Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Initial Thoughts on Bennett, Ch. 3

First, I agree that food is an important conceptual space. What I really like about Bennett in this section is that people who tend to take food issues seriously tend to push heavily towards the importance of the intentional subject (food discourse is saturated with terms like self-control, will power, better health education, etc), and Bennett wants to push us past these terms. By focusing on food we are not just given a particularly good example of the multiple levels of assemblages, but we are also given a chance to leave behind such an anemic conceptual apparatus. But the same part that I like is also one of the parts of the chapter I find least compelling.
In this sense I mean that Bennett talks the right talk on the marco-theoretical level, but the examples she mobilizes tend to undermine these arguments. To take one example, she is interested in some of the early studies concerning Omega-3s positive effects, and worried about Omega-6s negative effects. Such focus on micro-nutrients is rather common today, but rather than representing a move towards assemblage thought, it tends to rather betray what Michael Pollan has usefully called nutritionism. Now, my thoughts on Pollan are well known, and I am generally mistrustful of his shoddy work, but he seems to be right on in this case. The rise of obsession with micro-nutrients comes from a desire to find elemental causes in the assemblage of a whole food. But whole foods constantly work in ways that betray any single elemental cause, they are non-totalizable sums. Moreover, these whole foods not only work without single elemental causes, but also link up to cultures, climates, and specific peoples-- to other macro-assemblages far away from the nutrient. Again, I think Bennett understands this, and she certainly makes clear her philosophical commitments, but the example itself seems tied to a strong anti-assemblage understanding of food and our bodies.
Another example is her thoughts on the issue of obesity. First, it is unclear what Bennett believes is causing an increase in obesity. Before her sentence, "That would explain why the bodies of Americans are larger and heavier than ever before" (p. 40) we see two sentences that outline four different dietary changes within the last 60 years or so. Is she saying all of these changes would explain the changes of our bodies? That a few of them are? That the last one listed, the increase in calorie consumption, is the cause? That weight is large an issue of calories in/calories out is something of a dogma. By which I mean there is large spread belief from experts and lay persons in the truth of this statement without the corresponding body of evidence. (For more on this, I highly suggest this lecture. The conclusions don't really follow, but the problematizing of calories in/calories out strike me as very smart and interesting). Moreover, we know obesity in this country has hit a plateau. And that fact itself challenges the notion that only calories in/calories out is the only thing related to obesity (and we can further bracket the question of if obesity is itself a causal agent in our national health crisis). In order to understand what causes weight gain and weight loss, and in order to understand what is causing our national health crisis, requires the full range of assemblage thought. Sadly, that is not the style of thought that dominates in these discussions, and Bennett's reproducing the commonly accepted beliefs of weight, health, and nutrients push against assemblage thought. Because these commonly held beliefs come very much from a culture of the intentional subject, morality plays, single linear causes, and the ability to break down things to their constituent elements. The radical nature of Bennett's theoretical arguments are being weighed down by the conservative nature of her examples.
Now is a good time to bring up another thing about this chapter that bothered me. When discussing the studies of Omega-3s and -6s, some of these studies come from tests on prisoners, and others from tests on rats. I think when we are dealing with the violence of certain experimental knowledge we required to create a textual friction, something that slows us down and recognize the violence that comes from such tests. That this limited knowledge comes as part of the price of the lives and well-beings of other animals, and from the institutionalized slavery of the prison-industrial complex. The need for this textual friction is only truer for the reasons that Adrian cites.
Food, however, is also more than vital matter in "what we become" (as David Goodman's and other political ecologists' work demonstrates). It is a process by which certain things become nutritive substance for others, and in which relations between all of them get arranged in particular ways, for the benefit of some but not others. Our cultural practices and technologies of food production, distribution, and consumption, are also "players" that "enter into" what the world becomes. What we turn into "food" becomes vital matter for us; but the process of turning something into food is also a process of rearranging relations on a mass scale (since modern humans live on a mass scale) that alters food-making processes for all kinds of other things. There's a 'cosmopolitics' to all of that -- an ethical political ecology that I'm hoping to hear more about in upcoming chapters.

I think he has put it powerfully and profoundly here. This isn't just a question of eating other animals (though that is certainly a extremely important dimension of this discussion), but rather a question of enabling instrumentalizations that I already brought up. And this also is where the conservative nature of the examples weighs down the radical nature of the thought. All the discussions of food seem to center on a certain humanism (though maybe not an anthropocentrism), in which the major concerns are concerns on the vitality of human eaters. Or on the vibrant nature of already dead beings. What becomes skirted are those beings who became instruments to empower the assemblage of us as a human, but where themselves losers or victims in this instrumentality. These questions have to be confronted. I look forward to the rest of the book (particularly on the ending chapters where so much of these issues are going to have to rest).