The goal of this blog is to manifest that it is the quality of bio food’s edible materiality that makes bio food bio, gives it its inherent value, and fundamentally differentiates from non-bio food. Besides bio food’s edible and inedible materiality, I see everything else as bio food’s immateriality. Ultimately, immateriality depends on materiality because ‘immateriality can only be expressed through materiality’ (Miller, 2005:15). Yet, like other different and opposing categories, they too are interconnected in their differences, and cannot be really understood separately. Bringing them together, I suggest seeing bio food as a material thing.
(Edible) materiality of bio food
In material culture studies, ‘materiality’ has been a contested, ambiguous and misleading concept, for it does not refer to actual materials or the matter or substance of things. Its advocates, as Ingold points out, ‘have hardly anything to say about materials’, namely ‘the stuff that things are made of’ (2007:1). In fact, for Miller (2007), like for other proponents of this concept of materiality (e.g. Knappett 2007, Nilsson 2007, Tilley 2007), the concept is not about the mere materials and material properties of things but rather about material things’ sociocultural and historical meanings and contexts. Thus, for instance, Tilley (2007) sees the concept’s importance in understanding of human significance of things and in placing them into a broader social and historical context. Tilley claims that, as social scientists, we need to go beyond materials, and do not reduce the social and cultural ‘world’ of things to that of materials, their properties or flows, as Ingold appears to do (2007). There is surely nothing social or cultural about pure materials and their ‘world’. For example, without naming it or making it part of human diet, a plant can be an ‘asocial’, ‘acultural’ and completely natural organic entity.
Human engagement and relation with things is the necessary condition for them to become social and cultural. However, this does not mean that once a natural thing is part of the sociocultural world, it ceases to be natural. It is possible, and in the case of bio food even inevitable, to focus on its very materiality without being ‘asocial’ or ‘acultural’. Bio food’s materiality is not something that arises and can be perceived only by the senses in our relation with it. Following Miller, Pels comprehends ‘materiality’ ‘as a quality of relationship rather than of things’ (1998:99) and not as ‘some quality distinguishing an object from a subject’ (1998:100). In their view, ‘materiality’ is something that cannot be simply attributed to the object. ‘Materiality’ rather ‘happens’ when things act on aesthetically sensitive and sensuous humans, or when humans are ‘subjected to the action of another thing’ (1998:101).
One can perceive and experience bio food’s materiality when one looks at it, touches or smells it, and thus understand it as a quality that arises from our sensory engagement with it. It could be said that it is in a sense ‘eaten’ through such a sensory contact when it stimulates the production of saliva or appetite. But this is only its symbolic incorporation. By bio food’s materiality, I do not mean what we perceive, sense or suffer in a contact or relation with it. Through such perception, one can know only surfaces of things and not their substances (Gibson 1979). The experience of seeing, touching or smelling a food is still very different from that of feeling or tasting it in the mouth. By the materiality of bio food, I mean all its material, edible, as well as inedible parts such as the packaging. One actually eats only its edible materiality. This materiality can be experienced only through literal incorporation.
Surely, the inedible materiality, in particular the packaging, is also part of bio food and its identity. In fact, it has a significant function when it contains the official bio label and other bio symbols or images. Apart from serving to store and protect the foodstuff, the packaging also carries the important knowledge concerning the foodstuff’s production and consumption (Appadurai 1986). One is free to doubt if what is written on the packaging actually corresponds with the very materiality of bio food. The truth is that only through the symbolic incorporation of bio food in the shop we cannot really know it. We can just trust the packaging. Yet it is the very materiality of bio food that ‘stands out’, and does not allow us to reduce bio food to its immateriality and its incorporation only to symbolic incorporation.
Immateriality of bio food
I clearly differentiate between bio food’s materiality and immateriality. Food’s edible materiality can be only literally incorporated, whereas its immateriality can be incorporated only symbolically. By bio food’s immateriality, I thus mean everything that bio food represents, that circulates about it or that is expressed through language and other media. This includes its sociocultural and individual semiotic and semantic aspects – its different meanings, symbols, images or representations. In this sense, bio food is seen as a symbol having a meaning or import in the cultural world (Geertz 1973).
In a word, approaching bio food through its immateriality means to see it as a material vehicle or conduit. As Webb Keane puts it, one looks ‘through the material of the object in the effort to grasp the more abstract structure it is supposed to express. The subject tends to be identified with the resulting abstractions, the object as something material, remains apart’ (2006:199). Bio food’s immateriality is what people make from it, which can be anything, for one can associate bio food with anything one wants, or project onto it anything one wishes or does not like. But no matter what one makes from it, it does not have a direct effect on it, and does not change its materiality.
The immateriality of bio food, as conveyed through knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, or rumours, can affect or change only people and their relation with bio food but not its materiality. Anything that is made from bio food on the immaterial level, does not change its materiality. Its materiality changes only when something immaterial such as an idea is materialized, that is, implemented in the production of bio food’s materiality.
Bio food as a material thing
If food is reduced to its immateriality, it ceases to be food. But it is equally true that food does not exist separately from its immateriality. Although materiality and immateriality of bio food are fundamentally different, and cannot be confused, they are intertwined and interdependent. To express their ‘unity in spite of their differences’, I suggest seeing bio food as a material thing – a complex heterogenous amalgam of materiality and immateriality elements. Calling bio food a material thing indicates that it is material (a material), which, however, does not mean that it is only material or that one deals only with its materiality. It also makes the material–immaterial dichotomy unsustainable, and does not allow for reducing bio food to either its materiality or immateriality.
By putting the adjective ‘material’ before ‘thing’, I do not just make explicit what is implicit in ‘thing’, but fundamentally specify it. ‘Thing’ is an all-encompassing term, which one can use to refer to basically anything material or immaterial. I use this term to refer to bio food’s immateriality as described above. By adding the adjective ‘material’ before it, I emphasise that not only bio food is material, but, above all, that it is its materiality that makes it bio, and so fundamentally different from non-bio food. This materiality can be known only through literal incorporation and its embodied experience. This experience can confirm, refute or create new ideas concerning its immateriality.
My other food consumption ideas and research blogs can be found here
This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.