The Oyster: Or, Radial Suppleness
(Contra Mundum Press, 2020)
“There is geometry at the core of formlessness,” begins The Oyster, a book by Dejan Lukić and Nik Kosieradzki. In positing this amalgamation of oppositions in the very first line, we are promised a journey into a universe of manifold metaphysics. The Oyster is a part of Contra Mundum Press’s Agrodolce series, a collection of unorthodox books on food, curated by Emile Plateau. Taking inspiration from the Italian agrodolce—a sticky, tart-sweet condiment made by reducing sugar or honey, and vinegar, with a tangy contrast that is inherent to its character—the series, much like the condiment, is built on opposite elements that evoke unsuspected and surprising amalgamations.
Here we have the oyster, a mollusk that takes on average two years to form, consumed in a matter of seconds, that thrives in marine and brackish habitats, but contains the entire cosmos within: “all microscopic ocean stuff, such as algae, plankton, and other organic particles that are believed to be the earliest life forms, are present in the oyster both conceptually and literally.” This unconventional exploration of the oyster through the lens of metaphysics approaches the species as a culinary marvel, an architectural artifact, and a filtration device unlike any other that holds in it the contrast of a hard and highly calcified shell and a soft interior referred to by the authors as a “primordial soup.” But it is also a political exploration, one that elevates this biological marvel and presents it to us as a metaphor: “When a parasite, a foreign body, finds its way to the mantle of the oyster, ‘the mantle secretes nacre, or mother of pearl’ […]The perfect sphere is thus secreted into the world, as a revolt inside the oyster.” There is an almost Maoist echo here: that all movement comes from contradiction and is driven by internal conflict. By transmuting the parasite into the unity of the whole, the oyster demonstrates that the very space of unity has to be won through struggle. Thus the internal production in the oyster is akin to a political act. An intrinsic relationship and communication between the inside and the outside: the life of an oyster depends on this connection, the pressure of the outside world which generates internal bounty—it is a revolution.
The authors evoke the Baroque in dissecting the oyster. Here, the baroque is both referred to as an architectural style and period of time, and a synecdochic adjective, characterized by convolute and ornamental decoration. The etymological meaning of the word is from the Latin barocco, “irregular pearl.” The quality and eccentricity of the mollusk’s surface corresponds to the ornamental uniqueness of the baroque façade, while the beauty and life found in its interior pearl is akin to the spiritual values of sacristy.
The ideas of a “thought-oyster” and “tongue-thought” are also introduced: the former represents “an insular wall with enormous richness as its core”; an idea that unfolds throughout the text. By uncovering ways in which everything begins with opposition, the elements’ innate diversity being the singular qualifier of life—the oyster “is born out of endless differentiation of itself”—a “thought-oyster” is the act of seeing opposition as a fruitful generation of life. The latter, more intrinsic, evokes the act of thinking through taste buds, experiencing the world through its culinary offerings: the taste and texture of an oyster cannot be described, yet an approximation of a defining quality unveils itself as the taste of the ocean and all its scents and flavors—“a microcosm of the world absorbed just as the thing itself absorbed its entire diet.”
The book mimics its subject: the text and analysis work hand in hand with the carefully selected seven images including images from French critic and intellectual Roger Caillois’s The Writing of Stones (1985), a hand-drawn diagram of an oyster, a cladogram showing divisions and convergences of life, and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus; side notes, in the form of marginalia, function as shadows, hallucinations, whispers that reveal the inner thoughts that fuel the writing. All encapsulated by the oyster, as a metaphor and a synthesis of multiple disciplines: from architecture and biology, to philosophy, literature, and visual arts.
The Oyster follows a hallucinatory method, or “hallucinalysis”—a term coined by the authors. Lukić, whose practice is ontologically bound to the sea, gives us an inside look at how a species can serve as a microscope through which “being” can be understood. He runs an art and ecology summer school, Step Not Beyond, on the Adriatic island of Cres and co-directs the culinary-philosophical troupe Vitalist Cuisine. In announcing a theory of amorous and radial suppleness, the exegesis of the species is expanded with notions of geometry, filtering, eating, and propagating.
Humans consume, we plunder and crack open, we swallow the universe whole in one swift motion. The Oyster teaches us what can be learned from innate opposition and the primal act of consuming. At the core of an oyster lies slime, a delicious but ugly lump that is simultaneously a beautiful object of seduction. And despite its exceptionality, all the richness it contains, the oyster’s essence of opposition comes at play once again: “one dollar for one oyster.”