In December 2014 Coca-Cola launched their latest product, Milka-Cola or ‘Fairlife’. Sandy Douglas, Coke’s global chief customer officer, speaking at a Morgan Stanley investment conference, announced Fairlife as ‘a milk that’s premiumised and tastes better and we’ll charge twice as much for it as the milk we’re used to buying’. This new product, Coke predicts, will ‘rain money’ for investors. The trade journal Dairy Today frames this intervention in the milk industry as a way of meeting the ‘challenge’ of the decline of milk consumption among American adults. Coca-Cola, in partnership with US dairy farmers, aims to claw American consumers back to the ‘fluid milk’ category. Their marketing featured a series of nude, digitally milk-clad women in retro pin-up poses, which, following a Twitterstorm of accusations of regressive, hypersexualised marketing, they subsequently pulled.

This recent campaign mimics (in its rhetoric of excess) the US milk marketing model of the 1970s. At this time, too, faced with declining demand, milk marketers poured an unprecedented amount of money into the promotion of milk consumption. This was preferable to propping up the milk-producing part of the agricultural industry with controversial subsidies, but the marketing boards concerned were in fact arms of the state. Milk ads have been historically closely connected to state policy, concerned with keeping its dairy farming industry (always at risk of oversupply) afloat and profitable. Milk marketing, allied to other forms of public health promotion, deluged the consuming public with the spectacle of health-giving white fluid.

What is milk? A whitish fluid; a first food; a natural product, readily appropriated by market economies; a symbol of purity and wholesomeness; highly perishable; a ‘universal icon of modern nutrition’; and a female good.[1] This most quotidian and universal of commodities seems in many ways exemplary of what Marx called the most ‘elemental form of wealth’– the commodity’s commodity – one of the most basic units of the capitalist political economy. Milk has also served as a symbol of welfare, a panacea to poverty and poor health: between 1946 and 1968 the UK government issued all schoolchildren with a free daily milk ration. Milk, that most banal of substances, penetrates our economies, identities, and sexuality to the very bone .

Historically the church policed the science and symbolism of milk. First-century writings by Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest Church Fathers, reveal an astonishing co-opting of maternal milk into biblical doctrine. According to this theological science, blood becomes milk, which is made ‘white by being agitated like a wave…by frothing it, like what takes place with the sea’. Through a kind of hermeneutic transubstantiation, in which spiritual ‘seeking is called sucking’, ‘the Word [is] figuratively represented as milk’. Milk appears, too, in late medieval iconography, where the exemplary mother –Mary – and her exemplary milk together form a subject known as the Galaktotrophousa or the Madonna del Latte.

milk 1

A deep ambivalence surrounds these depictions, which mingle nurture and the erotic, service and power.[2] Miraculous powers of healing (and projection) were ascribed to a spurt of Mary’s holy milk, as in the story of Bernard de Clairvaux, a medieval French abbot, who was successfully cured in this manner of an eye affliction.[3] This iconography eventually disappeared due to the prohibition of nudity in spiritual subjects, the consensus coming down on the side of the sexualisation of the breast (#freethenipple). Early modern theories continue the appropriation of this female fluid, albeit androgynously, and equate not only blood but semen with milk.[4] Milk is a vehicle of mutability, readily adopted by transubstantiating theologists, air-borne into the eyes of abbots, formed of distilled blood or recycled semen, both sacred and profane .

Conventional representations of lactation in literature develop a discourse which admits and reinforces the increasingly gendered dimensions of milk. Lady Macbeth’s demand to be unsexed, to ‘take my milk for gall’, is a necessary precursor to brutal (that is, unfeminine) acts. William Cowper, in The Task, finds milk to be ‘as sweet as charity’. Wordsworth’s psychosomatic Mad Mother apostrophises

Suck, little babe, oh suck again!

It cools my blood; it cools my brain;

Thy lips I feel them, baby! they

Draw from my heart the pain away.

The mingling of power and service, nurture and eros, remains in circulation. To this currency Wordsworth adds hysteria (that putatively feminine affliction) and malignant, lunacy-inducing milk which must be drawn off like pus from a wound. Seventeenth- century wet nursing guidebooks likewise attribute milk with contaminating, transformative properties, warning that ‘the Milke… hath a power to make the children like the Nurses, both in bodie and minde’.[5] Identity-forming outsourced breast-milk makes for border and class-based anxiety. Twentieth-century psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, theorising individual development, concurs that formative ‘object relations start almost at birth, and arise with the first feeding experience’ and further posits ‘a devoured and hence devouring breast’.[6]Milk operates as a slippery agent, in these accounts, at the borders between psyche and body, between subjects, labour, consumption and identity.

Other bodily fluids, whether blood, saliva, semen, or urine, are not commodified to the same extent as milk, which doubles as excretion and highly lucrative good, breaching the borders between human body and commodity. In a 2011 report on the ‘booming’ online breast-milk market, Wired magazine hailed this surplus product as ‘liquid gold’. Lucre has worked its way into milk’s very etymology: the operation of the verbal form of milk is to draw, siphon, tap, or, more figuratively, to exploit, bleed or fleece. Although the word in our modern English sounds the same, the verb form of ‘milk’ is not cognate with the noun. ‘To milk’ has acquired meanings related to financial or other fraudulence, with a unaccounted-for gap in the linguistic derivation.

Milk’s slippery doubleness works both to subvert and exploit – what contemporary poet Andrea Brady has termed ‘a milky dialectic’. Kleinian psychoanalysis takes the mother, and more specifically the breast, to be the site of a radical breakdown of borders. French feminist Julia Kristeva finds subversive potential in milk which ‘mingles two identities and connotes the bond between the one and the other’.Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 12.05.32

Moreover, the warm skin of milk is given as an example of Kristeva’s abject (Powers of Horror, 1983), that which is excluded from and threatening to the hegemonic social order – a reminder of the fragility and mutability of borders, of the body, between the self and other.[7]Another feminist theorist, Hélène Cixous, made the contentious claim in the 1976 ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ that ‘a woman is never far from “mother” […] There is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink.’

The concept of ‘that good mother’s milk’ underwent some strain in the seventies, when the relentless marketing of Nestlé formula milk in the global south produced devastating consequences. Encouraged by Nestle’s marketing to consider the breast not as a source of nourishment but a cosmetic sex symbol, women were persuaded to sub in expensive formula (often fatally diluted with unclean water) for breast-milk. The organisation War on Want designated this marketing as an attack on women’s mental health, and an exploitation of their poverty. Despite the 1981 formation of the International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes and rulings against misleading promotion strategies, for Nestlé formula milk remains a hugely profitable and growing market.

Milk’s subversive potential slips easily, then, into a fetishisation of motherhood, and of milk. Jacqueline Rose’s excellent LRB article Mothers argues that this is a subject ‘thick with idealisations’, a repository for the perpetuation of sexism. Rose cites as counter-example poet Sylvia Plath who wrote of motherhood that ‘it milks my life’, placing atrocity at the centre of this idealised role. Denise Riley, in her poem ‘Milk Ink’ responds to Cixous’ notion of white ink and resists the over-validation of the biological it represents:

Don’t read this as white ink flow, pressed out

Of retractable nipples. No,

Black as his is mine.

In Riley’s poem, which swaps around pronouns, referees and referents, slipping between categories, this white ink may be milk, or for that matter it may be semen, reclaiming the possibility of androgynous expression. Art critic Barry Shwabsky, commenting on Jacqueline Rose’s essay on mothers, points to another counter-example: the many lyrics by Courtney Love that reference milk. In her album Live Through This, Love distorts ostensibly nurturing milk to characterise her conflicted relationship with her mother, singing ‘your milk’s in my mouth’, ‘I’m eating you’, ‘all your milk is sour’, and ‘there is no milk’. It’s ok to say that mother’s milk is not always a good thing.

Our milk fetish is the victim of its own excess. Surplus cow’s milk production in Britain means that milk is currently cheaper than water. The milk lakes of EU Common Agricultural Policy, whose milk quotas incidentally expired in April 2015, repeat themselves. Wholesome and ‘natural’ according to the propaganda (never mind that almost all saleable milk is pasteurised and homogenised, or Coca-Cola’s intervention), milk is marked by perishability, economic and corporate mismanagement, and gendered appropriation. The examples given here only skim the surface – what of the appropriation of cow’s milk, on a grand scale? or the taboo erotics of breastfeeding? – but begin to show how the bland exterior of the milk commodity masks its potential to embody exploitation at some of the deepest levels of our social structures.


[1] Deborah Valenze, Milk: a local and global history, (Michigan: Sheridan Books, 2011) p.x, 3

[2] Francis Dolan, “Marian Devotion and Maternal Authority in Seventeenth-Century England,” Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh, eds., (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) p.288

[3] I am indebted to Andrea Brady’s Mutability (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012) for bringing the writings of Clement of Alexandria, the Galaktotrophousa iconography and Bernard de Clairvaux to my attention.

[4] Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990) p.35

[5] James Guillimeau, The Nursing of Children, (London, 1612) cited by Rachel Trubowitz, “But Blood Whitened”: Nursing Mothers and Others in Early Modern Britain’, Maternal Measures (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000p. 83-4

[6] Melanie Klein, ‘The Psycho-Analytic Play Technique”, in The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliette Mitchell (New York: Free Press, 1987), 52; Ibid, ’Envy and Gratitude’, p.217

[7] The milk of Kristevan theory is not milk in its most processed, homogenised form: “Whole homogenised milk is identical in fat and nutrient content to whole standardised milk however it has undergone a specific process known as “homogenisation” which breaks up the fat globules in the milk. This spreads the fat evenly throughout the milk and prevents a creamy layer forming at the top.”, The Dairy Council