Being Human as Praxis with Xiaowei Wang
Hi! I'm Xiaowei R. Wang and I'm an artist and activist. My current medium is noodles. Before I start, a thank you to BUFU for putting together the WYFY school!
I'm going to talk today about a seemingly disparate set of things that center around the idea of "Being Human As Praxis", to borrow Katherine McKittrick's phrase about the scholar Sylvia Wynter's work. Through this journey, I want to share and think through with you the ways knowledge is made and built through praxis, or the act of practice. And to think through this idea, I want to use cooking as a vocabulary, a map, and a kind of living text.
So where we will start off is how to make mapo tofu, a spicy Chinese dish -- one of my favorite dishes, and I want to weave into this journey Ursula Le Guin's translation of the Tao Te Ching, and Sylvia Wynter's essay "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation--An Argument". And along the way thinking through how prophetic Wynter's essay is, especially in the ways she thinks through the construction of human or "man" as a category.
This is mapo tofu, which in Chinese means pockmarked granny tofu. The story is that this dish was invented by an old lady with pockmarked skin in Szechuan, who lived in Chengdu. It's supposed to be very spicy, though you can make it with different levels of spice. I'll talk about why I love this dish in a second -- it's very tasty to me and I love spicy food, but there's also a few other reasons.
To make this dish, you'll need a large pan, preferably a wok, and a block of tofu -- preferably soft. You'll also need fermented chili paste, chilis, green onions and cilantro, minced ginger. For the fermented chili paste, there's this kind, called Pixian doubanjiang, which some call "the nutella" of China because it goes well on everything. It's salty, spicy and a little numbing. But of course, any fermented chili paste will do -- you could even try gojujang!
The first thing to do is to cube the tofu. After cubing it, rinse the tofu under hot water for a minute. This is a trick I learned -- you know how sometimes when you cook tofu, it gets all watery? The hot water brings the moisture to the top so that the dish doesn't become too watery.
In the wok, put a little oil and put in the ginger. Then put in about a tablespoon of fermented chili paste. Heat up the chili paste, and you'll start to notice red oil coming out of it. At this point, add in the chilis and allow them to sizzle for a second. Put in the tofu, ensuring that the tofu gets covered in the chili paste. Then put in a small amount of water -- enough so that there's a sauce that forms that almost covers the tofu. Let this simmer for about 5-10 minutes until the tofu is cooked through, and then garnish with cilantro and green onions. The sauce might be runny -- sometimes people put in a little cornstarch to help thicken the sauce.
In addition to being pretty tasty, making mapo tofu doesn't require a lot of time, or a massive amount of ingredients. It's also becoming more common in Chinese restaurants in the US, which I take as a changing palate. A lot of Chinese food like Chop Suey or General Tso's Chicken are actually made up Chinese dishes designed to suit the American palate. I don't necessarily think that authenticity is a useful metric to evaluate food -- it's more just nice for me to see dishes I actually enjoy eating, at places that are Chinese restaurants.
For a long time, Chinese recipes didn't have measurements. I want to point that out, because I think it's significant. Recipes are this special, living document that capture so much about the world surrounding it, crystallized into this short how to. The availability of certain foods depends on bigger infrastructures like shipping, trucks and refrigeration. The way certain foods are prepared also depend on what's available -- is your fuel source a stove, a wood oven, or an outdoor fire? And this idea of measurement has a long history, in both imperial and scientific rationality. The earliest measurements were based on the monarch's body -- so a foot was literally a foot. In the Enlightenment era of Europe during the 18th century, the metric system as we know it started forming. This came out of a necessity for trade -- since the measurements used by each country at the time was different. When I think of many Chinese recipes -- when you ask someone in China, a mom, an aunt, a family member, how they make a certain dish, they very rarely hand you a handwritten recipe. And if they do, it often does not have precise measurements on it.
It's this lack of precise measurement that gives a freedom to adapt the dish. It also relies on tasting the dish while its cooking and an assumption that rather than receive knowledge through a book or through a stranger, you have learned this recipe from someone else who has made this recipe before. And that's what I find empowering, counterintuitive about recipes transmitted this way -- they are somewhere between oral history and magic spell.
What I also love about recipes is that they are form of secret history. There's so many forms of writing that get extended into the popular imagination -- for example, science writing, pop science writing can become about politics, or ways to explain how the world works. Food writing is often about the way the world works: books about salt, recipes, stories about life and food during WWII. And I think because food writing is often by women, it's seen as a form of women's writing and gets neglected in popular discourse.
The other thing about mapo tofu is that it uses tofu -- which is rumored to have been invented by a Taoist. Taoism is present in American culture in a number of forms, but maybe it's most popular manifestation is the yin-yang symbol.
The Tao Te Ching is one of Taoism's main texts, written by Lao Tzu. It's been translated into English numerous times, but perhaps the most interesting translation is Stephen Mitchell's -- occasionally this translation is called Orientalist. Mitchell actually didn't know Chinese, his "translation" is based on reading other translations of the text -- translations in German and English. He admits that he doesn't know any Chinese. For him, he has said this is because he's felt such a connection with Lao Tzu, and that other versions are missing something. What Mitchell says is that his Zen training also allows him to give a version of the Tao that will add something to it.
This version, by Ursula Le Guin though, is my favorite. And I think a lot of the sections parallel the concepts that Wynter herself introduces, so let's talk about the Wynter text.
A bit of background: Wynter is an influential scholar, writer and philosopher, born in Jamaica in 1928. She's cited and cites across a number of disciplines including literary analysis, Black studies, film, neuroscience and psychoanalysis. In the essay "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being", she dissects the "overrepresentation" or construction of Man (man with a capital M) throughout history, drawing on a long period of history.
A larger concept that is tied in here (and she references Frantz Fanon who came up with this concept), is the idea of sociogeny. Fanon writes "Beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny." Phylogeny and ontogeny look the the biological development of species. We can think of sociogeny as the process in which certain social phenomena are ascribed to groups of people as if that phenomena is biological. This makes sociogeny an important part of constructing race. Examples of this process include Asians being good at math, or as Wynter herself discusses in another essay "No Humans Involved", how Darryl Gates of the LAPD ascribed the death of young Black men due to police brutality and chokeholds as "having different windpipes".
The way she outlines it, we can think of two phases of "man" being constructed. There's Man 1 and Man 2. Man 1 is constructed early on and useful towards colonialism and the racism that colonialism instrumentalizes. The construction is through theological means -- through religion, through Christianity. There's the idea of the "savage" man that's built, and notions of salvation. You might see how this project of Man 1 is conducive to colonialism. It's not just that there is an idea of the Other, but there's also this idea of salvation that is key. Under colonialism, there are groups of people, the Other, but instead of just fighting them, under the project of colonialism, it's an imperative to *save* them. And by conquering them, subjugating them, it was convenient for colonialists to absolve themselves of guilt.
Man II is constructed out of the European Enlightenment -- the keywords to Man II are kind of the humanist idea of man, scientific, Darwinian and rational. "Economic man" is the way we might think of it -- this manifests in our lives in a way that is incredibly entangled. For example, the ways we think of optimizing our lives, or the way we aspire to be productive, perhaps logical in our everyday dealings. This Man II is just as crucial to our current regimes of power in constructing racism and anti-Blackness. An example in this is the emphasis of artificial intelligence on "rationality" and how "rational" such algorithms are, when in fact scholars like Safiya Noble show that these algorithms are not neutral. But under the current regime of Man II, rationality becomes naturalized -- it's seen as an inherent step in human evolution, for us to become more logical, more scientific and less superstitious.
There's a lot more to this essay, "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Truth/Power/Freedom" but I want to end on the possibilities of what this essay suggests, because it relates to the Tao and also to this idea of praxis.
Wynter ends the essay and refers back to Fanon's conclusion in Black Skin, White Masks:
There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence.
There are in every part of the world men who search.
I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny.
I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence.
In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.
I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it.
- Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
What does it mean to introduce invention into existence? I think, as with all texts, there's many ways to interpret and understand this phrase. For me, the idea of invention into existence is the idea of defining living as it is being lived, the "endlessly creating myself".
It's this kind of spiritual-political call that Wynter and Fanon are proposing that feels palpable in the Tao, which is, very simply, an examination into living. It doesn't prescribe how to live in a way that is explicit like the Bible. For example, the second chapter of the Tao, "Soul food", looks at how "being and non being arise together". By naming beauty, you acknowledge the existence of ugliness, naming goodness is making wickedness. What we can take from that is and understanding that most of our categories are impermanent and culturally constructed, very much like our understanding of "Man" as category. Another interpretation of this chapter might be an example of thinking dialectically -- thesis, antithesis, coming to synthesis. But the Tao suggests that to even name the thesis and the antithesis is already to lay a claim to something. "That's why the wise soul does without doing, teaching without talking...To bear and not to own, to act and no lay claim, to do the work and let it go is what makes it stay."
In that, I find a similarity to the idea of invention into existence. It's about traveling through the world and constantly creating the self, allowing for impermanence and change rather than being a "prisoner of history". It's about a presence and inhabiting the present moment to fully create the self.
Chapter 40 of the Tao sums it up very well, I think. "Being is born of nothing."
So what does this have to do with cooking?
The way I see cooking is this -- there's history and where the recipe is situated and then there's making the dish itself. In that act of making, you must inhabit the present moment, and embody all the senses available to you, in order to create this dish -- taste, touch, smell, what have you. There are no rules for cooking -- which opens up the idea, for me, that there's actually no rules, or very few at least, in the world. We've mainly just agreed with each other to live out certain fictions. But while you are cooking, you can change ingredients, add more, and what happens, what results, is the physical response of all the ingredients that you have put together at that moment. And cooking is this special kind of act -- somewhat like a ritual, but a ritual that demands presence and being in your body.
What I take from this, is that cooking, and rituals more broadly offer us some way into enacting invention into existence, living and being human as praxis. So what I want to end up with are some questions, prompts, maybe ways of thinking and mapping out a ritual for yourself into being.
Questions to build your own ritual:
- What are you hoping to obtain out of this ritual? What is the goal?
- What timeframe do you see this ritual in? Is this a ritual done throughout the day? One a month? Once a year?
- What is the path -- what are some ways to get to your goal? i.e Saying goodbye to something: writing it down on a piece of paper and burning it, or inviting more friendship into your life: meditate on all the feelings of kindness you have felt in the past week.
- Break down the path into a series of steps.
- How would you like to signal the beginning of the ritual?
- How would you like to signal the end of the ritual?
- Are there spirits/forces/flows/other beings that you can invoke or aid you in this ritual?
- Are there items you need to aid in the ritual? For my ritual of cooking, putting on my apron helps me signal the beginning (ritualistic garb).