Efraim Sicher: "The Semiotics of Hunger"


A Postmodern Postscript

Nowadays fasting is politically correct and so has lost its former protest value. The glossy magazines scream at you to get thin and stay slim. Twiggy, the anorexic idol of the sixties, has recently been canonized in a campaign that persuades us to eat without feeling guilty about the "crime" of breaking our diet "fast" [Figure 3, below]. This is a way of enticing the bourgeois body from what Stanley Corngold sees, in his reading of "The Metamorphosis," its revolt against socialization and conformity to the authority of the family, a freedom which would be parallel with the Hunger Artist's initial autonomy and Kafka's bid for opaqueness, impervious to the imposition of social purposes, without desire, vanishing into the perfection of a literary sign; the body has become the absolute sign (Corngold 7; Neumann cited Corngold 7 note 17).

Figure 3: "Twiggy—," Model Hunger Artist

Flagellation cults might be one origin of the self-exhibition of the body; but the conspicuous display of the body as an object of consumption in late capitalism might offer a more plausible explanation for public self-mutilation (for example in body-piercing and tattooing). Canadian artist Jana Sterbak makes a mute comment on postmodern society with an anorexic model dressed in dried meat, bringing alive carnivorous male desire in an image adapted from Soutine, while inverting consumption and display, meat and skin.

As in Rimbaud's "Fêtes de la faim" ("Festival of Hunger") to write is to hunger, both in the sense of starving and desire for a woman's flesh and in the sense of a consumptive, consuming landscape.1 Rimbaud puns on poetic and carnal desire faim/femme, sucking/being consumed, reading/being read (Rimbaud 83-4), a ludic hunger quite different from the hunger-writing of Knut Hamsun's unnamed journalist who fasts because he is too proud and "decent" to admit he is starving and accept help. His concealed insistence on bygone values is, like the Hunger Artist's, a bygone fashion in the cruel materialistic world of the cold modern city that denies humanity and God. Hunger brings on hallucinations and delirium, which does not necessarily help inspire the writing that will bring him a crust of bread, though it is in the moments of bare existence that his pencil stub yields realms of prose. Indeed, delirium encourages him to fantasize about women passers-by, whom he molests before waking to his diminished sense of masculinity; yet his sick mind doesn't quite rise to the malicious spite of Dostoevsky's underground man, even when he victimizes a gentleman in the park with his invented identities. Rather, Hamsun's cult novel voices a social indictment and a Jobian quest for justice that enables us to feed on a sense of anger and vengeance. Kafka's story gives us no such food for thought.

The obverse of the anorexic writer is the sado-masochistic figure of the officer in "In The Penal Colony," who straps himself into the machine that inscribes the punishment on the text of the body, which Ellmann interprets as a Foucauldian model of inscription of cultural practices on the body, which must be disciplined as part of social control (Ellman, 4). This self-inscription of the body goes back to Job who describes the boils and ailments inscribing his punishment on his back, and the inscription of bodily pain is written into the text in the same manner as pain is literally written into the landscape in Edvard Munch's lithograph Scream. This is also how Kafka represented his own position undergoing treatment for tuberculosis, as he expressed it in a doodle drawn in a letter to Milena Jasenská which portrays a man being punished by being torn apart by vertical poles (Letters to Milena 204). Gandelman relates this also to the flayed artist in Kokoschka (Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts 118-20), and Kafka's image of the body in his doodled figurines as split in two is an Expressionist visualization of the pain racking the artist as a condition of his art and of the public exhibition of his body.

As a political protest fasting began with the suffragettes and Irish nationalists like Terence MacSwiney, who fasted himself to death, bequeathing to the IRA hunger strikers of Long Kesh the slogan, "It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer." MacSwiney also bequeathed the revised ending of Yeats' The King's Threshold (Ellmann 60). Nowadays Mahatma Gandhi would not even be force-fed like the suffragettes in Holloway prison, but given an audience by the Pope; Gandhi is also considered worthy of admiration by the typical Californian for being ideally "thin, brown, and moral" (cited Ellmann 5). Hunger-striking has become routine in political struggles or wage negotiations in some Western countries, while self-immolation is a ritual of public protest practiced in Korea and Czechoslovakia. There nevertheless remains a certain power over the authorities in this demonstration of self-destruction which is essentially a form of language and dialogue as much as any other. Recently, a Palestinian Arab journalist, called appropriately Daoud Kuttab (whose name in Arabic makes him a man of the book, a textual artist), discovered that it wasn't easy being a hunger striker when thrown in jail for dissident opinions. K. was a model Hunger Artist—observed through a waist-high window by the other prisoners who came to him as Writer of Petitions in flowery language to Arafat. However, the prison authorities simply didn't recognize his hunger strike. First agree to our demands, they seemed to say, then you can go on hunger strike and starve as much as you like. Fasting is a subversive claim to control over the body by wilful self-destruction and it is thus a negotiable form of blackmail. K. even offered to drink something if the warder would agree to smuggle out a note to his family. When it came to the force-feeding, K. sipped from a can of mango juice in order to fortify himself to withstand the ordeal but also to assert his control over his fasting; he hid the can when he was suddenly released without being able to prove he was fasting! They don't give you a chance these days.


1. See Maud Ellmann's Lacanian explanation for the relationship of fasting and writing. For a different perspective see Furst and Graham. A survey of writing as food from the Eucharist to Beckett's verbal abstinence and Barthes' alimental structuralism may be found in Eagleton. The trope of eating the text is well known from Ezekiel, 2-3, where the prophet is told to ingest the scroll and then display abstinence and consumption of strange substances (including dung) in order to exhibit the symbolic meaning of God's punishment. In Kafka's case, abstinence through celibacy and dietary restrictions characterizes the presentation of his refusal to conform to his father's expectations and in marital life in his letters to his Father and to Felice. [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 6 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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