This essay, on Fred Moten’s “black optimism” and the intersecting capitalist logics of race and food, was first published in 3:AM magazine, 3rd February 2020. Photograph of Fred Moten by Robert Adam Mayer.
I wake up and this is the dream.
Thank you, says the man. Welcome, he says, which confuses the listeners (he’s speaking in front of a huge crowd), because he seems to be welcoming himself, even though: 1, he is already there; and 2, he is actually himself.
I am honoured to have been voted back into the honoured position of chairing this honoured place. It is my profound honour, he says, and it is very clear that no one notices at all his repetitions. Everyone is very happy to hear him.
Because of my promised destruction of duplicity, my crushing of lies, to keep the honour in this honourable honour of an honourable place, I will begin, as promised (I always honour my honourable promises), by eradicating the press and its journalists, who pretend to write serious and honourable reports, but only spread lies. I will also be abolishing doors, who pretend to be solid and stiff but then they open and leave nothing but flimsy, weak and pathetic open space. Also – and please put your honourable hands together for my honourable decision to honour my honourable promise (which is not cowardly, because I hate cowardice, which is very not honourable!) – I will be, from this very honourable moment on, destroying all cereal and never letting it back into this honourable world!
Cereal is the soul of all lies; it is the master of all duplicity. At first, in the box when you buy it, it seems hard, solid, crunchy, rough, manly! Yes! But then – oh, and then! the disappointment we honourable people have suffered so long! – you put it into milk and it reveals its cowardly lie! It is soft, broken, melted – it disappears! It is a lie! A fake!
Down with cereal! Cowardly cereal! Rise up, honourable people, against the fake lie of cereal!
Omniscient online cookies know me very well, they are the Other to every secret I cut out of conversation. So when I roll onto my desk, wondering if cereal will have been banned in some shithole like America, and write ‘food’ into my laptop, towards the top of Google’s suggestions is an interview with poet and philosopher Fred Moten.
In the interview, which seems more fictional than my dream, Moten is at a restaurant with this reporter, in some place called “A-M-E-R-I-C-A”, spelt very carefully. Adding to the absurdity, he is interviewed by someone called “David Wallace” – a perverse collusion between the pure A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N (?) character in the American series The Office, and the bandana’d David Foster Wallace, author of the most “boy-knows-some-shit” macho-phallic novel every written, Infinite Jest.
Moten asks for no mayonnaise, but, gadam American waidrrrrs, they bring him a burger with mayonnaise. Moten says, ‘I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relationship to the sublime. And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about the intermediary – I don’t know – place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.’
‘It’s liminal, and it connects to the body in a certain way.’
“David Wallace” – who obviously can’t be real, so where’s the money for the article going, huh, David Wallace? – chimes in gleefully. ‘You have to shake it up. You have to put the energy into it to get it into that state.’
I love David Wallace, the fake hero of this fictional interview in The New Yorker. This sublime emulsion of macho characters, sitting at a table with the Philosopher.
‘Anyway,’ Fred Moten says, ‘mostly I just don’t fucking like it.’
I need mayonnaise. I’m trying to go vegan again, so I’ve distanced myself from liminal emulsion, avoiding the risk of animal sublimity.
But if you are what you eat, then one of my housemates is about 90% mayonnaise, so he’s bound to have some.
I open the fridge. It is true. Maybe David Wallace wouldn’t believe me if I wrote “It Is True” in The New Yorker while interviewing the Philosopher-God, but anyway it is true. I lift the mayonnaise like a bottle of sublime emulsion and squeeze.
But it’s sealed. Inside the plastic cap is another plastic flap with another adjacent plastic flap hanging off it, waiting to be pulled open. But if I pull it open my housemate will know what I did. He’ll be like Google cookies. He’ll know I love Fred Moten. He’ll discover my disbelief in King David Wallace of AMERICA.
He already thinks I’m a shit layabout because I get paid to sit in my room, at my desk, writing and thinking, while he gets paid to sit at his desk, writing and … [?], IN AN OFFICE! I’m not in an office so I’m not real, kind of like David Wallace in America.
If he knows I’ve been squeezing intermediary emulsions at this time of morning, he won’t believe in me anymore. “Can I open it?” is the only question left.
What would I have it on?
I text my partner.
Work is no hindrance to these crucial tasks, and soon the reply comes.
Lentils, you monster! Think about a lentil.
Lentils are a secondary base. If a meal were a house, rice would be the external structure and lentils the décor. With only the structure, it is an affectless building, a universal form that has the potential to become particular. The décor allows particularity – some kind of recognition of the place as preceded by a pronoun: my place; a place that can be owned, possessed – but it is not the particularity itself.
Lentils are not the central code of the meal. They are not the universal form of mealness. But they are only thinkable within the logic of mealness. What is a lentil without rice? Nothing. It’s just soup, which is more deceptive than milky cereal.
The lentil is in debt to rice and to its universal form of mealness. It serves the central code in which it is itself not reflected. It is not allowed to be represented in the language of mealness, but its labour is endlessly consumed by the Meal.
An intermediary emulsion that resists definitive physical space – neither liquid nor solid, unable to be coded in the production of mealness – would be subsumed in the somewhere of lentils. Rice is everywhere, it is the form. Mayonnaise is nowhere, it is resistance to determinist locality. Lentils are somewhere, an exploited, lumpen army of service to Meal.
When Lord Fred Moten of AMERICA says that although of course, in the experience of actual being, there are many debts that should be paid, he recognizes also that many social ruptures are irreparable. Fixing is not sufficient to repair the circular logic of break/fix. Within the logic of rice and the Meal-form it serves solely to refer to and represent, the only options are distances from the centre: be the staple, be a secondary staple, be a spice, be a utensil. There is nothing that functions otherwise, nothing that suggests a way of being outside the logic of Meal.
So Moten says, ‘The only thing we can do is tear this shit down completely and build something new.’ Mayonnaise on lentils will certainly not allow for a rethought logical structure that refuses a single relation of existence: proximity to Meal.
I text back.
Lentils? No! With MAYONNAISE? THIS IS AMERICA – BABY!
Fiddling with the third plastic layer of the plastic mayonnaise bottle, still sealed for now, I realize that my partner has not been involved in the whole morning of fun, so the America thing will all seem a little strange (we don’t live in America and are not, thank God Moten and the Holy Virgin David Wallace, American).
The reply is quick.
Burger then! Gah!
I dismiss the aggressive dismissal of Gah! and philanthropically work with the suggestion. Burger? HAMBERDER as they say in A-M-E-R-I-C-A, spelt just like that.
First of all, it’s breakfast time so, ahem, NO!
And anyway, that’s what Moten was eating (in America, no less!) when he started this whole thing.
Burgers start with capital. Really, more than the lentil, the burger suggests a teleological chain of capital. Exploitation and profit have somehow already happened, and the possessor of capital somehow already has a claim to its neutrality. Nothing to see here… just a guy with some capital.
Yeah, but where’s it from? This is about mass production and the hidden creation of Americanness. It is in this form of self-masking mass production that the idea of America is held, that place where The New Yorker’s David Wallace isn’t, because he’s nowhere (but still in strict relation to Meal).
Mass production as an aesthetic that universalizes the form of being that is Americanness begins with the slave ship. On ships taking enslaved people from Africa to the Americas is the first systemic categorization of one type of body into one means of production. In that moment, when the first plan of the ship is drawn with bodies treated as mass-production machines that need to be categorized according to their ability to produce profit, a form of existence is created, a form that features only one possibility: relation to profit.
The body looking at the plan is coded as the overseer, the person able to produce space by seeing it from afar, looking at the world from outside. This is the disinterested body that represents a universal form, but is allowed particularity because only one person is overseeing. One pair of eyes is sufficient to oversee this stock, as long as it exists in a line of other overseeing eyes.
The bodies in the plan, laid out inside the ship in a system of brutal violence and misery that surpasses the furthest reaches of the words “violence” and “misery”, are coded as subhuman; they are production machines. Any bodies they produce will also be production machines and disallowed access to the category of “human”, which is given to those who oversee the plan.
This strict delineation of bodies according to a logic of seeing in relation to profit will continue until today in this universalizing logic of murderous violence called America, the logic in which Fred Moten eats burgers. The important thing, though, that Fred Moten has always known out there in America, in his little American nowhere, is that Black people precede that moment of making on the slave ship. There is a form of life that is antecedent to its oppressive creation within the violence of capitalist production. Bodies are made in the code of capital, but the life of people existed before that. This is Moten’s optimism. There is a past before the past and it exists still; it conditions everything and it is still possible. Eggs and oil exist long before being emulsified in mayonnaise and the strict culinary logic of Meal or Food.
In the violence of capitalist logic, though, relations will change along the way. The bodies described as a subhuman labour force in the language of America’s systemic white supremacist violence will be removed from their relation to profit.
Machines make burgers now. Cattle are kept in tiny cages and pumped full of hormones in eternal relation to toxicity, a relation that defines the life of cows. The descendants of enslaved people in America are kept at a policed distance from the centre of production – but still very resolutely inside the sphere of production and consumption –, where profit is overseen, but with machines affectlessly conducting mass production, they exist outside the orbit of profit, because their categorization disallows the finding of work to live on wages in exchange for labour.
The new category created is racialized and lumpen, permanently excluded from the universal form of racist violence upon which America was founded: profit. Instead, profit is extracted from them by violent policing. They are arrested, put into prison and forced to work for free. They are pumped with protein and kept in controlled proximity to toxicity, to deadly violence that is spurred on by the overseeing bodies to maintain the illusion of natural need in this staged performance of systemic slaughter.
Cattle make burgers. Cattle is a category that includes whatever. Anything excluded from the centre of profit but violently maintained within its orbit.
Cattle is kept in cages. It is disallowed access to singularity, barred from the particularity of “lentils”. It is cattle. And it is maintained on the very edge of death, always stunned by this possibility; at any moment, the overseeing bodies can turn precarious life into death.
Then it goes through a factory where people kept in the celestial orbit of central profit work, sweeping cattle blood from their wellies. Then it’s put in a box and transported.
The transportation of production is important. Creating a binary of space in which one area is solely for production and one solely for consumption is a limited form of capital’s violence. This was the case in industrial capitalism. But then not everyone is consuming.
That system is too fixed, relying on a binary that can be quite easily thought away; it would be easy to get to the point of saying, let’s not fix this, like Fred Moten – let’s tear this shit down completely and build something new.
Instead multiple simultaneous circles of production, circulation and consumption are placed within the same geographical logic. What one person experiences as a space with a certain social code is cut through temporalities of production, circulation and consumption. They become times, rather than spaces. Space is the logic fixing all of it to one central point, which is of course profit. But within that, time cuts out the possibility of easily resisting.
A truck goes one way, taking burgers from the factory nearby to a distant place – a place unspeakable in the local language of placeness – while another comes this way, bringing burgers to a fast food shop right on the corner, speakable easily as a temporal practice: that’s the after work place; that’s the children are with me place; that’s the quick stop place. These are relations to time that disguise the spatial centrality of that violent zone: a place of production (where the overseeing body abstractly oversees, the aesthetic of systemically planned bodies exists in their singular relation), circulation (profit from here is going abroad, to a tax-free zone, and the American aesthetic of burgers is extracting authenticity from being consumed in America), and consumption (a toxic emulsion is hyper-fried to the point of being both threateningly addictive and dangerously deadly).
Mayonnaise is a liminal emulsion that dodges the singular relation of space. It refuses to be solid and thus marked resolutely in the process of space, nor liquid and thus coded in relation to a binary teleology of ice/liquid/steam in the process of time. Mayonnaise cannot be limited to either spatial or temporal logics.
There is no easy emancipatory trick in mayonnaise. It is not that its resistance to spatiotemporal solid/liquid binaries immediately allows a means of thinking outside the violence of American aesthetics and production modes. But its ability to suggest otherwise, without the framework of American culinary logic, is the possibility of a conceptual refuge. As Fred Moten says about something else, ‘It cannot be denied that [mayonnaise] is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that [mayonnaise] is a place of enlightenment.’
I text again.
No. Not BERDER.
There’s a pause this time. ‘online’ appears for long enough that the message must have been read. For a moment I imagine I see ‘typing…’ but then it disappears. typing… is an elusive mode of existence, fugitive.
Ah! I jump back. The excitement. The Horror. I rip off the seal of the mayonnaise bottle!
The fugitivity of mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise divides labour, held inside the enclosure of its plastic bottle – the transparency of its oppressing force – is the temporal relation of labour divisions. Leave the bottle for too long, and the oil separates from the egg. That is, the plant and the animal; the machine and the body. The purpose of the bottle and its transparent, deadly regime is to make sure that the mayonnaise is always shaken. The illusion is permanently maintained that the blind fervour of coagulated labour is natural and necessary in relation to Food. But in fact, when time pervades the hegemony of space, separation occurs in the sovereign bottle’s language, and the violence that created the emulsion is revealed. Time is a constant risk to the force that subsumes mayonnaise in its transparent plastic bottles, fugitive time that suggests relations otherwise. If oil and egg recognize their difference – shaking off the neoliberal arbitrariness of participation initiatives or meaningless calls to some profit-productive category called “diversity” – and refuse to signify the historical violence of their emulsion, then trouble rattles the bottles of sauce.
Mayonnaise isn’t preceded in the universal imaginary of profit-language by a possessive pronoun. It’s not like Meal, Food, the abstract universals, and nor is it like the main ingredient, the part that oversees all other relations between food. My breakfast. My toast.
No one says that’s my mayonnaise. It’s like cigarettes back in the day – made for sharing. Or big bottles of booze.
What is it about mayonnaise that makes it resistant to possession? Is this what Moten meant when he said it connects to the body in a certain way, in its weird relation to the sublime?
Somehow I don’t think it will help to define “sublime”. Its vagueness of definition is conducive to the possibility of mayonnaise suggesting food (and so the history of life, production, consumption…) otherwise.
What is important is that it connects to the body, that it is unable to be easily defined, and that it is kind of scary – mayonnaise is an obsessive relation to suffering, to pain, a relation that does not fit in categories of Life or Death. It is, in that sense, pathological. The drive to life would lead the hungry person to something advertised as resolutely life-giving: salad, pasta, vegetables. Or the drive to pleasure would lead the hungry person to something advertised as naughty but delicious: pizza, chips, ice cream.
Mayonnaise is pathological in its suffering that is external to the logic of life-or-death consumption. But maybe that pathology is necessary to the internal categories of food. Maybe the life-food/salad and death-food/chips logic relies on an opaque Other that cannot be captured in the logic of understanding; it can only be feared, and life that achieves distance from it is considered successful life. So the pathology of mayonnaise, holding the violent history of cattle and the nowhere of liminal emulsions, contains a code that leads otherwhere.
Mayonnaise is pathological disorder in the regime of food. Fred Moten says
neurosis is also the condition of the sovereign, the habitual attempt to regulate the general, generative disorder. What does it mean to call for disorder in the sovereign’s “native tongue?” How do you get to the ongoing evasion of natality which is where or what that call comes from or, more precisely, through? The path that is forged by negation and reversal doesn’t get you there or gets you to someplace other than that, some delusion of origin or home, someplace available to or by way of a movement of return.
Neurosis is not conditioned in biology. It is not a way of being, but rather a way of ruling. It is a structure of power over the Other, a way of negating the impossible task of fully receiving and giving life to the Other. It is an enclosure created to maintain what is enclosed. So it is the condition of the sovereign. It is Food as central authority, dismissing mayonnaise from the neurosis of its generative order. Mayonnaise does not fit a paradigm in the scale of relation to the singular act of eating.
Pathology is conditioned within biology. It is an ontological premise: the being of mayonnaise is premised on the logic of a disease. Moten says that it calls for disorder, but its only choices in relation to neurotic sovereign power are assimilation or annihilation. Become part of power and lose all autonomous being, lose all history and knowledge and simply subsume mayonnaise into the central order, becoming either liquid or solid, some other categorizable dairy fat. Or annihilate power, and in the process annihilate itself because its pathology is originally conditioned by sovereign power’s neurotic enclosure.
The violence that is America would be ruined by the Other-tongue of mayonnaise and its historical conditioning as pathology, if only we could fully think mayonnaise without the neurotic enclosure we have always thought inside.
Fred Moten is given mayonnaise on his burger, and so the aesthetic regime of America survives. He has to eat mayonnaise, to assimilate both his own otherness as Black American subject and the otherness of mayonnaise into the language of profit-production and America’s racial regime of aesthetics.
David Wallace probably has mayonnaise too, all over his plate and his tie and even his bedtime reading. Pfff.
Fred Moten doesn’t want mayonnaise, though, because he knows that to eat mayonnaise – to assimilate it in the culinary aesthetic of America and the violence of its restaurants, its newspapers, its David Wallaces – is to give its non-normativity a perspective. To eat it in that New Yorker article, in that restaurant, in the mouth of the Famous Philosopher Fred Moten, is to subsume it into the language of enclosure and process it in the body of neurotic authority.
Fred Moten exceeds the possibilities of his own position in relation to America. His body is the university, the Philosopher, the Food. But he thinks otherwise, and so he attempts to remove mayonnaise from subsumption. He tries to disallow it perspective, because, as he says, ‘non-normativ[ity] is precisely the absence of a point of view, which is therefore why it cannot be about preservation.’
Its power to annihilate America exists in its impossibility within the logic of sovereignty. It is antithetical to the dominant transparency of managerial meal power through its opacity as a liminal emulsion. It loves life, affirmatively seeking the possibility of an undersuace where condiments and other relegated foodstuffs gather against the oppressive regime of supermarket bullshit plastic-wrapped reproductive sedative food; it is resistance to the plate that smashes up the whole organization of the meal and actively, lovingly thinks a way of eating otherwise, eating like Bedouins in the open commune, inviting; it’s horny old Moten squirting mayonnaise all over himself and running into the town square, the merry study space where policies are pulled apart and gorged on, the undercommon world where everyone consents not to be a single thing and an open bucket of condiments is picked at by everyone, no one bought it so no one owes anyone anything, there is no mayo-debt in this fucking awesome palestra way beyond the mythical shithole of self-abolishing indebted accountants called A-M-E-R-I-C-A. And that’s (Black) Mayo-Optimism.
I carefully replace the little plastic flap, screw the cap back on, position the bottle perfectly on the shelf, and then walk away, ambiguously hopeful in despair. One day a certain emulsified mode of sociality will think mayonnaise as an autonomous space of liminal subjectivity and then all this shit will finally be over and there’ll be no more AMERICA.