Ferment is a word that can mean different things—beer or sauerkraut, or social disturbance, often of a more dynamic, productive kind. As it turns out, it can also mean chocolate, coffee, and biotechnology, objects that require fermentation but are not thought to be fermented products. Fermentation is an actual physical process that creates things, as well as a metaphor for process itself. Ferment as a category has always been present in the study of food. Lévi-Strauss, who describes food as “good to think with,” placed fermentation into the category “rotten,” viewing it as one way (along with the raw and the cooked) that cultures portrayed themselves.1 Douglas, however, saw rotten as dangerous, as “matter out of place.”2 Myles sees fermentation as a dangerous but dynamic kind of mixing of categories—such as nature/culture and rural/urban—that “results from the ‘fermentation’ of place, namely the active, sometimes volatile changes catalyzed by the mixing of some (f)actor with another” (11). Myles, a geographer, argues that ferment—the rot that produces welcome and sometimes troublesome materialities—can also be applied to the production of landscape. Fermented Landscapes provides examples of how both welcomed and troubled ferments can happen.
The chapters are a mixing that Myles mostly allows to speak for themselves. They span everything from a report on artisan chocolate makers in Hawaii (small in number, good at their craft, and isolated), to a history of a failed winemaking region (not pretty enough to attract tourists), to a successful micro-cider industry (in “coopetition” with larger producers), to a history of beer ethnicities in the United States (immigrants with different brews and brewing techniques), and to a group of kombucha makers (who also comprise a community). These are all interesting and well-researched articles, but the extent to which they are meant to be seen as a whole and to interact to produce a new way of thinking about landscape is unclear.
The last section is primarily theoretical. All its chapters, which are well written and thoughtful, feature compelling empirical examples and delve deeply into the meaning of fermentation. One of the most provocative chapters questions the viability of fermentation as a metaphor in biotechnology, preferring to depict the microbes used in the manufacture of biotech products as purified tools that are predictable and controlled—domesticated microbes in service to business. Thus, this chapter explicitly challenges my suggestion in Dangerous Digestion that ferment is a productive metaphor to describe the liveliness of inclusive politics.3 My view of the body as a coalition of microbes argues against the kind of monolithic control that biotech microbes are supposed to represent. Another chapter in this section, however, is more congenial to that perspective, exploring the biopolitics of the lively side of microbes as they relate to ideas about the body. It embraces new forms of biopolitics imagined through the metaphor of ferment, inspired more by the post-Pasteurian concepts of Paxson than by the idea of microbe as purified tool.4
The question then becomes, When are microbes part of a lively landscape of uncontrolled mixing and when are they just tools like any other instrument of modern capitalism? Are microbrews more lively than bovine growth hormones? Are they less controlled, and if so, is that what their microbial masters want from them? Or are micro-breweries just biotech in miniature? How do people feel about liveliness when their kombucha “mother” goes bad? Should we think of microbes as Haraway’s “companion species,” or are they sometimes related only instrumentally to humans?5 Do they, like Callon’s scallops, sometimes revolt?6 These are questions that the chapters do not answer. The chapters might have engaged more in fermenting each other, exploring contradictions and digging deeply into how space becomes fixed and unfixed through liveliness. Nonetheless, the individual chapters are thought-provoking, making the reading of this edited collection a worthwhile pursuit.
See Claude Lévi-Strauss (trans. John and Doreen Weightmann), The Origin of Table Manners. III. Introduction to a Science of Mythology (New York, 1978), 495.
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo (New York, 1966).
DuPuis, Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice (Berkeley, 2015).
Heather Paxson, “Post‐Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw‐Milk Cheese in the United States.”Cultural Anthropology, XXIII (2008), 15–47.
Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, 2003).
Michael Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay,” Sociological Review, XXXII (1984), 196–233.