Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 240-242
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Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities. By Elspeth Probyn. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
The cover of Elspeth Probyn's latest book appears, at first glance, to feature a photograph of luscious candies—caramels, perhaps, or maybe soft chocolates. But wait, no, those are small sacs of some kind of red fluid—blood? some other bodily fluid?—twisted into a vague spiral reminiscent of the double helix. This visual elision/illusion aptly represents the ways in which Probyn works to show us the tricky, complicated, often illusory ways in which food figures in human being. As the cover photograph suggests, sometimes it's clear that (or how) we're talking about food, and sometimes it's not clear at all.
Carnal Appetites does not fully develop a single coherent thesis; rather, it is a preliminary, often sketchy exploration of a set of issues about food, culture, and identity. The ideas are delivered in sleek, sharp prose that occasionally borders on the facile. It is also regularly very funny. For instance, discussing the Bill-and-Monica story, Probyn asks, "If oral sex isn't sex, is it eating?" (59). The cultural objects prompting her reflections range among television shows (Two Fat Ladies, Naked Chef), restaurant culture (both McDonald's and the ultra-hip cuisine scene of Sydney, Australia), texts (everything from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to television actress Camryn Manheim's autobiographical Wake Up! I'm Fat!), and films (the various movie versions of Conrad's novel). Among the theoretical sources from which she draws, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (for example, see 1988) are perhaps the most prominent; from them, she borrows the metaphor of the rhizome that serves as both an organizing principle for her method, and also a description of the various terrains she is exploring. Central figures in the field of food studies play a relatively minor role in the book; they serve more often as objects of investigation than as sources of theoretical insight themselves.
A rhizome is a plant with a branching root system. Probyn notes that as employed by Deleuze, the term denotes a mode of investigation that is "antigenealogical[;] 'it always has multiple entryways' compelling us to think of how we are connected diversely, to obvious and sometimes not so obvious entities" (Probyn 2000, 17; Deleuze 1993, 35). Following Lawrence Grossberg (1992), Probyn argues that thinking rhizomatically can "return cultural theory to a consideration of 'the real'"—to lead the investigator into a tangle of connections and relations that blur any neat distinctions among subject matters, or between world and representation. Thinking about food rhizomatically leads Probyn to ask questions about ethnicity, sex, class, and location. Her project uses eating to "make these categories matter again," and also uses eating as a [End Page 240] "visceral reminder of how we variously inhabit the axes of economics, intimate relations, gender, sexuality, history, ethnicity and class" (19).
Here is how Probyn describes her project: "The aim of this book is simple but immodest. Through the optic of food and eating, I want to investigate how as individuals we inhabit the present: how we eat into cultures, eat into identities, indeed eat into ourselves. At the same time I am interested in the question of what's bothering us, what's eating us now?" (2-3). Chapters explore shame, disgust, caring, sensuality, colonialism, racism, and global capitalism, by looking at everything from McDonald's rhetoric of "familial citizenship and glocalized caring" (8), to the fat pride movement's employment of queer politics as a tool for challenging fat hatred.
Probyn writes that one of her overarching aims is 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 doing so, she appeals to a distinction between morality and ethics—a distinction that seems at times too tidily compartmentalizing to be compelling. Quoting Nikolas Rose's analysis of Michel Foucault (see Rose 1996, 35), she writes that for Foucault, "ethics was 'a general designation' for investigation into forms of 'concern...