Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow, 2016

Bread by Scott Cutler Shershow, first published in 2016 by Bloomsbury Academic, New York

“Bread”, first published 2016 by Bloomsbury Academic, New York, in the series Object Lessons – a series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

Object Lessons is a series of 47 books and essays about the hidden lives of ordinary things, published by the newspaper The Atlantic and publisher Bloomsbury Academic. Object Lessons are self-initiated essays or books.

Scott Cutler Shershow, born in 1953, with a BA from Yale, and an MA and Ph.D. (1983) from Harvard, is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis. His academic work relates to the fields of Critical theory and literature studies.
He wrote the book from a political position as American, white, male, 63 old academic and amateur baker.

“flower to grain to flour to dough to loaf to crumb”

In the book, bread is considered as an object that is always in the process of becoming something else. The author conducts an exploration of the many meanings of bread considering its philosophy, history, sociology, theology and biology.

Bread is presented as a material object, symbol and system that is always in the process of becoming and has an in-betweenness and transformative power.

 “[…] bread always seems to be an object at once so familiar and so alien, so common yet so strange”

In chapter 1, titled Bread book, Scott Cutler Shershow outlines the deconstruction of bread throughout the chapters of the book. He speaks about his love for bread as a love of the alien and briefly touches on different angles to reveal the inherent strangeness of “the alien” within. 

Chapter 2, Bread dance, points out the baking process as a radical transformation through labor. Shershow sees an analogy in the process of bread making and in the contrasting forces of Greek tragedy, Dionysian ecstasy (chaos) and Apollonian harmony (order). He envisions “bread as a sort of Apollonian monument rising out of the Dionysian swamp of the dough.

"know the color of your bread”

In chapter 3, Bread flower, Shershow considers the ingredients of bread, describing wheat as a material being shaped by human labor. He describes bread as an indicator of privilege and wealth, a signifier of social class. He makes a brief connection to contemporary so-called artisanal loafs as an unattainable luxury for some.

In chapter 4, Bread dread (1), he describes a mutual dependency between him and the culture as an alien being, that on the one hand is being exploited, and on the other can not be controlled fully. Most of the chapter he speaks about negative associations of fermentation in Judaism and Christianity (as a sexual metaphor, transformative power or contamination), and its demonization in America after Louis Pasteur’s discovery of microbes. 

 “bread calls to our attention a strange economy by which this object is most whole when it be divided, and most ‘itself’ when it be broken.”  “With bread, a dividing makes possible a coming together, and a parting makes possible a partaking.”

Chapter 5, Bread breakings, is devoted to the philosophical paradox of the “whole and the part” evoked by the experience of bread. Following are etymologic explorations of words like “sharing” or “a part” whose origins lie in the word ”bread”.

 “le pain se lève”

Chapter 6, Bread line, offers different historical perspectives on bread becoming a means of power or a catalyst for resistance. He points out the power of bread or no-bread, its absence: to starve, suppress, denounce and pressure certain social groups (the bakers and millers) during famines, and on the other hand unite, visible in bread riots and revolts.

“the myth of the golden age, the good old days, the long-ago past in which things were how they should be instead of how they are.”

Chapter 7, Bread dread, is a chapter that scrapes on the surface of a contemporary position towards bread. He gives an opinionated overview over the emergence of agriculture, its industrial acceleration and today’s super-symbolic production, in order to contradict claims of certain bread-condemning diets, summarizing these movements as narratives striving for “the myth of the golden age, the good old days, the long-ago past in which things were how they should be instead of how they are.”

Chapter 8, Bread/dead, starts with semantic observations of the word “bread” relating to death. Bread is life, no-bread is death. To close, he tries to point out the fact that in order to produce bread, there is the need to kill first (the yeast, the wheat plant).

In chapter 9, Daily bread, Shershow relates bread to biblical texts, where the term is used to signify the “necessary” or “continuous” feeding of people. He wraps up, locating bread as an object and an idea between material and symbol, the profane and the sacred. He declares the book as essentially unfinished, as the subject is always in process and therefore “never one, but always many”. (p. 131)

Important quote

 “Unless I am also planning to set up as a farmer and a miller, I will always remain — precisely as a baker — multiply dependent on other people and a complexly organized society […].”

While he points out the joy and pride baking bread can evoke, Shershow warns from a romanticized vision of the independent baker and points out the common blindspot that baking bread doesn’t free from dependencies but actually adds to them.

What do I agree with?

  • I agree with the danger to easily fall into the trap of sentimentality through the images of “hearth and home” evoked by bread. bread doesn’t free from dependencies but actually adds to them.
  • I also agree with bread as an object indicator of privilege and wealth, and want to add that baking bread does so even more, because one has “the time to spend”. Bread provides a lifestyle romanticism inherent to a cult of retro-innovation.

What do I disagree with?

  • I would like to agree with the way he describes how breaking bread creates partaking, yet I see here a trap of nostalgic and academic theorization in contrast to real life.

Wrap up

  • Bread is material object, symbol, system and lens.
  • bread is power, bread is luxury, bread is privilege
  • bread is always becoming, has an in-betweenness and transformative power.

open questions

  • why is it so popular now?
  • Why are we replacing leisure through work (baking)?
  • How does the time spent for baking relate to bread as an object(romanticism inherent to a cult of retro-innovation)?
  • Speaking of bread revolts, how did bread become a catalyst? What is today’s catalyst?
  • Is bread still an “explosive” catalyzing material?

missing/scope to develop:

  • Views on contemporary agricultural production and contemporary ingredients
  • transformation infrastructure/device and tools (e.g. oven)
  • bread as food waste
  • different points of view and varied cultural backgrounds
  • artistic positions and examples

Leave a Reply