Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious
Carrot, fish, walnuts, lettuce, pepper, shrimp, onion, egg, cucumber, celery, tomato, chicken, ginger, olive, gelatine.
List of ingredients in aspic recipe
Many no longer know them by name, but most of us are familiar with aspics in one way or another. Depending on the era of reference, you may have seen them skulking at dinner parties, or been fed them as a reluctant child; marvelled or puzzled at their gaudy appearance in films and magazines, or delighted or recoiled at their inscrutable ingredients listed in mid-century cookbooks. Their material form is perhaps the easiest to recognize, but you might also know them in another way, as a symbolic object representing a desire to pause things, the wish for an extra moment, for the tides of entropy to stall their ineluctable march.
My first conscious encounter with an aspic was sometime in early 2016, while scrolling through posts from a Facebook page called Crunchy Continental Memes. The post consisted of two side-by-side photos of differently constructed colourful and variegated lumps, which I later learned to identify as aspics, arranged to visually lampoon the divisions between Freudian and Deleuzian theories of the psyche.
Aspics memorably burst into Canadian contemporary art discourse in the fall of 2019, when Canadian arts media were briefly fixated on a galling story detailing how Sharona Franklin, a Vancouver-based, disabled artist known for making ornate aspics, had been robbed of her artwork by the multinational designer brand Gucci for an ad campaign.
In their culinary form, aspics are a form of molded loaf or cake, constituted when any variety of fruits, cheeses, meats, eggs, fish, or vegetables are encased inside a base of savoury meat jelly, chilled and served cold. Historical records from Medieval recipe books suggest that the servants of English, French, and Italian aristocrats first started making aspic around the beginning of the 14th century (though other kinds of jellied dishes previously existed across Eastern Europe and Asia).1 Alternately prized for its aesthetic flourish and preservative capacities, the aspic’s historical development throughout the ensuing centuries charted a bizarre and illuminating path across continents, modes of production, and class lines, from artisanal to mass production, from royal banquet tables to Depression-era ice boxes. The aspic’s present legacy, the manifestation by which most of us are likely familiar, stems from its prodigious transformation in the early 20th century—a stretch between the 1910’s and 1960’s in which aspics burst into popular consciousness, and came to embody both the austere pragmatics and opulent fantasies which define its roughly seven hundred years of material provenance.
within every work of culture, we must read a kind of historical-material index which has been “reinvested” into a proposition, an active, aesthetic re-imagining of how the world might look, work, change, and proceed according to the artist’s unconscious political fantasies.
Rising to prominence at wide intervals, serving unusual niches across temporal and geographic expanses, aspics appear again and again as a strange kind of aesthetic sentinel. Their formal and material compositions have remained largely consistent throughout their long history, yet with each new period the aspic’s cultural role is reinvested with new significance, representing novel cross-sections of the era’s fantasies and fears. To be sure, at first glance my opening examples may seem erratic, verging on incoherent, framing a single culinary object as a cypher for continental philosophy, contemporary art, and historical class tensions. I contend that a careful reading of the aspic’s twisting material and cultural histories can offer us a unique (if eccentric) interpretive lens through which to contemplate the ways aesthetic objects filter and reflect their era’s political-economic antagonisms. I pursue such an interpretive lens in this way, at this time, because in a number of ways aspics have begun to proliferate once again.
Years before Sharona Franklin’s well-publicized robbery at the hands of Gucci, before the meme that got me thinking about gelatin molds in more serious terms, I had already been seeing a variety of aspic, quite regularly, for some time, not in cookbooks or dinner parties, but in contemporary art galleries. In Montreal, Toronto, across Canada, in the United States, and across the world, for years there has been a burgeoning style quietly taking shape across the fields of contemporary sculpture. This new tendency is not bound by shape or subject, material, scale or tone, nor tethered to any single institution, artistic tradition, or school of thought. The binding principle that holds all of these sculptural works together, I believe, is that they form a kind of incipient genre that—despite being completely inedible—I can best describe as the “aspic genre.”
There are very specific reasons that this “aspic genre” is rising again at this moment, and an analysis of this sculptural tendency can teach us a great deal about some of the ambient fantasies and anxieties which seem to preoccupy a contingent of contemporary artists, in ways that a mere historiography could not. My effort here is to consider the ways that the largest systemic or structural conditions that invisibly shape the trajectory of peoples’ lives become imprinted in a given moment’s artistic productions. Poetically, historically, and materially, our exploration will be guided by the aspic.
Gelatin is derived from collagen, the binding structural component in the connective tissues of mammalian bodies. When collagen tissues are exposed to extreme and sustained heat (such as boiling) they break down into a sort of slime. The first aspics from Medieval Europe were reserved for the upper classes, as the gelatin which makes up its base had, at the time, to be laboriously manufactured by slowly boiling animal hoofs, tendons, joints, bones, cartilage, horns, and skin, clarifying the results over the course of days. The resulting slime hardens when it’s cooled and melts when it’s heated, vacillating like a thermoplastic resin. Before its introduction to food preparation, this slime saw many uses. Gelatin’s practical origins hail from the Middle East and Northern Africa, where it was applied as a “biological adhesive” as early as 8000 years ago.2 Most importantly for our material history, however, is the fact that when gelatin hardens around a perishable object, it provides a resilient layer of protection from bacteria and fungi. Like pickling, smoking, salting, fermenting, or canning, aspics represent a now-bygone (and pre-refrigerated) approach to preservation that ultimately presided for the majority of human history, in which foods could only be kept “fresh” by being transformed into qualitatively new entities.3 When first produced in the early 14th century for Europe’s upper classes, aspics weren’t uniquely prized for their taste or ornament: they were sought-after for their tendency to keep foods alive, to preserve meats, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and cheeses from airborne contaminants and extend their life at a time when encroaching decay was a defining concern of food consumption.4
The converging axes of aesthetic novelty, preservative desperation, and asymmetrical luxury that define the aspic’s early history reappear resoundingly in its contemporary revival. Among the growing pool of contemporary artists working in the aspic genre, few cases could illustrate these antagonisms as emblematically as Vancouver-based artist Sharona Franklin. Franklin is best known for making elaborate gelatin cakes, which she exhibits as sculptures, frames as the subjects of carefully composed photographs (often through her Instagram account, @paid.technologies) and even occasionally presents as edible dishes for select gatherings or commissions. Functioning equally as sculptures and photographs, they recall works by Barbara Kasten or Meredith Sneider, confounding the primacy of object or image, relief or perspective; functioning equally as artworks and practical food objects, they confound political distinctions surrounding the role of the artist as purveyor of aesthetic enchantment on one hand, or creator of more-or-less urgent use value on the other. Franklin’s jellied creations perfectly straddle the aspic’s historical ambiguity between cultivated ornament and pragmatic nutrition, tracing a full circuit from the 14th to the 21st century and back again. And though both poles of this historical loop provide compelling insights into Franklin’s practice, the symbolic work these aspics carry out clearly emerges against the backdrop of our present era.
A materialist understanding of culture (such as the one I’m advancing here) turns on the belief that cultural discourses are best understood by looking at the economic systems that subtend them, and the prevailing distributions of wealth, power, influence, and exploitation that gave rise to them, rather than by simply considering the creators’ stated intentions or intellectual traditions. Marxist cultural historicism of this stripe vociferously argues against the kind of idealist, a-historical hermeneutics that attempt to interpret books, plays, films, music, or artworks as products of pure intellect or imagination, unburdened by material ideology, bearing no connection to the broad, asymmetrical systems of class, commerce, power, and exploitation that surround their authors and audiences. In his 1982 book, The Political Unconscious, Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson introduces the eponymous concept, the “political unconscious,” to describe an inviolable reciprocity that connects “the political and the poetic,” “history… and the ‘individual’,” and “the social and the psychological.”5 As palimpsests of their historical-material conditions, Jameson argues, even the most seemingly a-political, abstract, “formal processes” can be read as encoded with “sedimented content… bearing ideological messages of their own, distinct from the ostensible or manifest content of the work.”
For centuries, aspics were rarefied by a material barrier-to-entry: the days of labour required to boil animal by-products and clarify the runoff through cloth bags, a tedious and impractical process only feasibly carried out by teams of full-time servants. Though methods of gelatin production have gradually become streamlined since the late 17th-century development of “steam digesters,” and pre-packaged sleeves have since replaced manual gelatin processing, as an artist with chronic disabilities that often impede her movement, Sharona Franklin regularly emphasizes the great bodily effort these objects require.6 Transposed from Medieval kitchens to a Vancouver apartment, Franklin’s practice performs a curious circuit between labour, body, production, and utility that both mirrors the aspic’s historical singularities, and refracts them across a twenty-first-century backdrop; on every point, her practice both reflects and distorts the legacied patterns along contemporary lines. Franklin’s relationship with gelatin stems from a lifelong place of personal bodily reparation and healing, as the collagen in gelatin is noted for its strengthening and soothing effects on bones and connective tissues. Filled with cocktails of healing plants and herbs, her aesthetic experiments with gelatin emerge from an intimate relationship of consumption, maintenance, and palliation that connect labourer and patron more closely than a servant’s alienated products. At the same time, however, Franklin is no less tethered to an extractive economic backdrop than her Medieval antecedents, as the rent-seeking demands of late-stage capitalism approximate or exceed those of Feudal taxation. For those not independently wealthy, any artistic practice cannot be seen as separate from a sort of wage-earning labour process, and Franklin’s creations serve to pay her rent as much as they carry gestures of preservation and intimacy. Split between a symbolic conviction and a material imperative, Franklin’s work both tragically replicates and crucially deviates from the aspic’s history, servants toiling for royals.
Appropriately, the royals respond in turn. Gucci, in an early effort to popularize its “Cruise 20” event, released three Instagram posts featuring images of hazy, colourful cakes of molded gelatin, posed on elegant trays and table settings, with elaborate lighting arrangements, unmistakably reminiscent of Sharona Franklin’s work. Word quickly started circulating through posts and articles that, months earlier, Gucci had in fact contacted Franklin about joining as a collaborator, negotiating with her for weeks before dropping the deal and cutting off communication. Then the ads came out, and their ultimate plan became clear: they had strung her along, subsumed her formulae, popularized them without accreditation, bolstered their campaign, and made off without paying her. The material-historical backdrop snaps into sharper focus, symbolic gestures grind down against a recalcitrant political-economic bedrock.
Key to its use as an interpretive tool is the fact that the “political unconscious” avoids the moribund snare of orthodox Marxist determinism, which is often criticized for flattening the concerns of every individual, culture, community, or population to a single totalizing rehearsal of class war. Jameson insists that, while maintaining the primacy of a material hermeneutic, we also read these sedimented messages as reflecting a psychological texture, introducing a variegating, generative dimension to the act of creation. Rather than simply translating or replicating historical circumstances through mediated, symbolic forms, artistic production constitutes an active intervention, as the artist symbolically processes, reorders, or even resolves a given moment’s prevailing antagonisms in their work. This is the radical heart of the political unconscious, as an interpretive framework: even in their most veiled, mediated, and abstracted forms, we must understand that in any given artwork, there is an unconscious psychological operation, processing the world’s overwhelming material totality, while simultaneously using the symbolic act of creation to “[invent] imaginary or formal ‘solutions’ to unresolvable social contradictions.” To be sure, these fantasies can span an affective spectrum, from utopian to apocalyptic, but regardless of content, within every work of culture, we must read a kind of historical-material index which has been “reinvested” into a proposition, an active, aesthetic re-imagining of how the world might look, work, change, and proceed according to the artist’s unconscious political fantasies.
Refracted through the lens of Jameson’s notion of the “political unconscious,” we can see the conflict between Sharona Franklin and Gucci in a new light; sedimented within the formal ingenuity of Franklin’s aspics there is a striking confrontation between a material antagonism and its fantastical, symbolic resolution. As we’ve already noted, at a first level of analysis the reciprocal, intimate feedback loop of labour, care, consumption, and reparation that Franklin’s works perform constitutes a kind of symbolic repudiation of alienated labour, or a collapsing of the separated spheres of exploited worker and luxuriating consumer. Abstracting the material poetics a bit further—cross-reading them not just with the history of gelatin’s manufacture but also with its biophysical preservative function—Franklin’s practice of producing aspics could appear as a prolonged, symbolic bulwark against further decay or dissolution, whether of an ailing body or of an exploited populace. As Franklin’s encounter with Gucci confirms, there is a source of decay already at hand in the structural evil of capitalist economics, and as always, the poor, precarious, disabled, racialized, gendered, and subjugated stand most exposed to its rot. This episode therefore orients us towards precisely what kind of decay Franklin’s gelatin casings are warding off. This desire to symbolically “resolve” the decaying, eroding state of a broader historical moment through the artwork’s fantasy logic will recur in some form across each of the artworks we’ll examine in this series of essays.
Though Sharona Franklin’s gelatin works might appear more representative of literal contemporary aspics than of the speculative “aspic genre” I posit in these essays, I’ve discussed her work, and this specific episode, first off because it confronts us right away with the tangled enigma of history, aesthetics, class, and power that constitute the mute bedrock of what I’m calling the “aspic genre.” An enormous capitalist enterprise making off with the aesthetic products of an artist, an aspic paraded as the evidentiary symbol—the whole grotesque situation channels this essay’s central antagonisms too clearly. But the base in an aspic sculpture need not be gelatin. The particulates need not be fruits or vegetables or meat (even Franklin has suspended medical devices, inedible plants, or metal fasteners in some of her recent sculptures). Franklin’s works stand in a peculiar relationship with the aspic’s literal history, both in identification and in contrast, but the aspic genre encompasses sculptural practices much farther afield as well. In the essays that follow I’ll be sketching the contours of these generic tendencies, and following several artists and artworks that most keenly embody them.