Cooking the self

Giving shape to the self is much like a tug-of-war, or a game of arm-wrestling. On one side, there is a team that is composed of representatives of psychiatry, marketing, politics, art and others like them. This team is applauded from the sideline by the tradition to which it belongs. On the other end, there is just you. Does that mean you are outnumbered?

In the 1970s, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggested it does. His point of view was that we are continuously subjected in power plays with members of the “other team”. In the last years of his life, he started thinking differently. Instead of looking at ways in which people are governed by others, he started examining techniques that people employ to work on governing themselves. Some of this ended up in the third part of his History of Sexuality (1984), which was subtitled The Care of the Self. In an earlier interview, however, Foucault had already said that he started thinking that ‘sex is boring’. Instead, he wanted to study how people give shape to themselves. Because of this, he doubled the length of his weekly lectures to discuss this topic. He never came around to publish this work, which is one of his most interesting contributions. The volume of lectures under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject is the best place to look for what he was up to.

The 2009 film Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron) is a nice illustration of trying to do things differently. But is it different in the ways of Foucault? In 2002, Julie Powell blogs her way through Julia’s Child’s 1961 cookbook, reporting on how one makes 524 recipes in 365 days. Both women cook up new directions. With 50 years and an ocean in between them, both Julie & Julia are stuck. Julie (Amy Adams) is frustrated by her post-9/11 call centre job (in 2002) and is forced to leave Brooklyn for a crummy apartment in Queens. Julia (Meryl Streep) is living the unsatisfactory life of a public officer’s wife in 1950s Paris.


Julia becomes Julie’s virtual tutor. Julie tells her husband about imaginary discussions that the two of them have while cooking.

Working on yourself does not come naturally, as Foucault shows in his discussions of ancient Greek and Roman texts (The Hermeneutics of the Subject). Even though everyone is challenged to do so, only few will take it up. Foucault refers to our general principle of “universality of appeal and rarity of salvation”, saying that ‘the principle is given to all but few can hear’. Learning to work on yourself requires some planning and organising. You need a tutor, or some sort of schooling to show you how to take care of yourself properly. You need certain “self-techniques”. The ones that Julie learns from her virtual tutor differ from the ones that Foucault discusses. Still, she reflects on what she is and what she wants to be, by mirroring herself in Julia.


Writing is an example of a self-technique. Both women write to accomplish something. To put it simply: Julia writes and re-writes a 720 page cookbook and Julie writes a year of daily posts. Shaping the self is hard work. Foucault discusses writing as an ascetic practice, just like listening, reading and speaking. In Greek and Roman times, writing was a way of reflecting on the achievements of the day, a way of taking “care of the self”. In the first place, Julie and Julia obviously write about food. At the same time, however, they weave themselves into their work. Julie’s blogs are particularly personal. She reflects on her achievements, on her fears of boning a duck and on the pressure that her project is putting on the relationship with her husband. Her writing becomes confessional, in a sense.

As in my review of Up in the air, technology works as a mediator. The fact that Julia used paper and a noisy typewriter and Julie an interface on a computer with internet connection is not trivial. The differences are too obvious to dwell on for long, so I just give a few examples. Julia could only call herself the author of a book once someone else decided to invest in publishing it in its entirety. Julie was a self-declared author, even though that was only possible because of the pre-configured blogging service that she used. Bloggers and their audience are linked in real-time by the option of leaving immediate comments. The full text of a blog is probably indexed by numerous search engines, and interconnected with other sites through hyperlinks, trackbacks, etc.


Through her blog, Julie builds up quite a network around her project. Apart from receiving daily comments on her posts, journalists start picking up on her increasing popularity. On top of that, her circle of friends is drawn in, by rejoicing in the pleasures of her dinner parties. This shows that working on yourself is not something you do alone. Particularly in Stoic philosophy, friendship is considered indispensible. Again, technology is a mediator here. Julie does not only share her joys and fears over dinner, but in direct contact with anyone who chooses to reply. While the Greeks had communities like the Therapeutae, Julie has her community online.


For Foucault, the idea of giving shape to yourself has a broader goal. His project has a distinct political orientation, by placing emphasis on the way in which people can resist domination. This brings us back to the tug-of-war that I started off with. On your side, you apply techniques on yourself to get stronger. Tutors and the communities to which you belong shout all sorts of strategies from the bench. On the other side, there are still the representatives of the dominant tradition that try to pull you across the line.

Let me take a quick detour. A few years ago, philosopher Cressida Heyes decided to examine the tension of this rope-pulling game from up close by joining the Weight Watchers. On her side she had a community of fellow dieters, and numerous tutors that taught her the techniques of loosing weight by writing meticulous reports about her developments. She pulled for the sake of deliberate self-transformation. On the other end of the rope, she felt multiple parties pulling. First, there was the blind weight of society that tried to make her body “docile”, lean and fit, like the model of the ideal woman. Added to that, however, was the pressure of feminists that tried to pull her in a third direction, away from obeying to societal expectations. Her article is a brave attempt to report on her experiences.

Can we say the same about Julie & Julia? First of all, this is a feel-good film. Still, there is a lot of politics below the surface. Julia Child is often praised by feminists for the way in which she created a different image of the woman in the kitchen. The style of her tv-personality transformed many a housewife into a self-assured woman that makes joy around a meal. In the film, we get to see how she is the first woman to be accepted to the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school.

A nice accent of the film is that the part about Julia does not show the actual, historical figure. What we get to watch is the idealised image of how Julie imagines Julia’s life to be. When it comes to Julie’s own experiences, we also get to see how she is sometimes taken over by the “other team”. While the cooking plan was meant to be for herself, we get to see how she is occasionally absorbed by other motivations: her hopes to get a book deal, the expectations of her readers, to name a few. Sometimes, it seems that the project is taking her over.

Cooking the self is a complex thing to do. A good cookbook seems to be hard to find. Of course, we can always read Foucault.

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