This dissertation attempts to answer one very large question: in what political and performative ways do the aesthetics of food function? Throughout this dissertation, I articulate moments when nostalgia (looking backwards to foods of the past) in fact becomes an idealized model for a utopian future. This conflation of looking backward (nostalgia) and looking forward (utopianism) demonstrates the ways in which time is multiple and multi-directional. I argue that this temporal multiplicity marks the use of food in these plays, films, and other media as uniquely performative. I use Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious to connect these theatrical and performative devices with ideological conflicts between democracy and modes of agrarian production in both case studies. In sum, I argue that these performative fantasies of the past-as-future offer an aesthetic solution to ideological conflicts about agrarian government.
I address the relationship between nostalgia and utopian thinking in two case studies: the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes and cookbooks from the contemporary American South. In these two examples, nostalgia for food is entangled with utopian rhetoric, and moving back towards an agricultural, pre-democratic government is figured as a utopian turn. This nostalgia often operates as a revisionist history that erases slave labor and scarcity. However, what I call “the utopian turn” also offers both new dramatic possibilities for characters on the Greek comic stage and a more inclusive definition of the South for contemporary chefs and cookbook authors. I argue that in these case studies, one might recoup a kernel of utopian thinking from an otherwise conservative, nostalgic turn to an agricultural past. I work with the theoretical work of Ernst Bloch to discuss both the liberatory and compensatory work done by these utopian fantasies.
Thus, the first half of the dissertation outlines the utopias presented in Aristophanes’ comedies, which paradoxically both look back nostalgically to a pre-democratic, agrarian society and represent that society as full of urban, imported luxury foods. In the second half of the dissertation, using a horizontal approach across popular media, I examine representations of the South from the New Southern Food Movement in which the South’s agrarian past is figured as free from labor, in which southern food is figured as gourmet, luxury food. Ultimately, I conclude that food in performance becomes unstuck in time (moving back to an imagined nostalgic past or forwards towards an imagined utopian future) in order to critique contemporary political crises and create aesthetic solutions that point towards a pleasure-driven future.