Eva Birch — Eating: a political theology of non-human bodies

My project studies sacrifice in terms of the original anthropological question of the constitution of the subject, and the objecthood of woman in the symbolic order. Food taboos and sexual taboos form subjectivity to the exclusion of woman, animal, and anything other to the technological ontology of Western man. I borrow Luce Irigaray’s critique of Karl Marx that women are the original units of exchange, to inform a trajectory from ritual to capital. From this position I look at modes of consumption in modernity. The status of woman as commodity leads to her inability to consume, eat, and thus enter as subjectivity in the symbolic order. Woman is not the only category through which we can track values of exchange. I use it, however, as a starting point to think about anything ‘other’ to the position of Western subject. Therefore I focus on objecthood instead of the construction of a new inclusive subject or subjectivity.

The thesis begins by looking at woman alongside animal. I turn to writings on Leviticus by Julia Kristeva that critique the framing of woman as impure Judeo-Christian theology. I extend this critique to animals, pointing to what Jacques Derrida calls ‘carno-phallogocentrism’. In describing how the body of woman is categorized as abject, Kristeva forgets that the body of the animal is similarly categorized, and furthermore sacrificed and consumed in order to constitute the sacrificial subject and the symbolic order. Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, in contrast, speak of an affinity, a shared exile with animals; Cixous in terms of Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. and Irigaray from an autobiographical point of view.

My project diverges from this notion of shared exile, to look instead at objecthood, how women and animals are objects of exchange. My presentation at the Bristol seminar developed this in terms of how women as sexual objects and animals as food objects are considered mutually exclusive. ‘What’ can be used for sex cannot be used for food, and vice versa. This order is, again, for the ordering of the male subject. Transgressing these taboos, for Jacques Lacan, and others, has potential in a way for rethinking subjectivity. This transgression still holds onto the ‘carno-phallogocentric’, or sacrificial, patriarchal order, merely inversing it. I am interested in a properly transgressive transgression, one that is not based on hysteria, but psychosis, following Elizabeth Grosz definition of Irigaray’s work, truly from the position of the object, the other. I attempt to take this even further towards the impossible position of the object/other.

‘Women’s writing’ about eating practices inform us about the symbolic order, but are these practices properly transgressive? Sensationalist memoirs and theories of anorexia nervosa from the 1970s onwards are problematically humanist, scientist and secular, which disavow the fundamental relation between eating, sacrifice, and the symbolic: the constitution of the subject. Some writing, however, describes a true sacrifice of the subject, or the sacrifice of self, that does not reinforce patriarchal narratives of modernity. I turn to Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia to describe how a lack of appetite can signify an intuitive evaluation of capitalist food production, wherein the exchange value is based on the original order of taboo, namely men eating animals, only more developed. There is an excess of meat, for those who can afford it, animal bodies are not only sacrificed for specific rituals, but eaten for every meal. Whereas not eating relates back to religious notions of self-sacrifice, eating-well, healthy vegan diets, are increasingly only available to the wealthy, and therefore recuperated for the service of the patriarchy via capitalism.

How, therefore, can we eat well? During the seminar, I was reminded of the importance of female law. Luce Irigaray showed me a passage from Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. Amongst several aspects of female law, before the institution of patriarchal law, she includes: ‘Respect for naturally produced food: fruits most of all, then cereals’. This period before the institution of the patriarchal symbolic order is very important to my thesis, in terms of origin and genealogy, following Irigaray. I question, however, if it is possible to return to this order? How do we return to respecting ‘naturally produced food’, when we are now confined to the carno-phallogocentric order, that in capitalism has accelerated to the point of permanent sickness of human, animals, and their environments? By understanding the erasure of women’s culture and law, the patriarchal origin story, we should not seek to return to this order, but only to understand the conditions of existence in modernity.

I rely, therefore, heavily on Irigaray’s critique of Marx, in particular in the essay ‘Women on the market’. I turn to this essay to look at exchange value and use value in terms of woman as object. Again, I am interested less in the retrieval and building of female subjectivity, but a focus on what male subjectivity is grounded upon, which, for Luce Irigaray is both woman and the elements. My thesis focuses on other «objects» alongside women, who inhabit spaces made of earth, fire, air, and water. So far, I have described how the animal is positioned in the symbolic order, but towards the end of my thesis, I attempt to describe how the object proliferates in modernity along lines of class, race, and gender. The histories of capitalism and colonialism constituted the enlightenment subject against its others: animal, woman, slave. To abolish these «objects», it is necessary to sacrifice sacrifice, in the words of Jacques Derrida, and following him Catherine Malabou, who reorients this thesis in terms of being a woman philosopher. In my project this occurs through the position of objecthood, understanding the conditions of being placed against the technological ontology of the male subject. It is from here, paradoxically, that it becomes possible to imagine a new subjectivity – in or through the self-sacrifice of the «object».