Force Feeding and Taste - Part Two

In my last blog I explored the idea of force feeding as an procedure that bypasses taste, both literally and metaphorically.

Today I'm going to write about a contemporary representation of force feeding and its relationship to taste.

In this video, made by the Guardian in 2013, Yasiin Bey, formerly known as the rapper Mos Def, is filmed as he undergoes force feeding under standard Guantanamo Bay procedure.

This video was made in conjunction with, and in support of, the work of Reprieve, a group of human rights lawyers who, as their website states, 'provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people'. This includes Guantanamo Bay prisoners facing human rights abuses and torture practices such as force feeding.

The aim, as stated on the Guardian's article about the video, is to 'draw attention to that fact that this is happening daily to 45 hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay'. With over seven million views, the video has certainly drawn attention to itself and the issue of force feeding. But, apart from the stated aim of the makers, what might it mean to represent force feeding in this way? And what does it mean to watch it?

One immediate response that comes to mind is that this video is not a representation of force feeding, or rather, calling it a representation of force feeding is slightly misleading. In the video Bey really does undergo force feeding and experiences the physical pain of the feeding tube being forced down his nose.

But there are crucial differences to the force feeding as represented in the video compared to the force feeding experienced by Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

-Bey's force feeding takes place in a London studio with a white backdrop. There is a lighting rig in the studio and, from what I can work out from the editing, at least two cameras filming.
-Before the force feeding begins, Bey stands in the studio, states his name to camera, and explains what he is about to undergo. He then reappears in an orange jumpsuit, and is put in shackles before he sits on the chair.

-The chair itself is quite different from the standard Guantanamo force feeding chairs depicted in a number of photographs used in newspaper articles. The one in the video looks more like an old dentist's chair.
-From the video and the article, I can work out that there must be at least six other people in the room apart from Bey: at least two doctors to carry out the procedure, David Morrissey - a patron of Reprieve, the Guardian journalist Ben Ferguson and two cameramen.
-Halfway through the procedure, Bey 'free[s] one arm and writhe[s] so hard the tubes fall out' and, as the doctors are bracing themselves for a second attempt, Bey stops them by saying, "I can't do it, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." The doctors do stop, and as Bey weeps, David Morrissey rubs his back and says "It's OK, it's over now."
-After recovering his composure, Bey addresses the camera once again and states his name and what has just happened.
-From the article, it is clear that the group talk for a while before Bey puts his own clothes back on and is driven back to his hotel.

For the most part, the differences between Bey's force feeding experience and the experience of hunger strikers in Guantanamo Bay are not about the 'reality' of the procedure, Bey really is force fed - although, there is no doubt that a marked difference is that the procedure is stopped halfway through.
  I would suggest that the big differences are aesthetic - the way the video looks is not the way that force feeding in Guantanamo looks (or would look, if the U.S. government allowed the public release of 32 videos of force feeding in Guantanamo).

These aesthetic decisions on the part of the filmmaker (Asif Kapadia, whose recent work includes 'Amy' and the Oasis documentary 'Supersonic') place the video within certain cultural frameworks of taste.
  The white walls of the studio are meant to evoke 'objectivity', and though this technique has been critiqued for many years, it is still meant to imply an attempt to strip away ornament and present facts. Just imagine if Bey's force feeding had taken place in a themepark 'torture chamber' version of Guantanamo.

The above image is from the London Dungeon, but you get the idea... The video would have been seen as supremely distasteful by the target audience of Guardian readers - middle class, white liberals used to seeing themselves as individuals who make decisions based on facts (no offence, I read the Guardian just like you do/pretend not to). They (we) dislike the idea of spectacle or theatricality when applied to the presentation of evidence in support of a point of view.
  However, Bey is still dressed in the Guantanamo orange jumpsuit, complete with shackles. This decision may well be more about the look of the video than any kind of implied ethics - the orange jumpsuit is iconic, and, just like avocado on Instagram, the colour is so striking on camera (particularly on a white background) that even if it might seem crass, it probably contributed to the video's viral success on social media.
  The shackles are striking for a similar reason. The accounts of force feeding at Guantanamo that I have read don't mention the specifics of how they are restrained, but the images of the force feeding chairs show that they have fabric restraints built into their arms and footrests. From other images we also know that Guantanamo prisoners have their wrists bound with plastic restraints - more like cable ties than metal chains.

My aim is not to designate the video as tasteful or distasteful, or to claim that it fails as a tool for activism because of certain aesthetic decisions, but rather to use this reading of the video to show how, as a representation, it is within the bounds of discussions of taste, i.e. it can, and has been, understood as tasteful or distasteful in a way that force feeding as a procedure that takes place in Guantanamo is not.
  Because of this, discussions inspired by this video tend to focus on the cultural meaning of this video as a piece of political activism and whether or not it was a worthwhile act on the parts of the filmmaker and Yasiin Bay. The discussion stimulated by the video remains tied to the video - stuck on the representation of force feeding, rather than the raw brutality of force feeding as a procedure.

Force Feeding and Taste - Part One

Force feeding is the act of feeding someone against their will. 'Gavage' is the process of force feeding in which a tube is pushed down the nose or throat until it reaches the stomach before liquid food is passed through it.

Food has a literal and metaphorical relationship to taste. Or, more precisely, the taste of food is where we get the metaphorical meaning of the word taste.
  As one of the five bodily senses, taste is the process through which a substance in the mouth reacts with the body and produces the sensation of flavour.
  As a metaphor, the word taste refers to culturally defined patterns of choice and preference.

In societies where most people eat food that they have bought and not grown, the act of eating almost always involves the two meanings of the word taste. Eating involves tasting the food that you eat, and eating involves having chosen that food to eat in relation to culturally defined patterns.

In force feeding, both kinds of taste are bypassed.
  The organs relating to the sense of taste are bypassed by force feeding; the most common method of gavage is through the nose. The feeding tube does not pass through the mouth or over the tongue. There is no an oral sensation which can be compared to taste for the force fed subject.
  The choice or display of preference that gives taste its cultural or sociological meaning is also bypassed by force feeding. The food that is forcibly fed has been pre-selected according to the operating procedure of the institution that is carrying out the force feeding.
  For the suffragettes this meant they were fed a 'cabbage like mixture', for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, it means they are fed Ensure, a 'liquid nutritional supplement and meal replacement' made by Abbott Laboratories, a worldwide American health care company that operates in over 150 countries.

In the standard operating procedure for 'involuntary feeding' or 're-feeding' of Guantanamo Bay prisoners on hunger strike, Ensure is mentioned early on - before the document gets to force feeding - as an alternative to solid food to be offered to prisoners in the early days of a hunger strike. If a prisoner is also refusing liquids, they are offered Gatorade.

Hunger striking is itself a refusal of taste. By refusing to eat, the hunger striker cuts off the possibility of tasting food. It can also be seen as a refusal of the cultural meaning of taste; the hunger striker refuses to choose any kind of food to eat, they refuse to express a preference.

Of course, you could also read the refusal of food as a choice made by the hunger striker, and therefore within the realm of preference and choice, and readable as an expression of taste.

For the institutions that practice it, force feeding is described as a necessity not a choice. In particular, it is described as a necessity brought about by the choice of the hunger striker. Of course for the hunger striker, the refusal of food may also be seen as a necessity - a necessary protest brought about by the actions of the institution. For the hunger striker, it is the force feeding that is unnecessary; a brutal choice made by the institution.
  Since 1975, the World Medical Association has been in agreement with the prisoners. Doctors are prohibited from carrying out force feeding by the Declaration of Tokyo. According to the UN, force feeding can be described as a form of torture, which doctors are also prohibited from carrying out. So although the institutions that practice force feeding may describe it as necessary, the doctors who carry out such procedures must, much like the hunger strikers, exercise a choice that is beyond the comprehension of most individuals. And like the hunger strikers, no doubt they feel that it is not a choice.
  Within such a system, the doctors and the hunger strikers express very different preferences - the hunger striker prefers not to eat, and the doctor prefers that they do. But on a quantitative level, their choices are comparable. They are both extreme choices: hard to make and with a huge impact on the body (of the hunger striker). They are both choices that put the hunger striker and the doctor carrying out force feeding into an uncomfortable position - although for the hunger striker this discomfort (and extreme pain) is physical as well as psychological.

Whatever your views on force feeding, there is no doubt that it is a distasteful subject - in the sense of being unpleasant to discuss. In this way, the US Government's legal battle to stop the release of 'disturbing' video documentation of their Guantanamo force feeding procedure could be understood as an extreme form of politeness - an attempt to avoid a conversation that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

You Are Worthless

You are worthless.
You are a piece of shit.
You are a worthless piece of shit.
You suck life and energy from everyone and everything around you.
You are a black hole.
You are a shitty black hole.
You are a black hole that smells of shit.
You are a black hole that smells of shit so strongly that the shit smell manages to escape your infinite black hole gravity and wafts around the universe, alerting all the other galactical objects and events to your shitty black hole presence.
You are a void, a nothing, a shit smelling nothing whose presence is an absence, a minus, a removal, a weight, a load, something to bear, something to grimace through, something to endure.
You are an endurance, your smell we endure, your sucky, needy, absent presence we endure, your eternal, pathetic infinite dense darkness we endure.
You are a shitty black hole that smells of shit and forces us to smell your shitty black hole shit smell by continuing to absently exist.
You are a shitty black hole that sucks everything into you, a needy, greedy point of infinite density.
Your density is metaphorically valid in a  number of ways, you are dense like a black hole i.e. in that you suck energy and light and life towards you in a way that is frighteningly sad for everyone around you, but also you’re dense on a human scale, i.e. like an idiot is dense.
Therefore you are doubly dense - intergalactically dense and also humanly, stupidly, idiotically, dense.
You are a stupid idiot.
You are a shitty dense stupid idiot.
You are a stupid idiot and a worthless piece of shit and a black hole.
You are a stupid idiot worthless piece of shit, shit smelling black hole and I wish you all the best in your new job.