Tag Archives: food

David Hume – Of the Standard of Taste (1757)

For the most part, Hume roles over his “subjectivism” into the world of taste, claiming that taste, existing in the realm os sentiment rather than in judgment, is relative and does not contain truth-value. However, he also makes some stronger claims: that taste can be improved with practice, that prejudice always hampers taste, that moral (mental) taste is inseparable from physical taste, that taste is involved in a process of discernment which can be rated according to its ability to recognize smaller and smaller objects.

One of the consequences is that “good sense” becomes a pre-requisite for good taste. He distinguishes between the vulgar and the refined. Strangely, the vulgar is the more capricious and varying, while the refined is that which is more common. This is the most counter-intuitive move in the essay, and it aligns processes of aesthetic judgment with sensus communis and all those forms of “reason” that were established in the treaty. Unfortunately, he does not extrapolate from the very curious observations on distance—Burke and Kant will do that.

Lastly, just to emphasize the difference with Kant, Hume is radically subjective in his description of how one comes to relate to something beautiful. For example, some people may like the sublime and others may not. In Kant, for the sublime to be recognized as sublime, the subject must undergo the mental process that condition the sublime’s emergence. Thus Hume seems less interested in the relation between subject and object than in the cultural disposition of the subject.

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.

Lauren Berlant – “Slow Death” (2007)

Berlant explains the concept of slow-death as a way of living in this current stage of capital. It is not merely the quiet desperation of Thoreau’s community-others, but a way in which life can be lived laterally, as a self-interruption of the capital subject otherwise exhausted by the forces of capital extraction that soak up all practical energies.

[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.

She uses obesity as an example of how the processes of eating have become perverted by capitalist pressures. “In the contemporary U.S. context, obesity figures as the freshest case of slow-death crisis-scandal management.”

It is a form of slow death; in fact, the only form of slow death available to many marginalized peoples.

When one African- American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment towards death as a way of life, marks out slowdeath as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.

She points out that being-fat was always associated with the rich not the poor, and now the number of “overfed” matches the number of “underfed” people in the world for the first time. Thus an old-fashioned Malthusian argument won’t work here—where it is the excessive resources that are killing the poor and people of color. Such “excess” dovetails with a whole range of racist associations: that African American are controlled by animal appetite rather than cultivated restraint; that this excess if marked by their political “excess” or expendability, etc.

She thus points out that the obesity epidemic cannot be explained in terms of liberal concepts of individual sovereignty, choice, freedom, etc. Rather, the biopolitical state forces us to rethink the modes of agency that constitute personal change—such as healthy or unhealthy eating. Remember that for Foucault, sovereignty “is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life. Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die. It is the right to take life or let live.” Thus much of what Berlant is arguing is that life-maintenance can in and of itself be equivalent to a form of life-building, but with the idea of construction signifying otherwise than capital modes of accretion. [Relate this to Schilleren idea of not tasting more, but of tasting differently.]

But, for most, the overwhelming present is less well symbolized by energizing images of sustainable life, less guaranteed than ever by the glorious promise of bodily longevity and social security, than it is expressed in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and, sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.

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)

Georg Lukács – The Theory of the Novel (1920, 2nd edition 1962)

The famous Preface begins with the anecdote concerning “individual, concreate acts of heroism,” which, in 1920, Lukács thought masked the violence of the total system of war. He asks, “Who will save us from Western Civilization?” Theory of the Novel was therefore written in a tone of despair, but also one of utopian hope. Indeed, Lukács claims that his early work was by no means conservative, but that its subversive nature was grounded on an entirely naive conception of utopia’s emergence form the rubble of capitalism. Such a view tips over into conformism, a conformism of which he directly accuses Adorno and others: they have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,”

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (22)

It should be noted that the grounds of accusation revolve around a certain relation to food, taste, and subtlety. Adorno has supposedly succumbed to the very dilettantism he accuses the vulgar philistine of.

He distinguishes integrated and problematic civilizations. The current civilization is problematic (appropriate to the novel), while the Greek civilization was integrated (appropriate to the epic). Similar to Bakhtin, the novel is given the burden of strictly miming the “ruptural totality” of contemporary worlds. The epic is the genre of childish immaturity while the novel is the genre of virile maturity (71)–that is, it is capable of soberly reviewing the homelessness of it factical position.

The novel, as an assertive, form-giving endeavor, runs a double risk: either it does not fulfill the minimally sufficient demands of the form, or it is too coherent, closing the circle of signification too soon or too tightly (72).

Indeed, the novel always risks the bad infinity of pure mimesis: it therefore must assert the form of biography, submitting the subject matter to confines of a life. [Connect this to Brooks argument about Freud’s master-plot, and also to the idea of Victorian literature marking out its historical contours according to the life of Queen Victoria.]

The mode of all novels is irony. It is the form of reflecting on itself. This need for reflection is the novel’s “deepest melancholy.” Put otherwise, “Te novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God.” Irony is able to negative render those spaces from which God has withdrawn. It is a negative mysticism. Irony is the highest freedom that can be attained in a world abandoned by God. (93).





Christina Rossetti – “Goblin Market” (1875)

Tells the story of two sisters, the elder Lizzie and the younger Laura. Laura is tempted by the Goblin’s trying to sell her a bunch of exotic fruits. Lizzie holds her back but can only do so for a little while. Laura sells her hair for some fruits, but then cannot quench her appetite and the goblins disappear. She pines away. The goblins return but only Lizzie can hear or see them. To help her sister, she tries to buy some fruit, but the Goblins will only sell it to her if she eats it. They try to force-feed hear and the smashed fruits gets all over her face. They return her penny and she goes to let Laura lick her face. But the taste is bitter. She flies into convulsions and almost dies. But she recovers. Surprise! Both sisters eventually marry, bearing their own “fruit,” to whom they tell the story of the nasty goblin merchants.

Rossetti is obviously worried about the market. Part of the problem is that it is impossible merely to taste–since taste is always already implicated in a cycle of appetite that cannot be quenched on the terms set by the market. Laura becomes listless, yes, but also voracious. Can think of this as a rewriting of the Lotos-Eaters. While males can taste the pleasures of the market and afford to not work, women, in order to taste those pleasures, must bear the burden of labor that is the precondition of something like the male aesthetic dimension.

The eating of fruit as violation of the aesthetic dimension.

Contrasting figures of Eve and Mary. How does Rossetti solve the antinomy of female sexuality: portrayed as always-already fallen but require to be completely pure nevertheless. How does this connect with the discourse of the secret and with purity and virginity more broadly (in Hardy, Brontës, etc.)


T.R. Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

The preface claims, “that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence” (3). He therefore asks whether it be the case that man will continue to improve infinitely, always producing more subsistence equal to the needs of the population, or whether man is condemned to oscillate between periods of happiness and periods of misery. Malthus believes the latter, but in complicated form:

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in arithmetical ratio. (13)

However, he complicates the question of perfectibility, drawing attention to “the essential difference between an unlimited improvement, and an improvement the limit of which cannot be ascertained” (112). He uses the analogy of a plant, which comes to perfection, but then through the use of manure and other organic stimulants meant to perfect it, the symmetry is destroyed:

In a similar manner, the forcing manure used to bring about the French Revolution, and to give greater freedom and energy to the human mind, has burst the calyx of humanity, the restraining bond of all society; and, however large the separate petals have grown, however strongly, or even beautifully, a few of them have been marked, the whole is at present a loose, deformed, disjointed mass, without union symmetry, or harmony of coloring. (112)

This is a curious imposition of the ideal of beauty into what was supposed to be an economic treatise. Can analyze in terms of metonymy and metaphor. How can metaphor stem the tide of the metonym’s infinite chain of growth?

The principle of population, or “necessity,” is both regulative and stimulating: regulating the number of people, but also spurring on the naturally lazy man to create new forms of subsistence. This rather depressing outlook gets reworked in the final pages by rigorous refusal to live “in the future”: “Life is a blessing independent of a future state,” a statement supported by a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra on “infinite variety”–can always go into the discourse on Roman regulation and Egyptian bounty.

How the aesthetic becomes a means of halting the dangers of population: the aesthetic as a regulative, consolidating principle.