The Inner Spoon. Some Observations on Gabi Veit's Spoon Works

Article  /  CriticalThinking   PravuMazumdar
Published: 01.04.2020
Pravu Mazumdar Pravu Mazumdar
Pravu Mazumdar
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© Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Leipzig, Photo: Christoph Sandig.
© Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Leipzig, Photo: Christoph Sandig

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Can the spoon function as a metaphor for human knowledge? Pravu Mazumdar deals with the spoon, not only as an object but also with its social function and origin. The philosopher analyses its levels of meaning on the basis of the works of Gabi Veit. 
The inner spoon [1] :
Some observations on Gabi Veit’s spoon works

„mit der schüzzel man niht sûfen sol,
mit einem lefel, daz stât wol.“[2]
As a start I would like to mix up the normal order of things.
Can it be that my mouth is a bowl and my hand a fork with five prongs? Can it be that a concept is nothing but a disembodied spoon used to scoop knowledge … or can it instead be that a spoon is a concept crafted in wood or metal, meant to give shape to food before it is funneled into the mouth and turned over to the organs of mastication and assimilation? Can I swap words like “spoon” and “concept” to enable the constitution of novel sensations? Can I discuss “the spoon of freedom” or stir a “tea-concept of sugar” in my cup of coffee?

Such questions seem to be inscribed in some of Gabi Veit’s spoon works, manifested as a playful abundance of “impossible” spoons and brought to correspond to the order of the Seven Deadly Sins in the series “Laster und Löffel“ (“Vices and Spoons”, 2013). The group consists of seven spoons derived from seven different variations of the spoon form, incarnating in their entirety the early Christian catalogue of vices. As deviations from the basic form of an appliance used in the civilizational technique of scooping, these spoons mirror in a sense the “impossible” passions and postures that can obstruct the process of ingestion and the reception of gifts in general. These were classified in medieval Europe as pride (superbia), avarice (avaritia), lust (luxuria), ire (ira), gluttony (gula), envy (invidia), inertia (acedia).

Gabi Veit, Deadly Sins and Spoons, "Creatura", Silver, 8 - 14 cm, Photo: Federico Cavicchioli.

The free variations of the “impossible” spoons start out from the geometrical purity of the spoon form consisting of the straight line of the handle and the elliptical bowl as its extension. The form of the bowl is derived from the cupped hand and its function imitates the technique of scooping, whereas the handle of the spoon reminds us of the human arm, stretched out to keep the world at bay. It functions as an archaic machine for generating distance, snapping the connection between the fingers and food, separating their respective tastes and smells, transforming the rhythm of ingestion and unfolding a play of distance and freedom, which became characteristic of the style of the upper classes in European society since the Renaissance. In Gabi Veit’s variational experiments, a kind of floral disquiet infiltrates the Apollinian fortification of the spoon that functions otherwise as a montage of formal elements like the line and the ellipse and elementary functions like scooping and distancing. Thorns and leaves grow out of the handle, the bowl emulates and varies the shape and tension of the human mouth or splits into what looks like pods, as its surface roughens up and reveals the veining of leaves and skins of fruits. Such deviations from the basic form of the spoon cannot obviously leave the spoon function unimpaired, as they constitute a trajectory of movement and transformation leading on to the very threshold of utility, where an artifact can morph into a mere thing beyond all utilitarian calculus.

 Gabi Veit, Spoon, "Ira", 18.5 x 4 cm, bronze, iron, Photo: Federico Cavicchioli.

Can the spoon function as a metaphor for human knowledge? We can learn from Kant that, even though it is empirical reality that actually triggers off the process of knowledge, one has to respond to it with certain inner forms functioning as gestures of reception that enable us to receive the manifold sensations issuing from reality and to subject these to a complex process of cognitive assimilation. Such inner forms are for example the fundamental concepts or categories which function like our hands, cupped to enable scooping, and correspond to the bowl of a spoon. They aid us in deriving knowledge from reality by receiving the masses of sensations that affect us in the course of our cognitive destiny and giving these a human shape. But Kant also emphasizes a fundamental distinction between the inner forms, which are part of our cognitive nature, and the manifold sensations that issue from empirical reality. In separating us from the objects of our knowledge, this Kantian distinction corresponds to the function of the spoon handle. Thus the common factor connecting the cognitive use of the inner forms and the culinary use of the spoon is based on a twofold principle: the principle of distance and the principle of form, both required by an organism to absorb the forces and stimuli from its environment. Hundred years after Kant, the young Nietzsche will connect the principle of distance with an Apollinian sense of being and oppose it to a Dionysian contact with the object of knowledge. Knowledge in the Kantian and Apollinian sense is similar to the act of ingestion in accordance with the rules of good society. Its reference to reality is mediated by the distance built into the inner forms of the human mind, functioning as cognitive spoons for the reception and processing of sensations.

The spoon thus corresponds to the capacity for reception, which is an essential attribute of all higher mammals. For the act of ingestion, such organisms require an “inner cutlery” that is built into their anatomy as the forms of the mouth, the teeth with their function of cutting, the cupped hand for scooping, the fingers for grasping, jabbing, picking up, tearing to pieces. Our eating instruments are initially prostheses fashioned in accordance with such anatomical elements, that gradually evolve to follow their aesthetic destiny dictated by the history of design and become things like spoons, forks, knives or even chopsticks. Roland Barthes observed that in the food culture of Japan, hunting and butchery do not end on the dining table as in Europe, where the meat arrives in large chunks, to be cut to size or bitten or torn to smaller pieces with the aid of knives, forks and teeth. In Japan, the brutality of such acts ends in the kitchen, where the cook takes charge of the last bloody ritual from the realm of hunting and dissects the food to adapt it to the human mouth. At the dinner table, finally, the peace and dexterity of the chopsticks reign as they raise the food with the tenderness of mother birds to the mouth.[3] One can imagine that the Europeans were regarded by the Chinese as barbarians “eating with swords”.[4]
Other forms of sensuality like seeing, hearing, smelling also require pre-existent forms of receptivity like eyes, ears, the nose, determining our sensual lives and distinguishing us from other organisms. Our eyesight is different from that of flies because our eyes have a different construction. Our sense of smell is different from that of dogs because our nose functions differently.

 Gabi Veit, Spoon, "Gula", Ø 7 cm, 6.5 x 9 cm; brass​, Photo: Federico Cavicchioli.

One can regard the seven deadly sins as postures or attitudes articulated in different parts of the body, as in the form and tension of the mouth. We are used to reading the form of the mouth – embedded in a play of facial expressions – as an indicator of inner states like ire, gluttony, envy, though the correspondence need neither be unequivocal nor objective nor even constant throughout the life span of an individual.

The grid of the seven deadly sins can therefore be seen as an attempt at calibrating the measure of openness of the human organism, revealed specifically in the form of the mouth, playing a role similar to that of a spoon bowl as it gives shape to the food before channeling it into the esophagus. With its form and tension, the mouth can become an instrument of moderation and stand in opposition to the deadly sins. A second technique of moderation is the practice of distanciation from the external and internal objects of passions, leading to a posture and facial expression that can be read as the insignia of aristocracy.
Thus, the spoon makes its appearance as an assemblage of two distinct devices. The bowl regulates openness, the handle regulates distance. In a medical or ascetic context of moderation, the focus is on the spoon bowl that determines measure and quantity of nutriments, ingredients, medicinal substances, as is best illustrated by the example of the  dmeasuring spoon. Conversely, the handle comes into focus in the context of having to create an aristocratic distance in tune with the books of manners that proliferated in early modern Europe and set up norms of decency, which could not be transgressed without triggering off novel sensations of shame and guilt.[5]

Gabi Veit, Spoon, "Luxuria", 17.6 x 7.5 cm, oxidised silver, Photo: Federico Cavicchioli.

One can thus see that a play of passions and distanciation regulates the commerce between the human organism and its milieu, varying the measure and style of openness of the organism and furnishing it with individual features. In the context of ingestion, such a process finds expression in the variations of the mouth form and, in a mediated manner, in the form of the spoon bowl. Pride, for example, is associated with the sense that in a world of base and lowly things we figure as an exception requiring the association of exceptional materials like the noble metals, and that we are normally too fine to accept any gifts. In Laster und Löffel this is illustrated by a spoon that has a handle of silver and gold leaf and a bowl with a large, round hole counteracting the function of scooping. Sheer pride can lead to starvation. Avarice, on the contrary, with its typical tightfistedness, does acknowledge value, but seeks to reduce the consumption of value to a minimum. This is portrayed in a spoon of German silver with a narrow, oval opening as its mouth, which leads to significant disruption, if not a total obstruction, of the process of ingestion. Inertia again is associated with a minimization of commitment and a reduction of the returns of such minimized activity. The handle of the spoon is a slim tube – for the activity of eating cannot be too strenuous after all – and is associated with a small bowl that correlates with the minimal returns from the minimized labor of sipping food through the handle. Such correspondences are neither final nor unequivocal, and they need certainly not be meaningful to everyone. They function merely to inspire a novel kind of inquiry, mixing up the levels of morality, materiality, and form – usually preferred to be kept apart – and prompting us to explore their possible connections.

[1] The following text is based on my essay titled “The Spoon within” in Gabi Veit, Creatura. Geschöpf, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2019: 52-59.
[2] Excerpt taken out of a book of manners from the 13th century, quoted in Norbert Elias, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen. Erster Band. Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den weltlichen Oberschichten des Abendlandes, Bern: Verlag Francke AG, 1969 [henceforth: PZ], p. 110 (footnote). Approximate translation (PM): “It is not proper to slurp out of a bowl, / it is better to use a spoon.”
[3] Barthes, Roland, Das Reich der Zeichen, transl. by Michael Bischoff, Frankfurt/M.,1981: Suhrkamp, S. 32.
[4] Quoted in Elias, PZ, p. 169.
[5] See Elias, PZ.

About the author

Pravu Mazumdar studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz. His current work is an inquiry into the philosophical implications of genetic engineering.