Tag Archives: digestion

G.W.F. Hegel – The Philosophy of Nature (c.1820)

Page numbers refer to Miller translation (Oxford, 1970)

The second part of the Encyclopedia, sandwiched between the Logic and Spirit. It is divided into three sections: mechanics, physics, organics. The final section, in which I am most interested, is divided into terrestrial organ, the plant, and the animal. The animal section is subsequently divided into shape, assimilation, and the process of genus (or the relationship between individual and species). The move in each of these triadic moments is from universal to particular to concrete (unified) subjectivity. Life, which underwrites all of these movements, is perpetual return to the self: “it gives itself in the form of an object in order to return into itself and to be the accomplished return-into-self” (275).

Before getting to the animal, which is the fullest realization of this movement of life (it is in fact pure, self-determining negativity as such), it’s worth lingering with the plant. Hegel uses the plant to flesh out what could be called “immanent teleology,” similar to what Kant expounds in the second part of the third-critique, but rigorously without the imposition of the divine as guarantor of there teleologies. In short, the plant contains its own means and end. However, its relation to itself is immediately a relation to the outside world. Thus “the unification [of the moments] of self-preservation is not a union of the individual with itself but the production of a fresh plant-individual–the bud” (322). This illustrates what for Hegel is the primary motor of life–namely, a contradiction that compels a unification that always fails. The excess is life–both the life of nature and the life, one could argue, of Hegel’s system.

The animal differs from the plant in many ways–but the most important difference is that it has feeling, or “the existent ideality of being determined” (353). Or put otherwise, it has subjectivity, the self is for the self, it is not immediately related to externality like the plant. The process of determination is three-fold: 1. immediate, simply sensibility (nerves, brain, etc.); 2. particularity as the capacity for being stimulated and reaction, called irritability; 3. the negative return to the self which is the unity of the prior to movements–namely, reproduction, which includes the digestive system first and foremost.  The increasingly complexity of these processes–the means by which organisms divide inorganic material to be excreted and animalized matter ot be sublimated, for example–correlates with the complexity of the animal: “The simplest animals are merely an intestinal canal.”

These divisions are so rigorous and pervasive that they in fact begin to rebound on the very system of categorization that would contain them. So, for example, the mouth, while part of the system of sensibility…for it contains the tongue with which we taste (theoretical), also works to seize external objects and crunch them (practical); it is also the organ of the voice, thirst has its seat there; we laugh and kiss with the mouth: “thus the expressions of many sensations are unified in it” (374).

Assimilation is divided into the theoretical process, the practical process, and the Notional, which unifies the two previous. The animal stands in a state of tension without outside nature. By way of the five senses, the animal’s external relation is immediately reflected back into the self: this is the theoretical process, where appetite is checked. The practical process “begins with diremption of the organism within itself” (384)–that is, it is the feeling of lack and the urge to get rid of it. A being capable of containing this internal contradiction is the subject. The practical process if not free, since it is directed outwards, and freedom can only reside in the theoretical process of the sense, the reasonable will. Actin according to need (characterized as lack) is instinct. “Instinct is purposive activity acting unconsciously” (389). This very close to the aesthetic, it should be noted.

Assimilation works, first, by simple immediate transformation (infection), second, by mediation, which is digestion. Hegel does not want his theory of assimilation to be reducible either to mechanical (chomping) or chemical (saliva, gastric juices) processes. This process is not determined by an external teleology because it does not stop at the directing its activity against the out object but makes it into an object. In short, the animal, as “self-existnet Notion,” rids itself of it one-sided subjective anger towards the object, and finds the end and product of its activity to be “that which it already is at the beginning and originally” (397). In this way, Hegel writes, “the satisfaction conforms to reason…and the result is not the mere production of a means but of the end–union of the organism with itself.” Basically, the modes of external relation are always-already modes of internal self-realtion. Thus the explicit going outside of oneself of assimilation is an expression of the implicit return to oneself involved in every act of assimilation.

Now, this functions by a triple-determination. There is first the negation of the outside object (in anger), then the negation of the outward-turned activity (anger with the self), and then the positing of the self as self-identical, “but secondly, of reproducing itself in this self-preservation” (404). But the nature of the organism is to produce itself as external to itself (the production of the subject through determinate objects). It is in the very repelling of the self that the animal reproduces itself. And this is the final stage of animality, but it in turn takes three forms: simple repulsion, the constructivist instinct, and the propagation of the species. Hegel writes, “the highest and lowest parts in animal organization, are intimately connected: just as speech and kissing, on the one hand, and eating, drinking, and spitting, on the other, are all done with the mouth” (404).

Simple repulsion is excretion. It is the means by which “the organism gets rid of its entanglement with things” (405)–or, the discarding of the means after the end has been attained, which makes this purposive activity. For this reason, the Understanding, which attempts to reduce these mediations to mechanism and chemistry, are unable to comprehend vitality as such.

The constructive instinct, “that artistic impulse as instinct,” is the unity of the theoretical and practical processes of digestion. Like excretion, construction is a self-externaliztion, but one that builds an outside world:

The object is shaped in such a way in which it can satisfy the animal’s subjective need; but here there is not a mere hostile relationship to the outside world, but a peaceful attitude to outside existence. Appetite is thus at the same time satisfied and restrained; and the organism objectifies itself only by disposing of inorganic matter for it own purposes. Here, then, the practical and theoretical relationships are united. (406)

Hegel is here think of building nests, but also of relationships to the ground on which the animals lie, “which is not used up but merely fashioned and therefore preserved.” So in the constructive instinct the animal has reproduced itself as outer existence while remaining the same immediate creature: this is self-enjoyment. Up until now, the animal has only satisfied hunger or thirst, now it satisfies itself. (409) It cites the bird-song as the prime example of self-enjoyment.


Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia (1915-17)

Drawing heavily from the Narcissism essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” is an attempt to understand the rare times when an ego “[overcomes] the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” (584).Whereas in mourning, the lost object, though repeated reality-testing, is successfully identified and then replaced with another object-cathexis, in melancholia,the unknown loss results in the free libido being “displaced on to another object,” but rather being “withdrawn into the ego” (586), which results in “an impoverishment of the ego on a grand scale” (584). “In this way object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss.” Put otherwise, this is the mirror-image of the “On Narcissism” essay, in that his return to the self represents a violent (not erotic) “regression from one type of object-choie to original narcissism.” Identification with the love-object supersedes object-love:

The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. (587)

Freud goes on:

The difference, however, between narcissistic and hysterical identification (melancholia) may be seen in this: that, whereas in the former the object-cathexis is abndoned, in the latter it persists and manifests its influence. (587)

In other words, the melancholic does not properly digest the object of mourning. It gets stuck. The processes of reality-testing–going out into the world and coming back to the self–is stunted. In extreme form, the melancholic subject develops sadism directed at the ego, because the ego is thought to be responsible for the lost object. This is the crucial point that turns the ego against the drive for self-preservation:

Owing to the return of the object-cathexis, [the ego] can treat itself as an object–if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which reates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. (588)

So whereas in mourning, time is needed for reality-testing to free the ego of its libido of the lost object, “the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies…from all directions, and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished” (589). This image, besides bearing an uncanny resemblance to Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh,” totally disrupts the metaphor of diachronic digestion–it is directionless and therefore dangerous. [See Deleuze “Body Without Organs” for reading of this topography as potentially liberating.]

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Split into two parts: Gastronomical Meditations, containing eclectic observations on everything from digestion, the science of the tongue, diet, the end of the world, dreams and portraits of model gourmands; and Miscellanea, containing much of the same but more heavily autobiographical and anecdotal. Though the division between two sections is called attention to incessantly, the first section, which aspires to raise gastronomy to a science, can scarcely rid itself of the anecdotal quality that is supposed to characterize the second, shorter section. The entire volume is therefore marked by the very dilettantism that Brillat-Savarin is at once attempting to avoid and preserve. Formally, the work becomes a justification of the anecdotal as a mode of presentation. That this form matches the content–TASTE–is implied. “Tasting” is rigorously disambiguated from gluttony and excess; at the same time, the quantitative “restraint” that is inherent to “tasting” is raised to the level of a physiological necessity. Accompanying the praise of enjoyment–he frequently lauds dinners that last all day, pre-Revolutionary Chevaliers that could eat 24 DOZEN oysters–is an insistence that rest and restraint is necessary for the proper upkeep of the body, the necessary condition for any sort of gastronomical experience.In short, we can read Brillat-Savarin as marking out a space between mere dilettantism and strict utilitarianism: a space of pleasure (in the Kantian sense) that is no disinterested but nevertheless aesthetic. [Connect this with Nietzsche’s critique of Kant in Beyond Good and Evil.]

The description of the tasting organ (the mouth, not just the tongue) offers a curious analog to the description given in Hegel’ Philosophy of Nature (1821-30). B-S’s account:

    As soon as an esculent substance is introduced into the mouth, it is confiscated, gas and juice, beyond recall.
The lips cut off its retreat; the teeth seize it and crush it; it is soaked with saliva; the tongue needs ot and turns it overl an intake of breath pushes it forward to the gullet; the tongue lifts to help it on its way; its fragrance is enjoyed by the sense of smell as it goes by, and down it plunges into the stomach, there to undergo further transformations; and throughout the whole operation not one particle, not one drop, not one atom has escaped the attention of the apparatus of taste. (47)

Three things to notice: the haptic quality of this “apparatus of taste,” not confined to the senses of taste and smell, but to touch, thus granting a phenomenological quality to the zone of maximal contact between the subject and the outside world; the definitive temporarlity of this process, which (over) determines the directionality of taste from outside to inside; the tongue is figured as one among many organs involved in tasting, and its functions are not sensual, but muscular, connected to the necessity of nutrition.Draw contrast with Deleuze (and Merleau-Ponty, Levinas), where the body becomes a articulated “tasting” organ that can move in all directions: the subject-object exchange is not strictly determined along temporal and spatial coordinates.

The concept of waste is linked to the definition of appetite: “movement and life are the cause of a continuous wastage of substance in every living body,” the device meant to warn man that “its strength is no longer equal to its means” is nothing other than appetite. Thus appetite is rendered as a negative affect: a languor that precedes desire for food. Yet in B-S, appetite does not determine the directionality or object of desire–the proliferation of means to satisfy desire far exceeds the simple need that sparks the initial desire. Indeed, what separates man from animals is the capacity to desire beyond the lack produced by appetite. [Connect to Bataille’s general economy of the body, the production of non-recuperable waste, luxury, etc.] Indeed, B-S adumbrates Bataille by including sexual desire as a sixth “sense”:

If taste, whose purpose is the preservation of the individual, is indisputably one of the senses, the same title must surely be given to those organs whose function is the preservation of the species. (29)

Both, in B-S’s terms, are “organs through which man communicates with external objects.” The curious move here is the leveling of the playing field of desire, which runs contrary to the hierarchy of the senses imported by Hegel and Kant. The operations of taste, desire, and self-preservation, are all linked.

The discourse of revolution and modernization, which verges on the apophatic, makes an interesting subtext. He decries the evacuation of the abbés and the chevaliers, the last true gourmands. But he also praises the recent developments in culinary “science,” characterized mostly by the globalization of cuisine made possible by trade. He positively revels in the number of foreign foods now available to the post-Revolutionary bourgeoisie (curry, Schiraz wine, Welsh rarebit, pickled herring, vanilla, etc. (275)). Further, restaurants have increased the accessibility of gourmet dishes to everyone of meager means. However, he mourns the inclination towards individualization, the breakdown of the community that once formed around the table:

But what is far more dangerous to the social order is the fact that solitary reflection breeds egoism, by accustoming the individual to consider no one by himself, to hold aloof from his surroundings, and to show no consideration for others; and from their behavior before, during, and after meals, it is an easy matter, in ordinary society, to single out form a party of guests those who normally eat in restaurants. (271)

Even here there is adumbration of twentieth century sociology (Bourdieu, Baudriallard, de Certeau) that mourns the loss of food’s vital connection to community building. The accessories that cluster around the restaurant table can be explicitly linked to Bourdieu’s critique of the highly-structured meal, or Pierre Mayol’s indictment of the bourgeoisie obsessed with cleanliness, order and restraint. B-S calls table-side ablution “useless, indecent and disgusting,” the result of a “pretentious affectation of cleanliness” (311). The intersection with aesthetic theory, which increasingly focused on the “I” as the subject of any aesthetic experience is also crucial. Link this to Luc Ferry’s work the tasting subject’s positioning with the “Democratic Age.”

Finally, there is clear distinction made between foods eaten by the rich and by the poor. Without exception, those eaten by the rich tend towards the dainty and the transparent (aspic), while the rustic tends toward the hearty and obscure (pot-au-feu).



Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

The counterthrow to all of Nietzsche’s affirmation, published one year after Zarathustra. Taking off from his theory of affirmation, he claims that “truth” is not best defined according to good and evil, but to what extent a “judgment” is “life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding” (§4). This does not mean that we assimilate to nature (“live according to nature” like the Stoics), but rather participate in the aggressive, combative drives by which nature perpetuates itself (§9). For this reason, self-preservation is not primary, but a consequence of the animals desire to utilize (“vent”) its strength (§13). “Be aware of superfluous teleological principles.”

Style is defined as the byproduct of translation: “That which translates worst from one language to another is the tempo of its style,” which is linked to the “average tempo of [a race’s] metabolism” (§28)

He defines life as an organic process (and also the soul as a social composite-effect) coextensive with the will-to-power. He wonders whether that which is given–our desires and passions–might not suffice for an understanding of our material world: “as a kind of instinctual life in which all organic functions, together with self-regulation, assimilation, nourishment, excretion, metabolism, are still synthetically bound together” (§36).

Crucially, Nietzsche is not calling for laisser aller, but for a form of living that is concerted and artistic: “Every artist know how far from the feeling of letting himself go his ‘natural condition’ is, the free order, placing, disposing, forming in the moment of ‘inspiration'” (§188).

Everyday experience is a process of (artistic) invention, creation, deception. (§192). Herd instinct is the unfortunate outcome of “narrow” human evolution [Curious way of approaching pastoral] (§199). Connect this with History for Life, which talks about the need to turn away from becoming in order to create something eternal. This also connects with Jane Bennet’s ontology of resistance as the means by which the subject carves out a space for agency. 

Nietzsche does not believe in disinterestedness–the “aesthetics of disinterested contemplation through which the emasculation of art tries, seductively enough, to give itself a good consciensce” (§33)–but does not give a very good argument.: He who has sacrificed know he really wanted something in return, perhaps something of himself in exchange for himself…to feel himself more.” At the very least, he believes the aesthetic functions otherwise. Pursue this in relation to Kant and Hegel, and Deleuze. (§220)

For Nietzsche, historical sense resides in the palate, and is associated with mixing and inbreeding, etc. He condemns “tasting” as a sort of dilettantism,” a curiosity in everything that holds back from the investments of desire. Every once in a while, something infinite transcends the measuredness of good taste. (§224)

Man unites created and creator. (225)

Growth is the fundamental process by which humans, civilizations, and species progress….It is a frighteningly violent form of identity-thinking: “The power of the spirit to appropriate what is foreign to it is revealed in a strong inclination to assimilate the new to the old, to simplify the complex, to overlook or repel what is wholly contradictory.” (230)

Weird stuff about bad cooking being a root cause of cultural decline. Women take the hit, of course. (234)

Adaptation and Capital: N dreams of a supra-national nomad that slowly emerges above and beyond the mass of readily employable workers, praises such a dream-man, but also notes the necessary disparity between classes that would ensue. Interesting and important: flow of capital as growth, organic, etc. (242)

Nietzsche indulges in the stock stereotypes of Jews (greedy and smart, but deplorable) and English (stultifying but impressive).

In Hegelian fashion (but also working from his theses concerning adaptation and accumulation), N defines life as fundamentally an act of appropriation, even if this is an ugly idea. (259)

Nietzsche foresees a moment outliving the “old morality” in which the “individual stands there, reduced to his own law0giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption.” Modernity if ruled, then, by the power of the average–the lowest common denominator. Nietzsche is both awed and scared of mediocrity (§268). Connect this with Thomas Hardy’s concept of loving-kindness.

After-dinner nausea (282)