Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics, by Chad Lavin

Erika Cudworth discusses neoliberalism’s ‘digestive turn’

August 15, 2013

Academic work on food and eating is often insufficiently political, even when it invokes the term “food politics”. By contrast, Eating Anxiety is a thoroughly political book. Exploring contemporary and historical discourses of food, eating and diet, Chad Lavin introduces the concept of “digestive subjectivity” in order to rethink the politics of consumerism and public health, understandings of political identity, the operation of political power and the processes and ideologies associated with modernity, democracy and globalisation.

Food, as Lavin notes, “is rarely only food”. Rather, what we eat and how we eat is contested. Food is political in a number of ways. At one level, a range of anxieties are associated with the food we eat – we are threatened by the presence of pesticides, trans fats, salt and super-sized portions. As a result, consumers require protection from corporations and also from themselves via political intervention. Equally politicised is the production of food within networks of globalised agribusiness, production that undermines the regionalism of diet and the link between diet and national identity. Whoever and wherever we are, as a current advertising campaign reminds us, “we all have McDonald’s in common”. Third, what is eaten is also political. The issue of meat production raises questions about our relationships with the animals we eat and the ways we breed, grow and kill them for food. It has also been bound up with debates on climate change and other issues in global environmental politics; and in questions of justice for food-impoverished populations in regions of the global South.

Particularly important for Lavin, however, are the less obvious ways in which food is politically constituted by what Michel Foucault called “biopolitics”. Discourses of food, past and present, “participate in a novel technology of population management”. Lavin suggests that the discourses of food at the start of the 21st century in particular are part of general political trends associated with neoliberal order: heightened surveillance, individual responsibility and the generation of property rights.

This biopolitics of food and its links to neoliberalism is the key thread connecting the diverse subject matter of Eating Anxiety. Dieting, for example, is highly political – the focus of a burgeoning industry and subject to critique. Contemporary discourses of diet emphasise individual responsibility and self-mastery, whether we are controlling calorie intake, suppressing appetite with amphetamines or tricking our hormones with the Atkins diet. This is not a retreat from politics, but a shifting of political terrain towards the fashioning of “entrepreneurial subjects” who engage in self-surveillance and self-control. The politics of eating has a lengthy history that Lavin traces through ideas about “civilisation”. This is linked to the development of the liberal conception of the self-contained individual as the bedrock of political order. His discussion of the “digestive turn” in political thought unpicks this liberal conception of the sovereign individual and looks (inconclusively) for an alternative basis for politics based on the recognition of human vulnerability.

Readers not so drawn by political philosophy will find the discussion of anxieties around obesity and responsibility provocative and fun. As Lavin summarises, “the fat person is not merely a defective individual, but a bad citizen” who must learn to eat responsibly. This problematic recourse to the responsible individual consumer ties together discussions of organic, local and vegetarian food movements. Yet Lavin is aware that unsettling the notion of the sovereign individual with rights, political agency and consumer autonomy comes at a cost in the absence of an alternative. In a disappointingly weak conclusion to an engaging book, he gives us little insight into how this might be developed.

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