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