A STUDY OF CONTEMPORARY FOOD WRITING

As it is essential to human survival. food is an important subject of study. Primarily, food supplies many of the nutrients and calories that sustain the human body. Food is a link with nature because it is a product of the earth and the production of food is a direct interaction with nature. Therefore the manner in which a society produces and consumes food has powerful implications for ecology, and the ubiquitous nature of food makes it a potential indicator of broader socio-economic conditions.

Some contemporary writers have identified serious issues related to the production and consumption of food such as deforestation, pollution, emissions, foodborne illness, antibiotic use, animal treatment, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and loss of community. Much of the blame is placed on an industrial form of agriculture, as well as a separation between consumers and farmers. In doing so, contemporary food writers use language similar to that of Karl Marx in his description of alienation.

Marx held that workers subjected to a system of industrial wage labor are separated from important elements of life; in more radical terms, alienation describes a condition in which workers are de-humanized. Karl Marx describes four forms of alienation that arise from wage labor: including alienation from the product of labor, alienation from the activity of labor, alienation from the species being, and alienation from each other.

Organized plots at Virginia Tech’s modern industrialized farm. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech / John McCormick

Organized plots at Virginia Tech’s modern industrialized farm. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech / John McCormick

Wage labor is essentially the sale of time (labor-time) for money (wages). Sales are transfers of ownership, so when the workers sell their labor-time, they explicitly agree to labor but not own their labor-time or its products. Marx’s foundational work on alienation was specifically meant to describe effects of wage labor on factory workers, but as a critique of industrialization the concept can be used to analyze other industrialized practices like agriculture and food. This paper’s discussion of food will attempt to explore a view of alienation as a lack of meaningful ownership, and the inclusion of a fifth form of alienation from the earth.

In Alienation from the product of labor, “[t]he worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object” (Marx 72). For Marx, the worker materially invests a portion of his self in the product, and when the product is inevitably taken away the worker has lost that portion of their life. In Bertrand Ollman’s understanding of Marx, these alienated products create a condition of oppression. For the wage laborer, “[h]is products face him as something given, both as to amount and form. The resulting interaction between the worker and his product, therefore, becomes one of total adjustment on the part of the former to the requirements (and hence the demands) of the latter” (Ollman 146). The product becomes the subject and the wage-laborer the object meaning the laborer becomes a tool of the products creation. The product’s needs are a priority over the needs of the laborer. This sort of alienation leads to conditions like child labor where developmental needs are ignored because children’s hands are smaller or they incur lower costs. Food producers are alienated from the product of their labor when they are exposed to dangerous chemicals for the purposing of generating high yields.

Ollman’s description of alienation from the product closely parallels the dominant mode of food consumption. Food products are often presented in grocery stores and fast food restaurants as fully made and ready to eat. Since these pre-made products are often high in fats, refined sugars, and salt, they make unusual demands on the body, which is then forced to adjust to the food. For instance, Type II diabetes is caused by repeated spikes in blood sugar, which wears down the body’s ability to produce insulin. This form of diabetes is essentially an adjustment in the body to pressure from food; when it is caused by pre-made foods like soda, it is a physical manifestation of alienation from the product.

Alienation from the activity of labor describes the wage-laborer’s loss of ownership in his personal labor. “The worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life or what is life other than activity – as an activity which is turned against him, neither depends on nor belongs to him. Here we have self-estrangement” (Marx 75). In order to labor the worker must produce and exert energy, but in alienated labor this energy has been traded away for wages. For Marx, this means that wages turn a material and internal element of the body into an external commodity. The owner of that labor directs it and therefore directs the body of the laborer, in this way the labor comes to control the laborer. The wage-laborer may be able to change jobs, but as long as he agrees to sell his labor time he has lost ownership over his self. This is a loss of self and not just time or energy because labor is the human creative force; it is through labor that people have historically defined themselves and shaped the material world.

This exists for food in two ways. Firstly, industrial farm workers are directly alienated from their labor when they are paid in wages. Secondly, the massive consolidations of industrial agriculture have resulted in both fewer farms and farmers. Most people are alienated from the activity of food production because most people no longer labor in order to produce food.

In alienation from the species being “[l]ife-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means of satisfying a need —the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species” (Marx 75-76). Wage labor reduces the laborer to a condition of just working to avoid a negative (death or hunger) instead of working towards a positive (the species being). The species being can be described as a higher importance that one’s work adds value to some larger human pursuit or has an impact on the larger social world.

Agriculture has the stated goal of feeding people, but often laborers involved in industrial agriculture cannot reasonably see the connection between their labor and feeding others. The slaughterhouse worker who knocks out the cows does not, by virtue of his work, see the whole chain of life and death that produces the cow or the edible meat. When the rancher has no involvement with the slaughterhouse and preparation facilities (beyond the act of sale) then he too has lost the connection to producing food. This is alienation from the species being. It is perhaps possible for these laborers to educate themselves about the process or otherwise know abstractly how their labor is connected to producing food, but the form of wage labor obscures it. The wage-laborer, almost by definition, works for the wage; and so the act of laboring becomes a barrier between labor and the wider social enterprise of that labor.

For the consumer of food, this alienation is also manifested as a disconnection from the whole process of production. The grocery store physically separates the eater from the farmer; complicated packaging and the chemical transformation of food products obscure the productive work that went into them. The consumers are put in a limited position by the presentation of food choices such that they cease to be involved in the social impact of their consumption is, and therefore cannot even begin to care. This is alienation from the species-being.

The fourth and last form, alienation from each other, arises from the first three, “[a]n immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his life-activity, from his species being is the estrangement of man from man” (Marx 77). Wage-laborers are not united in a common project and they have become alienated from themselves, thereby losing the need and capacity to connect with their peers.

The metabolic rift is a term used by John Bellamy Foster to describe an alienation from the earth. For Foster, metabolism describes the whole chain of energy extracted by agriculture from the land, passing through the body as food, and into production as energy. However, “... an ‘irreparable rift’ had emerged in this metabolism as a result of capitalist relations of production and the antagonistic separation of town and country” (Foster 141). Industrialization led to increasing urban populations, thereby physically separating many people from the rural practice of agriculture.

Involvement in agriculture is important because it uniquely reveals the dependence of people on the earth; it is a form of labor in which people exert some influence over their material surroundings. “Human beings, according to this conception, produce their own historical relation to nature in large part by producing their means of subsistence. Nature thus takes on practical meaning for humanity as a result of life-activity, the production of the means of life” (Foster 73). Agriculture is this production of life in the medium of the earth. Therefore the metabolic rift describes a condition in which most people cease to labor in the land they own; people may play or live on the land but they have little interaction with the earth. In this way alienation from the earth describes a lack of meaningful ownership.

Beyond agriculture, the metabolic rift obscures the dependence of production on natural resources and the natural limits of those resources. The metabolic rift sets up ecological disaster because it removes people from nature and destroys practical ecological knowledge.

Slow Food is concerned about food as both an ecological and consumptive issue. Bio-diversity, for instance, is a significant concern because more plant variety promotes natural disease and pest resistance and provides a wider variety of tastes to experience. Slow Food suggests that consumers can promote the right kind of farming and cooking; in this way Petrini advocates for food artisans at the level of agriculture and cuisine. Italian activist Carlo Petrini helped to establish the Slow Food movement as a response to the international homogenization of food (as epitomized by McDonalds). The movement is primarily interested in a more careful and appreciative consumption and production of food; Petrini calls this “gastronomy”.

The Local Foods movement is an attempt to create an agricultural system in which food is produced and processed in close proximity to consumers. Eating locally is largely an attempt to address the environmental impact of eating; by sourcing food locally some consumers hope to use fewer scarce oil resources and limit the carbon impact of transportation. Local food advocates, like Brian Halweil, also point to a lack of connection between food consumers and producers inherent in a separation of hundreds (or thousands) of miles.

In the book Food City, Novella Carpenter describes her personal attempts at urban gardening in Oakland, CA. Her project has three explicit goals. Firstly, she grows on her own to produce quality food at a lower price. Secondly, she wants to connect to her parents’ attempt to farm and therefore connect to her heritage. Thirdly, she wants to gain an intimate knowledge of food production; in particular, she wants to experience the moral pressures of raising and killing animals.

Barbara Kingsolver also makes an attempt to personally engage in food production; in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Kingsolver describes the experience of moving her family to rural Virginia and attempting to produce as much of their food as possible.

Carlo Petrini’s gastronomy is described in opposition to consumers’ alienation from the product and activity.

...it is precisely the gastronome’s skills - which range from a finely tuned sense of taste (a skill that has deep implications for our odorless and tasteless world) to knowledge of food production - that make him care very much about the world around him, make him feel that he is in a sense a co-producer of food, a participant in a shared destiny. (Petrini 1).

Taste connects the consumer to the food; the act of tasting is physical engagement with the material of the food. In Petrini’s “odorless and tasteless world” people cease to engage with food; so if the consumers lack taste, they are alienated from the product of food. By claiming that gastronomes are participants in food production, Petrini implies a lack of similar participation in non-gastronomes. The lack of engagement in food production is alienation from the activity of labor, so Petrini has described non-gastronomes as alienated.

Slow Food Nation identifies alienation from the species being in its concern for providing equal and widespread access to healthy food; “… the gastronome demands a quality which is recognizable to all and which can improve our lives - the lives of all of us, for he cannot exist in isolation” (Petrini 3). Slow Food embraces the larger social impacts of eating. Consumptive food choices impact what is produced, so better consumptive decisions can help producers make better productive decisions.

As articulated by Brian Halweil, the Local Foods movement responds to alienation from the product of labor by expressing concern for the effects of industrial agricultural products. “The transcontinental lettuce wowed supermarket shoppers with its unexpected appearance and novelty. But it also eliminated local lettuce growers, rendered salads bland and uninteresting, and sucked up more fossil fuels than the planet can afford” (Halweil 40). This “transcontinental lettuce” has confronted local producers and won; the product does not need their labor and therefore the farmer must adjust to the new conditions. The consumer of foods has to adjust to bland salads because the need for a product that can travel long distances outweighs the consumers need for taste. (This also relates back to the discussion of taste above). In this way, Halweil has almost explicitly described alienation from the product for both producers and consumers. Additionally, the overuse of fossil fuels is a symptom of the metabolic rift: the total amount of energy used is hidden from both producers and consumers.

Local food activists worry that many people have never been on a farm; and are completely unaware of the methods of production, in essence, that the whole of the activity of producing food is physically removed from most lives.

Farmers are professionals, with extensive knowledge of their local soils, weather, native plants, sources of fertilizer or mulch, native pollinators, ecology, and community. In a world where the land is no longer managed by such professionals, but is instead managed by distant corporate bureaucracies interested in extracting maximum output at minimum cost, what kind of food will we have, and at what price? (Halweil 67).

Farmers have been replaced by people without holistic knowledge of production and subject to the control of a corporation; this is, in other words, alienation from the activity of labor. This paragraph also suggests that alienated farm labor will produce poor food, so alienation in production may impact the consumer and create an antagonism between producers and consumers. This represents the rural and urban split (metabolic rift) as well as alienation from each other.

Local food producers are meant to combat this alienation and metabolic rift by creating community. Local farming means that local land will be owned in a meaningful way (labored on). The Local Foods movement also identifies studies that suggest buying local food address alienation from each other by creating connections between fellow shoppers and between the farmer and consumer. Halweil expresses a further concern for alienation from the earth among those in cities, “For urbanities in particular, local food might also provide one of the few remaining connections to nature, rural ways, rural people, and an awareness of what is happening to our food supply” (Halweil 162). So, instead of asking everyone to be a farmer, local foods hopes to make it easier for people to connect with farmers and know about the conditions on farms.

Alienation from the activity of labor can be seen in Novella Carpenter’s lack of experience with the activity of killing animals and, more basically, with growing food for sustenance. “’And I want to feel close to my food,’ I said, ‘to see what it means to raise it—and kill it’” (Carpenter 224). Much of her project is an attempt to address this deficiency of knowledge. She is continuously learning new cooking and gardening methods.

In Food City, Carpenter makes the connection between ownership and alienation from the activity of labor. When she is not engaged in meaningful labor with the land, her natural surroundings go unnoticed. In contrast, her environment seems to become less dangerous as she farms; the teenagers she once saw as gangsters become patrons and contributors. This marriage of meaning and interaction is precisely the opposite of alienation. The acts of producing her own food, becoming intimate with the soil, and killing her own animals addresses alienation from the product of her labor.

But in leaving it, I would take it with me, too. Not just in my body, which had ingested its riches and grown strong in the working of the farm, but in my spirit—all the things I had learned, my singing heart, my smile lines, my aching bones. I hadn’t truly owned any of this place. It had owned me (Carpenter 267).

In personally working her farm she felt a much deeper sense of connection, or ownership, to a piece of land than the person who legally owned it (a potential developer).

Alienation from the species being is represented by Carpenter’s attempts to connect to heritage, the degree to which she wants to share with her neighbors, and her concern for the impacts of modern food production on the poor. “This, I wanted to tell him, is your birthright, too. Your grandmother, like mine, grew her own tomatoes, killed her own chickens, and felt a true connection to her food. Just because we live in the city, we don’t have to give that up” (Carpenter 24). In this case alienation from the species being is represented as a disconnection from the historic human engagement with food production. Additionally, her farm is explicitly meant to feed others and improve the conditions in her community.

Carpenter thinks urban agriculture is superior (to Local Foods even) because it is necessarily social. “To be a farmer, Willow pointed out, was to share. Unlike a rural farm, a secret place where only a few lucky people may visit, an urban farm makes what seems impossible possible” (Carpenter 62). The urban farm is embedded directly in the community, and by growing food in the city she directly addresses the rural-urban split. In this, Carpenter also emphasizes practical knowledge; people may be able to know what happens on farms, but it is only in urban gardening that urban people can actually experience the process in a material and regular way.

Barbara Kingsolver’s food experience is somewhere in between the Local Foods’ and Carpenter’s approach. Her plan was to “take a food sabbatical, getting our hands dirty in some of the actual dying arts of food production” (Kingsolver 21-22). This meant her family would spend at least one year attempting to live as much as possible on food they had personally grown. Kingsolver makes a brief attempt to outline the powerful economic forces that shape agriculture and even discusses alienation explicitly.

In the case of modern food, our single-bolt job has become the boring act of poking the thing in our mouths, with no feeling for any other stage in the process. It’s a pretty obvious consequence that one should care little about the product. When I ponder the question of why Americans eat so much bad food on purpose, this is my best guess: alimentary alienation (Kingsolver 131).

This “alimentary alienation” specifically describes a consumptive alienation from the product: poking a pre-made thing into our mouths without engagement. In her analysis bad food is caused by alienation, or, perhaps, alienation makes people care less and the lack of care causes them to eat poorly.

Kingsolver also describes the metabolic rift as source of the current food system; in her words “The psychic divide between rural and urban people is surely a part of the problem” (Kingsolver 208). For Foster, the metabolic rift is a physical separation, but a “psychic divide” may be the result of a physical one. Furthermore, the move from urban Tucson to rural Virginia represents an attempt to deal with the physical element.

Kingsolver does not seem to want to ask other’s to make the same leaps her family has “[i]t’s not at all necessary to live on a food-producing farm to participate in this culture. But it is necessary to know such farms exist, understand something about what they do, and consider oneself basically in their court” (Kingsolver 21). But someone can be both alienated and know everything about the process of production. The wage-labor autoworker probably knows about the other parts of car-making because he is in the factory helping to produce the car, but at the end of the workday he takes no part in the ownership of that car.

Attempts to spread knowledge and encourage education are not sufficient means of de-alienation, in one part because alienation serves as a limit on knowledge and, in another because a loss of knowledge is only a symptom of alienation. The central problem of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that it recognizes the powerful forces that cause people to care less, but the novel’s prescription is to just try and care more. The actions Kingsolver describes may be interesting attempts to address alienation, but the novel itself (as an educational tool) does not help de-alienate anyone else.

Urban gardening may not be a sufficient solution if it remains small scale. Carpenter really lives off her farm only for a month, and even then it is incredibly difficult to do so. Alienation is never eliminated in Food City: part-time jobs create the income she needs to start and maintain the farm and she remains trapped in the wage-labor system. She even worries that her contributions to the community are insufficient. Acts of charity may be too infrequent or small, but as a movement urban farming may provide a meaningful and positive force.

By providing for the local poor and generously sharing the products of her garden, Novella Carpenter helps to develop a sense of greater purpose. She even develops non-wage work with a local chef. In this way Carpenter addresses the causes of alienation in wage labor and in the physical separation from the earth.

Local Foods may not adequately address the urban rural split and it suggests that a more personal economic interaction will result in less alienation. However, local farms are likely to remain rural and separate from their urban customers. Localizing food production might be a distraction from the real issues: distance may cause some problems, but alienation can exist even in close proximity to production. Local Foods is also problematic when it attempts to return to an overly ideal rural life. According to James McWilliams, a critic of Local Foods, “[n]o matter how ‘primitive’ or ‘pure’ the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory” (McWilliams 67). This may be interpreted as a claim that farming is always alienating; that by attempting to transform nature to our advantage one necessarily attempts to control and dominate it. In other words: agriculture necessarily involves an antagonism between farmers and farms.

However, if local food writing is overly optimistic about a return to pre-industrial agriculture, then McWilliams may be overly pessimistic. In nearly all of humankind’s activities humans interact with and change nature. Non-human animals change their physical environment to their advantage when they eat or build nests or travel. The metabolic rift is not a problem because production is involved, but rather because of the form of the production. McWilliams is right in pointing out that farming is focused on transforming our environment for productive gain. However, it is not necessary for that impact to be destructive. If alienation from the earth is caused in a lack of meaningful labor then farming will be a necessary part of any de-alienation.

Slow Food perhaps assumes too much about the capacity of individuals to make system-wide changes through consumptive choices. Furthermore, taste is not the worst part of industrial food; food processors are adept at altering the taste of pre-made food products, and those products are not alienating just because they taste bad. Petrini also seems to make the same mistake as Kingsolver by limiting his appeal for change to the realm of education, but in the case of Slow Food this seems to be a more material education. Gastronomy does require a physical engagement with food so perhaps this helps address alienation more directly. Slow Food may be successful in dealing with alienation because it can elevate food producers above the wage labor system by treating them as special producers.

A wide range of food issues can be seen as symptoms of alienation, so how can alienation be significantly addressed? Getting rid of wage labor seems like an obvious step, but is perhaps insufficient for problems like alienation from the earth. The solution must embrace labor’s powerful effect on both the self and the world. To be consistent with Marx the solution cannot remain at the level of advocacy or thought. This paper is only meant to draw attention to alienation in the realm of food and perhaps re-frame the discussion of food in a more productive light.

WORKS CITE

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Foster, John B. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review, 2000.

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GRAHAM DOWNEY


Graham is a senior from Falls Church, Virginia. He is planning to graduate in May of 2011 in Political Science with minors in Math and Philosophy. He plans to attend law school in the Fall of 2012. Graham would like to sincerely thank Dr. Lavin for guiding this research project and Dr. Dudley for helping him to initially explore the subject.