On this new episode of the n+1 podcast, editor Nikil Saval and contributor Elias Rodriques talk about the Issue 20 Intellectual Situation on privilege and the “check your privilege” discourse. Then, author Alexandra Kleeman joins us to talk about her most recent piece in Issue 21 “The Raw and the Rawer” about fruitarianism and all-fruit diets.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Music from Arthur Russell and Alex G
Original Music by The Westerlies featuring Andrew Mulherkar, Luke Sellick, and Sammy Miller.
Malcolm Donaldson: Hi, and welcome to the n+1 podcast. I’m Malcolm Donaldson. On today’s episode, Moira Donegan speaks with Alexandra Kleeman about fruitarians. But first, here’s Aaron Braun interviewing editor Nikil Saval and contributor Elias Rodriques. They spoke about privilege, the topic of the most-recent issue’s Intellectual Situation. Here’s Aaron.
SEGMENT 1: Elias Rodriques and Nikil Saval on Privilege
Aaron Braun: Do you guys want to introduce yourselves?
Nikil Saval: I’m Nikil Saval and one of the editors of n+1 and one of the authors of the piece about privilege in Issue 20.
Elias Rodriques: I’m Elias Rodriques. I wrote a letter in response to the piece.
AB: I guess we could start with kind of summarizing the piece. In particular, talk through the historical thread.
NS: Yeah, so the historical account that we came up with was one in which we felt that class analysis had acquired a new salience, or rather re-acquired a salience in American life. Certainly in the wake of Occupy, the perception that inequality was sort of now the topic of the day and it seemed very clear to think that one of the fundamental conflicts, if not the fundamental conflict undergirding American society, was one in which ruling class or exploiting class was dominating or extracting the fruits of the labor of working class, or like, you know, 99 percent. And so it was important to figure out where—because the funny thing is this had not been true for a long time, the importance of this kind of discourse. So we looked back to a moment when in the 1970s, I’d say, the discourse underwent a kind of crisis. It went through a legitimation crisis and one of the things that went wrong was the decline of this sense that organized labor was a progressive force in the U.S. There had been the sense that labor was a kind of static force, a force of the status quo-
ER: And unions as well, right?
NS: Yeah, yeah. Unions in particular. This was signaled especially in 1970 on Wall Street when hard-hat construction workers attacked Vietnam War protestors, and so the hard-hat, which happened to be—the construction trades happened to be very white, extremely male, and largely conservative and supportive of the Vietnam War—that became the symbol of organized labor, and there were all these other official movements that had sprung up at the time, not just the anti-war movement, but the movement for women’s liberation, for gay rights, for black liberation, and black power, these were all sort of concurrently struggling against the institutions of the organized left. And I think that they became more and more prominent in the 1980s in intellectual treatments of this period. So we talk a little bit about this very, now somewhat forgotten book, Hegemony in Socialist Strategy by Ernesto Laclau, who just died, and Chantal Mouffe, which became an intellectual defense, regarding these new social movements, and sort of central to any account of our time and to disregard and turn the old Marxist or Leftist idea that the working class was the agent, the motor of history. And I think this argument had real power. It seemed to reflect the world at large and it seemed to validate, it seemed to be a way of accounting for a lot of what had happened in the 1960s or ’70s. And I think that, that was sort of like the historical account, and now I don’t think that’s quite as true anymore. I think that class has returned, but that was the thing we were tracing, the prehistory anyway.
AB: Yeah, well it seems, just hearing you speak now, that perhaps at the time looking back and thinking that some of that aspect of the labor movement you could say was suffering from consequences of, say, white privilege or male privilege. That the kind of move there is to disrupt major narratives about there being one agent of change and to also kind of show how one of the effects of exploitation is that it divides us and puts us into these separate boxes where we all have a very slightly different relationship to power.
ER: And to each other, right? We fight each other, as perfectly evidenced by the hard-hat example.
AB: In some ways it’s like an unconscious thing, but it’s so deeply engrained in your psychology that it creates this scenario where just knowing your privilege isn’t enough because there’s some intimacy with you and this abstract thing that’s like disciplined in you.
ER: Yeah, and that’s the worrisome aspect about it, right? That it’s disciplined in you. Sometimes even telling people that they have privilege doesn’t get rid of it. It’s like, “OK, now you know you have privilege,” and there are maybe things you can do to work with that, but it’s tough. I’ve never really heard a great argument for, “Hey, you have privilege and this is what you can do with it.”
NS: Yeah, and you feel like you’re unable to discard it and the motion of society is such that it constantly reaffirms that privilege, so that there’s no—I mean I think the gambit of the “check your privilege” discourse is that there is, that that awareness at the very least, and this is sort of what you say Elias, is that it makes just speaking easier. It changes the way that language and communication take place.
ER: And understand, right? It’s like part of “check your privilege” might be, “let’s think about how I understand what you just said and let me also make you think about what you just said.” So in the example…oh God, I am so bad at coming up with examples off the top of my head. But let’s say you have someone who just said something that was really privileged, like, “It’s so easy to get up these stairs.” And then a person who is differently abled could say, “Check your privilege.” There’s some uncovering that happens there where the person has to think about what they just said and their perspective and their context and even just like axioms around what they were saying. “It’s so easy to get up these stairs.” Axiom number one: you can walk up stairs.
NS: That’s a nice example. It’s because it makes certain aspects of the physical landscape or of architecture visible to you in a way that might not have been prior. I, myself, don’t have siblings or people close to me who are physically disabled but I know people who do. For example, Astra Taylor, whose sister is physically disabled, is much more aware than I am or many people are of just the way cities or landscape is divided. That seems to be the gambit of the injunction to “check your privilege.” At the same time, I think the reason that people react against it is it does seem to…I don’t know, I think the reason that there was this reaction on the Right in particular, or this attempt to shut down the discourse, was the claim that it was shutting them down. That it suggested that to them, to Fortgang I think, it was that his account—this sort of sentimental account of his ancestors who had come over—like he had inherited not privilege but a lifetime of struggle. That was his argument. And I felt like that was… there was this sense that—this sort of weird sense—that he was being asked not to speak. Like there’s this feeling because you… no matter how much awareness you have, no matter how much knowledge you have, you’ll stumble, you won’t realize, and you’re being asked not to speak. You’re being asked to cede ground. When you may protest, you may be like, “But I know, but I’ve tried to understand,” and I feel like that would be the most generous version of the reaction.
ER: Privilege discourse seemed to be, to me, something that came in writing in my experience far after it had come to my experience verbally. Part of this was being on a college campus at a particular moment, but I do think that it is something that for many of us is spoken and is spoken in certain communities. And it’s this kind of ironic thing because privilege discourse in some ways reveals a certain privilege itself. To say, “check your privilege” probably means that you are somewhat educated, that you’ve been in certain left/liberal-leaning circles, and liberal-leaning institutions. Whereas other people talk about things like privilege all the time but may not say, “check your privilege” in a certain way. And there’s a weird way that the discourse itself accrues a certain privilege, I think, as a speech act because it can be defensive and protective. You don’t necessarily always say it because you want the other side to understand as much as you want. I mean, you do want the other side to understand that’s like best-case scenario, but baseline “check your privilege” is something that is a lot less accusatory and more protecting than a similar statement that you might be thinking that would be more direct. Like, “Hey, that was sexist as hell.” Like, “Hey, that was super racist.” So I think it’s a kind of complicated speech act for that reason, because it accrues its own privilege and the motivations for saying things get really complicated both in terms of what you as a speaker are thinking when you’re saying it and why you want to say it and what the listener hears and what they think your motivations are. The piece from the college student, whose name I forgot even though we’ve said it a couple times, seems to be that like his assumption is that when other people say “check your privilege” what they want is to exclude me from conversations. That may or may not be true. It may also be like, “You said something that was really frustrating. I don’t really have the time to educate you on this. I don’t have the energy to try and talk to you in ways that you may hear this really quickly, so here’s my quick signifier, ‘check your privilege.’ You go check your background, check your statement, and think about what you do and educate yourself.” Because we don’t always want to feel like our job is to educate other people. That’s exhausting. Although I am an educator, so that’s ironic.
AB: I don’t think we should say his name a third time because he might appear in a puff of grey smoke
ER: [Laughs] Fair enough.
AB: In your letter, you talk specifically about this and it’s interesting that kind of like the “check your privilege” discourse has in a way been, I think, at times kind of scapegoated as an example of unreasonable discourse, of conversation being shut down.
ER: Of overly sensitive Left.
ER: Young people who can’t take the heat and actually talk about things.
AB: And partisanship of an unwillingness to really come to any sort of consensus on things. And actually in a way it’s a way of making the discussion more respectable. I could say, “You’re a fucking racist!” Instead, I’ll use this word that carries with it now a certain academic… you know, privilege. So it’s interesting that people are still so defensive.
ER: Yeah. I think, too… part of it is that I think a lot of people don’t like to feel bad about the things that they have and the things that they were given. Privilege is often something that you were born into, as with the inherited point. You don’t choose to be a white person, you’re just born white. And I think I see this a lot with a lot of the people I talk to, a lot of my white students who will sometimes react, “Well what will I do with this? Why should I be made to feel bad for this thing that I didn’t choose?” Which is just a weird thing because on the one hand, for people who feel unprivileged, really frustrating that other people get to have this privilege that they didn’t choose, that they didn’t work for, although often it’s veiled under the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” “I worked really hard for this” nonsense. And on the other hand, people who are privileged are like, “Hey I also didn’t choose this. Why are you mad at me?” And it’s like, “Ugh, but I am mad! That’s how I feel!” So it’s complicated.
AB: There’s been a lot of talk about guilt and shame.
ER: Yeah, you could tell what’s on my mind. It’s like a Woody Allen film.
AB: But what ways do you think acceptance is at play and what role does acceptance have to play for better or worse in this language?
ER: Acceptance, I think in particular in response to the analysis paralysis we were just talking about, you would have accept that some of these things are the case, that you have these privileges to be able to do anything with it and to go forward. So that, I think as a sort of abstract example, seems particularly important. I think the concrete example, when I think back to that conversation that that teacher is having with that student, that boy was saying a lot of things that his family had done and really was sort of enumerating and reliving his histories and was thinking a lot about how he had been born into a world with such privilege and how many people had to contribute to something like that. And the beautiful response that the teacher had was not like, “Don’t feel bad about that. It’s not your fault.” It’s like, “That is true, and be an ally.”
AB: You talked earlier about—you said, and maybe we could talk about this specifically, but you said, privilege discourse rests on an understanding of there being a certain congealed quality to the world. Of there being a certain static-ness. Like an acceptance of the status quo that we haven’t even consciously come to terms with, and then some people look at that and immediately turn to guilt and shame.
ER: That’s my strategy.
NS: Yeah, I mean, there’s… it’s complicated. Another response might be to focus, to distract from the claim. On the one hand, it does seem to be a time of great inertia politically and at the same time there’s like a powerful motor of economic dispossession that a lot of people feel, and some of them feel it who might respond to the idea that they’re privileged with…who might scoff at it. And I think a lot of that in some ways counts for the redirecting of that kind of animus. I feel like there’s a way in which a lot of the kind of curiosity of this is a lot of the left-leaning discourse of these earlier years has been reappropriated by the political right and there is a very strong language now of charging elites. A lot of this is Nixonian in a way, and it’s now quite powerful for the Right. That’s one of the stronger—I mean, it’s not like an intellectual challenge, but it’s a political problem that people in some ways utilize the rudiments of privilege discourse for ends that are not-
ER: For creating inertia.
Segment 2: Alexandra Kleeman on Fruitarianism
MaD: That was Aaron Braun with Elias Rodriques and Nikil Saval. Next is Moira Donegan in conversation with contributor Alexandra Kleeman on the topic of fruitarianism. Here’s Moira.
Moira Donegan: I’m here with Alex Kleeman, the author of a piece in Issue 21 on fruitarians. Alex, thank you so much for being here.
Alex Kleeman: Thank you so much for having me.
MoD: So tell us a little bit, what is fruitarianism?
AK: Fruitarianism is a term that applies to people who eat a mostly fruit diet or an all-fruit diet. At the Woodstock fruit festival I met a lot of people who were supplementing their fruit with lettuce, but I also met some hardcore fruitarians who had been doing the all-fruit thing for ten years, fifteen years. One guy was on an all-raw-fruit diet for twenty-five years except on Fridays he eats a bowl of soup.
MoD: What kind of soup?
MoD: So this is like a kind of raw veganism wherein people eat just like really high-carb mostly fruit maybe some vegetables and there is a festival every summer?
AK: Every summer. The first one was in Woodstock proper and for the last three or four years they’ve been in a town sort of right outside of St. George.
MoD: So how did it go?
AK: As it turned out, I think I was better suited than some people might be. I haven’t had a lot of the side effects they talk about, like the sort of digestive system things—the really crazy spikes in blood sugar, low energy. I felt pretty much fine, but still dizzier day after day.
MoD: Yeah, you mentioned in your piece, which I really loved, that towards the end of your time at the Woodstock Fruit Festival you were just feeling not quite yourself, or you were on the phone with your boyfriend and he was telling you, like, “You sound kind of sleepy.”
AK: Yeah, yeah, “You’re trailing off! You’re forgetting what you’re saying!” That doesn’t usually happen. Yeah, I found as I was there longer on the side that for one thing, it’s really hard to eat enough calories so I was thinking a lot about trying to eat more, stretch my stomach, eat when I was full, eat past the point of where I was more than full just so that I wouldn’t have to go eat again the next hour or something.
MoD: You mentioned that the meals that fruitarians eat, maybe at the Fruit Festival and maybe just generally, are like enormous. You talked about something called “monomeals”.
AK: So monomealing is one style of fruitarian meal where you eat all one fruit. So a monomeal might be three pineapples or four pineapples, it might be three containers of grapes, it might be twenty tangerines or twenty bananas or something, and the idea is it’s easier to digest if you have all the same material going into your stomach and you also rinse out some negative effects of mixing. Like if people mix dates and tomatoes. That’s an instinctively unappealing combination, but it also upsets your stomach.
MoD: First of all, I want to ask you what is people’s motivation, as you understand it, for engaging in this kind of diet.
AK: Yeah, well, actually a lot of this didn’t make it into the article in any specific way because there was so much data. I talked to everyone about their diet. Everyone wanted to talk about their diet and everyone had a sort of involved and long history that led them to fruitarianism. A lot of people had gone through many different diets before, like people who’d cut out gluten to try to see if that would help their stomach problems, or they cut out processed foods, sugars, add sugar back in, took things out. I met one guy from Austin, Texas who had been through Atkins, paleo, variant on paleo that also involves some processed foods, which was supposed to be OK, but he’d been doing this for maybe five years and for the last six months he had been fruitarian and he said that that was the one. He never felt better. So I think some people are responding to the sort of health problems that are nebulous that doctors aren’t particularly interested in. So there are some people who are really committed to living as ethical a lifestyle as they can.
MoD: One of the specters over fruitarianism that I was really interested in when I was reading your piece is that it’s sort of impossible to read your account of this and not diagnose everyone with eating disorders.
MoD: Like, there’s an ethics of austerity and self-restraint to fruitarianism that I’m really interested in.
AK: Yeah, yeah. It’s like—I think one of the things that came up in conversation with n+1 people was restrictive decadence. Like, how far can you take this idea of reducing your diet and cleaning your diet up till it’s pure.
MoD: It’s interesting that you were the emotional connection we have to food because fruitarianism actually strikes me as a really emotionally loaded enterprise. Like there was something, a brilliant anecdote of yours that I don’t think made it into the final version of the piece, but I just found so moving where you talk about a talk you went to where a fruitarian testified to his regret over being unable to save his friend from a brain tumor by failing to convert her to fruitarianism. Can you tell me about that?
AK: Actually, this was one of the moments when I was most emotionally involved in the whole festival. I’d gone to see this pioneer, this guy Robert Lockhart speak about why the all-raw diet was better than raw-till-four. And he’s a good conversationalist, really natural, and he wanders a lot and one of his wanderings was into this story about his wife. He’d been married to her for twenty-five years, I think, when he went onto the entirely raw-food diet, and she didn’t follow him. They sort of lived side by side, they raised their children eating like a fairly healthy traditional diet, but then he started growing durians on his property. So he started growing like three hundred durian trees-
MoD: And these are really smelly fruit, right?
AK: They’re incredibly smelly fruit and just opening one up sort of fills the space around it with this strongly weird smell, sort of onion-y, sort of like decay-related, or fecally related. This caused, or exacerbated, problems in their relationship. She told him like, “First you have to eat your durian in this hut fifty yards from the house.” And then she said, “You’ve got to choose: it’s me or durian.” And he chose durian. They split up and he went on an entirely durian diet for the next three months. So he’s saying all this really matter of fact-ly, but then he kind of chokes up and he’s like, “But a few years ago, I heard that she was sick, she had a benign tumor, but when they operated on it there were complications. She had a staph infection, had to go back in, and what eats me up is that if I had just tried harder to get her on the all-raw diet, she wouldn’t be in this situation. Her body would have had the extra energy it needed to work on those degenerative diseases to dismantle them and keep itself working the way it should.” So he felt really responsible, directly responsible, for her health issues.
MoD: It’s almost like Evangelical Christianity in a way, like people who really want, who believe that this thing that they found has saved them and they need to save other people through the same philosophy.
AK: Yeah, and I think there’s totally that element to it. There are some really strong believers there and it kind of is a message that’s at odds with the sort of happy-go-lucky “let everyone do their thing,” “we like eating fruit, they like eating vegetables, it doesn’t matter.” On the one hand, people really want to have a good time and have everything be nice and easy and some people want to create change.
MoD: Cool, thank you so much. Are you ready to eat some fruit?
AK: Yeah! OK, so what do we have here?
MoD: OK, so today both Alex and I went out in preparation for this podcast and all together we got two dragon fruit, two—you said these are sugar apples?
AK: This one is definitely a sugar apple–slash–custard apple. And then this one looks sort of similar, but it also looks kind of different and it’s black and kind of evil looking, so I’m not sure.
MoD: Yeah, it looks like a weapon in a video game, almost. And then we have two of these Fuyu persimmons. And these are all fruits that I have not had before. Have you had all of these before?
AK: I’ve had the persimmons and I’ve had dragon fruit, but I’ve never had these things. These custard apple/sugar apple things.
MoD: OK, so maybe we should start with that?
AK: Yeah, let’s try that one.
MoD: OK, cool. Which one do you want to go for?
AK: Let’s do the green one first because we know what that one is and when we cut into this black one I think it will help us.
MoD: Maybe it will, like, explode. Wow, this looks so—it’s like a white creamy inside with these black seeds.
AK: Yeah, like…. You know, a lot of tropical fruits can be described as looking prehistoric and this is totally one of them.
MoD: It totally looks like a dinosaur.
AK: Yeah, sort of cratered, dinosaur-ish, it’s green and pebbly, and inside it’s white and creamy.
MoD: Let’s go for it.
[Moira and Alex eat the dino fruit.]
MoD: That’s delicious!
AK: Yeah, it’s great! OK, so it’s like-
MoD: I’m going to assume the seeds are inedible. They kind of look like watermelon seeds.
AK: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think I would eat these.
MoD: The skin is definitely dinosaur-ish. It’s like green and lumpy and I’m not going to eat that either. But the flesh is just gorgeous and so sweet. I know why they call it custard.
AK: The texture is really different from most fruits I’ve had and it’s got like a little bit of pear grit in it or something.
AK: What does it taste like to you, if it had to have one flavor?
MoD: It’s kind of like a cross between an apple and a pear, which is two flavors.
AK: Yeah, apple and pear, but maybe a little bit sweeter than either of those.
MoD: Yeah, it doesn’t have like any tartness to it at all. It’s just sweet.
AK: So if one of the directions a fruitarianist can take is this restrictive decadence—like moving on to fasting and even like breatharianism, the idea that you can in nutrients from the air and the sun, things like that—another direction is super-fruit-connoisseurship. They had these forums on how to move to Hawaii, how to move to a tropical climate, how much will it cost you to move to Hawaii, what kind of fruit can you get there. So there’s a big movement to deal with the cost of transport issues and things like that.
MoD: You’ve mentioned that—it’s weird because one of the arguments for fruitarianism is environmental, but a lot of this fruit you say is shipped from very far away and has to be stored in freezers.
AK: And depending on where you live, I think a lot of people eat a lot of conventionally grown fruit. That’s also of dubious nutritional value, because it’s been bred for these follies, like saying “shinier,” or “redder,” or “shipping-better.”
MoD: Yeah. Thank you so much for being here!
AK: Oh, thank you so much for having me!
MoD: This was fascinating.
AK: And thanks for bringing this fruit, which I didn’t know if I would see again. And for eating my first custard apple.
MoD: Yeah, that was so good! I’m definitely going to look for them now.
AK: It should be a regular fruit, almost. It’s good enough to be a regular fruit.
MoD: Exactly, totally. All right, cheers! Thank you!
AK: Thanks so much!
MaD: That’s it for this episode. Thank you to Alexandra Kleeman, Elias Rodriques, and Nikil Saval. The n+1 podcast is produced by Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, Aaron Braun, and Eric Wen. Thanks for listening.