Digestive Modernisms

Modernist writing is replete with moments of preparing, consuming and digesting food and drink. From well-known examples, such as Getrude Stein’s defamiliarizing poetics of food in Tender Buttons and the peristaltic movements of Leopold Bloom through the gut of Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses, to the perhaps less-obvious moments of textual digestion, such as the satire of vegetarianism in Djuna Barnes’s Ryder (1928), or the irrationality of cheese in Hope Mirrlees’ Paris (1920), modernism, as a literary period and aesthetic category, offers a way of thinking about how literary representations of eating and consumption have and continue to shape us.

Throughout the twentieth century, the consumption of food, information, ideas, and media shifted. Eating moved from the private to the public sphere; food industries branded and standardised, developing, for example, tinned produce and increasingly processed products. The twentieth century also saw the rise of industrial agriculture and factory farming, providing meat and protein to a wider range of the population, but also intensifying environmental and ethical issues around how we raise the food we need and enjoy. While consumption and overconsumption increased, so too did the significance of refusal and absence: throughout the twentieth century, eating took on an increasingly political and activist slant with the amplified use of hunger strikes and increasing visibility of starvation. At the same time, access to food was not always easy: soldiers in the trenches made do with suspicious meat, merely a precursor to the extensive rationing during and following the Second World War. We centralise digestion not only as a biological process, but also as a metaphor for the process of consuming and ingesting ideas and knowledge: are some texts/images/ideas easier to digest than others?

What about when digestion fails? Though far from unique to the modern period, accumulative knowledge about the digestive system from the nineteenth century onwards has demonstrated the centrality of the system to emotions, cognition and functionality, requiring greater attention to gastrointestinal disorders which has especially proliferated in the past few decades. We have come to recognise the impact of different medications, such as antibiotics on the microbiome and gut, but what were the associations, with the advent of penicillin, to antibiotics entering the scene? What was the impact of the increasing ubiquity of indigestion remedies, such as Rennie antacids which entered the market in 1931? Greater attention to moments of dyspepsia, ingestion, vomit, diarrhoea, dysentery and waste, can tell us about perceptions of digestive health, modern bodies, and attitudes to how and what we consume.

Digestive Modernisms is an informal interdisciplinary network based in Edinburgh, bringing together researchers, artists, and writers interested in the gastronomics of modern literature and life. We are interested in looking at food, diet, and gut health in modernist literature, art, culture and philosophy, taking an approach that is informed by the medical humanities, food studies, animal studies, the environmental humanities, and posthumanism, among other critical contexts.

Image: Claes Oldenburg, Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (1962), used under terms of fair usage as established by wikiart.