Consuming like a colonizer.

Image by Ken-ichi Ueda |

Image by Ken-ichi Ueda |

The article below is modified from a presentation at the 2015 British Columbia Political Studies Association conference.

There are perhaps two forms of existence, of being. “Being” in the sense of the physical – the molecular and atomic structures of our material selves – and being in the ontological sense – the social structures in which we are embedded and those that constitute the foundations of our sense of self. The physical and ontological senses of being are mutually constitutive, yet remain commonly divided in the mind/body split, a dualism that I believe is a false dichotomy. I propose that food is the medium that bridges, or rather, dissolves these two forms of being – the physical and the ontological – into one another. Food has become the materialist narrative through which I have started to make sense of thoughts involving power, violence, war, anxiety, the history of Science, and most recently, colonialism.

As a child who grew up in suburban not-so-nice parts of Toronto, my access to good, nutrient-dense, and affordable food was limited. My permanent ontological status regarding (and therefore relationship to) food is one of anxiety. And yet, this is likely a shared anxiety, one in which calorie-counting has become normativized and food quality reduced to “nutritional facts” labels. Arguably worse is orthorexia nervosa – an eating disorder wherein those afflicted display parallel obsessions with food, but with pathologically “healthy” eating in this case. The prefix ortho- denotes correct, what is upright or properly aligned. The arrival of a new category of eating disorder – although still unofficial – is deeply troubling. First it raises the question as to why and how mass anxiety has manifested itself in the form of overcorrected eating, and secondly, how the pathologization of consumption is an ongoing practice in the medical sciences.

Michel Foucault has written extensively about instruments of power exerting themselves on individual subjects, those instruments being the institutions of the school, barracks, and prisons, for example. Just as the prison manufactured its delinquents, and schools manufacture generations of “blank” minds to be molded at the start of every September, the modern food system and the discourses of knowledge around it have led to particular modes of anxious “being”.

Surprising at first, but quite unsurprising after some thought, many innovations in modern food production come from scientific advances initially made for the purposes of warfare. Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that “an army marches on its stomach,” and offered a reward to anybody capable of innovating food preservation, subsequently leading to the discovery of airtight food preservation; canning. Similarly, the gases used in WWI chemical warfare were precursors to mass pesticides. Most pertinent, however, is the development of the food pyramid and the food guide based on military studies on soldier nutrition. Already we begin to uncover how a particular form of scientific knowledge, one that is produced and legitimized by the force of warfare, and one that finds its perpetuation through innovations in science, undergirds our conventional relationships to food. Foucault has said, “the exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information. […] The exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power.” (Foucault, p. 51-52)

Montalvo and Zandi, authors in the Bolivia Action Solidarity Network, were the first to bring to my attention the modern food system as a colonial structure, one which perpetuates imperialist violence, exploitation, and domination. In their effort to identify latent and diffuse powers of colonialism, they identify the modern food system as operating

within institutions of power that perpetuate the colonial worldview and within social movements that dream of better worlds. […] Therefore, we use the term “paradigm of war” to refer to the political naturalization and cultural stabilization of settler colonialist ways of being. In this context, war is no longer a state of exception but the order of the day, as colonial relations of exploitation, domination and violence become ‘normal’ facets of everyday life. The colonial wound itself, as it were, remains open. (Montalvo and Zandi)

If we recall the legacy of wartime innovation in food production, preservation, and consumption – in other words, the legacy of war and scientific military innovation in birthing elements of the modern food system – as well as take seriously Montalvo and Zandi’s “paradigm of war”, the basic metabolic need to eat takes on the form of the individual’s own unwitting participation in sustaining and practicing colonialism. Consumption becomes colonization when one considers food production and its violent history. (In Foucauldian terms, a colonial paradigm of war is sustained through the biopolitical regulation of the metabolic population through food.)

My project here is to further this by claiming that how this comes about is through the rationalizing and categorizing practices of science, providing the necessary discursive power/knowledge to sustain this latently colonial order. War is the practice of administration, par excellence, creating hierarchies, ranking, categorizing, classifying. The rationalizing sciences rely on similar, yet variant, modes of administration in the pursuit of facts, of a truth. But while war provokes particularly negative sentiments, scientific discourse is taken as a legitimate speaking of the truth. In its contemporary revival of Enlightenment thought, the pursuit of a transcendental truth remains incongruent with the structuralist position wherein truths are spoken into being, and the truth put into history books is the hegemonic discourse of those with the technologies of power. In this case, Colin Gordon states, “[w]hat corresponds here […] to a technology of power is the oppressive process of the objectification of human beings, which falsifies their real essence as it does that of the natural world as well.” (Foucault, p. 238)

The administrative capacities of scientific discourse were first revealed in the military and its barracks as apparatuses of imperialist power, and now scientific administration finds itself in the biopolitical regulation of bodies through food. Colin Gordon, again, in the Afterword of Foucault’s Power/Knowledge, writes that

the historical matrix of conditions of possibility for the modern human sciences must be understood in relation to the elaboration of a whole range of techniques and practices for the discipline, surveillance, administration and formation of populations of human individuals. These forms of knowledge and these apparatuses of power are linked in a constitutive interdependence. (Foucault, p. 239)

The metabolics of the individual subjects that comprise a population of human individuals is subverted through the discourse of food as nutrition or fuel (quite an industrial, bodily alienating, and widely accepted metaphor), no longer founded upon indigenous or cultural foodways.

Food from the modern food system has been discursively transformed into fuel and nutrition as calculated and regimented consumptions. I would like to forward that anxiety emerges from the incongruency between the regimentation of food and the aleatory nature of the material world. The individual subject internalizes this incongruency, the one that situates biopolitical power/knowledge discourses of eating practices atop unpredictable realities, only to wind up externalizing his felt anxieties through conditions like orthorexia nervosa, conditions that the scientific power/knowledge regime will pathologize.

Remembering that the human being is constituted in two senses of being, the human body is not impervious to the material and epistemic conditions of colonialism, science, and paradigms of war in the modern food system.

This post was originally published by Sustainable Collective, which has since merged with The Starfish Canada.