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  • Mastering the Art of the Sensible: Julia Child, Nationalist
  • Kennan Ferguson (bio)

Cookbooks are not usually conceived of as political texts, as the demands they make upon us are not traditionally within the realm of politics. They do not declaim, as do manifestos. They do not constrict, as do laws. They do not command accord, as do arguments. Their stipulations are often vague (“until browned”) and their audiences inattentive (many cookbooks, after all, are bought for the ideals of cooking and the beauty of the photography). Indeed, even their narrative form is different from most texts: they fail to tell a story, and one dips into them depending upon one’s time, appetite, and taste.

But cookbooks do form who we are in ways large and small. “Tell me what you eat,” Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, “and I will tell you what you are.” In this essay I follow the insights of Jacques Rancière, who attends to politics as the “distribution of the sensible”: the means and effects of what we can sense determine the boundaries of what we can do and who we are. To look at the openings and promises of sensation is to analyze political potentiality and possibility, as well as to note their limits and constraints. Such affective dynamics have material (and materialized) traces, and a cookbook provides a printed, textualized locale of taste and identity.

Arts of nationalism

“Democracy can never be identified with a juridico-political form,” argues Rancière, not because it is indifferent to such formulations, but because “the power of the people is always beneath and beyond these forms.”i Rancière privileges people over the modes of governmentality that both claim to represent those people and derive their legitimacy from such claims. In doing so, he seeks to deactivate the historically naturalized affiliation between governmental structures and humans, between the always-partially-illegitimate claim of representation and those thus represented.

The traditional and exemplary governmental structure which purports to represent the people is the state. In its most unproblematic forms, the state closely overlaps its powerful counterpart: the nation. When nations and states definitively coincide, state-identities become strongly affective, emotional, and beloved; thus the “French,” for example, begin to self-identify with a state-centric geographic identity. So the nation (France) arises from a juridico-political authority recognized by a consortium of post-nineteenth century statist entities. But how is the nation more than this? That is, short of reducing France to a singular procedural entity (a constitution, for example), how do people inside or outside of France’s political boundaries conceive of – and engage with – such an ideo-identity formation?

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” provides a start to answering this query; for Anderson, the emergence of a common linguistic normativity (specifically via print capitalism) initiates imaginative demands on a set of people who begin to consider themselves a citizenry.ii But Anderson’s conceptualization not only oversimplifies a confluence of currents, folding a large series of state-making practices into a single European model, but also begs the central question by presuming the very nation that it attempts to explain: what determines the specific makeup of the nation so imagined? For Anderson, the substance of the nation (France) remains less important than the mechanism. Yet without a comprehension of the meanings of “France,” one cannot properly trace what print capitalism brings into the imagination of its created citizens.

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson provides one intriguing interpretation of this dynamic: she argues that Paris centered the French imaginary. This is neither the political centralization of the French Government (which undergoes radical changes over the course of the nineteenth century, for example), nor even the standards and centralization of Parisian culture (which does as well). Instead, she argues, the multiple iterations and interwoven pluralities of Parisian cuisine form France.iii Ferguson places this emergence at the intersection of French cooking and the creation of the spatial locale where food would be purchased and eaten by the emergent middle classes: “The early nineteenth century conjunction of the cuisine – the culinary code – and the restaurant, henceforth the site of culinary invention, gave the social organization of the...

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