Jane Bennett – “Edible Matter” (2007)

Bennett confronts what she calls the “conquest model of consumption,” which reduces food to an inert, entirely assimilable object and thereby does not fully account its “force.” As she explains in “The Force of Things,” inertness and resistance to human appropriation is in and of itself a form of vitalism, or thing-power. She argues for food as an “actant,” borrowing the term from Bruno Latour. It refers to an object that acts or is granted activity by others within a specific assemblage. To raise food to this level, she looks at how dietary fat affects moods and cognitive dispositions and, secondly, at Nietzsche and Thoreau’s different takes on the political efficacy of diet.

She argues that, in the case of fat,

we need to bear in ming not only larger humans and their economic-cultural prostheses (agribusiness, snack food vending machines, serving sizes, microwave ovens, bariatric surgery) but also the strivings and trajectories of the fats themselves, as they vie with–or more indirectly, weaken or strengthen–human wills, practices, habits, and ideas. (138)

Food writings should attend to the active materiality of food. Michael Pollan is exemplary in this regard, since he argues that corn has used the human to evolutionarily succeed.

Nietzsche locates foodstuffs within specific assemblages of material and not-quite material things: “newspapers, politics, beer, and Wagnerian music,” for example (140). While Nietzsche will reject vegetable diet as a symptom of ressentiment, Thoreau finds that the eating of meet mortifies his imagination: a diet of berries quickens his imagination and moral sensibility. The argument here is not for particular types of diet, but instead for a view of food that grants in the status of an actant within an assemblage that cuts across the material-immaterial divide.

She points to Slow Food as a potential way of thinking about food in relation to broader ethical, cultural and political systems, but worries that it still treats food as a means to an end. Bennett tries, instead, “to [construe] food [as a self-altering, dissipative materiality] as itself an actant within an agentic assemblage that includes among its members my metabolism, cognition and moral sensibility,” and thereby work against what “modern thought” has fought to obscure: the ‘active principle’ of matter. (145)

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