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Making Milk: The Past, Present and Future of Our Primary Food. Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo (eds). Bloomsbury. 2017.

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French photographer Vincent Ferrané’s Milky Way (2017) documents the first months of his wife breastfeeding their child. In conversation about the intimate photographs, Ferrané shared:

… breastfeeding puts you back into the bigger history of humanity and life. Regardless of whether you are living in a capital city and you consider yourself as a modern person—or even post-modern and “connected”—these little suspended moments remind you that you are a “human-animal” (Fotoroom, 2017).

Ferrané’s comments suggest that milk does much more than provide nutrition to an infant, hinting at a question that animates the collection of essays in Making Milk: The Past, Present and Future of Our Primary Food: what work does milk do? Does milk (here, specifically breastmilk) somehow make or remake the experience of modernity or post-modernity? Who is reminded that they are a ‘human-animal’, and how does this reminding occur? And if these questions reveal some of milk’s unexpected aspects, what other work does it do?

Edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, the book is divided into four parts: ‘Drinking Milk: Histories and Representations’; ‘Making Milk: Technologies and Economies’; ‘Queering Milk: Male Feeding and Plant Milk’; and ‘Thinking about Plant Milk’. Peter Atkins of Liquid Materialities authors the foreword, and an essay by pioneering feminist-vegan thinker Carol J. Adams outlines a vegan ethics of care developed with Josephine Donovan. The collection brings these and other influential writers together with artists and doctoral students, providing a platform for strong scholarship by newcomers and established scholars alike.

The linkages between texts in each of the four parts are loose, and the two short articles included in Part Four feel truncated, leaving me with the lingering feeling that the robust discussions that had animated the book trickled off in the end. Folding the final texts into Part Three would be stronger structurally, but I imagine that the editors wanted to end with Matilda Arvidsson’s recipe for DIY plant milk as ‘part of a method of relational ethics of slowness, resistance and care’. More importantly, however, I appreciate how authors often reference other texts included in the book, drawing explicit connections or highlighting differences.

Within the collection, the editors ascribe to a non-biological definition of milk, ‘so as to encompass the full range of milk’s material, affective, historical, semantic, symbolic, and economic relations’. Practically, this means that the essays included are interdisciplinary, covering a wide range of scholarship. More conceptually, the authors’ use of a non-biological definition is key to the book’s successful contribution to critical thought. I love a thread of questioning that is tied to this definition: is milk a ‘natural’ substance? (echoed by the question ‘what is it?’ proposed by Greta Gaard in Chapter Eleven, which Gaard engages to challenge gender dualism and binary thinking). What is natural?

For instance, what does it mean that, ‘naturally’, some humans can digest lactose and others cannot? In ‘Plant Milk: From Obscurity to Visions of a Post-dairy Society’, Tobias Linné and Ally McCrow-Young draw on the work of Melanie DuPuis (2002) to argue that the history of milk being labelled as a ‘perfect’ food is deeply entwined with ideas about white racial superiority. As it is mostly people of colour who are genetically lactose intolerant, ‘the perfect whiteness of the food and the white body genetically capable of digesting it in large quantities became linked’.

Milk’s composition as a ‘natural’ substance is also key to the court case that Kofi Tirosh and Yair Eldan explore in ‘Milk, Adulteration, Disgust: Making Legal Meaning’. Israel’s largest dairy company Tnuva secretly added silicon to its long-life UHT milk to prevent foaming. Public outcry and a legal battle at the Supreme Court ensued. Class-action plaintiffs were unable to claim health-related harm as the milk was sold only for a short time, and any single consumer did not ingest a significant quantity of silicon. Instead, plaintiffs argued that ingesting silicon unknowingly infringed upon their autonomy, causing them to feel disgust.

As the authors explain, Tnuva ‘desecrated the very concept of milk—a food which is the paradigm of purity, giving, whiteness, and innocence’, linked heavily to histories in which milk production symbolised core values about Zionism and nation-building. Silicon (Si) is the eighth most common chemical element in the universe by mass: it is a ‘naturally’ occurring substance. But in Tnuva’s milk, silicon became unnatural, out of place, crossing the boundary of what gets to count as milk. This sort of boundary breaking is key to the authors’ framing of disgust, drawing on Mary Douglas’s work on food laws (1966), Julia Kristeva’s study of abjection that shows how ‘the disgusting object is not only what disrupts order but also what is subversive’ as well as Martha Nussbaum’s (2004) observation that, in law, ‘disgust tends to operate as a conservative force that affirms social boundaries and fixes power relations’. Disgust—here, a milky disgust—teaches us about a society’s values (William Miller, 1997). The question of ‘naturalness’ reveals how seemingly easy categories shift, bend or break down across geographies and cultural contexts.

Several essays are primarily historical, such as the chapters by Chloé Maillet, Andrea S. Wiley and Hannah Ryan. Richie Nimmo’s contribution traces the development of mechanical milking devices starting in the 1860s: from teat tubes to roller and pressure plates and eventually to various suction-based machines in the 1910-20s. This history may be one of Foucauldian discipline and biopower, but Nimmo emphasises a different dynamic that ‘is less easily seen—the extent to which the machines were also acted upon by the animal, in the sense that they were profoundly shaped by its stubborn and recalcitrant biocorporeality’. The early devices were extractive and failed because they were not attentive enough to the bodies and behaviours of cows. Developers realised over time that the machines needed to mimic a suckling calf to be successful. Here, resistance is most conspicuous in the complex biocorporeality of the cow itself.

As an educator, I eagerly noted possibilities for future syllabi: Julie P. Smith’s focus on economic markets in breastmilk would be useful for teaching on feminist economics, reproductive labour and critical debates on GDP and development. Gaard’s nuanced reflections on milk fauna and flora are a fantastic introduction to critical ecofeminism, trans*species ecology, plant agency, and—of particular relevance to my own work—to food justice and queer food justice. Mathilde Cohen’s discussion of ‘The Lactating Man’ is also one of the standout contributions of the book. Cohen’s analysis of breast—or chest—feeding invites diunital cognition (non-binary thinking) by challenging species divisions (most mammals, with few exceptions, have teats) and biology/culture. Cohen asks: ‘Could it be that because people are socialised to view lactation as an exclusively female enterprise that it is one?’

In the introduction, the editors begin with the claim that milk is inherently relational and interdependent, unusual in food as ‘it is produced by as well as for others’. I recently heard a mathematician on Radiolab assert that a glass of commercial milk in the United States includes milk from tens of thousands of cows, if not hundreds of thousands. Relaying this fact to friends and colleagues, reactions ranged from disgust to comfort. While some immediately viewed this as further evidence of the horrors of industrialised farming, another asked: ‘wouldn’t it be worse to know that you are drinking milk from a single, individual cow?’ Does that feel too personal, too relational?

Cohen and Otomo assert that milk is a relational substance, but, they contend, that does not mean that it is inherently tied to care. The authors are committed to interrogating how milk can be a ‘vector of oppression’, sometimes because of its relational nature. A focus on oppression and an interest in power and ethics are themes in the collection. The editors argue that thinking about milk is urgent in light of global crises of masculinity, food sovereignty and climate change.

In the several weeks I spent reading the text, I was personally attuned to the everyday relational aspects of milk: a friend with a premature infant needed a place to store pumped breastmilk, and our community mobilised to find storage space in a giant deep freezer across town. Pouring cream into my morning coffee, for the first time I imagined the thousands of calves who were not drinking this milk because I was. Thinking about milk in light of this collection, it is a slippery substance. Right at the moment of pinning it down, of assigning milk a definitive label and categorisation, its flow changes course. Slippages drip into unexpected places and open up new lines of inquiry, making milk indeed deserving of our attention and care.



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  • Featured image credit: Sheila Sund CC BY 2.0
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Jeanne Firth is a graduate of the Gender Institute at LSE (MSc Gender, Development and Globalisation) and is currently a PhD research student in LSE’s Department of Geography and the Environment. She is on the founding staff team of Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, and served as the organisation’s first Assistant Director. As part of her current ethnographic research, she has been studying Milk Money, a project of The John Besh Foundation which provides local farmers (and specifically a family-operated dairy farm) with micro-loans.