Tag Archives: taste

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.

 

[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]

Wyndham Lewis – The Credentials of the Painter

The English Review; Part 1, no. XXXIV (January 1922), 33-38; Part II, no XXXIV (Aprl 1922), 391-96. Reprinted in Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Change, 66-78.

Begins  by arguing that each artist correlates with a certain type of man. He contrasts the painter and the musician. The musician, however austere his music may be (Schoenberg), still cannot help but affect the body of the spectator; whereas the painter, especially the painter of abstract forms, can be completely cold and cut off. However, somewhat contradictorily, he also claims, “the fundamental and trump credential is…that he alones gives you the visual fact of our existence. All attachment to reality by means of the sense of sight is his province or preserve” (69). This mimetic function has he potential make the spectator participate in a certain type of life:

A portrait evidently ceases to be a portrait when it has that transporting effect that makes you feel, not only that you are sharing a moment of life removed by centuries from your own lifetime, but also that you are participating in a heightened life, that living of which only is an event as solitary and fixed as the thing at which you are gazing. (68-69)

Very curious why it must cease to be a portrait. Something here about mimetic comportment and the experience of history…relate to Pater’s fulness, perhaps. Lewis is frank about this contradiction: “that the painter participates more in life itself in one way than any other artist; but in another sense he is most removed from it” (71). NB: Hegel and Adorno will work through a similar contradiction in their aesthetic theories.

Part 2 broadens out the conversation to artists in general. He claims that there are no clear-cut laws that can be universally applied to artistic production. Neither are there universal, rational laws for deciding between good and bad art.

Argument and reflection are certainly very necessary, much as people dislike them, where the finer, or better the finest, art, in any kind, is concerned. But, in the interests of this dialectic, no laws can be adduced of universal application. The work of art, in the end, has to impose itself on men like a living individual. Instead of appealing to their intelligence only, supplying them with a mechanical formula of universal efficacy, it must appeal to their whole make-up, or to their taste. The taste is a sort of higher, more complex intelligence. Every faculty serves it, and is found represented in its composition. (73)

This, so far, is a very Schillerean notion of taste–not necessarily (only) a separate faculty, but the fruit of the development of a range of other faculties. For Lewis, taste serves as “a synthesis of the ego,” something which brings order to otherwise fragmented existence: “it is taste alone that can make him a dependable and ordered being” (73). This is meant as a corrective to metaphysicians who transform the “aesthetics” into an appendage of a philosophical system. He uses Hegel as an example. He also implicitly critiques Kant’s strict association between art and pleasure:

But is [pleasure] not also the object of any other activity higher than bread-winning? To make the majority of men feel comfortable and keep them quiet, the notion of the dignity of toil, in the sense of mechanical labor, was long ago invented. To unrivet the perception form the need, to disentangle art from the practical artifice of life, is the artist’s constant task in his work. (74)

He thus goes on to define his own concept of taste: “Taste, as I have described it, is what would occur of David Hume’s ‘argument and reflection’ became a habit, something that accompanied a man in whatever compartment of his existence he might be passing at the moment” (75).

He concludes by constructing two sides of a dialectic–that between a human world (civilization) and a material world (stones and matter):

If, however, without identifying ourselves with mater entirely, we yet evolved into a total material aceticism, how would it be with art then? One is bound to admit that art has so far been dependent on religion, a luxurious life, or superstitious fancy for its existence. But for any life that we could evolve into, short of identification with matter, or the other extreme of disassociation from it, there would be an art, or “expression.” It is a half-way house, the speech, life, and adornment of a half-way house. Or it is a coin that is used on a frontier, but in neither of the adjoining countries. As we know nothing about these or any other countries, it is impossible for us to say. Art is a coin, if you like, that has no aesthetic value, only an historic one. But it must be composed of a certain metal, and it must ring true. To recognize this ring you depend entirely on your ear. Your eyes, and even your teeth, ca also be brought into play, ANd you can speculate on the character of the stranger who is tendering you the coin. These, taken together, make up your “taste.” (76)

Lots to say about this: coin as medium (gold, exchange, etc.); taste as mediation between two “worlds” (relate to Hegel and art, but also transition to modernism; the way he keeps he make definite claims and then slightly shifting an qualifying them; the “teeth” as part of taste; identification with matter, but not entirely, etc.

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue that depict Ryder at war, having returned to Brideshead in order to repurpose it as a military base. Main themes include memory, war, religion, and painting. Sebastian Flight is the lovable drunkard with whom Ryder class in love as a young man at Oxford. But Sebastian slowly goes to waste and exits the novel almost all together. he dies off screen, or does not, one is not sure. His sister, Julia, takes center stage in the second half of the novel. Ryder, now a successful painter of houses and married to Celia, falls in love with Julia while on a boat. They become lovers, but when she returns to the Catholic faith at the end of the novel, Ryder and her (despite both getting divorced for each other) decide not to get married.

Curious book to put into dialogue with The Return of the Solider and other novels that mourn the loss of innocent after World War I. Here, it is War World II that triggers a memory that returns to that pre-war state. The portrait of Oxford is a bit anachronistic, compressing the days of Richards and Empson with the days Pater and Wilde. Anthony Blanche is the token “aesthete,” and Ryder finds himself caught up in a new decadence that will string between the two wars. The wars themselves seem to squeeze together to the degree that intervening years are reduced to a couple of family squabbles: Julia says famously, “I see the past and future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Indeed, the finance capital vulgarians like Rex and the regressive Catholics like the Marchamids seem to be the only options for Julia and Ryder: they are therefore both unhappy at the end.

Use the meal with Rex to show the differences between Ryder’s older continental proclivities and Rex’s modernizing impulses, etc.

The novel gives the lie to the narrative that would reconsolidate England after the war. There are folks like Rex, who is similar to the Dalloways in his relationship to industry, his desire to ignore the war. The Marchmaid family, on the other hand, are trying to live an existence that belongs to another century. It isn’t that this lifestyle is unfit for 20th century, but that it in fact self-destructs: modernity must be described as “uneven development” with regard to its secularizing drive, etc.

As the war approaches, there is a moment in which Julia and Ryder, on the boat, no longer speak in their voices, but in the voices of the English who wish to deny that war is coming. They repeat in almost stichomythic fashion a battery of cliches about how the Germans have no money, etc.

Ryder is a painter of architecture. His painting can be seen as a synecdoche for Waugh’s mode of writing. He prefers drawing buildings that show the encrustations of each age–showing how each has made use of the building. Brideshead itself is shown repurposed multiple times, and the closing scene is of a lamp meant to be purely symbolic of epic and tragedy, hanging in a chapel, now burning in prayer for all the solders in France, etc. Relate this to Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” where he claims that each generation needs to find its own limits, and that there is not a single lyric voice that can consolidate their various attempts at self-transcendence.

 

 

Edmund Burke – “An Introduction on Taste,” in A Philosophic Enquiry (1759)

Page numbers refer to Oxford World’s Classics (2008)

The 1759 edition included an introductory section on the concept of Taste. Burke believes that we can derive a universal standard of taste by carefully observing the passions and the way external actions affect our bodies (the corporeal-erotic aspect of Burke is palpable). In the Preface to the second edition, he expresses hope that an analysis of taste will recur on the “severer sciences” and consequently inflect them with its graces, etc (6). Just curious because for Burke, taste becomes a very loss and usable term, accomplishing much of what Kant hoped it would, but by less complicated means.

TASTE: For Burke, taste is the faculty of mind that forms judgments about the works of imagination. Curiously, imagination will also be the thing that is affected, and he wants to bring together the imagination with reason. He begins by positing that everyone agrees about basic physical tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. And then moves to say that everyone agrees about their metaphorical applications (sweet and sour dispositions, bitter remark, etc.). In the biological sphere, someone claiming that honey is sour is considered wrong, but somehow “vitiated” or “mad” (14). The move to the metaphoric (a part from being the weak link in Burke’s argument) signals the move to the Imagination, for which he claims a congruence with the senses. In the imagination, our sensations get converted into representations. Yes, HUME is important here. And for this reason, Burke’s examples focus in differences in degree…how to judge a smoother or rougher table, while the relative beauty of these characteristics goes unquestioned.  Nevertheless, his tripartite definition of taste–immediate sensual pleasure, secondary representative pleasure of imagination, and the conclusions of reasoning faculty–point towards the sequences of both Kant and Schiller. The difference is that Kant will rigorously distinguish between the sensual and rational aspects of the human. For Burke, there is simply a process of degree. In Kant, there is chasm that needs to be bridged. Burke does offer his own curious categories: lack of sensibility leads to dull taste while lack of judgment leads to bad taste. Thus taste is not a faculty of judgment, but rather something which judgment, associated with reason, regulates (mark the difference with Kant). In fact, judgment can even impede taste, or what Burke sometime calls “the imagination.” But, paradoxically, the cultivation of taste can also recur on judgment, improving it.  The point here is that taste, in Burke, is not a separate faculty, but merely a mode or inflection of reason, understanding, or the imagination. Obviously Burke is less rigorous than Kant, but for this reason, he gets some good work done.

 

 

 

Immanuel Kant – Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790, 1793)

The third critique attempts to bring together the two previous critiques. The Critique of Pure Reason asked, what is possible for one to know? The second asked how ought one to live? And the third posits judgment as the means by which we can transition between the many binaries staged in the first two: between reason and experience, liberty and necessity, nature and will, the sensible and the suprasensible, etc.

The first critique can be thought of as answer to Leibniz (rationalism) on the one hand, and Hume (empiricism) on the other. It wants to prove that we can make a priori (pre-experiential)  synthetic (substantial) judgments. He basically claims that our cognitive faculty are endowed with certain necessary structures that mirror the structures in the realm of appearance (appearance for Kant just means physical reality, phenomena, etc.). We can never know the noumena–and even conceiving of phenomena as correlating with some “thing-in-itself” is incorrect. In this realm of nature, there is no freedom, only necessity. This falls under the theoretical branch of philosophy, which Kant somewhat counter-intuitively associates with nature. In contrast, the practical sphere of philosophy has to do with the supra-sensible, morality, freedom, duty, etc.

Now judgment (the subsuming of particulars by categories) has been talked about in previous Critiques, but in the third critique Kant distinguishes between determinate and reflective judgment. The latter searches for the universal but does not subsume the particular. There is therefore a split that goes down the middle of this critique: between aesthetic-formal-reflective-taste-natural beauty-subjective purposiveness AND teleological-formal-conceptual (determinate)-reason-natural ends-objective purposiveness. [Yes, these categories grow and grow.] The former type of judgment is called taste (but when he starts talking about the teleological power of judgment, the distinction between these domains becomes less explicit).

To grasp purposiveness in an object is to feel pleasure, it is the feeling of life. But taste does not involve a judgment about the object, but about the subjective relationship I have with that object. However, a pure judgment of taste must have nothing partial about it–it must not involve any personal interests (the categories of the second critique loom). The agreeable is distinguishable from the beautiful in that it is a judgment combined with interest. The good is likewise excluded from judgments of taste, because it is related to the useful. Taste is the faculty for judging an object without interest. For this reason, “Only when the need is satisfied can one distinguish who among the many has taste or does not” (96). Thus one may speak of the beautiful, even though it is a subjective thing, as if it were objective, because one does not have any personal or material interest mixed in. Now this means Kant must separate the taste of the senses from the taste of reflection. The former is private, related merely to the object, while the latter is subjective and therefore potentially universalizable (counter-intuitive Kant at his best). This is important for Kant, because for him the feeling of pleasure does not arise immediately from the object, but only after the judgment of taste has occurred.

THE BEAUTIFUL: Now Kant tries to diagnose what exactly is pleasing about the beautiful. In a word: the form of purposiveness (as opposed to REAL purposiveness, which is the doman of reason and desire): or formal subjective purposiveness. This leads to a feeling of unity in the play of the power of the mind (113).  The focus on the subject is crucial: for Kant, there can be no objective rule of taste (116). However, he gets to this by means quite other than Hume. Taste is not a set of standards (determinate concepts) one inherits (from culture, critics, etc.), but rather must be developed individually as a relationship objects that are experienced. Further, unlike Hume’s argument from habit (we find tasteful those things we habitually find tasteful, etc. reducing everything to mechanics), Kant believes that the faculty of taste is appealed to as a break from habit–it allows for a breach in personal modes of desiring, reason, cognition, etc… Nevertheless, one must accept the idea of sensus communis–in Kant this does not refer to some nebulous prevailing opinion (vulgar, barbaric even), but rather to the sense that is common, that is, to the possibility of what everyone could sense at a given time. When we find something beautiful, we appeal to this abstract ideal of possibility in order to substantiate our feeling of pleasure (everyone MUST find this beautiful, etc.). Put another way: it is what is potentially sensually common at a given time.

THE SUBLIME: The sublime offers negative pleasure. An object exceeds the boundaries of sense and is then recuperated by the faculty of desire and reason. Put otherwise, it is when apperception exceeds comprehension (135)…but that we know this to be happening in turn confirms the power of reason and the enlargement of the mind. The beautiful is this associated with rest and the understanding. The sublime is associated with movement and reason. Whereas the beautiful imagination produces subjective purposiveness when it AGREES with the understanding, the sublime produces subjective purposiveness when it disagrees with reason. The sublim = reason over judgment. The beautiful is that which pleases in the mere act of judging. The sublime is that which pleases immediately through its resistance to the interest of the senses. (150). One could point here to the origin of Adorno’s SHUDDER.

Now Kant moves onto a deduction of pure aesthetic judgments of taste. Think of this as trying to perform the work of the 1st critique within the boundaries of the third critique. In short, he will conclude that what is asserted a priori, universal rule, etc. in the judgment of taste  is the universally validity of this pleasure perceived. The sublime reaches universal validity by other means, in its congruence with the suprasensible realm of reason and freedom.

Kant offers a three part system in which humans graduate from understanding to reason by way of judgment: 1. thinking for oneself (unprejudiced, understanding) 2. thinking in position of another (broad-minded, judgment) 3. thinking in accord with oneself (consistency, reason) (174). Interesting to compare this to the Schillerean three-step process by which human become politically responsible. one notable difference is that Schiller has a more robust sense of the polis, and what can go wrong when communication break down (French Rev. etc.). But this requires Kant to think a bit more about taste’s relationship to interest. He writes that interest cannot be part of taste’s determining ground, but it can be combined afterwards or indirectly (connect with Mill and discourse of indirection) (176).

Genius is the talent that gives rule to art (186), or, rather, that through which nature gives the rule to art (Kant CANNOT let go of nature’s primacy of the second half of this books is going to work out). Taste is the faculty of perception. Genius is a faculty of creation. Indeed, taste regulates the products of genius according to the categories of judgment (197). This is a weird claim–just saying–given that taste is supposed to be passive, receptive, not productive. Also, is it that taste (beautiful) regulates the genius (sublime)–if so, how does it work with the “reason in nature” thesis as it relates purposiveness in nature. At the very least, Kant is getting closer to connecting beauty with the representation of the good, such that categorical imperative has content: convergence of taste and moral feeling.

We now approach the antinomy of taste: 1. that taste is based on no concpet and therefore cannot be argued about 2. that taste is based on a concept and therefore can be argued about, and therefore universally valid. Kant solves this by saying that taste is based on a concept that is not determinate, from which nothing can be cognized–namely, the indeterminate “suprasensible substratum of appearances” (216). Yes, we are in the realm of the second critique. The move to the teleological will state from the go that there is objective purposiveness in art, for which Kant will eventually invoke the divine. This is crucial: nature is either teleological or mechanistic. Kant does distinguish between natural and practical ends (human vs. divine, mechanic vs. entelechy, etc.). Kant will argue, in fact, that all those forms of judgment are necessary for the correct perception of the various ends in nature: judgment precedes perception…which puts experience at a strange remove from the realm of appearances. Indeed, the reflective power of judgment must “conceive of causality different from mechanism, namely that of an (intelligent) world-cause acting in accordance with ends” (260). Thus ends on nature are added by reflection as regulative principle (270). In short, natural ends cannot be proved objectively (they given by the object to understanding) but they are necessary for the actual functioning of human reason.

David Hume – Of the Standard of Taste (1757)

For the most part, Hume roles over his “subjectivism” into the world of taste, claiming that taste, existing in the realm os sentiment rather than in judgment, is relative and does not contain truth-value. However, he also makes some stronger claims: that taste can be improved with practice, that prejudice always hampers taste, that moral (mental) taste is inseparable from physical taste, that taste is involved in a process of discernment which can be rated according to its ability to recognize smaller and smaller objects.

One of the consequences is that “good sense” becomes a pre-requisite for good taste. He distinguishes between the vulgar and the refined. Strangely, the vulgar is the more capricious and varying, while the refined is that which is more common. This is the most counter-intuitive move in the essay, and it aligns processes of aesthetic judgment with sensus communis and all those forms of “reason” that were established in the treaty. Unfortunately, he does not extrapolate from the very curious observations on distance—Burke and Kant will do that.

Lastly, just to emphasize the difference with Kant, Hume is radically subjective in his description of how one comes to relate to something beautiful. For example, some people may like the sublime and others may not. In Kant, for the sublime to be recognized as sublime, the subject must undergo the mental process that condition the sublime’s emergence. Thus Hume seems less interested in the relation between subject and object than in the cultural disposition of the subject.

Lauren Berlant – “Slow Death” (2007)

Berlant explains the concept of slow-death as a way of living in this current stage of capital. It is not merely the quiet desperation of Thoreau’s community-others, but a way in which life can be lived laterally, as a self-interruption of the capital subject otherwise exhausted by the forces of capital extraction that soak up all practical energies.

[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.

She uses obesity as an example of how the processes of eating have become perverted by capitalist pressures. “In the contemporary U.S. context, obesity figures as the freshest case of slow-death crisis-scandal management.”

It is a form of slow death; in fact, the only form of slow death available to many marginalized peoples.

When one African- American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment towards death as a way of life, marks out slowdeath as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.

She points out that being-fat was always associated with the rich not the poor, and now the number of “overfed” matches the number of “underfed” people in the world for the first time. Thus an old-fashioned Malthusian argument won’t work here—where it is the excessive resources that are killing the poor and people of color. Such “excess” dovetails with a whole range of racist associations: that African American are controlled by animal appetite rather than cultivated restraint; that this excess if marked by their political “excess” or expendability, etc.

She thus points out that the obesity epidemic cannot be explained in terms of liberal concepts of individual sovereignty, choice, freedom, etc. Rather, the biopolitical state forces us to rethink the modes of agency that constitute personal change—such as healthy or unhealthy eating. Remember that for Foucault, sovereignty “is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life. Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die. It is the right to take life or let live.” Thus much of what Berlant is arguing is that life-maintenance can in and of itself be equivalent to a form of life-building, but with the idea of construction signifying otherwise than capital modes of accretion. [Relate this to Schilleren idea of not tasting more, but of tasting differently.]

But, for most, the overwhelming present is less well symbolized by energizing images of sustainable life, less guaranteed than ever by the glorious promise of bodily longevity and social security, than it is expressed in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and, sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.