Times of Hunger

Rukmini Nair, The Times of a Just Transition
Project status

This project focuses on hunger as a universal temporal process attuned to bodily times, to social rhythms and to the formation of community identities at an individual, national, and even international scale. Internationally, for example, the elimination of acute hunger stands high at number 2 among the UN SDGs - and, yet, in 2022, the UN admits that it will not in fact achieve its previous timebound 2030 ‘zero hunger goal’. Far from being eliminated, world hunger and malnutrition are growing alarmingly. What is it about the phenomenon of hunger that it remains so resistant to concerted efforts to bring about a future where there will be a more just and equitable distribution of basic food resources? Part of the answer is that we still do not understand very well how this  foundational evolutionary system essential to our very survival manifests across time. We have relatively little qualitative, organized data, for example, on:

  • The times when the body is hungry and demands food, based on its pre-set ‘hunger clock’
  • The delayed effects of hunger in childhood on later life
  • The rhythms of hunger as patterning the day to day lives of families and communities
  • The stories of hunger from young adults – and the ways these play out in time
  • The narratives of leaders who have used the ‘hunger strike’ as a political tool in times of crisis
  • The future(s) of hunger and justice as cultural moves and countermoves on a timeline

It is such a ‘time-series’ database at a site like India (where the present research will mainly be conducted and which the Global Hunger Index map for 2022 informs us is among the standout countries with ‘serious’ malnutrition and stunting) that the present research aims to build over the next three years. Counterintuitively, the biggest source of qualitative data providing sharp, in-depth descriptions of how hunger affects mental states as well as bodies across time that we have at the moment resides in the realm of narrative fiction, comprising great literary texts such Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, Rabindranath Tagore’s Hungry Stones and Bhabani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers. As linguists, psychologists and philosophers have all pointed out, this so for an excellent biological reason. Our qualia sense-perceptions (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) help us react in quick-time ‘without thinking’ to dangers around us but are hard to describe in language, a sophisticated communication system that developed much later in evolution. This is where storytellers have been ‘expert resource persons’ down the ages, enabling us to interpret a crucial qualia warning-system like hunger. They help us connect the phenomenology of hunger (our hunger experiences; see Sharman 2005) to its complex epistemology (our knowledge of/about hunger; see Nwonka 2016).

The above insights strongly suggest that narrative analysis be deployed as a main research tool in this research, since the most notable feature of the story as a linguistic structure is that it connects events in a temporal sequence (see Bakhtin ‘Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel’ 1981; Ricoeur 1984; Nair 2003, 2011a. and b. 2014, 2016, 2021 etc. ). No passage of time, no story. Second, narratives are ‘discourse universals’ found in every human culture (Dennett, 1991). Third, the six-part structure of narrative privileges the ‘arhythmic’ idea of unanticipated crisis and our always unsatisfied hunger for solutions to it (Labov, 1976); Fourth, narratives are enriched environments for empathetic emotional practice. Narrative, then, offers a near-perfect analytic format within which to study a primal sensation like hunger which, as the “Childhood Hunger Identification Project Hunger Index (CHHIP)3. puts it, has always to be assessed in terms of its ‘temporal severity and periodicity’.

The multifactorial research design developed for this project is thus designed to

a. elicit qualitative responses at different sites (schools, universities, community centers), among different age-groups, to a curated set of ‘hunger-time’ narratives described in key literary texts, songs, films and artworks, both indigenous and international;

b. collect children and young adults’ (who constitute the world hungriest cohort) narratives of their hunger experiences, as well as their responses to a detailed questionnaire that records the times when they feel most hungry in a 24-hour cycle, their changing tastes in food, and emotional attitudes towards hunger, etc;

c. develop a robust theoretical framework to guide a humanities driven, time-sensitive approach to the future(s) of world hunger . Overall, this research will create a much-needed, first-time, repository of hunger-texts; a blended space for innovative theorizing as well as for joint research proposals and implementable policy-oriented recommendations concerning world poverty, hunger and lack of empathy for ‘the other’.

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