Culinary materialism


Cook­ing a pot of beans from scratch is a re­volu­tion­ary act that hon­ors both your an­cest­ors and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Un­less your an­cest­ors hap­pen to be Py­thagoreans, of course. De­col­on­ize Your Diet is a new cook­book writ­ten by Luz Calvo, pro­fess­or of eth­nic stud­ies at Cal State East Bay in Hay­ward and Ca­tri­ona R. Esquibel, as­so­ciate pro­fess­or of race and res­ist­ance stud­ies at San Fran­cisco State. They’ve got a web­site (seems to be down right now), main­tain a Face­book page to boot, and gen­er­ally urge their read­ers to “[re­claim] our col­lect­ive an­ces­tral know­ledge of food, herbs, re­cipes, and cul­ture, with an em­phas­is on a plant-based diet us­ing Mesoamer­ic­an in­gredi­ents.”

Either way, I’m skep­tic­al. Re­mem­ber, kids, de­col­on­iz­a­tion is not a meta­phor. By pre­par­ing this dish, you’re lit­er­ally over­throw­ing the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs. You’re bring­ing about “the co­in­cid­ence of the chan­ging of cir­cum­stances and of hu­man activ­ity or self-chan­ging.” Or maybe they just mean that eat­ing this will help you evac­u­ate the con­tents of your colon — de-colon-ize. Maybe it’s just sup­posed to be edi­fy­ing. However, there’s at least one philo­soph­er who might agree with the im­per­at­ive to eat beans, and its re­volu­tion­ary portent: Lud­wig Feuerbach. Sid­ney Hook ex­plains.

625510_669374049740997_1668188857_nFeuerbach’s “degenerate sensationalism”

Sidney Hook
From Hegel to
Marx (1936)

Feuerbach’s por­trait as a philo­soph­er would be in­com­plete if we were to omit a phase of his thought which, it must be con­ceded at once, is more im­port­ant for an un­der­stand­ing of the re­cep­tion of his ideas than for their de­vel­op­ment. For this phase was a short-lived en­thu­si­asm in­duced by the first ex­per­i­ment­al steps of or­gan­ic chem­istry. But it must be treated here, if only to present the con­text in which ap­pears his fam­ous sen­tence “Man is what he eats” [Der Mensch ist Was er isst] — a sen­tence which the philo­soph­ic­al phil­istines have used as a pre­text to con­demn rather than to read Feuerbach’s works.

Feuerbach sin­cerely be­lieved that his cri­tique of re­li­gion and philo­sophy marked the turn­ing point in the his­tory of West­ern thought. And if not all of his dis­ciples made the same claims for his philo­sophy, even the crit­ic­al among them, like Ruge, re­ferred to it as “the third cock’s crow of Ger­man spir­itu­al free­dom.” Feuerbach’s last word in the peri­od of his thought we have just been con­sid­er­ing was a call for philo­sophy to break its mésalliance with re­li­gion and enter in­to a liv­ing uni­on with sci­ence. In his Vorläufigen: Thesen, he main­tained that philo­sophy must ally it­self once more with sci­ence and sci­ence with philo­sophy” (S.W., Bd. 2, p. 267).

Car­ry­ing out his own pro­gram, Feuerbach reached for the nearest sci­ence at hand which would jus­ti­fy his hu­man­ist­ic in­terest. And without stop­ping to an­swer the very dif­fi­culties which he had so co­gently ar­gued against Dor­guth’s ab­so­lute ma­ter­i­al­ism, he pro­ceeded to swal­low bag and bag­gage the nat­ur­al philo­sophy of Moles­chott, com­pared to whom Dor­guth and all the ma­ter­i­al­ists of the eight­eenth cen­tury were mod­els of crit­ic­al re­straint. Feuerbach’s philo­soph­ic­al ex­tra­vag­ance was ap­par­ently an ef­fect of his read­ing Moles­chott’s Lehre der Nahrungs­mit­tel, a work now only of his­tor­ic­al in­terest and even in its own day of du­bi­ous sci­entif­ic im­port­ance. It ap­peared to Feuerbach as if the long sought-for bond of unity between mind and body, spir­it and nature, had at last been dis­covered through the re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples of food chem­istry. Philo­soph­ers in their quest for truth have been over­look­ing what was, lit­er­ally speak­ing, un­der their noses. Feuerbach runs lightly through all the ma­jor philo­soph­ic cat­egor­ies — Sub­stance, Ex­ist­ence, Be­ing, Es­sence, Thought — and no longer iden­ti­fies them with sens­ib­il­ity, love, and pas­sion but with something more ba­sic still. Only Feuerbach’s own words can al­lay the sus­pi­cion that we are in­vent­ing them:

How the concept of Sub­stance has vexed philo­soph­ers! That is it, Self or Not-Self, Spir­it or Nature or the unity of both? Yes, the unity of both. But what does that mean? Susten­ance [Nahrung] only is sub­stance. Susten­ance is the iden­tity of spir­it and nature. Where there is no fat, there is no flesh, no brain, no spir­it. But fat comes only from Susten­ance. Susten­ance is the… es­sence of es­sence. Everything de­pends upon what we eat and drink. Dif­fer­ence in es­sence is but dif­fer­ence in food (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 82).

One would ima­gine that a thinker of Feuerbach’s caliber would con­tent him­self with the neg­at­ive ob­ser­va­tion that without food there can be no hu­man activ­ity; that cer­tain types of food un­der cer­tain con­di­tions pro­duce cer­tain re­ac­tion, and pass on from these ir­rel­ev­ant com­mon­place truths to more sig­ni­fic­ant state­ments. In­stead he de­liv­ers him­self of a piece of rhet­or­ic which would lend it­self ad­mir­ably to philo­soph­ic ca­ri­ca­ture and which might serve as a num­ber in some un­writ­ten Gil­bert and Sul­li­van light op­era:

Be­ing is one with eat­ing. Be­ing means eat­ing. Whatever is, eats and is eaten. Eat­ing is the sub­ject­ive, act­ive form of be­ing; be­ing eaten, the ob­ject­ive, pass­ive form. But both are in­sep­ar­able. Only in eat­ing does the empty concept of be­ing ac­quire con­tent, thereby re­veal­ing the ab­surdity of the ques­tion wheth­er or not be­ing and not-be­ing are identic­al, i.e., wheth­er eat­ing and starving are the same.

How the philo­soph­ers have tor­tured them­selves with the ques­tion as to where and with what philo­sophy be­gins… Oh, you fools, who open your mouth in sheer won­der over the en­ig­mas of the be­gin­ning and yet fail to see that the open mouth is the en­trance to the heart of nature: who fail to see that your teeth have long ago cracked the nut upon which you are still break­ing your heads. We be­gin to think with that with which we be­gin to ex­ist. The prin­cipi­um es­sendi is also the prin­cipi­um cognoscendi. But the be­gin­ning of ex­ist­ence is nour­ish­ment [Ernährung]; there­fore, food [Nahrung] is the be­gin­ning of wis­dom, The first con­di­tion of put­ting any thing in­to your head and heart, is to put something in­to your stom­ach (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 83).

Feuerbach had a strong sense of hu­mor. And one feels al­most cer­tain that he is in­dul­ging it; that this pas­sage is dir­ec­ted against the pop­u­lar sci­entif­ic evan­gel­ists who were cry­ing up as a new truth, a simple fact, known to every­body, but now clothed in a new tech­nic­al robe, trail­ing clouds of chem­ic­al for­mu­lae be­hind it. In­deed, it con­tains an even more de­li­cious par­ody. Sub­sti­tute “know­ing” for “eat­ing” and you have pure ideal­ist­ic doc­trine with typ­ic­al ar­gu­ment and ex­pres­sion. Feuerbach seems to be mak­ing fun of the ideal­ists, for whom know­ing is like eat­ing, the “ob­ject” be­ing to “food” as the “sub­ject” is to “eat­ing.”

But alas! Feuerbach is in deadly earn­est. His motto is Der Nahrungsstoff ist Gedanken­stoff — a doc­trine which he makes the basis not only of a philo­sophy of per­son­al­ity but of a philo­sophy of his­tory. What hu­man be­ings eat af­fects their feel­ings and tem­pera­ment; the activ­ity of the group de­pends upon the tem­pera­ment of its mem­bers. Con­sequently, con­cludes Feuerbach, the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle between dif­fer­ent groups in his­tory re­flect the char­ac­ter of their di­ets. Food chem­istry be­comes the key to his­tory. Feuerbach does not con­tent him­self with ab­stract gen­er­al­it­ies here. He goes in­to some de­tail. Pota­toes, for ex­ample, are the staple diet of all the work­ers of European coun­tries. But since pota­toes have no great quant­it­ies of the phos­phor­es­cent fat and pro­tein ne­ces­sary for healthy brain and muscle, the fate of the work­ing class is hope­less. “Slug­gish potato blood” [träges Kar­tof­fel­blut] can nev­er sup­ply them with re­volu­tion­ary en­ergy. The struggle between Eng­land and Ire­land, Feuerbach cites as a case in point:

Poor Ire­land, you can­not con­quer in the struggle with your stiff-necked neigh­bor whose lux­uri­ant [üppige] flocks sup­ply its hire­lings with strength. You can­not con­quer, for your susten­ance can only arouse a para­lyz­ing des­pair not a fiery en­thu­si­asm. And only en­thu­si­asm will be able to fight off the gi­ant in whose veins flow the rich, power­ful, deed-pro­du­cing blood [roast beef] (Ibid., p. 90).

If pota­toes ac­count for the de­feat of the Ir­ish in their struggles against the Eng­lish, it is the use of salad which “did” for the Itali­ans, and the ex­clus­ive ve­get­able diet of the Hindus which bind them to the chari­ot wheel of the Brit­ish Em­pire.

And then comes that clas­sic pas­sage one sen­tence of which, torn from the only con­text which could give it a particle of sense, has gone the rounds of the world:

We see of what im­port­ant eth­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance the doc­trine of food has for the people. What is eaten turns to blood, the blood to heart and brain, to the stuff of thought and tem­pera­ment. Hu­man fare is the found­a­tion of hu­man cul­ture and dis­pos­i­tion. Do you want to im­prove the people? Then in­stead of preach­ing against sin, give them bet­ter food. Man is what he eats (p. 90).

Des­pite its com­ic fea­tures there is one as­pect of this doc­trine which, if prop­erly de­veloped, would have had im­port­ant im­plic­a­tions for a re­ori­ent­a­tion of Feuerbach’s hu­man­ism to­wards the so­cial prob­lem. If man is what he eats, the im­me­di­ate cent­ral prob­lem of man­kind is not polit­ic­al, eth­ic­al, cul­tur­al, but eco­nom­ic. To im­prove man­kind means at least to im­prove its fare. And since it is the fare of the work­ing class which is in greatest need of im­prove­ment, the work­ers can be or­gan­ized as the con­scious lever of so­cial change. Feuerbach, however, brings the re­volu­tion­ary mor­al home in a more lit­er­al fash­ion. If the work­er’s fare is bad, his so­cial fu­ture can­not be made any bet­ter un­less a di­et­ary sub­sti­tute is found for his present spir­it­less fare. The re­volu­tion of 1848, he con­tends, ended with the tri­umph of re­ac­tion be­cause the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion were mar­tyrs to their potato diet. Potato blood can make no re­volu­tion! The fu­ture of the poorer classes looks dark. It is broken by only one ray of light from Moles­chott’s chem­ic­al labor­at­ory.

Shall we there­fore des­pair? Is there no oth­er food­stuff which can re­place pota­toes among the poorer classes and at the same time nur­ture them to manly vig­or and dis­pos­i­tion. Yes, there is such a food­stuff, a food­stuff which is the pledge of a bet­ter fu­ture, which con­tains the seeds of a more thor­ough — even if more gradu­al — re­volu­tion. It is the bean!

Had this be­come the ideo­logy of a mass move­ment, its fun­da­ment­al re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples would have been drawn from the for­mu­lae of food chem­istry, its strategy and tac­tics dir­ec­ted to work­ing out spe­cif­ic menus rich in deed-pro­du­cing ele­ments, and its cent­ral agit­a­tion­al slo­gan “beans in­stead of pota­toes”! This phase of Feuerbach’s thought, if we call it such, mani­fes­ted it­self in 1850, some years after the in­flu­ence of Feuerbach upon Marx and En­gels had waned. Marx had already com­mit­ted to pa­per his cri­ti­cism of Feuerbach’s doc­trine when Feuerbach made his fant­ast­ic somer­sault back to the most “vul­gar” of “vul­gar ma­ter­i­al­isms.” It is a sign of the homage in which, des­pite their cri­ti­cism, both Marx and En­gels held Feuerbach that they nev­er refer to it in their writ­ings. What in­ter­ested them much more was pre­cisely the ad­vance which Feuerbach made over tra­di­tion­al philo­sophy and the in­com­plete char­ac­ter of that ad­vance.

3 thoughts on “Culinary materialism

  1. Which came first, the bean or the social system? How can anyone think that “decolonize” does not follow the second meaning you give it? And where does it go after that – a decolonized firm selling product to the empowered masses? Or public farting as our revolutionary weapon?

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