Food’s Entanglements with Life: How Is It Good to Work with?
Drawing upon Lévi-Strauss’s notion that food is good to think with, we seek to use the study of food to explore issues of contemporary life, transformation, and Overheating.
Photo: Wim van Daele
We engage with these issues in novel and integrative ways through food that is approached as an assemblage that condenses human life and organization. We will focus in particular on three themes that are currently the subject of contentious debate in anthropology and in public discourse: the complex entanglement of health, well-being, and the precariousness of life; the shifting boundary between humanity and nature, as well as related boundaries; and altering relations between intimacy, abstraction, scale, and context. Ultimately, we will combine discussion of these three themes to conceptualize food in a way that facilitates the redevelopment of an innovative anthropology that builds upon the discipline's holistic legacy in a non-totalizing way. This Conference is funded by the ERC-Overheating project and the Wenner-Gren Foundation and is organized by Wim Van Daele, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, and Marianne Lien, and supported by Harry West.
Participants include Lisa Heldke, Heather Paxson, David Sutton, Filippo Bertoni, Angela Meah, Julie Guthman, Alex Blanchette, Harris Solomon, Fred Magdoff, William Bryant Logan, Abby Wilkerson, Amy Moran-Thomas, Emily Yates-Doerr, Hannah Landecker, Deborah Heath, Meredith Abarca, Virginia Nazarea, Cristina Grasseni, Kaitlin Fertaly, and Annemarie Mol.
A workshop organized by the Overheating project
Programme Monday September 5:
09.30 – 10.00: Coffee and registration
10.00 – 10.30: Welcome and introduction to the workshop theme: Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Wim Van Daele (University of Oslo)
Health, Well-Being, and Precariousness
(Panel Organizer: Lisa Heldke, Gustavus Adolphus College)
10.30 – 10.45 Lisa Heldke: introduction panel + “It’s Chomping All the Way Down”
10.45 – 10.45 (Unable to present) Fred Magdoff (University of Vermont): “The Importance of Soil Health for Human Health”
10.45 – 10.55 William Bryant Logan (arborist and author): “Good for What”
10.55 – 11.05 Julie Guthman (University of California, Santa Cruz): “Can the pathogen speak? Reflections on the biopolitics of soil and health in California’s strawberry industry”
11.05 – 11.15 Filippo Bertoni (Aarhus University): “Global Worming: Politics of Nature and Earth(worm) Systems”
11.15 – 11.25 Abby Wilkerson (George Washington University): “Soil Health, Planetary Health, and Social Flesh: A Crip Queer Feminist Perspective”
11.25 – 12.00 Questions and Discussion
12.00 – 13.30 Lunch
Intimacy and Abstraction, Context and Scale
(Panel Organizer: David Sutton, Southern Illinois University)
13.30 – 13.45 David Sutton: Introduction panel + “Embedded and Disembedded Tastes: Robust Food Cultures and the Abstractions of Contemporary Economic Culture”
13.45 – 13.55 Virginia Nazarea (University of Georgia): “Moving Sentiment, Assigning Heft”
13.55 – 14.05 Cristina Grasseni (Universiteit Utrecht): “Intimacy at Scale”
14.05 – 14.15 Wim Van Daele (University of Oslo): “Body-Person and Symptom: The Entanglement of Food, Health, and Well-Being in Sri Lankan Ayurveda”
14.15 – 14.25 Annemarie Mol (University of Amsterdam): “Vies: Eating and the art of sensuous disengagement”
14.25 – 14.35 Meredith Abarca (The University of Texas at El Paso): “Culinary Subjectivities in Coming to Food Stories”
14.35 – 14.45 Angela Meah (University of Sheffield): “Managing family intimacy through everyday food practices”
14.45 – 14.55 Kaitlin Fertaly (University of Colorado Boulder): “Debating Domesticity: Intimate Geopolitics in Post-Socialist Armenia”
14.55 – 15.30 Questions and Discussion
15.30 – 16.00 Coffee break
Human/Non-Human Boundary Work
(Panel Organizer: Heather Paxson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
16.00 – 16.15 Heather Paxson: Introduction panel + “Moving Foods Across National Borders: Anticipatory Notes on Research to Come”
16.15 – 16.25 Harris Solomon (Duke University): “On Life Support”
16.25 – 16.35 Hannah Landecker (University of California, Los Angeles): “The Food of our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism”
16.35 – 16.45 Alex Blanchette (Tufts University): “Making Agribusiness Palatable: On Hog Viscera, Pet Food, and the Trade in Industrial Sense Impressions”
16.45 – 16.55 Marianne Lien (University of Oslo): “The Making and Unmaking of Food, Landscapes, and More-Than-Human Relations in the Arctic”
16.55 – 17.05 Amy Moran-Thomas (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): “Animate Thresholds: Metabolic Disarray and Planetary Health in a Small Place”
17.05 – 17.15 Deborah Heath (Lewis & Clark College): “Cosmologies, Ontologies and A Gentle Empiricism: Biodynamic Viticulture in New Zealand”
17.15 – 17.15 (Unable to present) Emily Yates-Doerr (University of Amsterdam): “The placenta: An Ethnographic Analysis of Nourishing Relations”
17.15 – 17.45 Questions and Discussion
17.45 – 18.00 Concluding Remarks with Nefissa Naguib and Thomas Hylland Eriksen (UiO) and practical announcements.
Presenters and abstracts (in order of Appearance):
Lisa Heldke (Gustavus Adolphus College)
It’s Chomping All the Way Down
Wim Van Daele asked “how do we need to conceptualize food and its entanglements theoretically and put it practically to use, such that we can revive the older holistic approach to food?” This essay takes up Wim’s question by way of an ontological reflection on a stunningly prevalent form of life: parasitism. By taking parasitism to be metaphysically relevant and instructive, we will, in turn, reshape the dualisms that dominate western metaphysics, in particular the self/other dualism. The parasite, taken both literally and figuratively, calls us to refabricate models of personhood that rest on this tidy division. Furthermore, it challenges us to reformulate the sense of health that emerges therefrom. We are presently living in the age of the microbiome. We are awash in mainstream accounts of research into the bacteria that live on our skin, in our guts and in the soil. We learn that humans play host to more individual non-human organisms than we have cells of “our own,” and that those organisms are concentrated in our guts. As biologist Scott Gilbert puts it, “we are all lichens,” each of us a colony, not an individual organism that “happens to” house other organisms. But symbiotic lichen personhood tells only part of the story of our humanness. Another, crucial, part is this: our bodies may end up playing host to a set of guests who deplete our hospitality and sicken or even kill us. This is not inessential, accidental, or infrequent. Accounts of human personhood must not simply acknowledge but also absorb this feature of our existence. What shape can human health assume, if it is to rest comfortably in such a human as this?
Fred Magdoff (University of Vermont)
The Importance of Soil Health for Human Health
Soil health is a concept that stresses the use of practices that build the stability and resilience of natural ecosystems into the agricultural ecosystem—above ground and in the soil. It is a preventive approach to soil and crop management that relies on building up soil organic matter, using diverse sources of organic materials, using complex rotations, intensive use of cover crops, reducing soil disturbance (tillage), minimizing compaction, maintaining proper pH levels as well as amounts and balance of nutrients. Plants growing on healthy soils are better able to defend themselves from insect and disease organisms. They have higher levels of defensive chemicals induced by the attack or by beneficial soil organisms. In addition, the infection of roots by beneficial mycorrhizae fungi reduces root fungal diseases. Because of greater biological activity in healthy soils, weed pressures may be reduced. Thus, fewer “agricultural chemicals” (pesticides and commercial fertilizers) are needed. This creates a healthier environment for people working on farms (farmers and farm labor) as well as the general public—because of the decreased nitrates in drinking water and decreased pesticides in food, a number of commonly used ones have been documented to cause human diseases. Although the practices that generate healthy soils are well known, they are difficult to carry out as a comprehensive ecological management program within an economic system based on the profit motive.
William Bryant Logan (arborist and author)
Good for What
I went to visit a small Basque town in northwestern Navarra, because there are ancient forest there and because efforts are afoot to preserve them. Unexpectedly, I found there a town that for want of a better word is one of the most intact places I have ever seen. Its soils and landscapes – intensively used by human beings since the Neolithic – were nonetheless still working more or less as they always had. How did this happen? What made it possible? A responsive, not exploitative, use of the land is at the base of it. And this responsibility is abetted by the fact that more than 70 percent of the land is held in common. If as Hans Jenny wrote, human beings are the sixth factor in soil formation, we would do well to learn from this responsible approach to the land.
Julie Guthman (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Can the pathogen speak? Reflections on the biopolitics of soil and health in California’s strawberry industry
Among agroecologists and other critics of industrial agriculture, it has become nearly axiomatic that a healthy, living soil is the key to a sustainable agriculture, which in turn creates health for those whose lives somehow depend on that agriculture. Based on research examining the rationales for soil fumigant use in California’s strawberry industry, I suggest that the connections between soil liveliness and human health are not sot so clear cut. After all, these pathogens, weeds, and nematodes are also lively and therefore must contribute to the liveliness of the soil, but in the case of pathogens, especially, they contribute to the death of the strawberry plant. In this paper, I trace the biopolitics of the California strawberry, by narrating a history of the industry’s encounter with soil pathogens and its adoption of highly toxic soil fumigant to control them. My aim is not to defend an industry that has in many ways shown disregard for life. Rather, it is to show how a set of humans and non-human actors cannot all be made to live at once – and that, indeed, possibilities to make them live lie in very different directions. I focus on the soil, the pathogen, the strawberry plant, fumigation workers, harvest workers, and eaters, although these are by no means the only living beings in the strawberry assemblage.
Filippo Bertoni (Aarhus University)
Global Worming: Politics of Nature and Earth(worm) Systems
Abstract to follow
Abby Wilkerson (George Washington University)
Soil Health, Planetary Health, and Social Flesh: A Crip Queer Feminist Perspective
Disability perspectives reveal food as an oppressive social domain for disabled people. A “queer crip feminist” analysis raises important questions regarding efforts to transform food systems.
Disability studies exposes how the medical model of disability constitutes disabled people as other. This work indicates the need for caution regarding the unqualified celebration of health in alternative food movement rhetoric, contributing to a cultural foodscape that is already challenging and punitive for disabled people.
The environmental justice and food justice movements posit healthy soil as a necessary condition for healthy communities. How are notions of healthy soil related to notions of human health that pathologize disabled people? This paper examines Shiva’s Soil Not Oil as an example of the alternative food movement’s simultaneous rejection of disability and rhetorical dependence on it as motivator for change.
How might radical disability perspectives—including a notion of “social flesh”—help us envision food justice in ways that recognize disability as central to, rather than a departure from, human existence, therefore giving vulnerability—of human and nonhuman animals, of ecosystems, of the planet—its due? What implications emerge for understanding the health of soil and the beings and systems it supports?
David Sutton (Southern Illinois University)
Embedded and Disembedded Tastes: Robust Food Cultures and the Abstractions of Contemporary Economic Culture
This paper explores the challenges of our contemporary food studies in relation the concepts of sensory and social embeddedness and disembeddedness. Far from an arbitrary symbol, food is often a “dense object,” which can condense meanings and conceal them in its very mundane everydayness (Weiner 1992, Lemonnier 2010). Arguing for a gustemological, or food-centered worldview, I explore some of the ways that our cooking and eating is situated as local knowledge and in communities of social practices and collective memory, and how these may come under threat from processes of abstraction by which something is removed “from the social and practical contexts in which it previously existed” (Carrier 1998). Drawing on my research on the Greek island of Kalymnos, on the Greek Economic Crisis and the Refugee Crisis in Greece, I will argue for the significance to an approach that considers memory and the sensory experience of food as deeply embedded in local contexts that may not be easily transferable, commodifiable or manipulable in a scientific laboratory. Moreover, a focus on the localized and embedded aspects of robust food cultures such as Greece points us to the ways that the social intimacies of food practices and food symbolism can often come to stand for sociability itself and in opposition to the abstractions and distance-making projects of neoliberalism and of economics more broadly. Far from a special topic in anthropology, food is as central to social life and social reproduction as kinship, exchange or ritual (indeed, it forms a substantial part of each of these), and this should be reflected in a 21st century anthropology.
Virginia Nazarea (University of Georgia)
Moving Sentiment, Assigning Heft
In December 2004, the Repatriation Agreement was signed between the International Potato Center (CIP) and the communities of the Potato Park. The first treaty of its kind to acknowledge not only the rights of local custodians to their germplasm but also the benefits that humanity has derived from its use, it sought to return the native potatoes collected by the CIP gene bank in Lima to their original custodians, the Quechua farmers of Cusco.
Conservation of plant genetic resources involves collection, cleaning, characterization, and layers of containment---in multi-ply foil envelopes, in drawers of filing cabinets, and in cold-storage facilities. One way of looking at it is as a progressive dis-embedding of potatoes from their context. From this perspective, repatriation is a process of re-embedding what has been delocalized, but is it?
Potatoes are wawas or babies to the Quechua farmers who cultivate them. They are swaddled in blankets and sung to; they “walked” and displayed. They are scolded when they dare disappear and are found again. How different is the linear model of collection and repatriation of germplasm material from the more complex fabric of endearment and estrangement, and from cultural conceptions of loss and return?
Implicit in the idea of conserving biodiversity is deciding what counts as such, and for how much. Here, I examine the dis-embedding/re-embedding project of biodiversity conservation. I use a framework of containment and contagion in looking at how potatoes are "weighted" and "moved" --- and how they move different actors, within and across scales.
Cristina Grasseni (Universiteit Utrecht)
Intimacy at Scale
While many take the success of the local food movement almost for granted, what does it actually take to relocalize at least a fraction of our food provisioning? Which repertoires and tools are required? Which imaginaries are mobilized? Does it mean the same for producers and consumers?
I will draw on my work with food activists (Beyond Alternative Food Networks. Italy’s Solidarity Purchase Groups, 2013) and cheese producers (The Heritage Arena. Reinventing Cheese in the Italian Alps, forthcoming 2016) to outline a complex scenario of localized interventions, which work thanks to social, sensorial and cultural intimacy but aspire to grow to scale, for example, in order to impact their regional economies.
Community-driven geographical indications and Slow Food presidia support a politics of re-localization through "heritage" foods, such as mountain cheese. Nevertheless, they do so without challenging the premises of commodity-marketing, and use the rhetoric of heritage not so much to ‘convert’ consumers to alternative provisioning but rather to ‘seduce’ them. Vice versa, food activists use the language of ‘co-production’ to problematize the division of roles between producer and consumer. Addressing a blatant void in trust in the food system, they try to re-embed proximity in their food systems and harness it as a measure of transparency.
Food heritage and food activism often borrow from each other's repertoires, embracing substantial ambiguities about localism and performativity, while striking a subtle and sometimes ambivalent balance on the meaning of the ‘locally sourced’.
Wim Van Daele (University of Oslo)
Body-Person and Symptom: The Entanglement of Food, Health, and Well-Being in Sri Lankan Ayurveda
This paper explores how the entanglement of food, health, and well-being is conceptualized in Ayurveda and how contemporary illnesses are regarded as symptoms of transformations in the food system and wider social change in Sri Lanka. Ayurveda is a South Asian health system that has an integrative approach to the enmeshment of the body, mind, and the world wherein food plays a core constitutive role. Food nourishes the basic elements and humours that co-compose the body and mind, and thus eating and digestion are core processes in the ongoing formation and fluctuation of the body-person. When the basic constituents are in balance in correspondence with the outer world, one achieves good health and well-being. When food alters within the context of a modified food system where food processing, preparation, and consumption get transformed, the body-person gets intimately affected in its very composition and being. This paper specifically explores the ways in which Sri Lankan people get affected by this evolution through the rise of ‘heat-related’ non communicable diseases in Ayurvedic terms. As such, these illnesses are regarded as symptoms of a changing food system embedded within larger evolutions in society. Throughout the discussion it becomes clear that Ayurveda discusses symptoms and social change at a very sensorial level of the qualities of the basic elements—earth, water, wind, fire, and ether—that co-constitute both the world and body-person.
Annemarie Mol (University of Amsterdam)
Vies: Eating and the art of sensuous disengagement
(With Thomas Franssen & Anna Mann)
In taste laboratories the sensuous encounters of humans and foods are carefully orchestrated in such a way that other concerns don’t interfere. In the sociological tradition, by contrast, taste preferences are tied to hierarchical distinctions between social groups. It is against this background that we organised a modest inquiry into what in Dutch is called ‘vies eten’. That is to say: we asked social science students to present us with auto-ethnographic notes about moments when they ate some food or other even though it tasted truly bad to them. From these materials we learned two things. One, if people deem the sensuous quality of what they eat to be poor (if they consider some food or other to be disgusting), they may still swallow it as there are greater goods that, then and there, happen to count for more. We offer a list of such greater goods: hunger, health, holiness, harmony and money. Two, deciding that swallowing this or that food is good to do even though it is bound to be unpleasant does not just involve a moral calibration. It also depends on the physical ability to bite off, chew and swallow said food and to avoid throwing it up again. In a second list we lay out a few of the bodily techniques that our informants use: picking out the most obnoxious bit, adding sauce or other toppings, holding one’s breath, going slow, going fast, putting one’s mind elsewhere. Jointly our two lists reveal that and how engaging with food as an eater may go together with disengaging from the sensuous qualities of the encounter.
Meredith Abarca (The University of Texas at El Paso)
Culinary Subjectivities in Coming to Food Stories
“Food.” A compete and complex thought in a single word. Austin Clarke begins his memoir, Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit, with such complete thought. The very next sentence offers food’s complexity: “It is a word that defines my life.” The book is filled with intimate moments that connect him to his mother and other women who raise him, but such private, affective and sensory recollections incorporate his individual self into a collective history and culture of Barbados. Speaking of why she writes memoirs, Haitian Edwidge Danticat states: “When I write about myself I always imagine the person or persons I’m sharing with as people I am really close to: family, friends, and intimates. I think that is the only way I can convince myself that an eager audience is waiting to hear these very personal things from me.” Food and memoirs are intimate affairs only because they are experienced publically and socially.
The goal of this article is to introduce the concept of culinary subjectivities as a process to address how and why food has the power to define our lives. In exploring two aspects of food in concert, to nourish and to feed, I tease how an intimate sense of self and a collective self are negotiate and preform through food materially and symbolically. Our culinary subjectivities are made up of these two aspects of food, which I use within their Spanish etymology: nutrir (to nourish) and alimentar (to feed). Through the analysis of culinary memoirs, which I propose to think of as coming to food stories, I examine how food nourish and feed us (or not). To nourish is the means by which our physical body is sustained with nutrients. Yet what feeds our sense our social, cultural, imaginative and affective self is a web of complex and ambivalent relationships to food. Our culinary subjectivities, therefore, weaves the material and the symbolic; it brings together the “dietary with the poetic.” Coming to food stories reflect how our embodied culinary experience, knowledge and palate memories shift from the personal to the collective, from the past to the present, from the local to the global. Furthermore, coming to food stories show how culinary subjectivities reflect an ever changing palate loyal not to a single racial, ethnic, class, and national ideology.
Angela Meah (University of Sheffield)
Managing family intimacy through everyday food practices
That food figures as a central dynamic in the enactment and accomplishment of everyday life in families is well documented. Whether through acts of shopping, cooking or decisions about what and where to eat, the practices which constitute feeding the family are entangled with emotional care-giving. Drawing upon ethnographic data collected in Northern England, this paper examines the ways in which families manage intimacy through everyday food practices, presenting a challenge both to what is deemed to be constitutive of ‘care’ – as a dimension of intimacy – as well as assumptions regarding the gendered character of everyday domestic foodwork. Firstly, in drawing attention to the ways in which men’s often invisible or unacknowledged contributions to foodwork is constitutive of care, it raises questions concerning how the relationship between gender and intimacy is conceptualised in the context of feeding the family. Secondly, developing Warde’s (1997) ideas concerning the culinary antinomy of convenience and care it examines how – rather than being the antithesis of care, as ‘lazy’ or lacking in thought or effort – ‘convenience’ foods are deployed as a vehicle through which care and devotion are expressed within families, enabling us to reconceptualise convenience foods as part of the material culture of love within families. This analysis makes visible the ways in which particular commodities as well as the social relations surrounding the organisation of foodwork are valued within the circuits of intimacy which constitute everyday domestic life.
Kaitlin Fertaly (University of Colorado Boulder)
Debating Domesticity: Intimate Geopolitics in Post-Socialist Armenia
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian citizens have had to consider whether they should aspire to European identities or if they should remain within the sphere of Russian influence. European standards of living and the values of “freedom,” “openness,” and “individualism” came with the economic transformation to neoliberal capitalism and represent aspirations for a “modern” way of living. Russian leaders, on the other hand, have historically supported Armenia in terms of economics and security, yet actively reject “open” gender and family values locally associated with Europe. Debates over these values and their geopolitical implications exist at the national scale and within the intimate spaces and daily practices of the family life. This paper examines the domestication of identity and geopolitics into intimate spaces by drawing on critical geography of home studies, the feminist “global intimate,” and empirical research in post-socialist Armenia to explore how geopolitical identity is marked on women’s bodies within domestic spaces and through food practices. Domestic spaces are a key site for analyzing how these changes are played out. I consider how identification with the Soviet past, Armenian nationalism, and European identity are domesticated through food practices, bodily habits, and material culture within the home, often in contradictory ways. I show how women’s bodies and intimate lives bear the burdens of this geopolitical debate.
Heather Paxson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Moving Foods Across National Borders: Anticipatory Notes on Research to Come
This paper explores the movement of perishable foods across international borders. Foods that show up at U.S. ports of entry, whether packed into a refrigerated cargo container or the suitcase of an airline passenger, are subject to federal inspections that may result in a refusal of entry. Importers and brokers, customs officials and safety inspectors work to “requalify” (Callon et al.) goods as permissible or impermissible on the basis of synecdochic relations between foods, the relational elements of their composition (including opportunistic infection or infestation), and their broader ecologies of production (e.g., the regulatory and hygienic conditions from which they emerged). What can we learn with and about the temporalities and mobilities of foods as they cross (or try to cross) the semi-permeable thresholds that define and connect the bodies politic of nation-states, and that make possible while restrictively defining the flow of international trade? What diversity of tastes is precluded in the effort to prevent the absorption of “foreign pests”: insects, larvae or disease-causing bacteria and fungi that could harm domestic industries or natural resources? To what extent is the metabolism of a body politic, putatively governed by regulation, able to dictate absorptions at its borders?
Harris Solomon (Duke University)
On Life Support
This paper takes up the problem of life support in the context of an emergency trauma ward in Mumbai, India. It works through the problem of how food becomes life in moments of tracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation. I explore this form of medical resuscitation as a form of feeding, across both its successes and failures in trauma cases. The essay engages air as a critical substance, and examines the acts of feeding and withdrawal that mechanical ventilation demands. My aim is to evoke how acts of giving and taking are part of the complex movements of death’s immanent approach. The broader aim is to assert that the moral economy of breath shares many features of the moral economy of feeding, especially through a shared orientation to overconsumption. This is because breath or air can be like food. Yet, even though the logics are parallel, they are both grossly over-determined by systems of violence. Resuscitation acts, their ethics, and their materializations as feeding shed light on broader issues about the connections between food and life. Differential exposure to the violence of traumatic injury guarantees that the choice to breathe is not a choice at all. As such, it is important to shift conversations about (over)consumption to conversations about the moral economies that underpin claims to overconsumption.
Hannah Landecker (University of California, Los Angeles)
The Food of our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism
This paper recounts the history of medicated feed for agricultural animals in the twentieth century United States. While there has been some appreciation of the addition of antibiotics and hormones to feed as growth promoters, given worries about these as adulterations of the end-product that is milk and meat for human consumption, the systematic remaking of animal feed since the turn of the twentieth century has gone underappreciated. This paper traces the science of the “animal as converter,” with metabolism and feed efficiency as work objects in the effort to make more with less. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fungal enzymes, short chain fatty acids, arsenical medicines, anti-oxidants, and many other substances are part of this story, many of which were also then used in human food fortification and engineering. As a result of the focus on feed efficiency in the science-industrial effort to promote growth, what we know about many of these elements is confined to how they affect growth, a positive knowledge that has obscured the many other questions one might ask about how these nutritional components affect animals, microbiota, environments, and humans. This paper argues that a more systematic history of agricultural feeding points not toward the industrialization of discrete foodstuffs or activities (cows, farming), but toward the industrialization of metabolism. In this history one can see how the metabolic inter-conversions of different bodies were rearticulated in the name of feed efficiency, establishing new flows of matter and energy through microbes, animals, plants and humans.
Alex Blanchette (Tufts University)
Making Agribusiness Palatable: On Hog Viscera, Pet Food, and the Trade in Industrial Sense Impressions
This paper is about the making of industrial sense impressions. It centers on the ongoing history of pet food palatants, which emerge in the wake of the American factory hog farm. Palatants are taste powders derived from uniform hog viscera (lungs and livers), which have been treated with enzymes to produce chemical reactions that are attractive to a given species. They are made from the excess wastes of industrialized hog killing, and, since the 1990s, have been added to pet foods to compel other species to consume even more wastes of industrialized hog killing. The current result is that three palatant companies now compete for monopoly control over the majority of cats’ and dogs’ experience of taste. This paper uses palatants to re-think aspects of industrial pork production, including: whether factory farms are ultimately about making meat for human consumption; how the ongoing lives of living pigs are tied to the circulations of their dead ancestors’ body parts; and how monocultural overproduction of animal parts are remaking the rural United States into a site of offshore investment. The paper’s provocation is to suggest that we cannot understand how humans eat — the traditional subject of anthropological food studies — without attention to how other species eat.
Marianne Lien (University of Oslo)
The Making and Unmaking of Food, Landscapes, and More-Than-Human Relations in the Arctic
This paper draws on the insight of Yates-Doerr, Mol and others that food does not exist outside the practices through which it comes into being. Rather than approaching food as transcending boundaries of insides/outsides, I explore instead how food is involved in the ongoing practices enacting, stabilizing and negotiating such boundaries, and thus take part in the making and unmaking of insides and outsides, of people and things. I draw the attention to ontological and performative dimensions of food, eating and gift exchange, and approach them not merely as representations of a taxonomic or categorical order, but as practices through which the notions of ‘food’, ‘body’, ‘relation’ or ‘social person’ are enabled and take form. My ethnographic focus is coastal Finnmark in North Norway, and specific practices that enact fluid landscapes and social entities through instances conventionally described as food procurement, food preparation and gift exchange. Engaging the Sámi notion meahcci, I seek to transcend the Maussian separation of gift/giver/recipient, and explore instead how more-than-human relational practices constitute the valued objects in the first place, just as the relations that allow them to travel constitute people as social persons as well as the landscape as valued terrain. Ethnographic snippets call into question 1) conventional categorical separations of the subject eater and that which is eaten 2) the category of fish species and 3) gendered identities and more-than-human collectives.
Amy Moran-Thomas (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Animate Thresholds: Metabolic Disarray and Planetary Health in a Small Place
This ethnography from Garifuna Belize joins an emerging body of work that charts experiences of a global diabetes epidemic, and considers the metabolic disorders of people in relation to those of overheating planetary environs. Following scenes from a particular human life as a way of thinking with images, this narrative brings together a collage of juxtaposed clues about toxicity that raised (durably unanswerable) questions about food’s embroilment in larger mutating landscapes. While “situated biologies” connecting animals, plants, microbes, petrochemicals, and atmospheres are increasingly taken as unsurprising in academic social theory, such entanglements often remain completely unrecognizable as conundrums that might be spoken about between patients and caregivers in clinics. Observing the multiplicity and elision of various thresholds—explanatory, chemical, nutritional, bodily, religious, regulatory, existential—as experienced beyond expert domains, these overlaid thresholds can appear rigidly defined or policed as often as they highlight material porosities. Amid blurry questions of causality and chronic response being lived out, both lively and lethal, this paper explores how food becomes entangled with death as well as life. It experiments with the potentials and limits of an impressionist style of anthropology, and the question of how to write a people-centered ethnography in a multispecies world.
Deborah Heath (Lewis & Clark College)
Cosmologies, Ontologies and A Gentle Empiricism: Biodynamic Viticulture in New Zealand
Biodynamic viticulture, launched in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, links the multispecies ecology of the vineyard to celestial cycles through homeopathic composts and teas. Through examples from biodynamic vineyards in New Zealand, this essay considers multiple ontologies (Mol 2003, 2013) alongside multiple cosmologies, ways of being in relation to modes of world-making that lead either to increasing environmental precarity or to survival strategies within the present moment in capitalist world-ecology (Moore 2014, 2016) that some call the Anthropocene. Grounded in the practices of engaged observation that Goethe called “a delicate empiricism,” the biodynamic ecology of practices may be seen as an instance of what Stengers (2011) calls slow science, in contrast to the time-space compression of extractive industrial-chemical agriculture. This essay extends the conversation in the “ontological turn,” highlighting longstanding contributions from feminist STS that consider more-than-human socialities along with an ethics of care.
Emily Yates-Doerr (University of Amsterdam)
The placenta: An Ethnographic Analysis of Nourishing Relations
What conceptual tools do we have to think with – and write about – relations of eating and feeding? How do possibilities for ethnographic authorship shift when the author is not singular? I bring these questions together through empirical concern for the ‘miraculous conduit’ of the placenta—an organ that materializes metabolic contradictions by being, in the very same moment, harmful and healthy, wanted and repellent, life-giving and deadly, self and other. This paper experiments with the anthropological method of personal, lived experience, while making evident that the person, life, and experience are not definitively located in a body.