Food for Thought
Photo by Swaminathan Jayaraman on Unsplash
For the longest time I have been thinking of a non-existent set of disciplines that I call the cognitive humanities. If cognitive science is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior, the cognitive humanities is the humanistic study of the human mind and behavior. Cognitive science concerns itself with laboratory data. The Cognitive humanities engages with humanistic objects — literary, legal and religious texts; political discourse, cultural practices such as food habits and in this day and age, the scientific and technological artifacts that help us connect with others and go well beyond our individual selves.
There’s a further resemblance. Cognitive science embraces computing both in theory and in practice:
Theory: the computational theory of mind is the founding doctrine of the cognitive sciences.
Practice: Computer models and simulations inform much of the discipline
Similarly, the cognitive humanities embraces computing; if you want a simple model, think of it as “digital humanities meets cognitive science.” In other words, data and data analysis — perhaps even that overused buzzword “big data”- is central to the cognitive humanities.
So where do we start? I have been thinking about food lately, so that’s where I am going to start.
The Metaphysics of Food
We live in a mechanical civilization, so our metaphysics is informed by the machines we make. For example: is reality itself a computer? Do we live in a simulation? Who would have thought of asking those questions — in that precise form — before the mid-twentieth century? Then there’s the social stratification that emerges from differential access to machines. There’s a reason why we brandish our latest iPhones.
Now imagine an agricultural civilization where the growing and harvesting of food is the dominant occupation. Wouldn’t we expect that the food cycle is embedded in the metaphysics of that civilization? Wouldn’t we expect that social stratification is deeply intertwined with the production and consumption of food?
Of course, every animal’s got to eat, so it’s not bare food that determines the metaphysics of agricultural civilization, just as every human culture uses tools so it’s not just tool-making that determines mechanical metaphysics. Rather, it’s when a culture gets organized around the production of food at scale, it also maps that culture of food production to other human spheres: to artistic production, to social stratification, to ontology more generally.
That’s the claim and it sure looks like Indian subcultures have a lot of evidence to offer in support of that claim. Or rather, let me correct myself: I would like to examine the evidence on offer in support of that claim.
Yeah, but how?
By collecting as much data as possible on food consumption practices and seeing how ontologies covary with food habits. Plus, I get to hang out with my friends and eat my research.
What does this have to do with the cognitive humanities?
The underlying hypothesis is that our map of the universe is tied to how we are embedded in the world, how we work upon that world (and how it works upon us) and the flows of information and energy that support our current embedding.
In short, our karma. As you can see, I have an ulterior motive here: to recover the idea of karma as an explanatory device.
If we work upon the world with machines and computers, our karma is going to produce mechanical ontologies. If we work upon the world with sickles and seeds, our karma is going to produce culinary ontologies. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. If you have been reading carefully, you will notice that I am using energy & information as my ontology generator. That shouldn’t surprise you — it’s our karmic condition, seeing as we are 21st century humans.
Isn’t this the Foucauldian episteme in a new garb?
I am not going to deny the similarities, but this karmic account is substantially different. For one, I discount the relative importance of history vis-a-vis energy and information. For another, it’s not about language and the discourses of knowledge and it’s not about subjectivity alone. It’s not about power either, but of fields that make power possible. Most importantly, it’s as much about physics as it’s about metaphysics. Think karma first and then other terms like subjectivity, language, power etc. The world lies beyond subject and object.