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.