Last year, the unlikely phrase “Hegel’s Bagels” appeared in this newspaper on two separate (although not unrelated) occasions: first, in the cover illustration; and second, as the title of an article. The article reported that the Princeton German Department had opened a bagel shop called “Hegel’s Bagels,” and featured quotes from several members of the department about how they had taken a Hegelian approach in their business model and their dough recipes. Needless to say, the phrase was meant in both instances as nothing more than a joke—but still, it left me wondering whether there could be some context in which the phrase “Hegel’s Bagels” could be used with (in)complete seriousness. What, I asked myself, would Hegel have had to say about bagels, if he had been in a position to write about them? After considerable speculation, I came to realize just how important a role (no pun intended) the bagel might have played if Hegel had gotten around to incorporating into his System, along with his lectures on aesthetics, religion, and the State, an exposition of food—a realm of human life so fundamental that most philosophers seem to have forgotten to talk about it (the one great exception being, of course, Nietzsche, whose crippling indigestion forced him to reckon with it.)

This sort of “Hegel fan-fiction,” if you will, is not without precedent. In the introduction to The Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek speculates on what Hegel’s “system of sexuality” might have looked like, had the Master aspired to such heights. “The starting point,” writes Žižek, is “the sexual act in its animal, presubjective immediacy,” followed by “its immediate (abstract) negation: masturbation, in which solo self-excitation is supplemented by fantasizing.” This first triad is completed with “the synthesis of the two: the sexual act proper in a missionary position, in which face-to-face contact guarantees that full bodily contact (penetration) remains supplemented by fantasizing,” which implies that “the ‘normal’ human sexual act has the structure of double masturbation.” This compelling exposition expresses well one of the most important lessons of Hegel’s philosophy: that two negatives do not make a positive. There is, in other words, no “CTRL-Z” out in the real world—you can’t put the cat back in the bag. As Žižek notes, “the gap between the raw reality of copulation and its fantasmic supplement can no longer be closed.” The much-trumpeted “Hegelian synthesis,” the third moment of the triadic form, is rarely a harmonious, “higher” one; it is, rather, a complex, often awkward mediation between the first moment and the second.

Following Žižek’s example, I will map out in this article what might have been the Hegelian system of food. Hegel’s philosophy is generally concerned with “the attitude of thought toward objectivity,” or the question of what constitutes actuality for consciousness at a given stage in its dialectical development. A “phenomenology” is, in Hegel’s philosophy, a systematic exposition of a sequence of “forms of consciousness,” each of which is determined by its “essence”—that is, whatsoever it is that constitutes actuality for it. Each form of consciousness is ultimately undone by the playing-out of its internal contradictions, and it is this inevitable unraveling that drives the progression of forms. In a phenomenology of food, the actuality upon which the forms of consciousness depend would take the form of substantiality—that is, what is actual for a given form of consciousness is that food which consciousness takes to be substantial, which it considers a “staple” or a “solid, hearty meal.” Although it has been consistently neglected by philosophy, the question of the substantiality of food is absolutely crucial: it is, precisely, the question, “What foreign matter is worthy of constituting this corporeal vessel?” It is important to note that the forms of consciousness in the exposition that follows are not presented in any sort of strict chronological order, but rather in the order necessitated by the working-through of the matter at hand. If I seem to jump back and forth between the Middle Ages and the 21st century without any regard to all that has changed since then, perhaps it only goes to show how much has not changed.

The first, immediate stage of the dialectic of food is, of course, bread. It is at this point the primary metonymic symbol for food in general—as in “give us this day our daily bread”—and as such it is the paragon of substantial food. Bread here is wholesome food, the food of the rugged, rosy-cheeked, healthy peasant-folk who were Hegel’s not-so-distant ancestors. Bread, for the peasants, is the staple; it gives them the strength they need for a full day of laboring in the fields, and therefore it is sufficient. It is on account of this sufficiency, this substantiality, that bread came to be identified for them with food in general. And because the substance of their lives is physical labor, they have no need for any food other than their substantial bread.

That bread is the food of peasants, though, necessarily implies the presence of a ruling class whose land the peasants are cultivating. The ruling class need not earn their bread by the sweat of their brow; the substance of their lives is not labor but idleness, and this empty surplus time is reflected in the insubstantial or nonsubstantive food that they eat for dessert at the end of their substantial meals: in other words, cake—this splitting of the meal into dinner and dessert is, incidentally, also analyzed incisively by Žižek in another book, The Puppet and the Dwarf. Because the ruling class does not perform manual labor, and therefore does not share the peasants’ need for large quantities of complex carbohydrates, the nonsubstantive cake—the immediate negation of bread—becomes, paradoxically, their staple. Marie Anoinette’s famous remark is a testament to the centrality of cake in the lives of the ruling class; the sensuous pleasure of eating is for them a more important consideration than being well-fed. The paradox of a class whose staple food is that which has no substance is an ominous foreshadowing of the decadence, and inevitable downfall, that is always the fate of an idle aristocracy; this fate would, of course, befall Queen Marie shortly after she had uttered those infamous words.

The ruling class, however, is not without its substantial food. For them, though, this food is meat—in the time of the peasantry, the aristocrat alone can afford to eat meat with every meal. That meat was, for the aristocracy, merely food, divorced entirely from the living creature that had to die in order to provide it, is reflected in our separate words for meat and for the animal: “pork” and “beef” vs. “pig” and “cow”; the former were used by Norman French feudal lords, the latter by the Anglo-Saxon servants who slaughtered their animals for them. Bread reenters the dialectic with the synthesis, the intrusion of the peasant class into the deteriorating aristocracy: the sandwich. The sandwich was invented by the Earl of Sandwich, a decadent British aristocrat, when he asked his servant to bring him meat between two pieces of bread so that he could dine without interrupting his card game and without getting his hands greasy. Bread, the substantial food of the peasants, is now a mere vehicle for the consumption of meat, the form to the meat’s content—hence the saying that any sort of contentless utterance is like a “bread sandwich.” After the downfall of the decadent aristocracy with whom the sandwich originated, it becomes appropriated by the industrious bourgeois, the embodied synthesis of peasant and aristocrat, who eats it so as not to have to interrupt his non-physical but nonetheless strenuous labor—which, incidentally, comes more and more to resemble a card game itself.[??????]

The sandwich-form, on account of its convenience, becomes more and more widespread. At the same time, because of the dissolution of the exclusive aristocracy into the eminently permeable, and rapidly growing, bourgeoisie, there is a concurrent rise in the demand for meat. Meat as substantial food, once the sole privilege of the aristocracy, has been taken over by the bourgeoisie, and soon everyone wants to have meat with every meal: this gives rise to the factory farm. It is worth noting at this point that the sandwich—whose true appeal, convenience notwithstanding, is its synthesis of peasant fare with aristocratic delicacies—has been generalized: a meal is not substantial unless it includes both elements of the sandwich. Hence “meat ‘n’ potatoes.” The apotheosis of the sandwich-form, though, is the hamburger, which is so utterly a sandwich that it actually transcends the sandwich-form to become its own genus. It seems, after all, somehow wrong to refer to a hamburger as a “sandwich,” even though it has all the necessary qualities thereof. Having transcended the category of “sandwich,” the hamburger installs itself as the food ideal of the masses, from the weatliest bourgeois down to the lowliest working-man. The hamburger, in all its standardized glory, is the consummate substantial food, and therefore the essence of our consumer culture.

Along with their penchant for meat, however, the democratic masses have inherited from the fallen aristocracy the need for an insubstantial dessert to complement their staple, made in its image and yet deprived of its substance: to wit, the jelly doughnut. A sweet fried cake filled with blood-red jelly—an absurd parody of the Holy Eucharist—the jelly doughnut is the grotesque double of the hamburger. This supposedly nonsubstantive food, though, is soon negated, as it becomes clear that it is all too substantive: that is, it has a lot of empty calories, a phrase that encapsulates perfectly the paradox of nonsubstantive food. He who eats a jelly doughnut will soon find the tragic trajectory of the decadent aristocracy played out, over the course of just a few hours, in the dizzying fluctuations of his blood sugar level. And, as if this weren’t punishment enough, he suffers long-term consequences as well: he gains weight. At this point the fattening masses begin to despair—there must be something wrong with the way of life that their society has given them. They resolve to trace it to its source and root it out once and for all.

This “original sin,” of course, is nothing more than the necessary developments that their food has undergone in its dialectical progress. But they will only be satisfied with a concrete enemy on whom to take their revenge. If anything, one would think they would strike against the instrusion of decadent aristocracy that set the ball rolling to begin with; some do, and become vegetarians. Most, though, do just the opposite: they vent their rage on the very peasant-fare that had sustained their ancestors for so many generations, substantial bread—that is to say, they go on the Atkins Diet. They give up not just sugar and nonsubstantive cakes but all bread. In this penultimate stage of the dialectic of bread, bread itself is universally negated.

What, then, is the Absolute food? Is there a food that can sublate all the conflicting and contradictory stages of this progression into a unified, reconciled whole? If there is such a food, it is surely none other than the bagel. The bagel is equally well-suited as a sandwich-element or as substantial food in its own right, and by that token lends sandwiches an additional measure of substantiality. The ring-shaped form of the bagel is a polysemic symbol whose bivalence encapsulates the inherent contradiction of the Absolute: one can see it either as circular bread, symbolizing completeness, or bread with a hole in it, symbolizing incompleteness. The bagel reclaims substantiality for bread, but symbolically inscribed within it is a reminder that this return to immediacy is necessarily incomplete. It harkens back to the sandwich stage, the initial synthesis of bread and meat—its hole may represent the lack of filling whereby bread is merely form with no content. It even caters, in its own way, to the bread-apostates languishing on the Atkins Diet: they can eat bagels as long as they only eat the middle.

This final sublation, though, is necessarily imperfect—especially so because we are dealing not with idealized concepts but with food, the paragon of materiality. And right away we can see how the bagel is far from a final conclusion to the dialectic of food, even being its most perfect consummation. As soon as the bagel emerges on the scene, it immediately points to its own nonsubstantive double, the ring-shaped doughnut, which bears the image of the bagel while relinquishing every bit of its substantiality. And to add insult to injury, even symbolic ring shape taken over by the doughnut is eventually betrayed by the Munchkin, which fills the hole in. Perhaps this gives us an idea of why philosophers have been so reluctant to take on so important a subject matter as food: conceptualizable though it may be, it tenaciously and inarguably resists the reconcilement toward which Hegel’s philosophy aimed. This resistance, though, does not mean that we should give up on the struggle; on the contrary, today it is more important than ever to understand, by all means available, the inner logic of our food. We may not be able to derive the perfect formula for weight loss, but we may be able to get a better sense of the sources of our problems and what we might be able to do about them. At the very least we should be able to take a stand against the repulsive biopolitical ideology that would have us believe that we are “hard-wired” to like fat and sugar.

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