Representation, food incorporation and embodied experience

by | Aug 24, 2023

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Representation, food incorporation and embodied experience

Food incorporation, identification and classification are real processes, which engage our body as well as mind (self). They shape us, and give rise to experiences, which are bodily and lived. In the process of both symbolic and literal incorporation, actual food identification and recognition should happen. If we cannot identify food, we hardly incorporate it and make it ‘ours’. In these processes we ‘open up’, and the separations between nature–culture, body–mind, subject–object, inside–outside or individual–social are negotiated and transcended. Through our concrete and bodily relation with food, these dichotomies become interconnected, integrated and in a sense united.

Beyond representations to the body

In The Consuming Body (1994), Pasi Falk focuses on the relation between the body, the self and culture. He links them together to examine modern consumption. Modern consumption is thematised as the primary realm of self-construction through separation (social dimensions) and self-completion (personal dimensions). He comprehends modern individual self as a ‘consuming body’ and human bodily existence as the ground of the subject or self (psycho-somatic entity). Inspecting the historicity and topology of the body, he sees it as an entity embedded in and subordinated to what he calls ‘the Order’, which can be practical, discursive (symbolic), social and cultural.

Falk emphasizes that the sensory aspect of eating is moulded by cultural dynamics and representations. But he does not explain how the latter is transformed into such sensory sensations and experiences. He only suggests that cultural representations determine not only what we eat, but also what it tastes like. To be accepted, edible, liked and preferred, food has to be approved by the mind. It must be ‘good to think’ and positively represented. Falk contends, that ‘for the food to become ours, that is, ‘right’ and ‘good to think’, it must act as a non-negative representation. And for the food to be regarded not only as ‘good enough’ but as ‘good to taste’, it must act as a positive representation’ (1994:81). It must represent something valued, better or higher without being transgressive.

However, it is not clear at all what a ‘non-negative’ and ‘positive’ representations are, and what the difference between them is. What seems clear is that the actual taste of food does not play an important role not only in food acceptance and preference but also in the formation of the body and the self.

Food incorporation as a bodily involved process

Falk comprehends food practices and taste only as a mental or representational process. Consequently, food is eaten because of the cultural values around it (Lupton 1996). Yet to look at food consumption only in representational terms, and to see it as something that shapes only the ‘surface’ of the body and the self, means to distort and misunderstand all of them.  Food consumption, or more precisely, food incorporation is also, or mainly, a bodily or affective process through which we bodily experience food. This experience seems vital and decisive when it comes to food acceptance, preference and avoidance. It is the result of existential immediacy and sensory and bodily engagement with food.

Fischler (1988) looks at incorporation as a practice through which one attempts to control the body, the mind (self) and so one’s embodied identity. He links food’s identity to one’s identity seeing the processes of food identification as connected to the construction of consumer’s identity. For him ‘incorporation is a basis of individual identity’ (1988:279). Since incorporated food becomes part of us, it is ‘an important source of personal identity’ (Nützenadel&Trentmann 2008:2). Food, food practices and embodied experiences and sensations related to them are central to our subjectivity or sense of self (Lupton 1996). The identity linked to food is an embodied identity, and not an identity based on how we present or represent ourselves verbally or otherwise.

To see one’s identity and ultimately oneself as embodied, presupposes awareness that food has an effect on the body, and if the body is interconnected with the self (if the self is embodied), then inevitably food shapes the self too. Hence, the saying ‘one is what one eats’. What really matters then is to know the food one eats, and who one is in relation to food. This knowledge and awareness are developed through both symbolic and literal incorporation.

Symbolic versus literal incorporation

Food incorporation, as an experiencing, bodily involved process, is crucial since in this process we identify (with) food, and develop a relation with it. Food incorporation can be either symbolic or mental (food examination and incorporation before its ingestion) or literal (actual ingestion of food). One cannot really understand one without the other, and, therefore, they should be taken together and seen as interrelated and interdependent processes. Literal incorporation is also mental or mentally (symbolically) determined, and symbolic incorporation is moulded by the former.

As for symbolic incorporation, it pertains to how food is represented and mentally inspected and identified prior to its literal incorporation. Different factors, ideas or representations can come into play, and determine whether we eventually eat a certain food or not. Besides more obvious and perhaps also more stable sociocultural and individual (psychological) factors such as the food image, its meanings or its place in the sociocultural world, there are also more situational or contingent factors, which play a role in food incorporation, such as time, place, one’s current physiological state and financial situation, recent experience with the food or the context in which the food is presented (Rozin&Vollmecke 1986). Food incorporation and the establishment of food preferences–avoidances, likes–dislikes are often a result of a complex process of multidetermination (Rozin&Vollmecke 1986). This does not allow for a simple explanation why we eat a certain food and avoid other.

Symbolic incorporation is a bodily engaged process that happens during the production, purchase or preparation of food. In these phases, one symbolically (mentally) but also bodily engages with food when one can not only think about it, look at its packaging and price but also cultivate it or make it ready for literal incorporation. In this process, one decides not only if one will literally incorporate the food, but also what exactly and in what state it will be eaten. For example, some people, do not eat peels of certain fruits, while others find them more important than other parts. Or some prefer raw vegetables to cooked ones. This means that food’s materiality can be experienced either through a close material sensory engagement with it or through its immateriality, that is, what one knows or thinks about it, and what is written on the packaging. In the phases of symbolic incorporation, food is not a food yet but rather a commodity or foodstuff.

Ultimately, literal incorporation is the definitive meaning-making event or a process when a foodstuff is turned into a food, as Roe tries to convey by the term ‘things becoming food’ (2006). Consequently, edibility ‘is a process, something that is performed, something enacted, and not something that necessarily demands rational, logical reasoning’ (Roe 2006:112). (In)edibility and other food categories and oppositions can be culturally and socially determined, but they are ultimately established in a material and embodied process of literal incorporation.

During its symbolic incorporation, one can examine and evaluate the food through the senses of sight, touch, or smell, but it is only through the sense of taste in the process of putting the food into the mouth and eating it that the food can be for the first time bodily tested and evaluated. In other words, the food’s materiality and value become recognized and meaningful to us only through direct multi-sensory and bodily engagement with the food in the process of literal incorporation. This does not allow for dividing food into categories and oppositions before they are bodily tasted and ‘tested’. Unless one is forced to eat something, the body is the ultimate ‘judge’ and ‘classifier’ and not sociocultural meanings, norms, rules and classifications.

Food becomes edible, and is bodily recognized as such, only in the process of its literal incorporation. It starts in the mouth which serves as ‘the gateway of the organism’, ‘a safety chamber’ or, in Rozin’s words, as ‘the guardian of organism’ (Fischler 1988:282). In the mouth food is subjected to sensory analysis. Food is not only transformed in it, ‘but is also examined and analysed in every respect before being allowed to cross the crucial threshold of swallowing and literally in-corporation, i.e. the complex biological and psychological process of integrating nutritional matter into the self’ (1988:282). Mouth has thus an important role, when, as Falk puts it, it ‘acts both as an organ of sensory ad sensual experience and of censorship: either you swallow it up or spit it out’ (1994:90). Yet, it is not actually the mouth but the sense of taste and taste which play crucial roles here.

Centrality of our lived, embodied experience

Falk, with his representational view of consumption and the body, does not go deep enough, but ‘stays’ on the surface of the body, the self and on the level of representations. He focuses only on how this surface is culturally managed, organized, and represented. Actual bodily food inspection and its connection with the embodied self, challenges Falk’s topological and ‘superficial’ analysis of the body and self.

Ultimately, rather than just in terms of representations, our relation with food has to be seen through our lived and embodied experience of, or rather with, it. We first experience food, and only then we can classify and represent it. As Csordas (1993) stresses, embodied experience should be the starting point when we are examining our bodily engagement in the world. We have to begin from this experience when we want to understand food and our relation with it. Such an experience is not the opposite of the expressive dimension of corporeality. We experience ‘in’ and ‘with’ our bodies. Experience is both mental and physical giving rise to experiential and bodily knowledge. 

Rather than focusing too much on the mouth and seeing it as an arena where culture, society, the self ‘confront’ each other, it seems more productive to differentiate between taste and the sense of taste. Unlike Falk, I do not reduce the sense of taste to taste, to the sensory aspect of eating. But, again, my aim is not to separate them, but rather see how they are interconnected and mould each other despite their differences.

The follow-up blog The sense of taste, taste, hunger, appetite, disgust and nausea can be found here

Other thesis 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.

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