Inside / Outside

by Eli Neuman-Hammond

Illustration by Maya Sorabjee

published November 20, 2015

I. Digest, verb from the verb digerere, from di‘apart’ + gerere ‘carry’; noun from digestus ‘divided.’ 


II. The process of digestion concerns borders, and the interiors and exteriors they demarcate. Membranes are the agents of digestion: when food, materials, ideas, people pass through membranes moving from outside to inside, or vice versa, a transformation occurs. When food moves from a plate, to the hand, into the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the alimentary canal, it dissolves into substances that can be used by the body. The body then incorporates these materials, which used to be food. What was outside and alien moves inside, and then becomes part of the digestive organism itself.



a.    hens, cows, humans, snails, pigs, deer.

b.    poultry, beef, (humans), escargot, pork, venison.

c.    proteins, lipids, water, carbohydrates, zinc, iron.


IV. Today we ask of our food: What is it made of? Where is it from? But the answer to these questions reveal that it makes little sense to ask what our food is, because food is no longer grown and harvested, but assembled. We have, today, a food industry: while “farms of less than 1 hectare account for 72% of all farms,” they “control only 8% of all agricultural land.” Industrial agriculture businesses, which account for most of the world’s farmland, produce not food so much as ingredients. For example, a monoculture corn farm does not grow food, but grows material to feed the factories making the likes of Kellogg’s® Corn Flakes®. Materials are grown, but food is manufactured. A whole 60% of the world’s agricultural biomass is harvested as animal feed—and so digested by/into animals, then killed and packaged, before finally considered edible food for humans.

While these materials—most prominently corn and soybeans—are used to feed, bred for nutritional value, they today go on to have lives divorced from the food industry. Corn is used in drywall, adhesives, cosmetics, wax paper, Windex®, hand soap, paving bricks, and spark plugs.  

And while our food goes into products not meant for consumption, we eat things that were never meant to be consumed. A glance at the laundry list of chemicals on almost any nutrition facts label confirms this. Azodicarbonamide, which is used to make shoe soles and yoga mats, also strengthens dough; tartrazine (Yellow No. 5) makes macaroni gleam like the sun, as well as the cosmetic products that cover faces; butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) preserves food, and is also found in rubber and other petroleum products; and silica (sand) is used in dry coffee creamer and other powdery foods. 


V. Cannibalism is the practice of humans who eat the flesh or internal organs of other humans. Insides go inside other insides. Specific to human beings, cannibalism’s significance is that the end result is the same as the input. Humans consume the flesh of their own species and behold—break it down and digest it back into human form. Because the physical input and output of cannibalism is, in some sense, the same, the digestive process falls into relief as symbolic, as well as material. While on both sides of cannibalism there is a human being, the before and after different. Two become one. The spiritual, experiential humanity of one body dies when it becomes meat, while the other person continues.


VI. Here it’s easy to understand why some people believe that cannibalism offers a route to spiritual rebirth in the body of another. At the Cannibal Club in Los Angeles, you can ask for your corpse to be prepared as a high-end meal for friends and family, an alternative to traditional burial practices. The Cannibal Club suggests that cannibalism allows the person served to be reborn in the bodies of his or her consumers. (The Cannibal Club does not disclose their source of meat, but assures its legality and quality.)

This language echoes that of the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Christ are literally consumed in the transubstantiated form of wafer and wine. But many Catholics argue that the Eucharist isn’t a cannibalistic ritual because, while the doctrine of transubstantiation means that the food actually becomes the body of Christ, they eat both less and more than a human body: consumed in the Eucharist are God’s words, as well as his human body. This “body,” while technically flesh, is eternal, consumed time and time again, in many churches.


VII. Hermeneutics, and other forms of reading, continue the quasi-cannibalism of the Eucharist. We digest each other’s words and ideas, at first foreign, then understood and assimilated by our bodies and minds. “Reader’s digests” and “weekly bite” sections of newspapers and blogs point to the incorporative aspect of reading and social interaction, during which physical exteriors move inside through language, even though spatial distance remains. The dictum “you are what you eat” extends far beyond food.

Just as there is a symbolic difference between human meat and a human who consumes that meat, a symbolic difference holds the boundary between humans and the food they consume; between that food and the materials from which it’s assembled; between those materials and the ecology from which they are extracted, and so on. At each level a digestive process mediates transformation; and so while all of these things equal each other from a scientific materialist perspective, symbolically they could not be more different, and these higher-level differences often find expression in language.

A cow is not yet beef, nor any longer grass.


VIII. The human price is invisible in export products like sugar cane. The customers at the other end of the production chain consume in blissful ignorance of what is sacrificed for their dining pleasure.

Language betrays reality; on the list of ingredients one won’t find human rights violations, exploitation, but sugar.


IX. There is no unambiguous boundary to the body, individual or political. The human body lives in homes, schools, streets, but its past life is a product grown, assembled, transported, and sold for consumption. The body grows in cornfields; it’s made in the factory. It is material and organism. It assimilates violence; it transcends national borders. It is Corn Flakes® as well as carbohydrates. What a human is depends on the language used to describe it; and this language is for sale. If the past lives of food are egregious exploitative labor, consumers pay companies to linguistically conceal this violence. Consumers incorporate violence, industry, chemicals, and more when they eat; but the interim digestive processes of the global food industry assure that only mouth-watering food passes the membrane between consumer and origin, leaving behind unsavory former incarnations.


Eli Neuman-Hammond B’18 hopes to have fidelity to something true.