The Phenomenology of Food
Gliding down the street with a yoga mat in hand, a friend of mine, who had recently been broken up with, was recounting how wholly transformed she felt after her donation-based yoga class on the Upper West Side. Opening her hips allowed her to let go of all the knotted resentment she had been holding onto. She's now more open towards the world, able to enjoy exercising, cooking, painting, and the company of others, more authentic in Heidegger’s eyes. Naturally, there was a part of me, the largest part of me, that didn’t believe her. But I continued to listen. We went to her apartment and assembled a kale salad with Veganaise and Nutritional Yeast dressing.
What I found most strange about this is not her insistence on the claim that a yoga class miraculously allowed her to get over her break up, but the way in which this claim was infused with the jargon of authenticity, including the performative ethics of the “back to the land” movement, which points Whole Foods’ shoppers to the East, towards the mystic authenticity of yoga, turmeric, brown rice, matcha, and açaí. But culinary orientalism is just one facet of the current health food movement; it has its roots in the 1960s as counterculture, as a protestation of the opaque corporations that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed. Since then, it has evolved and entangled itself with a more “flexible capitalism” that makes room for pre-existing remedies of apple cider vinegar, dark chocolate, antioxidants, and fiber. Most recently, it has aligned itself with environmentalism, adopting sustainability as one of its ethical goals. Eating food is no longer about managing hunger.
Especially in the environmentalism case, it is clear that there are valuable tenets in the current health food movement. Of course, it is important to be conscious of what you are eating and reduce pernicious environmental impacts whenever possible. But there is something much different going on when spiritual-physical claims concerning increased well-being begin to suggest some set of normative ethical behaviors, when the soul-cycler claims the $7 turmeric latte they just bought from a local coffee shop makes them feel better than its turmeric-free counterpart.
Already, we are attuned to the irony in claiming that purchasing certain goods makes someone morally good—what does it mean to be an ethical capitalist? But when the goods become foods and the foods become “good for you,” the irony appears to be subsided and moral extrapolations find their footing. The problem here begins as an existential one: the asymmetry between how one relates to one’s own body and to others’ precludes skepticism. We cannot coherently deny the magical effects of the over-priced turmeric latte without slating the other person’s lived experience. Thus, the moral suggestion that our soul-cycler who drinks “ethically-sourced,” “small-batch,” morally-infused lattes is morally good grounds itself in what seems to be biological fact.
In his collection of essays Against Everything, Mark Grief explains how health—how meticulously taking care of one’s own body through diet and exercise—has become the perfect residence for moral normativity. He identifies that exercise has become a “basic biological process of self-regulation.” And the regulation becomes economic when health anticipates life-span. By keeping fit, we preserve ourselves for an increased amount of time:
The person who does not exercise, in our current conception, is a slow suicide. He fails to take responsibility of his life. He doesn’t labor strenuously to forestall his death. Therefore, we begin to think he causes it…The nonexerciser is lumped with other unfortunates whom we socially discount. Their lives are worth a percentage of our own, through their own neglect… “Don't you want to ‘live’?” we say. No answer of theirs could satisfy us.
Standards of personhood are established.Now, we have a moral code that looks down upon degenerative bodies and discounts them from the order of the society, not too conceptually different from the “mad” lepers who Foucault identifies were the degenerative bodies of the medieval period.
But what Greif does not identify is the philosophical problem that makes the biological foothold for moral claims possible at all. As mentioned earlier, this is an existential problem dealing with the phenomenology of human bodies. Famously in Being and Time, Heidegger admits that “this ‘bodily nature’ hides a whole problematic of its own, though we shall not treat it here.” Already, we start to see the complexity of asserting claims regarding the body.
Before arriving at the phenomenological account for which we read Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, we trace the epistemic roots of the problem with Wittgenstein. To Wittgenstein, the sentence “I know that I am in pain” is considered ungrammatical, wholly unintelligible. Meanwhile the assertion “I know that he is in pain” is epistemically safe. This is because there is an asymmetry between the two claims. When we ask for justification for the third-personal claim, we can respond “he is wincing,” “he is clutching his knee,” or “he is crying.” But for the first-personal claim, there is no such justification that does not already refer to the assertion wanting to be proposed.
We can’t prove it in the same way we can point to external signifiers in the third-personal case. Wittgenstein wouldn’t understand the sentence “I know that kombucha makes my stomach feel better.” Already, we notice the epistemic rupture involved in bodily perception, one that severs the first-person account from the third.
Merleau-Ponty complicates the issue with a phenomenological account in his discussion on proprioception—the manner in which one’s body senses its own position and movement. Following Schopenhauer’s famous adage “the eye is not a viewer of itself,” he identifies that we don’t perceive others’ bodies in the same way we do our own, and there are serious philosophical consequences. The body is not simply an object in the world which we can substitute as a noun in a sentence; the body is necessarily situated in the world, and the body we experience is the body of action.
In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty studies the brain-damaged patient Schneider, who is the famous example for the dissociations between the lived body and the objective body. When a mosquito stung him, Schneider was unable cognitively to identify where the mosquito had stung him, yet he was able to scratch his leg exactly in that location. There is a certain non-observational relation we have with our own bodies that is partly constituted of what Merleau-Ponty labels motor intentionality—the non-physical affordances we make, our non-deliberate ways of perception. Motor intentionality is precisely the capacity Schneider lacked.
What all this means is that we can’t study the body or make claims concerning the body in a systematic, theoretical manner. It is necessarily lived in, and we experience it only from within its worldly-embedding. Thus, it cannot be reduced to a circuitry of muscles, bones and nerves. And perception does not so closely track the causal mechanisms which are thought to constitute our biology.
At this point, it might seem unclear how the peculiarity of our bodily experience is related to health food. It seems somewhat a benign notion that we can’t have a purely theoretical conception of our body when we can only sense it from within a mysteriously first-personal and necessarily-embedded point of view. But how does this relate to the ideology of health food?
To get there, we look to Heidegger and realize that phenomenology has a necessarily heuristic structure. For Heidegger, man is necessarily with others—being-with is an a priori transcendental condition for being. Other people inescapably comprise a world we too inhabit (hence, why Being is also Being-in-the-world), and this world is forged by societal heritage and by cultural practice.
Because we share the same mode of being as others (other Daseins) while having a unique sense of ownership over our own being, the way in which we experience our being is both third and first personal. And we flip through these perspectives interchangeably and simultaneously, sometimes without being directly aware.
Then, normativity finds its place in the way we see ourselves. The heuristic structure of phenomenology makes it such that we come to understand our own being, our own experience, from utilizing the social tools of language, cooperation, and joint activity. There is a part of us that must understand our own experience just how everybody else does.
We might find ourselves just doing what one does; eating salads because that’s just what healthy, happy people do. And we come to understand its effects in a positively, self-serving manner. Most of the time we really don't know if that salad increased our mood—our bodily perception is too complex to yield such an abstracted causal deduction.
For Heidegger, this is precisely what constitutes inauthentic being. It is a manner of existing that is totally general, devoid of individuality and the attuned ability to resist reducing your experience to platitudes, to what everybody else is doing and thinking, to what makes you fit in. When we are in the mode of inauthentic being, we find ourselves expecting rather than anticipating. In a way, we know how the salad will make us feel before we take our first bite. We expect certain results, rather than being open towards them, leaving possibility for a nuanced individual experience. Authentic being, on the other hand, is that mode which is true to oneself, wholehearted and responsive to the idiosyncrasies of being.
As he identifies, the problem is that we are necessarily inauthentic because we rely on others and the heuristics around us to even begin the process of shaping the individuality of ourselves. In this way, however, we leave the door open for moral normativity. We experience it precisely because we must rely on it in some capacity.
In reality, our biological processes are often opaque to us, but as human beings, we necessarily seek to understand them through heuristics. Because moral normativity is something within our grasp, something we inherit and are thrown into, it is something we can choose to sway ourselves and propagate.
Thus, taste becomes malleable, self-serving. It is a slave to normativity laced with moral judgments, while maintaining the appearance that it is rooted in something biological or empirical, something that comes authentically from “within.”
Still, I do not believe my friend, the one who claimed to feel free from the mental grief of a break up, the one who tried to couch that claim in her increased physical well-being following a yoga class. In a way, hers is the perfect assertion to make: the problem of bodily perception gives it philosophical shape, unfalsifiability.
But the real reason we should be suspicious of such wellness claims is not an epistemic one; it does not matter to us that their unfalsifiable status disqualifies them from any supposed achievement of the status of knowledge. The real reason is that these claims service science to ignore the larger socio-economic consequences associated with the movement.
It is no coincidence that Soul Cycle classes are nearly $40 an hour. It is no coincidence that Goop’s Yoni Eggs are still selling to wealthy Hamptonites despite the $145,000 lawsuit. And it is no coincidence that the large majority of those participating in these wellness movements are white.
As auspicious consumption comes to replace conspicuous consumption*, we cannot ignore the very real socio-economic implications of such cultural movements. Moral capital is no substitute for economic guilt, just as green juice is no substitute for a real meal.
* The term auspicious consumption is an allusion to the New York Times article “What The Rich Won’t Tell You” regarding the emergent class of wealthy left-leaners who no longer strive to show off their wealth in a the conspicuous manner Veblen first identified in his work The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Instead, they attempt to hide their wealth and privilege, “distancing themselves from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby, and entitled” to imply an increased moral worth.