Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bennett, Ch. 3, Edible Matter

This post is on chapter 3 of Vibrant Matter, "Edible Matter". If you are interested in seeing the post on chapter 2, click here.

Chapter three focuses on the issue of food. The question of food does not merely provide another example of how a view of vibrant matter could change and shape our personal and collective policy decisions, but also helps to think through the idea of assemblages. Remember, assemblages operate at many different levels of affective bodies, so not only is the individual human body capable of being a part of an assemblage, it itself is also an assemblage. Therefore, "[e]ating appears as a series of mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry: my meal both is and is not mine; you both are and are not what you eat." (p. 49)
Bennett believes that taking food as an active, vibrant force with its own agency can begin to help us address or understand a few important policy questions. The first is the crisis of obesity in the US. When we look at the shift into eating more fats, more sugars and sweeteners, and more food in general, the usual response to talk about lack of will control or a lack of education. But Bennett wants to challenge the very idea that the human as an intentional subject is in control of what they eat. One of the ways she does this is to take seriously the phenomena that people experience with potato chips, in which it seems the eating of these chips occur without will or intentionality of the eater, as if the chips summon the eater on their own. Another food policy question she takes seriously is the role of certain nutrients (in particular she looks at Omega-3) has had some studies showing that it shapes moods and emotions. So, not only can food affect your health, it can only affect your emotional responses to the world around you. That food can shape your being, that it has an ontological character, is not a new thought (even if uncommon thought), and Bennett turns to Nietzsche and Thoreau in order to explore how these 19th century thinkers addressed the issue of food.
Nietzsche physiological philosophy is based strongly on what one digests. Nietzsche shows a frequent disdain for vegetarians and flatulence producing vegetables. Zarathustra talks about needing warrior food. Nietzsche also finds the rise of anti-Semites to be tied to the "too exclusive diet of newspapers, politics, beer, and Wagnerian music." (quoted p. 135, n. 25) From this we get the idea not just of certain foods producing certain styles and ways of being, but also an expansive understanding of diet. Not just traditional food (beer), but politics, information, and music all are parts of a digestive assemblage.
While Nietzsche remained mistrustful of vegetarianism, associating it with asceticism and priests, Henry David Thoreau embraced vegetarianism (well, sorta), and advocated it for how lively he felt. He was suspicious of the slime and rot of decaying flesh, and felt that 'animal food' did not sustain him. But his distaste of flesh's mortification was not some Platonism, for he loved berries of all sorts. Though, he felt they were best to be eaten freshly picked, and they went through a type of transformation when bought from the market.
Bennett moves from the food related theories of Nietzsche and Thoreau to the more contemporary case of Leon Kass and his book, The Hungry Soul. Kass is a former chair of Bush's committee on bio-ethics, and his work reflects a conservative and Christianist vitalism. For Kass, the nature of food reveals the natural hierarchy of existence. This hierarchy is not at all a surprising one, with it going from inorganic matter, to organic matter, to the human at the top. This occurs because organic matter is given an extra spark, an extra capacity which we call life. Humans have that as well, but they also are endowed with a soul, which makes them summit of existence. Bennett introduces Kass as a foil, as a way of distinguishing her work from a more traditional and conservative vitalist conception of the world.
Lastly, Bennett turns to the Slow Food Movement. She finds a lot of hope in Slow Food to bring together both 'foodies' and 'granolas', and to revitalize environmentalism. An environmentalism that finds joy in eating and cooking, and that is concerned with local productions and roots. In the end, her hesitation on the Slow Food Movement is that it doesn't go far enough, and doesn't seem to recognize the actant nature of food itself.

Okay, my commentary on this chapter will come shortly.