Review of Michael Carolan’s ‘Embodied Food Politics’

24 Jan

Happy 2013 folks.  May the year bring lots of warmth and happiness to you all.

Apologies for my recent inactivity on this site. This PhD thing has been calling out for maximum attention. But to tie things over until I can get out of my slippers and dressing gown, here are some extracts from a book review that I’ve recently published in Social & Cultural Geography. The subject is embodied food politics and the author is Michael Carolan, an environmental sociologist – currently Professor at Colorado State University.

Carolan Image

Embodied Food Politics is the second release of the Ashgate series on critical food studies edited by the geographer Michael Goodman. Two decades have passed since bell hooks made eponymous the tropes of ‘ethnicity as a spice’ and ‘eating the other’ in Black Looks Race and Representation.

In response to her polemic on the embodied politics of food as a form of Western anthropophagi of black culture, sociologists and geographers developed and critiqued her theory through empirical studies on how buying, serving and eating food involves the performance and displacement of a variety of racial, gendered and class based identities. Scholarship followed food from farm to fork, and examined how consuming food can entail considered and pre-cognitive forms of care for distantiated others and proximate loved ones.

Where much of this work is concerned with the identity politics of food, the second coming of food embodiment appears to stem from a concern with how the materialities of food and the ideologies of eating are connected. This research tends to explicitly channel phenomenology or non-representational theory in tandem with feminist understandings of abjection and leaking bodies to examine what the consumption of food does beyond the represented and visual, and to consider how visceral differences become ontologies of race, class and gender.

Embodied Food Politics has more in common with the latter type of food politics, but  it does not engage with wider ontologies of race and gender. Michael Carolan contextualizes agro-food with a keen interest in understanding the agricultural food system as embodied experience, “at the point where the rubber of theorization meets the road of everyday life” (2011: 66). The setting for the empirical research is Iowa, and the anathema of the narrative is ‘Global Food’ – “shorthand for a system of large scale global food provisioning” (2011:7) – with its tendency to externalize production costs by doing violence to ecologies and bodies.

Carolan’s intention is to analyse how ‘alternative’ spaces of agriculture make bodies ‘out of tune’ with Global Food and complicate its associative practices and visceralities. In distinction from recent work by Slocum (2008) and Guthman (2008) he is reluctant to interrogate the whiteness of these alternative spaces for “fears [of] arguments that deny the realness of our lived experiences with food” (2011, 66). The reason why the ‘realness’ of lived experiences with food is compromised by examining who gets access to these body-food experiences is left a little mute with the statement that “I found no evidence of…taste based discriminatory judgements within the two CSA’s studied” (2011, 66). Furthermore, the point that racial ontologies are partly constituted by food embodiments is missed. Instead, the critical concern is the subjugation of tacit food subjectivities by the standardization strategies, ocular-centricism and quality-orientated branding of Global Food. Across three substantive chapters on community supported agriculture (CSA’s), heritage food banks and urban chickens, Carolan deploys over sixty interviews (with mainly middle class and white respondents) to show how specific communities in Iowa reconnect with the practices of making food.

Working from the subject-decentred approaches of Latour, Haraway and Law, the first chapter, Thinking About Food Relationally, sets up a ‘sensuous methodology’ that thinks beyond the visual descriptors of food to prioritize understanding agro food through lived experience. The second chapter, Some Backstory, historicises the ways in which consumers’ bodies have learnt to enjoy Global Food. This section analyses cookbooks and food advertisements from the end of the nineteenth century and explains how brands like Kellogs and Jolly Green Giant convinced consumers to dispose of tacit and sensuous types of food knowledge (generally engaged with fresh food) by providing wiredrawn stories about brand founders. Borrowing extensively from Bruegel’s history of canned food, Carolan illuminates how French industrial food processors capitalized on a collective embodied memory and nostalgia for the peaceful sociality afforded during the eating of tinned meat in the trenches.

In the chapter on community supported agriculture (where members become shareholders of local farms and share seasonal produce at farmers markets), interview extracts from the scheme’s participants highlight that consumers are engaged in the substitution of unacceptable uncertainties (chemical inputs) for the acceptable risk of crop irregularity. CSA members know their food in-more-than gustatory ways; they eat “as close to the ground as possible” (2011, 71), and engage with their food through an ‘opened body’ rather than a ‘body opening’. Carolan points out that succeeding as a producer in CSA’s requires situated knowledge, access and acceptance from existing members. The parochial potential of such spaces is unexamined, but is perhaps a subject for another publication.

The chapter on heritage seed banks makes some interesting points on the distinction between ethical believing and acting, and the politics of (food) forgetting, but its argument that participation in growing heritage seeds leads to increased potential for environmental caring is convincing if a little obvious. In the final case study we learn that caring for and eating urban chickens is marked by an ambivalence which differs from the ‘chickens-as-machines’ agnotology (manufactured ignorance) of Global Food. The ambivalence of urban chicken keepers is carefully reflexive, whereas chicken agnotology is subjectively dissociative; Carolan persuasively links the former to Adam Smith’s moral economy, and the latter to utilitarian and neo-liberal economics.

Carolan’s conclusions are fascinating and it is a shame that the book ends abruptly before his Steps to an Ecology of Social Change are developed further. Tantalising suggestions include petitioning governments to incentivise alternative farming practices against the will of the market, and the creation of incubation spaces for such practices to thrive while wider communities learn and “build relations that value things like unpaid labour, ecological and social systems” (2011, 150). Embodied Food Politics is a well signposted, engaging and accessible food-led detour across some of the philosophical and critical terrain of sociology and cultural geography. Carolan writes briskly and weaves his empirical research with a diverse range of feminist, phenomenological and food theories; this occasionally leaves his authorial voice slightly under-cooked, and arguments could be developed further.

Next up will be a series of posts on the antiracist campaigns of Boycott Outspan Action following their boycott of Outspan citrus. 

Further Reading

Guthman, J  (2008b) Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating Subjects of Alternative Food Practice. Social & Cultural Geography 15: 431-7

hooks, b (1992) “Eating The Other” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press

Slocum, R (2008) Thinking Race Through Corporeal Feminist Theory: Divisions and Intimacies at  the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market.  Social & Cultural Geography 9: 849-69

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