Mapping Roasted Chicken, Big Mac and Rice Relations


Philosopher Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media presents us with multiple examples of how things (machines) exercise power over us and the world. Here are three food examples from the book:

We go to the grocer and buy a roasted chicken, believing that there is nothing social about this relation insofar as it is simply a relation between us and the chicken. Yet the commodity embodies an entire set of social relations that are the medium of the chicken, insofar as it was produced by people under certain conditions, within a particular legal system, within a particular network of distribution, and so on. As Deleuze and Guattari remark, “….we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The “mediasphere” of the chicken and wheat is veiled in the thing withdrawn from view.

What would a map of all the hidden relations in my grocery cart look like? I imagine quite a complex web. Here’s another familiar  and branded example,

When for example, I eat a Big Mac, I think I am involved in a purely cultural affair that has nothing to do with nature. In analyzing the Big Mac, the cultural theorist might discuss how what I’m really eating is “signifiers,” examining how this sandwich is a marker of national identity, class, symbolic position, and so on. What is not examined is how the Big Mac is related to the clearing of Amazonian rain forests for bovine grazing, and all of the material outputs produced in transporting the meat, processing it cooking it and consuming it. The Big Mac is thought of as something unrelated to these issues of relevance to climate change and ecology.

Like my grocery cart, what if I were to map my dinner plate. Where my ingredients came from, supermarket it came from, how much energy to took to cook, how long of my time and much of my space, how the ingredients affect my health, how much I waste, the role of my garbage man in carrying the waste away, the plumbing system that allowed me to wash my ingredients, the factories that produced the knives, pots and pans, how I found my recipes online, the network of foodies, cooks, eaters online, the taste, ……what a complex map my dinner is unfolding into. The next example, demonstrates how rice is an example of a bright object that has the directive power to organize and influence us and our world.

Rice is yet another example of a bright object. The rate at which it develops, how it is planted, how it is harvested, the number of times it can be harvested a year, all contribute strongly to the organization of people’s lives that rely on rice. These properties of rice influence the sort of labor people engage in, the tools that they fabricate, their bodily postures, how their bodies develop as a function of rice heavy diets, the sorts of social relations that develop between people, and feast and famine as a result of weather vents that affect harvests or diseases that befall plants. Once the technology or practices are developed allowing  rice to be planted in water, new problems emerge. Harvest sizes are increased through these new planting methods, but the water in which the rice is planted also becomes a nest for diseases. Now these diseases must be dealt with. Rice organizes the space-time of these people’s lives, especially before the advent of robust international trade and things like supermarkets. It organizes the rhythm of days, when things are done, how long they’re done, cooking methods, and variety of other things besides.

The book is a fantastic example of an object oriented approach to thinking about our world. I look forward to re-reading, highlighting, noting, pondering over these and other moments. Hope you do too.

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