- To Eat Is a Compromise”: Theory, Identity, and Dietary Politics after Kafka
“La faim, c’est moi”—hunger is me—confesses Amélie Nothomb’s heroine in Biographie de la faim (The Biography of Hunger) (22). A strange statement, of course, but no stranger than the Flaubertian dictum it evokes. So what exactly does Nothomb acknowledge here? More to the point: what does it mean to suspect that one’s identity gels around hunger (20), that, more generally, being is insatiable, grounded by a fundamental and ever-replenished “insufficiency” (satus is Latin for “enough,” as the reader will recall)?
It means, to be sure, a number of things. Here, I want to touch, rather briefly, only on some of them in an attempt to whet a certain appetite for theory (no pun intended), more precisely, to remake theory’s case in a fast globalizing world less and less resembling Franz Kafka’s and yet still falling under the critical jurisdiction of what Henry Sussman has so aptly called Kafka’s “hungry artistry” (282). After all, here and elsewhere, Nothomb arguably follows in the same “minor” tradition of place and displacement, ethnicity and language, ethnos and logos, logos and pathos, cogito and affect, couples decoupled from one another and from their time-honored affiliations only to be redeployed in vaster, world-shattering, and epoch-making reconfigurations.
Before proceeding, two more preliminary questions bear raising. The first: how do we theorize these worldly structures at the dawn of the twenty-first century? (To rephrase: what is their raison d’être?) And the second: what role can, and perhaps should, theory play in or in conjunction with said structures? Let me propose right away that, for these broader interrogations and for theory in general, hunger is not a pretext, a rhetorical sleight of hand. I said earlier that I was not joking about theory and our appetite, our hunger for it, and I will say it again. For, from Kafka’s haunting “A Hunger Artist” to Emmanuel Levinas’ mid-1970s Sorbonne lectures and to Jacques Derrida’s “Eating Well” essay and his analytic of “carnophallogocentrism” more broadly, then from Antonin Artaud’s reflexions on theater and culture to Paul Auster’s essays and fictions from The New York Trilogy (1987) and Hand to Mouth (1997) and to Chang-rae Lee 2010 novel The Surrendered, an entire [End Page 11] modernity, complete with it postmodern aftermath, specifically associates eating, or not eating, rather, in its various forms, and being; esse, “to be,” and its other—or the “other” esse, if you will—to “eat,” for the infinitives of edo, “I eat,” and sum, “I am,” are, as the same reader will remember, identical in Latin.
We can start, then, from either end to re-theorize theory for the late-global age. Let us say we begin with the “sum”—with who or what I am, with Madame Bovary (c’est moi), or with the cogito (ergo sum), or with what that sum, that summa or summation of being, according to Nothomb, that is, with hunger. Supposing we do so, two things come into focus.
The first is this, and we know it from Kafka, and before him from Knut Hamsun’s no less disturbing 1890 novel Hunger: hunger is poiesis; my hunger has a poetic force to it (from the Greek poiein), makes me, and it does so aporetically, so to speak, by almost unmaking me as the overwhelming need furiously wells up in me and drags me on the brink of nonbeing, as Auster observes in his essay “The Art of Hunger” (1993, 18). Accordingly, starvation is a metonymy for death, and we will see momentarily, with some help from Levinas, why this notion is not to be dismissed offhand.
But we are not there yet. Where we are, though, is a premise for the enlightening proximity of death as absence, as lack—Lacanian manque—or want, for which, again, dietary deprivation serves as a provisional synecdoche. This premise is hunger as a staging area of the cogito, as bodily protocol of self-perception, self-evaluation, and self-identification; hunger as a feeling or sensation, as an affective space where...