James Smith argues that Huel’s “cancellation” of hunger makes it the perfect food for a cancelled culture.
We have been called upon to solve the global human problem of eating and the soul. Our company has transformed eating from a crude elemental urge to an ennobling mechanism, we have given the world moral behaviour. We have removed the element of eating from human relationships and cleared the way for pure spiritual feeling.
These words are not – of course – from advertising materials for ‘Huel’, the ‘nutritionally-complete meal replacement powder’ start-up, founded in England, but marketed like a Silicon Valley subscriber platform. They come from Anti-Sexus, a short satire by the Soviet author Andrei Platanov, published in 1926; although I have swapped in the word ‘eating’ for the word ‘sex’ where it appears in Platanov’s original text. Anti-Sexus is a faux-brochure for an incredible machine, which promises not simply to grant sexual pleasure like a sex toy or the sex robots under development today; but rather, to instantaneously satisfy it, and more effectively than any physical sexual encounter with a human partner.
As Alenka Zupančič has pointed out, the logic of the Anti-Sexus device is chiasmic. ‘On the one hand, the aim is to extract sex from the Other; on the other hand, it is to exempt the Other from sex’. Just as the device identifies our private sexual relations as always impeded by the caprices and obstructiveness of the Other (partner, but also the unpredictability of our own bodies and desires), ‘the sexual’ itself appears as an interrupting impediment to our public social relations (the romantic comedy theme of whether a heterosexual man and woman can simply be friends is evaded, since the Other is always-already ‘satisfied’, ‘clearing the way for pure spiritual feeling’, as Platanov’s text says).
‘Tech culture is focussed on one question’, reflects Corey Pein in his Silicon Valley memoir, Live Work Work Work Die, ‘what is my mother no longer doing for me?’ ‘It was much easier to launch a tech start-up if you could afford to always have food delivered and never had to deal with mundane chores such as doing laundry, washing dishes, or buying groceries’. Platform capitalism’s apps and products claim to identify and assist with problems ‘we all’ need solving, when actually what they do is universalise norms, desires, business practices, and prejudices that are particular to San Francisco’s own special dystopia. Perhaps Huel and its competitor Soylent inadvertently reveal this truth. While many of us have placidly adapted to the increased professional precarity and consumer convenience of platform capitalism, there does seem to be a new transgression of taboos involved in conceding that we do not have time to eat. The common misgivings are precisely the chiasmic ones of the Anti-Sexus. Do we want either sex or eating without the Other (the competing eroticism of another person; food’s textures and flavours, the challenge of making it)? Do we want the Other without sex or eating (the possibility of flirtation in everyday interaction; food’s ancient role in community making)?
Huel works: one does not have the desire to eat for hours after drinking it, but nor does one quite have the feeling of having eaten (an espresso is a good trick for putting a sensory experience between you and this curious bereavement). For Huel does not simply ‘replace’ eating with drinking, nor does it exactly ‘satisfy’ hunger. It might be better to say that it ‘cancels’ it, erasing its substantive content as ‘crude elemental urge’.
The cancellation of hunger is an odd thing to experience at a time when the creation of hunger is being once again employed as a mechanism of power: at home, under Britain’s sanctions regime for benefits claimants, people are literally dying of hunger; and abroad, in respectable commentators’ shamelessness about hunger’s use as a weapon of war in the other kind of sanctions, currently starving out the remains of Chavismo in Venezuela.
But perhaps more significant is the trope of ‘cancellation’ itself. Mark Fisher famously wrote of the ‘slow cancellation of the future’; the leitmotif of a hopeless and homogeneous ‘capitalist realism’ today only half challenged by Trump and the Brexiteers’ attempts ‘to retain the capitalism while rejecting the realism’. It is also the keyword of another phenomenon Fisher analysed, the ‘cancel culture’ of social media, the novelty of which – in its metaphorics if not in fact – is to impose social justice, not by criticising, qualifying or discussing, but by instantaneously ‘cancelling’ an individual for some infringement in art or in life.
Again, a trope with one meaning in one part of the culture is found with overdetermined force in another. In 2014-16 – for the first time in over a century – life expectancy in England and Wales started to decrease. 2015 saw 30,000 more deaths than previous models had expected: and these were disproportionately poor, elderly women, the first to be hit by real terms cuts to social care and the health service. The following year, as Danny Dorling reported, ‘an additional 39,307 people died. Seven per cent of them were people between 20 and 60: almost 2000 men and 1000 women’.What are these lives that were statistically expected to continue and didn’t, but cancellations? Whatever its virtues, Huel as ‘cancel-food’ is a fitting sustenance for this era of cancellation.
James A. Smith is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of a new book, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism. He has previously written for the Independent, Jacobin, Novara Media and other publications.