Encounters With the Modernist Food-Object

Malone, Jennifer A. Encounters With the Modernist Food-Object. 2018. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This interdisciplinary dissertation seeks to remedy scholarly neglect of the topic of food within literature and art of the early twentieth century, particularly within transatlantic forms of modernism. I argue that the topic of food—or, as I will call it, the food-object—has been additionally neglected within recent scholarly work on objects and material encounters, including “thing theory” and other object-oriented ontologies. I examine the treatment of food—particularly in terms of the food-object—within Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony” and The Judge, arguing that these works provide rich examples of a new centrality of food within modernist literature, particularly in terms of objecthood and the everyday, as they variously portray the act of food consumption as one of play, sensory encounter, pleasure, overintimacy, abjection, violence, and coercion, notably with regards to gender and the limits of the human body. After arguing for a reassessment of art historical narratives that treat the artistic category of the readymade as one of dematerialization, I then suggest that the readymade instead actually emphasizes the specific materiality of objects, as well as embodied encounters with these objects, which leads to discussion of small-scale “readymade” sculptures across modernist avant-garde artistic movements such as Dada and Surrealism, mid-century artistic movements such as Pop Art, and beyond. Focusing particularly upon Marcel Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, Méret Oppenheim’s Object and My Nurse (Ma Gouvernante), and Claes Oldenburg’s Pastry Case I, I examine the ways in which these sculptures interrogate both the concept of food as object and the act of food consumption, particularly as these things relate to forms of bodily encounter that expose the lack of distance between the human (or animal) body and the food-object, and that also emphasize human-food interactions that are not necessarily about edibility. The vulnerabilities and possibilities of the modernist scene of eating within public settings such as restaurants, cafés, and automats are considered through painter Edward Hopper’s The Automat, Chop Suey, and Nighthawks, as well as through Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves. My discussion of these works foregrounds such acts of food consumption as spectacle, particularly as they take place within eating establishments that emphasize visibility. Also explored, within a brief coda, are the ways in which “modernist cuisine” has become a category of food within the high-end restaurants of the early twenty-first century, one which emphasizes—much as do twentieth-century modernist works of literature and art, and scenes of eating which are culturally modernist—forms of body-object play, spectacle, and, ultimately, both the objecthood of food and the complexity of the human encounter with food.

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