2020 Philosophy I: Culinary Materialism

Cooking is planetary, even cosmic. It’s a read-write process which only humans engage in, at the root of which lies chemistry, a science singular for its reliance upon participation in synthesis and production. It’s possible the food preparation might offer a way for artists, thinkers and researchers confounded by limited options for political engagement with the environmental killswitch that is the anthropocene. Instead of simply knowing, observing or representing, the culinary world’s investment in the transformation of matter signifies a step beyond the epistemological into actual effects. Stating what should be obvious, artist-chemist Sean Raspet (see Overcoming Market Neophobia) writes in ArtAsiaPacific: “At the root of the gap between an artwork’s imagined and actual effects is, perhaps, a more general tendency to confuse artworks and cultural endeavors that are about something for being the thing itself.” We incorporate the world not only by recognizing its geochemical manifestation but also by eating it.

Food is 1 percent chemistry and 99 percent culture. It is the ritual ingestion of food that singles it out as a special category of matter with complementary habits and processes we define as gastronomic. From nature’s point of view, the same reactions, spillages, mixtures and combinations take place constantly at the level of matter, within and without what we may or may not consider food. How this plasticity is rendered, especially as it pertains to the usefulness of “waste,” is where culinary materialism steps in. Food has endo- and exo-relational qualities, that is to say, a life that is non-human. And yet much of the “normal” or “traditional” food products in the supermarket are reconstituted. In the long run, all fruit and vegetables have been processed: cultivated for pigment, shape, texture and transportability. Carrots are orange because the Dutch made them that way. All food aims to satisfy human expectations.

Culinary materialism rejects the naturalistic fallacy which draws an arbitrary distinction between “natural” and “artificial.” It also rejects the notion that humans cannot consciously engage with the means of industrial supply – an assumption soon exploded by the realization that the farming culture we believe ourselves to be attached to is no more than a composite hallucination with its roots as much in film and television as in existing agricultural practice. Vegetables grow in soil – this much is true. This is a miracle heaped upon so many in our tiny corner of the cosmos. But those same vegetables are tested for corruption, stored in refrigerated warehouses, shipped and stocked in depots near your home – or sold to restaurants where they are diced and grilled to taste. These are the strands of automation that explain why you are not a farmer. Why not simply count your blessings?

Solve et Coagula, the motto of medieval alchemists, is a recognition of the dissolution and recombination of matter that lies at the heart of (al)chemistry but is also the defining methodology of cooking. As Reza Negarestani and Robin Mackay note in their introduction to Collapse: VII (Urbanomic, 2011), a volume to which Black Almanac owes a substantial debt, culinary materialism represents a “de-rigidification” of thought, an application of the full chemical spectrum as a truth from which a new geophilosophy may be built. In place of the binaries of realist or idealist, synthesis and analysis, integration or difference on which western philosophy rests, it looks to the “compositions, mixtures, contaminations, decompositions, transitions of nature to culture, cultural fusions and transits” of cooking as a process of thinking as practice.

Do not be deceived: beneath the everyday art of growing, cooking and eating lies the potential for a new universalism, an expansive mathematico-chemical horizon that stretches well beyond the finite sentimentalism of bourgeois gastro-culture. There is no condition of pastoral innocence to which we can return. In fact, liberating food from the performance of an idealised past may require more alienation rather than less.