As discussed in class, I feel that chapter three of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter was much more concrete, understandable and straight forward than the preface, chapter one, and chapter two. It seems to me that using the example of food to reveal the agency of non-human objects and assemblages is much more relatable than electrical blackouts, dead rats, and the theories of Foucault and Deleuze, which is most likely because they are, or were, very unfamiliar. Her arguments also feel much more relative, at least to my life, because I do a lot more eating than studying the theories of philosophers and sociologists on most days. I think that her most interesting argument in chapter three is the way in which fats have “the ability to make a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference” (Bennett, 41). We usually think of fats as only changing a person physically, but not mentally or emotionally. The fact that omega-3 fatty acids have the ability to calm down prisoners, cause significant improvement in children’s learning and behavior, and even help to improve both positive and negative effects of schizophrenia clearly says that humans have an often unacknowledged and intimate relationship with food that can make us very much different people socially. I also thought that the process of digestion was a great way to explain assemblages, considering the human has to digest the food, just as the food has to be digestible. It seems strange to me that Bennett waits until chapter three to make such concrete and relatable arguments. Why does she begin by analyzing Odradek’s Nonorganic life and then in chapter three analyze eating a bag of potato chips? I know that when Bennett wrote Vibrant Matter I was in no way her target audience, but I feel like using very relatable concepts to begin with would have helped me ease into such complex theories.
I am interested in one part of food that I do not know that Bennett actually spends much (if any) time on: the taste of food. She writes a lot about digesting food and the effects that that has on our bodies, but what about the taste of food? For animals, I know some prey (animals who are preyed on for food) have a defense mechanism of bad taste so that their predators will not want to eat them. Taste, to the predators, is a warning suggesting that the animal may be poisonous. For humans, certain tastes have different effects on different people. Some people can eat extremely spicy food while sugary sweet desserts repel others. This would lead individuals to either include an abundance of these kinds of items in their diet, or have a lack thereof. Meaning, for some people, taste determines what food they will eat and thus introduce into their assemblages; nourishment is not the only determining factor. For others, taste does not even matter. They would be happy eating cardboard hamburgers as long as their stomach stops screaming at them. Food has an even bigger agency when bringing taste into the picture.
There is also other potential (or vibrancy?) of food that composes its agency. Some food is poisonous and can actually kill the eater of it. I am thinking, though, that this would make this thing not “food” because “if the eaten is to become food, it must be digestible to the out-side it enters. Likewise, if the eater is to be nourished, it must accommodate itself to the internalized out-side” (Bennett 29). Dying as a result of eating something poisonous is not nourishment, and the food is not digested because the digestive system has stopped operating.
Another agentic (I made this word up for the purpose of this blog. I declare it the adjective form of “agency.”) quality or potential of food is perhaps appearance. Bright foods are visually appealing to some and perhaps may be eaten more and may have a wider reaching agency (as a whole). Adversely, some foods may be difficult to prepare to eat and may not be eaten quite as often—like having to carve a pineapple or pick out pomegranate seeds (of course, we have innovations now that do these things for us).
What I am suggesting, is that food has an agency that exists prior to even being digested that invites or repels some.
Bennett espouses the view that everyone’s mental and bodily reactions to food changes with time, as with Thoreau’s aversion to meat, which developed over the course of time: ““With every year”, fish-flesh became more and more viscerally unappealing. Eventually, he stops consuming “animal food””. We try to universally define food by forcing products into narrow pigeon-holes, as shown by Cornaro’s prescriptive text and others like it which speak of the perfect diet. However, it is ultimately impossible to fully predict how any one person will react when placed in an assemblage with anything they consume, even accounting for prior experience. We therefore must view things we consume as not just affecting our bodies, but also our behaviour, in ways unique to each of us. By doing this, humans can function better, because they will be able to understand their own behaviour, and moderate it more effectively.
These reactions that humans have to things they put into their bodies emphasises the power which things have in relation to us. Food is a necessity for survival, but it has also come to mean so much more, both culturally, and to the individual’s psyche. Bennett speaks about the impressive chemical capabilities of certain foods, specifically “a 35 percent reduction of offences amongst British prisoners given omega-3 fatty acids”. On a personal note, coffee sometimes give me a much-needed burst of energy, but sometimes make me super-hyper, so that reading or writing anything becomes near-impossible. However, individuals’ psychological interaction with food is also crucial to analysing the complex assemblage which humans and what they consume entails. Chocolate cake, for instance, can make a person enormously happy, because of its sweet taste, or make the same person on a different day feel greedy.
We must accept that we cannot always control the agency of things we put in our bodies, let alone the agency which our bodies display. If we do so, we can make reasoned allowances for the behaviour of ourselves and others, thus enabling us to work better as a social assemblage.