“Materialities” is a word that embraces and invokes a range of ways of thinking, which together can cast distinctive light on the ways in which the matter of food matters. The word is one of those pieces of academic jargon that can be upsetting. After all, “materialities” refers to the same stuff as “materials”: the stuff that conventionally is understood to provide both the grounds for possibility and the background for social life. What is gained by adding “ities” into “material”?
Different intellectual traditions inform thinking on materialities. What they share is a problematization of the way in which the material has been framed in the carving out of intellectual space for the social sciences. At least since Émile Durkheim, the “social” has been predominantly understood as distinct from the material, the physical character of the nonhuman world figuring only as passive backdrop, limits, and substrate for the human activities and relations that comprise the object of social scientific inquiry (Breslau 2000; Latour 2000). By contrast, for different traditions informing understandings of materialities, the material is part of the social. Whether in providing a carrier for social meanings, relations, and power, or as active participants in the making, shaping and reproduction of the social, the material is understood as part of the social. It is the different senses in which material things are understood as more or less active participants within the flow of human action, rather than as mute and passive background, that justifies the use of the term “materialities.” There is probably no better class of materials than food for exploring the value of the different approaches to understanding materialities.
Debates over the priority to be given to the material in shaping social life are nothing new. Philosophical debates between materialism and idealism echo down the millennia. To condense complex traditions of thought into a couple of lines—for the materialist, matter is the primary substance of all things including those phenomena we take to be social or mental; for the idealist, ideas form or underlie reality. Food easily figures as a bone of contention in the territory between these two poles of thought. On one hand, the physical reality of food is clearly inseparable from its meanings, symbolism and cultural purposes. On the other hand, the inability of even the most radical idealist to carry on producing reality without eating something has long placed a limit on the tenability of any pure idealism.
However, the intellectual landscape in which food studies emerged in the late twentieth century can be argued to have itself fractured about the idealist/materialist divide. On the one hand, agri-food studies were established in a materialist tradition; specifically, the historical materialism identified with Marxist approaches. Meanwhile, attention to the cultural roles of food, particularly in relation to consumption, was established in academic fields defined by prioritization of discourses and representations. What defines contemporary approaches to materialities, however, is a broad position that repudiates any simple delineation between idealism and materialism, or the dualism of culture and nature on which such delineation is premised.
The academic field of material culture studies maintained an interest in material things in relation to culture throughout the twentieth century. Material culture has its roots in archaeology and anthropology. Archaeologists interested in reconstructing long-past cultural phenomena are compelled to rely on their material remains. Food seems to fit poorly into this purpose for paying attention to materials, thanks to its putrescibility. However, both the relatively durable wastes from foods in the favored archaeological empirical focus of the midden—such as animal bones, seeds, and chaff—and the many artifacts associated with collection, storage, preparation, and consumption of food have been assiduously examined by archaeologists, as a means of reconstructing past relations around the cultural roles of food (Gilbert and Mielke 1985). From the nineteenth century, anthropology has paid attention to the role of material things, not least around food, in the production and reproduction of social relations, roles, and meanings. The centrality of the stuff of food and the specificities of its materiality figure in the fundamental categories of structural anthropology, evident in the first volume of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked (1969). Food was a key focus when anthropologists started turning their gaze upon the cultures of Europe and North America in the later twentieth century. For example, Mary Douglas (1971) “deciphered” meals through an analysis of her own household’s food practices and rituals, and, later, food and the practices of feeding the household figured in Daniel Miller’s groundbreaking application of material culture approaches to the exploration of contemporary UK consumption (Miller 1998a).
As material culture approaches spread from anthropology into other fields of social science, food has continued to figure amongst the range of commodities whose social lives (Appadurai 1986a) have provided much of the focus for attention. For example, human geographers drew upon material culture approaches to effect a “rematerialization” of their field (Jackson 2000), following the discipline’s preoccupation with discourses, texts, and images in the wake of the cultural turn. Key works in this reorientation of the discipline have focused on food, such as Ian Cook and Philip Crang’s (1996) study of the spatially and temporally contextualized objectifications of social relations in contemporary London that allegedly comprise “a world on your plate,” or in the “following” of foodstuffs like papaya (Cook 2004).
Material culture approaches have therefore provided a means for food studies across disciplines to engage with the materiality of food. Clearly, food does not lend itself easily to analysis in relation to some key themes in material culture which depend on the temporal durability of things, such as the accretion of both material and semiotic patina as things pass down generations, embedding and reproducing family relations. Nevertheless, the material of food, not least through its repeated location within rituals and habits holding together people’s days and relationships, can be understood to objectify social relations and cultural meanings.
However, since the last years of the twentieth century, approaches that problematize the framing of materials within material culture approaches have increasingly been applied to understanding the materialities of food. For profoundly relational approaches like actor-network theory (ANT), material things do not only objectify, embedding and embodying social relations that preexist them. Rather, artifacts “construct, literally and metaphorically, social order… They are not ‘reflecting’ it, as if the ‘reflected’ society existed somewhere else and was made of some other stuff. They are in large part the stuff out of which socialness is made” (Latour 2000: 113). ANT starts from a premise that repudiates the fundamental distinctions, not least between humans and nonhumans, the social and the natural, upon which divisions like that between materialism and idealism are built. Some of the now-classic studies through which ANT took form considered “actor-networks” including foodstuffs, such as Michel Callon’s (1986a) research on the scallops of St. Brieuc Bay or Bruno Latour’s (1988) study of pasteurization. However, focus on foodstuffs was incidental, the materialities of the scallops or of milk sidelined in characterizing the heterogeneous networks of actors—both human and nonhuman, living and inanimate—comprising the networks being analyzed. ANT grew and spread from its origins in science and technology studies to have influence across the social sciences. Its direct application in relation to food has predominantly been through analyses of networks of production, as interventions into established approaches to agri-food production. Sarah Whatmore and Lorraine Thorne (1997) deploy ANT to understand the construction and maintenance of networks of fair trade coffee production, though the active role of coffee beans in the network is left mute. Similarly, David Goodman (2001) called for agri-food studies to engage with ANT and its relational understanding of materiality as a means of moving beyond commitments rooted in a materialism founded on a dualistic ontology.
So, while ANT has been central in the rise of relational understandings of materiality, its direct application to food has been limited. As late as 2007, Jane Bennett could justifiably argue that the agential capacities of food as vital matter remained fundamentally neglected. Drawing upon Latour but also broader currents of “post-humanist” theorization, she explores the relational agency of foodstuffs through the different affordances the vital materiality of foods offer to both situations of consumption and to the flesh and being of humans who ingest it (Bennett 2007). Emma Roe also attends to the relational materiality of food, working from literatures that are more concerned with the embodied and practical experiences of consumption, focusing on “things becoming food” through embodied, material practices (Roe 2006). Drawing on Marvin Harris (1985), Roe sets out to illuminate the question, “how do things like rancid mammary gland secretions, fungi and rock under particular circumstances become cheese, mushrooms and salt?” arguing that “things become food through how they are handled by humans, not by how they are described and named” (1985: 112).
Through attention specifically to the materiality of foods and their inherent vitality, relational materialist approaches draw attention to what is most distinctive about food as materials. First, that the stuff of food changes. Few material things exist as food prior to some degree of human engagement, through processing or cooking, and few foods stay food for long. As Roe argues, things become food; and as others have pointed out (Blake, in Cook et al. 2011; Watson and Meah, in press), things un-become food through processes of material decay but also through the specifics of how food stuffs become enmeshed in the details of everyday practice that renders food as waste. Second, and more fundamentally, the materiality of food becomes the material of ourselves. Jessica and Allison Hayes-Conroy (in Cook et al. 2011) draw attention to the viscerality of our engagements with food, echoing Elspeth Probyn (2000).
Just what counts as the materiality of food therefore shifts with changing intellectual preoccupations and ways of thinking. Through material culture, relational materialism, and vitalism, food is revealed variously as objectification of social relations, carrier of meanings, a relational agent within networks, and a vital yet culturally contingent presence, co-constitutive with the practices and purposes that go on around it. Together, these different approaches, which can be partially gathered together around the concept of materialities, thoroughly repudiate any sense that the matter of food is mute, part of the passive material background for social action: they show the different ways in which the matter of food can be understood to matter.