Jessica Mudry: Food on Fire, Quantification, Calorimetry and the Epistemology of Food

Noeud de réseau: 
Ma., Fév. 12, 2013, 12:30pm - , 2:00pm

Food on Fire, Quantification, Calorimetry and the Epistemology of Food
Jessica Mudry,  Concordia University (Engineering in Society).
Tues. Feb. 12 2013 12:30pm
203A  Bethune College, York University, Toronto.

Over the past hundred years scientists’ understanding of the relationship between the human body, energy and metabolism has translated into social and political discourses of food that are grounded in certain physical “realities,” written almost entirely in the language of science. The calorie, for example, has become a pervasive unit of measure of food, and an idée fixe for policy makers, dieters and the food industry. This paper examines how science generally, and human calorimetry specifically, laid the groundwork for a new epistemology of food. By making food, metabolism and eating measurable in calories, science makes knowledge about food. Underpinning this knowledge are numbers, statistics, probabilities, and a conception of the eater as a rational agent who sees eating as the efficient exchange of matter into energy, not as a pleasurable, social activity. Here, I tell the history of how chemists interested in theories of heat, metabolism and human energetics helped refigure food through calorimetry. I argue that the epistemological assumptions of science abetted the creation a new way of understanding food. In this new epistemology, the methods of measurement overlay food and eating, and provide a metric for making normative claims about what constitutes a proper diet. Eating has thus become the scene of a conflict of values, as rational and empirical discourses about calories usurp experiential, cultural, and qualitative discourses of food.

Jessica Mudry is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of Measured Meals: Nutrition in America (SUNY Press, 2009) that examines role of scientific and quantitative language in crafting the idea of “nutrition” and in American federal food guides. She has published articles in Food, Culture & Society, Social Epistemology, Environmental Communication, and Material Culture Review. At present, she is working on a history of the embodiment of the calorie. Her research examines how a unit formerly reserved for measuring the heat of a chemical reaction, came to be a measure of food, eaters, workouts and nations.

Research Seminar Series in Science & Technology Studies. The series features bi-weekly seminars on a wide range of STS-related topics, and is sponsored by the Division of Natural Science, the Office of the Vice-President Academic, and the York University Bookstore.