A Review of Carnal Appetites by Elspeth Probyn

[The following is a review of Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities by Elspeth Probyn (Routledge, 2000) that I wrote some time ago. ]

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In her rhizomatically interweaved collection of essays, Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities, Elspeth Probyn attempts to flesh out how a serious (if playful) consideration of food and eating could inform not only a viable ethics of existence but also redeem the liberatory potential of queer theory/politics. While the traditional realm of radical politics never directly addresses the question of the body, theories of sexuality with an investment in the political have largely taken up embodiment at an abstract level. Probyn proposes that “the realm of the alimentary brings these considerations down to earth and extends them,”(3) and thus has potential to give discourse back its body, so to speak. This is no easy task, and while Probyn does not entertain the pretense of being exhaustive or prescriptive in her project by any means, this intriguing feast leaves one a bit bloated with rhetoric and metaphor, yet still hungering for more flesh.

Probyn has taught media studies, sociology, and literature in Canada and the U.S., and is now the professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney. She has written extensively about sexuality and identity (Sexing the Self, Outside Belongings, Sexy Bodies, Blush: Faces of Shame) as well as media and popular culture (Remote Control, Girl Culture). Her writing in Carnal Appetites and elsewhere provocatively brings together these eclectic interests such that it indeed performs what she claims the alimentary does: connecting a myriad of seemingly disparate issues, bodies, cultures, domains, and concerns. In Carnal Appetites, Probyn moves around a large territory: the rhetoric of eating and caring within the context of the McLibel trial (Chapter 2); the new food faddism and issues it raises in terms of where sex and eating intersect (Chapter 3); popular attitudes regarding cannibalistic consumer culture and the haunting presence of the racist anthropological fetishization of cannibalism (Chapter 4); food as a tool of power and control in (post)colonial Australia (Chapter 5); and shame and disgust in relation to the politics of bodies (Chapter 6).

Probyn’s general theoretical framework in Carnal Appetites is not so much informed by the anthropological and sociological literature on food (she does, however, provide a lucid account of developments in that field in her first chapter) as by Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault. Given her own past experience with anorexia and ten years of working in the service industry, Probyn not only has an intimate connection with issues of the eating/eaten body but also a certain sobriety about over-theorizing. This is doubly evident both in her successful use of theory in bits that are edible by a general readership and her insistence to evocatively engage with the pieces and assemblages of popular culture from cookbooks to blockbuster films. The rhizomatic metaphor coined by Deleuze and Guattari is not only her methodology but it is also embodied in her writing that like the rhizome, “spreads laterally and horizontally…[and] is antigeneological.”(17)

Another major theoretical vector informing the work is Foucault’s distinction between morality and ethics whereby ethics connotes a less prescriptive ‘general designation’ for investigation into forms of ‘concern’ for the self, as opposed to a moral system that strictly demarcates the boundaries of what should and should not be done. This distinction is elucidated in Chapter 2 where, for instance, the activists’ critique of McDonalds’ advertising operates within paradigms of morality (as opposed to the Foucaultian idea of ethics), infantilizing people who eat fast food as incapable of making their own choices. She does not, however, provide an example of what an ethical form of action would be.

As Probyn aptly observes, discussion of bodies soon deflects from the body itself. Similarly, thinking about food also compels one to move between different realms. Carnal Appetites is in a sense about following some of that movement for its potential to suggest different ways of inhabiting the world: “I seek to use the materiality of eating, sex and bodies in order to draw out alternative ways of thinking about an ethics of existence…(3)” In Chapter 3, which is a part of her continuing conversation with theories of sexuality and identity, Probyn looks at the queer fiction and food fest ‘Eat Your Words’ in Sydney as a venue to consider sexuality in relation to queer practices of eating and caring, such as volunteer organizations that coordinate individuals to cook for people with HIV/AIDS. Probyn argues that this kind of caring for strangers, friends and lovers coexists within other manifestations of queer life, and brings a new spin on the issue of queer pride. This is a part of her attempt to connect food and sex in a way that allows previously unthought-of connections.

Unlike much of literature that seeks confirmation of identities in food and eating, Probyn sees the alimentary as where the self loses oneself and opens up to new possibilies: “in the act of ingestion, strict divisions get blurred.(14)” This is not only an effective reversal of the dominant paradigm in studies of food but also a very different way of envisioning what happens when one eats. One of her objectives is “to break open the impasse that threatens studies of sexuality (62)” by exploring what eating might offer in “rethinking the limits of sexuality deployed as the privileged object within the theorisation of identity (64).” This chapter (Chapter 3) may be viewed in direct relationship with Chapter 6 where Probyn again tackles pride politics, this time through a reconsideration of disgust and shame.

While recognizing the strength of pride politics like queer pride or fat pride in surmounting the pain of previous rejection, Probyn points out that pride politics erase disgust and shame by symbolically transferring the shame to those who are disgusted. But in this model the disgust does not necessarily disappear, it is just repressed and not talked about. Probyn suggests “publically eating pride and shame” and detoxifying excesses of the body in pride politics. Although this is one of the sections of the book that comes closest to truly dealing with the body, it is not clear what is meant by eating shame publicly or how a body would go about doing that.

As Probyn asserts, a reconsideration of issues of power, control, identity and sexuality through the optic of food and eating allows intriguing connections. Yet all this movement seems to have pushed the reader far from “what bodies are and do when they eat.” Probyn shares with Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault a counterintuitive approach which, like walking backwards or looking at the world upsidedown, can sometime revolutionize our thinking but does not guarantee any easy translation into action. Probyn does not write in disembodied high theory and makes readily accessible and apt connections. But when it comes to imagining new possibilities such as ‘eating shame,’ it feels like there is more fleshing out to do.

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