Gut Feelings: Indigestibility as an Archive of Surplus Otherness
“My body is an argument I did not start.”
Morgan Parker, And Cold Sunset
My mother always told me to bleed discreetly. I have taken heed of this warning in my pursuits, biting my tongue before the words can spill over. But the wound festers, and now I find myself bleeding on everything I touch, so to speak. I want to admit the wound for the little girl I was, picking at this scab, begging to be believed. So I return to those nostalgia-steeped snapshots of girlhood, and interspersed between there’s the crispness of a particular, recurring bodily mechanism: vomiting. Involuntary or otherwise, I can conjure with such exactitude each of these expulsions: what I had consumed prior, where it took place, its witnesses and the guttural sounds of their revulsion. Few of these memories are as precise as those which took place during my annual visits to China as a child, where the frequency of these digestive dissents would invite the concern of even the most distant of relatives. I didn’t know at the time, but nausea- its psychological and ideological loadedness- would critically recalibrate my relationship to just about everything. Indeed, when it comes to primal bodily sensations, Moveable Feast is deeply indebted to my illness, for the set of experiences it granted me.
To speak of the theoretical foundations of my cookbook proposal, Moveable Feast, in such unappetizing terms- the entry and exit points of the body- is to affirm the legitimacy of my body as an archive- a volatile, ever-growing assembly of history’s deposits within me. In co-fashioning autotheory with the cookbook-memoir genre, I centre the sensorium as a repository of knowledge in and of itself, opening up alternative modes of embodiment against the Euro-Western colonial archive. As my body (of work) grows, I find I am confronted time and time again by the instability as well as impossibility of the demarcation between my personal life and my academic practice, my psyche and my soma, its exteriors and interiors. That sickly stench of a chronically unruly gut has lingered longer than I’d hoped for, suffusing my practice in ways perhaps not immediately apparent to the naked eye. My doubts about the theoretical legitimacy and rigour of such embodied modes of thinking, I’ve found, are no match for the rigour of the pains that eddy around my body. Indeed, the strained effort to sustain the public/private dichotomy was always going to be a losing game. How is it to not seep between the lines when this pain is the very disruption to my labour’s continuity- the gnawing feeling that relegates me to my bedroom floor, waiting for it to subside?
In this essay, I want to inhabit such moments fully- to surrender myself to the floor, and truly listen to the utterances of a body I have long endeavoured to silence. As Elaine Scarry wrote, “to have pain is to have certainty”, those dreaded symptoms writ large upon the body’s landscape. But when a flare subsides, it is soon forgotten. In an attempt to mobilise the pain I have long deemed unusable, this essay traces the vicissitudes of ingestion and purging as complex modes of thinking enacted corporeally, reading the body as archive and archivist. To be precise, I dissect the gut- its engendering of appetite and aversion- as a selectively permeable site of negotiation that precedes and produces the language of a surplus Otherness, an indigestible excess to the bounded categories of identity politics. That is, as Suzanne Bost put it, the “fear of having one’s inside’s erupt in public poses an otherness unlike that of racism or sexism” (2007 p. 349). As an overarching aim, I embrace the enduring legacies of pain and pleasure in my body (of work) to pursue what Lynda Hall termed “ameliorography”- a healing practice which “attempts to relieve personal pain as an ‘othered’ person” (2000, p. 113). To this end, I summon a variety of critical approaches: materialist feminisms, disability studies and Parama Roy’s “gastropoetics”, as they commingle with my overwhelmingly disgraceful history of digestion. My methodological approach is grounded in an auto-theoretical “gastropoetics”; with gastro meaning gut or stomach, and poetics deriving from “poiesis” (production, formation), I read my gut as a key theoretical repository. Weaving together my corporeal unruliness with the scripts of East Asian and Middle Eastern respectability, I take an investigation down the alimentary tract, beginning with my gut’s refusal to digest the Otherness embodied in the food of my mother’s rural hometown, Hubei.
For a quarter of a lifetime spent in hospital waiting rooms, I bear a diagnostic history that is overwhelmingly sparse. So, where to begin with the compilation of a body archive? Of course, I could turn to the topographical evidence- where the body’s ostensible exterior limit has been scarred, burned, or broken. But as Julietta Singh notes, dwelling exclusively on the surface- the skin- is productive for the archivist insofar that it “convert[s] culturally produced deficiency into historical value; to begin to love, in other words, what I have been trained to perceive as flaw.” (2018, p. 30). And such is a valid endeavour in and of itself, but I encounter two interrelated crises here. Firstly, the traces of inflictions that mark my epidermis are at best unreliable testimonies, an attempt to render intelligible that which is largely invisible, whose meanings are always lost in translation. Secondly, in all its vital entanglements with other bodies, human and other-than-human, the body is “ultimately not stable ground upon which to build an archive” (Singh, 2018, p. 30). That is, for better or for worse, the body’s processes of becoming are always-already enmeshed and interdependent with the wider material-discursive world. The contemporary feminist pursuit to think bodily becomings on a molecular, material scale has not been without its challenges, however. In its failures to sincerely cite and engage Indigenous ontologies, new materialism runs the risk of reproducing the very settler colonial practices it ostensibly eschews. Indeed, it often haunts me that my cognizance of my own brown body’s non-singularity- as with yours and our ancestors- has relied, to a great degree, on Eurocentric new materialist discourses. Then, there’s the charge of the oft-cited biological determinism that is recurrently resuscitated within feminisms, in a seemingly ceaseless essentialist/anti-essentialist oscillation. I find myself being far more forgiving toward this latter charge, on what might be considered flimsy theoretical footing. It’s hard to admit that it was often in new materialist re-readings of texts by women of colour that I began to locate the language and logic to unpack what many of my own ancestors, even down to my mother, have long taken as fact. I remain uncertain as to how I might account for this severance; was it in my pandering to the medico-morality of ‘the West’ that I squandered the only advice in which I could locate some sense of respite? Let me elaborate.
One of my last efforts to delimit the bounds of my pain, at age 13, was an endoscopy- a relatively common procedure that would nonetheless seem daunting to me at this tender age. Before the anaesthetic suffused into my bloodstream, I remember the warm glow of hope that cradled me, offsetting the sterile starkness of the operating room. I thought, if they could just figure out what’s wrong with me- what parasitic presence had made a host of me- I could get better. I longed for a diagnosis, after years of pains that eddied around the body but seemingly eluded the mind. I believed it would give my pain a kind of structural integrity, endow it with a rhyme and a reason. It was a vain hope. In a kind of prolonged anticlimax, there is still no clear biomedical aetiology for my symptoms. And in the decade since I underwent that endoscopy, I have grown considerably less certain of the categorical stability of my illnesses, and far more certain that our bodies and our minds are far less discrete than we had been led to believe. The inadequacy of this fragmented lens through which the cumulative effects of trauma and illness are examined is by no means a novel discovery. We find evidence of this one-pathology-at-a-time procedure everywhere, “the eating disorder lit on the self-help shelves separated from the books on women's troubled relationships with men… the books on culture and media separated from the books on female psychology” (Knapp, 2004).
Such has been a direct consequence of our conceptualisation of illness through existing socio-political categories, legal constructs and cultural ideals. Illness at once encompasses and exceeds these taxonomies, pointing emphatically to the precarious ground upon which identity politics operates. Amid the wealth of scholarship on this matter, it is in borderlands theorist Gloria Anzaldua’s use of her unravelling body to conceive the unbounded subject of her politics that intrigues me most. “I get dizzy and mentally foggy when I’m having a hypo. I lose my equilibrium and fall. Gastrointestinal reflex has me throwing up and having diarrhoea. . . . Things like these change your image of yourself, your identity” (2000, p. 289-90). Indeed, Anzaldua’s battles with diabetes toward the end of her life made this fluid mode of embodiment conspicuous, like her conception of the US-Mexico border as a “1950-mile long wound.” But as Bost contends, this figuration of the body- one that exceeds modern medicine’s insistence of bodily fixity- was in her work all along, namely in her theory of the Coatlicue states. Surviving at this axis of abjection, Anzaldua contends, demands the constant dissolution and reconstruction of identities, “for rigidity means death”. Illness- including the matter that a medical lens reveals- queers the body, and in so doing “unsettles any notion of shared femaleness, race or even health itself” (Bost, 2007, p. 342). In this liminal space between what Susan Sontag called the “kingdom of the well” and the “kingdom of the sick”, biology- in all its incalculability and fluidity- has come to serve as a deeply compelling analytic registers in forging political subjecthoods. My conviction- or rather, that of my volatile gut- is that conceptualising bodies via matter indexes determinism only if we circumscribe the body’s limits to its flesh-containing form. And every time I encounter Anzaldua’s work, I am reminded that the only distance between my body and your body, the lichens beneath and the bees overhead, is a cognitive one.
In fact, this phenomenon can be speculated microbially too. The composition of the gut microbiome, a departing gift from mothers at birth, adapts, in growth or loss, to accommodate new environmental factors. A 2018 study from the experimental biology journal, Cell, revealed that immigrants lose their native gastrointestinal microbes within 6 to 9 months of arriving in the United States (Vangay, et al., 2018). The diverse gut microbiome- the microbial evidence of adaptation- then might serve as testament to how cultures have diasporised, and remained agile in the face of unforgiving matter(s). Yet I cannot help but mourn the microbes I never had. I mourn the meals I couldn’t keep down, and the love, care and culture that they bore. Perhaps at that tender age, the indigestibility of my brownness was simply too abrasive to give way for adaptation. And I don’t blame her either, because to live in the double diaspora, to give form to a dissonant Chinese-Turkish entanglement, corporeally or otherwise, is to be repeatedly rendered indigestible, for “indigestion is an incommensurability” (Goffe, 2020). Alongside my failure to keep the food down, I too struggled to digest the convergence of the scripts of East Asian and Middle Eastern identities, a weight further compounded by an overarching aspirational whiteness. Conceptual metaphors of food are often deployed to describe women as objects of desire, and I cannot help but imagine my gastroenteric unrest as a corporeal embodiment of the binary logics of abjection/respectability that surround both Chinese foodways and Chinese women.
One battle would soon segue into the next, and my inability to digest would transmogrify into a refusal to digest by way of bingeing and purging. For as long as I can remember, I have known fear better than I have known my body; in all those hours spent laying on the bathroom floor, hunched over the toilet bowl, I sought to expel a formless anguish to which I repeatedly tried to give form. Uncertainty drives you into territories of unprecedented paranoia; for years I was convinced a host of worms had made a home of my intestines, or that the doctors had left a blade in me during my operation. I’d take a pair of scissors to my abdomen, lodging that ring of peripheral fat between its two blunted blades, as two ostensibly antagonistic thoughts would run through my mind. I thought, if I could just reach inside myself and disgorge that parasitic presence, then I could finally rest. At the same time, I thought, if I could just crawl out of my body, then I could see who I really am. The paradox of these longings is only becoming clear to me now: in my mind, I was the parasite.
When I recount the passages that have taken place through the palpable openings of my body- those forced penetrations and expulsions, as well as those desired- the thought of the body as archive becomes more distressing than it is sacred. Indeed, I still find myself giving into the belief that a path was laid for me by these visceral moments, precisely because I feel so mired in their remnants. Lest I forget, though, as Julietta Singh reminds us, that “we also shed ourselves over time. The body is not the body it was then and is already becoming a new body” (2018, p. 32). What I can hope for my body as it becomes a new body is that it makes room for shame-laden substances, both old and new, allowing them to pass from one orifice to the next, perhaps not seamlessly, but with a satiation that reads: I am gratified by the wholeness of my disunified parts.
Anzaldúa, G. (2000). Interviews/Entrevistas. New York: Routledge, pp.289–90.
Bost, S. (2007). From race/sex/etc. to glucose, Feeding tube, and mourning: the Shifting Matter of Chicana Feminism. In: S. Alaimo and S. Hekman, eds., Material Feminisms. Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp.341–350.
Goffe, T.L. (2020). Chop suey surplus: Chinese food, sex, and the political economy of Afro-Asia. Women & Performance: a Journal of Feminist Theory, 30(1), pp.1–8. doi:10.1080/0740770x.2020.1791384.
Hall, L. (2000). Lorde, Anzaldúa, and Tropicana Performatively Embody the Written Self. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, [online] 15(1), p.113. doi:10.1080/08989575.2000.10815237.
Knapp, C. (2004). Appetites: Why Women Want. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
Singh, J. (2018). No Archive Will Restore You. Santa Barbara, Ca: 3Ecologies Books/Immediations, an Imprint of Punctum Books, pp.29–35.
Vangay, P., Johnson, A.J., Ward, T.L. and Al-Ghalith, G.A. (2018). U.S. immigration westernizes the human gut microbiome. Cell, [online] 175(4), p.962. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6498444/ [Accessed 18 May 2022].