, almost with­out exception—scandalously—the action was pre­sent­ed as sense­less vio­lence by mind­less thugs in pur­suit of brand­ed train­ers and flat-screen TVs. In fact, the first shop to be loot­ed wasn’t a TV ware­house, it wasn’t a design­er bag out­let. It was the Clarence con­ve­nience store. Here you can see young men clam­ber­ing over the counter, choco­late bars and water bot­tles in their pock­ets.

The London Riots, or upris­ing as some pre­fer to call them, in its ear­ly stages at least, start­ed out as a tra­di­tion­al food riot.

The so-called food crisis/social unrest hyphoth­e­sis sug­gests that large-scale dis­con­tent around the world can be mapped with chill­ing pre­ci­sion onto index­es of sta­ples like rice and wheat, and the FAO’s food price index mea­sures the month­ly change in inter­na­tion­al prices of a bas­ket of food. And basi­cal­ly, if that goes above 210, you get riots across the world. This includes crowd action with obvi­ous food con­nec­tions like the 2008 Mexican tor­tilla riots, but the 2011 Arab Spring, and 2013 Gezi Park protests also map neat­ly onto these spikes. And prices of sta­ples and com­modi­ties are pro­ject­ed by the FAO’s own fig­ures to rise by 40% over the com­ing decade.

To con­clude, then. We’re not fac­ing food cri­sis for the first time, and we’re not fac­ing it alone. Literature and art have processed many such moments of emer­gency, exam­in­ing food cri­sis in deep imag­i­na­tive space. From Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, where Rome’s corn sup­plies are with­held from the plebians much as Shakespeare with­held corn in the Stratford area, to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games tril­o­gy.

Let’s end with The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen, the fig­ure­head of rebel­lion against the repres­sive state remarks it must be very frag­ile, if a hand­ful of berries can bring it down.” But the fact is polit­i­cal and pow­er sys­tems have often been chal­lenged or over­turned by the deci­sion to eat or not to eat.

Thank you for lis­ten­ing.


Audience 1: Thank you, very interesting. I would like to ask you, are you going to do some research in the prehistory of food production and food consumption.

Richard: Our project goes back to 1380-something, to Chaucer. That's where we started. We're looking at The Canterbury Tales as a game of food, basically. Once you start looking in canonical art, which I guess we've been taught to assume is safe and comforting, you start to see all sorts of interesting things. But I should say the reason why we're doing it and why going back to prehistory would be really interesting, is because before we can start putting into effect the kind of benefits that we can expect from agri-tech, we need to change headspace.

I think Slavoj Žižek is absolutely right when he criticizes Thomas Picketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He says it's utopian to say that the solution to the problem of wealth outgrowing economic output is simply to redefine the ratios of distribution so the rich get more tax and the poor get more benefits. Because if you do that, capital simply moves, or you get other knock-on effects that inevitably end up privileging wealth. So the real challenge as Žižek says is that you have to create the right conditions that enable you to enact things like say, taxing wealth at 80%. And literary criticism can be a really powerful tool in bringing about those conditions, and I think the further we push the analysis back, the richer the data's going to become. So thanks for the question.

Audience 2: Beautiful talk, and since I'm writing a book on barns, I'm of course curious if you can help me with two questions. First of all, how old are barns? When do they appear? And that leads me to the second question because the way you depicted barns here is that they're sort of an intermediary space between the agricultural world and the market. So that would make them pretty modern. In my view, I always thought [of] the barn as different from the warehouse, as not really something like a warehouse, which is intermediary space where the market comes to a stop until some demand calls for the good to be called out and so forth. So I wonder what's your take on the position of the barn in this longer history of capitalism.

Richard: It is a great question and again a question with a sort of longitudinal momentum. So you're de-synonymizing barn from warehouse, and you're right to do that. The barn occupies a different position in social space, and I guess we think of warehouses as more to do with imports and exports, maybe. Great, we need to do that. We haven't actually focused the entire study on the physical space of the barn, but more of the barn conceptually as that mediating point between markets and communities.

Audience 3: Thank you. I have a question; I will try to articulate it well. With Shakespeare's time, and then the time of the painting compared to status quo. That layer of people between aristocracy and nobility, and indentured serfs, was there a difference in perception of how close or how far they were to this abyss, and where would you be reading for expressions of this in contemporary literature?

Richard: The position of the serf is interesting, and it interests me. I think the German word is Leibeigener. There was a bishop in the 18th century who joked that the only thing a serf possesses is a hungry belly. It's a sick joke, a terrible joke. And I think in part part of that answers your question how close were serfs to the abyss. They were right on it, clinging on by their fingers at particular points.

Further Reference

Collected publications on food and literature from Richard, Jayne Archer, and Sid Thomas


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