Force Feeding, Taste and Restraint
Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau
In this piece of writing I’m going to describe the practice of force feeding, and the techniques of restraint used in that practice in relation to taste, as a bodily experience and as a sociological concept.
Force feeding is the act of feeding someone against their will. ‘Gavage’ is the process of force feeding in which a tube is pushed down the nose or throat until it reaches the stomach before liquid food is passed through it.
In force feeding, taste is bypassed in both its literal meaning as ‘the sensation of flavour perceived in the mouth and throat’ and in its metaphorical meaning as ‘the tendency to like or be interested in something’.
The organs relating to the sense of taste are bypassed by force feeding; the most common method of gavage is through the nose. The feeding tube does not pass through the mouth or over the tongue so the force fed person does not taste what they are fed.
Taste in its sociological meaning is also bypassed by force feeding. There is no way for a force fed person to express preference for one kind of food over another. The food that is forcibly fed has been pre-selected according to the operating procedure of the institution that is carrying out the force feeding.
For the suffragettes this meant they were fed a ‘cabbage like mixture’. For Guantanamo Bay prisoners, it means they are fed Ensure, a ‘liquid nutritional supplement and meal replacement’ made by Abbott Laboratories, a worldwide American health care company that operates in over 150 countries.
For the institutions that practice it, force feeding is described as a necessity not a choice. In particular, it is described as a necessity brought about by the choice of the hunger striker. Of course for the hunger striker, the refusal of food may also be seen as a necessity - a necessary protest brought about by the actions of the institution. For the hunger striker, it is the force feeding that is unnecessary; a brutal choice made by the institution.
Since 1975, the World Medical Association has been in agreement with the prisoners. Doctors are prohibited from carrying out force feeding by the Declaration of Tokyo. According to the UN, force feeding can be described as a form of torture, which doctors are also prohibited from carrying out. So although the institutions that practice force feeding may describe it as necessary, the doctors who carry out such procedures must, much like the hunger strikers, exercise a choice that is beyond the comprehension of most individuals. And like the hunger strikers, no doubt they feel that it is not a choice.
Within such a system, the doctors and the hunger strikers express very different preferences - the hunger striker prefers not to eat, and the doctor prefers that they do. But on a quantitative level, their choices are comparable. They are both extreme choices: hard to make and with a huge impact on the body (of the hunger striker). They are both choices that put the hunger striker and the doctor carrying out force feeding into an uncomfortable position - although for the hunger striker this discomfort (and extreme pain) is physical as well as psychological.
Force Feeding Technologies
Certain kinds of technologies make contemporary force feeding possible. Without feeding tubes and mechanical restraints, force feeding would be all but impossible, and as these technologies have become more sophisticated over time, so force feeding has become a more sophisticated process overall.
(Nasogastric) Feeding Tube
In the Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s account of her force feeding from 1913, she describes the doctors ‘trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat’. These days, with modern plastics allowing the creation of thinner tubes, the nose is the preferred cavity through which to administer food. In a medical setting this is for comfort, and in a prison setting such as Guantanamo Bay it reduces the ability of a hunger striker to force the tube out through coughing or gagging.
At first, Guantanamo doctors were using thick 4.8mm tubes ‘to allow quicker feeding, so permitting guards to keep prisoners in their cells for more hours each day’.
Moath al-Alwi, in US custody since 2002 and one of Guantanamo’s first prisoners wrote, ‘they push a thick tube down my nose until I bleed, after which I vomit’. In 2005, there were reports that ‘wardens would strap detainees to a feeding chair and violently insert feeding tubes as a form of punishment.’
Perhaps in response to the international outcry caused by these reports, the US military eventually swapped the 4.8mm tubes for ‘soft and flexible’ 3mm tubes. That’s almost a 40% reduction in size, so presumably the 4.8mm tubes were neither soft nor flexible.
As I previously mentioned, when someone is force fed by the gavage technique in which the feeding tube goes right down to the stomach, food is administered without engaging the sense of taste. The feeding tube - and particularly the nasogastric tube used in Guantanamo Bay - creates a unique feeding which deprives the force fed person of the experience of eating food, whilst still administering nutrition.
The sensual experience of eating food is complex. We taste and smell what we eat, and we sense its texture - taken together these constitute the ‘mouthfeel’ of the food.
This mouthfeel is removed in force feeding and is replaced by a different sensation: a plastic tube (lubricated with a numbing agent called Lidocaine (or, until doctors pointed out that it could cause pneumonia, olive oil) moving down their nasal passage and oesophagus. You can imagine that the liquid meal replacement drink can be felt moving down the tube - a change in temperature maybe, a pulsing motion as the liquid glugs down. And as described in the testimonies of various prisoners, if the tube is inserted roughly, the force fed person may feel the heat of blood from their nose, and perhaps the taste of blood in their mouth. And, if they vomit while the tube is being inserted, then they will taste and smell the vomit.
Five Point Restraint Chair
The five point restraint chair, as its name suggests, holds a prisoner securely at five points across their body. The restraint chair was introduced at Guantanamo in 2015. Until then, hunger strikers had been sedated before they were force fed.
From what I can work out, it seems that the chair was introduced to allow for the prisoner to be conscious during feeding, but importantly, it also restrains hunger strikers after the feeding to ensure that they can’t vomit up the food by sticking their fingers down their throat.
This image of the chair shows it fitted with a foam head brace. This removes the need for any human restraint whilst the hunger striker is being fed - though I think the head would still have to be held by a warden or doctor while the tube was inserted in the nose.
The five point restraint chair is used in prisons across America, though it seems it’s only in Guantanamo Bay where it used for force feeding. To prison guards it’s known as the ‘be nice chair’ or the ‘we care chair’. For prisoners it has been called ‘the devil’s chair’ and ‘the slave’s chair’. In Guantanamo, its Arabic name translates as ‘the torture chair’.
Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau is an artist. He lives and works in London. He runs The Bad Vibes Club, which is a forum for research into negative states.This piece comes from a series of blog posts exploring force feeding first published at ashortdescription.blogspot.co.uk. It relates to a long term interest in the relationships between food, abjection and politics.