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Introduction to Food Communication 2

2012 May 15
by Paul Mabrey
Map of major brand logo as monopoly

Yesterday’s introduction to food communication treated communication and food separately, then gestured toward how we might understand them together. Our working definition of food communication might argue that those interested in food communication are individuals for whom food is an integral and necessary part of our everyday life and wish to understand how food shapes and reshapes our production or destruction of meaning, relationships and community.

An important aspect of food communication is its everydayness, its ubiquity in the ordinary day. As the discussion suggests, our taking for granted food and our relationships to food may have contributed to the ignorance of food as an object of study or informing communication research. Interestingly, while food may have been a blindspot for communication studies, today’s readings demonstrate that communication theories are used to help understand and research our food relationships, whether knowingly or not.

Barthes and Jacobson both supply us a language and theoretical tools to understand and analyze how food is communicated, food communicates and how we communicated about food. They use concepts that many of us are already familiar with, whether from our communication courses, english courses or perhaps some other point along our education path. Or we just happen to have picked up on these ideas in passing.

Food as Sign

Barthes’ piece provides a challenging yet provocative and rich place to understand the relationships between food and communication. Barthes can be difficult because is is relying on different experiences and examples than what most us are accustomed to, for example the French historical and cultural examples. Barthes employs semiotics to help contexualize the role and function of food,

For what is food?…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior…this item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies…it is a real sign, perhaps the functional unit of communication.

Food functions as a sign, a sign communicating something in addition to itself, perhaps even something other than itself. With food, we are not just buying or consuming a product but a whole system or chain of meanings. An apple is not just the red sweet, tart object that you ingest for nutrition. The apple is the whole system that contributed to growing the apple; sun, water, animals maybe human farmers. Also in the apple is potentially pesticide, transportation issues, Snow White, Macintosh and much more. You are not eating an apple, you are experiencing a system or grammar of food. Advertising is a tool, identified by Barthes, with which we can trace and analyze the signification of food.

The Rhetoric of Food

Extending more explicitly the discipline of communication studies, Jacobsen’s piece on The Rhetoric of Food advances a basic, fundamental but no less important claim. How we define food matters, simple. Just like in anything, the definition one uses sets forth a whole range of meaning, histories, actions and questions that a different definition might foreclose. More than a defining role, how we frame or deploy food in language also matters. And it is these definitions or ways of thinking (or really, not thinking) about food that should be unsettled so that we can be mindful of our relationships to food.

Metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche are all tropes that shape how we hear, understand and (re)act to our food relationships. Jacobsen provides a couple that are fruitful for demonstrating the point, “fuel for the body” and “grazing” come to mind. Even the use of “fruitful” to describe an example or analysis calls forth a chain of meanings and emotions that affect us.

Tropes are also used to describe three dominant frames of food; food as nature, food as commodity and food as culture. Jacobsen does a fairly good job detailing the different actors, senses of time, spaces, concepts etc that are highlighted when each trope is used. Though even the tropes established seem to have their own ideological underpinnings working for them.

Jacobsen's Trope Chart of Food as Culture, Nature and CommodityFood for Thought

Given Jacobsen’s argument about the importance of how we define food, what are the implications for Barthes definition of food? What ways of thinking, systems of meaning etc are encouraged by understanding food as sign and what ways of thinking etc are foreclosed and ignored?

What are the similarities and/or differences between reading food as a sign versus food as a trope? Is one more helpful for your analysis than the other?

What food tropes did you find yourself thinking about while reading and discussing these pieces?

Jacobsen tends to think of food as commodity in a mostly negative fashion? Can the food as commodity trope be a productive trope?

What are the implications to how Jacobsen identifies the characteristics of each trope? Was there sufficient evidence to demonstrate? Do you agree?


10 Responses leave one →
  1. mccrodsm permalink
    May 16, 2012

    As opposed to Jacobsen’s view of food as a trope, which I personally liked better, Barthes viewed food as a sign. He believed the ways in which we buy, consume, and serve food, signifies our background and culture as an individual and a society. With his definition, food is not so much split into categories (like Jacobsen’s nature, commodity, and culture), as it is more of a layered idea that is both a general human need and necessity, and as a highly structured luxury that uses rhetoric for economic benefits.
    The way Barthes defined food as a sign was a bit ambiguous to me, and a large part of that can be contributed to the many French societal examples he used to explain his viewpoints. I had a much easier time understanding and relating to Jacobsen’s trope definition. With all of the examples of ways in which we eat, act, and produce food I could think of (ex. giving food away as gifts could be seen as being part of the cultural category, the reasons you have for using a certain brand of ketchup or mayonnaise could be put into all three), they all seemed to fit into his three categories. I thought his conclusion was very strong and really summarized his position well. He grouped this three categories into two spheres- the public and the private. He said food as a commodity is used in public, while food in relation to culture and nature is more personal.
    Along with Jacobsen’s examples of rhetorical examples and metaphors we as a society center around food, like “fuel for the body,” and “I’m all filled up,” there were more that came into my head while reading this article. “Food for thought,” “Bringing home the bacon,” and “he/she has an appetite for (fill in the blank),” are just some of the many examples we use in our everyday language that goes back to Jacobsen’s point that the topic of food has been “closely interwoven within the basic structures and grids of power in a society.”

    • Emma Hubbard permalink
      May 17, 2012

      In response to mccrodsm’s comment:

      I also liked Jacobsen’s view as food as a trope better than Barthe’s view of food as a sign. I thought you made a great analysis for both of the author’s view of food. I liked how you pointed out that Jacobsen split his definition into categories: nature, commodity, and culture. When you described Barthe’s view of food as a layered idea that is both a general need and necessity, and as a highly structured luxury that uses rhetoric for economic benefits, this made me better understand his view. It allowed me to see that Barthe’s view of food was complex and has different ideas and layers to it.

      I agree that Barthe’s definition of food as a sign was ambiguous due to his examples of French societal norms. You gave a very good example of Jacobsen’s definition by saying that giving food away as gifts could be seen as being part of the cultural category. In Barthe’s article, he said, “local food festivals are legion all over the Western world, demonstrating the frequently occurring connection of specific foods to specific places and identities.” This can relate to your idea of giving food away as gifts as part of a culture. People who give away food as gifts may connect the kind of food they give away to the specific places or people that they give the food to.

      I thought it was good that you talked about the two spheres that Jacobsen grouped his categories into. It is important to understand that there is both a public and private sphere and people may connect certain experiences with either sphere. I liked how you pointed out that Jacobsen said food as a commodity is typically used in the public sphere, and food in relation to culture and nature is more frequently used in the personal sphere.

      I thought you gave good examples of food metaphors such as “Food for thought,” and “Bringing home the bacon.” These are metaphors that I hear used quite frequently. You did a good job of connecting your examples with Jacobsen’s point that the topic of food has been “closely interwoven within the basic structures and grids of power in a society.”

  2. scalesaj permalink
    May 17, 2012

    I also found the trope argument somewhat easier to understand as well, but after I looked back at Barthes piece I felt as if they were more interrelated than I first thought. It seemed to me that the tropes could not classify foods by any sort of order unless those foods signified some theme. Once I drew that line between the two articles I also started thinking of all the ways we use food such as giving it as a gift as you mentioned, and how that signifies a certain action, feeling, or state of being and how each of those things which are signified related into a trope. It would almost seem that you can’t have one theory, without the other.

  3. Emma Hubbard permalink
    May 17, 2012

    While Jacobsen focuses on metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche as tropes that “shape how we hear, understand, and react to our food relationships”, Barthes is a bit more complex and says that food serves as a sign among the members of a given society. I liked how Barthes said, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication.” The ways of thinking and systems of meaning that are encouraged by understanding food as a sign are that food is a need for survival, but it also can be used for pleasure. It a system of meaning because it does not just hold one meaning. It also carries a system of communication. The ways of thinking that are foreclosed and ignored are that many people do not view food as complex of multidimensional, but simply view food as means of survival.

    The differences between reading food as a sign versus food as a trope are that reading food as a sign is more complex and difficult to understand. The examples that Barthes gave were a bit confusing to me because he discussed examples of French standards of living and consumption which I was unable to relate to. Reading food as a trope was more helpful for my analysis. Jacobsen allowed me to see how food can be broken down into separate categories: nature, commodity, and culture. The similarity between reading food as a sign versus food as a trope is that both Barthes and Jacobsen have provided ways to view food as simply more than just something we need to survive. They have provided ways to look at food as multidimensional, and as something that can shape us, our identities, and our cultures.

    While reading and discussing these pieces, I found myself thinking about different food tropes. Some that came to mind were “I’m going cold turkey,” “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” “Don’t sugar coat it,” and “The icing on the cake.”

    Jacobsen tends to think of food as commodity in a mostly negative fashion. The food as commodity trope can be used as a productive trope. Some people make a living off of producing food such as farmers. If farmers use sustainable practices and produce food of high quality in the healthiest way, then I believe they should be rewarded. They are communicating to the public that they care about how their food is produced and they care about what is being given to the public. If people are striving to make food healthy, high quality, and appealing than I believe the food as commodity trope can be used as a positive trope.

    The implications to how Jacobsen identifies the characteristic of each trope were what is prominent in our society. For food as nature, Jacobsen focused on how society associates food with nature. He says that, “Different images of nature follow from different experiences and positions in society.” For food as commodity, Jacobsen says that the commodity status of food is prominent in our capitalist society. He says that a retailer’s association with food is dominated by the need for effective logistics. For food as culture, Jacobsen looks at different cultures throughout the Western world and how these cultures connect food with local food traditions and experiences. I do agree with Jacobsen because he looked at society and what the dominant beliefs and associations are with food.

  4. scalesaj permalink
    May 17, 2012

    After reading these two pieces I feel as if they fit perfectly together. I liked how Barthes showed food to be a signifier because as I thought about it I could really begin to understand the concept. Just as different clothes signify different things such as a flannel over shirt (working man) versus a white shirt and tie (professional businessman) I began to think of how hot wings, peanut butter sandwiches and fortune cookies (manly food, lunch food, and a parting gift to entice you to come again) can transmit meaning. I think this goes well with Jacobsen’s piece because food could only fall into his tropes if they could signify meaning. Italian pasta sauce is only important culturally because those tomatoes signify a taste of Italy, crummy frozen pizzas only are consumed by college kids because it signifies a good deal. This makes me feel that these two works are just a look at different levels where Jacobsen’s ideas are building off of, and encompasses Barthes.
    I disagreed that the two spheres that Jacobsen talks about, public and private, are completely separate. For example, if a person buys some produce from someone it might be a public interaction, however if she’s buying that produce from a grower she knows and wants to support that person so they can make a living and be happy it quickly jumps to personal, if not the interpersonal sphere. Also food signifies personal ideas such as ecological soundness in the nature trope which may be strictly personal ideas. Once that idea gets around and adopted by others, and government regulations are imposed to support those growing methods then it becomes a public issue, basically the line between public and private seemed somewhat blurred to me.
    This becomes especially important in the commodity trope because you don’t want consumers to buy things solely on their personal or public identity, but both so there is a stronger pull to buy that product again. I feel things such as farmers markets and more local foods are helping to bridge that gap.

    • brubakra permalink
      May 18, 2012

      In response to you post, scalesaj, I love all of your examples! I completely agree with your comparison of the idea of how clothing signifies our likes, desires, and comfort, and so can food. Everything we eat has meaning. I also thought your point on the crossing of the spheres was valid too. Barthes made a point that stood out to me when I was thinking about shopping at the supermarket and what meaning I gave to the products I bought. Barthes claims that many people have a ‘loyalty’ to specific brands, and that’s the sole reason we get them. I think this takes the public sphere of distribution and narrows it down to a warped personal sphere. We think we’re supporting this one product, when we are really just allowing for a more diverse selection of the same product under different brand names. There seems to be more blurred lines between the spheres than Jacobsen lets on to be, in my opinion.

      • kikomr permalink
        May 18, 2012

        I also like your analogies and examples. Food always has meaning. It communicates. College hot pockets are strictly for the drunken munchies, while caviar should be consumed while at a black tie event (I do not eat caviar in a flannel shirt!). Also, in response to brubakra’s comment, buyer loyalty is extremely important, as Barthes states, in the supermarket realm. Now that Giant Foods has an organic foods line, local organic manufacturers will have trouble selling their local organic foods to big brands. They will either lose the uphill struggle or get bought by a larger corporation.

      • gilliakl permalink
        May 18, 2012

        In response to brubakra, I also thought the section on brand loyalty was very interesting. In his piece he said that sometimes other companies could not even tell their products from others. I made me think how do we? Are we really buying items simply because we believe that a certain brand is better than another or are we just buying it because of the brand and what is popular? This really hit home for me because I love Starbucks coffee, however, I despise Java City. Now, I wonder is it because they are so different or because I am so loyal to the Starbucks brand?

  5. kikomr permalink
    May 18, 2012

    While Jacobsen describes food as nature, culture, and commodity, he attempts to show how each rhetoric is connected with each other. Jacobsen (61) states that food is presented as a part of nature. Food is constantly being related to plants and animals. Secondly, food is a commodity now because in our Western societies, food is constantly being traded and sold for profit. Third, food is culture because it is culturally embedded within our society.
    While looking at the tropes listed on page 73 of Jacobsen’s piece, the one that I paid most attention was the “Food as Culture//Relevant Space” trope. This includes restaurants, home and festival areas. This reminds me of the tailgating atmosphere that is renown in the JMU area during the fall months. Tailgate season brings with it the foods that are sold in the supermarket that are products related to the football season. As this reaches the commodity aspect of food, the inherent culture of the tailgate season is isolated because the supermarket ‘tailgate packs’ of chips and dip will never surpass the good ole’ hot dog and hamburger.
    Food as commodity can be a productive trope only if it supports the welfare of the nature and culture of food. Promoting organic, grass-fed, free-roaming eggs is great for a local supermarket, however once the large corporations take care of it, quality control decreases.

  6. gilliakl permalink
    May 18, 2012

    Personally between the Roland Barthes and the Eivind Jacobsen pieces I enjoyed the Barthes piece better. I found this piece to be very eye opening and thought provoking. The Barthes definition of food made me think of food in a very different light. He says that, it is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behaviors. Prior to reading this article, I did not look or even analyze food and its usage in that depth. By thinking about food in that light the concepts that Barthes explained made so much sense and I thought that it was brilliant. I also thought that the section about consumer loyalty was very interesting. I thought it was somewhat funny that we as consumers but so much worth into a brand even when the products are so similar.

    In the Jacobsen piece I thought the way he broke down food into three connotative fields was very interesting. He says that food is presented as nature, a commodity, and culture. The section about food a culture was the most appealing to me. The section where he talked about food taboos and civilized societies reminded me so much of my first formal meal where there was a certain spoon or fork each course of the meal. I think that it is very interesting that we as a society try to distinguish ourselves from others based on the way we eat.

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