Among the many crests and troughs of trending hashtags in this year, one remains on a high — #foodporn. While the more political, topical, and controversial hashtags emerge into public attention and, after a brief moment of extreme intensity, disappear from social memory into digital archives, #foodporn persists. If you think there is something perverse about the hashtag that mixes memory and desire, you are not wrong. #Foodporn is a libidinal overflow of irrational behaviour, where people put out images of food to be consumed purely as an aesthetic experience. This is food for your eyes, not for your mouth.
At the heart of #foodporn are the impulses of food as aesthetic, as design, as lifestyle, as choice, as agency, and, indeed, food as a clean, gentrified, aspirational object of art and desire inviting us to gluttony and waste. A large part of #foodporn is people either showing off their culinary skills or deep pockets that gives them access to food that looks good. Fancy implements, exorbitantly sourced and imported ingredients, and a deeply aesthetic sense of food that should look like its idealised form have become the heart of this movement. We remove food from its origins — from the earth, the soil, the cycles of season, and the hardship of agriculture and farming — and scrub it clean to appear magically through our filtered exhibitions.
The labour of the farmer, the crisis of global climate change, and the apathy of governments towards exploitative and unsustainable practices that bring food from farms to our table, are all erased in the quest for perfect lighting, plating, and ornamentation.
#Foodporn is the most visible in the regular spectacle of a table-full of diners in restaurants, not talking or eating, but pulling out their phones and taking pictures of food to share it before they eat it. Perhaps, the more disturbing trend is people using food as a visual spectacle, making it inedible in their search for aesthetics. Food colours, additives that give a sheen or a sparkle, inedible compounds and polymers that make food look good, are all a part of this game, where what food looks like is more important than what it tastes like. Food, in these images, is not meant to be eaten, but to be seen, and wasted.
We have to admit that this is not just food aestheticised but food weaponised, creating a world of excessive indulgence, where food is treated, processed, and manipulated till it becomes as fake as the orgasms in commercial porn. It signals a culture of plenty and excessive waste that I call the paranoia of scarcity. It is a rule of social media that things that are going scarce or are in the threat of disappearing often find the highest visibility. If you see your friend in a sudden, excessive display of affection and celebration of family, you know that the relationship is on the rocks. The orgy of #foodporn pictures needs to be understood in the same structure of paranoia, where the overproduction of food images is a symptom of a thing that is quickly going to disappear and has already become scarce. #Foodporn is an attempt to stop worrying about the politics of food and the paucity of food resources but creating it as a visual fantasy.
This paranoia of scarcity allows people to ignore the extreme levels of hunger and malnutrition in the country and fetishise indulgent pleasure of foodwaste. With #foodporn, we become playful human beings, freed from a historical consciousness around food and its politics, and also from the responsibility of explaining the violent cultures of social exclusion and political extremism that we have witnessed around food.
#Foodporn pretends that we do not have a beef with beef, that we have not witnessed the vigilante lynching of minorities, or the vilification of caste-based practices in the name of purity and food. It negates the fact that more than a million farmers are right now flooding the capital of New Delhi, wanting to talk about their struggles to raise food in the times of extreme weather, poor agriculture infrastructure, and an increasingly abject nation that doesn’t quite seem to understand that just because food grows on trees doesn’t mean that it is easy to get. #Foodporn has become a dominant aesthetic of our time. As more and more food gets weaponised, it also gets aestheticised, deflecting attention from the politics of food-making to the poetics of food filters.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.