A Question of Taste?: Food, Xenophobia, and the Coronavirus 

Katie Jones

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus led to a flurry of “origin stories” – stories that not only mislead by implying definitive knowledge of a subject, but also attempt to find the locus of blame or responsibility. The origin story of interest here is the “coronavirus bat” and the misinformation propagated by anti-migration and xenophobic discourses. Upon the outbreak of the virus, it was thought that the virus spread from bats to humans at a wet market in Wuhan province, China. Since then, there has been much speculation and scientific debate, but uncertainty reigns and the facts of the matter remain obscure. Here, I explore how, amongst this uncertainty, interpretations of eating practices serve to fuel Orientalist and xenophobic discourses; I consider socio-cultural approaches to food, prohibition, and pollution, and how ideas of what constitutes “food” or “not food” inform discourses of othering.

Echoing his president’s xenophobic nomenclature for Covid-19 (“The Chinese Virus”), the republican senator John Cornyn remarked that ‘the Chinese are to blame [for the outbreak of the virus] because they eat animals like snakes and bats’. In the UK, The Sun tabloid newspaper published a flagrantly inaccurate article with the headline ‘Like a Bat Outta Hell China coronavirus: Fears outbreak is linked to bat soup sold at Wuhan market’. The Sun laterpublished a correction, but the original article and associated comments are telling of cultural attitudes towards the notion of “bat soup.” Indeed, sociologists have already described how reactions to the coronavirus drive xenophobic perceptions of dietary differences, and have reinforced Orientalist perceptions of Asia as eternally foreign in Chile. But to return to the image of “bat soup”: the reactions speak of a fantasized “other” whose boundaries and customs fall outside the social order familiar to the “self”.

For Mary Douglas (1972), food is a code whose meaning shifts depending on the context and interpreter. Diet is integral to constructions of cultural identity, which may be self-constructed, imposed from the outside or a mix of both. Variation in diet and preparatory practices contain meanings – whether in terms of types of cuisine, particular ways of slaughtering animals for food, or religious prohibitions and/or practices. Dietary prohibitions can be religious or secular, and may be due to an animal’s sacred status or to cultural attitudes that view certain creatures as domestic or exotic, which is to say animals to be loved, studied, feared or fascinated by – but not eaten. Practices like “clean eating” and “cleanses” seem to reconfigure religious practices like fasting, aiming towards physical, rather than spiritual, “purification”. Tensions arise where the other’s dietary practices transgress some heretofore unquestioned norm.  Leviticus, the biblical book concerned with sacrificial rites and cleanliness, names animals such as pigs, snakes, and bats as abominations – unfit for consumption or sacrifice. According to this religious law, to eat the forbidden animal is to defile or pollute the self. For cultures founded on Judeo-Christian religions, such prohibitions may provide clues about today’s culinary norms.

The bat also conjures particular mythical associations: Luca Giordano’s painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1660-1666) depicts the rebels with bat wings, in contrast to the traditional angels whose wings are akin to the swan. Such ideas permeate popular culture today, in which images of bats are used as Halloween decorations – and The Sun’s musically inspired headline “Like a Bat Outta Hell” makes manifest the Satanist or gothic qualities projected onto bats, while also drawing Orientalist associations between hell and China. Even bats’ observable features, such as the way they roost upside down, conjure uncanny associations that are manipulated in folklore – especially the vampire myth.

In ordinary times, the notion of eating bat may be configured in terms that project a form of Orientalist exoticism. However, in the context of the global pandemic, disgust – the underbelly of fascinating exoticism – comes to the fore, and the connotations of the bat symbolically transfer onto the consumer who is then constructed as threatening. Indeed, in her consideration of dietary taboos, Mary Douglas remarks that ‘food is not likely to be polluting at all unless the external boundaries of the social system are under pressure’ (2003: 128). The pandemic has an anxiety-producing affect, which is particularly centred around the movement of, and exposure to, people, and in some arenas, the threat of disease has become unquestioningly entwined with discourses on migration in ways that can be understood through Douglas’ work. Douglas’ argument implies that social groups organise the world via contrasts, and so unsafe, polluting or harmful power is attributed to people and ideas whose identities and cultural practices are marginal and/ or unformed within a specific social order or context. Often this perceived “polluting” power is uncontrolled or involuntary – even by/for those with whom it is associated.

In xenophobic and racist ideology, the “foreigner” is often constructed in these terms – as engaging in and normalising practices deemed different and threatening to the xenophobe.  Xenophobic discourses on migration regularly draw on taxonomies that can be seen as belonging to Douglas’ notion of “unformed” power, such as metaphors related to disease, pollution, and infestation – familiar examples might be “swarming” or “spreading”. These are negative in tone, and pertinent to considerations of bat soup: anti-migration sentiment coalesces with cultural constructions of the bat and the spreading of disease via the other’s eating practices.

While infection forces us to confront the limits of human agency, global food production and industry is certainly not a problem associated with one locale. Ultimately, identifying another group for blame is an attempt to obscure our mutual vulnerabilities – to try to disavow our responsibility to each other, and to posture and perform control. However, there are alternative ways of making sense of the pandemic without recourse to othering: Recasting the “human” position in terms of animality – embedded within the natural world, as opposed to ruler of it. This line of thinking emphasises our mutual vulnerability and responsibility to all with whom we share the world.

Katie Jones is a post-graduate student at Swansea University; her research interests are myth, culture, and identity. She tweets @cartesian_split.

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