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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The World Is Toxic. Welcome to the Metabolic Era

Kim Kardashian’s newest range of products, launched in late 2022—post SKIMS shapewear, post SKKN facewear—is a menacing set of raw concrete forms for storing bathroom products: a gray tissue box, Q-tip tin, wastebasket. Dry, brutal, and mysterious, the items look like you hired one of Gary Larson’s cavemen to decorate your vanity with found objects.

“Having the concrete material and monochromatic design are important for my mental wellness,” Kim said in a recent interview with Architectural Digest. Concrete … for wellness? I imagine her removing her shoes and socks and planting her feet on the gritty sidewalk, grounding herself on the concrete slab, gathering power from the sprawling gray. Kim abandoning her activated charcoal and turning to powdered concrete to treat her gut problems and ensure clearer skin. Jade egg? No, concrete egg. Wellness concrete!

Concrete does not, objectively, promote wellness. It is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s C02 emissions. Concrete dust ruins the lungs of those who inhale it regularly. Concrete cityscapes exacerbate flooding and degrade joggers’ joints. Thanks to a reliance on concrete for construction, the world is running out of certain types of sand. Other high-end brands have sold home products made of concrete, like Comme des Garçons’ concrete-clad perfume bottles, but these usually use the material for its brutal and rough-hewn qualities, not to promote wellness. Kim is an alchemist though. She has taken a material that is undeniably a product of industrial modernity, imbued with a century’s worth of architectural and ideological baggage, and reconfigured it as healthy, intimate, and integral to self-care.

Always ahead of the curve, Kim may have hit on something the rest of us are just coming around to. The idea that we might stop—stop producing plastic, stop building cement megastructures—seems out of the question. Decades of activism, policy work, and think tank-ery have done little to stem the tide of globalized capitalism and the torrents of plastic water bottles, polyester blend clothing, and Squishmallows that discharge from its perpetual motion machines. Blowing up a pipeline or fomenting revolution requires networks of solidarity and logistical capability that most people can’t imagine acquiring. Meanwhile, the microplastics are already in our blood.

What’s left is the alternative that Kim and her concrete line seem to offer: that we can learn how to metaphorically (or literally) digest the toxic brutality of the built environment and transform it into something else—or let it transform us. “I’m just putting little pieces of fibreglass into my cereal to get my body used to it,” tweets one nihilistic wiseass. We’re entering our metabolic era.

Nonhuman systems offer metaphors to help us comprehend and describe our own existence, and structures of behavior we might mimic to cope with intolerable conditions. Over the past decade, you may have noticed mushrooms and fungi embraced as the objects of this kind of attention. The fungal imaginary is powerful because it envisions a world where endless growth is possible, and might even be environmentally beneficial. We can build anything as long as we make it out of mushrooms. Houses, bridges, burgers, clamshell packages for said burgers. Fungi also offer a powerful, nonhuman other we can turn to for inspiration: Mushrooms can grow at the end of the world, form vast underground networks, and offer mystic insight.

More recently, though, metabolic metaphors and processes are emerging alongside, and sometimes overtaking, fungi’s place in the cultural ether. At the more practical end, digestive processes are cropping up as popular solutions to all kinds of crises: compost, vermiculture, bacteria to digest just about anything, biohacks for your gut microbiome. Elsewhere, the metaphor of metabolism is called on to describe the way people process emotions and build feedback loops, and the growth of cities.

Unlike the fungal model, the metabolic imaginary lets us envision a world in which we can get rid of anything. If the drive for endless growth has led to a world too full of bullshit and toxicity, perhaps we can chew it all up and digest it without harm, engineer bacteria to metabolize it, or transfigure it into something new and strange. There is no big other in metabolism, no consciousness to commune with or learn from. Where the fungal era has been about venerating unknowable nonhuman maybe-intelligence and believing that hope can be dredged from ruin, the metabolic era is about submission, subsumption by the great enzyme, the desire for transformative annihilation. Metabolism is an impulse that makes sense at the end of the usable world. If we’ve exhausted our current ways of being and the planet’s existing materials, we must embrace radical breakdown.

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One version of creative, apocalyptic metabolism is on vivid display in David Cronenberg’s most recent film, Crimes of the Future. Set in a near future in which environmental degradation and unspecified climate events have led to generalized decay and deterioration, Crimes of the Future imagines what might happen to human digestion. In the film, a sector of the population is evolving to successfully digest and receive nourishment from plastic. At the beginning, we see a young boy crouched in a bathroom taking bites out of a plastic trash bin like he’s compelled by an insatiable craving. Later, we learn of a whole underground organization of plastic eaters who undergo surgery and other interventions in the hopes of spurring their bodies to better metabolize plastic and other pollutants.

In this world, it’s too late for a cleanup. Toxicity is endemic, and the plastic eaters consider the best path forward to be evolving human biology to flourish in the aftermath. The film captures something essential about our zeitgeist in its oscillation between anxiety about how to metabolize everything toxic we’ve created and desire to experience the bodily and social transformation that might accompany this perverse new digestion.

This scenario is only a half step away from our current reality. Efforts are well underway to metabolize the plastic that suffuses our environment. Scientists have found multiple strains of microbes and bacteria that have evolved to digest plastic. Comamonas testosteroni can metabolize complex waste from plants and plastics. Ideonella sakaiensis enzymatically breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET). With each new study of microbial plastic-phagy comes a spate of hopeful, if hyperbolic, news articles: “a potential breakthrough for recycling,” “This discovery … could help solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.” People love the idea that we can digest our way out of this mess. The jury is still out on whether it’s possible to operationalize plastic-eating bacteria at scale. There is some movement on this front. Carbios, a well-funded French company developing enzymes that break down plastic, recently announced funding and investment for the world’s first PET “biorecycling” plant, for instance. But many scientists are skeptical about the idea that microbial digestion is a viable solution to the problem of oceanic or terrestrial pollution. For now, plastic digestion at scale remains a pipe dream.

The metabolic turn isn’t just about learning to digest toxicity. It also plays out in fantasies—both desirous and anxious—about being digested. In times of stress, it’s a relief to imagine being crushed and consumed by some other metabolic system. “Why Does Everyone Want Their Crush to Run Them Over?” asked The Cut a few years ago. Being pulverized by your crush is a dream of being relieved of your own agency, destroyed and reconfigured, freed from the pain of consciousness so that you can be reshaped for someone else’s uses. A version of this obliterating impulse is made more explicit in vore, the erotic desire to be swallowed or devoured whole (or, conversely, to swallow or devour another), which is often expressed in role-play or illustrations. In vore, the process of digestion is imagined as a relationship between devoured and devourer—a desire for the kind of intense intimacy only possible when one is literally consumed by another.

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Only a short jump from vore is the transhumanist fantasy of having your brain uploaded into the cloud, outrunning death by being absorbed into another system and transformed into bits and bytes. Ray Kurzweil famously advocated for brain uploads to achieve technological immortality, estimating in The Singularity Is Near that “the end of the 2030s is a conservative projection for successful uploading.” Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov’s now mostly defunct 2045 Initiative aimed “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” The desire to be consumed and immortalized by technology reveals a belief that your consciousness is uniquely important and your own creation is uniquely powerful. It’s no surprise technologists like Kurzweil lust to be dissolved by their own machines.

Similarly, some of the recent hype around generative AI reveals a conflicting set of responses to metabolic machinery. Large language models and image generators are enormous digestive systems that ingest and transform the raw materials of cultural output and behavioral data on behalf of voracious corporate interests. They suck down the sprawling detritus of human effort and swallow it into the great black box stomach of the AI system, which converts it into something uncanny and instant and profitable. As with transhumanism, some may find this extremely exciting, the emergent opportunity to create the world’s biggest digestive tract, and hence the world’s biggest (and most profitable) collective intelligence. For others, the idea that their labor and creativity is nothing but grist for the generative mill owned and controlled by unaccountable companies is a cause for great anxiety. It’s harder to be optimistic about the future of technological digestion if you’re forced to be an unwilling participant in a voracious process of corporate metabolism.

Kim’s wellness concrete and Crimes of the Future highlight the ambivalence of digestive politics. If the environment is inescapably suffused with pollutants emitted by the biggest and worst companies on earth, then learning to digest this toxicity is a sensible coping mechanism. Of course, there are creative and aesthetic possibilities within the process of toxic digestion—minimalist home goods in Kim’s case, strange new forms of sex and performance art in Cronenberg’s film. We can eke pleasure and art from all kinds of wretched situations—and we should. As Boots Riley put it in a recent interview, “Culture is what we do to make our survival normal.” Still, these visions of metabolism leave us stuck absorbing the excretions of a system that hates us. We have sprawling digestive capabilities. What might it look like to embrace our role as part of a massive and massively weird ecological and metabolic system, and to experiment with the creative and expressive potential of digestion?

Nothing is more natural or strange than metabolism. It happens on many scales, around us and within us, via processes that involve human bodies and microbes and other flora and fauna. I move through the world, digesting it as I go—material entering the mouth hole at one end, exiting the anus at the other—and in between my body does the work of processing, sorting, excreting. I am also here to be digested—built cell by cell inside another’s body and extruded into the world, only to exit back into the earth via a final hole (the grave, the furnace, the mouth of the bear) where I provide fodder for the next stomach. What a trip, what a pleasure.

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Digesting with and on behalf of the earth’s ur-metabolic system means wanting more than to function as the unhappy stomach that processes capitalism’s excesses. Embracing digestion as a tool and a metaphor can help us to not only accommodate the horrors of the existing system, but to dissolve it and break it down until it no longer exists in its current form. Some ideas for earth-first digestion are already familiar, thanks to proponents of the circular economy: recapturing waste streams from one process to become inputs for another, designing to ensure reusability. However, ideally digestion wouldn’t just be mobilized to enable human industry and profit. I’m also interested in more creative and psychedelic experiences of metabolism, like collaboration with enzymes, embrace of rot, and joyful submission to the knowledge that humans are just one digestive node of the material world, rather than its apex.

Metabolism can be framed through the lens of mutual aid. While the mainstream medical industry is now catching up, biohackers and anarchist IBS sufferers alike have been experimenting with DIY fecal transplants for years, trading advice and healthy poop samples in the interests of helping each other digest better. It can also be seen as a kind of collective destruction, where communities decide a system or an infrastructure that causes them harm should no longer exist and work together to metabolize it, dissolve it, and perhaps transform its constituent matter into something entirely new. Outside of human-centered processes, composting and rot provide inspiration for rich and generative multispecies metabolism, like worms and microbes working with chemical heat and leafy greens to produce rich and unrecognizable loam. If we’re brave enough, we can even look forward to our own bodies being digested. It’s hard to know what that experience will be like, but let’s try to imagine. Space travel is uncertain, and the singularity is a mirage, so why not stay here, nestled into the cool damp ground. There is much to learn from becoming compost for the original stomach.

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