Food for thought: metabolizing philosophy

'Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are’. o proclaims Brillat-Savarin famously in 1825.

‘Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are’

So proclaims Brillat-Savarin famously in 1825. Tell me then, what are you, if Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is your only source of nutrition?

The reason for this apparently silly question is that we recently had the pleasure of opening the exhibition Metabolic machines, displaying selected works by the Austrian artist Thomas Feuerstein here at Medical Museion. Among the works currently on display is Pancreas: a brain in a vat connected to and nourished by an artificial intestine in which bacteria transforms Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit into nourishing glucose. As such, Feuerstein has created a metabolic machine; virtually a living system with its own metabolism in which biochemical breakdown and remaking of matter takes place. Usually, books are not conceived of as food, except perhaps as food for thought. Yet in a strangely literal sense, Feuerstein’s machine is metabolizing philosophy, and Hegel’s Phenomenology becomes a book of life. More specifically every page and word are turned into flesh. This sounds like a thorough and systematically prepared meal that perhaps develops dialectically as you digest it – a meal that is best enjoyed in its wholeness for its true tastefulness to be enjoyed. It is a deeply philosophical meal undergoing a metabolic aufhebung in which, cellulose is broken down (negated) into sweet Hegelian sugar that is fed to (and preserves) the brain cells, which in turn are growing – and perhaps, one may add in a Hegelian spirit, “elevated”. But elevated to what? Or to reformulate my initial question: what do you become, if you feast on such a wholesome dialectical meal (Hegel, a Hegelian, enlightened or something entirely different)?

Two possible answers to this question develop in opposite directions and sketch out a crucial difference in our understanding of the relationship between eating and being. Either you can attempt to argue that you remain substantially unchanged or you can argue that you are at least in some sense (transformed by) what you eat. What distinguishes these two strategies is that they entail radically different understandings of food – either as passive or active matter. Jane Bennett describes this as a difference between understanding food within a conquest model and seeing food as an actant.

In the conquest model, we do not become what we eat. Rather food is assimilated to ourselves, while we remain substantially unchanged, except of course for now being nourished. This is a basic understanding of food as nutrition, i.e. as something that is objectively required for building and maintaining labouring and thinking bodies. In a sense, food provides a material basis for ourselves and our thoughts, which are, however, autonomous from this material basis. In contrast, understanding food as an actant, entails ascribing an active principle to food not merely as the external fuel of an organism, but as part of what we become. It seems obvious, that food changes bodies, e.g. food can make people fatter, but what about minds, selves, and thoughts? Citing a study on young adult prisoners, which shows a reduction of offences committed by prisoners given omega-3 fatty acids, Bennett argues that food has the ability to alter not just bodies but minds. In the actant model of food, nutrition is an active material basis that (among many other factors) influence our thoughts and ourselves. Or in Virginia Woolf’s words, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

We now stand at an intersection between understanding food as something external from or internal to our thoughts and ourselves. A situation not unlike, but certainly on another level than Kant and Hegel’s divergent descriptions of the relationship between forms of thought and their matter. While Kant sought to separate the forms of thought from what they were thoughts of, thereby isolating thinking from its material and context, Hegel attempted to show that there is no reason to think thought and the matter of thought as separate. Similar to Hegel’s reaching out to the world, Feuerstein’s Pancreas does not consist merely of an isolated brain in a vat, but precisely of a brain connected to artificial intestines (and the work itself entitled Pancreas), which may emphasize that thinking does not happen in isolation – it is neither independent from context nor from a biological material basis.

What Feuerstein’s Pancreas opens is a series of questions and reflections on various levels concerning food and nutrition in relation to who we are and become in our everyday lives as well as philosophically about the material basis for thinking and a challenge to dichotomies such as subject/object, self/world, mind/body, and nature/culture. Why not stop by Museion to explore Feuerstein’s works and metabolize philosophy yourself?