Professor Annemarie Mol from University of Amsterdam was our distinguished guest for the Tema T Exchange 2016. She discussed with the Tema T interlocutors Dr Kristin Zeiler, Dr Martin Hultman and Prof Claes-Fredrik Helgesson under the title “Eating into theory.” As per the traditional Tema T Exchange format, each interlocutor presented the questions they had sent to the guest in advance, upon which the guest responded in an essay-formatted talk.

The Exchange centred on Annemarie Mol’s more recent work on eating practices. To what extent and in what ways can eating practices inform “theory”? For example, might the notion of coherence be better modelled on the ways in which dishes hang together, rather than in terms of propositional logic? Or again, is it better to think of the body in terms of a metabolic repertoire – ingesting from and excreting into its surroundings – rather than the neurological repertoire of a body perceiving and moving about in surroundings?

The issue of Philosophical examples and how they travel

Hultman built his questions around the issue of philosophical examples; what they consist of and how they travel. The ambition was to probe the narratives in Mol’s later articles about food. They seem at a first reading to be about ordinary everyday issues that everybody can relate to and the papers invite reflection in that way. In one way these analyses of everyday life are at odds with the grand theories and axioms of philosophy. Thereby, in some sense Mol resists what she calls Western philosophy’s tradition of examples, and tells instead empirically informed stories. Hultman thus argued that they turn into examples of something when they travel. Talking about and describing situations many can relate to in their day to day life makes the philosophy both accessible as well as not that ‘philosophical’. At the same time, Mol’s analyses are dense and thereby, it could be argued, actually creating philosophical images. Hultman’s three questions related to the above. He asked how Mol related her narratives to the long tradition of specific philosophical examples, which of the situations described she would prefer to travel as image, and if Mol could expand upon how she avoids the trap of telling universal stories by eating into theory.

"Western Philosoph"

Zeiler focused her first set of questions on concepts to think with when theorizing subjectivity. Noting the range of concepts that are designed to bring out a basic openness and non-discreteness of bodies in ways that question ideas of fixed boundaries between them, she asked what some such specific concepts, as models to think with, do, more precisely, when we seek to theorize subjectivity. In the next step, she shifted her focus from concepts to performances, and to what normativities specific linguistic styles and modes of presenting analysis may “embody” or “enact”. What, she asked, would be the analytic gain of enacting ontonorms in Dutch dieting practices as a norm-critical performance - would we see something different? Zeiler’s third theme centred on the figure of “Western philosophy” as something that needs to be shaken up, asking whether the reiteration of this figure didn’t risk to gloss over – and downplay – the existing (albeit far from main-stream) work that may be call situated philosophy, where philosophy is combined with qualitative work of different kinds, such as in Mol's own work.

Helgesson centred his questions for discussion around scholarly practices, organised around the three themes of audiences, stakes, and forms. He noted that there are as many ways to prepare and consume food, as there are ways to pursue scholarly engagements with the world. As per the first set of questions he noted Annemarie Mol's distinct style in how she textually constructs audiences and opponents. What does she think about that aspect of scholarly work. The second theme picked up on a notion from Mol, that modeling ideas transports them from the empirical domains from which it takes inspiration. Helgesson asked whether this means that certain food-related practices and sites are more appropriate for theoretical modelling than others? If so, what stakes are attached to what in this context, and what counts as an appropriate empirical site? The third theme related to the way in which the chosen form of scholarly work relates to Mol’s point about the importance of the situatedness of food and eating. Is it possible, Helgesson asked, to learn from the specificities of the different forms of food and eating when devising forms of scholarly engagement?


Annemarie Mol responded to these reflections and to questions from the audience, in a lively exchange, both during the formal Q&A and subsequently over coffee. She opened by emphasising how she appreciated the format of the exchange where the interlocutor comments were not cast in the format of outright critique, yet offered resistance. She stressed how this is a style where academia can work as a collective, and this requires avoiding both cosy consensus and antagonistic disputes. She likened it with the festive meal, to use a food metaphor. Among the main issues raised and discussed:

Annemarie Mol stressed that her preferred way of working was in terms of empirical philosophy, opening up a theory term or mode of relating and asking in what empirical or practical configurations it is modelled. In response to Helgesson’s question of how as an academic to relate this kind of work to that of others, she argued that a key guiding principle might be to “think otherwise”. This is often a better tactic than spending energy on intellectual enemies. 

Mol agreed with Zeiler that traditional “Western philosophy” is no longer practiced by many young philosophers. But, she said, there are still substantial number of adherents, so “Western philosophy” is a category from which we need to think away, which needs to be messed with, rather than taken as a positive identity.

In reply to Martin Hultman’s question - which example in her work she would like to see elevated as iconic of her work - Mol said: “none!”. She cited Foucault as saying that when someone asks him for his position, he has already moved elsewhere. The task is all about escaping, moving out and onward. Instead of aiming to build a solid, stronger and more robust theory, the work to be done is that of reconfiguring.

The advantage of thinking with eating

The special advantage of thinking with eating, Mol stressed, is that it allows a move towards a different way of situating human beings. Whereas in traditional philosophical perspectives the human is situated within his or her surroundings, the alternative to be pursued is that “you or me, we are not just walking through surroundings, but variously transforming them, transformed by them, and stretched out”. In this vein, attending to eating helps to reconfigure knowing. If we think knowing through eating, this is not a step towards representing the world, nor of improving it. It is instead transformative: in eating, the object and subject of knowledge change.

Yet, she also emphasised that eating is just one out of several activities that may offer the possibility of theorising “the subject” differently: other such activities might include breathing, harvesting, sowing and so on. In each such case tensions arise in the ways in which different language usage comes into conflict. It is important to keep the terms in tension rather than resolve the conflict. To say that I am the apple I am eating rather than decide who or what is being eaten by whom or what. We need to keep words in tension rather than try to define them once and for all. “Maybe that is the main topic of our conversation today: if we can have theory without definitions. Words that craft contrast and friction and push us out of our comfort zones.”

Tema T Exchange