Best of the blogs: Caught in the excesses

Mae skinned a deer and Kiersten peeled an onionEmma and Mariah took apart some sandwiches and found culture inside.  Spenser and Emily went dumpster-diving and fished up some big questions.  Charlotte was happy to discover farms on a fish-shaped island;  Annie was disconcerted to find fish in her corn. Jonathan focused on the value that knowledge of terroir adds to food while Rena asked about whether these kinds of ideas about food are exportable to “developing” places.

Many of you were operating in the spaces between categories, wondering how to find a foothold there.  Alicia struggled with the overlapping meanings (and marketing) of women, cows, and milk in dairy farming.  Lincoln wondered if an interspecies perspective could help overcome the many disconnections built into modern farming and eating.  Hilary challenged standard binaries by introducing us to the possibility of “good fast food.” Angel pointed out how racial and spatial politics continue to pose problems in reinventing mainstream patterns, and Ren urged us not just to reinvent those patterns but to escape them entirely. 


All of your “best of” blog selections, and the richness of your blogs in general, bring me back to the idea of “excess,” which we encountered in that dense but important Rachel Slocum piece about race in the study of food.  Slocum sees gastronomy—cooking, eating, and talking about food—as a kind of art, which like other art forms is ultimately difficult to contain within neat categories or ideas. Paraphrasing feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz, Slocum argues that food, like art, is “not quite subjective and experiential nor fully objective and measurable” and that its impact “is not something that happens between a subject and object, it is a third thing that connects the two.” [1]  It’s excessive;  it’s inherently volatile;  it’s forever spilling over, creating confusion and mess and delight.  Because food carries this over-abundance of meaning, ideas about it can never be fully controlled by anyone—not moralizing activists or monopolistic corporations or well-meaning policy-makers.

When I read over all of your “best of the blogs” postings, what kept striking me was the extent to which your discussions were getting caught in that space of excess and unstable meanings.  And I don’t mean “getting caught” in a negative way.  What I enjoyed about reading the posts together was the sense of your willingness to engage with the many mind-bending paradoxes that food and farming in modern capitalist societies present us with.  Nothing in your writing was really settled, but it spelled out the paradoxes and complexities with real skill and subtlety.

In our second class session, I mentioned Sandra Batie’s idea of the “wicked problem”—i.e. a social problem that’s difficult to solve or even to talk about because there’s so little consensus about root causes and desired outcomes. [2]  Batie thinks our food system presents us with a wicked problem, and I tend to agree.  But in reading over your posts, I’m thinking that the answer may not be to simplify things—or rather, we’re nowhere near the point yet where we’re ready to simplify.  There’s simply too much that needs to be gotten out on the table first.  Maybe, as Amy Trubek argues in talking about terroir, Americans just need to develop better language and skill at talking about their food at all—and maybe the current “food movement” is, among other things, a collective effort to develop that language and skill.

From last week’s field trip to the garden. Click here for some more photos from that trip and other class sessions this spring.

We’ll spend a good part of our final class session tomorrow talking about the more specific takeaways and trajectories from your blogs and the seminar overall, so I’m going to leave my own comments at that.  Remember to bring something snack-like for the class, and come prepared to give a two- or three-minute overview of what this class got onto the table for you and what you’re taking away from it.

~ Cathy

[1]  Rachel Slocum, “Race in the study of food, Progress in Human Geography 35:3 (2011),  p. 16.  Slocum is referencing “Art and Deleuze: a round table interview with Elizabeth Grosz,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 7:2 (2006) 4-22.

[2] Sandra S. Batie, “Wicked Problems and Applied Economics,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90 (Dec. 2008), 1176–91.



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