AUGUST 11, 2021
FOR THE ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN and critic Reyner Banham, the bag of potato chips (or “crisps” as he, an Englishman, put it) was a remarkable technological innovation. But it was an emotional object rather than a practical one. The sound of the bag crinkling and tearing as you ripped it open and consumed every greasy chip and then the shards at the bottom, expressed the temper of the late 20th century: “It’s the first and most familiar of Total-Destructo products and probably sublimates more aggression per annum than any quantity of dramaturgical catharsis,” Banham wrote in his short essay “The Crisp at the Crossroads” (1970). Banham speculated about the possibilities for flavored chips: not just cheese-and-onion or barbecued bacon, but toad in the hole, crème de menthe, and more, all of them flavor stations along the expanding snacking frontier. But flavor seemed to interest him less than form. The relationship between chip and bag seemed to him “almost vernacular”: the bag of chips was “like some survivor from a lost golden age of peasant technologies that have matured long in the wood and hand: the oar, the axe, the rolling pin.” The chip glows golden when you hold it up to the light — but it is unlike the oar, axe, or rolling pin, because its vernacular quality stems from the way it pairs with its packaging, the proper use of both involving a crinkling burst. The chip is an impractical food if the task is to get the most nutrition possible out of the potato; but if the task is to pleasurably wreck something, then the chip-and-bag is very good design indeed.
Fifty years later, the chip retains its basic shape, although some chips are now chili mango flavored. And the world of snacking R-and-D has not run out of steam. Entrepreneurs, working to transform food through technology, seem to promise new innovations every day, not all of them intended as mere snacks. There are pea protein puffs, and new kinds of “plant-based” burgers, and bunches of kale leaves grown hydroponically in vertical farms. The most ambitious of them all, the dream of growing meat in labs, hovers at the horizon, gaining headline coverage as companies promise to produce it soon — but cultured meat never quite arrives in the supermarkets. The entrepreneurs call all these things innovations. But what if the best metaphor for describing new food-tech products was not “innovation” but “involution”? That latter term stems from the Latin involutio and carries the meaning of “curling inwards” (as a chip curls) but has more common meanings, which the OED provides: the state of being complicated; the shrinkage of old or inactive tissue in the body; a mathematical function, transformation, or operator that is equal to its inverse, or in other words, that continues to be itself when applied to itself. This should sound counterintuitive, for we are used to thinking of technological changes as introducing novelty into a system, perhaps changing that system fundamentally, rather than causing it to curl in on itself. In any case, involution may seem like a lofty term to apply to crunchy protein bars made with cricket flour, ersatz meat made by extruding pea protein, or powdered algae, but I will argue for the term’s explanatory power bite by bite.
In his 1936 essay “Loose Ends of a Theory on the Individual Pattern and Involution in Primitive Society,” the anthropologist Alexander A. Goldenweiser put involution on anthropology’s map. While meditating on the relationship between individual expression and cultural patterns, Goldenweiser used involution to describe an enduring condition in which patterns — both in the sense of physical symbols but also forms of social behavior — run through every aspect of a human community’s life, providing both a fabric of meaning and a limiting, even restrictive force. In “primitive societies,” Goldenweiser wrote, pattern “is particularly conspicuous in rituals and the forms of religious objects, where the tenacity of pattern is enhanced by social inertia or a sacred halo.” Pattern limits development, and Goldenweiser seemed to imply that an intimate relation with pattern was part of what kept “primitive” societies primitive. It inhibited the technical, social, and intellectual developments that could eventually lead to modernization.
But patterns also set limits in a more positive sense, as a canvas edge or a frame establishes the boundary for a painting. Thus Goldenweiser characterized the traditional art of the Maori, in which simple units of design recombine in multiple ways within a delimited space: “The inevitable result is progressive complication, variety within uniformity, virtuosity within monotony.” This, too, is involution. Involution wasn’t limited to “primitive” contexts; Goldenweiser also found its inward curling in late Gothic art, whose structures and component parts may be fixed but still express play and creativity in elaborations on basic themes. But Goldenweiser saw involution’s limits as ultimately negative:
Expansive creativeness having dried up at the source, a special kind of virtuosity takes its place, a sort of technical hairsplitting. No longer capable of genuine procreation, art here, like a seedless orange, breeds within itself, crowding its inner structure with the pale specters of unborn generations.
Like a seedless orange? Or like a protein bar made with cricket flour, its basic design already set by the architects of snacking, but filled with the bodies of insects? Crunch! Complexity. Crunch! Sameness.
Larissa Zimberoff, in her admirably skeptical book Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, describes the contemporary food-tech nexus, surveying a wide range of startup companies, mostly based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She interviews dozens of entrepreneurs, encountering them at tech conferences or in the warehouses and labs where they try to grow the future. She hears their pitches and then examines those pitches to see if they survive close scrutiny. Many of Zimberoff’s entrepreneurs claim that their products will replace existing foods that are environmentally unsustainable or cruel to nonhuman animals. Their mission, then, is one of supersession. What if you could eliminate animal agriculture, with its massive environmental footprint and relatively inefficient transformation of plants into animal protein? Sensitive to concerns about the environment, and about animal cruelty, Zimberoff keeps human health at the book’s center: are these new foods really going to be better for us, especially given that so many of them are “ultra-processed,” a category linked to bad health outcomes? How about the well-known “plant-based” Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers? They are far more fatty and caloric than, say, a meal of chickpeas. Coconut oil, a key ingredient used in most plant-based meat, is about 90 percent saturated fat. Memorably, Zimberoff compares the creation of these burgers to fabricating a Slim Jim, which is made from chicken scraps through the same technique, extrusion. “Are these different products? Yes. Are they similarly made? Yes.” Zimberoff’s book is marbled with detail, and performs a useful analytic service for readers trying to understand new tech foods: while many novel food companies claim to break out of the paradigms set by Big Food (those huge international companies that fill the central aisles of grocery stores with processed stuff ), Zimberoff shows that many of their founders hope to sell ingredients to Big Food, and use processing techniques that Big Food perfected — or they may plan to sell the whole company to Big Food, lock, stock, and bioreactors.
As I followed Zimberoff’s journey from one warehouse-based company to another, from algae to fungi, from pea protein to vegan milk and eggs, from “plant-based” burgers to vertical farming, and all the way to cultured meat, I found myself thinking back to Goldenweiser’s essay. How can we tell if a given novel food technology represents innovation, the change that changes everything, or if it represents involution, a change that ultimately changes nothing within enduring cultural, economic, and social patterns? Disclosure: I appear briefly in Technically Food as an expert on cultured meat, the subject of my own 2019 book, Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food; Zimberoff spoke with me several times during her research. I spent years conducting fieldwork with tissue engineers and other scientists, as well as with entrepreneurs and “futures consultants,” who hope to grow animal muscle and fat, consumable as meat, from biopsies of cells, obviating the need for industrial animal agriculture. Hypothetically, cultured meat would require vastly fewer natural resources, and cause no cruelty to animals at all. We could visit a pig on a farm, eat meat grown from a biopsy of its cells, and then play with that same pig. If this effort succeeds, I believe it will constitute the largest and fastest shift in human subsistence strategies in history. Watch your step. That initial “if” is a doozy.
Innovation or involution? Form is the first clue. The wonder foods in Zimberoff’s book mostly imitate familiar foods like chips, puffs, bars, shakes, and burgers. They may be made of new materials, but those materials do not dictate their shape. A “plant-based” sausage, with its arbitrary relationship between form and material, is in fact a skeuomorph, a Greek term which more or less means “vessel-form.” Its shape is like a container that used to be filled with other stuff, stuff that dictated the original form of the container — consider those lintels of ancient Greek temples that rendered, in stone, the ends of protruding wood beams. Where pig intestines once gave sausage its shape, cultural expectation now dictates a cylinder, tapered where the traditional length of intestine was tied off at the ends. The compass in a smartphone doesn’t work the way a magnetized needle does, but the digital representation of the compass on the phone’s screen is familiar, expected. The shapes of meat surrogate products, whether they are based on plant or animal cells, now come not from the bodies of animals, nor from the inspiration of corporate sculptors (should such a professional category exist outside my fantasy life), but from the imagined desires of consumers: burgers, sausages, chicken nuggets. Formally speaking, then, there is something involuted about the new food products Zimberoff documents. Apparently, when you ask consumers to think of plants as meat, you first must make the plants “meat-shaped.” And in the process you realize that meat, in our era of industrial mass-produced cheapness, has taken on arbitrary shapes. “Nuggets” do not appear on the bodies of chickens, at least not healthy ones.
There’s a great deal of repetition at the food-tech nexus. Soylent, the well-known meal replacement shake, closely resembles SlimFast, the diet drink targeted at women from 1977 onward. When the company Hampton Creek, which now calls itself Eat Just, released a vegan mayonnaise product, it was nearly identical to another 1977 product (odd coincidence) called Vegenaise, resembling it so closely that the creators of Vegenaise were shocked. Some of this repetition is probably conscious; Follow Your Heart, the maker of Vegenaise, has been around for a long time. And some of it may stem from entrepreneurs simply following a common pattern of thinking, according to which the problem with our food system is not our eating habits, but the nature of our food itself. Why not keep mayonnaise but make it vegan? Why not keep drinking milk, or eating ice cream, but make it from milk proteins we grow in a lab? What if we could get our artificial dyes, not to mention our protein powder, from algae? Some companies are making mycelium “steaks,” working with the fungus, related to mushrooms, that looks a bit like an underground network of threads. If you abstracted mycelium from the earth in which it lives, it might look like a mystical fairy network. From the standpoint of the anthropology of food, it is fascinating to notice that entrepreneurs’ first instinct was not to work with the natural form of those mycelium threads, to see what kind of food product might follow from that form, but instead to ask if mycelium could become an ingredient in something perceived as marketable. Throughout my research into cultured meat, I was bemused by the striking combination of inventiveness in the lab, as scientists adapted tissue culture techniques, widely used in medical research, to food production — and the topological sameness of the burgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets that entrepreneurs hoped to produce. “There’s a lot of copycat innovation — not a lot of real innovation,” says one of Zimberoff’s interviewees, the CEO of a fungi-based meat company. Again, I recall Goldenweiser: “The inevitable result is progressive complication, variety within uniformity, virtuosity within monotony.”
Does all this count as involution? Taking stock, we are looking at an intense mimetic tendency, with food makers producing products that resemble each other, even if they differ in surprising ways in their raw ingredients or how they are processed. We have consistency within the pattern of seeking ever more clever ways to process foods in pursuit of value (because the greatest profit lies, as the work of food scholar Marion Nestle has shown, in processed foods). We have entrepreneurs seeking to change our products rather than the way we consume them. We have sector-wide ideological agreement that our food system’s problems must be essentially technical, perhaps because technical solutions are the ones we can imagine using (and getting funded). In Meat Planet, I argue that this represents a form of imaginative closure, in which the economic, social, and ultimately political character of our food system gets obscured, because of the appeal of technological tools. This does not mean that technologies won’t change our food system (indeed, if cultured meat works, it really could change everything) but that what makes the whole system of food-tech entrepreneurship work, imaginatively speaking, is the idea that technology, plus the workings of the consumer market, can provide all the change human civilization needs. Another way to express this imaginative closure may be in terms of involution. I must consider a straightforward objection to such claims. Goldenweiser thought that involution means that pattern checks creativity and development. But much of the work done at the food-tech nexus is mightily creative, and sometimes involves new ways of solving problems having to do with texture and flavor. “Innovation” surely describes this. Snackland is not bereft of ideas. A fair view of involution and innovation at the food-tech nexus might be that the nexus displays both traits at once. And yet involution always seems to win, because the creativity and inventiveness of food scientists takes place within economic systems they cannot contest, and usually do not want to. The nature of involution, for Goldenweiser, is that we cannot see outside a pattern, and here the salient pattern is a model of production, consumption, and value seeking that we often shorthand to “capitalism.”
In his 2006 book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, historian Warren Belasco chronicles a set of long-running debates about the future of food, debates that have run through universities, think tanks, and into the public realm of journalism. A few major schools of thought have dominated those debates. There are Malthusians, who believe that increases in agricultural yields (due to technological progress, perhaps) tend to fall behind increases in population, because the former rises arithmetically and the latter geometrically. This means that the poorest members of any society will be exposed to malnutrition and that we have compelling reasons to impose artificial limits on population growth. There are Cornucopians who believe that technological progress will in fact outpace population growth, producing enough for all, possibly without limit. Then there is a third group, more equality-minded, who believe that the solution to problems in the food system is not a matter of managing supply and demand, but achieving more equal distribution of what we produce through better governance. The debate between the three positions began in the late 18th century, and while Malthusianism has always been influential — it helped shape the food policy of the British Empire, since Thomas Robert Malthus himself taught at the school run by the British East India Company — it is in Cornucopianism’s belly that we effectively live and work today, getting slowly ceviche’d by its digestive juices. Those who work at the food-tech nexus are trying to keep Cornucopianism alive (although they may not identify with that term at all) in a new millennium, as the pressures of environmental crisis loom large. Cornucopians dream of a world with nothing but upside — we “save the environment” and our market economies, predicated on growth, all at once. I was reminded of this when one of the companies trying to make cultured meat, previously called Memphis Meats (but based in Berkeley) rebranded as “UPSIDE Foods.” If you uncase a Pringles Wavy Potato Crisp and examine it from the right angle, it looks like a smiley face.
Cultured meat displays involution and innovation at once. Its researchers display great creativity in their technical efforts to take animal muscle stem cells, as well as fat cells, and induce them to grow in vitro, adapting a technique called tissue culture, which itself dates back to the early 20th century, to food production. They play with scaffolds on which animal cells can grow; they search for ideal growth media to feed their cells; they ask if it might be advantageous to combine the cells of different species in a single piece of meat, because one species’s cell line seems to produce better fat, the other better muscle, under laboratory conditions. And yet this work unfolds within a set of assumptions about the shape of meat, and appetites for meat, not to mention the assumptions that the combined powers of technology and the market will solve our human problems. In 2019, a chemical engineer named Dave Humbird was hired to conduct a feasibility study for cultured meat. I spoke with Humbird as he pursued his research and wrote his report. While other researchers have conducted feasibility studies and lifecycle analyses for cultured meat, Humbird’s was the first by a scientist with no material or ideological investment in the proposition of cultured meat. His conclusions were not encouraging for anyone who hopes that cultured meat will work at scale, its costs eventually decreasing enough that it undercuts and supersedes conventional meat. Humbird found challenges both economic and technical — some of the latter derived from the kinds of physical stresses on cells grown in very large bioreactors, and some of the former derived from the costs of raw ingredients. Both strongly suggest that cultured meat might never “scale” effectively. But I was also intrigued by Humbird’s observation, relayed to me conversationally, that very few people involved with the nascent cultured meat industry — either as entrepreneurs or as investors — contacted him about his study, or spoke openly about his findings, even to challenge them. This fit a pattern I had long observed during my fieldwork, namely that despite the considerable hype around cultured meat, there is relatively little balanced public discussion of its technical feasibility. This could be because the startups would find no strategic advantage in such discussion, or because they simply do not have the time or resources for it.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz turned Goldenweiser’s involution into “agricultural involution” in a 1963 book of that title, Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. That book, vastly better known than Goldenweiser’s original essay (and challenged by many critics over the years), applies involution to Indonesian rice paddy farming from the 19th century into the 20th, with Geertz observing how Javanese peasants tried to adapt themselves to a Dutch colonial system that sought to extract value from their land and labor. According to Geertz, agricultural involution happens when farming technology and technique remain at a standstill, even as more labor flows into the system, ultimately yielding ever more complex social arrangements around work. The result is a kind of “shared poverty” as more and more laborers subdivide the available work. Social arrangements become Byzantine. Where Goldenweiser focused on ritual and aesthetic examples of involution, Geertz used the concept to describe how one kind of innovation, namely shifting social arrangements between peasant workers and landowners, unfolded within the limitations of Javanese agriculture’s technological standstill. The food-tech nexus that Zimberoff charts displays a different style of involution: technological innovation, to the point of virtuosity, within a larger limiting pattern. Call that pattern our collective difficulty recognizing the political and social character of the food system itself.
Involution is a capacious metaphor. In the work of the anthropologist Xiang Biao, involution (neijuan) describes the predicament of contemporary Chinese society, in which the middle classes and elites are locked in a struggle to pass wealth and advantage on to the next generation: only certain jobs can facilitate this process, and only certain paths of training and accomplishment lead to those jobs. Here the “frame” or pattern in which involution curls into complexity is determined by the narrow set of conditions for an acceptable life. The social, psychological, and material costs of failure — of falling off the social treadmill — are very high. Xiang Biao’s version of involution shares, with Geertz and Goldenweiser, a sense of stuckness. Every story about involution implicitly conjures a form of change or progress that involution blocks. In Zimberoff’s Technically Food, food-tech entrepreneurs pursue value in niches and crevasses that Big Food previously ignored, but rather than progress, their work seems like a desperate effort to keep food habits, forms, and economies afloat as climate change diminishes our available farmland and water. Every strategy in food futurism is a form of imaginative closure. The question facing us in food technology is how to tell innovation from involution and recognize how the two modes feed upon each other.
I have been saving the hardest part for last: when I say that a new food technology counts as innovation or involution, I am making a value claim, just as Goldenweiser and then Geertz and then Xiang Biao have done. But food systems are complex and social things, and political too; an individual’s value claim does next to nothing. The challenge is to establish conversations about what human communities find valuable in food. Agreeing about norms is often harder than agreeing about facts. Some approaches to the future of food try to advance individual human health; others try to feed as many as possible, based on their assumptions about what counts as a sufficient diet; others presume that there are natural limits to how many of us can share the planet at once. Why not end with a question: was Reyner Banham’s bag of chips a case of innovation or involution? The brilliance of his short essay was to show that the vernacular meaning of industrial foods — the curling chip; the bursting, crinkling bag — escapes our designs.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is the author of Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.