Morton and I are currently exploring the concept of resonance for an article we’re co-authoring for the next issue of Collapse devoted to culinary materialism. This is a particularly fortuitous encounter because Tim has a strong background in music where concepts and phenomena are ubiquitous, whereas I have a background in second-order systems theory where the concept of resonance also plays a peculiar and ubiquitous role. Neither Morton nor I quite know what resonance is yet. That’s how it often is with concepts. The concept appears and then you have to set about exploring the topology the concept, its singularities, its boundaries, its behaviors, its functions, and the problems to which it responds. Concepts have a life of their own such that oddly thinkers can’t do whatever they might like with them. Graham articulates this point nicely in his recent meditations on Plato. As Harman wrote a while back,

And I agree with all of it, with one possible exception. Levi says that the attempt to reduce ontological questions to epistemological ones “hearkens back to Meno’s paradox in Plato. In the Meno Socrates asks ‘how can we inquire into the nature of virtue without first knowing virtue?’ And if this constitutes a paradox, then this is precisely because if we already know virtue, then we have no reason to inquire into the nature of virtue.”

That particular passage in the Meno is important to me, so I’ll just say that I interpret it differently. I don’t think that’s Socrates saying that knowledge comes before being. I think it’s Socrates saying that an eidos is prior to its qualities. In other words, the point is not that we have to know a horse before considering its being, but that we have to know a horse before asking about horse-qualities. So I read the paradox differently: namely, how can a thing be prior to its own qualities? There’s a bit about this early in The Quadruple Object.

It is this way with concepts as well. There’s a very strange sense in which the concept appears before the notes that make up the multiple-composition of the concept appear. Those notes only reveal themselves gradually.

The concept that Morton and I are putting together distinguishes between resonance and resonators. Resonance refers to the capacity of an entity to be affected by other entities in its environment or the issue of whether or not an entity is open to other entities in its environment and, if open to its environment, how it is open to its environment. By contrast, a resonator is an entity that promotes or enables resonance among entities. I have recently discussed resonators in terms of tópos koinós or common places that are sites that bring entities together in a mesh.

read on!

All of this, no doubt, sounds very strange in the context of food. However, what Tim and I want to do is treat food as a resonator or as a mesh of resonators. In many respects, food is the symptom par excellence of the shortcomings of semiotically dominated cultural theory. It is remarkable that food has not garnered more attention within cultural studies. To be sure, we have Levi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked, but here, as Morton likes to put it, food is treated as a rather uninteresting featureless lump (what I call a “blank screen” in The Democracy of Objects). Above all, food isn’t treated as a cultural entity worth of analysis on par with film, television, painting, literature, and poetry.

My thesis is that food occupies this diminished place within cultural theory because it doesn’t fit the content- or semiotic-based model that holds pride of place within cultural analysis. Food is like pharmakon in that it evades any sort of strict categorization, but rather crosses all boundaries between the human and the nonhuman. In this respect, food is the resonator par excellence. Food is an agency that contributes massively to macro-social relations. In many respects, much of large scale social organization can be understood as an effect of food production and transport. For example, Chinese society took on a particular organization between the 14th and 17th century because of the primacy of rice production. The labor intensity of rice production encouraged collective, year round work. In Europe, by contrast, the reliance of grains such as wheat and barley generated precarious social relations as the harvest of these grains is prone to failure. Grain famines directly preceded, for example, the French Revolution. In the modern world, the invention of the supermarket and the refrigerator marked a revolution in social organization. The refrigerator, especially, allowed for flight from the cities and the establishment of suburbs far from centers of work. This, in turn, led to the production of highways to enhance travel between the city and the suburb, which also contributes greatly to the problems of climate change.

Food, of course, also plays a key role at the micro-social level. Meals are sites or tópos koinós that bring small groups of people together in a variety of ways. Bound up with these micro-sites are ritual and semiotic elements, forms of meaning and communication, that play a role in the production of various social identities. And here, of course, we would be remiss not to mention the different food taboos that every culture has. Food also entangles the human with the nonhuman in all sorts of ways that reverberate throughout history. The treatment of the land during the Great Depression generated the dust bowl. To what degree is the dust bowl a key player in, for example, in the religious politics of the United States down to the present day? The heavy reliance of the United States on beef and other forms of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. This arises not simply from the methane released by livestock, but also from the massive interstate shipping required to transport meat throughout the country on a daily basis.

Yet these material processes exist not only at the macro-environmental level through the mobilization of legions of actors ranging from cows to trucks to irrigation systems to drugs, but also at the micro-material level. Cheese is an actor in its own right, giving rise to all sorts of processes involving bacteria, milk, factories, and so on. Moreover, as Morton likes to put it, the Big Mac is not comfort food (a semiotic determination), but rather the Big Mack is comfort. That is, the Big Mac interacts physiologically with our bodies in a variety of ways that produce particular Stimmung. These are sub-representational and sub-semiotic processes entangled with the semiotic that take place at the biological, chemical, and the physiological level. Nor is this simply a bit of cuteness or rhetorical play. One need only look at military uniforms in museums from the 17th to 19th century to see how changes in nutrition have changed the phenotype of human bodies. Similarly, it is often suggested that the reason we see so many buxom young ladies about these days because of steroids in beef and milk.

With any luck, food provides a nice case study in what dark ecology and object-oriented ontology can do for the cultural theorist. What these orientations allow us to think is a multi-dimensional mesh of the semiotic, social, economic, cultural, semiotic, physiological, environmental, chemical, etc., resonating at a variety of different levels of scale, in hyper-complex relations that decenter the primacy of the human gaze. Along these lines, Morton has a couple of very nice posts on timber and resonance that further enrich these lines of thought. In “Tim’s Guide to Timber” (and here), Morton observes that,

Now think of a sound. We never hear sounds as such: we only ever hear sounds as mediated through a material of some kind or other. Heidegger puts it beautifully when he says that we never hear the wind in itself, only the wind in the door, the wind in the trees. We never hear B flat as such, only B flat through a trumpet, B flat through a violin. The material out of which the instrument is made generates the timbre of the note.

This is also true of the voice. Vowels are a way of adding different timbres to breath. An /o/ sound requires a certain tension of the throat and windpipe, while an /a/ sound requires another kind of tension.

When you hear a violin note, you are hearing the cat gut or wire out of which the strings are made; the horsehair bow modulated by the wood on which the horsehair is strung; the wooden body of the violin, curved and of a certain thickness and quality of wood, and so on. Timbre is the materiality of sound. And what a materiality.

Tim’s observations here fit very nicely with my triad of virtual proper being, local manifestation, and exo-relations. The timber of a note is what might be called an “exo-quality”. An exo-quality is a quality that results from an external relation between two or more objects, leading to a specific local manifestation in one or both of these objects. If notes have a timber, then this is precisely because they can only ever manifest themselves through the withdrawn object out of which they arise. A “B note” is very different in a violin and a trumpet. The difference produced by the air passing through the trumpet or the bow passing across the strings of the violin produce their own unique timber as they pass through the virtual proper being of these respective entities. Much of music and musical invention– and here I’m speaking of the actual invention of instruments and variations in their use (fiddling versus violin playing, for example) –is the exploration of the agency of objects, their capacities for local manifestations, and the virtual topological space of their timbres. Here we encounter a very nice fortuitous cross-over between Harman’s concept of objects as composed of notes and music.

Yet timber is not restricted to the world of acoustics (though I am tempted to here draw a connection to McLuhan’s concept of the difference between acoustic space– the space, I believe, of OOO –and geometrical space). No, every object has its timbres or particular local manifestations. In The Democracy of Objects I have coined the term “regimes of attraction” to mark the relation between virtual proper being, local manifestation, and exo-relations. A regime of attraction is the set of exo-relations among objects that generate particular local manifestations, events or actions, within an object. Regimes of attraction play a key role in how objects are actualized. Like the bow being passed across the strings of a violin, regimes of attraction are the exo-relations that produce a particular vibration in an object, generating a specific timbre.

Cooks know all about timber, even if they don’t use this word. There is an entire harmonics of the dish arising from the regime of attraction that combines ingredients, techniques, temperatures, cookware, and so on. Wine drank in a clay cup is very different from wine drank in glass. Whether or not you slow cook your meat or cook it very quickly at extremely high temperatures makes a big difference in the nature of the meat. An entire chemistry of ingredients, of the order in which you cook them, of what you mix, plays a key role in the timbre or local manifestation of the dish. Thus, for example, when I cook my pinto beans, I first saute onion, garlic, jalapeno, and a couple of different chili powders in olive oil, before adding the pinto beans, the chicken stock, cumin, and salt. Were I to simply throw all these ingredients together right away, the timbre of the dish would be quite different. Here the temporal order of the translations makes a difference to the local manifestation that is eventually produced. Things become even more complex when we consider that the ingredients used differ from performance to performance depending on the regime of attraction in which these ingredients were grown.

The point here is that these relations produce different manifestations under different circumstances or in and through different configurations of the exo-relations defining a mesh or collective. The being of objects cannot be identified tout court with the actualized qualities of the object, but rather there is always a reserve within objects that allows for actualizations to take place differently. Becoming attentive to the dynamics of the mesh or exo-relations encourages a sort of experimentalism that allows us to imagine otherwise, producing different collectives with different timbres.