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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.