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  • Agriculture as "Writing"Some Thoughts on the Contemporary Relevance of Derrida's Of Grammatology
  • Scott Cutler Shershow (bio)

"Agriculture," writes Rousseau in the Essay on the Origin of Languages, "introduces property, government, laws, and gradually wretchedness and crimes" (Rousseau 1997, 272). As Derrida argues in Of Grammatology, the assumption that there is some genetic, historical, and conceptual relationship between agriculture and violence—and between both of these and writing—reemerges in the middle of the twentieth century in the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and elsewhere. According to the broad Rousseauistic argument that Lévi-Strauss recapitulates (and that, as I'll show here, remains familiar today), the emergence of organized farming and husbandry among ancient human beings led directly to the development of an organized society. This happened via a crucial "tool," writing, which, making it possible to record surpluses of production, also made possible a sedentary lifestyle, the development of permanent habitations, and, eventually, social [End Page 109] stratification and economic capitalization. Thus, in a fatal sequence, agriculture begat writing, and writing begat slavery, class, state power, and in general "man's inhumanity to man."

Both in Of Grammatology and "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida subjects Lévi-Strauss's version of this familiar argument to a thorough critique. He does not question, however, that there is some genetic and conceptual connection of agriculture and writing, and between both of these and violence; rather, he questions whether such observations necessarily yield the larger and more specific conclusions that Lévi-Strauss (and many others) have drawn from them. In the half century since Of Grammatology's publication, a deep suspicion about agriculture's effect on humanity, both individually and collectively, continues to emerge as a major theme in a wide range of both scholarly and popular discourse. Thus, as I'll suggest in this essay, the pertinence of Derrida's critique is even wider today than at the time of its original publication.

An aversion to agriculture has even reemerged with striking prominence in a somewhat incongruous location: as a central assumption guiding a number of popular approaches to dieting and health being widely followed in the United States and throughout the developed world. Perhaps most intriguing for this discussion is the so-called "stone-age" or "Paleo" approach, whose followers emulate the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers from the Paleolithic period, by adapting a diet heavy in fresh meat and, above all, avoiding any and all products of grain agriculture. The ultimate claim underlying both Paleo and a variety of other recent approaches to food health, one we will want to remember, is an alleged mismatch between our genes and our diet, or between what might be called the genetic and cultural programs of humanity. In other words, it is argued that humanity evolved to be hunter-gatherers, that our genes remain those of the carnivore, and that our grain-based diet is responsible for a whole spectrum of nutritional ailments. Anyone who even glances at the discourse of these contemporary diets, especially "Paleo," will be struck not only by how much of it there is but also by how these dietary plans are explained, pursued, and celebrated with the fervor and passion of a religion.

Such diets are also underwritten, even if often in a reductive and simplistic way, by well-established arguments in the human sciences and critical theory. [End Page 110] A suspicion of agriculture and its social consequences somehow unites thinkers (like Lévi-Strauss himself) driven by political and emancipatory concerns for humanity, with some very different kinds of discourses and texts, some of them bordering on hucksterism, that focus obsessively on individual bodily health (and, as has been pointed out, are addressed to and popular with relatively privileged, Western, white subjects1). Recalling the date of Derrida's critique of Lévi-Strauss (1967), one might even venture to see in this a version of a familiar narrative about the so-called "sixties"—whose utopian and collective aspirations, it is often claimed, later dwindled into a series of narcissistic "me-generations" obsessively focused on health, fitness, and personal "self...


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