Global Food Fight
While I thoroughly enjoy your publication, I find it peculiar that Mark Greif [“On Food”] takes up the standard of solidarity, democracy, and social justice in his article caricaturing Michael Pollan and trivializing the local food movement. The strangest thing about it is that his populist critique makes no reference to the food justice movement, comprising worldwide small farmer organizations like Via Campesina (the world’s largest social movement), urban community gardens from the Bronx to New Orleans, and yes, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs tying residents to local farms. This movement includes fighting multinationals like Monsanto; countering the pediatric obesity epidemic; and, given global warming and other such unpleasantness, moving toward environmentally sustainable regional economies. It is baffling that Greif saves his only nice word about food and ag ethics for vegetarians.
As a long-time social justice activist, The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped me understand the way food and farm issues relate to the things that have long been important to me: labor rights, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, public health, Latin American social movements, and like matters. Granted, Pollan and other localvore celebs often seem too ensconced within the Berkeley bourgeoisie, disconnected from the issues facing the world’s poor majority. But many progressive, non-atavistic folks—including millions of indigenous Ecuadorians fighting to defend small-scale agriculture against large-scale mining—are excited about ways that regional economies, especially food economies, can help serve as alternatives to the current order of neoliberal global capitalism.
Mark Greif replies:
Mr. Denvir and I are coming from the same place—sort of. It shamed me to learn that he felt my essay dismissed efforts at social justice that I like and admire. My article addressed the personal dangers of a preoccupation with food for the sake of health, dieting, or social distinction, when the only food restrictions I think we can justify are those that touch the social and environmental questions Mr. Denvir raises.
In brief: I think food is for enjoyment and to fill your belly, I think it has a useful democratic function that recommends thinking about it a little (enough to learn to eat what other people eat), and a taboo-based, stratifying function that recommends against thinking about it very much (or you will start to find other people’s eating disorderly or vile, and then turn your own eating vile, encouraging you to punish or destroy your body). I think advice- and responsibility-conscious people in the rich first world countries are preparing to drive themselves crazy with food regulation, as a consequence of the disciplining pressures of capitalism, which give us at one and the same time, for the same audiences: Dr. Andrew Weil’s health recommendations and anorexia; all-natural Stevia and made-in-the-lab protein bars; “locavores” and unreconstructed, resource-devouring carnivores. These contraries are stuffed into our same heads, through the same media, by very diverse forces (some “good,” some “evil”), because it all ultimately benefits consumption.
Courage and sanity at this moment probably involve getting fat and being ready to die when your number’s up. But also, while you’re alive and grocery shopping, buying organic (as a strike against pollution), buying locally (as a strike against resource-depletion and commercial concentration), cutting back or stopping meat consumption (resources again), and buying fair-trade—while trying, above all, to cut your own costs (so you can live more cheaply, therefore with more freedom and equality) and to support other more direct ways to transfer wealth from the rich to the global poor. Equalization of wealth is what’s ultimately at stake. This centrally involves direct social justice efforts of the sort that it sounds like Mr. Denvir works on. But I think it involves the personal, “every object I put in my mouth matters” stuff less than you’d think. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is great for its section on the government- and society-level disaster of overproduction and overconsumption of corn, then slides into boar-hunting primitivism.
Since I’m speaking so directly, quickly, and crudely, one last thing. Medicine is fine, and I know that many people want to live longer, and more comfortably, and therefore want to be healthy. Some concerns with health match up with the desire to find non-polluting, non-resource-depleting foods that put money in poor people’s pockets and keep more in your own—that’s really the ideal. However, a lot of the health and personal food advice I read has all the hallmarks of bunk, and it worries me. You can tell that you should eat vegetables and be less sedentary and not smoke much; that’s got to be true. But all the details, the antioxidants, the rare elixirs from poor countries, the micro-studies of single-food correlations with individual diseases, the odd statistics and pieces of advice that make you think, “How on earth could you develop a research protocol to isolate that!” or “How could they have made that comparison?”—these things just have to be bunk. And this particular bunk interferes with goodness and justice, partly even by the words it chooses to go about in. Social justice does not stand up well to bunk. Mr. Denvir, with the best intentions, says “pediatric epidemic of obesity”—that sounds to me like medical bunkum mixing into real needs, to be expressed with phrases like “getting poor people more money for food” and “freeing people to get their local food.” “Food justice,” I’m sorry to say, sounds like well-meaning “the personal is always political” bunkum mixing in with basic demands for land reform, indigenous rights, and protection of local production against overseas agricultural import and export. Our discourses of personal self-interest (fat, food) so often stand ready to tie things together, to muddle contradictory positions into one smooth lump and then obsess over the smallest surface imperfections—and goodness can hardly stand up to these oily offers of help.
The Bad Old Days
Recently I attended an n+1-inflected panel discussion at the New Museum [May 15, 2009, with n+1, Emily Gould, Marisa Meltzer, Aaron Lake Smith, and Michael Azerrad]. The evening had a name—“The ’90s vs. the ’90s”—and purported to explain what we’d all lived through. It was proposed early on that the decade had a light and a dark side, and these sides were defined through anecdote: The early ’90s were marked by the ascendancy of unwashed indie rockers ambivalent about capitalism. For a moment mid-decade it seemed the mainstream might be as bored with American dreaming as we disaffected youth were. Then Wallpaper magazine and its spiritual brethren whooshed in to define the late, dark ’90s.
Cue Thomas Frank. The aesthetic objections to intensive capital accumulation having withered away, so did most other ones. Panelists agreed that these dark ’90s set the stage for the aughts and its bubbles. Something profound had happened, but what? Conversation stuck to “cultural touchstones,” politely skipping around the Telecommunications Act and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. But the limitations of the evening’s method became most clear when talk turned to whether the ‘90s were “good for women.” Riot Grrrl was submitted as evidence, as was Sassy. I started shifting in my seat. I could see the vote in the affirmative coming.
I was a college sophomore in 1995, and distinctly recall painful classroom debates as to whether we could possibly support Bill Clinton’s efforts to “end welfare as we know it.” Of course “welfare” was political shorthand for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, an income-maintenance program that had been in place since the 1930s and which guaranteed subsistence to poor women and their kids. Whether we grasped it at the time or not—and not all did—these arguments were essentially attempts to fix what obligations we had to society’s most vulnerable, if indeed we had any.
Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in August 1996 and effectively answered the question: women of childbearing age who rely on government handouts are shiftless and irresponsible, and we owe them nothing. This drive to end the welfare state, focused solely on AFDC as it was (leaving Social Security, Medicare, and federal corn subsidies intact), smacked of misogyny, and spoke a resounding “no” to the claim that maintaining a household and raising children constitute real work.
How was this good for women? I confess I don’t see it. Sassy was a fine endeavor, and I traveled far to see Bikini Kill play. But mistaking good taste for progressive politics is an error.
Fathers and Sons
Richard Beck’s article [www.nplusonemag.com/eminem] about how Eminem “made hip-hop palatable to suburban parents” because they could understand what he was saying is on the money. My dad, a biologist from Russia who taught at the University of Illinois, loved Eminem. We would drive around together on Saturdays and listen to the Marshall Mathers LP and the Eminem Show and assorted diss tracks that came out around 2002 and go “Whoaaaa!” whenever he said something great. It’s actually not much of a stretch to say that my dad turned me on to Eminem, or at least gave me the green light to take him seriously.
This happened right around the time 8 Mile came out, which was also when all the Eminem Show singles were on the radio. That summer, I remember, we were driving to pick up a pair of glasses at some faraway mall and I flipped from one station to the next and all I could get was Eminem—“Lose Yourself” on the alt rock station, “Without Me” on Kiss 103.5, “Cleaning Out My Closet,” “The Way I Am,” and “White America” elsewhere. Not being able to find anything else—the only other song on the radio was J. Lo’s “Jenny From the Block”—forced me and my dad to actually listen to him, and when I found my dad was impressed by the word play and the jokes and the intensity of those songs I let myself get impressed too. I remember he said once, about “Cleaning Out My Closet,” “God, listen to him, it’s like water pouring,” which is a phrase he used on another occasion to describe the plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I take issue with some of the conclusions “drawn and quartered” in Benjamin Kunkel’s essay from Issue 7. I do not want to suggest that Kunkel’s machinery is casuistic—it isn’t—but it is simplistic to a fault, if only because it fails to process so many of the strangest examples the internet has to offer. As for heuristic value? This scheme is useful in the way a busted transmission might aid a budding mechanic: he would learn much more from the functioning thing.
Kunkel’s idea of “commentary,” for instance, is one in which a handle or username masks the identity of the online commenter. Kunkel notes that the anonymity of the commenter affords him the status of a kind of Hollow Man, enraged by his own facelessness. This approach does little, however, to help us understand the logic of the flame war (where identity and rage build together on a message board over time), the emergence of new markers of identity (the IP address, the Google tattoo, the gravatar), or, especially, the advent of new internet-based groups like Anonymous. The members of Anonymous—a group born ex nihilo from the chaos of 4chan.org’s /b/ message board—are identified by their anonymity, a by-product of electing not to enter a name on a message board. This paradox alone (identification by anonymity) is enough to wrinkle Kunkel’s map.
—J. Kyle Sturgeon
Benjamin Kunkel replies:
The experience of the internet so far seems to have an incredible power of disabling abstract thought. How can you generalize about the internet? everyone always wants to know. It’s so vast, so various… You’ve forgotten the gravatars! If we’re going to use philosophical terms like “casuistic” and “heuristic,” then I’d say that talk about the internet resembles the realism vs. nominalism debate—with the nominalist position being by far the more popular one. A more ordinary–language way of putting it would be to say that most people talking about the internet are reluctant to see the forest for the trees. What forest? they ask. Look at all these trees!
No map can ever capture all the wrinkles of reality. And my rough and ready (or “heuristic”) schema of different ways of communicating online could no doubt stand some improvement and elaboration. But it’s a mistake to presume that in addition to the “busted transmission” of my account of online communication there exists, right now, “the functioning thing” of a correct and complete account. Kyle Sturgeon is right that we could learn a lot from such a thing—but someone would have to come up with it first.
It’s not OK I haven’t gotten back to you in such a long time. Please let me explain. I really wanted to do the internship with n+1—maybe you can tell from the effort I put into the application—however, I have always had one major problem: money. New York is, as you know, one of the most expensive places the world over. The rent, the food, the cigarettes: all cost more ’cause you live on that island. Well, I thought, If you don’t got it, you must make it, and getting a job in the city can’t be too difficult, keeping in mind that I wouldn’t work five days a week.
I was mistaken. It’s a bitch to get a job there around this time, especially for a foreigner. I have talked to my parents and thought about ways to manage, but even if I could stay with a friend for a while, I would still eventually need my own place. All things considered, living like a pauper is no fun, either. For all these reasons, I must say that, right now, it seems somewhat impossible for me to join you, unless some sort of miracle happens.
—Ernst Moritz Friedrich Eichhorn