I might be addicted to problem solving. At least, it often preoccupies me. For example: if I take food that’s gone off and put it in the freezer, will that preserve more available nutrients for decomposition in the council’s green waste facility? Will the energy cost render this a futile gesture? And: how true is it that a refrigerator is more efficient fully stocked than empty? Is refrigerator utilisation versus energy use a linear relation? Calculate: the atmospheric clichés of bougie green consciousness and a dilettante-level fascination with engineering multiplied by the price of the food item, the energy tied up in its production and the provenance of the food’s food. Today in Victoria, the average wholesale price of electricity is $26.86 per megawatt hour.1 And which is more merciful: to eat five smaller fish or a filleted portion of one larger one?
Leaning over an elbow with my chin resting in the palm of my hand, I watch the food in my kitchen creep incrementally closer to disposal while I fish for de-escalation.
None of this makes me unique. For consumer capitalism, especially its patriarchal and paternalistic impulses, problems are a sustaining feedstock, the ground in which solutions are planted, scaled, undermined, superseded. But a prevailing obsession with problem solving runs deeper: it’s the underpinning of almost all organised thought, from religion to dialectical philosophy and natural sciences. Evolution is either a patient trainer or a brutal and unyielding antagonist; either way, we’ll bite. Humans have solved our way around significant challenges to meet this moment, yet I can’t help but feel that it’s a moment suffocating under the weight of this preoccupation. Artists and office workers and recreational fisherman and nurses pin quotes to their walls and cork boards, gesturing towards profound purpose or inspirational method. A cohesive individuality is the prerequisite to healthy entanglements — and remember, if you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?2American therapists publish infographics to popular Instagram accounts dedicated to solving the attachment traumas they identify as both ubiquitous and well-hidden. A Canadian misinformation site tries to solve emotional dysregulation in news media.3 Entrepreneurs cash in on solutions to work or transport, usually faltering under ethical and pragmatic accretions surfacing from their long tails. The cultural phenomenon of the ‘quantified self’ has quickly become the norm, even quantifying attempts to resist it.4 Synchronised time solved railroad scheduling; now we try to solve what synchronised time made possible. Of course, many people are searching desperately for decisive actions against the crisis of global warming, just one of the compounding crises of contemporary capitalism that propel us toward a horizon we have not consented to. Terre Thaemlitz says: ‘optimism is the sleazy sales pitch of Western globalisation’.5 Arguably the same is true of optimisation. The alternatives, though, are elusive. The irony of writing about the problem of problems — the recursion, the loop — isn’t lost on me. A system reproduces or reinforces itself. How are we to argue, really, when we ache for the relieving cadence of a song’s final notes?
Some solutions work. Dovetail joints are a cornerstone of woodworking, widely considered the strongest kind of joint — durable and even glue-less if necessary, aesthetically pleasing — and here, clues might be found in the stable actors, delimited function and ‘good enough’ aspirations of the problem posed. Australian bank notes are made from a polymer that contains tallow, a ‘“slip agent” to prevent friction and static’.6 But other solutions are haunted by mysterious complications. We know what constitutes safe drinking water, which prevents illness and death. Who can say what it means that dead animals keep our bank notes from sticking together while one in every three people — 2.2 billion people — lack safe water? 7
On the scale of our individual bodies, we’re an odd composite of rightful authority, key witness and rookie snoop. We experience our corporal mysteries religiously and scientifically. The body is one scarce realm where our experience can feel both empirical and transcendental, despite or because of its myriad opacities.
The body is a bad laboratory and a rebellious factory housing an unacceptable number of variables. It is strangely resistant to strictly repeatable results and controlled tests.8 Outcomes are set adrift by intersecting cycles of earth, moon, stars and sun, menstrual and hormonal patterns, circadian rhythms, moods, movement, culture, blood type, illness and disability, microbial partnerships, precursors and chasers. How you eat and sleep, and with whom. How and what you breathe. Hidden imprints of your own history. Not to mention the manner of food preparation. The temperature of a meal affects the energy required to digest it. A mashed potato is metabolised differently to a potato boiled whole.
We can lick our fingers and guess at the direction of the wind, though. I can say, for example, that too much salt usually organises some kind of tension between my breath and blood and muscles. I can propose that I’m a subdivision of my ancestral line, an archive of two archives. The body turns its cells over every ten years, so they say, so we’re not simply going through our own trash forever; just shedding and accumulating without end, until with end.
The industrial model of the body has us drinking a glass of milk, sorting its components — lipids, proteins, salts, minerals, vitamins, sugars, white blood cells, enzymes, bacteria, water — reassigning them to parts and processes of our bodies. Or, if you like: calcium goes to the bones, bioactive peptides and microbiota go wherever immunity stuff goes, fat goes to your arse and lactose may or may not trouble your afternoon. Excesses? Stranded assets. Insufficiencies? Supply chain issues. A parallel model — narrative — finds us enquiring after the body’s modes: is it anxiously stockpiling calories or being tricked into expending its surplus? It finds my 公公 telling my father, as a boy, that eating fish tails would make him a better swimmer. This is how bodies work in some games. Kill your enemy and absorb their remaining manna. (Dad never became a swimmer, but for a time he had a job in a fish and chip shop.)
Solving food is a persistent modern fantasy despite the limits of our metabolic knowledge. The Mediterranean diet, the Beyoncé Master Cleanse, veganism; protein shakes, Space Food Sticks, pet kibble. ‘Intuitive eating’ (the most hilarious straight-faced fuck you anti-diet diet). Secure the right mix of components, they beckon, and we understand what they’re saying.
We want more life is what we’re saying. Which ‘more’: a greater amount? A higher degree? An increasing quantity?
Lab-grown meat contains blood without a heart.
In the company of solutions, our tastes, appetites and desires are only as important as their influence on our behaviours. Pleasure is only as important as its role in a transaction. Adriene tells me she doesn’t enjoy eating — it’s more of a physiological obligation and an unpleasant experience, especially if more than one strong flavour or texture is present. It conjures a minefield of manners too, because it’s hard to quench somebody’s hopes of anticipating your tastes when they’re mostly aversions.
Adriene doesn’t flinch at the idea of eating brains, or insects, or anything really, so she’s a perfect candidate for solving our protein problems. She says if she could get the right nutrition from eating the same inoffensive meal every day, she probably would. She gripes at the preparation of multiple ingredients. She once had to engineer a recording for a podcast episode featuring one of the co-founders of Soylent — the most well-known mid-2010s ‘nutritionally complete’ meal replacement start-up. The product evolved out of a typically Silicon Valley milieu: a quartet of white dude software engineers holed up in a share house trying to create a software-defined radio product for wireless communication. A frustration with having to buy and prepare meals, as well as the algae forming on the disused backyard swimming pool, inspired a flimsy 30-day odyssey of self-experimentation culminating in a 39-ingredient, flatulence-fuelling powdered shake mix. Adriene recalled the podcast guest explaining that they wanted to make a drink you could iterate based on user data, the way you can with software, ‘but they had this alarming unawareness that software doesn’t affect your body the way food does’. Soylent, named after the nutritional wafers that are revealed to be processed human bodies in the dystopian film Soylent Green (1973), may have led to organ failure. But it also led to name recognition: the co-founder’s current venture is a boutique non-alcoholic drink company backed by Bella Hadid. A near-full moon moves carefully from one side of my window to the other.
Standardisation begins with a unit. A widely used measurement of potential corporeal energy, the calorie (really kilocalorie, kcal), is a unit of heat. To be more specific, it’s the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one litre of water from 14.5°C to 15.5°C at standard atmospheric pressure.9 This unit is foundational to our modern-day ideas of nutrition, calculated by a calorimeter — wherein portions of food were sealed within a measured layer of water-filled glass, piped with oxygen and burned. The history of calories, and of nutrition, is a Western history of latent heat.10
The average adult body, I read, contains about five litres of blood. The average body temperature is 37°C. The warming of our blood is our lifelong dedication, or burden, or habit. There is something tender about this private obligation silently shared by all warm-blooded animals. Scientists of the late 1700s concluded that respiration was a process of combustion.11 Around the same time, various forms of the internal combustion engine were invented.
It strikes me that we’ve always known we were warm. When our bodies have too much heat, we breathe it out through our mouths. We sweat. Heat radiates from the blood near the surface of our skin; wind skims it from us. In rooms crowded with other people, our temperatures rise.
Food Standards Australia lists an average red delicious apple — F000107, ‘round shaped fruit with red skin and cream coloured flesh’ — at 164g, containing about 90kcal of energy.12 A granny smith apple — F000095, ‘round shaped fruit with green skin and cream/white coloured flesh’ — at 153g and about 67kcal. 13 Quantify the fire in your belly — or maybe just the average belly. Half a bite of an average red delicious apple apparently supplies enough energy to punch the average person in the average face.14 By contrast, eating the entire apple would, I’m told, supply an average body like mine with the energy to sit quietly beside somebody for one hour.15
Measurement is further troubled by the discrepancy between what’s on offer and what’s taken up. Try reverse engineering your own accumulations and see how long it takes for you to throw up your hands and surrender to the average, even though the average denies our presence and obliterates our relations; another word for average is ‘mean’. Does it make you want to land a firm punch? To be sat beside? To seethe with envy at a thick-sapped tree? To freeze your garbage?
The industrial imaginary leaves our bodies behind, adrift in a reverie of largely meaningless misreadings. Nutrition is a broken mirror, a poorly executed ‘god trick’16 peddling human dominion over nature. Even so, these mental configurations are hard to shake, like a religious upbringing. We might have to carry the contradictory energy for now. I have always walked with a cleft consciousness; I believe in ghosts and I do not believe in ghosts. Beside me, the fridge releases a muted moan, like a small cow. It’s easy to forget the real scale of our bodies when our thoughts venture out through open gates into an overwhelming vastness. Julia and I talk about the almost laughable scale of a lobotomy — imagining a neurosurgeon leaning in and pressing the soft tissue, reminding their patient that the greatest possible distance between the best and worst feelings you’ve ever felt is little more than the length of a finger.
Put your fingertip to your belly button, and you’re touching a line, dashed with decades, that runs all the way down, all the way back. The navel, a memory of the original nutritionally complete meal replacement; our shared, inevitable scar.
In the marketplace of identity, as in the industries of nutrition, what begins as a reading ends as an intervention. We become entangled even as our bodies, needs and desires remain obscure to ourselves. To a behavioural algorithm, who we are is only important as an instrument of what we buy, produce or engage with. An approximate identity is reconstituted, reflected back to us and redeployed in service of reproducing those actions. Ben says to me, ‘identity is a thing that functions not a thing that is.’
We might even enquire after ourselves like interested strangers. Do I identify as CALD? What percentage of my ancestry is Japanese? I’ve taken attachment style quizzes (rarely/never, sometimes, usually/often) and Myers–Briggs Type Indicator tests (‘what the tests offer the individual is different from what they offer the institution’17). I’m sure I’ve tried to pin my donkey’s tail on the Kinsey Scale (aka the ‘Heterosexual–Homosexual Rating Scale’18 ) and surfed my eyebrows through the BDSM Test (‘what kind of sexual deviant are you?’19 indeed). At the other end of these tests, what has the tradable currency been worth?
Called into service and faced with proliferating demands for a coherence that naturally eludes us, it’s no great surprise when we seek to parse ourselves externally. On the surface it can feel, finally, like agency. Besides, we’re conditioned to minimise friction. Faced with one another, there’s something almost generous in the gesture of crafting something to reveal about ourselves. Divulgence and connection are optimistic; let us resonate beyond our own skins, at least for a moment. We draft memoranda of understanding with notional others and nurse interpersonal free trade agreements. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. You know what they say about people who withhold: they’re such hard work.
What’s that other saying? Leave something to the imagination. In our struggles to address each other’s needs, or our own, the imagination is a blundering compass. Thaemlitz’s critique of optimism — of the lasting actions it proposes and produces — is that ‘our desires/dreams/hopes are always symptomatic of our wish to overcome contemporary and local sufferings. Therefore, organising through hope involves an imposition of our own desires upon future generations — an enslavement of the future to our own frustrations here and now, most of which are connected to our inherited frustrations from past dreamers and idealists.’20 Surely you can relate. Many of the most profound failings and searing regrets of individuals and societies once seemed like promising solutions to the problems we saw in the mirror.
other animals are more evolved / their evolution means natural efficiency
human race is the least evolved / our evolution means civilisation 21
In the US, up to a billion birds die each year from window collisions.22 It’s not the transparency of the glass that’s the problem; it's the reflective effect of skyscraper windows that appear as open sky.
Édouard Glissant argued for opacity as the basis of relation. Instead of ‘spreading overarching general ideas or hanging on to the concrete, the law of facts, the precision of details, or sacrificing some apparently less important thing in the name of efficacy, the thought of opacity saves me from unequivocal courses and irreversible choices’.23 He continues: ‘As far as my identity is concerned, I will take care of it myself. That is, I shall not allow it to become cornered in any essence; I shall also pay attention to not mixing it into any amalgam. Rather, it does not disturb me to accept that there are places where my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it.’24
The many meanings of the word ‘fix’ tell on each other: to secure in place or make permanent, to mend, to arrange. To cheat and to neuter. In our condition, is it fair to say we won’t be fixed? The god trick of measurement and quantification have both produced and undermined an idea of individualism. Ironically, quantified individualism’s key shortcoming is in its denial of specificity — a specificity constituted by a measure of unknowability. Instead of attempting to parse each other through transparency, Glissant urges us to centre what we can’t know, to move with respect to difference and stay the urge to identify with and assimilate it. To encounter each other in continual renegotiation. In opacity, we might turn to the texture of the weave rather than trying to assess its individual strands. In the new attention it demands, we might recognise each other.
Ecologist Jared Elmore says that turning lights off in skyscrapers will help reduce the number of birds that die in window collisions.25 For the past two nights I’ve been awake past dawn. Mum says, ‘don’t eat after 10pm, it’s bad for you.’ Mum asks, ‘are you happy?’ At 4.55am, I push a slice of bread down in the toaster.
I walk out of my apartment and around the neighbourhood at dusk. It’s early enough that nobody’s curtains are closed yet but their lights are on, and it’s like the movies and channel surfing and window shopping. I can’t name the nutrients of the life that I want, but I can tell you that I want the conviction of a large, framed print looming over the corner of a lounge room. I want to know, unconsciously, that warm bedroom and its messy, fragrant tumble of bottles and clothes. I want that quiet emptiness, then I want the life that comes with that desk littered with tubes of paint in the alcove leaning out toward the street. Maybe I only want to see these things from the footpath, and to talk about them with you.
I can’t tell you what’s inside of things, or how much of it. I can’t tell you exactly how my body is keeping its promise, even as I tug at my collar to steer a wave of cool air over my shoulders. I’ll tell you what I see. I see the reflection of the moon in the east-facing shop windows. I see the shape of the bridge in the reflected sound of the creek running beneath it. Night unfolds as it always has. I know what to do with the apple.