Review of Eating in Theory | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Eating in Theory

Eating in Theory
by Annemarie Mol

Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2021

208 pp. Trade, $94.95; Paper, $24.95

ISBN: 978-1-4780-1037-1; ISBN: 978-1-4780-1141-5.

Reviewed by: 
Hannah Drayson
May 2022

In whatever form they take, eating and breathing are functional necessities of life. They engage human bodies in fundamental material exchanges with their environment and the other beings in it. Matters of metabolism offer a useful topic in the post-humanities, drawing attention to usually overlooked aspects of living systems’ relationality. Paying attention to metabolism can offer many examples of both embeddedness and co-constitution that suggest how we might reconceptualise the human from an ecological perspective. Looking at the acts of eating and breathing show the vital engagement of individual living beings in material exchanges that span scales from molecular to global.

Annemarie Mol’s Eating in Theory is one of a number of recent publications that make use of the insights offered by attention to metabolism (another is Desiree Förster’s Aesthetic Experience of Metabolic Processes, reviewed next month). Here eating offers a way to revisit and critique aspects of humanist philosophy that remain unchallenged even since the move towards post-human epistemology. Her goal: to overturn the residual ‘arrogance’ of humanist philosophy that was intended to solve very different problems than those we find ourselves with in the present. To do so Mol sets us on the topic of eating, which offers a way to turn our attention to relations that are usually made invisible in the transcendental realm of theoretical philosophy. Anyone looking for long discussions on humanist classics should take note, her targets, who include Arendt and Merleau-Ponty, are dispatched relatively quickly. The book does not get so much involved on arguments on others’ terms as instead sets out to show just how much more interesting the conversation could be if these terms were refigured with some neglected dimensions in mind. Mol’s approach, that of what she calls ‘empirical philosophy’ is grounded in a synthesis of over a decade of ethnographic work on food and eating which ranges from personal observations and diaries to fieldwork including work in clinics, care homes, with professional tasters, dieters, and farmers.

This work then is a continuation of Mol’s post-actor-network approach characterized by a focus on (sometimes technical) practices and how in specific sites and contexts they are used to ‘do’ a number of different coexisting, but not necessarily cohesive realities, a ‘multiplicity’. Much of Mol’s career has focused on the production of material corporeality in medical care. Her early work took a science studies approach, but departed from it in order to account for the more pragmatic way in which facts and the activities that produced them co-existed in the space of the clinic. Her first monograph, The Body Multiple, drew on her hospital fieldwork to show how differing bodily and disease realities enacted by the practices found in the hospital were not brought into conflict but instead co-existed, producing what could be seen as essentially different objects. In In distinction with the varying truth claims of the scientific laboratory, controversies that were brought into battle until one or another succeeded, Mol’s work in healthcare showed in the clinic, differing facts coexisted. Here, the goals of providing care and enabling healing mean that the work is in making use of these different realities together in a pragmatic and flexible manner. In healthcare, she calls this ‘doctoring’ or ‘tinkering’, the work done by clinicians and nurses to help individuals navigate and make use of the various technical practices in order to find the best outcomes, where facts offer a means to do something, rather than shape that reality must conform to.

Eating in Theory brings Mol’s sophisticated approach to materiality and its enactment to bear on the prosaic topic of eating. This fascinating yet complex topic is much enriched by her approach and clarity. Food is really a very satisfying topic for the ecological humanities because it draws together concerns of phenomenology, perception, matter, ethics, and highly practical and cultural dimensions. The book is rich with insights that extend the already very interesting work in the area of food and philosophy. Mol takes the sensory studies argument that an epistemology modelled on taste rather than sight is understood to be one that is immanent in very different ways. As Mol argues, in overlooking- even relegating- eating to a lower bodily function, philosophers have created hierarchies and distinctions that leave us with an impoverished model of the subject that is no longer fit for purpose.

She argues from four themes, being, knowing, doing, and relating to demonstrate where this new epistemological approach takes us when we engage with it in the practices of which it is composed. In the first theme, that of being, she redescribes the embodied subject, as a semi-permeable ‘I’ does not only move through space as but has materials – the things that are eaten- move through it. Mol points out how different this eating body is even to that described by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology which sought to centralise the body and (some of) the senses. Instead, the post-human eating body is one whose edges and remnants are spread out, which absorbs energy from distant beings and spaces, a body that “maintains its form by changing its substance. Its limits are formed not by its skin, but by the finiteness of its lifetime” (142). The section on the theme of knowing stresses the relational nature of knowledge. Knowing is about the specific nature of a person’s knowing, what they do in order to engage with the world is more than an individual standpoint. It is also the result of specific contexts and occasions of ingestion. When something is ingested it is intervened upon, destroyed, changed, in order to be known. When something is known, the knower is changed. They may be changed one way in one context, and in another in a different one.

Mol recasts doing with reference to the many complex agencies that are invoked in the practices of eating. Using the example of digestion she shows how these are spread through space and time, and hence an individual subject’s agency and action cannot be considered to be fixed within an individual body but instead can be found acting in diverse sites and times, even within the metabolisms of other bodies. Digestion engages an organism in the process of breaking down materials, almost entirely the bodies of others, so that they can cross the barrier between the inside of the gut and the bloodstream. The extent to which this is not a simple action is shown by Mol by attending to those times when it fails, for example in the acts of chewing and swallowing or inblanaces of hormones like insulin used by the body to metabolise materials for energy. Here the question of what is inside and what is outside is expanded, first there is swallowing, then absorption through the gut, both offer borders to be crossed by materials. Even following that, materials in the blood stream must be metabolizable, able to cross the borders of the cell wall. This process of being made available starts in many places, on the chopping board, where materials are pre-digested, or in historical farming practices where different plants are traded and selected for trait that result in more digestible products. Mol’s description of digestion as an act as much extra-bodily as internal can make many familiar settings, a supermarket, a piece of farmland, seem far more a place to which human agency and bodily boundaries are extended. The choice of crops, the behaviour of plants, are all shaped by the desires of the bodies they will one day feed, as she puts it – rice in Thailand ‘knows’ the tastes of people who eat it, wherever they are. Eating involves doing many different things in many different places. 

Finally, when approached from the perspective of eating, relating involves a complex and ethically muddled set of exchanges and entanglements. As the environmental humanities has explored, beings are not only related through genetic inheritance, but across the close exchange and cohabitation of interdependent species: the bacteria in your gut, the weeds in the turned soil in my garden, the banana trees in Spain. Mol’s discussion of where eating takes relating picks up on Haraway’s notion of ‘companion species’ but shows further layers, resulting in a gentle critique of the idea that ‘making kin’ might address destruction or asymmetry with more-than-human others. For being eaten means, mostly on an individual level, being destroyed. However as Mol describes them “agri/cultural relations” (p.110) are complex, variable, local and uneven. While an individual apple eaten is annihilated, the breed of apples thrives because of her taste for it. At the same time other apples, and other diverse forms of life thrive or suffer because of the use of the orchard’s land. In examples from farming, it becomes clear that care and nurture of animals might include a certain kind of love, but an unsentimental one, in which these lifeforms are looked after, but still dispatched when ready for consumption or their usefulness is ended. Further, when we make space for beings who are our companions, we crowd out others, such as when weeding a garden, some things get to grow, other do not. On a global scale, this has an impact that results in loss of biodiversity and extinction. The observation is sobering, as Mol points out, whenever we win by planting a crop, or growing something nourishing or tasty for our bodies (or our companion’s bodies), there are others who are no longer able to make a life in that space. Once we start to look at the kinds of relations that are formed through eating, it is clear that balanced relations are really not so simply arrived at, as Mol tells us, someone always loses, and this is not only bad for them, but for us too.

Despite its relatively modest size Eating in Theory contains many insights. It is presented in a similar way to Mol’s other monographs, with a central text accompanied by margins making theoretical asides intended to be navigated however the reader wishes or finds useful. The impressively straightforward prose is a recognizable and welcome feature of Mol’s work. That and the everyday topic mean that the book’s arguments resonate eagerly in many settings. Mol’s choice of the familiar yet always fascinating topic of eating has allowed her to create a very helpful primer and companion for a posthuman understanding of being, knowing, thinking and relating. Naturally it is of interest to anyone interested in the topic of food and eating but should also be read widely across the humanities and social sciences for its contributions to thinking around ecological sustainability and philosophy. The book certainly delivers on its promise to free us of the hangovers of humanist thought and this success makes it a particularly welcome work given the tangles that are still so prevalent. It doesn't do so by making broad claims or pronouncements but by deftly and carefully showing us many routes to understanding further the world’s delicious complexity.