Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine

Just as nature provides labor with the means of life in the sense that labor cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense, i.e., the means for the physical subsistence.

—Karl Marx, Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts, Paris, 1844

One of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about on this last trip to Italy (where I stayed at a 5-star resort, ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and tasted verticals of some of Southern Italy’s most famous wines) was Marx’s concept of alienation (estrangement), Gramsci’s concept of reification (objectification), and Pasolini’s “fear of naturalism” (“the natural being”) and the insight that they provide us in viewing the current global epicureanism as an expression of the bourgeoisie’s (and I count myself and you, my readers, as members of this privileged class) deep-seated yet unanswered yearning to cast off the yoke of consumerism.

Even though we know that sunlight is bad for us, we all know that wonderful feeling of feeling the sun on our skin, watching a sunset, or walking through a park on a bright summer day.

And even though we know it’s not bad for us, a view of verdant pastures or ancient olive groves somehow soothes us. The same way we enjoy reading Virgil’s Bucolics, viewing an 18th-century painting of a pastoral scene, or reading about “hardcore” natural winemaking in Spain on a favorite wine blog, food and wine writing allows us to escape the workaday din of the consumer-driven, globalized, and frighteningly reified world in which we live.

Sadly, in the post-second-world-war industrialized and globalized world, our bodies have become mere objects and the nutriments which give us life have become mere objects and we have lost touch with the pre-industrial expressions of the one and the other. Even as we consume “heirloom” food and wine products, as good and as healthy and as wholesome as they may taste, we cannot ignore (however much we would like to) the fact that the chain of supply that has delivered them to our dinner tables has rendered them into mere objects for consumption (it has reified them) by polluting the world with its carbon foot print as it couriers otherwise nutritious sustenance to consumers.

Marx would have called this “estrangement” (or “alienation” is some circles of Marxist parlance). There are very few among us who have any direct contact with the origins of the foods with which we nourish ourselves. As for Marx’s worker, food as become a mere object for us, even though it is the very substance that gives us life:

    The more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor — to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

From his jail cell, as he witnessed Mussolini and the fascists industrialize Italy (“the trains ran on time,” etc.) and promote an exodus from the countryside and a migration to the great urban centers (because they needed humanpower to populate the factories), Gramsci distilled Marx’s estrangement into his notion of the cultural hegemony, whereby the capitalist cultural model drives humanity to negate its humanness.

Pasolini took this notion a step further, I believe, when he wrote of the bourgeoisie’s “fear of naturalism” and the “natural being.” As he witnessed Italy’s youth embrace the materialism and aesthetic models of middle-class America (in part thanks to the Marshall Plan and in part thanks to the emergence — for the first time — of globalized media), abandoning the values of the generation who had come before them, he recognized that this was a result of consumerism’s revulsion toward the natural being and the natural world (this theme pervades Pasolini’s work, from his early Friulian poetry to his last films; Pasolini was born in 1922, the year Mussolini marched on Rome and rose to power, and he was assassinated by a Roman prostitute in 1975, at the peak of the Christian Democrats’ hold on power and the hegemony of its capitalist model, both economic and ethical).

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that food and wine writing represents can represent, however powerless, a subversion of the hegemony of consumerism in the world today. Whether we take joy in reading or writing about a farmer who casts off chemicals to grow grapes and shuns industrial yeast to make wines that “taste of place,” we are subconsciously repelling the yoke of consumerism as we attempt, however unaware, to recoup, recuperate, and recover the humanness that has been negated by the human condition in the industrialized and globalized world.

Food and wine and food and wine writing offer us a historically unique confluence of the objectification of the sensuous natural world and the means for living. Unlike the natural substances transformed by Marx’s worker as she/he worked in a pre-world-war factory (like iron used to build arms, for example), food and wine as Marxist objects in today’s world are at once the transformed object and a source of nourishment. As such, it gives us a historically unique opportunity to express our humanity through its exegesis (and in many cases, its worship and fetishization).

This is the reason why I continue to post here on my blog and this is the reason — I hope — why you’re reading. Thanks for making it this far into the post.

And buona domenica

16 thoughts on “Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine

  1. Very interesting Jeremy and very articulate. I am not in total agreement with what you write. Mussolini came from the countryside and he kept a sort of peasant touch all his life. He despised actually the industrialists and used them with no love. Among his ideas there was the one of increasing and improving the Italian agricolture. That’s one of the reasons why he pushed the families to procreate more and more children because they represented “braccia per l’agricoltura”. I am reading at the moment Canale Mussolini, an excellent book by Antonio Pennacchi, who tells the story of one of the many families moved from Veneto to the Agro Pontino, South of Rome, an area that was intensively bonified during the fascism.
    During the Fascism there were many investments in agricolture. We can dispute if they were conducted properly and wisely but they are facts.
    After the Second World War, one of the significant events in Italian agricolture was the end of the Mezzadria, that could translate in “share cropping”. That combined with a strong process of industrialization caused the the abandoning of the land.
    Pasolini was a poet and a conservative, strongly attached to his roots.
    I could go on and on, but I have written more than enough.
    One thing for sure, choosing what we eat and drink is a small sign of freedom of thought.

  2. @MLL Can’t wait to see you in person to discuss. Thanks for reading!

    @Nelle Nuvole thank you for the comment and the insights. I am always thrilled to see you here! A couple of things:

    1) No doubt, the fascists also invested heavily in what would later become Italy’s industrial farming system. But there is no question that there was a significant shift of population toward the major urban areas and growth in urban population and development. Most historians would agree that Mussolini “industrialized” Italy, don’t you think? The expansion of the industrial complex under Mussolini’s tutelage (let’s leave it at that) was not lost on Gramsci.

    2) Pasolini was first and foremost a poet and cineaste. But he was also an intellectual and essayist, whose ideology and ethos found their expression through all the media with which he worked. I highly recommend the collection of essays — many of the published as newspaper editorials in his lifetime — contained in the two posthumous anthologies Lettere Luterane and Empirismo Eretico. I agree that he was a conservative on many issues — many that surprised his readers. See in particular his treatment of the bourgeoisie and young Southern Italian Carabinieri who had to far piazza pulita, i.e., clear the middle-class protesters from the squares (Lettere luterane).

    3) I love how the “redder” Do Bianchi gets, the longer your comments are! ;-)

  3. I am simply in awe of the juxtaposition of the Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini post following the King Ranch Chicken recipe post.

    I am speechless and levitating with thought, more likely due to the sun and this bottle of Ciro rosé I seem to have finished.

    Lovely post, amigo. you made the armadillos proud. Welcome back home

  4. Your best post so far!! We must struggle for a comeback to earth food, we have forgot to work with the land and we are to the order of Monsanto and packaged food only because we are lazy and we want to live comfortable , what we ignore is that this is increasing diseases all over the world. some rural areas of Spain Portugal and Italy still live eating delicious and healthy, a lot of fruits and vegetables, greens, fish and lean meats, cider and wine. If industrialized countries wish to succeed they need to adapt to this life style, NO MORE PLASTIC FOOD!!

    Keep with this poetry blogging Jeremy congratulations!

  5. Yes, sadly people in this day and age are generally reduced to the status of ‘consumers’ and ‘workers’ and all other aspects of our humanity and role as citizens are not considered important or allowed to express themselves.
    Most people buy their food in a supermarket or mall or shopping centre, which are the most de-naturalized, sanitized, commodified, falsified places that exist.
    Whose ‘fault’ is this? On the one hand it’s the consumers that only have themselves to blame. No-one forces them to go to these alienating places to buy their food; they choose to do so for their own reasons (ie, cheap, convenient, whatever). On the other hand, multi-nationals (profit-seeking above all else) abuse the power and capital at their disposal.

  6. Fabio, your statement that no one “forces them to go to these alienating places to buy their food; they choose to do so for their own reasons (ie, cheap, convenient, whatever).”

    Force is not always direct. Some people are forced to buy the cheapest food they can find no matter how bad it is for them. Others are stuck in areas with no market, and only malls. Sadly choice is sometimes between the lesser of two evils.

    Great post.

    • Ryan, you’re right in part, in that some people really don’t have a choice, as you say, but i think that they represent a very small percentage of the people who actually do shop there. The people I see there when I go (Yes, I shop in those places too, even though I don’t like to!!) seem to be mostly afluent, well-dressed, car-owners, who shop there for the same reasons i do, ie time and convenience!!! I didn’t mean to imply that I was an holier-than-thou eco-consumer who wouldn’t deign to enter such a place!!! Though if I had the time, I’d like to think that I’d spend some of it sourcing my food and other products differently.
      I try to focus on the part of my consumption (of food and other stuff) that actually is from an eco-friendly source, which at the moment is rather small but which I hope will increase as time goes by; eg, I’m a member of a coop that produces organic veg (a bit like CSA in the States), and even though it doesn’t cover 100% of my vegetable needs, any % is better than zero!
      I think people get depressed and demoralized because they realize (rightly) that there’s no way you can avoid malls and multi-nationals 100%. But if you avoid them 10% or 20% or whatever % is possible for you, then that’s a great positive gain – for everyone (your health, the environment and the producer).

  7. Jeremy, Red is my favourite colour, also winewise…

    I more than appreciate your love for Italy, its history and literates, not just food and wine.
    If you write, I read and sometimes reply.
    The difference is that you love Italy, I am Italy. Threfore I need that somebody from the outside explains with affection something that I find difficult to perceive from the inside.

  8. This is one of your best Jar. There are many concepts in here above my pay grade but it makes me consider the divide between the ideals of the epicurean and the harsh reality of supply and economics. Wholesale food prices rose 4% last month next to a small unemployment bump. I paid $10 for half a pound of sliced turkey at Whole Foods last week and fed half of it to my dog. Most of us readers live in a fantasy world of luxury where our “means for physical subsistence” has always been within our grasp.

  9. hey, wow, everyone, thanks so much for the kind words, encouragement, and insights about this post. When I started composing it on Sunday morning, I never would have imagined that it would make such a strong impression. And it means the world to me that people have been responding to it so positively. After all, it’s why we’re here, no?

    The post was inspired in part by a young civil engineer whom I met on the plane from Bari to Munich. He was on his way to work for 2 months in Nigeria in offshore oil industry there. He described the “campus” where he works as a sort of prison where he works side-by-side with the dregs of society, he said. There’s no work to be found in his native Apulia and he couldn’t afford to stay on in Bologna in the north of Italy where he studied because it’s so expensive to live there. His dream is to move to Spain… his promised land… But in the meantime, he’ll endure the “hell on earth” that he described in Nigeria… I couldn’t help but think of how he came from one of the most beautiful places on earth… where a great meal (a truly great meal) costs Euro 25 per person (as opposed to Michelin-star prices). Like Marx’s worker, he is stuck between transforming nature into a product from which only the ruling class benefits and trying to survive…

    Thanks so much, everyone, for reading and commenting…

  10. You kicked the donkey in the teeth this time. And yeah, it sucks to hear the stories of workers in Puglia. I met more than a few traveling into the middle east to scrape by. Don’t even get me started on the factories in Taranto and Bari… two great Roman and Greek cities that got their entire history built over. “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/At one fell swoop?”

    • Please refrain from the violence-against-donkeys rhetoric, it is unseemly in an otherwise civil and enlightening discourse. Besides, my guess is that your knowledge about donkeys is limited, such an attack might result in you coming up a few toes short.

      Just had an outstanding dinner here in Vermont, two nights ago, with Gian Carlo Nada and his beautful Barbarescos. Having tasted his wines previously, then having the chance to meet him, I can reaffirm the assertion that wine connections can counter alienation. Once you have tasted with the farmer, and tasted his humanity, it is much harder to objectify what is in the glass.

  11. It is truly refreshing to read such well-thought out words on topics that are near and dear to my heart (Italy, Italian history, food, wine and culture). I’ve been a reader and silent admirer of your blog for some time and hope that you’ll continue sharing your thoughts, reflections and experiences with us. Grazie infinite!

  12. I didn’t read this post when you wrote it back in June. A few observations, your history is a little off about Mussolini and I think trying to draw all these parallels is somewhat “tirato” but I applaud you for trying and for writing about such a complex subject.

    To say someone has to live with the “dregs” of society in Nigeria is a bit over the top. Most of the world has no access to clean water and enough food so how the food is grown and who profits from it is a secondary issue. Most of the world lives on less than $1 a day. 2.6 billion people have no access to sanitation, 890 million people have no access to clean water.

    These are elitist issues you are talking about and growing ever more so. Most people have no time to think about them because they are busy trying to cover the basic necessities in life- food, shelter and clothing. Let’s not forget that.

    Most Italians I know would agree with me while lamenting of course but I think they still have much better access to nature and the fruits of the vine than most other countries. Agriculture is still a large percentage of the Italian economy and part of every Italians’ life.

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