Do the ways in which we conceive of politics sufficiently acknowledge the force of ‘things’?footnote1 Does our thinking about political agency—about what can make things happen in the public arena—take adequate account of material agency? The traditional approach is exemplified by Leon Kass, appointed by George W. Bush in 2001 to the President’s Council on Bioethics and its one-time chair. He argues in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature that this everyday activity reveals humanity’s place at the top of the hierarchy of being and our rightful mastery over things. According to Kass, ‘in eating, we do not become the something that we eat; rather the edible gets assimilated to what we are . . . . the edible object is thoroughly transformed by and re-formed into the eater.’footnote2
This conquest model of consumption disregards the effectivity of not only animal bodies, but also the ‘bodies’ of vegetables, minerals, and pharmaceutical, bacterial or viral agents. It presents nonhuman matter as merely the environment for or the means to human action. But does there not exist, as the notion of a viral agent suggests, a form of agentic capacity not restricted to the human actor, a potentiality within materiality per se? This material agency would include the negative power to resist or obstruct human projects, but it would also entail the active power to exert forces and create effects.
In this essay, I seek to bring to the fore this vital power as it exists within nonhuman ‘actants’.footnote3 Bruno Latour defines an actant as ‘something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general.’footnote4 Proceeding from this definition, I will horizontalize the relations between humans, biota and abiota—presenting all of them as actors vying for efficacy. However, each of these can express its agentic capacity only within an assemblage congenial to it—only, that is, within a specific configuration of other actants (each itself an effect of the interactions between the multiple actants internal to it). Agency is then a force distributed across multiple, overlapping bodies, disseminated in degrees—rather than the capacity of a unitary subject of consciousness.
Edible material is an agent inside and alongside intention-forming, morality-(dis)obeying, language-using, reflexivity-wielding, culture-making human beings. Food is an active inducer-producer of salient, public effects, rather than a passive resource at the disposal of consumers. The case for food as a co-participant in our world, as possessing an agentic capacity irreducible to (though rarely divorced from) human agency, has two prongs. The first seeks support in scientific studies of the effects of dietary fat on the moods and cognitive dispositions of humans, not only on the thickness of their flesh. The second revisits the robust discussions around the moral and political efficacy of diet in the nineteenth century. Here I will focus on motifs from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Thoreau, where eating becomes a series of mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurred. My meal is and is not mine; you are and are not what you eat. Human and nonhuman bodies re-corporealize in response to each other; both exercise formative power and also offer themselves as matter to be acted upon. Eating, then, reveals not only the interdependence of humans and edible matter, but also a capacity to effect social change inherent in human and nonhuman bodies alike. I conclude by asking whether an enhanced alertness to material agency might help us to reimagine what materiality is—to move it away from the image of inert, brute matter.
If the eaten is to become ‘food’, it must be digestible to a formerly foreign body. Likewise, if the eater is to be nourished, it must accommodate itself to a formerly foreign body. Both, then, have to have been mutable, to have always been a materiality that is hustle and flow as well as sedimentation and substance. The rhetorical thrust of the noun ‘matter’ and the adjective ‘material’ is precisely the opposite: to denote stable stuff. Ben Anderson and Divya Tolia-Kelly note that there are two dominant figurations of materiality, both of which associate it with stability or grounding: ‘The first is the familiar realist equation between matter and unmediated, static, physicality’ and ‘the second is the use of “the material”, or “material conditions”, to refer to an ostensive social structure that over-determines “the cultural”’.footnote5