Who We Are / Not: Salt(s)

Writing athwart a theory (machine)

This multimedia essay is a conversation that occurred across a saltwater ocean between two artist-researchers, Sofia Varino and May Joseph, about the ins-and-outs of one’s relationship with salt(s). It proceeds from an understanding of salt as an important political agent and element that generates various scales of history and personal intimacy via a single grain. To treat seawater, or in our case salt(s), as a ‘theory machine’ runs the risk of assuming that the elements somehow already lie outside of theory, or to occlude the various theoretical lines of discourse – history, geopolitics, desire – that we cut across when we try to say what we are saying about salt(s). Perceived this way, these writings follow Stefan Helmreich’s recommendation to ‘work athwart theory’, that is, to “think of theory neither as set above the empirical nor as simply deriving from it but, rather, as crossing the empirical transversely” [1].

Once part of the sea, or the earth, salt(s) journey through trade patterns, (colonial) histories, and health discourses towards and through our porous human bodies. The central speculations of this essay are these: how do salt(s) point to notions of porosity, interdependency, hybridity, and permeability? How is salt indifferent to dominant ideas of stability, certainty, and wholeness? If, as Sofia argues in quoting microbiologist Rob Knight, “we are mostly not ourselves,” how do salt(s) challenge the modern fantasy “of a unified, coherent, enclosed ‘self’”[2]? Moreover, by placing salt(s) as teacher and protagonist in this project, which stories of entanglements come to the surface? May writes about her work with “ocean ontologies”, or ocean potentialities, that open alternative ways of approaching history. In the case of this essay, how does thinking through a ‘salty modality’ similarly “activate different cognitive reworkings of memory, history [and] allow for new ways of thinking about decoloniality?”[3].

Due to the pandemic, this project has undergone various re-conceptualizations of both content and format. Although we had to depart from our initial idea of an in-person conversation in 2019, the uncertain times also prompted us to think of alternative and creative ways to engage salt(s) on a digital platform. Instead of trying to produce some sort of ontological knowledge about salt(s), this is about our learnings from living alongside this recalcitrant powder as it seeps, contaminates, purifies, saturates, and dissolves.

Over the course of a year, Sofia wrote from Berlin and May wrote from across the Atlantic (the saltiest ocean of them all) in Connecticut. The text aligned to the left is from Sofia’s contribution 28 Indices of Salt [a.vi.s.u.a.l.e.s.s.a.y], and the text flowing along the right is from May’s contribution, the poetry collection SALT DIARIES. We are excited to invite you to scroll along on a journey into a past, present and future guided by salt(s). The errors, however correct, are ours.

Happy scrolling!

Sofia, Anne, Hinemoana and Baldeep

Sofia Varino is a writer, lecturer and researcher based in Berlin. Varino’s research examines the unnatural entanglements of biological and social life, cutting across environmental theory, history & philosophy of science, continental philosophy, and transdisciplinary gender studies. Varino is currently a postdoctoral researcher with the minor cosmopolitanisms graduate research training group, a cooperation established among the University of Potsdam, the Free University of Berlin and Humboldt University of Berlin. Varino lecturer regularly at the Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies at Humboldt, where they have designed and taught courses on topics ranging from queer ecologies and bioethics to posthumanism and new materialist ontologies. Varino co-hosts the MOUTHNOISE show on YouTube and is currently working on a book-length project about the long environmental (pre)histories of the Covid-19 pandemic.

May Joseph is the founder of Harmattan Theater, Inc.,  an environmental theater company based in New York City and Professor of Global Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, New York. Her scholarly research combines critical cultural theory and environmental practice, and a focus on the junctures between cities, performance, water ecologies and coastal futures. Joseph has published widely on globalization, urbanism, performance, and visual culture; books include Aquatopia: Critical Interventions (Routledge 2022) with Sofia Varino; Ghosts of Lumumba, Poetics Lab, 2020; Sea Log:Indian Ocean to New York (Routledge, 2019); Fluid New York: Cosmopolitan Urbanism and the Green Imagination (Duke University Press, 2013); Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship (Minnesota, 1999) and a co-edited collection Performing Hybridity (Minnesota, 1999). Since 2009, Joseph has created community based, site specific performances addressing water issues along river and ocean cities around the maritime world including Istanbul, Venice, Amsterdam, Cochin, Delhi, Cape Town, Lisbon, New York.  She is currently completing a book on Indian Ocean maritime networks.

To see collaborations between May and Sofia, check the Harmattan Theater [4], a New York based international environmental performance collective founded (in 2009) and directed by May and with Sofia as associated director and performer. The group centers oceans and water bodies as political agents shaping lives for human and nonhumans to explore how “Water shapes our understanding of urban futures”[5].

[1] Helmreich, Stefan. “Nature/Culture/Seawater.” American Anthropologist, vol. 113, no. 1., 2013, pp. 132-144. AnthroSource, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01311.x, 134.

[2] Varino, Sofia. Vital Differences Indeterminacy & the Biomedical Body. 2017. Stone Brook University, PhD Dissertation, 84.

[3] Joseph, May. Sea Log. Indian Ocean to New York. Routledge, 2019, 41.

[4] “About.” Harmattan Theater, Harmattan Theater, 2022, http://harmattantheater.com/?page_id=243.

[5] Joseph, May and Sofia Varino. “Aquapelagic Assemblages: Performing Water Ecology with Harmattan Theater.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1/2, 2017, pp. 151-166. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44474116, 153.


© Lucas Jenss 2020.


       “Wager of Salt”.



How much salt did it take to get the British out of India

How much salt does it take to convince your father that you love him

How much salt does it take to get banished from your country

King Lear asked this question of his three daughters: “How much do you love me?”

And his third daughter said “ I love you as much as I love salt” 

And she was banished from his kingdom.

How much salt does it take to love someone?


1. Salt is sodium chloride (NaCl), bound.

2. That relation is renegotiated constantly. Under certain conditions, if chloride’s five  chains come close to sodium’s, they are joined to become one as salt. But what are  those conditions? What makes salt SALT, as opposed to a mixture of chloride and  sodium? Dispersion and stirring, bonding and binding.

3. Sodium (Na) is the chemical element of atomic number 11 on the periodic table. It is a  soft silver-white reactive metal of the alkali metal group. 

4. Chloride (Cl–) is a negatively charged ion, meaning: the element chlorine with an extra  electron attached to it. But you can also dissolve hydrogen chloride or sodium chloride  in water to obtain chloride. 

5. Chlorine (Cl) is the chemical element of atomic number 17. A pale yellow-green gas at  room temperature, from the Greek khloros, meaning “green.” Chlorine is a toxic,  irritant gas, often used as a poison gas during WWI. Added to water supplies, it works  as a disinfectant. Chlorine is the active agent in many household bleaches. Chlorine  gas is released in the making of aqua regia, a yellow-orange liquid made of nitric acid  and hydrochloric acid and used to dissolve platinum and gold. Hydrochloric acid is also in the gastric juices of most human and nonhuman animals. But have you ever  seen chlorine? A Museum of Khloros.

6. Soft silver white. Pale yellow green. Then add an electron and chlorine becomes  chloride. Chloride joins sodium. There you have it, the salt you seek.

7. Then salt has a whole underworld all its own, a prehistory in one single translucent  flake.

© Khwissem 2018 (commons.wikimedia.org).

8. The History of Salt is a History of Taste (see below). It is a History of Conservation. It  is a History of World Economics. A History of Dissolution.

9. And then the adjacent question is, can salt taste you back? Can it smell and sense you? Can we envisage a neurology of salt or even: a Salt Sensing Tectonics Theory Machine? 





It is 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the Doha desert.

A shimmering haze distorts the vision, perspectival distortion.


The scorching sun dries the air one breathes

Parched lips crackling open.


I lick the salt off the air, sucking its intensities

singeing the delicate epiderma of moisture and cool

heady and delirious.


The ochre dunes recede in a mirage of sea sand, slowly.

 © May Joseph 2021


10. But Himalayan salt is pink, halite crystals mined from the Punjab region of Pakistan – by whose hands, for how much? The cost of that pink sold for the weight of its health  benefits and: the taste. The difference in hue is due to the presence of impurities, the  non-salt, that the halite crystal carries: zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium… (no iodine).

© Baldeep Kaur 2020.

11. Salt crystals gather at my table in an unremarkable saltshaker, transparent and shaped to be held by human fingers, anticipating the gestures attending shaking, sprinkling, seasoning. For a couple of years, we used a kilo of Himalayan salt bought at the overpriced organic supermarket down the road – until the bag was empty. My wife informs me I use too much salt. I scatter that excessive layer of powdered crystals all over my food. I like the slow burn opening a halo of sweetness at the back of my mouth. Sodium and chloride as one.


“Oblique Sun”



Diamonds on glass 

wake me to their sparkling iridescence


the oblique sun I crave

curves the sky too early

to hit me in the eye.


Playful rays of light

bounce off the snowcapped fields like speckles of salt

heat on ice, they pierce hungry windows.


Tongues of fire tease the dog 

as he chases their pools of warmth around the snowed in house.


 © May Joseph 2021

12. I carry the world’s salt within my bloodsalt and you in yours. I carry my salt in your blood.

13. Sea salt has a translucent density, the solid remains of seawater after evaporation, its mineral residue turning more or less opaque according to the concentration of anything other than sodium chloride. Salt’s what’s left after water’s gone: a salt stone.

© Anne Maabjerg Mikkelsen 2020.


“In the Delirium of the Salt Fields”



I walk the scorching delirium of saline earth 

near the sinking temples of Mahabalipuram


Acrid with acidity

of sweat and skin and dirt,

a lunar landscape of sparkling white mounds of salt surround me.


I fear its primal wilderness, surreal and deserted

harsh contours of curves and light wrapping around the horizon.


A ruthless wind blows powdered salt into my eyes, my nostrils

dry waterless ferocity burns my senses.

It takes many hours to leave the desolate saltine vista behind.

© May Joseph 2021


14. Rock salt from salt mines is harvested and cultivated. Salt grows into treasured rock,  stone, crystal – a Trilogy of Salt.

15. Downstairs there is a saltwater pool & sauna. Go there nightly. Roll your tongue  around your mouth and lick your lips well, once, twice, yes. Taste it again. Keep  breathing, deeper. Is this salt dust floating in the air or is it the drops of your own  sweat evaporating in the steam? You can book yourself a salt rub. 

© Baldeep Kaur 2021.


“Forest of Ice”



Thick blankets of whipped snow layers the land, a dreamscape of salt. Blinding white, its silence is splendid. A plump grey owl sits at the tip of a shattered ash tree, its crackled branches diamond with frost. So much whiteness, the deafening quiet pulls me to a place I have never known. Still. Serene. Solitary in its splendor. I do not leave the house for weeks, so wrapped in the folds of snow is the little cottage. A new sedentary depth unravels across the forest of ice. Little feet scatter amidst the waves of wind lines. I am entranced by the fractals of bluster and storm, harsh grooves cut across the glinting ice as though to catch a lost fury, a harm wrought in the darkness of winter. Around the buried house, barren woods flare up against a tranquil dawn. All forms of distraction fade into the thickness of cold, as though the very air dehydrates empty thought. The icy forest sighs. It heaves, holding its resplendent poise in the soft of the bone chilling morning. Along the frozen country road, a trail of blue salt, scattered brilliance, melts the dangerous slip.

© May Joseph 2021


16. There are one thousand ways to cook bacalhau, the traditional salted cod fish that is  such a staple of Portuguese cuisine. Most of the cod comes from northern Norway, where salted cod is eaten as a savory snack or baked with potatoes and onions in a  tomato sauce and then called a Portuguese style bacalhau stew.  

17. Para quem é, bacalhau basta / “Considering for whom it is, salted cod will do,” is a  Portuguese saying, implying that someone doesn’t deserve too much care or trouble – for them, salted cod is enough.

18. But in chemistry, a salt is any chemical compound formed by the reaction of an acid with a base. All (or part) of the hydrogen of the acid is replaced by a metal or other cation (a positively charged ion attracted to the cathode in electrolysis).

© Baldeep Kaur 2020.

19. “Salted,” of a horse, means that it has developed a resistance to disease by overcoming it.

20. The Price of Salt is a novel by Patricia Highsmith, later republished with the title Carol and turned into an award-winning movie directed by Todd Haynes. Reading the novel in my youth, I learnt that being queer is all about being broke and desperate or about getting into trouble trying to rescue those who are broke or desperate. Lack of money defines being queer precisely because queers have been operating outside the reproductive economy of marriage relations. Consistent queer fucking comes at a price

– the price of salt.

21. The taste of salt in my blood is due to sodium. The taste of rust in my blood is due to  iron. Blood is a salty rust, a rusty bloodsalt.

22. Iodine deficiency occurs when someone does not eat enough sea salt, usually in  populations living far from the coast with little to no consumption of fish and seafood.  In countries with diets low in seafood, iodine has been added to flour, milk and table  salt in order to prevent the effects of iodine deficiency. But iodine is also used as a  disinfectant and in high doses it can be poisonous, even deadly. 

23. Sea vegetables like kelp are iodine rich. The nori in my sushi floods my bloodstream with iodine and sodium, a burst of sealife.

24. O Mar dos Outros

It was always someone else’s sea. 

We had no business being there, licking 

its salt. Plunging its depths, harvesting, hunting for life.  

We ate the cod of it, the crab and weed and eel of it & collected  

the shells. It’s like eating the ocean, you say, after gulping down the pulp of that initial

Oyster. The first cunt I ate tasted just like this, I reply laughing & gobble down my own

six euros worth of ocean flesh. You drizzle malt vinegar all over your very first fish &

chips, the sting of that first taste tickles your tongue. This is so good, you mutter as you

smack your lips & suck 

on your fingertips for what’s left of the oil & salt. But Lot’s wife turned 

to a pillar of salt after she looked back at Solom.

© emsmith 2017 (unsplash.com).

25. After the current monetary system collapses, will there be a Salt Bank? Salt Financial  Insurance? Salt Futures Inc.? How do you measure salt’s purity? How do you measure  the value of its impurity? How do you measure iodine? Iodine Investments Inc.

26. The Hudson river flows both ways: the salt of retribution, sweet water in a tidal  whirlwind, wanting back the ocean.  

27. During Harmattan’s Dreamscapes (2010), we used water from the river and sea salt to  enact our river-becoming – pouring Hudson’s water on soil, returning salt to the drowned river. Salt & Light.

© Joshua Kristal (2010).

28. Ó mar salgado, quanto do teu sal são lágrimas de Portugal / “Oh salty sea, how much of  your salt are tears of Portugal,” writes Fernando Pessoa in the poetry collection A  Mensagem, a sickening ode to the age of Portuguese discoveries and colonialism. I can  taste this salty ocean all the way from Berlin, the Tagus river cutting across my living  room before it is swollen up by the Atlantic. This history of centuries of departures and  arrivals, with all their attendant violence, horror, death, torture, pollution, exploitation  and extraction, centuries of ecological devastation decimating human and nonhuman  life: it haunts us, here and now, me performing as the ghost of Vasco da Gama’s  daughter and Diana Niepce as a water sprite, the Tagus spirit. Tears run down my face  during the Mar Português (2012) performance by Harmattan Theater at Cais das  Colunas in Lisbon. I lick them off my lips. The impenetrable Tagus, our Tejo da  Cidade, the injured river bubbling dense with heavy metals, running slow and steady towards the open mouth of the Atlantic, ready to be salted, to suture its wound with a  calamity of blue, a surge of speeding water into the high tide.

© Alípio Padilha 2012.

© Joshua Kristal (2013)

“Burden of Salt”



Shallow pools of seawater spread out against a scorching sun. Their contours crusted with white crusty salt. One can smell the harsh salty air against the parching skin. The horizon is still, a sweltering lunar landscape. I am dehydrated from walking for hours in the merciless heat of the medieval temple city of Mahabhalipuram, near Madras, India, in 1980, and feel in a trance. Later I would come to realize I had been walking the Great Salt Lake of the Coromandel Coast. The area was once rich in mangrove forests, vibrant swampland and marshes. The colonial production of salt farms have continued to expand in industrialized form, leading to the large scale deforestation and degradation of the ecological biodiversity of the region. Where once a wide array of mollusks, reptiles, insects, birds and amphibians coexisted with the muddy terrain, there now remains only the empty silence of the white salt pans. A dead bird here and dead reptile there, leave a trace of the toxic devastation of salt’s history along India’s third largest salt fields, those off the shores of the ancient city of Mahabhalipuram.

I can taste the dry, harsh saltiness of the salt pan sun. I wonder at the labor that creates the infinitely extending geometric patches of seawater, mud and salt, so mathematically calibrated against the startling juxtaposition of blue sky and white salt. These are the salt fields of British colonial punishment. They are the salt fields of freedom from bondage as well. And now, they present themselves as the ecological degradation of the anthropogenic history of colonialism and its new-colonial after math. Amongst these harsh salt domes live those condemned by the caste system to toil the mud, soil and salt of society. It is a grim scene of the brutal hierarchies of India’s post-independence promises. Here, the children of salt scavenge a livelihood scooping pans of salt out of the ocean. It is a startling scene of servitude and damnation. An inferno of salt.

*Web design assistance by Rachel Pafe

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search