A couple years ago, I’m told that Jane Bennett caused quite a stir with her remarks about omega-3 fatty acids. As Jairus recounts it, her discussion of the link between omega-3 fatty acids (cf. Vibrant Matter, 40 – 43), generated all sorts of outrage. I experienced something quite similar at my talk at Brown last December. Referencing recent research on the relationship between maternal diet and the sex of children, the critical theorists in the audience heard me as reducing gender to diet, ignoring the work of thinkers such as Foucault and Butler (despite the fact that I was quite explicit in my talk in endorsing a qualified version of Butler’s performative account of gender formation). In other words, the claim was that sex can be reduced to diet, but that diet plays a role in the form our bodies take over the course of development. I’ll also add that I emphasized that further research needs to be done and it’s entirely possible that this research is mistaken.
As an aside, I think it’s remarkable that there’s been so little cultural theory on diet. This might only be my ignorance– I haven’t bothered to look into the research deeply –but the only significant work I can think of offhand is Levi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked. This is amazing! If anything has a rich semiotic system for human beings, it must be food, no? We find elaborate dietary codes in all the worlds major religions. Indeed, earlier religions seemed far more concerned with what we eat, rather than, say, sexual identities. We also find elaborate meditations on food and diet in the Epicureans and the Stoics. In contemporary culture, debates rage about diet, what we should eat, the impact of different foods, and so on. It’s surprising that research on diet hasn’t been more widespread in critical theory as it seems like such rich ground for various forms of semiotic analysis. The cynic or hermeneut of suspicion in me wonders if the manner in which diet research has been relegated to the margins isn’t telling. Could part of the reason that we haven’t seen more front and center research on “diet studies” be that discussions of food short-circuit our traditional semiotic categories? Diet pertains not only to semiotic categories such as dietary codes, popular diets (Atkins, South Beach, etc), but also chemistry and biology. Diet is a site where the signifying encounters the biological and the chemical and where the chemical and biological encounters the signifying, in ways where we can’t assert the primacy of the diacritical play of signs or the primacy of biology. If the Adornian critical theorist who was so scandalized by my remarks about the relationship between maternal diet and sex had been clever, he could have pointed out the semiotic— social and cultural –nature of contemporary diets and what effect they were having on the organic. That’s certainly where I wanted to go. “What’s the impact of a signifying system like the Atkins diet?”
But I digress. This response to Bennett strikes me as a symptom of where we’re at in our critical theory. We call ourselves materialists, yet whenever something material is mentioned– at the organic, physiological, and physical level –we gasp, clutch our pearls, and are scandalized. I open, for example, books by people that call themselves new materialists, expecting an analysis of the body, the real body, and instead encounter a lengthy discussion of the lived body, the body as phenomenologically experienced, as described by Merleau-Ponty. Apparently, talking about the phenomenological body is sufficient to make us materialists. Similar debates have ranged on the interwebs pertaining to psychotropic drugs to treat depression and anxiety disorders. There are those that vehemently insist they are “historical materialists” that claim, nonetheless, that depressive and anxiety disorders are merely historical formations and that vigorously denounce any sort of chemical treatment. Here it’s all semiotic. Am I claiming that depressive and anxiety disorders are organic? No. I don’t know. I know the tremendous difference that anti-depressants have made in my life, but I’ve also spent enough time in the Lacanian clinic both as an analysand and an analyst to understand the power of suggestion. What I’m underlining is how certain modes of explanation have been foreclosed.
By some strange fiat, those positions that call themselves materialist in the humanities seem to have foreclosed the material. What we need is a thinking of the and that allows us to think the entanglement of these three domains, a borromean critical theory: the material, the phenomenological, and the semiotic. I’m sorry, but if you’re talking about the lived body of phenomenological experience, you’re not talking about the material body. We know this from how anorexics and bulimics. Their lived body is what they see in the mirror, their material body is what they are. Their real or material body is not something that they experience, but is thoroughly withdrawn from their experience. The body in the Imaginary– in the phenomenological dimension –is quite different than the body in the Real or material dimension. We need to distinguish between the two, and above all we need to maintain a place for the material body. When Jane Bennett discusses omega-3 fatty acids, she’s analyzing the body in the Real or the material body. When Rosi Braidotti talks about experiences of “becoming-animal” and whatnot, she’s talking about the body in the Imaginary or in the domain of phenomenological experience. The two aren’t the same.
A similar point arises in Zizek. Regardless of how much Zizek carps about the Real and the material, it’s not clear that he’s at all a materialist. For Zizek, the Real is a twist in the symbolic. It refers to formal deadlocks that can only arise in the symbolic. His analysis of English, German, and French toilets in Plague of Fantasies (right) makes this point nicely. He analyzes each of these three toilets as vehicles of signification. English toilets embody the ideology of utilitarianism, French toilets the ideology of revolutionary haste, and German toilets the ideology of fastidiousness. Ideology, for Zizek, refers to the domain of the symbolic and the deadlocks of the “real” that arise within symbolic systems (what the symbolic can’t represent). What Zizek can’t think is what political difference things like plumbing and toilets can make for peoples. For Zizek, political problems are problems in the symbolic and are to be responded to through the symbolic (discursive critique). They aren’t problems of rampant epidemics of, for example, cholera that deplete the ability of people to organize economically and socially in new ways. The idea of improving plumbing for a particular group of people in a particular part of the world as an emancipatory intervention is, for theorists like Zizek, absurd. It’s not on the radar as an explanation of oppression and a way of overcoming oppression is absurd.
A borromean critical theory would try to think the entanglement of these three orders and how they influence one another. Following Bennett, it would be open to the way in which omega-3 fatty acids can influence propensities towards violence. It would also be sensitive to how violence is semiotically coded at the level of the symbolic. It would investigate how the semiotic can influence the material or real as in the case of dietary philosophies influencing biological sex. It would be able to investigate phenomenological lived bodies as Sara Ahmed does in her work, while also recognizing that there are symbolic and real agencies at work in the body as well. Rather than excluding it would attempt to think the manner in which these domains interpenetrate and influence one another.