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Superconversations Day 2: Kate Steinmann responds to Martha Rosler, "The Art of Cooking: A Dialogue Between Julia Child & Craig Claiborne"

This discussion also calls to mind the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev–a direct clash of political beliefs on the surface, but, in my opinion, actually reveals the intensity with which capitalism transforms expectations of and creates new sets of demands for the labor of individuals, communities, and society.

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Rebekah Sheldon, thank you for pointing out the ur-question overshadowing everything else in this discussion. You are right that its special urgency now does distinguish our moment from the 1970s, even if ecocide was already very much on people’s minds then. I very much appreciate your necessary extension of this problem beyond the human to include animals and the ecosphere; “the labor of ecological actants” is a thought-provoking way of putting it.

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I’m curious though why Tom is so completely dismissive of the reading of Marx at the Biennale? I mean, we would probably celebrate alternative / pop musicians for simply mentioning Marx’s name in a song that became popular, or for thematics that don’t mention him at all but express the analysis. Is it really less subversive than for example, Pet Shop Boys invoking Marx in their recent pop songs, or other comparables? What is the proper space for the collective presentation or reading of Marx? If we say universities, etc., aren’t there similar problems? One of Ranciere’s assertions in The Nights of Labor was the importance of a passage in a locksmith’s diary in which he said something like “Yes, I know my trade very well and am proud of what I do, which is crucial and an actually needed thing in the world. But, all the same, I would much have preferred to have been a painter”. Is it never right to suggest that the reverse is also the case?

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I also want to extend the conversation about the feminization of labor to a conversation about how class, race, gender and labor intersect. I think it might be useful to think about the relationship between the ‘art of cooking’ and the ‘art of service.’ In looking at the role that women have played in the service industry (I am specifically looking at the waitress as a trope for female stereotypes), I think it is important to talk about the emotional labor that is demanded of all people working in the service industry. To quote Nina Power in her essay, “Don’t Smile, Organize”: “the structure of work remains the same: at the end of the day, your work is not your own, your body is hired out to generate profits for someone else, your smile does not belong to you. The practice of tipping reveals, in quite a specific way, the added value that manner and affect can bring; you may keep those tips you make from being a friendly, or flirty, waiter or waitress, a helpful shop-assistant, an engaging and witty hairdresser, but they may simply be used to make up your basic income. You are your job, plus your personality.”

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There is one crucial issue which seems to have gone unnoticed in this conversation: the biopolitics of food, which underlies the choice of Rosler’s The Art of Cooking as a statement. Beyond the semiotics of gourmet food as a symbolic system for representing social status (a system which has undergone many transformations but has always preserved its signifying power), is the reality of bare food, which nurtures and maintains bare life. One could understand life as the full experience of bios (a way of life) and zoe (the universal act of living), while Agamben’s idea of bare life is a life which is entirely reduced to zoe. Roslen’s The Art of Cooking consider food as bare food - that which no longer engages with the origins, quality and processes that configure the how of food, in itself either alive or a subsidy of life, and its unfoldings and becomings in the world. Food is here taken for granted, the privilege of access to food comes as a given which does not need to be acknowledged or taken into consideration. Bare food is the mediated experience of food which is managed, regulated and controled by biopower. In a world in which food is hyperreal - genetically manipulated, distorted, desecrated; and where lack of access to clean water is on the verge of becoming a dystopian nightmare, the seriousness and urgency of discussing the bios and zoe of food is paramount.

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I would like to see a statement linking the exclusion (let’s not just call it underrepresentation, that seems like a euphemism and implies an ideal balance) of non-cis-men to the inadequacy of contemporary art. Often such statistical citations—let’s say in the affirmative action debates in the US—suggest that the problem is the failure to achieve balance. Balance is not the goal. A more robust field is. Barriers to entry reduce the accountability of the field and prevent revision.

A digression. I tend to think more about the exclusion of non-white artists but I think the dynamics and effects of exclusion are generalizable. Institutions that are committed to recovering the creative work of non-white artists have, like you, had to turn away from strictly contemporary art practices to fulfill those missions: specifically to “commercial” work (as if gallery work is not commercial—it’s simply a different ownership structure, based on labor rather than commodities—another interesting discussion I hope we can have). I think of El Museo del Barrio’s exhibition of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s work, or of Museum of Chinese in America’s exhibition of Tyrus Wong’s work (best known as the lead creative of Bambi). Now we have plenty of cinematographic and animation work in contemporary art—it would be easy to think of these artists as literally ahead of their time, and yet the vicious circle of legitimation excludes their work; it’s only art if it’s thought of as art, and it’s only thought of as art if it’s art. A specious, circular claim like that is just the kind of vague grounds by which prejudices shore themselves up.

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It seems that Tom believes it is being done either in bad faith (nostalgia) or without regard for impact (farce). I think that neither of these criticisms hold water, being unelaborated. I suspect that the gesture of reading Marx in a Biennial known for soft-left rhetoric is too simple and legible. I think it is worth responding to (I am writing here after all) precisely because it is simple and legible. It is very literal-minded. It cuts out the intermediary, which is art that obliquely refers to Marx. I think his “at best… at worst” claims unhappily draw their strength (which I am moved by too—and rhetorical strength is not necessarily intended, but ingrained into phrases) from a rhetoric that prizes effortlessness and punishes aspiration. Jason’s citation is on point:

This desire to be something other than what one is (in this case, a painter rather than a locksmith), I think that reading Marx bespeaks that desire (wishing to talk about Marx rather than art). Claiborne speaks of the goal of the high chef as “perfection… the goal of classic French cooking… this cuisine is more demanding and more precise than any other.” At the risk of making an irresponsible claim, I would say that Tom’s dismissal is a matter of personal distaste—I meant “taste” here in the weak sense of the word.

Really searching for perfection, by becoming more than or other than what one is, would require a constant re-evaluation of what one’s goals are; otherwise it’s dogmatism, as Claiborne’s next sentence “It has its own logic, its own elaborate structure, its own techniques, procedures, and caveats,” hints. Taste as something that’s merely inherited is insufficient, a mere product of one’s upbringing. This is what I mean by taste in the weak sense.

In the strong sense: developing a taste isn’t just following things, it’s also experimenting constantly and being surprised by one’s own capacities and inclinations, while also thoughtfully and committedly pursuing what’s on the tip of one’s tongue.

@KRZ Sounds like it could be a great contribution to the discussion. Would you please elaborate on the Kitchen Debates, for those of us who have not read or seen them? What happened in them and how do they transform our expectations and demands for labor?

I looked it up briefly, and was struck by this rejoinder of Khruschev’s to the wealth of household technology shown by Nixon: "Khrushchev: “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life.” Keti Chukhrov has an incisive and general discussion of the status of the object in the USSR as compared to the USA. If I remember correctly: in capitalism, the object (as fetish) is always enchanted: it offers an experience that it can never fully deliver. The role of conceptual art is to demystify this desire, and show that: oh, it is in fact simply just that literal object. In contrast, in socialism, the object (as utility) is always literal: it serves exactly its function, it is almost an ideal object, which is why everything is so shabby, since it merely suffices. The role of conceptual art here is to introduce sublimity and potentiality into the object.

Thank you for bringing this up, and to @Kate_Kate and @saba_razvi for bringing up the celebrity chef. I would like to see more of a discussion of food, rather than [or perhaps as well as] Joseph Addison and Melanie Klein. I think that we should apply our intelligences not just textually but also to aesthetic experiences like food.

This is perhaps a good time to talk about socialist food.

Or at least, the food of insitutional liberalism, capitalism’s mimetic response to socialism. Of course it would have an outer-space ring to it. The Mars bar replaces depth of flavor with a series of surfaces: unlike “the French [who] seem to look for the hidden flavor locked within a piece of meat in much the same way a sculptor looks for the shape within a block of wood or marble.” If the candy bar leverages new technologies of packaging food, then of course having the candy itself packaged in melted chocolate is brilliant.

Rosler positions Claiborne as the doyen of classic, cosmopolitan cuisine—perfection for the few—and Childs as the advocate for rural, working-class ingenuity—quite good for the many—but what this leaves off the table is the possibility of perfection for the many.

Exo and Soylent represent faithful inheritors of the tradition of modernist confection, of the Mars brothers (who haven’t made anything interesting in nearly a century)—setting aside Hershey, since their achievement was largely administrative rather than technical, in the same way that McDonald’s is successful as a popularizer of franchising rather than a food store. Julia Child asks: “Would one accept superbly prepared insects as food art if we abhorred insects or loathed the very idea of eating them?” A lot is at stake in the question, and I think the only responsible answer is yes. Otherwise, the culinary arts are powerless in facilitating our drive, orienting our desires to be more and other and better than we are.

One final note. @rmorais I am sympathetic to your discussion of foodways and your attempt to distinguish between a bios and zoe of food (perhaps between cuisine and nutrition?) but am wary of your implicit recourse to a simple idea of nature as a response. Yes, certain corporate and state regimes are actively thinning out the quality and quantity of lives of some groups. However, protesting GMOs is not an adequate response to Monsanto. Genetic modification of plants is actually a logical extension of other processes of manipulating dead things like plants or animals into food, like timing, cooking, steaming, boiling, cutting, seasoning, cultivating, breeding—it is just another technology and there is no good philosophical or scientific reasoning [anti-GMO like anti-vaccination is the ugly, anti-scientific side of the contemporary left and an unfortunate hangover of 1960s cultural environmentalism] to draw the line at GMOs rather than at factory farming rather than at nomadic pastoralism rather than at foraging.

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hi @dxb, i don’t think plants and animals are dead things and i do believe that the line must be drawn somewhere - where exactly depends on the limits of one’s aesthetic and ethical sensibility. i don’t think that agamben’s revision of biopolitics (which i’m applying to food here) presupposes a “simple idea of nature”. if you read any of my many texts on nanotechnology, you will find that my views of nature are not simple in any way. to say that anti-GMO is anti-scientific is a very shallow argument. there is no scientific consensus about GMO. furthermore, as someone from brazil who was raised on a farm and has actually seen the impact of GMO crops (they are resistant to insects and completely alter the ecosystem in which they are planted), i understand that their effect is much wider than simply asking this human-centred, narcissistic question of “are they safe to be eaten?”. they are causing abnormal changes and mutations in our ecosystem and i’ve experienced them first hand. so yes, i am anti-GMO.

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“There is another dimension to culinary art which has less to do with humans, that of demonic alchemy of material animation.” Yes, this and the Negarestani’s wonderful notes you quoted bought to mind Isak Dinsen’s 1950 gothic short novella “Babette’s Feast”. Am re-reading this story presently
in light of this dimension and others that have been bought up in the discussion. https://www2.bc.edu/~taylor/babette.html.

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I’m not dismissive of reading Marx, just the representative gesture, as if it is some shibboleth or charm to ward away the forces of global capitalism.The aestheticized context of it is also a problem. Isn’t UBS sponsoring the Biennale to a large extent, and doesn’t this subsume the gesture?

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“Chipotle”, even the name of this quick foods restaurant is an expropriation of the Mexican word adopted from the Nahuatl word for the smoked chili: Chipotle, the dropping of the medial “L”, suited better to American tastes for “Tex-Mex”. Imperialist cuisine, quick cooked to suit the hurried lives of the urbanist bourgeoisie devouring (consuming) a food that has lost its mestizo flavor, all the while in a Žižekian turn assuages it’s privileged sense of corporate guilt through building compassion into every bite: “We do it for farmers” gladly proclaimed. We buy indulgences through “corporate responsibility” statements. A penance in every penny spent.

Yet, how about the farmworkers, the most exploited agricultural laborers who enjoy a least protected status, sweating in toil in the fields , under blazing sun to provide the farm fresh and responsibly sourced cuisine in such high demand to the middle class palate? Whose toil goes unnoticed in the technological logistics of sourcing foods to the table for every expropriated cuisine.

“General Tso?”, one quizzically asks of the origins of this new foul (fowl), this strangely spiced chicken dish unknown to the tastes of China before the return of Chinese chefs from the diaspora.

How is the paneer, dear? We must ask if we are creating a new and sterilized global culture of quick cuisine in which the spices and textures of the global South and Asia are expropriated to serve the consumer tastes and middle brow fetish for the new, the spicy (but not too…), the exotic.

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I think that Jason’s question (and his reversal of Ranciere) may be something like, shouldn’t the staff of UBS be reading Marx (if they aren’t already)?

Food seems to be a particularly easy way to discuss class, since it leads intuitively to taste. I think the original, authentic cuisine you’re describing is even more of a fantasy than the not too spicy hybrids. I don’t understand why one would consider, for example, the fusion of court food and regional, Shandong cuisine into contemporary Northern Chinese food a good hybrid, but the fusion of Canton/Fujian food with American preferences for the sweet and spicy as a bad hybrid. I can’t see a way for your critique of the middlebrow to be more than ultimately a defense of the highbrow. That is, Claiborne’s side, the side of the authentic and classic and canonical [South Asian rather than French], rather than Childs’ [experimental products of ways of life in regions, which includes both rural Kolkata and Bengali Harlem]. How is General Tso’s not mestizo? Not that it’s good, or that I’ve tried it.

Obviously, the ownership structures may be problematic. A cuisine that’s the product of one particular group’s R&D but not under patent protection is taken and then profited off of by someone else; but that’s not really a problem with the food itself, that’s confusing symptoms and sicknesses. Like in your example of Chipotle: the problem is the company, not the recipes.

Back to an earlier point of yours, @Kate_Kate . One of the major functions of cultural workers is to launder/usher new money into old wealth. True in 1900 New York, 1800 London, 1700 Amsterdam, 1600 Antwerp, 1500 Venice… and [2000 Beijing][1] But I want to argue in defense of etiquette and manners. One line of critique holds that it’s nothing but class markers, and I think this line of thought is popular in contemporary art circles because of the distrust of conventions. But I think that if you accept that everything’s constructed not as a traumatic truth, but as an invitation to participate, then conventions (and etiquette) become very important.

I recently read Mou Zongsan’s Nineteen Lectures. He has an account of the rise of the pre-Qin philosophers which forms [the basis for his New Confucian defense of manners][2], against the line of reasoning “everything is constructed and hence meaningless and so don’t do it” as it appears in certain strains of existentialism (and for him, I imagine, post-structuralism would be in there too) and Buddhism and Daoism. Broadly, society was regulated in the pre-Qin period by ritual (really, etiquette) for the upper class, and punishment for the lower class. All formulas and rites aside, the basic proposition of manners is to treat others like one is treated (you bow back, you shake back; it’s reciprocal and equal); but the forms of this norm and the principle itself become decoupled in the 200s BC, and he calls this the “exhaustion of the Zhou rites.” The philosophical schools arise as a response to this crisis of manners; Daoism is a critique of conventions that seeks to dispense with them altogether, Confucianism recuperates it by articulating its ethical grounds, Legalism replaces manners with punishment altogether, in a Kissingerian realist way… I’ve wandered a little, but I mean to say that there are fruitful ways to think about behavioral norms. I don’t think it is silly to decouple manners from class, which is a specious association made by the upper class in any case: of course people with less privilege are usually more sensitive to manners and the expression of respect. We act by them, anyways, certainly in a context as straitened as the Biennial. Why not make them better? Can I also just say that one of the best and most activist books in the very particular context of the art world that I know of is about [etiquette?][3]

@rmorais Thank you! I am reading “Sky High, Skin Deep” right now and am sorry to have made assumptions. I understand that genetic manipulations are altering ecosystems in uncontrolled and reckless ways, but I would say that the ethical failure here is of regulation by state authorities; I would not problematize the process of GM itself as being unnatural, but say that we should manipulate more intelligently.
[1]: http://www.institutesarita.com/en/
[2]: http://nineteenlects.com/lect.php?lect=3
[3]: http://www.papermonument.com/i-like-your-work/

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That’s right - and the chilpotle chili is a mestizo element found in the shops frequented by the underclass of Mexican laborers here in the western US, a syndrome of alienation and non-acceptance by the dominator class that imports these workers, often illegally, to keep the cost of farm production low. Thus I contend that “Chipotle” is a political statement and a disenfranchisement of the mestizo culture of origin through “compassionate corporate” expropriation of the people’s food and its castration via the Nahuatl middle “L” .

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Let’s continue researching how Ferdowsi leaves us with the ongoing story of Zahak and those materials that are being provided for the snakes. So, there is a description of the people being sad and depressed since every month 60 male and female gorgeous youth are being killed so that Zahak’s snakes can feed on them. Such description just brings the story of Shahriar and Shahrzad to my mind, which the king, after being betrayed is just executing a bride every morning after he takes her virginity of all the way to when Shahrzad (the minister’s daughter) dares to enter the court, getting married to the king, and starting story telling for 1001 nights. the translation, transformation and the gender roles are quite present not necessarily mirrored like what we have here but many of the words and phrases here, for the first time made me think about Shahrzad, Zahak and ‘hav’ (hak), inscription, trace, alchemy, material and etc in relation to each other.

But back to the continuation of the Zahak story, although the primary cook here is the false Mogh, the demonic creature, (yet not the primary cook in the book of kings or in the old Persian Zend mythology. There, Jamsheed is the primary man, in every regard in relation to fire, cooking, clothing, blacksmiths, agriculture, etc, who happen to be Zahak’s father) those heros who free 30 youth every month, by mixing sheep brains with youth brains, are also cooks. They gather those rescued 30 youths and send them to Alborz, where they become the fathers and mothers of Kurdish people.

There the demonic can be seen, not only in corrupting Zahak, but by also corrupting the corrupted cooks of Zahak’s court for good. The other aspect of the story is Kaveh, the revolutionary who raises voice against the corruption of Zahak. Where he takes of his blacksmith apron, which is made of leather, and makes the first flag of ancient Iran, against the corrupted king.

The blacksmith, this dominantly male cook of the materials, Zahak’s primary cook, the demon, Zahak’s secondary spy cooks, the heros, are considerable hardware experts in this mythology. Yet I am thinking what is the relationship of the hardward experts and the software experts. The astrologists (which in ancient Persian are also called Mogh, in contrast to what Negaresrani shows in the etymology of Ashemogha, the wrong, false mogh, priest, fortuneteller, astrologist) which could be also called the Magi.

Isn’t motherhood the word we are all avoiding too much? software, hardware, Klein, mentioning mothers, cooking, home, fame, artists, all and all, aren’t these going roundabout motherhood? A version of imagining motherhood which even doesn’t confine it to female body?

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Aside from their discussion of quality of materials and infrastructure, I think the discussion about the kitchen is simply fascinating. Nixon notes the dishwasher, which makes the labor of the housewife easier; he mentions the affordability of appliances and homes, noting that they can be replaced when new inventions come along or they fall out of fashion. Krushchev emphasizes the solid construction and affordability of their homes, in addition to the similar income levels of Soviets compared to Americans.

I came across the Kitchen Debate while reading “The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities.” My interests lie in questioning the idea of making labor “easier” or “more enjoyable,” such as with Nixon’s dishwasher. On the one hand, everyday labor should be fun, simpler, more enjoyable etc. But when labor is made “easier” and opens up time for leisure, how is that time spent? …in isolation in your fancy new kitchen across the suburban street from an identical home/kitchen? What is the cost of convenience? My reading into the situation is more interested in the loss of collectivity and, perhaps most important, deliberate isolation and fragmentation of women achieved through the American middle class dream.

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[quote=“dxb, post:34, topic:1575”] But I want to argue in defense of etiquette and manners. One line of critique holds that it’s nothing but class markers, and I think this line of thought is popular in contemporary art circles because of the distrust of conventions. But I think that if you accept that everything’s constructed not as a traumatic truth, but as an invitation to participate, then conventions (and etiquette) become very important. . . . I’ve wandered a little, but I mean to say that there are fruitful ways to think about behavioral norms. I don’t think it is silly to decouple manners from class, which is a specious association made by the upper class in any case: of course people with less privilege are usually more sensitive to manners and the expression of respect. We act by them, anyways, certainly in a context as straitened as the Biennial. Why not make them better? Can I also just say that one of the best and most activist books in the very particular context of the art world that I know of is about etiquette?
[/quote]

@dxb I’m very sympathetic to this. I didn’t mean that being into organic foods and seasonal cooking is reducible to (“nothing but”) a class marker; surely it is a class marker among many other things. And I’m fascinated by the study of etiquette, behavioral norms, manners, and so on. Thanks for linking to the Paper Monument book on etiquette.

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@KRZ Thanks for this and your other thoughtful commentary. I must read The Grand Domestic Revolution. The study of neoliberal/capitalist fragmentation, atomization, and abstraction is one of my major interests.

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Thanks for this comment. It got me thinking about the connection between traditionally female arts of witchcraft and culinary arts. Witchcraft and culinary arts are both a kind of potion-making with the intent of healing, and both arts received poor treatment with the onset of the Scientific Revolution, the zealous march of transcendental religion, and the emergence of capitalism. Practitioners of witchcraft - the label attached to healing arts that drew on Earth and Mother knowledge as opposed to religious or proto-scientific knowledge - were rooted out and persecuted as magic was cast as demonic. Culinary artistry - which might also be seen as a kind of healing art drawing on special knowledge of herbs and spices passed through matrilineal channels - were robbed of their artistic aura and recategorized as subsistence activity. It might be useful to thus position changing conceptions of culinary arts within a conversation about the emergence of masculinist science and skepticism/fear surrounding paganism. And what about the recategorization - later - of culinary arts as high art when cooking takes on an imperialist valence and westerners make a foray into non-western cooking? Is cooking only worthwhile when it achieves some political or economic end, as opposed to holistic or community-minded ends?

It might also be interesting, here, to discuss the degradation of subsistence activities, which are in fact the very activities that sustain our very existence! We refuse to adequately respect subsistence activities, though they are the only activities that we actually require to survive. Look for instance at the way subsistence farming is denigrated in the context of foreign aid and “third world” development projects.

But getting back to witchcraft and cooking, how might we place alchemy in this discussion? Witchcraft and cooking both might be seen as feminine analogs to more masculinist alchemy, an art typically imagined to occupy a proto-scientific space bent on the creation of capital (gold). How are our views on alchemy versus witchcraft shaped by the gendered character of each?

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I really appreciated the depth of your comments and perspective here, especially this:- "Is cooking only worthwhile when it achieves some political or economic end, as opposed to holistic or community-minded ends?

It might also be interesting, here, to discuss the degradation of subsistence activities, which are in fact the very activities that sustain our very existence! We refuse to adequately respect subsistence activities, though they are the only activities that we actually require to survive".

Cooking, the preparation of food, making ‘meals’ is also often a sustaining but hidden, emotional and imaginative backdrop too against which other perhaps more ‘in the world’ labour and practical activities can take place. I am thinking of the place of food and meals in the emotional imagination. We reward ourselves as well with food after labouring, or to prepare ourselves to labour, and not just because we are hungry or need the energy say but also as a buffer and buttress against some of the dehumanizing effects of labour. So cooking and food preparation, as I see it is, is an essential counterpoint to labour that simply isn’t seen or recognized. It could be taken into account as part of labour itself because because without its effects and influence on many levels, labour could probably not continue.

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Very interesting! Then the search for food (so often framed, especially by those social scientists with biological or evolutionary science backgrounds, with sex as the driving force of our lifestory/ies), is not simply the most fundamental labor, but also the mother of all other labor.

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