6 Bodies 6 Bodies

Political physiology

Eating together

Of all the things that people have in common, the most common is that they must eat and drink. And precisely this, in a remarkable way, is the most egotistical thing, indeed the one most absolutely and immediately confined to the individual. What I think, I can communicate to others; what I see, I can let them see; what I say can be heard by hundreds of others – but what a single individual eats can under no circumstances be eaten by another. In none of the higher spheres is it the case that others have to forgo absolutely that which one person should have. Yet because this primitive physiological fact is an absolutely general human one, it does indeed become the substance of common actions.

Georg Simmel, ‘Sociology of the Meal’, 1910

Eating is at the centre of human sociality, and so is part of our politics, too. We eat in families, at parties and weddings, with colleagues at work. We eat together, and the way we eat has much to do with the kind of togetherness we have. We do politics in our eating, and we eat when we do politics.

What is in essence, then, a physiologically primitive function performed by individuals is in practice realised in something more elevated, complex and social. Drawing on Simmel, Albert Hirschman notes that ‘While they are consuming food and drink, people gathering for the Mahlzeit engage in conversation and discussion, exchange information and points of view, tell stories, perform religious services and so on’. He then connects the social organisation of the meal with the organisation of the Greek polis. While the ancient Greek banquet has its origins in religious sacrifice, sharing in eating comes to define a political community.

All those who eat become citizens… The city emerges because it eats beef.

Jean‐Louis Durand, Sacrifice et labour en Grèce ancienne, 1926

So eating is an occasion for politics, and politics an occasion for eating. This reflects in part the human need every few hours to ingest and to excrete, simply in order to continue to function. Gatherings and meetings must have breaks, which is not to say that politics is suspended, merely displaced. Different forms of meeting have different forms of commensality associated with them: the marchers’ picnic, the conference buffet, the state banquet.

To eat the same food confirms belongingness and physiological similarity…. The diplomatic meal… is probably the basic ritual, or ritual-like performance on the level of relations between polities.

Iver Neumann, Diplomatic Sites, 2013

The Club des Chefs des Chefs brings together the chefs of heads of state once a year, recognising their role in what might be called ‘culinary diplomacy’.

The chef of a head of state has a duty to promote the ingredients, culinary traditions and art of entertaining that are typical of his or her country, and so is the best ambassador of its gastronomy.

The chef of a head of state also plays a role in international diplomatic relations as he or she is responsible for the atmosphere at the table where world leaders are seated during major meetings: creating a friendly, sociable atmosphere is often conducive to shared ideas. Talleyrand told Napoleon, ‘Give me good cooks and I will give you good treaties.’ Today, the maxim of the Club des Chefs des Chefs is: ‘Whilst politics can sometimes divide people, good food always brings them back together.’

Club des Chefs des Chefs, ‘Our values’

Sickness, hunger, death

The body remains an instrument of protest used by those deprived of every other instrument, and it works in seemingly paradoxical ways. It may be the last resort of the political subject to reduce her body to an object, to chain it to a railing, to deposit it in the road to block the path of a truck. But how can you throw a brick through a window when you can’t get out of bed?

Johanna Hedva has chronic illness, and writes, draws, blogs and makes films and performance art about it. She argues both with and against Arendt that politics takes place not only in public, in interactions between embodied human beings, but that it is going on already within the body, her body.

Sick Woman Theory is an insistence that most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible. Sick Woman Theory redefines existence in a body as something that is primarily and always vulnerable, following from Judith Butler’s work on precarity and resistance. Because the premise insists that a body is defined by its vulnerability, not temporarily affected by it, the implication is that it is continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure, and so we need to re-shape the world around this fact. Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

The limp body may seem to have given up its agency, and yet, in becoming weight and obstruction, it persists in its pose.

Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015

And we might understand the hunger strike, by the same token, as ‘the practised refusal of a body that cannot appear in public’. Early in 2012, 23 undocumented migrants began a hunger strike at the Free University of Brussels. As it went on, Belgian Immigration Services delivered a letter to each of them to sign.

I, the undersigned, certify that I do not want to be fed, willingly or unwillingly, in an artificial and medical way, until death follows.

De Standard, Brussels, 29 March 2012

The action entailed in the hunger strike is the refusal to act, to eat, in the end even to be. It generates a political imperative on the part of others not to be held accountable for it, which is why it mattered so much to Belgian Immigration Services to construct, by means of a signature, the appearance of an autonomous, rational, individual agent – the hunger striker – acting on their own account, of their own accord. In this way, the hunger striker gathers the vestiges of agency and responsibility that remain to them only, in effect, to redistribute them to those engaged in the political manoeuvrings around them, whether they are seeking to regulate or support the presence of the migrant. The hunger strike demands action of its audience, whether public officials, party politicians, activists or journalists.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor in Tunisia. He set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest at harassment by municipal officials, and died a few weeks later. His action prompted public anger, protests, and eventually the resignation of Tunisian president Ben Ali. It led to the widespread unrest and insurgency across the region known as the Arab Spring. Dying, too, may be a mode of doing.


Georg Simmel, ‘Soziologie der Mahlzeit’, Berliner Tageblatt, 10 October 1910; ‘Sociology of the meal’, trans Mark Ritter and David Frisby, in David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (eds) Simmel on Culture, London: Sage, 1997: the quotation is p 130

Albert Hirschman, ‘Melding the public and private spheres: taking commensality seriously’, in Crossing Boundaries. Selected writings, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998; Durand is cit Hirschman, p 22

‘To eat the same food..’: Iver Neumann, ‘A sustaining site. Diplomacy at table’, in Diplomatic Sites: a critical enquiry, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013, p 45; on culinary diplomacy, see Chapple-Sokol, S (2013) ‘Culinary diplomacy: breaking bread to win hearts and minds’, Hague Journal of Diplomacy 8 (2) 161-183; the Club des Chefs des Chefs is here

Johanna Hedva is here.  Her ‘Sick Woman Theory’ was adapted for Mask from her lecture ‘My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It and Want It to Matter Politically’

‘The limp body…’: Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, op cit, p 188; ‘the practiced refusal…’ is p 170

The account of the migrants’ hunger strike in Brussels is from Sebastian Abrahamsson and Endre Dányi (2019) ‘Becoming stronger by becoming weaker. The hunger strike as a mode of doing politics’, Journal of International Relations and Development 22 (4) 882-898.  The hunger striker’s note was reported in Yves Delepeleire, ‘Hongerstaker tekent eigen doodvonnis (Hunger striker signs his own death sentence)’, De Standard, 29 March 2012, p 4, and is cit Abrahamsson and Dányi, p 888