Since my last blog commenting on an op ed piece about the negative cultural consequences of “foodism,” I found a book review of Steven Poole’s You aren’t what you eat: Fed up with gastroculture.
The reviewer, William Skidelsky, describes how Poole finds foodism populated by people “who seek to enliven their dull existences by continually stuffing their faces,” who are “at once pretentious and perverted.” In short, “cooking and eating” are “inherently trivial activities, undeserving of serious attention.” To Poole, foodism is “a new, western type of deviance” and “a corrosive force spreading through western culture.”
As Skidelsky suggests, Poole is painting a straw man argument, creating a caricature of foodies, though some of his notions ring true. I’ve lived in the San Francisco bay area for nearly twenty years, and I can attest. Yes, there are foodies who are “perverse and decadent,” excess is always a possibility with any beneficial pursuits—food and wine, but also exercise, dieting, technology, success, even a moral compass in life.
Poole also laments the foodie celebrity and the way that our society of the spectacle has also swallowed this cultural phenomenon and created yet another form of arm-chair entertainment, making food a spectator sport. Yet, isn’t this what has happened with much of cultural and political life for many in our age of electronic reproduction? I do not need to share statistics on the hours per day spent watching TV or on the internet for entertainment.
In both political life and our lives with food and each other around the table, we have ways to regain what Walter Benjamin described as the lost “aura” that resulted from the dawning of mechanical reproduction in art. He noticed how this mass availability also takes away a quality of uniqueness, what Giorgio Agamben describes as the “loss of experience” that has overcome our lives in mass society due to two factors: The rule of objectivity due to the successes of science in bringing human wellbeing and the predominance of engaging others via technological communications media. Arguably, this loss is what has made our existence seem dull. Yet the wisdom inherent to the living—what Michel Serres calls life’s “stubborn empiricism”—is calling us back to our senses from a skewed existence lived exceedingly via our eyes and our ears, what are known as the higher senses.
Similarly, if we are eating the labels of our food we have lost our experience to a over-reliance upon the parallel universe of objectivity, at times like a profane scientism that can entangle speaking beings beholden to the symbolic order. We have an over-reliance on the story we are telling ourselves about our experience, in effect, making us a spectator—or even worse, a judge— of our own lives rather than simply living them. Food also has a symbolic order, many times telling us about status. In the face of a pretense to objectivity, we must grow up and accept the reality of what Gianni Vattimo describes as a weakness of thought, what I prefer to describe as a humility of thinking. The bumper sticker implores you: Don’t believe everything you think.
We should not write off foodies, but notice how this phenomenon is like a toddler learning to walk, at first a stumbling but genuine attempt to rectify our imbalanced ways of living. We regain our balance by living more of our lives face-to-face, as devotees to the grace of our embodiment, in a relation with the natural world as friend and teacher, from garden to table, at a slower tempo than the speed by which we achieve over 100,000 hits in a google search for foodies. There is an oblique hint given by Freud in a couple of footnotes to Civilization and its discontents. He suggests that when humans became bipedal, the sense of smell became less important for human sexuality, and vision took up the sensorial slack. Thus, he lamented, humans will never be satisfied. There is the possibility of endless visual stimulation and excitement, but not a sincere satisfaction. This says something about pornography, and food porn too. But also in a more subtle way, social media. . .
As a rallying cry to reclaim our experience, I return to my refrain—you are HOW you eat, not what you eat. So, I agree in some ways with Poole, and see his book as an ironic self revelation for this cultural phenomenon we call foodies that does not simply condemn its practitioners and its practices, but allows us to be more critical in learning to live our lives more broadly among the resplendent modalities of sensorial engagement that human organisms are.