After the implementation of the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade agreement, a curious experiment began to unfold in Canada. The food on grocery store shelves suddenly started to change. Tariff barriers fell and increased investment and exports in Canada’s food and beverage sector from US companies led to a measurable increase in the daily caloric intake of Canadians, adding about 170 kilocalories per capita (Barlow et al. 637). This was enough to cause an estimated “average weight gain of between 1.8 kilograms and 12.2 kilograms in the Canadian population, depending on sex and physical activity levels” (637). An international trade deal changed the circulation of capital and processed foods, introducing metabolic rifts that concentrated profits in the bank accounts of multinational companies and calories in the waistlines of Canadians.
As the 1989 agreement demonstrates, the circulation of global capital and energy are metabolic forces intimately connected to the metabolism of human and non-human bodies. We have altered or “written” our environment through the pollution of extraction and accumulation, but our environment is also writing us through the porous membranes of our skin, lungs, and digestive tract, altering our hormones, microbiomes, and immune systems. How can poetry make this metabolic writing urgently legible? How can poetry innovate new forms of writing as modes of cultural critique, or as reimagined forms of kinship? I see my work as part of the literary and artistic manifestation of a larger “metabolic turn” across the social and ecological sciences, extending in different ways Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift and its subsequent exploration by John Bellamy Foster, McKenzie Wark, Matthew Gandy, Hannah Landecker, and many others. My ongoing projects could be described as poetic experiments in staging what Landecker and Chris Kelty refer to as “metabolic events,” where environments matter ethically and materially (64).
What I call metabolic poetics is an attentiveness through art and criticism to the complex entanglement between local and global metabolisms. It presupposes a concern for reimagining what it means to read and write these interconnections by approaching biological and social metabolic processes as forms of media revealing the molecular intimacy between humans, non-humans, anthropogenic pollution, and the circulation of energy and capital.1 Metabolic poetics is concerned with the biological consequences of globalization at contrasting scales—whether it is the role of “transportation technologies and human movements” on “the evolution and transmission of infectious diseases” (Harper 11), or how the history of writing itself is implicated in the metabolic processes of power and accumulation through, as Kyle Harper notes, the mercantile necessity for written contracts, accounts, and records (164).
From a metabolic perspective, I am interested not only in the work of art, but also the work of art—that is, the body and bodily processes from which the work emerges. Consequently, my poetic practice is increasingly situated in the laboratory and involves my body as a research specimen. Anatomic (2018), for example, incorporates and responds to the results of chemical and microbial testing on my blood, urine, skin, and feces. I have more recently focused my laboratory work on a deepening exploration of the interoceptive communicative activities within the body’s interior as a way of revealing and responding to how the “outside” writes the “inside.” Interoception is a term that refers to “the afferent signalling, central processing, and neural and mental representation of internal bodily signals” (Critchley and Garfinkel 7). It is one way of thinking about a “gut sense” or the way in which our moods, self-awareness, and general health are influenced by visceral and other physiological mechanisms (including the digestive and endocrine systems) that are in turn influenced by conscious and unconscious experiences of external sensory environments. Diet, temperature, light, and sound pollution, for example, can alter the metabolism of a body and its interoceptive responses to internal signalling. Engaging with these entanglements, I have conducted experiments involving heat stress in response to climate change, elevating my internal temperature through active and passive means to invite the effects of heat and associated data into writing. I have also worked with a microbiologist, using a series of bioreactors (that mimic the human colon) inoculated with my own gut microbes, to explore the effects of antibiotics, microplastics, and artificial foods on my microbiome.
The “experiment” and the “laboratory” occupy more than figurative or thematic concerns in my work. They are fundamental to my artistic process. The laboratory becomes a site of conceptual experimentation and collaboration. I like to think of its potential for a social poetics, in Mark Nowak’s terms, constituting a kind of workshop open to collaboration, resurgence, and innovation with human and non-human kin. Amidst ongoing institutional and governmental deference to science and technology, I like to think that I take a productively disruptive approach to the laboratory by displacing it from its traditional hierarchies and methods to reimagine it as a site of contingent artistic practice, one that makes legible the interoceptive biological and cultural consequences of environmental crises precipitated by metabolic rifts in ecological and social systems. While my experiments are rigorously planned with controls and clear research questions (I had to convince the scientists to collaborate with me in the first place), my work with scientists is ultimately open ended and exploratory.
My experimental practice counters a poetics of extraction by pursuing an explicitly immersive approach to anthropogenic disruptions in shared sensory environments as well as within our larger microbial and atmospheric commons. By focusing on specific permeable surfaces and sites of circulation where the interoceptive interior of my body is exposed to the exterior world, where the products and influences of late capitalism, with its shifting emphasis on flow, distribution, and exchange, are legible, my experiments serve to scrutinize a nature-writing I and its molecular entanglements with local and global metabolic forces. Obviously, I am one body, a body marked with distinct demographic privilege. Are there ways, however, in which any chemically and microbially inflected body, self-consciously situated, might be seen as an opportunity to write about and against
the prevailing political pressures that have generated such metabolic interventions at larger scales? It is my hope that my immersive, interoceptive approach to metabolic poetics might offer unique ways to read the writing of the Anthropocene and initiate generative forms of writing, thinking, and collaboration in response.
1. Elsewhere I have defined metabolic poetics as “an artistic practice concerned with the potential of expanded modes of reading and writing to shift the frames and scales of conventional forms of signification in order to bring into focus the often inscrutable biological and cultural writing intrinsic to the Anthropocene” (241). See my chapter in ’Pataphysics Unrolled.
Barlow, Pepita, et al. “The Impact of US Free Trade Agreements on Calorie Availability and Obesity: A Natural Experiment in Canada.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 54, no. 5, 2018, pp. 637-43.
Critchley, Hugo D., and Sarah N. Garfinkel. “Interoception and Emotion.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 17, 2017, pp. 7-14.
Dickinson, Adam. Anatomic. Coach House, 2018.
—. “Metabolic Poetics: Writing the Anthropocene.” ’Pataphysics Unrolled, edited by Katie L. Price and Michael R. Taylor, Penn State UP, 2022, pp. 240-57.
Foster, John Bellamy. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 105, no. 2, 1999, pp. 366-405.
Gandy, Matthew. “Cities in Deep Time: Bio-diversity, Metabolic Rift, and the Urban Question.” City, vol. 22, no. 1, 2018, pp. 96-105.
Harper, Kyle. Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History. Princeton UP, 2021.
Landecker, Hannah, and Chris Kelty. “Outside In: Microbiomes, Epigenomes, Visceral Sensing, and Metabolic Ethics.” After Practice: Thinking through Matter(s) and Meaning Relationally, edited by The Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment and Human Relations, vol. 1, Panama Verlag, 2019, pp. 53-65.
Nowak, Mark. Social Poetics. Coffee House Press, 2020.
Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso, 2015.
Adam Dickinson is the author of four books of poetry. His latest book, Anatomic (with Coach House Books), involves the results of chemical and microbial testing on his body. His work has been nominated for awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. He teaches at Brock University.
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