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The eating body in Western practice and theory

Final Report Summary - EATINGBODIES (The eating body in Western practice and theory)

The project explored Eating in Western practice and theory. The various members of the team have written rich studies of eating in diverse Western practices. In doing these studies we have bracketed our previous knowledge of what ‘eating’ is, to then explore how it is configured locally. The localities explored range from obesity care practices; to restaurant dinners and other mundane eating sites; actions to counter food-waste; treatment practices that re-teach swallowing to people with brain injuries; treatment practices for people with constipation; expert meetings about the question of global hunger; a research set up to explore the pros and cons of insect eating for humans; research into ecological effects of crop improvement – and more. The texts that we wrote (many published, others still in the publishing pipelines) convey what is at stake in these practices for eaters; for creatures grown to become food for humans; for public health; for handling scarcity and fostering sustainability; and other locally relevant concern.

In our way of working we are material semiotic. That is to say that we do not suppose reality to be layered, with a biological layer underlying a social one. Instead, we start out from events in time, situations, practices. The entities that figure within these practices are not either social or material, but sociomaterial imbroglios, that have normative purchase as well. (We coined the term ontonorm to capture this normative aspect.)

Our theoretical contribution consists, firstly, of rigorously working in a material semiotic way, sharply outlining it along the way. Second, it follows on from attending to various terms crucial to the Western theoretical tradition. Here the term transform is case in point. If one hopes to attend to the transformation of entities in practices, it helps to have models of what it is to ‘transform’. Eating offers such models. E.g. one moment an entity is ‘food’, a bit later, after dinner, it has lost its integrity. Has ‘food’ in the process disappeared, or has it rather transformed? For the cook food, once eaten, has gone, new food is to be cooked the next day. For the biochemist the food’s nutrients are still around, but caught up in novel constellations.

Among the other terms that we shifted by attending to eating are actor (an actor who moves controls his body from a center, while an eating actor transform ‘stuff’ and ‘self’ in dispersed ways); association (associations are often cast as ever more ways of hanging together, eating offers a model in which the asymmetries between relating entities are particularly strong); relation (in political theory relations between humans are cast as either conversation or fight and this model is drawn on in human-animal anthropology as well; but ‘feeding relations’ are of another, seriously different kind); knowing (perceptive engagements of subjects with objects may lead on to knowledge, but as a subject munches up her food, the engagement becomes more than perceptive and of a transformative kind).

A further contribution of the project expands on the semiotic side of material-semiotics. We worked with differences between languages spoken in our fields (e.g. Dutch, Portuguese, German) and the English in which we write, not just to talk about the limits of translation, but, beyond that, to explore the theoretical lessons that may be drawn embedded in different ways of speaking. In this way we e.g. ‘denaturalized ’ eating: this is not something all people do, but a particular English word. Other languages make other categorizations (that e.g. tie eating and breathing together; or that differentiate between ‘chupar’ and ‘comer’ – and slurping fruit is a different activity than eating it neatly and cleanly.)