In early November we had the great pleasure of welcoming Professor Annemarie Mol, University of Amsterdam, to Oxford, where she gave a talk on Where is the eating body? On situating beyond anatomy, co-hosted by the Politics and Practices of Food Governance seminar series and the Science and Technology Studies group at the University of Oxford.
Thought-provoking as ever, Annemarie Mol challenged us to think about the future of food not through identifying the issues but through deciding how to address them – on which terms and in which terms. She reminded us that issues to do with food frequently get separated out into the natural and the social, which can be problematic if one perspective is used exclusively. Instead Mol proposed to draw out practices in which facts are situated, to explore frictions and contrasts and to pay attention to “modes of ordering” (see Law 1994) related to food governance. Such an analysis – much informed by post-actor network theory in the field of Science and Technology Studies – does not focus on true or false knowledge but enables analysis of different facts, different concerns and different practices.
In her careful analysis of two examples, namely a) how much to eat? and b) what to eat?, Mol took us through a brief history of nutrition science and the sociology/ anthropology of food and eating, illustrating how we and others involved in producing and consuming food have come to think of what to eat in terms of calories or pleasure and how much to eat in terms of nutrients and satiety; she also highlighted the centrality of energy balance to nutrition science and the similar centrality of supply and demand to food companies in their framings of consumption.
Significantly, Mol focused her discussion of “modes of ordering” on the materiality of food. Questioning boundaries between bodies and foods, Mol challenged us to rethink the ways in which we conceptualize these often taken-for-granted entities. Is the apple separate from the self, or is it part of the body into which it will be incorporated? Are the bodies of farm labourers distinct from those of consumers, or do these boundaries blur through the picking and consumption of the same fruit? Through questioning these boundaries, Mol conveyed the possibilities that emerge when we attend to food as material. “Modes of ordering”, she argued, reveal different (sometimes divergent) visions of this materiality, each focusing on one facet therein; but rather than promote an exclusive reading of one type of ordering, we can explore critically how and why certain facets of materiality gain disciplinary prominence.
Mol asked us to scrutinise where the modes of ordering are situated, i.e., in which disciplines, in which sites and in relation to which concerns. Returning to her initial question – on which terms to deal with the future of food – she acknowledged that she has no definitive answer but can offer more differentiations and clusters. But what kind of knowledge is this, if it’s not final? Mol offered the term ‘patchwork knowledge’ as food for thought.
Law, John (1994) Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
This was the third talk in our seminar series on the Politics and Practices of Food Governance. We will make a recording of this talk available for students at the University of Oxford through WebLearn shortly.