Yogurt Cartographies (Vital Aesthetics): Culturing the Space of Self and Other

Leni Charbonne, 2021

I am as heavy as cotton, as light as gold.

I am as white as ink, as black as yogurt.

I am as reasonable as a madman, as excited as someone meek.

Since I have no brain, they call me knowing.

Sayat Nova

For the universal sagacious class– whether poet or craftsman, philosopher or comic, laborer or revolutionary– the language of paradox has been the lingua franca of found knowledge. Bringing together opposing elements makes disorientation inherent to the form. For this reason, empty paradoxes employed to obfuscate and confuse have equally been the lingua franca of that other universal class– hucksters and hacks, swindlers and salesmen. The crucial difference concerning sincerity here lies in the intent behind the disorientating effect. When evoked to transmit insights and experience, the disorientation of paradox can generate an interpretive landscape– it can be an invitation to search for meaning in unlikely places amongst unlikely relations. Paradox of this nature beckons experience, and the geocached meanings within cannot be isolated, sold, nor plainly consumed. Paradox, instead, invites us to make sense outside of common sensibilities. 

Paradoxically, these kinds of paradoxes are quite common: Socrates made the famous admission that he knows that he knows nothing. Abraham Maslow echoed the adage that the sacred must be found in the ordinary. Philip K. Dick identified the “trash stratum” of life as the place where the divine is manifest. “Nothing is sacred,” that lofty pedestrian phrase, means that everything truly is such.

And then there is yogurt.

Rarely has such a common, even profane substance been so consistently mired with allegories of the sacred. A concise history of yogurt presents this thick white sludge as a happy afterthought of spoiled milk. Fermented over time, yogurt has produced an utterly banal stench as a global market commodity. Yet past and present, yogurt has been attributed near mythological status and has been a constant fixture in various cults of vitality.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2019

Mentions of yogurt have been identified in some of the earliest found scripts in Eurasia and North Africa.[1] In antiquity, the magical transformation of aged milk into an airy delicacy was so highly celebrated that historians have suggested that the famed Biblical promised land would be more aptly named “the land of fermented milk and honey.”[2]  This reverence stems from yogurt long being associated with longevity, an association naturally extended from its production process. The proof is in the (soured) pudding: allowing raw milk to ferment in warm environments has historically been one of the most reliable ways to store and extend the shelf life of this precious fluid. The now universally-recognized name yogurt is thought to have originated from the Turkic yoğurmak (meaning that which thickens or curdles). As these populations traveled across the Eurasian steppe lands, they transported milk in bags made from goat hide.[3] Herein, microbial cultures synthesized compounds in the milk resulting in a curdling effect and increased preservation for long journeys and conquest. Yogurt culture(s), then, are intimately entangled with human culture.

Today, yogurt is spread across the spectrum of virtue and vice. Lustful desire for idealized body forms make it a staple product in health and diet fads. Generous dollops of rich, creamy yogurt are in some contexts symbols of abundance, and elsewhere of glutton. Yet the cult of vitality long attached to yogurt has not disappeared. It has, however, intersected with the dominant cult of our times: commerce. In the marketplace-temple, health and longevity are often calculated on a basis of consumption, and the consumer label “probiotic”– attached to yogurt and other cultured foodstuffs– has a near spiritual potency. Both popular and scientific discourse posit that prospects for longevity could increase alongside increased consumption of probiotic products. In the marketplace, life-extension takes the form of a utilitarian project, with probiotic goods like yogurt categorized as “functional foods.” [4]

Modern rationalities in turn have increased awareness of the forces behind the probiotic function– the microbial cultures generating the sought-after probiotic properties. These cultures are far from excluded in the affairs of human commerce. On the contrary, their presence in products has exploded into a marketing trend. Labels and branding schemes have sought to make this microscopic labor force as visible as possible. Packaging of probiotic items often proudly discloses the presence of “billions of live active cultures!” In the tune of the contemporary zeitgeist, measures of health are meant to be accumulated to exorbitant figures and can even be ordered “supersized!” These billions of live active cultures have profitably compounded in the functional foods sector valued at over 85 billion USD with projected growth rates at 4 billion annually.[5] The main benefactor of this trade is with the genus Lactobacillus, annually accounting for over 60% of these sales.[6]

What the modern trends in probiotic and functional foods indicate is a very specific logic underpinning contemporary ways of knowing vitality. Congealed in the contemporary market profiles of ancient products like yogurt is a calculation of longevity with presumed divisions between the elements concerned. There is the subject of life-extension: the (human) self. There is the object employed towards longevity: the microbial Other to be consumed. And then there is the environment where the self and Other meet, made mostly irrelevant in marketed vitality.

The fact of human production and consumption of probiotic goods itself has had a long life historically. Yet rationalities concerning how and by what means longevity is achieved through probiotic things have been subject to rebirth in the wake of new cultural sensibilities. In other words, ways of thinking about vitality–who, what, and through what types of relations it is animated– have not remained constant over time. To trace these different sensibilities and perhaps imagine new ones, a little disorientation is useful. As the probiotic paradox par excellence– having its own life extended through spoilage– yogurt is the exemplary substance to attempt to make-sense of vitalistic philosophies. By sitting in the unlikely space of yogurt’s probiotic structures, unlikely relations become visible which cannot easily be segmented into the categories of self, Other, or environment. By disorienting these elements, we can begin to make-sense of how we come to demarcate between these vital categories in the first place.

The culturing process characteristic to yogurt production necessarily brings different elements together; like this first issue of Differens Magazine, yogurt is a space of . The first section of this article shares what is fatally lost when the Other is contrived as something to be consumed. To cultivate other ways of knowing the Other and our shared environmental context is an aesthetic charge, a point explored in the second section. Our aesthetic sensibilities– our ways of sensing and coming to know how we relate to those elements around us– are not fixed. Yet, our means and methods of sensing influence where and how we draw the lines between self, Other, and environment, as well as the effects of these demarcations. 


For Sayat Nova–a Georgian-born Armenian bard of the 18th century– yogurt was the ethereal substance to bring together the cosmic poles of black and white, light and darkness. Perhaps he made this choice from an awareness of the sublime union of spoilage and regeneration characteristic to yogurt, or perhaps it was simply a natural choice given the long-standing cultural significance of yogurt to the poet’s native Caucasus region. Whatever the case, Nova’s poetic churn of yogurt testifies to the ubiquity of the product in this part of the world.

Though once a niche food item limited to a handful of regions in the Eurasia, in the 20th century yogurt became ubiquitous in the global dairy market– a development epitomized by a now-infamous ad campaign produced by the multinational food corporation, Danone (known as Dannon to North American consumers). In 1977, yogurt was broadcast in the prose of commercial commodities in a 30-second television spot taking place in the Caucasian mountains. Spotlighted in the commercial was a handful of elderly inhabitants of the region’s rural, agricultural milieu which has long been rmored to harbor a remarkable number of centenarians and super-centenarians (those who live beyond the ages of 100 and 110, respectively). The ad depicted its subjects performing hard agricultural work, and with each vignette the individual’s name and age would appear at the bottom of the screen. The last feature was given to 89 year old Bagrat Tabghua, notably the youngest of the impromptu cast. Bagrat was shown spooning a mouthful of yogurt from a plastic Dannon cup, something to which the commercial’s hidden narrator proclaimed “pleased his mother very much.” The commercial then panned to his mother, claimed to be 114 years of age. Making ideological allegiances very clear, the commercial ended with a still frame of yogurt and the text “America’s No.1 Yogurt is Here.”

While the Danone campaign was the celebrated recipient of a number of advertising accolades, it also received wide criticism.[7] Commentators in both Eastern and Western blocs pointed to the overall context of the lives of the Georgian centenarians, and suggested the combination of steady farm labour, time outside, and rural living as critical factors in their longevity. However, the prevalence given to yogurt as a longevity elixir could be pursued in tandem with the obfuscating effects of exotification or Othering. The Georgians were presented as almost mystical in their near immortality, a depiction accentuated by the obscurity of their Near Eastern country– a place undoubtedly unfamiliar to the bulk of the advertisement’s projected audience. Still in the throes of the Cold War, the commercial was significant as the first commercial shot in the Soviet sphere and delivered to Americans.

Even within the Soviet sphere, Georgians were widely considered “familiar strangers.”[8] Though impossible to contest Georgia’s significance to Soviet history (being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, after all), Georgians nonetheless joined other ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union to be coded as culturally exotic and internal “others.” Thus, enveloping Georgians into a western consumer branding scheme could be rendered ideologically suitable for the capitalist marketplaces, especially given that the advertisement’s targeted American population had overwhelmingly fallen to the habit of conflating Soviet-style communism with “Russia.” The commercial’s lack of geopolitical and historical context was carried out by the same logic which likewise severed the necessary context of active, rural lifestyles which more likely contribute to Georgian longevity than mere yogurt consumption. The Dannon spot thereby follows the larger probiotica mythos, wherein context is condensed into isolated signifiers– promoting practices of Other-consumption. Much like how “billions of live active cultures” are distilled into probiotic product labels, the exotic Otherness of the Georgian centenarians was consolidated into a brand signification in which longevity was made available for consumption– by way of containment in single-serving plastic Dannon cups.[9]

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2019


Nearly a decade before Dannon’s exposition of Georgian longevity, Sayat Nova (an Armenian born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi) was the subject of his own popular mythologization. In 1969, director Sergei Parajanov– himself something of a mythic Armenian-Georgian of the 20th century– released his seminal film The Color of Pomegranates. Though now a celebrated hallmark of bygone Soviet cinema, The Color of Pomegranates found contentious reception at the time of its release. The film is at first glance a biopic of Sayat Nova, though it is not a mere biographic account. Instead, Parajanov’s film was an attempt to depict Sayat Nova’s life through abstract “tableau vivantes,” inspired not by historic record but by the poetic register of Nova’s writings. Despite international acclaim for Parajanov’s idiosyncratic cinematic storytelling and rich aesthetic modalities, the film was subject to the hurdles of Soviet censorship given its deviation from the official doctrine of “socialist realism.”[10] The contention rested upon a crucial distinction known by Parajanov: to know Sayat Nova as a historic figure of the 18th century South Caucasian world is altogether different than knowing the man-as-poet, whose timbre has survived through the generations and different socio-historical contexts following Nova’s own time. It is surely the latter which is most relevant when the name “Sayat Nova” is evoked. Parajanov’s film, then, was problematic to the sensibilities of socialist realism, which preferred the unilateral, digestible conference of biographical fact. Instead, Parajanov created a film that sought to share poetic landscapes, one which demands that audiences enter and find their own orientation in the (often highly abstract) aesthetic milieu affiliated with Nova. Through this experiential space, audiences must engage their own senses to become acquainted with Sayat Nova and the interpretive landscape inspired by South Caucasia. Poetry cannot be consumed; it must be felt, integrated, and shared perennially.

This entanglement between viewer, filmic subject, and space was seemingly necessary for Parajanov to convey poetic affect through film and was characteristic of his cinematic style. That The Color of Pomegranates demands aesthetic interpretation on the part of the viewer, in other words, means that there is no clean division between audiences, film, and the spaces between (historical or contemporary, abstract or real). It is vital for both the effect and affect of poetic film to focus on the relation between these components. Treating these components of the viewing experience as discrete would, on the other hand, be more suitable for a conventional, realist biopic, wherein biographical facts are to be taken in (consumed) by the audience. Doing so, however, would be an infringement upon the vitality of Sayat Nova’s poetic spirit. For this reason, Parajanov’s biopic of Sayat Nova is evocative of biofilm– something which has little to do with cinema but everything to do with yogurt.

Biofilm is a substrate universally produced by bacteria.[11] With regards to yogurt in particular, the lactic acid bacterial species Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus metabolically produce secretions called exopolysaccharides which collect into a slimy exocellular matrix–a process responsible for yogurt’s recognizable thickness and creaminess.[12] To be sure, exopolysaccharides are not merely discard. They are simultaneously the by-products of metabolic synthesis for a given micro-organism and a highly protective environment for that organism and its neighbors.[13] Biofilm is precisely this coagulated matrix. Biofilmic structures are inherently syntrophic– the organisms gathered and clustered within these spaces live off of and find shelter within the synthesized metabolic products of others; in other terms, they are the collectively-produced, protective environments of the organisms which inhabit them.[14]

Furthermore, biofilm is responsible for granting yogurt its probiotic character. By way of its Greek etymology, probiotic means simply that which is “for life.” An evolutionary history of biofilm testifies to this primal vitalism. As a crucial adaptive practice of bacterial life, biofilm formation is evident in early fossil records dating back over 3.25 billion years.[15] Importantly, the formation of biofilm not only allows organisms to collectively protect themselves from hostile environmental conditions, but also facilitates the propagation of communities to new environments which in turn stimulates the development of new niches.[16] Today, the adaptive role of biofilm remains implicit if not clouded in the proliferation of probiotic-centric discourse and marketization. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have adopted the definition of probiotics to denote “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”[17]

This modern definition of probiotic marks a small but critical discontinuity which has arisen in the term. Once unbounded in its simplicity, “for life” has been distilled to atomize distinct parts; in contemporary usage, probiotic confers a division between “live microorganisms” and a “host.” Stark lines have been drawn between the participating actors in a probiotic context. This is a move commensurate with the current probiotica mythos, in which a unilateral logic of consumption underpins the calculus of health and longevity. Simply, relational and contextual understandings of health have been supplanted by a logos of consumption. Rendering “probiotic” in this way obscures the fundamental relationality which is maintained not only by the linguistic roots of the term, but also in the biological structures which have long histories of resilience and adaptability. Biofilm and its probiotic character, then, refer not to discrete microorganisms, nor their environment, but the relational nature constitutively produced in a collective matrix.

Philosopher and physician Georges Canguilhem sought to invigorate the concept of milieu on such a relational basis. For him, milieu referred to decentered space marked by relations between organisms and their surrounding environment.[18] Taken this way, yogurt can be thought as one such landscape wherein these relational dynamics are particularly evident; Canguilhem writes “the fluid is the intermediary between two bodies; it is their milieu; and to the extent that it penetrates these bodies, they are situated within it.”[19] The natures of cultured, probiotic foods like yogurt then provide terrain to ask how and why we come to draw vital boundaries in the midst of such collectively constituted spaces.

What is probiotic then intersects with that which is pro-poesis, or that which concerns creative activity. More crudely, poesis means making, and just as we can make material things, we are also engaged in activities of making-sense. Poesis, or its etymological descendent poetry, is about making sense, it is about orienteering. Senses, ever subject to new, creative makings, are not fixed faculties. Our sense-abilities are fluid. The ways in which we sense ourselves, Others, and environments, and moreover how we come to draw boundaries between these categories, can always be creatively re-contextualized. Vital boundaries are not given and static, rather they are constantly re-cultured through aesthetic experience.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2019


For many audiences, an appreciation of Parajanov’s cinematic style reflects an acquired taste. That taste can be acquired though, signals the dynamism inherent to all senses. Sense-abilities are always being extended, provoked, remolded, and encultured. The advent of the microbial sciences– wrought on by the development of new sensing devices and technologies– is but one testimony of the cultural pivot generated by new ways of sensing the microbial world. Conceptions of health in turn radically altered with microbes as a factor. New sensory technologies, however, do not necessarily produce new ways of making-sense, or sensibilities. In other words, encounter with the Other provoke an epistemic puzzle: how do we make-sense of Otherness without relying on pre-existent ways of knowing? If we sit with this paradox, we can find ethical merit in allowing ourselves to be sensorily disoriented so as to cultivate new sensibilities.

Modern renditions of human vitality factored at the intersection of institutional research and the development of the functional foods market tells something of a different story. One prominent figure in the 20th century probitica zeitgeist was Elie Metchnikoff, a Ukrainian-born zoologist who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for his identification of the microbial process of phagocytosis. Also known as the “Father of Immunology,” Metchnikoff’s work was concerned with the mechanisms by which cells respond to external environmental materials. From the looking glass of his microscope, he watched as isolated cells integrated and synthesized foreign matter, a pathogen being one example. Metchnikoff, however, had sensibilities which led him not to describe this process as one of integration or synthesis, but rather one of defense.

The legacy of this construal has had immense implications for how human health has since been imagined. Indeed, Metchnikoff is precisely the Father of Immunology because it was another innovation of his to describe biological phenomena in the language of immunity. Prior to his time, immunity had existed solely as a juridico-legal term, describing members of a political community who made themselves exempt from obligations otherwise required of all citizens.[20] With this descriptive innovation, we can speculate Metchnikoff’s political sensibilities and how they were projected onto his observations of microscopic activities. It was not a given, though, that he chose to describe human health in terms of an exceptionality to be defended, set apart from Others and a shared environment. We need not venture far from Metchnikoff to imagine how alternative sensibilities would render different philosophies of human health and longevity. In fact, his own brother, Lev Metchnikoff, has certainly been made more obscure by history but was a prominent scholar in his own time. Through his collaborations with many prominent political theorists– such as the brothers Reclus and Pyotr Kropotkin– Lev extensively developed theories on how human social equality necessitated different boundary logics between the categories of the social world and the biological. Health for him– of individuals and of communities– was necessarily integrative and not based on the defense of bounded, isolated entities.

Incidentally, Elie Metchnikoff was an ardent promoter of yogurt. Indeed, the 20th century history of the expansion of a global yogurt market cannot be comprehensively told without the Father of Immunology. Much like the Dannon advertisers who would succeed him decades later, Elie Metchnikoff observed populations of centenarians and was convinced that it was primarily the consumption of their magic elixir– yogurt– which was responsible for their impressive lifespans.[21] His isolation of the strain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and promotion of its immunologizing and life-extending effects to popular audiences has played a key role in the denotative shift of probiotic– that which is “for life”– to be a consumable promise of vitality.

Eleni Ieremia, ”Everyday Relics”, 2019

To build a culture based not on boundary-defense but on encounter and entanglement inherently begins with how we sense the other; in other words it is a fundamentally aesthetic endeavor. In the words of artist Fran Illich “there is no other culture without an other aesthetics, that is, another way of seeing.”[22] We must ask what types of worlds are possible when we do not foment the Other, but ferment with the Other. If there is anything to be learned from yogurt, it is that this is vital.

[1]Brothwell and Brothwell 1998

[2] Fisberg and Machado 2015

[3] Shah 2006

[4] Granato et al. 2010

[5] Guo and Yang 2020

[6] Granato et al. 2010

[7]See Wren 1977.

[8]Scott 2011.

[9] See Gurel 2016 for a feminist commentary on the culturally-obscuring effects of commercialized yogurt’s gastropolitics.

[10] Steffen 2013.

[11]Lopez et al. 2010.

[12]Parente et al. 2017; Rajoka et al. 2020.

[13]Angelin and Kavitha 2020; Patel et al. 2012.

[14]Lopez et al. 2010; Watnick and Kolter 2000.

[15]Hall-Stoodley et al 2004.

[16]Hall-Stoodley et al 2004.

[17]Reid et al. 2003; McFarland and Elmer 1995.

[18]Canguilhem 2001; see also Roosth 2009

[19]Canguilhem 2001 in Roosth 2009

[20] Cohen 2009

[21] Metchnikoff’s attention was in this instance drawn towards populations of Bulgarian centenarians.

[22] In de Leon 2021.