Workshop — States of Fortification: Connecting Asia through Technologies of Food and Health


Melissa L. Caldwell
Professor, Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Izumi Nakayama
Research Officer & Honorary Assistant Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong


This workshop will focus on how technological interventions in food and health have informed projects of modernity, sovereignty, empire building, and subjectivity across Asia, with particular attention to the temporal and geopolitical modalities that have shaped and been shaped by these phenomena. Central to the workshop will be considering how “Asia” and its regions might be retheorized and remapped – as places, concepts, or constellations of networks – through food technologies. We anticipate pursuing three interrelated themes. First, what are the ways in which efforts to create and protect strong nation-states and subjects have harnessed technology to feed, nourish, and fortify the bodies and minds of the subjects who have constructed those nation-states? Second, how have individual and state-level concerns with food and health productively generated new opportunities for technological innovation, experimentation, and intervention that have alternately connected and disconnected people and communities throughout this region? Third, how does critical attention to the intersection of food, health, and technology provide new perspectives for scholarly research design, analysis, and collaboration across the social sciences and humanities?

Societies in Asia have been, and continue to be, shaped by historical experiences with food. Across this geopolitical region there has long been a mutual entanglement of food, health, and technology that has simultaneously connected and disconnected people, their bodies, their histories, and the social worlds in which they live. For instance, new methods to improve and ensure productivity, efficiency, quality, and safety across all stages of the food system from production and distribution to consumption and disposal often foregrounded technological innovations not only for ensuring greater stability in food supplies, but also for building stronger and healthier citizens, societies, and states. New chemical and mechanical technologies for agricultural production, manufacturing, and food preservation and storage enabled foods and accompanying values and philosophies to circulate through longer supply chains and into new networks, thereby connecting people who were otherwise culinarily, culturally, and geographically distinct. At the same time, the monopolization of raw materials such as salt, sugar, grains, and tea by imperial powers distorted these circulations and established boundaries within communities. One key moment in the early 20th century was the introduction of Western nutritional knowledge that prompted Asian societies to grapple with fundamental challenges to “traditional knowledge” about health, family rituals, and household provisioning practices.

Today these challenges continue, as many Asian societies try to recover and return to “traditional” food practices such as pre-Western nutritional precepts, rural farming, native organics philosophies, and other food-centered lifestyles. More recently, technological advances from the digital and artistic worlds have enabled new modes of social and corporeal interactivity, such as with social media that facilitate new relationalities at multiple scales, wearable technologies that allow access into people’s most intimate, bodily spaces, or robots and artificial intelligence programs that replace the humans who labor as pickers, processors, cooks and chefs, and health care professionals. We invite empirically rich, historically sensitive, and methodologically grounded projects that will shed light on the ways in which food and health technologies have been formative to projects of nation-state building and separation across Asia. We are especially interested in curating contributions representing different historical periods, regions, and scholarly disciplines that, when put in collaborative conversation at the workshop, will both facilitate greater understanding of the technological, political, and cultural processes that have inspired different modes of governance, subjectivity, personhood, and reveal the dynamics by which modalities of cultural and regional sameness, distinction, convergence, and divergence underlie constructions of “Asia.”