October 22nd, 2005


Ask the rice

Yesterday's conversation about art subsidy turned, in the comments section, into a conversation about food subsidy, and specifically the clash between two positions:

a) Why don't we encourage the French to stop subsidizing their farmers and open up their markets to imported food from developing countries, thus helping alleviate world poverty by "trade not aid"?

b) We don't need to containerize and globalize food markets more; why not encourage food to be grown and consumed in the same place, cutting down the environmental impact of unnecessary logistics but also making sure that the cultural values incarnated in local food production and know-how stay meaningful?

Of course, what's missing from both these arguments, the pro- and anti-globalization stances, is the important question: what does the food itself want?

Don't laugh — one of the problems of "newspaper arguments" like this is that they tend to take for granted the grey, economistic, managerial frames newspapers put around things; they think inside the box (an orange refrigerated container sitting in a port, most probably). But there are more things in the world than money and endlessly expansionist economic development. For the last couple of years I've become increasingly interested, for instance, in Shinto, the agricultural kami-cult of Japan, and in the relationship between cults and cultivation in general. Shinto is an animistic religion which sees a spirit inhabiting water, rice, rocks, trees and so on. The emphasis is on the seasons, fertility, and man's relationship with nature, specifically the spirits inhabiting the nature which surrounds food production. We see something quite similar in the pagan fertility religion reconstructed from ancient British sources for the film "The Wicker Man". Every food-producing society has gone through an age in which the relationship between cult, cultivation, agriculture and culture is much clearer and more direct than it is today.

The big international money system we have today is a system of logic and logistics, not cults and culture. Everything is for sale, and everything can be taken out of context, transported around the world. Just like the monotheistic religions which broke up animistic cult-culture religions wherever they found them, we have a monopolistic-logistic money machine which breaks the local relationship between production and consumption, preferring to abstract food from the conditions of its growing (including the spiritual and cultural ones), pack it into a refrigerated container and send it to a consumer on the other side of the world, with the appropriate price mark-ups each time it changes hands (and our system is all about those mark-ups). Nations like the French and the Japanese, who try to preserve national cuisines and see food as culture, tend to have their objections swept aside when they try to divert the logic-logistics markup machine around their agricultural systems. Because any objection to logic-logistics is, in our system, illogical.

In France, Japan and some other countries the cult-culture-cultivation mindset co-exists uneasily with the logic-logistics mindset. France loves its paysan class, the blue-jacketed and green-fingered "boutique producers" who, in defiance of logistics logic, seeped deep in the cultish culture of food, take pigs hunting for truffles or pass from one generation to the next the secrets of fermentations and molds, butters and herbs. For these people, food is always "soul food", and the spiritual and culinary are identical.

Now, I'm a man, and Western, and fairly Cartesian. I've been raised in a post-puritan, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, logistical-consumerist culture which sees food as a "guilty pleasure", in conflict both with the spirit and with efficiency; unlike the French, at lunchtime British people tend to head to the sandwich bar, like drivers taking their cars to a petrol station. But I live with a Japanese person who believes quite different things about food and nature than I do.

Take, for example, our rabbit. I call him Baker, or, when he drops pellets (which for him are territorial markings, or even stored food, but for me are just rubbish) in awkward places, I call him Mukatsuku Baker. Mukatsuku means "sickening", and it implies that when someone transgresses one doesn't just register intellectual disapproval, but is sickened to the stomach. The stomach, after all, is not just a warehouse for food, but a sensitive place where nature and culture negotiate.

Now, when I call Baker "Sickening Baker" Hisae tells me to stop; the rabbit will understand, she tells me, and really start to become mukatsuku in his nature. How can that be, I ask? Does he speak Japanese? Do words change the objective reality of things? Hisae tells me yes, they do. And it's not even living things which can be changed in this way; rice which has been separated from the plant, cooked and served as food, still has a soul, and feelings.

You may laugh, but every Japanese person I've ever known believes in ghosts, and believes that there's a spirit living in fairly normal, everyday things. To convince me, Hisae cites an experiment reported on a Japanese blog (there's a variant here). A Japanese woman (let's call her Wisteria) read a book about how words affected water (it may have been something to do with Jacques Benveniste's claims that homeopathy works because water has "a memory"). Wisteria took some leftover rice that had been lying around in her kitchen for three days, and put it into two polystyrene cups. She marked one of the cups arigato (thank you) and the other bakayaro (idiot). Each day she said "Arigato!" three times to the arigato rice, and "Bakayaro" three times to the bakayaro rice. Her husband, when he came home from work, also cursed and thanked the rice cups three times. After two weeks, there was a clear difference between the two cups; the rice in the bakayaro cup had dark mold all over its surface, whereas the rice in the arigato cup was almost pristine, with just a little spot of mold at the edge.

This "experiment" was being discussed on Japanese bulletin boards as a demonstration of "virtuous circles"; a man said that he'd been annoyed by an absent-minded combini clerk who'd microwaved his food when he asked for it not to be microwaved, and then, when he pointed this out, said "arigato gozaimasu" (thank you very much) instead of "sumimasen!" (I'm inexcusable). At first the customer thought this odd and rude, but other people on the board told him that arigato was a way of stressing the positive, whereas sumimasen would have stressed the negative aspects of the situation. And they cited the rice experiment as an example of how positive words have positive effects.

Now, every fibre of my Cartesian soul wants to shriek "ridiculous" at this, but I find it fascinating that there's a cults-culture way of looking at things that differs so much from the logic-logistics one. And I can't disagree with the general conclusion; positive feedback really does make situations better. In future I'm going to speak more nicely to my rabbit, and my rice.