Food deserves more attention than we tend to give it. It reminds us that we are embodied beings. We do not simply have bodies but, rather, we are bodies. This fact calls for a more personal approach to food. We should not try to analyse food as such simply because it does not exist as such and in itself. As it is also my aim, the focus on food should be a focus on our concrete embodied, situated and material engagement with it. This way we can start ‘unwrapping’ packaged bio food.
Food is an inevitable part of our lives without which we cannot survive. However, we tend not to care much about it or reflect upon its origins, composition or way of production. We find other daily tasks more important than selecting, preparing and eating food. Yet food matters and its importance should not be underestimated. As Deborah Lupton(1996) shows, food and practices revolving around it play crucial roles in forming our bodies and subjectivities. Bodily experiences and feelings such as hunger, taste or food preferences are not simply biological but are to a great extent constructed, influenced and mediated by society and culture.
In fact, food is a special and unique material thing or product because it not only keeps us alive but also when consumed, it, unlike other material products, literally becomes part of us. It in a sense merges with us and can’t be ‘separated’ from us anymore. Food destabilizes mind-body dichotomy. As Lupton argues food is a source of great ambivalence: ‘it forever threatens contamination and bodily impurity but is necessary for survival and is the source of great pleasure and contentment’(1996:3). Food is also about our relation to our bodies and points to the essential existential truth, namely that we are embodied beings(Marcel 1969).
Another reason why it is vital to pay attention to food is that it has been undergoing a process of growing complexity, multiplication, commodification, globalization and so on. Industrialized processed and prepared food, that is, food made mostly by machines has been changing us, the environment and the value and meaning of food. A response to this food and, more generally, to unreflective short-sighted consumer society based on an instant satisfaction of hunger and obsession with taste, has been bio food. Although this type of food is still quite unknown, it has gradually been taking over the food stores’ shelves.
In this article, I want to shed some light on bio food’s (im)materiality, inherent value, distinctiveness or uniqueness, its dynamics and social, cultural and personal meaning. Through an engaged and phenomenological approach, I try to show how we can experience and materially engaged with wrapped bio food. The main questions I seek to answer: What is an engaged and situational approach to bio food like? What are bio food’s materiality and immateriality like? What exactly makes bio food different from non-bio food? Why can we speak about its inherent value? What can we learn about bio food from our material engagement with it in in our daily lives?
To begin with, it is impossible to elucidate and understand bio food when we see it as something that is out there which we can objectively analyse or illuminate without being directly engaged with it. In other words, one cannot approach bio food apart from people as if it had life on its own. Dealing with food one simultaneously has to deal with people who are in one way or another involved with it. I argue that a turn towards food has to be at the same time a turn towards people. Such a turn does not allow us to treat ‘non-human objects as quasi-human subjects’(Fowles 2016:9). It tells us that people create, manipulate and influence things.
I want to avoid a radical view of bio food. I do not see it as a powerful natural actant that we should simply investigate. But nor do I see it as a completely human, cultural or social product. From a phenomenological perspective I focus on bio food through what it does to us, what kind of impact it has on us, how people engage with it, what they make from it in different phases of its ‘existence’ and so on. The central question is not ontological but rather phenomenological, that is, I do not try to delineate what bio food is but rather show or describe how it appears, how it is perceived, how it can ‘act’ on us and forms us through our direct material engagement with it or an indirect one based on what we hear, learn, think about it.
I examine phenomenologically how bio food appears ‘materialistically’ in our lived experience and how it shapes this experience. I do not see bio food as something that can be known a priori, that is, prior to our experience of it. Lived experience is possible only because we are embodied. Focus on bio food is also focus on the body which is ‘a living entity by which, and through which, we actively experience the world’(Desjarlais and Throop 2011: 89). My focus on wrapped bio food begins with the fact that we are embodied, situated and attached participants rather than disembodied, detached thinkers or observers.
A situational and personally engaged approach to bio food
Appadurai’s argument that we should not focus on things ‘theoretically’ but go after them ‘methodologically’ because ‘their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories’(1986:5), does not seem valid, at least when it comes to bio food. Even if we can learn something about bio food from its packaging, this is not enough to really know it. It is also true that bio food can have different trajectories when it circulates or travels either literally from one place to another or figuratively when some information, knowledge or just a belief or rumour about it spread from one person to another. But exactly because bio food is a thing in motion, it is unfixed and malleable to infinite mutations and interpretations.
Hence, it is impossible to follow things themselves simply because we do not see them as themselves or as such. Even though Appadurai(1986) distinguishes between theoretical and methodological approach to things, after all methodology is also a kind of theory how to approach, get to know or understand something and so it has a direct impact on things and determines how we see them. And theory actually depends on methodology because we look at things from a perspective, we are interested in some aspects and neglect or overlook other. To follow things is then about choosing one way rather than the other. Consequently, real knowledge, meaning and value of bio food can be recognized through our direct engagement with bio food. Bio food cannot have a value or meaning for someone who does not care about it or eat it.
Materiality and immateriality of packaged bio food
In this section my aim is to examine wrapped bio food’s immateriality and materiality. Even if they are different, my aim is to show that they are interconnected and cannot be really understood without each other. ‘Immateriality’ is not something that simply ‘enlivens’ bio food such as the vague notions of spirit and soul are supposed to do. Miller’s words that ‘immateriality can only be expressed through materiality’ (2005:15) apply to bio food. In bringing materiality and immateriality together, I suggest seeing wrapped bio food as a material thing which does not allow us to see the two as excluding each other.
By the materiality of packaged bio food I mean nothing else than bio food products or foodstuffs as we buy them or as they exist in their material form in shops. Such products or rather foodstuffs usually consist of a packaging which can be plastic, paper(carton) or glass. Bio food also does not have to be wrapped, for instance, when we buy vegetables or fruits from a local farmer’s shop or market. Anyway, packaging is non-edible material part of bio food. The edible material part of bio food is the food itself. This edible part again can be divided into edible and non-edible parts which is culturally, socially or individually determined. Some people, for example, do not eat peels of certain fruits while others find them more important than other parts of fruit.
Bio food’s materiality in the state and form we buy it does not last for long. Normally, processed bio food has longer “life” than non-processed bio food such as organic vegetables or fruits. Even if its existence can obviously vary depending on the type of food, it is in either case limited. Its original material state is temporal and if we do not eat it, it starts to decay or become mouldly. In effect, food’s limited and malleable materiality is something that distinguishes it from other things that are more durable. This characteristic makes food somehow elusive and hard to deal with. It is easier to deal with a thing which persists and is more resistant to change. We can’t really possess food. It is not something to have but something to eat. Although limited and unstable, it is above all this materiality that makes bio food ‘bio’ and differentiates it from non-bio food.
By immateriality of bio food, I mean how bio food’s semiotic and semantic dimensions; how it is expressed or articulated in discourse. Bio food certainly has a meaningful place within socio-cultural world (Geertz 1973). Bio food is not a purely material, natural, neutral, asocial or ahistorical thing at all. It represents and stand for something. It is a sign, a symbol, a referent or a carrier of social, cultural and individual meanings. But no matter what we create around or make from it, as long as we are just consumers and not producers, it does not change bio food’s materiality. Knowledge, feelings, thoughts or beliefs about it shape us and can change only us and our relation to bio food but not its materiality as described above.
Although materiality and immateriality of bio food are entirely different, they are ‘united’ in bio food. We can bring them together and so see bio food as a material product or thing, as a complex heterogenous assemblage or bundle of its material and immaterial elements. By placing ‘material’ before ‘thing’, I do not simply make explicit what is implicit in a thing such as bio food, but rather fundamentally specify it. ‘Thing’ is an abstract and overarching term which can refer to basically anything either material or immaterial such as paper, thought, story or event. In this case, ‘thing’ stands only for bio food’s immateriality which includes all that bio food can come to mean, signify or express. By adding the adjective ‘material’ to it, I wish to stress not only that wrapped bio food is a material thing but, more importantly, the fact that it is its matter that make bio food ‘bio’ and so different from non-bio food. At the same time, this materiality gives it its inherent value.
Inherent Value of Bio Food
In what follows, I want to argue that in the materiality of bio food lies its inherent value. I do not see this value as bio food’s agency, that is, power and ability to act. In fact, I do not speak about bio food’s agency not only because it can hardly be endowed with personality like other material things who can in a way personify or embody persons or their characteristics.
It could be said though that bio food has an agency because it does something to us, namely it sustains our bodies. But this ‘agency’ are rather metabolic processes that go on in our bodies. It is not about active food acting upon passive human bodies. It is rather about an organic interaction between bodies that eat and bodies that are eaten. It also would be misleading to attribute it agency because bio food produces effects and gives rise to affects, feelings and reflections.
I see bio food neither as having agency on its own nor as possessing some derivative agency as if it would be animated by something else. To speak about bio food’s agency would cause more confusion than clarification. It could easily lead to the anthropomorphism of bio food. Rather than about its agency, I then propose to speak about bio food’s inherent value, in spite of the fact, that ‘value’ is one of those abused words. For the purpose of this article, I distinguish between produced (socio-economic or ideological) and inherent and personal value.
The former view of value tells us that value is something attributed or made by humans. Undoubtedly, since bio food is part of the market and the social world, it has also an economic and social value. But I would argue this is not its real value. Its real value is material rather than immaterial. Bio food’s materiality gives it its inherent value. This value does not allow us to see bio food simply as a vehicle or a means for our ideas and action. Its inherent material value makes from bio food the end in itself. Its material qualities and potential are not something that are attributed, ascribed or inscribed by us but they are rather something which this food possesses independently from us and so can be only discovered by us. In a word, the truth is that food does not need us, we need food to keep us alive. But, of course, we do not need to opt for bio food. To eat it is a matter of individual choice, even if this choice can be to a great extent socially and economically determined. Bio food’s inherent value can be thus only personally or individually recognized.
But it is not simply the materiality that but rather the quality of the materiality that make bio food special and different from non-bio food. Generally, bio food is considered healthier and the right or better food to eat due to its natural and organic composition and lack of unhealthy synthetic “chemicals”. Yet this food is not only good for us but also the environment, nature and our planet. Bio food is part and a result of ecological, environmentally friendly and sustainable approaches and practices such as local organic farming, the use of alternative sources of energy, recycling and the usage of bio-degradable packaging. It represents an ‘ethical turn’ in food and everything that goes with it. It goes hand in hand with respect and responsibility for nature, with responsible and sparing use of resources, environmentalism, sustainability, locality, fair trade and so on. Indeed, bio food seems intrinsically ethical and moral.
The aim in this article was to start unpacking wrapped bio food from a phenomenological, embodied and situated perspective, the perspective which is still quite lacking in relation to bio food. I am aware that most of my ideas and insights can sound quite abstract and are quite provisional. I also know that I have mainly tried to elucidate and describe bio food and so have not critiqued it. Yet if one wants to critique something, one needs to first make sure one knows that which one is critiquing. I have tried to do this first and most important step. I am convinced that I have chosen the right path to investigate this still quite unknown type of food with lots of beliefs, biases and assumptions attached to it.
Surely, more attention needs to be paid to its supposed health benefits, its ethical and moral dimensions and how these are reflected and played out in people’s personal and social lives: How do people respond to bio food and its praised properties? What do they make from it? How is its difference reflected in our relation and practices with it? What is the social potential of this food? Does it bring people together and if so how is that different from other forms of sociality revolving around food practices? These and other questions are surely worth examining.
Interested in how these ideas apply to a concrete bio foodstuff as it passes through three distinct stages – the purchase, consumption and post-consumption stage? Read then the blog The purchase, consumption and post-consumption phase of a plant-based bio drink
This is a shortened and adapted version of the paper I wrote during my Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology for the course Material Culture. References available upon request.