It is curious and perhaps symptomatic that we don’t find more work on food in cultural studies. It’s all over the place in ethnography, of course. Yet in cultural studies we just don’t seem to find a lot written about food. Perhaps this is just my ignorance. It’s not as if I’ve really sought out such literature. However, sometimes ignorance can be a virtue. Thinking from a place where one does not feel crushed and paralyzed by a massive archive you can reflect with innocence and naiveté. You can ask stupid questions.
Perhaps this absence– if it does truly exist; and if it doesn’t I’ll pretend that it does –arises because food short-circuits all of the categories of cultural studies. It is neither nature nor culture and is both nature and culture. It is the failure of the nature/culture distinction itself; the ultimate media by virtue of being absolute mediation. Food is the failure of the cogito and any transcendental subject or unity of apperception. Food is that which marks us as absolutely of the earth and in the world, condemned to only ever know partial transcendence. Soil is a serious question on Mars and the Moon.
Food is chemistry, ecology, sociology, economics, and semiotics all at once. As chemistry, food mocks the pretensions of the cogito and the phenomenological subject. Food is one of the ways in which I discover that I am embodied. Elsewhere I have argued that we are a unity of three bodies, that we are borromean bodies. There is the imaginary body of lived experience; the felt body, the perceiving body, the acting body. There is the semiotic or symbolic body that is the object of our various discourses and sciences of life. Then there is the body in the real, the physiological body. This body can never directly be experienced– I do not experience what goes ion in my brain or pancreas –but rather we can only experience the effects of this body. The body in the real is extimate, foreign, other. It is an alienness within us. Through food we occasionally encounter hints of this body. For years I had suffered from chronic fatigue, walking about in a fog, barely able to keep my eyes opened. I believed this was the result of depression or stress. I began taking vitamin B-12 and was shocked by the result. It was life-changing, but also a blow to my pretension to be a cogito. What I discovered was obscure chemical processes in the heart of my body that produced all sorts of effects in consciousness that I interpreted in wildly mistaken ways at the level of signs. A blow to my narcissism forcing me to realize that I have a body in the real.
Food ties us into the entire ecology of the world. Indeed, ultimately we are eating the sun with each bite we take. Through our mouths we are tied to all sorts of ecosystems, but also all sorts of politics and economics surrounding the production and distribution of these foods. Food is ultimately thermodynamic and solar, tying us into the earth and cosmos. Our energy waxes and wanes with its presence and absence; or in Spinoza’s terms, our body’s power of acting– our body in the real, though felt in the imaginary –grows and diminishes as a function of the food we eat. No wonder so many religions have devoted so much thought to food. With it we open ourselves up to both life and death. Something must die– plant, animal, or fungus –so that we might live. This is a gift that can never fully be returned. The Japanese are right to thank their food rather than God.
However, the ecology to which we open ourselves up is not simply organic, it is also technological, industrial, political, and economic. Brazil nut trees can only grow in the wild and require a singular ecology to exist. When I toss a brazil nut in my mouth, I am not merely initiating a bio-chemical alchemy that will play a role in what my body becomes in the real, but am also consuming an international market and all sorts of territorial tribal struggles that take place over these trees. With this bite my gut has gone international. The triad of production, distribution, and consumption that animates Marx’s thought first of all pertains to thermodynamics, to food.
Yet food is not simply biochemical, thermodynamic, economic, and political. It is also social and signifying. The food we eat is subjectivizing in the sense that it marks our membership in classes and ethnicities. Food is a series of identities and identity-markers. Moreover, when we eat we aren’t simply performing alchemy, but are also eating signifiers and emitting particles of signification. You’re not simply drinking a Corona based on taste, but the very act of drinking beer and this beer in particular is both a class marker and the consumption of a fantasy (at least that’s what the commercials try to sell). We are saying something of the type of person we would like to be or who we take ourselves to be with the food to eat. We are expressing a politics of identities; who know, perhaps even a semiotic system pertaining to gender and sexuality. Food is thick with signifiers and signifiers are an ingredient in every recipe. With food all three circles of being converge in something that is not quite material, but that isn’t simply text either. Food is that daimon, that intermediary, where culture and nature converge in a zone of indiscernibility.