“Cogito, Ergo Sum” [Transl: I think, therefore I am]
—René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1644
This will be a blog about the history and culture of food as it has been, and is being transformed by science, technology, and other social and cultural currents of modernity. It is an effort to make sense of food as a modern thing understood, produced, and transformed by the many processes and events that have modernized, scientized, technologized (sic) modern society. A recurring motif will be the role (or problem) of scale in making sense of food culture and politics, since changes in scale (in terms of population and globalization) has become a signature departure from food-as-it-was-known-throughout-human-history and food in modern, contemporary society. Food, diet, and eating offer interesting opportunities for exploring the role of expertise in the everyday. The blog will touch upon certain perennial anxieties which surface in public food debates, and offer insights from history and the social sciences about their deeper roots.
What’s in a name?
The title of the blog is a play on René Descartes’ famous (performative) utterance, “I think, therefore I am.” The phrase marks an important existential moment in the history of science and the Enlightenment origins of many of our (Western) modern beliefs. We use it as an homage to our background in Science & Technology Studies (a.k.a. science, technology, and society; a.k.a. “STS“). “Comedo,” from the latin word edo “to eat”, instead of cogito, foregrounds the blog’s focus on food and eating. We have all heard those food tropes, “You are what you eat,” which comes from the French, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es“, and then there is the analogous German wordplay on “essen“, “Man ist, was man isst” (Transl.: Man is what man eats.). Swapping “I eat” with “I think” is intended to suggest that food, today, is central to identity. But comedo also means “to devour”, “to waste”, or “to use up”. In this way we hope to foreground food’s materiality, how food is a liminal object that bridges the environment and the human body. “Food safety” (foodborne illness), “food security” (availability and access to food), “food risk” (anxiety about the hypothetical or future of food)… cooking, eating, drinking, dieting… all of these are shaped by material constraints, food’s perishability and ephemerality.
Any good blog needs a raison d’être or purpose for being. One motivation for the blog is intellectual. Many years ago Sidney Mintz posed the following paradox to food scholars:
“We do not understand at all well why it can be claimed both that people cling tenaciously to familiar old foods, yet readily replace some of them with others.”
Scholars in the humanities and social sciences had long argued that food was, in Levi-Strauss’s words, “good to think with”. (Argh! That hanging preposition at the end!) Diet and “taste” has been explored as a manifestation of social distinction. And food scholars regularly proclaim that “food is culture“. Yet many of these studies lacked an account of how those dynamic cultural and social dimensions were linked to equally dynamic material and natural dimension of food, foodways, and agri-culture. Recent literature in STS and “material culture” has offered us a wide variety of concepts and terms from considering the “material-semiotic”, the nature-culture “hybrids”, or “Liquid Materialities“, all of which are intended to reopen the “nature” of culture and look at how the nature and culture fashion each other and literally construct things. (That there has long existed an intellectual tradition in studying the relationship between the material and ideological —e.g. the “word made flesh“, “Book of Nature“, “transubstantiation” or even “commodity fetishism“— seems to be besides the point, or sits in the background of these discussions.) There is “something in the air,” and this blog seeks to apply some of those insights and innovations to the subject of food, and to Mintz’s question about how we account for change and continuity in our dietary habits.
A more scholarly, professional motivation for the blog is to further the dialogue between Food Studies, a growing and popular, but also at times a quite un-disciplined field, and Science and Technology Studies, a field whose methodological insights have much to offer to discussions on food and diet, but which is often framed in esoteric terms focused on the nature of knowledge production rather than matters of everyday importance. Here the blog seeks to engage timely and trending topics, to “correct the record” on common misconceptions or erroneous historical perceptions that surface in popular debates on food and diet. But the blog will also build a “toolkit” for thinking about food issues, drawing upon new methods and concepts in the fields of STS and food studies that have direct applications to the study of food and agriculture, and eating and dieting. We will also (shamelessly) promote those people in the field working at this intersection of food and STS by featuring their work and guest posts here.
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