As promised, we’re settling down to dinner.
In an effort to convince people that sensuality can be a relevant political topic, I hope that the now very active dialogue about ethical eating can serve as a useful example of how it already is. Most of us are aware of the concerns that underlie projects like green markets, the slow food movement, and the FDA’s organic food criteria. Each of these has developed out of a patchwork of important concerns, including the humane treatment of animals, the environmental impact of industrial farming techniques, and well-documented health risks associated with the mass production of food.
People who identify as ethical eaters generally want to take more responsibility for their consumption, and the accessibility of farmers (as opposed to the bureaucracy of big grocery stores) is seen as empowering:
On the surface, this appears to be a matter of external materialities – the living conditions of cows, the runoff in a river, the ozone – not flavor. But there is a powerful strain of holism in the ideology of contemporary farmer’s markets that also makes taste acutely relevant. For many shoppers, flavor is not a matter of subjective aesthetics, but a tangible political sensation. One tastes, for example, the differences between seasons in a dark August blueberry and a waxy-red October Macoun apple. One cashes in monophonic availability for the pleasures of periodic richness and variety. One tastes something – and I quote nearly every shopper here – natural (correct, ethical, ideal) in seasonal, local produce.
The relevance of flavor is even more pronounced when one considers the maligned foils to the farmer’s market, namely chain groceries and fast food restaurants. The latter in particular, argue culinary public intellectuals like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, have flourished by perversely tricking our senses. A fat-laden cheeseburger tastes fantastic because our bodies perceive, evolutionarily, that we’re getting a lot of nutritional content. This is true in a sense – cheeseburgers are one of the most efficient ways to keep from starving. But inasmuch as obesity and poor nutritional balance have long since replaced starvation as primary health concerns in the first world, cheeseburgers are now a public health scourge rather than a boon. Diseases of capitalist abundance have far outpaced diseases of lack.
For this reason, we can imagine (and this is of course too simplistic, but true enough for the sake of argument) the farmstand and the Carls, Jr. at opposite ends of a sensual spectrum, competing precisely at the level of sensuality for our loyalty as consumers. Fast food asks us to take a little taste, preferably beginning when we’re too young to consider the valences of our choice, and to let the richness of each bite be our guide. If you like that, you can have it every day. The farmstand asks us to consider the subtlety of cycles. You can taste political metaphor, and it’s the sweetest strawberry. It won’t be here tomorrow, but that just makes it better.
Nadia Seremetakis, no less an astute critic of eating than Waters or Pollan, takes up something like this competition in her excellent The Senses Still. (1994.) For Seremetakis, objects trigger sensual memories, or instances of nostalgia. Whereas many critics have dismissed nostalgia as biased and potentially dangerous, Seremetakis argues that it can be a beneficial and even progressive force. She offers the example of supermarket peaches in Greece, which just like supermarket peaches anywhere taste pretty much the same year-round. For those people, however, who remember peaches grown seasonally, which yielded richer flavors and arguably represented a more humane relationship between consumer and productive process, the recollection of bygone flavors makes the new superpeaches plainly artificial and undesirable. Nostalgia, a potentially reactionary force, here aligns itself with a distinctly progressive, even anti-capitalist politics.
But the trend toward ethical eating certainly has its risks as well. One of the shoppers talked about ideals:
The problem with this position is nostalgia’s ugly side precisely. Where do you find indigenous people who live without money, other than in the symbols of a well-to-do environmentalist’s utopian fantasy? Capitalism today is not a regional phenomenon, but a global fact. Nostalgia for a politically simple moment prior to capital asks people of limited economic means to continue standing guard over a fantasy of purity and authenticity. If the ethical eating movement is to move forward rather than stagnate, this is a fantasy that must be confronted. We cannot afford to think of producers and consumers in other countries, to whom we are intimately connected by the global economy, as cartoons.
A second category of risk is, naturally, co-optation. To be an effectively ethical eater is to be consistently vigilant about what one consumes by committing sustained intellectual effort. Rhetoric and symbols (this is to say, packaging) should not be made to stand in for material realities, although companies have both tried and succeeded in doing so. If greenness becomes too beholden to a single sensory regime, that of images, as it may already be, then it will experience the same fate as every other spectactular trend – decline and disappearance.
In the meantime, while ethical eating stills holds some promise for spurring necessary reforms in structures of agricultural production and consumption, I would argue that we need to be sensitive to the politics of sensuality as they inform and even outline the debates at hand.