Las Vegas, on the occasion of the Annual Conference of the Society of Photographic Educators (SPE)
It's such a mess now anyway
wish fulfillment every day
I don't believe you
now I can't hear a word you say
One of the tutelary phantasms of Las Vegas is abundance, abundance without labor, without sacrifice. Despite the work ethic that the Puritans brought to what would become the United States, or maybe because of it, the American dream is of the free and the big. An American's life is awash in surplus, and the cheapest, most reliable experience of plenty is eating.
If Vegas is any indicator, in the matter of food, Americans love value: large quantities for cheap. Companion to the visions of luxury and sin illuminating the Vegas strip, lurid food images invite pilgrims to gorge themselves with all things coded as forbidden by health preachers and the diet industry. But the consumer is also expected to master the groaning table. One of the prime signs of the failure to command abundance, i.e., the condition of downward mobility, is the overweight body. Just imagine Roseanne and Tom svelte and trim: it would suggest a control over their lives that would neutralize the show's basic traction. Like most failures to master our culture's pitfalls, this one is shouldered by the individual.
A few months ago Barbra Streisand was in the news witnessing to her moral psychology of eating: "One day I tell myself, 'Screw everything, I'm getting a Carl's Jr. hamburger and eating fried chicken three nights in a row. I don't care about my weight.' The next day, my optimistic side takes over and I think, 'Wait a minute, life goes on, people will get wiser, justice will prevail. Maybe I should watch my diet.' I'm still in that state of confusion." The historian Peter Stearns, who has written a history of attitudes about body weight, compares American food culture to that of the French, a slimmer population. Of the many intriguing differences, he finds that, unlike the French, Americans are moralistic about issues of body weight, a factor that Stearns proposes as counterproductive to healthy eating.
Vegas is the predictable inverted reflection of American moralism. It's a Puritan's vision of hell, a cheesy market-driven saturnalia, pitched full-tilt now to the whole family. In this city the usual contradictory cultural messages about eating are temporarily resolved. Women's magazine headlines (Lose 30 Pounds! Get Ready For Swimsuit Season! Lunches To Avoid!) tip into oblivion. The mandates of compensation for whatever we lack (Treat Yourself--You Deserve It; You Know You Want It) reign uncontested. When I walk out of my Motel 6 the first morning I feel giddy with the sense that anything is allowed here. How do they put that in the air of a crummy parking lot? The feeling makes a person wonder what she really wants to do. It could make a person, an artist even, that hypothetical cipher of freedom from drab social fetters, wonder if she has been doing what she wanted all along.
For years (when asked) I defined my artistic practice as being concerned with the shifting line between what we call the natural and the artificial. This of course allowed me to include almost anything, but in good faith, it inevitably led me to look into the latest flash-point for that border: biotechnology. In 1998 my curiosity uncovered the fact (now common knowledge) that Americans had been unwittingly eating transgenic foods or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) since 1994. When I started to look into how our food is produced and marketed, I was stunned by the degree of complexity, secrecy, and opacity surrounding the almost completely vertically integrated path from seed to shelf, as the multinationals like to say, or from dirt to dinner plate, as we like to say in the course I am currently teaching on the subject.
Thanks to complicated subsidies and the almost complete economic marginalization of that threadbare icon, the American farmer, food stays relatively cheap in our country; consumer capital wouldn't be what it is if people were spending all their wages on necessities. But food production still turns a profit and for that, monocropping is the first expediency. Very few crop varieties are grown in large scale so that they can be harvested with the most efficiency. Genetic varieties are selected and bred for high yields by way of minimal labor, minimal skills, minimal rotations of machinery, streamlined facilities for separation, transportation, and storage. But a neomaniac market has only so much use for vast quantities of undifferentiated stuff, be it corn, wheat, or soy. So the industry must invent the million ways of altering, processing, transforming, freezing, dehydrating, reshaping, and disguising the monocrop. About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is on processed food. Some of the fastest growing markets are frozen meals, vending machine sales, and so-called "functional foods" like powerbars.
In the Puritan spirit, John Locke developed a notion of property as an entitlement to that which has been improved by the owner--whether land, materials, or the self. This philosophy finds its correlative in the idea of the value-added product, the entitlement to profit. The value-added imperative drives us to alter the cheapest raw material by processing and packaging. The Fordist principles of assembly, scale, and distribution require that food be standardized and stabilized for shelf life, packaging, and transportation. But these imperatives destroy the pleasurable features of food, rendering flavors and textures bland or worse. It turns out that the most expedient ways of reinstating these qualities are to add sugars, fats, and salt, the objects of the most reliable human gustatory cravings, probably evolved over eons of relative scarcity. These compensations for a cheap and overprocessed monocrop, are what sells most of both retail processed food and restaurant-service fast food.
I was raised in Georgia, and I can't help noticing the degree to which processed and fast food mimics what we called poor people's food. The cuisine I grew up with: collard greens with hamhocks, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried shrimp, country fried steak, sausage biscuits, biscuits and gravy, buttermilk pie, fried okra, creamed corn, corn bread with molasses or maple-flavored corn syrup--all this was ruled by the additions of salty pork fat, sugar, coatings of meal and flour, carbohydrates that absorbed animal fat in the process of being fried, binders of lard, more salt. The same devices that poor people used to make cheap food go further, taste better, satisfy quicker, stick to the gut longer, are those used by the food industry to make cheap food go further, taste better, satisfy quicker and, by the way, perpetuate a cycle of cravings. You can probably find variations on these imperatives in many immigrant cuisines in America, the comfort food of poor people from a range of parts of the world. Does this make poor people all the more vulnerable to the foods most favored by the profit mandate of consumer capital?
In the morass of conflicting information about nutrition and illness, perhaps the only thing that researchers and health professionals consistently agree on is the correlation between decreased illness and eating lots of minimally processed fruits and vegetables. But unprocessed fruits and vegetables present the least opportunity for profits through the value-added logic of the food system.
So the corporate food system can only create fatter and less well-nourished citizens, especially when combined with sedentary lifestyles, the increasing tendency to eat to relieve stress, and the lack of time to eat differently. In fact, it is so much trouble to eat well that the effort to do so quickly marks one as a querulous deviant in most social contexts.
This raises the question of the overwhelming lack of interest in healthful food on the part of consumers, myself included. If food is so fundamental to daily life, pleasure, and survival, why is it also such a perfect site for the sleight of hand that is commodification, namely, masking the conditions of its origin? How can we be so indifferent to the increasing estrangement of the make-up of our foods and the degradation of their quality? I started to think in the rhythm of the political pundit James Carville's famous campaign slogan: it's the economy, stupid; in this case the economy of the unconscious.
It's obvious that most people are anything but indifferent to food and eating, but it seems that people would like to be. A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer in her thirties and wondered how much she should blame herself for consuming hot dogs and diet soda. Talking about the range of conflicting, alarming, seductive information on food, she summed it up for me saying, "I'm really into not thinking about what I eat."
Personally, I never wanted to spend much energy on food either. I lived in New York and had a cruddy little tenement kitchen. I ate out all the time, walking down the street with a slice, or I ate tortillas wrapped around brick cheese and salsa, standing over the garbage can so I wouldn't have to wash a plate or take the time to sit down. I felt guilty about my dissociation from the life-sustaining activities of feeding, but changing it remained a fantasy Some years ago when I visited Italy I was relieved to learn that in Pompeii and later in third- and fourth-century Rome everyone but the very rich ate in restaurants. Of course the rich had slaves to cook for them. It's not that I'm so happy to identify with Roman culture but just knowing that this rejection of cooking duties has a long history made it feel more human.
In the art world that is my subculture, the ethos has been indulgence and flagrant permission. Good sausages, steaks, sweets, smokes, and martinis. The health motivation was pusillanimous and puritanical. Concerns for environmental side effects made one an eco-bore. In my aging crowd, this is changing as we sustain the rude bumps of mortality, but in traditional bohemian self-regard, food, like sex, must be a site of permission, a permission perceived as mildly transgressive.
The alimentary and the sexual are two human economies that have always been regulated very closely by cultures. What is allowed to enter the body? How should it be vetted, prepared, or purified; under what circumstances may substances leave the body; how should they be disposed of; what are bodies allowed to mingle with; what bodies are allowed to mingle with what other bodies; what may be produced by their conjunction? With regard to foods, these questions of "purity" and "danger" (to use Mary Douglas's terms), were traditionally answered by fairly complex and often unforgiving sets of rules and expectations. (1) Bodies are good sites for social management because there is a lot of reasonable anxiety about their fragility and the force of their drives. Their maintenance poses a range of satisfactions and risks and may trigger a spectrum of very fierce desires and fears, often summarized by ambivalence.
The extraordinary symbolic multivalence of food and eating extends much further, so that food has probably always been charged with questions of moral significance. In traditional societies these questions, even when served by contradictory answers, have been negotiated for the individual through custom. People didn't have to think about the possible risks of putting foreign matter into the body because necessity and custom dictated what, how, when, and with whom. Historically, the individual has been either freed by the culture from the anxieties caused by food and eating, or she has been enslaved by the culture, depending on how you want to look at it. Either way it was something she didn't have to think about.
Look at it from Homer Simpson's point of view:
Uh, Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don't have to think all the time. Just like that rain forest scare a few years back. Our officials saw there was a problem and they [pause] fixed it, didn't they?
Where do we find that part of the culture that does our thinking for us with regard to our ambivalence about eating? Since the early twentieth century, the government has charged various agencies with inspecting our foods, inspiring confidence in our food system, and advising us on the do's and don't's, the wrongs and rights of eating. Unfortunately, many of the people who staff these agencies earn their credentials through the industry and return to some form of industry employment when their tour of public service is over. (2) Likewise, many members of Congress who decide policy for regulatory agencies can expect lucrative positions as industry lobbyists when they move from public life. (3) Accordingly, the complicity of watchdog agencies with corporate interests comes as no surprise. In addition, state university systems (including the landgrant institutions charged with agricultural research in the public interest) are increasingly beholden to corporate partnerships. (4)
Sometimes the cahoots are exposed. For example, in a lawsuit filed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) a U.S. District Court judge ruled recently that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had violated federal laws when they selected individuals with known financial ties to food industries to serve as members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This group was in charge of drawing up the latest nutritional guidelines that comprise the USDA's Food Pyramid. In addition to its educational purpose, the pyramid also serves as a basis for all federally funded food programs in the U.S.
But in most cases it is difficult even to analyze the complicity in terms of legal misconduct because the frame of reference is just so deeply ingrained.
Consider the following: Among other biases privileging industry interests over citizens, PCRM criticized the food pyramid's promotion of beef and dairy products as protein and calcium sources. This, they maintain, is racially biased since nonwhite races (70 percent of the population in fact) are more likely to be lactose intolerant and some are more susceptible to diet-related chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Much healthier alternative sources of calcium--collard greens, broccoli, kale, and beans--are omitted from the Food Pyramid.
Everyone has learned to be skeptical of both corporations and the government, but skepticism provides only an illusion of protection from being duped. Without the skills of in-depth critique applied with an overview to make connections between apparently divergent interests, this is very specious protection. Skepticism is also exploited by literally scores of non-profit, presumably public-interest groups like the American Dietetic Association, the American Council on Health and Science, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, and the International Food Information Council, to name just a few, which are actually set up and funded by industry These groups provide expertise in the evaluation of scares about health and environment, mostly dismissing them as hoaxes perpetrated by crazy environmentalists.
The edicts of these organizations gratify the public's skepticism while simultaneously reassuring the public that business as usual is O.K. The problem with skepticism is that it makes people generally cynical but does not amount to systematic critique of conventions of authority and the interests they serve. Nor does skepticism provide the support people need to lead lives against the grain or to demand changes--in the food system for instance.
Still, the evidence mounts that we depend on an increasingly degraded environment in terms of air, water, and food. We don't want to think about it, but we can't count on cultural authorities to think about it for us, Where do we direct our anxieties about purity and danger in the regulation of what goes in and out of our bodies?
The confusion that Streisand confesses typifies a prevalent confusion on many levels. We identify both personal morality and social optimism and justice with the self-control needed for dieting. A more visceral symptom of our confusion is the location of purity and danger exclusively in the realm of the individual. The anxieties that eating visits upon us--fear of contamination, fear of loss of control, fear of transformation to the inhuman, to the monstrous--these must be managed by the individual. Accordingly we look to read them at the level of the individual.
The obese body, as well as other physiognomies of failure, is a scapegoat for the kinds of fears that would be more productively focused on the condition of a natural environment sacrificed to a profit motive. The ascendancy of health problems associated with compromised diets and increased body weight is well documented. The attendant declaration of an epidemic of obesity looks like a displacement all too compatible with the machinations of a predatory economic system.
In March of this year, I gave a paper at a conference on poverty and obesity sponsored by the University of Chicago's Center for Gender Studies. The organizers, Lauren Berlant and Virginia Chang, invited people working on this issue from both scientific and cultural disciplines. The impetus for the conference was very specific: three years ago reports began to surface that for the first time in global history, the number of overweight people in the world rivaled the number of those that are underweight. (5) Not only in the United States. In the world. Specifically noticeable in the trail of Westernization.
Changes in food systems and patterns of work and leisure, and therefore in diets and physical activity, are causing weight-gain, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease including stroke, and increasingly cancer, even m the poorest countries. Malnutrition early in life, followed by inappropriate diets and physical inactivity in childhood and adult life, increases vulnerability to chronic diseases.
Obesity, itself a disease, also predicts more serious diseases. Current rates of weight-gain and obesity--most of all in children, young adults, and women--project rapidly increasing disability and premature death from nutrition-related chronic diseases for most developing countries. Phenomenal social and economic changes, on a scale and at a speed unprecedented in history, have resulted in an epidemic of nutrition-related diseases that must be contained. (6)
Why was an artist invited to this conference? From what has become my own discipline-free zone or discipline free-for-all, I spend a lot of time educating myself in the subject of my choice, which for the last three years or so has been the corporate control of our food system. This is my excess, This is my permission. What qualifies artists to take their autodidacticism to the arenas of experts in other fields? We need, in addition to the admittedly important information gathered by the experts, other structures for valid interpretations of knowledge.
When you look at trends in fine-art photography you can detect, among other things, a logic that seeks to distinguish the professional or fine-art photographer from the amateur. This is necessary because everyone has a camera and our world is littered with pictures. Just now, for instance, the trend is toward huge, high-production, intricately staged images that are exorbitant to arrange and produce. That's the look that looks like art. You can't get it without bucks.
In a world as littered with facts and opinions as it is with images, in a world in which we have more data than theories, and where anyone with a little persistence can get her hands on more information than she could ever digest, there have to be ways to distinguish the professional from the amateur in terms of knowledge and authority. We expect training and education. A degree. Board certification. A curriculum vitae. Peer review. Exclusionary conventions in rhetoric and citation. Organizations waving acronyms of neutrality.
The hope of all this institutional qualification is that knowledge can be disinterested and therefore trustworthy. But expertise is always gained and shared under tendentious conditions. The marketplace solution to all things in our culture has thoroughly determined the relative prominence, packaging, and distribution of information. In grocery stores big food manufacturers pay premium prices for the most and the best shelf space. You might start up a fabulous little product but good luck getting it in front of a shopper. Information works the same way, and, at times, art does too. It may not be produced, and certainly won't be promoted, unless someone can make money off of it. If you want to understand what you know and why you know it, follow the money, as they say.
Money, clout, and chutzpah are still the most securely qualified institutions of authority. The critic Dave Hickey, one of the keynote speakers at the SPE conference, disparages the ascendancy of the academy and the current state of art as a manifestation of "institutional culture." According to him, the adjudication of art's value in the gallery and the market is the real thing; anything else is just "the instrumentalization of institutional authority," by which, presumably, he means the academy, critical theory, museums. But of course, the normativity of the market precludes our choices as much as any other force--in art, as in knowledge, as in health, as in most things out there for sale.
Finally the individual who has found some reason to care about something is the one burdened with ascertaining the credibility and relative importance of whatever informs a given decision. A person who wants to feel some autonomy has a lot of work to do. Could the desire to know be afforded the dignity of a muse?
Gustave Flaubert's last novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet (1881), is one of the first works to define the very modern condition of easy knowledge. This marks the moment when "dilettantism" became downwardly mobile. From an aristocratic delight in the arts associated with connoisseurship, the term came to express the ludicrous attempts of the middle class to fill their expanding leisure time. The bumbling do-it-yourselfers of the novel get as much sympathy from the author as any of Flaubert's characters, as they grow bored or discouraged and repeatedly fail to master the abundance of knowledge.
In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl titled his pan of the 2002 Whitney Biennial "Do It Yourself." (7) The review renews complaints that today's artists don't know what they are supposed to be, have abandoned the honorable mandate of invention through form, are not committed to anything beyond their own narcissism. For some time artists have wrestled with the disempowered knowledge-field of aesthetics, unrelated to the official function of representing the church or state. In many ways what the artist is allowed to know reflects what the citizen is allowed to know. The rest is mystification.
In the 1990s artists were allowed to be experts on who they were, their identities, specifically their experience of social identificatory regimes according to race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality. At its best, this was a welcome politicization or invigoration of the traditional artist's territory of the self and the traditional imperative or permission for an artist to express himself. At its worst, this resulted in selves balkanized according to a quasi-essentialist logic entrenching the organization of subjectivity around historically determined factors, and finally feeding the commodification of identity itself. As so much advertising attests, the object of our labors is the freedom to express ourselves through consumption. In a system of mystification, self-expression fills our bellies, makes us sleepy; knowledge of how our world works remains under the table.
Whether by form, by tired signifiers defined as political (as though the fact of the social nature of humans could be isolated), or via the by-products of sanctioned narcissism, artists are often called the mirrors of our culture. No surprise that such a mirror should be asked to deliver wonder without knowledge, transgression without impact, wisdom without authority, reflection without connection.
The really alarming thing about the uncontested integration of transgenics into foods is what it means for the further concentration of control over every step of the food system by multinational corporations. But here food provides a case study for an even more comprehensive phenomenon. Biotechnology is a symptom of the long-coming shift of capital's territory from the sphere of production--as in the industrial process--to the sphere of reproduction, as in the activities of everyday life, including but not limited to sex, eating, birthing, knowledge, thought, play, service, identity, imagination, etc. Eating and the transmission of knowledge are just two essential examples of the shift from exploiting a nonrenewable resource base to colonizing the constantly renewed resource base, namely, biological and cultural processes.
The transgressive permissions paraded at Vegas are pretty well rehearsed. We are invited into these temptations as workers, contributing our life energy to perpetuate the system of our ultimate distraction. The really threatening violations are rarely stated explicitly and permission to commit them is nowhere advertised. What cannot be permitted is the linkage of desire to knowledge and the assumption of authority in that knowledge by any citizen or artist.
(1.) Mary Douglas, Purity and Donger (London: Routledge, 1966). A few of the surviving examples of this social oversight are the Jewish kosher diet, Muslim halal, and some forms of vegetarianism. Ethnographic literature is full of other examples. [back to text/1]
(2.) A typical example is the current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, who served on the board of directors for Calgene, Inc., the first company to try to market genetically engineered food, the Flavr-Savr tomato, to consumers. Calgene was bought by Monsanto, which was bought by Pharmacia. Veneman also served on the International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food, and Trade, a group funded by Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and Archer Daniels Midland. Often, ex-public servants also go to work for public-interest groups that are funded by industry, rather than working for industry directly. [back to text/2]
(3.) The Center for Responsive Politics has documented the frequent incidence of former U.S. representatives going to work for public relations and lobbying firms with clients in big industry. See also Marion Nestle, Food Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 95-110. [back to text/3]
(4.) Integrity in Science, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, maintains a database of scientists and nonprofit organizations with ties to industry, including (partial) lists of individual university professors whose research projects are fully or partially funded by corporations, as well as university departmental partnerships with private industry. A particularly controversial case is the $50 million, five-year deal that the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley brokered with drug and agribusiness giant Novartis in 1998. In this arrangement Novartis can select the participating faculty, review research results prior to publication, veto faculty participation in other projects, negotiate with faculty for specific projects, and claim first rights to negotiate for new technologies. Laws strengthening intellectual property rights, such as the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act authorizing patenting and commercializing of results from publicly funded research , have created financial incentives for scientists and academic institutions to enter into entrepreneurial partnerships with for-profit industry, spawning over 4,800 university-industry patents between 1980 and 1998 (Nestle, 122). [back to text/4]
(5.) A number of international organizations have published information and urgent policy recommendations regarding the rise of diseases associated with obesity in populations already struggling with high rates of malnutrition and poverty. In addition to diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, the obese often suffer from malnutrition as much as the underfed, because they are still not eating enough nutritious food. See Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, "Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition," Worldwatch Paper 150 (September 1999). See also D. J. Hoffman, "Obesity in Developing Countries: Causes and Implications," Food, Nutrition and Agriculture 28 (2001); Reynaldo Martorell, "Health and Nutrition Emerging and Reemerging Issues in Developing Countries: Obesity" 2020 Focus 5, Brief 7 of 11, (February 2001); Working Group on Obesity, World Health Organization, "Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic." WHO Technical Report Series, 894 (1998); M. Pena and). Bacallao, eds., "Obesity and Poverty: A New Public Health Challenge," PAHO Scientific Publication 576 (2000). [back to text/5]
(6.) International Union of Nutritional Sciences Committee on the Nutrition Transition, "The Bellagio Declaration" Public Health Nutrition 5 (IA, 2001): 279-80. [back to text/6]
(7.) The New Yorker (March 25, 2002) 98-99. [back to text/7]
Claire Pentecost is an artist and writer. She is currently assistant professor in the department of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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