Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Edge of Glory: Whispers of Sugar


"Hey, Sugar, what have you gotta say?
 It started with a whisper, and that's when I kissed her.

and then she made my lips hurt"

Neon Trees, Everybody Talks


This blog post is an expansion on a thought which had a note in an unpublished piece of mine on Queer Christian theology and in a Facebook entry where I wrote the following over the loss of a meeting house where I shared many a happy night:

"Amidst the Turbulent Noise of so many Comings-and-Goings, there are rare Arrivals: Little Glories which call out 'for Me have things come-to-be, for This have we struggled,' and after that instance are never seen again; the loss is real. 'Other things, other blessings, other glories...But never that. Never in all worlds, that.' --- And so we rejoiced and gave thanks for Critter Den. Now we begin to mark the Coming of something new: not a Void but an Absence."


I. Whispers on your Lips: Object Oriented Cooking

"Your fair discourse hath been as sugar.”
William Shakespeare, Richard II

Of the many substances which evoke high aesthetic reverence, addicted servitude, and the cultural capital to move bodies across thousands of miles to fight, work, and die for its creation, sugar has most competitors beat with the extent of its enchantment over human lives. Evidence enough of sugar's power over us is expressed in our species histories with sucrose, from its trade from India, to the Middle East, to Europe, and eventually to the Americas, where such state apparatuses as industry, war, and slavery haunt us through today. In these affairs, our ravenousness must in part be explained beyond "strictly human" action, so that we  admit that our bodies become overcome by the allure of sugar.

Moving from this larger (and usually anthroprocentric) view of time and space, I would like to consider some smaller ways that sugar sings its glories --- how tiny crystals of sucrose whisper to us those claims: "for Me have things come-to-be; for this have we suffered."

Yet another end and means-to-an-end, which sugar directs, this post will be aided by other products formed by its magic. My primarily companion will be Alton Brown, and his episode of Good Eats, "Citizen Cane," where we can see his foody object-orientation at work, "bringing", as Bruno Latour wrote "the sciences into democracy." Using his methodological alliance of theatrical art with bio-chemistry, history, anthropology, and culinary sciences, Brown sets about to not only teach recipes but to inspire awareness and wonder for the ingredient of the day; this time, sugar. I argue that it may be as much good philosophy, as it is good entertainment, and certainly more than it is good cooking sense, that such an episode begins with Brown walking around, then rolling, swimming, and playing in colossal piles of sugar.

This post will explore sugar then, by looking at its formation (its coming to be), its trans-formation (its becoming), it's limits (those glorious edges), and its qualities. Metaphorism has already proven to be a useful way of understanding the way objects relate, by which one thing creates a "faint impression" of the other in its own terms, so too will we do with sugar; but also will we see how sugar not only dictates the manner of the whispered communication between things, but its content as well, how sugar trans-lates (moves) its qualities across different objects. If objects, such as sugar, we are told by Graham Harman, "are in tension with their own qualities, there is not reason that this tension should not exist indefinitely, without seismic changes of any sort. Instead of tension, what we need is a rupture in the bond between the thing and its qualities so that these qualities can be exchanged from one object to another, like photons in the Bohr atom" (Prince of Networks, 219). Thus again, sugar exalts to share its qualities, not only sweetness. Simple table sugar poured into a turbine has a kind of tension, when it gets blowing and exploding, mixes with air and heat, so as to transfer its crystalline shape to a mass of fluffy cotton candy. We count on sugar's charity.

As the style of this post also suggests, I would also invite considerations as yet another "Feminine Product" (with HEAT, SILICONE, ESTROGEN, as well as SALINE & MUSIC), wherein the substance of our attention can as well be regarded as a concern over and for women. In these previous posts, I made the argument, which I would like to echo here, that non-human bodies are significant co-participants as well as co-oppressors on the battle grounds of Material Feminism. With the word "SUGAR" signifying here the manufactured powder of a thick grass and here the manufactured and subordinated body of a woman, even when the human is not directly invoked, we should not think we have left the discourse (and potential violence) of gender behind.


II. Sweet, Sweet Power: Our Energy Addiction

"My sugar sweet is so attainable,
This behaviour so unexplainable"
The Killers, Why Do I Keep Counting?

In Warmth Disperses and Time Passes, Hans Christian von Baeyer suggests that the mapping of the universe, as history, is the marking of significant transformations in the ontology and understanding of heat. Where such a journey meets sugar and us, is at the level of chemistry (a field which is often joked to be just a sub-school of physics --- from what department this joke often derives is up to your imagination). Indeed, "Chemical processes resemble thermal ratchets in that they are driven by heat in a direction imposed by tiny electrical forces" (Baeyer 173). Thus at a certain level, the thousand little glories of sugar literally glow.

The argument of "Citizen Cane" by Brown begins likewise, with the thesis "If sunlight were to take a physical form on our planet, it would be as sucrose. Now all green plants produce sucrose on its own, to some degree on their own, through photosynthesis, that amazingly complex process of transfiguration heat into matter, but only two plants: the sugar beet and the giant grass we call sugar cane, manufacture sucrose in harvestable amounts." There is very much a reality to the sense that to hold a palm full of sugar, is to hold power and light in your hand.

Enlisting the help of a Nutritional Anthropologist, Deb Duncan, Brown makes the case that our desire for sugar is not only cultural, but chemical or bio-mechanical, where we are drawn towards the substance in part by its vibrant energy. "Glucose in the main energy source for brains," observes Duncan, "and we have big brains. They are giant energy sinks." Standing amidst a field of grasses, invoking the point at which sunlight becomes the sugary object of our concern, Brown and Duncan playful ponder different theories as to how and why our bodies are so easily drawn into a hunger for and thus the service of sucrose; gesturing to theories about our longing for "the sweetness at our mother's milk" or "genetic memories" a time when our ansestors may have been primarily fruit eaters. Without closing down on one deterministic reason, they contingently agree that for whatever reason, that beyond the discourse of pure choice or consciousness, we become directed by sugar, which we should acknowledge in some relation as "potent and powerful."

I would emphasize here that the power of sugar, its energy, is in its motion through systems. Bruno Latour gives us one mode of thinking of these relations, wherein bodies, human and non-human, act on one another through a network which enacts the force and identity of the participants. Brown draws our attention to these networks which we praises that "besides its apparent accomplishments in the arenas of sweetening, flavor enhancement, preservation, fermentation, hydroization, and tenderization, sugar is just a great ingredient all by itself. Add a a little heat, a little water, and a little chemistry and amazing things will happen."

But Latour, like Michel Foucault, would both note that such systematic movements of power can have violent affects as well, disaplining, in different senses, the bodies which are enraptured by energy of such things as sugar. Thus we turn now to consider how the power of sweetness, has become the power of some bodies over (gendered) others.


III. Sugar Coating: Spoonfulls of Material Feminism

"Sugar, oh Honey, Honey, you are my candy girl...
Like the summer sunshine, pour your sweetness over me."
the Archies, Sugar Sugar

The conscripting power of sugar is hardly news for those of us knowingly addicted to sweets. For some, the inability or choice to abstain from other drugs including alcohol,  tobacco,  etc., leaves us with few perceivable avenues by which we may release ourselves from the tedium of attempting to assert control over our lives and so we enjoy & suffer the release of our bodies to the domination of sugar.

In previous posts we considered Graham Harman & Henri Berson's theories "On Humor" premising laughter on witnessing the human becoming an instrument of some other thing (such as an addictive substance) but we might find agreements even among psychoanalysts which consider the surrender of awareness to the ravishing, joy and destruction of some other-thing as our greatest desire.

At this point then we find ourselves thrice bound: materially, discoursively, subconsciously --- into gendered networks. On a variety of linguistic and aesthetic grounds, women and sugar are made to occupy overlapping roles of representation. As feminized products, these bodies are forced to stand-in for the power, knowledge  and enjoyment of sweetness. Most often set as the object of desire and enjoyment, feminine bodies are likewise scripted to perform the role of the other that enjoys sweetness, such as in Christina Aguilara's recent production of the song, Candyman, full of the tiny intimate whispers which we are training ourselves to be sensitive to:

"Sweet sugar candy man (whispered)/ He's a one stop, gotcha hot, making all the panties drop,/ Sweet sugar candy man (whispered),/ He's a one stop, got me hot, making my uh pop,/ Sweet sugar candy man (whispered),/ He's a one stop, get it while it's hot, baby don't stop,/ Sweet sugar (whispered)..."

 Furthermore, they are made to occupy overlapping embodiments by presenting the "modern woman" as either "fat" or else "skinny," ever in relationship with how much sugar passes through and is stored in the body. In her contribution to Feminist Disability Studies, April Herndon argues that the material politics of fatness and the patholigized consumption of food work through the cultural apparatuses of disability and womanhood to further divest certain bodies of control:

"Fat tests the boundaries between individual desires for certain embodiments and larger feminist goals of resisting corporeal ultimatums precisely because so many women and/or feminists struggle with their own physical identities. Complexities surrounding fatness, women's bodies, and the possibilities of fatness as a transitory and fluid embodiment also work on another level. In addition to possibly negating the identity of women for whom fatness is not a transitory condition, the notion of fatness as fluid is dangerous and threatening because it is a reminder that our bodies are dynamic rather than fixed. Thus the female body, already thought to be flawed, is at risk of being further pathologized by fatness"

While sweetness and an identification as "Sugar," may carry with it a kind of joy in the networks of power, we might paraphrase CS Lewis to remind ourselves "every new power gained by WoMan, is a power over WoMan, as well" (The Abolition of Man, Italic portions added). Identifications are a way of divesting and relating bodies, and thus such networks of power and action should be regarded with particular awareness especially wherein such bodies are consistently subjugated into compulsory positions.


IV. Sugar Crashing: On the Edge of Annihilation

"Am I more than you bargained for yet?"
Fall Out Boy, Sugar, We Are Going Down

The experience of sugar is the spike, like the summit of our ball thrown through space, punctuated at its height by the force of its sudden turn and powerful crash. The edge of Sugar's glory, then, is that of transformation.

The practice of Sugar-Crashing, as a way to burst apart forms, becomes the primary theme of Brown's episode. For this reason, he chooses to teach us how to make caramel, which he describes as "the one food that captures nature at the edge of annihilation," because it is created by energizing sugar until it breaks the bonds of its typical forms, and transforms.

 Recipes for various caramel candies are somewhat of a secondary outcome of Browns demonstration of sugar's special powers of transformation. "Candy making is basically the manipulation of sucrose by heat," Brown tells us "all made possible by the fact that between 230 and 350, ordinary table sugar goes through more molecular changes than a teenager on prom night." To emphasize this point, a bag of sugar and a pot are laid out on top of a stove, with no other ingredients to be used in this culinary project with the exception of water to assist in the cooking but which we are told will be boiled away by the end.

Getting the fire of change going, Brown lights up the pot of sugar water and draws in to watch the metamorphosis of sucrose into something else, as soon as it passes the key temperature. Before it crosses that boundary, however, we are warned that there will the potential for swift and drastic resistance. "What we have at this point" Brown tells us, "is a super-saturated solution, if you were to just shake the pot... or drop in one stray grain of sugar the whole pot would go capoot, rendering nothing but a big blob of crystals."

The forces that will replace the table sugar with another substance, we are told, are the same that will up until a point insist on its static identity, on its coming-to-be, sugar. To help explain what is going in the tiny molecular world of sucrose, Brown enlists the help of Food Chemist, Shirley O. Corriher. "When you have something very pure like table sugar" Corriher says, "those molecules are packed in there tight in there. They will hop in there to create a crystal... the easy way out, is chemical. Add a sugar that is similar but different. its molecule tries to hop in to form a crystal...and it won't form." Brown then interjects that one catalyst that will help sugar break through this barrier of purification towards transformation then is the addition of corn syrup, "we have a situation were purity is backfiring and the only way to fix it is with an impurity."

With the introduction of another queer element  into the process of disturbing the molecules of sugar, Brown turns the heat of the stove up to high and watches with us as the sucrose expresses its change through the alteration of various qualities of sight, sound, and touch. Brown narrates for us, that "as we near the 300 degree line, prepare to leave the area of sucrose behind. See, at 320 with all the water cooked away, the sucrose melts moleculerly forming smaller sugars, 128 of them to be correct. just under 340, the substance that was sucrose has changed enough that color actually turns from crystal clear to light gold, then it moves on to amber, then to mahogany, beyond that is black." Walking the line of transformation with sugar, we become aware of a diversity of little glories points that draw us in with distinct flavurs, colors, smells, and textures.

As we are warned about over-caramelizing, or burning, the sugar, the edge of sugar's glory is the limit of another substance. "Pushing sugar to the limit isn't hard, but it does take nerves of steel" Brown tells us, "you are basically playing chicken with the sugar... wait too long and you are left with a pot of carbon." Of course, little teleologies, little ends, little edges, and little glories, are markers of a kind of death. The flourish which comes just before the replacement of one substance, sucrose, with another, carbon, flows through the aesthetic experience of caramel and punctuates the being of sugar with a bitter-sweet note.


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