“What Do Cyborgs Eat?”: Bodybuilders and the Logic of Nonfood

Introduction: Food and Nonfood

In the movie “The Matrix“, Lawrence Fishburne’s character tells Keanu Reeves’ character, as the two dig into bowls of beige mush, that the foundation of their futuristic diet is “single-celled proteins [huh?] with a complete profile of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.” Sound familiar? Have you looked into your blender recently?

In this article I will be examining some metaphors of food and eating to see what they can tell us about the “nonfood” that bodybuilders eat. I define “nonfood” somewhat loosely, but generally I take it to mean artificially created and/or highly processed food substances such as protein powders, MRPs, amino acid pills, and anything else that can be purchased from a supplement company. Essentially, nonfood is any substance which has undergone a significant degree of human mediation, and which is consumed for fuel or specific physical goals (e.g. muscle mass gain) instead of gustatory pleasure. Of course the boundaries between food and nonfood are very blurry (as are the boundaries between “foods”, “supplements” and “drugs”). I recognize that this definition is largely for the purpose of argument.

This article is not meant as a critique of nonfood—since I too consume it as part of my training—but rather as an examination of its symbolic potential in relation to how we think about our bodies.

Food as metaphor

Why examine metaphor? Studying how metaphors work and what they represent can tell us a great deal about what stories we are telling ourselves and how. Food, as a central aspect of all of our lives, holds rich symbolic potential. As Margaret Morse writes in “What Do Cyborgs Eat?”, “Considering that food itself is the liminal organic substance at the boundary between life and death, need and pleasure, it is also the symbolic medium par excellence.”[1] Food is fundamental to many of our cultural and social practices and concerns, and can have many meanings. Food can be a method of communication. My grandma Scott, dissatisfied with my father’s choice of girlfriend, pointedly served liver when dad brought his new flame home for dinner. In food language, she might as well have muttered, Amityville-Horror-style, “Get out.” Luckily for dad, mom had an iron will and stomach.

Anthropologists have long known about the importance of examining the eating practices of the cultures they study. In his now-classic analysis of food and culture, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss concluded that “the cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure–or else resigns itself, still unconsciously, to revealing its contradictions.”[2]

Thus one may study food as practice (where, how, what do people eat?), and as symbol (what do these food practices signify? why are our food practices organized this way? what is deemed desirable and undesirable food and food practices, and how does this relate to our cultural concerns and values?). But what of nonfood? What does consumption of nonfood tell us about our technological age, and about the subculture of fitness and bodybuilding?

What do cyborgs eat?

“Nature orders the soul to rule and govern and the body to obey and serve.” Plato, Phaedo

Let us return to the figure of the cyborg. The metaphor of the cyborg is a way of thinking about the union between organic organism and inorganic machine, and with a sufficiently broad definition of this category, everyone from Robocop to people with pacemakers are cyborgs. In previous writings I have argued that the bodybuilder is a cyborg, in that the bodybuilder manipulates his or her body with machinery and the technologies of biochemistry, biomechanics, implants, and so forth. The cyborg approach to the body is often expressed in paradoxical terms: the body is both an instrument of possibilities as well as “meat” that can be transcended. Technology can augment or transform the body in a positive way, and/or it can also allow humans to escape their bodies altogether. Yet, as Susan Bordo writes: “[T]he body is the locus of all that threatens our attempts at control.”[3] We have all experienced our bodies’ need to eat or excrete at highly inconvenient times, despite our best efforts to regiment such activities! Even Plato, thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, called the body “a source of constant distraction”.[4]

Bodybuilders continue the age-old quest for bodily mastery, and in many ways seek to transcend the messiness of organic experience. The life of a competitive bodybuilder is an exercise in constant bodily discipline and control. Signs of bodily or sensual excess, such as hair and bodyfat, are shaved away. On stage, the body is visually presented as a shiny, sleek, powerful machine; though it may be nearly nude, it is relatively asexual. To a competitive bodybuilder, bodyfat represents a lack of control over the body and of control over eating. Too many carbs at the wrong time, after all, can wreak havoc with definition and ruin a hopeful bodybuilder’s chances on stage.

Food is generally regarded by bodybuilders not as an experience of organic and sensual pleasure, but as fuel or a substance which contributes to the achievement of a particular physical goal. Bodyfat is the physical manifestation of overindulgence in gustatory enjoyment. This is in keeping with the current North American aesthetic preference for relative slenderness. Morse notes, “In America, ‘fat’ is a stigma and the sign of self-indulgent behaviour of people who have ‘let themselves go’.”[5] According to North American cultural sensibilities, an excess of fat has a clear relationship to an excess of food. Bordo suggests that “in cultures characterized by gross excesses in consumption, the ‘will to conquer and subdue the body’… expresses an aesthetic or moral rebellion.”[6] Eating, for many people in this culture, is something to be brought under control, and to be done within a clearly defined regimen of bodily discipline.

Enjoyment of food and control of the body are thought to be incompatible; after all, who gets brown rice and lentil cravings? Ally McBeal and her roommate Renée don’t reach for the steamed broccoli when they are depressed about their love lives; in TV World the lascivious pleasure of eating Haagen Dazs from the container is a symbolic substitute for other fleshly pleasures. During the ultra-low-fat mania of the late 1980s and early 1990s, product promoters went to great lengths to tell people that low-fat and fat-free foods didn’t have to taste terrible. But the results were generally underwhelming, and people compensated with processed sugar instead. These days, dieters presumably have erotic fantasies about baked potatoes and white bread.

Thus, if the pleasure of eating is antithetical to control of the body, it stands to reason that foods deemed appropriate for “health” goals must be—symbolically or actually—separate from those kinds of foods which are enjoyable. “For”, as Morse notes, “if food is the manna of fullness and pleasure, nonfood is bad-tasting medicine that—precisely because it is disgusting—can be eaten with pleasure…”[7] Rocky Balboa guzzles slimy uncooked egg whites as part of his training, an act which is equated in the film with his eventual physical success. Bodybuilders choke down meal after unappetizing meal of dry chicken breasts, flax oil, pasteurized liquid egg whites, plain tuna, and the like. While the latest nonfood supplements such as flavoured whey protein or protein bars taste better than their predecessors, the very fact that they are now supposed to be tasty (or at least palatable) only reinforces the notion that they are “healthy” substitutes for the “unhealthy” real thing. The flavour list of ProMax’s protein bars, for example, reads like a dessert menu: apple pie, raspberry truffle, chocolate fudge brownie. These bars are a morally superior stand-in for “forbidden” foods, and in fact become preferable to the real thing. One may indulge one’s sensual appetites through “virtual flavour” with no physical “harm” being done. Like Olestra, these nonfood products provide “the simulacrum of food”.[8] Will the simulacrum, as theorists of technology worry, eventually replace the real?

Though fears are currently being expressed by such dignitaries as the Prince of Wales over “bioengineered” foods such as genetically altered tomatoes[9], little alarm is being raised over the current crop of “new” foods that have “healthy” additives. Herbs like ginseng, ginkgo biloba, kava kava, and St. John’s Wort are the hottest trend in food product development, and can now be found in a variety of products from juice to gummibears. Ironically, it is the most processed foods that are most likely to trumpet their “improved” health value. Maple Leaf Foods in Canada is currently promoting a hot dog product by emphasizing its vitamin content. It seems we worry about the manipulation of “natural” things like vegetables (though most of us remain blithely unconcerned about the presence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, not to mention bacteria and parasites from unsanitary farming practices), but don’t mind pretending that highly processed and chemical-containing products are good for us. Only hippies and potty earth mother types buy organic produce, but potato chips with fake fat in them seem somehow sensible. This state of affairs might stem from our cultural “loss of faith in our ability to survive a toxic natural and social world without medicinal help”[10], and the symbolic link between technology and the future of “progress”. Bodybuilders are always searching for the next big thing, the newest substance to give them an edge over their competitors. The democratic nature of access to “real” food allows nonfood to have a cachet of scientific sophistication. And, we think, the more engineered the food, the better it must be for us. We can bypass all that inconvenient nutrient conversion and jam those isolated aminos straight into our cells.

Conclusion

“Nature compelled, [Man's] piercing Mind obeys / And gladly shows him all her secret Ways / ‘Gainst Mathematicks she has no Defence / And yields t’experimental Consequence.”

–J.T. Desaguliers, “The Newtonian System of the World”, 1728

So am I telling everyone to forsake their whey and glutamine for apples and chocolate? Of course not. I am merely unpacking some of the multiple meanings encoded in our food and nonfood practices. The eternal human quest for harmony between body and mind, as well as our omnipresent awareness of our own mortality, makes us interact on a concrete and symbolic level with what our bodies must consume. In our age those concerns present themselves as often contradictory practices and discourses around food, nonfood, and technological intervention.

Is it true, as Morse suggests, that “body loathing entails food loathing”?[11] Is it as simple as saying that bodybuilders’ discipline of their bodies through eating practices signifies self-hatred or a misguided search for better living through chemistry? I think this is too simple (and, perhaps, Freudian) a conclusion. While bodybuilding does indeed represent a subculture, it still cannot be divorced from its larger cultural context. We are in a time of profound ambivalence about technological “progress”, and the hype tells us that change is inevitable. As in the postwar era, when the atom was our friend and canned vegetables were “better”, we feel that nonfood signifies the next, more nutritious generation of bodily nourishment. We had better all get wired… or else. Or else what? Technocrats and corporations promote development and deliberate obsolescence as necessary and good, which can leave the average person feeling as if s/he cannot survive without the latest piece of cyber-fill-in-the-blank. We are obsessed with the procurement and hoarding of information. Not coincidentally, Morse’s answer to the question “What do cyborgs eat?” is “information”. The latest “secret” for Nature to “yield” is the encoded information in our DNA. Thus, we believe that the more closely nonfood interacts with the fundamental processes of our body’s information, the better. In this sense, the “logic of nonfood” operates on two levels: to indicate the cultural philosophies of nonfood, and to indicate nonfood’s link with logos, or reasoning, speaking, and information. Nonfood does more than nourish or fuel us; it intervenes in our metabolic coding and allows us to manipulate our bodies on the microlevel. We used to look outward to divine intervention to make us better, smarter, stronger. These days, we look inward.

Now that talk of DNA manipulation for bigger muscles is percolating through bodybuilding discourse, I look forward eagerly to purchasing my first container of GenetoFuel or ChromosoBol.

Notes

  1. Margaret Morse, “What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society”, Virtualities, p.134.
  2. Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Culinary Triangle” Food and Culture: A Reader ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 35.
  3. Susan Bordo, “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture”, Food and Culture: A Reader ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 231.
  4. Plato, Phaedo, 66c, quoted in Bordo.
  5. Morse, p. 136.
  6. Bordo, p. 237.
  7. Morse, p. 145.
  8. Morse, p. 140.
  9. See, for example, Gillian K. Hadfield, “We Need a Label to Identify Genetically Altered Foods”, Globe and Mail, May 19, 1999, p.A15.
  10. Morse, p.147.
  11. Morse, p. 127

Sources

Counihan, Carole and Penny van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Morse, Margaret. Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberspace.