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  • Eating and the Imagination of Politics: Introduction
  • Chad Lavin (bio)

In an 1850 review of Dutch physiologist Jakob Moleschott’s bestselling book The Theory of Food, Ludwig Feuerbach coined the now well-worn phrase “You are what you eat” (more lyrical in the German, “Der Mensch ist was er isst”). While today this phrase stands as a piece of folk wisdom on par with “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the point for Feuerbach was to debunk both spiritualism and humanism by showing that the human body – and human being – is nothing more than metabolized stuff. In Feuerbach’s review, entitled “Natural Science and Revolution,” materialism promised to reconcile humans with nature (as well as subjects with objects) by noting how matter and energy flow into and out of bodies through either end of the digestive tract. Owning up to the realities of digestion, he suggested, gives lie to the liberal ideals of sovereignty and autonomy, and reveals the human condition as one of vulnerability and dependence. For Feuerbach, Moleschott’s materialism recommended a radical politics that traded individualism for an existential community.1

This symposium similarly uses the occasion of eating to re-imagine political possibility. Like Feuerbach, the essays here use eating as an example of the transactions that form and maintain existence, and in each essay one sees how the organization of food reveals some of our most intensely felt ethical, political, and aesthetic judgments. As the most intimate encounter with the world – the moment at which objects actually become indistinguishable from the self, an intensive rather than extensive form of labor – eating offers a uniquely productive site at which to examine our commitments to that world. This symposium thus calls attention to the role of food in the production and maintenance of nation, community, and self.

Sometimes, food plays this role simply because the demands of food are felt more preciously than other kinds of demands. The global grain crises of 2008, for instance, gave new urgency to otherwise abstract concerns about neoliberalism (since, as Mike Davis and Amartya Sen have shown, mass starvation typically results from political and economic decisions rather than absolute food shortages), climate change (pointing to a crucial Australian drought), environmental politics (questioning the conversion of so much grain to biofuels), and intellectual property (due to the patenting and corporate control of seed technologies).2 Other times, food allows for a re-imagining of politics because of its ability to displace more unwieldy political concerns. Debates over rising obesity rates in the US, for example, are typically couched in concerns about individual or public health. But scratch the surface of these arguments, and it becomes clear that what is at stake is not so much health as the enduring viability of established conceptions of responsibility.3 Recent panics about E. coli in organic spinach and melamine in Chinese imports similarly traveled in the vernacular of managed risk and public health, but they barely concealed pervasive and obvious anxieties about biocapitalism, national sovereignty, and immigration.

To take one theme common to each of the essays in this symposium: it seems clear that food politics are in many ways implicated in the imagination of national identity. This is the case not only because, as sociologists and anthropologists have been chronicling for decades, cuisines, celebrations, and manners define cultures. It is also because it is through food that bodies find their most immediate relationship to land. The recent popularity of “local” and “slow” foods has explicitly capitalized on this relationship, reasserting the priority of place just when globalization would seem to be calling that priority into question. Local foods and regional cuisines, in other words, promise to restore an attachment to territory that has underwritten national sovereignty since the 17th Century. And so while the local foods trend has obvious and urgent ecological, dietary, and culinary impulses, it seems difficult to divorce its drive from the geopolitics of Empire and a longing for national authenticity in what Benjamin Barber called McWorld.4

The essays in this symposium use a variety of examples to explore the role of food in the political imagination – from the assertion of national identity during the Cold War...

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