I Eat an Apple. On Theorizing Subjectivities


In this contribution to the first issue of the journal Subjectivity, I propose that we draw upon exemplary situations to do with eating as we engage in philosophy. That we play with our food, that is, explore the possibilities of models to do with growing, cooking, tasting and digesting. And that, finally, we move metabolic metaphors from one site/sentence to another. Many things would change if we were to engage in such experiments. Subjectivity among them.

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  1. 1.

    Do I write this text? Yes I do, but not as a separate subject. I would like to thank the authors of all the books I read as well as every scholar I listened to or talked with. For more immediate support and inspiration I thank Jeannette Pols, Mieke Aerts, Amâde M'charek, Nick Bingham and John Law.

  2. 2.

    This frustrating situation has led a Dutch sociologist to write a book about it: Abram de Swaan (2001).

  3. 3.

    The travelling of food (of cultivation practices as well as food products) has been the topic of a lot of fascinating historical studies. See for example the contributions to David Goodman and Michael Watts (eds) (1997); or Jack Goody (1998). My personal favourite remains: Sidney Mintz (1985).

  4. 4.

    On taste as something that one may only gradually acquire in practice and that needs to be done over and over again, see Geneviève Teil and Antoine Hennion (2004).

  5. 5.

    Shigehisa Kuriyama (1999). The quote is on page 144.

  6. 6.

    For a beautiful analysis of (various parts of various kinds of) Greek philosophy as inspired by the fear of becoming a slave, and a celebration of the situation of the “free man”, see Tsjalling Swierstra (1998).

  7. 7.

    For a more extensive exploration of the subject with semi-permeable boundaries, see Annemarie Mol and John Law (2004).

  8. 8.

    There are now many authors who want to include (some species of) animals into the category of subjects with rights, but thus far plants do not seem to have been invited on liberal terms. That is a great good for it helps the exploration of other terms for attending to them. For an interesting example, mobilizing the term “friendship”, see Nick Bingham (2006).

  9. 9.

    There are many versions of this joke. For instance, there is a car version, too, in which the earth is inhabited by cars that meet every day in huge parking spaces while their slaves work so as to earn money for the gasoline they need. Thanks to Sebastiaan Soeters for telling it in a meeting just the other week.

  10. 10.

    See for example Donna Haraway (2003); Vinciane Despret (2007).

  11. 11.

    The example comes from the admirably daring attempt of a biologist to write a history of humanity that gives plants and animals a prominent place: Jared Diamond (1997).

  12. 12.

    When bowels are actually made visible from the inside, they do not contain apples. Visualization techniques like endoscopes depend on research subjects who have abstained from food for many hours. The colon even gets emptied out with laxatives before it is visually inspected and some people are embarrassed if the remains of food become visible on the screen during an endoscopic examination. See, for the fascinating details, Maud Radstake (2007).

  13. 13.

    One of the great inventions of the social studies of science was its persistent shift from “theory” to “practice”. As Bruno Latour put it, when someone contradicted Pasteur, the answer would not be about “theory” but about Petri dishes. However, we currently seem to be collectively experimenting with shifting back and forth and back and forth again, in different modalities, between theories, practices, theoretical practices and practical theories. But it is still worthwhile to move (back?) to Bruno Latour (1988). The second part of that book, Irréductions, is an exemplary example of a practice loving theory. It also beautifully undermines all illusions that there might be such a thing as effort free “universality”.

  14. 14.

    The reproach is easily and frequently made. At the same time there are many attempts to seriously theorize the “I” and to mobilize “experiences” as ethnographic material. See for instance John Law (2000); and the contributions to Anne Meneley and Donna Young (eds) (2005).

  15. 15.

    Of course there are many exceptions, that come in variations. From Walter Benjamin's monumental Passagenwerken (Edition Suhrkamp, 1982) to the far more modest, but spirited, Peter Steeves (2006).

  16. 16.

    The moralizing of eating and drinking is an old tradition, which is currently being revitalized with astounding vigour. For a good analysis, see John Coveney (2006).

  17. 17.

    The case such as I cast it here is a format for knowledge that – a century or so ago – used to thrive in medicine. Over the last decades other knowledge formats, notably those of epidemiology, have tended to displace it. For an attempt to revitalize the “case” as a respectable knowledge format in health care, see (a book that itself is framed as a philosophical case study) Annemarie Mol (2008).

  18. 18.

    However, as this text is a proposal rather than a result, a draft rather than an outcome, my “I eat an apple” still has some traits of an example. I would wish to develop it into a true case, for when examined in more detail, “I eat an apple” will offer us yet more surprises. And so will other food realities, when seriously engaged with empirically and moved around experimentally. Which is just what in the present text I propose we do – see below.

  19. 19.

    Yes, in theory the author has been undone a long time ago; see Michel Foucault (1971). But there are still many ways in which this figure is among us, notably as the (often hidden) subject of (philosophical) theory.

  20. 20.

    In talk about food this fact should not be forgotten: that it is not shared equally. For hunger and other food inequalities, see Tim Lang and Michael Heasman (2004).

  21. 21.

    In introducing this term, Nauta was inspired by Kuhn's explanations of the ways in which “exemplars” matter to the natural sciences. So, he said, do they in philosophy – with the difference that this usually happens in a far less overt manner. See (yes, in English to make it travel) Lolle Nauta (1990).

  22. 22.

    As we have learned that modern medicine does not know a single coherent body, “the” “real” body, so to speak, but stages (performs, enacts) “a body multiple” (many versions of the body with ever so many complex relations between them), we may wonder which of these “bodies” is mobilized in which sites and situations – not just in but far beyond the hospital. In theory, for instance. For medical practice, see Annemarie Mol (2002).

  23. 23.

    A reference to Michel Serres (1980). This is one of the rare philosophical books that takes eating extremely seriously. The social event in which a host feeds guests while getting stories in return is the central scene of the analysis. It is the book's explicitly explored exemplary situation. Readers of Serres will recognize the traces of his work throughout the above.

  24. 24.

    For an impressive range of ways in which bodily metaphors inform the Western philosophical tradition, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999). Lakoff and Johnson, however, have very little to say about metaphors to do with eating, drinking, digesting and excreting. Work remains to be done.

  25. 25.

    For an earlier, slightly different version of these propositions, see Annemarie Mol (2005).


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Mol, A. I Eat an Apple. On Theorizing Subjectivities. Subjectivity 22, 28–37 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2008.2

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  • situated philosophy
  • relational materiality
  • models
  • metaphors
  • food