- So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance
Patrick Anderson’s So Much Wasted opens with the description of a wasting body—an emaciated, dying man, bones appearing through his covering sheet. Where this scene takes place is undetermined and Anderson stages this as a question: whether a hospital ward, a gallery space, or a prison cell will dictate the terms by which we read the image. This opening move sets up the thrust of the book, an evocative analysis of self-starvation through multiple lenses, investigating differing meanings when someone “performs a refusal to consume as a strategy of negation or resistance” (3). The book itself performs a certain refusal to “consume”; this is not a book about individual accounts of starvation and anorexia, and Anderson steers readers away from the sensationalistic aspects of self-starvation. It insists instead on interrogating the resistance and refusal to consume through the interstices of complex notions of statehood and political subjectivity.
Inspired by Peggy Phelan’s oft-cited idea that “performance becomes itself through disappearance,”1 Anderson argues that the disappearances aligned with self-starvation—whether the literal decrement of hunger strikers or the symbolically fasting artist—might be a resistant form of political action, a productive rather than destructive force. This may be a controversial argument to some readers who align these disappearances with individual cases; after all, too frequently the outcome is death. Instead, Anderson challenges readers to understand, for example, how for hunger strikers whose demands are not met, an apparent “failure” might instead be read as a shifting of the very notions of conventional state-subject relationships. Success and, by extension, living are not necessarily the desired goals here, but rather, what is learned in the complicated space between living and dying. Anderson’s examples then must remain broad strokes—the inclusion of men and boys in clinical cases of anorexia, notions of endurance, fasting, and disappearance in the work of familiar performance artists, hunger strikers in Turkey; all focus on [End Page 234] the idea that the practices of “refusal, fast, and strike” (139) might open out to a dimension of a kind of hope, while also acknowledging the “promise of failure” (150).
As an addition to the Performance Studies canon, So Much Wasted addresses the performative qualities of self-starvation, and several chapters of the book are valuable models of understanding the widespread implications of performance in such acts. Chapters two and three are perhaps the most accessible to students and scholars familiar with performance regulars Chris Burden, Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, and Marina Abramović. In reading their work through the lenses of fasting, consumption, and disappearance, Anderson brings new nuance to their oft-rehearsed narratives. In chapter two, Anderson shifts from the historical spectacle of Dr. Henry S. Tanner’s forty-day staged fast (ostensibly to scientifically prove the benefits of fasting) in the 1880s to Chris Burden’s 1970s performance-framed fasting and endurance works. Opening this chapter is Kafka’s Hunger Artist (1922), a fictional response to the highly publicized “fasting girls” and the men who analyzed their affliction in the late nineteenth century. This historical setting reveals the gender-based economies of circulation and consumption in both clinical and gallery-based spectacles of looking, and then introduces a mode of intersubjectivity facilitated through Burden’s endurance performance as a challenge to passive spectatorship.
Chapter three turns to Piper, Mendieta, and Abramović, whose performances blur the distinctions between object and subject and resist the increased consumption and commodification of the art object. These artists’ refusals to consume, conform, assimilate, and be consumed become strategies for “positioning themselves, subjects and objects of the gaze, within political geographies of abjection and belonging” (109). This chapter could form the basis of a book-length study, further extending the racial, cultural, and gender analyses only touched upon in a chapter-length study. Anderson makes many connections here that leave the reader hungry for more; he provocatively contextualizes Piper’s early-1970s work and the...