The infamous Rule #34, one of the older memes of the internet, boldly proclaims, “If it exists, there is Porn of it”. Over more than a decade, this tongue-in-cheek (no pornographic reference intended) adage has borne witness to the fact that the internet has been home to expressions which don’t find place in the mainstream. So creative has been this genre that porn doesn’t just refer to sex any more. Internet Porn (as opposed to Porn on the Internet – go figure) often becomes a way of describing user content that defies regulation and finds creative expressions. Thus, trying to find “porn of it”, while trying different options: Tetris Blocks, Gummi Bears, Hello Kitty, and N95 Masks have all found their often funny, often NSFW bizarre renderings as folks on the web have engaged in creating new fantasies.
One of the hashtags that I have been following online has been #foodporn. No, it is not what you think. Nope, it is not about that. OMG, get that filthy thought out of your head – and stop eyeing that eggplant emoji on your phone. While the correlation between food and sex has been long exploited by many texts on eroticism, #foodporn refers to a particular genre of Instagram imagery which stages food as an object of sensual desire rather than nutrition.
As I have written before, #foodporn marks a particular condition of plenty. It reflects an aestheticisation of food – filtered in all its full-frontal glory – that no longer has to worry about the more banal and quotidian anxieties of hunger or nutrition. The restaurant images of appetising food, matched by “home-chefs” recreating masterful dishes have contributed hugely to this genre. However, the obscene moment of #foodporn comes to the fore when you get dishes that are staged only to be photographed, not to be eaten. There has been a growing critique of #foodporn influencers adding colours, additives, plastics, and inedible components so that the food photographs better, only to throw it away, once the image has been captured.
In the times of Corona, though, #foodporn has taken a different connotation entirely. As the privileged lockdown after stockpiling all their shopping carts could hold, our social-media streams have become an obscenity that oscillates between these two extremes. Here is a sample from my feed last week. I have been signed on to groups where people are discussing how they shall use their free time to become masterchefs. In another new group, noobs experiment with ingredients, telling how they braved the pressure cooker, and threw away entire containers of grains and vegetable that they abused in their experiments. In yet another group, intended for simple recipes for our complicated times, there is a constant posting about people displaying the reserves of staples they have in their storage but are stuck because one or two fresh ingredients are missing. In normal times, this would have felt like business as usual – after all, what was the Internet for, if not cute animals and food (and then porn of it)?
However, these acts of normal business feel terrifyingly obscene because every other #foodporn post is punctuated by pictures of migrants walking home – without food, without means, in fear of police violence – fleeing the viral cities in hope of slowing starvation and finding food and shelter. For every perfectly photographed dish, there are reports of millions of people experiencing hunger, malnutrition, and in some cases mortality because of lack of adequate food in the face of this unplanned lockdown. The stories of good Samaritans doing food distribution and communities struggling to take care of its most vulnerable trickle in, but they seem to have no bearings on the deluge of #foodporn that continues to unapologetically, without reflexivity or irony, continue to flood the social timelines. I do not intend to shame people who are, in the comfort of their privileges, filling their time with doing something as basic as cooking and finding joy and solidarity in it. But I have to admit that to me this feels obscene: This capacity to marvel in the spectacles of food, and to emerge heroic when you master a new recipe or find a replacement for an ingredient that has disappeared from the shelf.
We always knew that the Internet was a space of inequality. Even at the best of times, the paradox of those who indulge on the web and those who struggle to bear the burden of its unfolding are stark. But in these times of crises, it perhaps becomes a space of obscenity, where those of us who can, are going to ignore the real world and live in our filtered bubbles, and, well, produce #foodporn. I wonder, darkly, if there is already a porn of migrants walking home, dying of starvation. And I am scared to look for it. Because knowing the depravity of the internet, there is a chance that it exists. Because Rule #34.
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