Speaking while Eating, and Vice Versa

Sketch For The Supper Painting, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec

We know how insistent modernity has become in revealing the sexuality concealed in the exercise of language: to speak under certain constraints or certain alibis (including that of pure “communication”) is an erotic act; a new concept has permitted this extension of the sexual to the verbal: the concept of orality.

—Roland Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin”

A friend of mine went to China. Bored with the Dutch cuisine (nothing but potatoes in different metamorphoses – smashed, boiled, fried etc.), she told me that her sensations were suddenly cracked open by the delicate aroma and the multi-layered texture of Chinese food. The celebration of her newfound and liberated taste, unfortunately, was brought to a halt after one week by a severe attack of diarrhea. Frustrated and ironical, she said, “I guess my body is programmed to digest potatoes only.”

I was intrigued by this image-repertoire of Chinese food crawling in and out of a foreign body. Starting its journey from the mouth, it was exotic and pleasurable, carrying the tongue into ecstasy. Yet, as soon as it dived deeper into the stomach and bowels, all the evils of Chinese food seemed to unleash themselves in the dark, gloomy, and mysterious interior of the body. It turned out to be wild, alien, indigestible, untamable, and even poisonous. The body was sick and threatened; to survive, it had to expatriate and reject itself through the mouth and/or the anus.

The traveling of the foreign food, fundamentally structured by two openings of the body, broaches a rethink about the body. The question is a Kristevaian one: In regard to foreignness, how loyal can the body remain to itself? Seduced by the tongue, yet betrayed by the stomach, isn’t the body a stranger to itself? Are the vomitus and excrement leftovers of the foreign and the indigestible, or sediments of the untouchable interiority of the body itself? In an interview with Yoko Tawada, a Japanese and German bilingual writer, Bettina Brandt asked her to elaborate on the metaphors she used in her book Overseas-Tongues [Überseezungen], in which Tawada compared her mother tongue to her “exterior skin,” whereas referring to a foreign tongue as something she “swallowed whole” and that “has been sitting in [her] stomach ever since.” Tawada linked the experience of speaking a foreign language to that of eating and digesting food: “Words in a foreign language are, to me, in a particular way, words that I am consuming. These words are outside of my body and I eat them, I consciously eat them. I can put them into my mouth and then they enter my body; but they are not part of my body. Sometimes these words turn out to be indigestible and then you easily can get a stomachache.”1 When her mouth is cracked open to foreign words, as Tawada phrases it, it fuses two types of oral activities: eating and speaking. Such a fusion is not simply a matter of borrowing the vocabulary related to eating to that of speaking. Figural and symbolic readings fail to comprehend the bleak rupture of the body and the wrinkled surface of the text. Here it is rather about words becoming flesh, about expressions being turned inside out, and bodies being impressed with shapes and sensations of foreign objects. Neither the speaker nor the language stands self-evident by each other. Words enter and accommodate themselves in the mouth, where they, with their voluptuous yet wild shapes, challenge the speaking tongue by refusing to have their traces of passage buried and smoothed out.

As she envisages the foreign language taking on a bodily form, Tawada attributes the worldly and sensory taste, normally considered to belong to the eating tongue exclusively, to the speaking tongue. Words enter and accommodate themselves in the mouth, where they, in their voluptuous shapes, confronts the speaking tongue that is used to smooth out traces of passage. “In my own case, this bodily image is also quite concretely linked to the feeling that I get when I pronounce words in a foreign language,” says Tawada, “Then I am working with my tongue, just like when I am eating. I experience these words on my tongue as a peculiar, an odd sensation, because they are so hard to pronounce. Also, you have to move your tongue in ways in which you normally do not.”2 By taking on a concrete yet invisible body, the foreign language necessitates the speaking tongue to “taste” the curves and contours of words and to adjust itself to these particularities. Correspondingly, one has to move the jaw, chew and swallow the words vigorously, for the flesh of words to be transformed into nutrition and circulated through the body, and further to become part of the human flesh. This intense contact and transformation between body and language invites us to imagine the mouth no longer as a place where words are produced by vocal organs, but a space inhabited by these two bodies and constantly transformed by their interactions.

This sensory impression of the speaking tongue, Tawada seems to imply, pertains to any languages but one’s mother tongue. For Tawada, one inhabits the mother tongue in the way that one remains inseparable to one’s skin. This metaphor recognizes the mother tongue not only as an organic part of the body, which is by nature inedible and cannot be consumed, but also as a perspective that allows the figure to be contracted from the background. At the same time, the mother tongue does not offer up the speaking body as a complete field of vision and comprehension. It constitutes the surface of the body – fragmentary in sight and undivided in imagination – until the moment that foreign languages parade through the body, unearthing what is beneath the skin and what can be otherwise. Foreignness contests the boundary: the internal and the external become enmeshed, while the distinction between the eating tongue and the speaking tongue falls apart. It is to be digested, consumed, and incorporated. Sometimes, however, it sits inside, alien and still, like a pebble, reinforcing the division and incompatibility from within. Sometimes the odd sensation is contagious; the body undoes its surface image of familiarity and begins to taste its own bittersweet uncanniness. To certain extent, Tawada’s pleasure of speaking resonates with the surrealist discovery of the material dimension of language: words cease to be made vanishing (secretly and unconsciously) after meaning is conveyed. The foreign language, in Tawada’s case, has taken on a concrete yet invisible body, to adjust to the words’ foreign gastronomy and its particularities. This invites us to imagine the mouth no longer as a place where the tongue and the words meet, but a space fundamentally inhabited by these two bodies and continuously transformed by their interactions.

What, then, is it that renders the sensation of tasting and touching pleasurable to the tongue?

As for the eating tongue, taste is, beyond question, as much a visual experience as a sensible one. Lick an ice cream. Take a sip of the red wine. Bite a piece of the lemon cake. Imagine every particle softly slides along the tongue, comes into contact with different zones of the taste bud, and gradually weaves a rich texture in a succession of aromatic entrances, returns, and overlaps. Through envisioning itself in a lust for food, the body prepares itself for the gustative sensation. In effect, a portion of the pleasure of the eating tongue is auto-erotic: it tastes the food, and at the same time, desires and devours its own image of craving for food. Between “the first of delights” and the sense of the taste, as Roland Barthes suggests in “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” there is “a kind of metonymic exchange.” Barthes writes, “from the point of view of sensuality, it signifies taste to put it in the same roster with erotic pleasure.”3 From the bliss of the food to that of the body, the eating tongue undertakes a task that is not limited to transference: it is both the eating tongue and the tongue to be eaten. Through imitation and transformation, the tongue recognizes the food in its miniature, becomes the food, and initiates a narcissistic investment on the body itself. “[L]ike those sadists who delight in the signs of emotion on their partner’s face,” writes Barthes, “we observe the changes in the body which is dining well. […] The gourmand’s body is thus seen as a glowing painting, illuminated from within.”4 The pleasure of eating, therefore, establishes the equivalence between the delight of food and that of the body. Moistened and refreshed, the body becomes at once desirable and edible. No wonder in the dining table of B.-S., it is a woman that is involved and spied on, “as if we were dealing with a minor erotic rape.”5

Then, as I am obliged to ask, what about the speaking tongue? What is the structuring principle of its pleasure?

At first sight, such a question seems thoroughly redundant or pretentious, as the distinction between an eating tongue and a speaking tongue, in the first place, is artificial. As Barthes has pointed out: “Do not these two powers [language and gastronomy] employ the same organ? And more broadly, the same apparatus, productive or appreciative: the cheeks, the palate, and nostrils, whose gustative role B.-S. remarks and which are responsible for fine singing? To eat, to speak, to sing (need we add: to kiss?) are operations which have the same site of the body for origin: cut off the tongue, and there will be neither taste nor speech.”6 So Barthes finds in the tongue a common origin, which is in fact indisputable, for language and gastronomy. Indeed, without the tongue, eating and speaking is not be sensuous any more. Yet, what I find problematic is when Barthes, later in his text, broadens this commonality to account for Brillat-Savarin’s “amorous relation” to language. “B.-S. desires the word as he desires truffles, a tuna omelet, a fish stew,” Barthes comments, “like any neologist, he has a fetishistic relation to the individual word, haloed by its very singularity” (258). In Barthes’ s reading of B.-S., the eroticism of language, resembling that of the food, lies in the first and fresh touch with the tongue. Surprise: that is the ultimate law that structures the pleasure of the tongue; deeper and longer immersion, in contrast, only stupefies and ruins the fine senses. Fair enough. Yet, I am still contemplating: what would Barthes (or B.-S.) say to our seemingly regressive cravings for the same food/sounds?

Anyone who tries to acquire a foreign language must have been familiar with the tickling feeling when she sees a native speaker talk. The tongue performs a secret art in the chamber of the mouth: it stretches or shrinks itself, moves skillfully between the teeth, rests upon or under the palate. It is pleased to give accuracy and meaning to every scratch that the air may leave on the tongue in its journey into and out of the body. Fluency and exactitude: they are said to be the essence of the art of mastery; hence the charm of the native speaker. Eva Hoffman in her autobiography Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is amazed by the native’s speech: “Language takes off like a sudden gust of swallows, observations collide unexpectedly and procreate a joke, words jump around like fireflies, so that there is no telling what’s up or down, what ground and what outer space, no telling where the always frail connection between words and reality breaks off and pure performance takes over.”7 It seems as if, to Hoffman, the native’s mouth becomes a theatre, in which a whole orchestra is performing. This auditory spectacle presents itself as a solid and undividable whole, frustrating any attempts of orienting and unraveling. The pleasure related to mastery, in this sense, exhibits a disposition of aggressiveness: giving no leftover space for retreat, the native’s speaking tongue designates the foreign body in a zone of infinite mimesis. “I listen breathlessly as Tom talks, catching his every syncopation, every stress, every maverick rush over a mental hurdle. Then, as I try to respond with equal spontaneity, I reach frantically for the requisite tone, the requisite accent.” For Hoffman, Tom’s speech imposes a desire on her tongue: to sound like the native – this seems to be the wildest pleasure the foreign tongue may achieve.

The imposed mimetic identification with the native tongue, however, does not necessarily lead to the promised pleasure. “It makes me dizzy,” says Hoffman, “this hurling of antic verbal balls in the pure air.”8 Shall we then rush to the conclusion that a tongue in dizziness is an incapable tongue, too weak to make sense of the intricate verbal game, too vulgar to gain a fine taste? Indeed, the feeling of vertigo is often invoked by a direct confrontation with an opening, a gap, or an abyss. Tom’s “slip-and-slide speech,” to use Hoffman’s words, has challenged her “earthbound sensibility” with its spontaneity and borderlessness. Too eloquent and impeccable, the native tongue ceases to see itself in performance; it leaves behind the childhood memory, the memory of existing in the gap between words and things, and of the baffling tongue running and searching for the accurate place in the dark mouth. What constitutes the gap between the native and the foreign, the mastery and the non-mastery, therefore, is rather the act of forgetting. Isn’t the pleasure of mastery a deliberate forgetting and suppression of another pleasure, often secret and unintentional, gushed out in slips of the tongue? What makes it so enjoyable, sometimes, to hear and play with speech errors, that one even dedicates a neology (spoonerism) to it?

In the schema of food, Barthes discerns in B.-S. a marked distinction between need and desire. Noticeably, Barthes observes that B.-S. does not attribute pleasure exclusively to the latter: to eat with pleasure, one needs to have a natural appetite, although it does not suffice all the time. “[H]e must bring on stage, so to speak,” observes Barthes, “the luxury of desire, erotic or gastronomic: an enigmatic, useless supplement, the desired food – the kind that B.-S. describes – is unconditional waste or loss, a kind of ethnographic ceremony by which man celebrates his power, his freedom to consume his energy ‘for nothing.’”9 Here Barthes joins Pierre Bourdieu in his argument of the antithesis between substance and form, “between the taste of necessity, which favors the most ‘filling’ and most economical foods, and the taste of liberty – or luxury – which shifts the emphasis to the manner (of presenting, serving, eating etc.) and tends to use stylized forms to deny function.”10 If we say that Bourdieu seems less optimistic or tolerant towards a pleasure generated purely by the fact that one is hungry, both philosophers sound cynical when they begin to elaborate on the luxury of desire and the taste of luxury. What is associated with this pleasure of the excess, for both of them, is a celebration of the power of man, “of the capacity for sublimation which defines the truly human man.” The pleasure of eating and dining, in this case, is enacted not without an undertone of anthropocentrism.

What can this antithesis between need and desire contribute to the economy of the speaking tongue’s pleasure? It seems that the speaking tongue’s quest for pleasure begins with the hunger for words to fill in the unworded images and thoughts. This hypothesis, nevertheless, is easier postulated on the foreign tongue; as I have mentioned, the native tongue tends to let go of its childhood memory of the substantial gap between words and things. “I’ve become obsessed with words,” writes Hoffman, “I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body.”11  

The exposure of the speaking tongue to a foreign language – which reminds me of my friend’s experience with Chinese food – often engages it with pleasure at first, and yet poses a threat afterwards to the body’s well-being. Love at first sight: all senses are open, engaged, mesmerized – no one accuses her new lover of claiming too much attention. This economy of pleasure belongs to what B.-S. calls “the first hour” over the table, which is “marked here by the appearance of new dishes, the discovery of their originality, the élan of conversations.”12 Similarly, the speaking tongue, in its first encounter with the new language, feels and pushes its way along the labyrinth, trying to imprint new sounds and signs on itself and to hoard similar words in the same zone of the brain. This speaking body in a new language, like a gourmet, is a hoarder of words and experiences, and at the same time an adventurer who dares to throw her body into uncertainty. In “Writing in Two Tongues,” Wang Ping has vividly illustrated this image. “Every time I use a word, I enter a virgin forest,” says Wang, “I cut and chop to open new paths, I sniff and taste each exotic plant, mushroom, flower, fruit… I dig for roots, hidden treasure, forgotten history.”13 With regard to the pleasure of being in a new language, Wang much resembles a marcher, whose joy is to cut through and to ‘make a mess,’ while Hoffman certainly shares a similar spirit with a hoarder. The pleasure of the latter, as a consequence, always flows with an undercurrent of anxiety: the very act of hoarding serves to decenter the hoarder, letting her being taken over by the infinity of things/words. In the end, things/words overwhelm the person that accumulates them in the first place, swallow the body, and confine it in the unfathomable darkness. Unlike Tawada, who worries that a foreign language may enter the speaker’s body like an indigestible substance and cause a stomachache, Hoffman reminds us that one should rather take care that it is not the person’s body that is being eaten.

In all, what I aim to present with this essay is that it is a common origin (the tongue) and an economy of desire that bring the act of eating and speaking together and at the same time make them diverge. In light of this, we can view the dining table as an extension of the tongue, and/or the spatialization of desire. “We eat together, that is the universal law,” says Barthes.14 Over the dining table, it is no longer possible to talk about eating or speaking, or eating and speaking. We eat, while we are speaking. We speak, while we are eating. Otherwise, why should we bother to dine together? And this is probably why either a mouthful of food or a mouthful of words is generally thought to be improper and impolite. The dining table is a complex space that serves to arouse what Barthes says “a composite pleasure … that must have several causes, among which there is no way of distinguishing which one causes delight.” This pleasure, indeed, is the old game of hide and seek: over the dining table flow numerous stimuli (the food, the conversation, the image of dining together etc.), yet the mouth, being the sole pass for food and words, inclines to feed this continuous flow and wipe out traces of diverging.

This gastronomic collectivity, according to Barthes, aims not only to celebrate food in the gathering, but also to materialize and eroticize speech. Barthes writes, “The convivium –so important in B.-S.’s ethic – is therefore not only a sociological fact, it prompts us to consider (as the human sciences have so rarely done hitherto) communication as a delight, a jouissance – and no longer as a function.”15 What constitutes the desire and delight over the dining table, for Barthes, is the double irreducibility: like the thrilling experience of the fine food, which is not limited to the sensory satisfaction, speaking and interlocution brings jouissance when the function of communication becomes only an accessory, and when its efficiency is momentarily deferred.

This pleasure of speaking is profoundly entangled with the procreation of an excess of communication. So, the question is, what exactly is this excess? To better envision it, I cite here an excerpt from the journal of an Anglo-American woman student of German:16

“Also” ist [“Also is a word”], that I’d really love to use in English, but niemand versteht mich, wenn ich’s nutze [“nobody would understand me if I used it”]. I suppose I could explain it to my friends, “Ja, also” [“Yeah, well”]. No I don’t mean also as in “in addition to,” nee, das wäre’s nicht. Ich meine, tja, einfach “Also”… Allllso. Aber mit “Also” stürzt die Bedeutung sofort ab, wenn [“no, that’s not it. I mean, hm, simply alsoallllso. But with also the meaning (of the word) collapses immediately if”] the person I am talking can’t speak German. Ich meine, I think, die Bedeutung lebt in der Zunge, im Mund [“I mean, I think, the meaning resides in the tongue, in the mouth”], how can I explain this? The meaning of also lies in the way that the tongue reaches up for the roof of the mouth und dann bleibt’s da, und die Bedeutung liegt darin, wie lange man die Zunge da oben lässt. Es ist ein besonderer Ton, “Allllso,” im Vergleich mit “Also” [“and then it stays there, and the meaning lies precisely in the length of time one keeps the tongue up there. It is a special sound, allllso, as contrasted with also”].”

This is how we caress words and touch the invisible: let the tongue become the word, let it linger and stray, let it enjoy itself. Hence the “perverse” joy of slips of the tongue and of learning a new language: words become concrete and edible, while the tongue becomes slippery. They bump into each other, making a harsh noise, stumbling for a moment, and then recollect themselves and burst into laughter for each other’s clumsiness.

Over the dining table, the mouth opens and closes, the jaw moves up and down, the tongue stretches and curls. It is in this continuous movement that the body shows its ultimate hospitality to food and words: the body opens itself, allowing itself to be influenced, to be cut loose, even to be ruined. Jacques Derrida may have carried it too far to recast the entire ethical frontier to il faut bien manger [“one must eat well”]. Yet, it is not without reason that Barthes links the activity of eating together to ethics.

What concerns us, in the end, is only one law: Do not dine alone; it is amoral. ∎

  1. Yoko Tawada, and Bettina Brandt, “Ein Wort, Ein Ort, or How Words Create Places: Interview with Yoko Tawada,” Women in German Yearbook 21 (2005): 4.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Roland Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” in The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard, Berkeley and Los Angeles (University of California Press, 1989): 266.
  4. Ibid., 253.
  5. Ibid., 252.
  6. Ibid., 258.
  7. Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A life in a New Language (New York: Penguin Books, 1989): 218.
  8. Ibid., 219.
  9. Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” 253.
  10. Pierre Bourdieu, “Introduction to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leitch (New York: Norton, 2001): 1814.
  11. Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 216.
  12. Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” 264.
  13. Wang Ping, “Writing in Two Tongues,” Manoa 18.1 (2006): 14.
  14. Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” 267.
  15. Ibid., 268.
  16. Claire Kramsch, “The Privilege of the Non-native Speaker,” Publications of the Modern Language Association. 112 (3): 364.