A common defensive strategy in Western philosophy is to gloss any criticism with an accusation that the critique functions merely as a “whataboutism” that doesn’t deny the central logic of the original theory. Carving out a few exceptions to any line of reasoning need not necessarily defy the fundamental premises of an argument—but how many such counterexamples must be stacked up before whataboutism transforms from a defensive prospect to an offensive one? Especially regarding humanism, how many people need to offer narratives before their previously out-of-ballpark exceptionalism becomes a new rule of the game of civilized life?
Annemarie Mol’s terrific little book, Eating in Theory, likely crosses that threshold in a very interesting manner. Mol offers whataboutism at its finest, most feminist potency, asking “What if we were to stop celebrating ‘the human’s’ cognitive reflections about the world, and take our cues instead from human metabolic engagements with the world? Or, to put it differently: What if our theoretical repertoires were to take inspiration not from thinking but from eating?” (3).
Thinking in the age of the Anthropocene places the human above the natural world, while eating “brought humans down to earth and entangled them with other creatures.” This is precisely why, in an effort to escape the arrogance of humanism, Mol has sought out theoretical inspiration by studying eating (126). In Eating in Theory, she examines being, knowing, doing, and relating through a cornucopia of situations—not situated as “the” human, but situational as “a” human having a particular and ephemeral lived experience. Mol’s steady drip of accessible anecdotes offers a slow-motion explosion of the connection between food and philosophy.
Each chapter takes as its starting point a representative slice of how humanists have utilized eating as a part of their large theoretical frameworks: “Arendt considered eating to be a distraction from more worthwhile endeavors; for Merleau-Ponty, it was a banal precondition for cognition; Jonas took it to be a life-affirming activity on which nobler pursuits could be grounded. Levinas, by contrast, cherished eating” (105). The bulk of the work in each chapter then serves up platter upon platter of stories about eating that demonstrate how humanist, anthropocentric thinking neither accounts for nor accommodates our diverse experiences of food.
In every case, the result is a shockingly simple statement that effectively undercuts the fundamental premises of Western philosophy. In the chapter on relating, for example: “taking is not necessarily bad, while giving is not simply good” and any possible value judgment “resides, again and again, in the specificities of the situation” (114-5). This points toward the narrowmindedness of how we generally think about food production and consumption. However, Mol is more interested in how our eating tactics illuminate our general approach to thinking: “Here is the lesson for theory. Eating suggests a model of relating in which fighting is not just detrimental for those who lose, but also for those who win. For if the I destroys the conditions of possibility on which countless others depend for their life, this is inevitably self-destructive, too” (124).
Mol stocks every chapter with a pantry full of quick, relatable stories. She offers up menus from restaurants and cafeterias; she shares wisdom and ingredients from her own cooking experiences; she examines diverse needs and accommodations made for the old, the sick, the poor, the poorly informed, and the merely stubborn. She also portrays all kinds of industries, from agricultural to processed junk food.
Most usefully, she traverses the globe. Mol is Dutch and makes a home in the Netherlands, but the stories are from everywhere—the Orokaiva people in New Guinea, the Samburu people in Northern Kenya, Spanish colonization of South America, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s life in post-war France, Han China, and post-socialist China, as well as India, Guatemala, New Zealand, Germany, and many more.
The only real drawback of the book is how these examples are formatted. We have a standard serif font for the main analysis within the text. Then, examples from Mol’s firsthand experiences are told in a more memoir-oriented mode, indicated by the italicization of whole paragraphs. This forms the main entrée of the book.
The trouble is that Eating in Theory uses a slightly lighter san serif font for visits to many of the aforementioned foreign lands, as well as setting off these examples like so many side dishes by using a two-column spread. Deployment of this two-column layout is far from smooth, with a relatively small chunk of text sometimes stretched out over a half dozen pages where there are seemingly random returns to the full-page spread. A column often ends mid-sentence so that the layout is annoyingly difficult to follow and requires a fair amount of flipping back and forth.
One is bound to lose one’s place a few times, and the performative value of this layout is not as significant as Mol might like it to be: “Rather than fusing the lessons learned in this book into a coherent whole, I leave them standing as they are: a multicolored patchwork, a polyphonic song, or if you will, a buffet meal” (4). That’s a fine objective, except not all the choices on her buffet are presented in an equitable manner. As a result of this design decision, readers will most likely give some of the deeply nuanced examples short shrift.
We humanists do like to think in a straight line. The dichotomy of columns presents a clear choice in which most of us default to the supremacy of the main entrée over the side dishes, so the two-column approach ironically results in some reification of an aspect of Western thinking that Mol is otherwise critiquing. The main part of the text and the smoothness of linkages and transitions throughout that section evinces that she has the writing chops to do better.
An advantage of the two-column formatting, though, is that it will make plain the useful spots for excerpting for college classrooms in many disciplines. Anthropologists and sociologists with an interest in Food Studies can easily make strong use of Eating in Theory, as well as of course philosophers of many disciplines preoccupied with the question of what we can wrap our collective Western mouth—rather than our head—around the most pernicious theoretical effects of the Anthropocene.