an experiment in queer economies
Cakeonomies is an ongoing research experiment investigating the practices, values and relationships of a Queer Economy.
From November 2020 to May 2021 I baked and gifted 20 cakes to people part of the queer community across Brighton, UK and Brooklyn, USA.
Each cake came with a set of instructions that set up the basis for exchange and explored notions of value, exchange, and social interactions.
The Cakeonomies experiment and the resulting practice of exchange fostered local small-scale queer economies and pointed towards possibilities for new queer economic visions.
This page showcases documentation of the experiment (lots of pictures of cake) and written exploration of some of the emerging insights and ways forward towards a Queer Economy.
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Queerness, as related to queer-identifying people, is foreclosed in the practice of economics and in the economy. The heteronormative and androcentric epistemologies, values and methods of economics, and the economy upon which the state is based are not only unable to account for the complexity of queer identities but are unwilling to value queer people since queerness is, as a whole, not productive to the state or reproduction of the market.
The Cakeonomies experiment explores how we might reconfigure the economy as a whole, rather than merely emphasizing how queer people can be accommodated in the existing market economy and be made useful in capitalist and state aims. I look specifically at how a diversity of queer practices, values, and relationships might constitute a Queer Economy that functions according to the resistance of normativity and the insistence on moving towards liberatory futures.
To do so I expand queerness from its exclusive position as an identifier and imagine not only the values and practices of queer people but also queerness as a theoretical standpoint.
In general terms, queer theory understands queerness as the troubling of normative ways of knowing, being, and constructing reality. Queerness is both a refusal of linearity, binaries, categorization and prescribed norms, as well as an ideality along which to imagine new possible modes of existence. Queerness is ephemeral in its ever-reaching and ever-expanding insistence towards something other.
A Queer Economy can account for the variety of queer identities and practices but also for a wider intersection of identities and experiences in its refusal of categorization and insistence on something generative and other(wise). So, while queer-identifying people are central to a Queer Economy, an economy orientated towards queerness is not necessarily just for queer people. This is not to instrumentalize queerness as a method but rather to work towards the emancipation of all marginalized identities, of which I believe queerness (both as identifier and orientation) must be a part.
There are no easy solutions or neat frameworks being offered here, nor will there ever be. There is no succinct model of a Queer Economy that we can affix as an endpoint in our future. Rather than predetermining what we are striving toward, we can instead commit to the work of being, acting, and responding to the potentiality of ever-changing directions, opportunities, and acts of a Queer Economy.
Sharing cake in queer communities prompted both the exploration and the enactment of queer understandings of value, practices of exchange, and relationship configurations in the cake economies. Being challenged to prefigure queerness as an orientation in this way moved us, the participants, out of a purely theoretical space into one in which we are already practising and working on capacities towards our, and others’, liberation.
The exchange of cake is a generative method of research in that it allows for the complex subjects of value, exchange and economies to be explored indirectly.
Each cake came with a set of instructions that set up the basis for the cake exchange with the core requests being to slice and share the cake with (x) amount of people.
For the first ten cakes of the experiment, I included a different additional request in the instructions. which prompted engagement around the notions of value and exchange.
Alongside the instructions and photographs of the slices of cake, I also recorded the traditional market value of each of the cakes.
You can view the documentation for each of the cakes by clicking on them below.
You can view the documentation for each of the cakes by clicking on the text or image above.
The accumulation of each of the cake exchanges and resulting activity can be understood as a small local queer cake economy in its own right. Therefore when I refer to ‘cake economies’, I mean the two local cake economies set up in Brighton and Brooklyn respectively.
These cake economies were helpful in pulling apart the theoretical territory asking: What practices of measurement are centered in this system of exchange? How do methods of exchange impact relationships? What are queer values and how do these operate in economic activity? Further to this, and importantly, participants renegotiated embedded social scripts, related to strangers in unfamiliar ways, and offered and received items of value.
These data from the cake exchanges is analyzed across four interrelated themes: negotiating value, enacting social inter/actions, participating in exchange, and networking.
In this experiment, cake is generative in creating and exploring notions of value.
Value was generated in the cake economies through the sharing of the cakes as slices within queer networks.
Not only were participants inferring and creating their own sense of value for each cake, but they were also creating value, specifically social value, through sharing the cake and through the resulting interactions.
Through these experiments, I propose looking at value through a completely different lens that decenters the primacy of monetary value and the measurement of value in a way that seeks to contain it and feed it into various formulas. In doing so we effectively queer our taken-for-granted notions of value, thereby viewing the creation of value as more important than simply the consumption of value.
The interactions and relationships, both new and existing, long and short term, in the cake economies were points of meaningful social value creation. While in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic and unable to gather and share food in the usual way, participants in the experiment were able to exchange cake as a conduit to connection.
Beyond my own connection with people in the community, the cake economies played a part in catalyzing countless other moments of connection for those participating. Communing with others and the value that creates, particularly in these isolating times, cannot be measured, but its importance cannot be overstated.
A key contributing factor to the social value in the cake economies is the vector of exchange. In the cake economies, these agreed-upon terms of exchange set up a web of relations of expectations of exchange within local queer communities in a way that is akin to that of a gift economy.
There are two main factors in the cake economies that queered the principles of a gift economy: the temporalities of exchange and notions of reciprocity.
Rather than an ongoing process of balancing and re-balancing equivalence to ‘pay’ off debt slowly as is the case in many gift economies, or than immediate repayment of debt based on price as is the case in market economies, the cake economies sat outside of these practices of exchange. Furthermore, while the agreement of exchange between participants meant that we were indebted to one another, there was no expectation of reciprocity and indeed no means with which to measure equal exchange in normative abstracted ways such as money.
In reorienting how we related to exchanging and negotiating with strangers, we engaged with one another in an occasionally discomfiting but always more invested way than is often practiced, thereby queering social expectations of exchange.
The design of the instructions and the resulting exchange meant that a chain of interdependent connections was set up in the cake economies between me, the recipient, and the receivers. The queered practices and expectations of exchange activated the web of relationships in the cake economies and catalyzed further sharing and exchange.
So while the cake in the cake economies is (unfortunately) finite, the exchange set up within them is a catalyst that serves to build an ecology of relationships supported by interconnections of sharing and reciprocity.
Not only do these further moments of exchange and reciprocity further highlight the immeasurable social value generated in the cake economies but they also demonstrate the way in which acts of exchange can proliferate within relationship networks and wider communities.
Using cake as a method to foster simple economies of exchange within the queer community in Brighton and Brooklyn was an entryway to explore and embody the values, practices, and relationships that could underpin and constitute a Queer Economy. While a relatively straightforward and continuing experiment, Cakeonomies points to how we might shift away from our emphasis on limited forms of measurement, value as created by material and labor alone, binary understandings of exchange practices, and finite resources as endpoints in networks.
Across the cake economies, there were glitches in shifting our behavior to accommodate new ways of being in relation with one another that produced a generative discomfort through moments of exchange that queer the norm. This points to the fact that while queer communities inherently have different models, practices, and configurations of valuing and relating, there is still work to be done to expand our capacity for how we survive well together outside of patriarchal capitalist norms. I would argue that this is particularly the case in the white western contexts the cake economies existed within, as our relational practices are much more rooted in colonized conventions and values of individuality, scarcity, and competition that we white people historically sought (and seek) to impose on others.
Expanding our capacities reconfigures how we show up in solidarity with others in our communities that do not share the same identity intersections as us and face oppression in much deeper ways. Building capacity within ourselves and our networks can queer the way in which we exist and operate in opposition to norms and is a vital part of how we work together to abolish oppressive systems and fight for the emancipation of all, both those in community with us and otherwise.
Introducing the richness of cake into people’s daily lives, with instructions that set up queered expectations of exchange, can disrupt the way we relate and how we show up with (and for) one another. By predicating practices of exchange that complicate the way we measure value, our notions of reciprocity, and our relationships, we can start to prefigure an economy that is queer in its inclusion and work towards the emancipation of all.
While the initial Cakeonomies experiment was limited in time, scope, and context, the intention is that the Cakeonomies experiment will continue indefinitely within the queer community in Brooklyn. Expanding the work of Cakeonomies will not only introduce new lenses of analysis but also further challenge, support, and deepen the understandings and assertions already put forth.
There is much potential in redesigning the methods and conditions of exchange across different stages of the cake economies. While the core request to share the cake will remain the same, I plan to regularly adjust the expected responses.
Outside of the interactions within the cake economies themselves, there is further work that can be done. In particular, I plan to develop an online resource that can act as a prompt for others to create their own simple economies of exchange, not limited to cake.
I imagine this research and continuous work towards embodying a Queer Economy will be a substantial part of my endeavors in the coming years.
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
While not cited in the essay, the references below were fundamental in developing my thinking and influencing the Cakeonomies experiment.
Thank you to every person that has contributed to the Cakeonomies experiment.