Sense as Metaphor

Culture & Agriculture introduces a new sensorium.

It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 239)

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that metaphor is like a sense. It structures human experience and guides our understanding of our own and other worlds. Metaphors are passed down, becoming a way for structuring experience—a feeling that guides us through our lives. Just like metaphor can act as a sense, so too can our sensory experience act as a metaphor, allowing us to understand larger sociopolitical structures. One example that highlights this is the contestation over smell in areas with highly concentrated livestock production. During my fieldwork in Arborea, Italy, a farming community on the island of Sardinia that specializes in cow dairy production, smell—in particular the pungent smell of manure—became a metaphor for the broader struggles over Arborea’s past, present, and future. In this article, I will present this case as an example of a new initiative from the Culture & Agriculture section of the AAA—the Culture & Agriculture Sensorium. The Sensorium explores the intersections between sensory experiences, agri-food systems, and the socio-political conventions surrounding food production. This initiative will expound on the ways that sense acts both as a metaphor and as a body of knowledge through which we understand the interactions between humans, food, agriculture, and the environment.

Manure on a corn field in Arborea after harvest. Gregory Kohler

The smell of manure has long been a metaphor for understanding broader political tensions between Arborea’s town center and the surrounding farms. Arborea is small, a locality 90 square kilometers large with about 4,000 people and 30,000 cows. All the dairy farmers in the area are members of a local cooperative, Latte Arborea, which processes 90 percent of Sardinia’s cow milk. The organization is also where I conducted over 24 months of dissertation fieldwork.

During the fall and spring—the seasons when the Sardinian law allows Arborea’s farmers to apply manure to their fields—farmers spray day and night, leaving a lingering odor throughout Arborea’s countryside (“Chanel No. 5” as one interlocutor jokingly called it). Farmers are currently required to stockpile this waste in large lagoons and tanks before using the manure on their fields between crop rotations. During my fieldwork, farmers often expressed frustration over town residents who lodged official complaints with the local police over the periodic odor. While almost everyone in Arborea gains from the economic success of the cooperative, the residents of the town—who are often removed from the everyday work of farming—express greater concern over the environmental and health aspects of dairy farming.

The case of manure in Arborea shows how sensory experience becomes a contested space—a space that extends beyond the petty politics of good neighborly conduct to questions about what our agricultural system should be and how it should impact our lives.
In late 2017, Latte Arborea revived a plan to build a biodigester, which converts cow waste into higher quality manure and methane gas that can be used for electricity generation. A biodigester would create new profit opportunities for the cooperative and reduce the carbon impact of dairy farming. But it would also localize the waste to one point, creating more odor pollution and a lower quality of life for town residents living near the plant. The cooperative’s managers often cited these concerns as a chief obstacle to building a biodigester for the area’s cow waste.

Manure lagoons and the politics of distributing that manure on to fields are growing problems throughout the agricultural world as livestock production—both for dairy and meat consumption—becomes ever more concentrated. These lagoons create environmental hazards for both local communities and the globe, shifting debates around intensive livestock agriculture from animal welfare to the welfare of human communities. In North Carolina, where much of the United States’ pig production is located, pig farms produce approximately 10 billion gallons of manure per year, most of which is stored in manure lagoons. (For more on these lagoons, see the Guardian’s report on how these lagoons impact local communities and the Washington Post’s coverage of how these lagoons have been overrun by Hurricane Florence with toxic effects for local residents and the environment.) Similarly, official estimates from the Dutch government show that agriculture in the Netherlands, of which dairy is the primary component, is responsible for 10-15 percent of Holland’s total greenhouse emissions.

Tractor pulling a manure spreader in Arborea. Gregory Kohler

The case of manure in Arborea shows how sensory experience becomes a contested space—a space that extends beyond the petty politics of good neighborly conduct to questions about what our agricultural system should be and how it should impact our lives. The senses are central to our experiences of farms and the food they produce. Some sensory experiences evoke the idyllic qualities of food production: the smell of freshly cut hay, the rough feeling of a horse’s mane between your fingers, the taste of fresh milk. Others evoke the harsh realities of our food production system: chronic pain migrant workers experience after years of bending down in the fields, the jarring sensation of hearing pigs squealing while confined in small pens, and the bland taste of the fruit and vegetables we buy in supermarkets.

What role do the senses play in understanding our agri-food systems? How do the sensory entanglements of our fieldsites speak to broader structural problems in agriculture and food production? What other sensual metaphors complicate our understanding of farming around the world? These are the sorts of questions that guide our vision for the Culture & Agriculture Sensorium, which officially launched on the Culture & Agriculture website on September 20, 2018.

The Sensorium explores. . .the ways that sense acts both as a metaphor and as a body of knowledge through which we understand the interactions between humans, food, agriculture, and the environment.
Sensorium pieces will feature in both the Culture & Agriculture website and our section news column in Anthropology News. The Sensorium website will serve as a platform for creative engagements with the senses and the ways that sensory experience intersects with our agricultural systems. Through the Sensorium, we wish to open new avenues for engaging with fieldwork and new ways of generating anthropological knowledge about our food systems.

In our September contribution, Rebecca Richart from the University of California-Irvine uses video from the backside of a Kentucky horse-racing track to examine rapport building between racetrack workers and their horses. In the October piece, Shreyas Sreenath from Emory University will explore the intimate interactions between residents and sanitation workers through the process of waste cleanup in Bangalore, India.

We welcome contributions throughout 2019 from a broad spectrum of voices, including students, faculty, activists, artists, and food practitioners. If you wish to contribute to the Culture & Agriculture Sensorium, please send a short description of your idea to Gregory Kohler ([email protected]).

Gregory Kohler is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research lies at the intersection of food, law, and ethics. His dissertation explores how food-tracing practices make food chains appear visible and governable, while producing contestations over how to produce “good food” in Sardinia, Italy.

Cite as: Kohler, Gregory. 2018. “Sense as Metaphor.” Anthropology News website, September 28, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.980

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