Reflections on Blogging, on Thought, and on Community

THE BLOG

Medium

Writing a blog this semester has been interesting for me. Though I read some blogs some of the time, like Black Girl Dangerous or Feministing or the blogs of friends who I adore (like iwanttoknowwhatis whose author is also one of the three ladies of that cross-country bike and awareness raising trip localmotive), I have never written my own. I remember when my friend, the author behind iwanttoknowwhatis, sent out an email to tell us to follow her blog. I remember, fondly, a few months later as she was in the middle of a semester in India, that she sent out a second email, somewhat unexpectedly, announcing that she was done with blogging and I have not seen a post since. Blogging, I gathered from her, can a be an oddly internal experience. When one is contending consistently with oneself over time, there is definitely space to feel tired of one’s conversation with oneself (and with one’s imagined reader, who, because they are imagined until explicitly confirmed, is sort of like oneself anyway, with the caveat of being more regulative). Of course her blog was more experientially based, whereas mine has been topically focused. Whereas her’s was written in some ways for and to herself as well as for a number of potential but unconfirmed readers, I have always known my main audience.

What I have found interesting about the internet blogging experience though, has been this odd tension between it being one of the widest conversations one could ever have (that could have any number of unknown readers via the internet), while also being one of the more personal and self-referential conversations one might have, especially in an academic space. As the weeks have progressed, many of my blog postings have looped back on earlier ones or predicted future posts. I might find a new topic, an interesting article or image, and then realize “oh, I am writing about that (identity, race(ism), classism, image, community, etc) again.” In many ways, I feel as though I have been in a combined and multifaceted conversation with our class, our readings, my other classes, and with myself. The blog has afforded us that.

Ashis Nandy. "The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism." Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
Ashis Nandy. “The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism.” Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

A unique element of the blog is the ability to link. When I was writing about the Natalie Kitroef article in the New York Times (also a required reading from our syllabus), I could link directly to the page. When I was writing about the Keep Your Milk in Maine Campaign, I could ask my readers to watch the video in whose symbolic representations I had taken an interest. When I was writing about ghee, I was given the space to consider the meaning of linking the word. I found myself sitting there, recalling work like that of Ashis Nandy’s on the post-colonial situation and the “advanced stage of psychosocial decay” (I will never quite forget that phrasing) of the colonizer. His work was written mostly in English, but, without explanation or translation, would pass seamlessly into Hindi. I sat staring at the word ghee wondering what it meant to link its picture from the Wikipedia page to its name, as though it should not have been my responsibility to define or explain the ghee’s nature to an unknowing (Euro-American) reader: as though maybe we can all only work to educate each other so much before we (especially, in this case, those of us in situations of imperial privilege) must each work to educate ourselves. But I linked the ghee anyway: it was only a picture, there are moments in which one can lower the noise of hyper-analysis in the discussion of butter, and the informed reader could choose not to click it. When I was writing about community after superstorm Sandy at Battery Farm, it took me too long to find an article (and CNN’s coverage still feels insufficient) that I wanted to link to bring the disturbing story of Glenda Moore into the space of a conversation on community. Community can be beautiful, but I wanted to conclude and re-conclude that post with the notion that community is work and working and re-working. In this way my blog posts conversed with one another, with internet searches, with images, and with our course work in a way that was new and interesting for me. The ability to link proved to both multiply and narrow possible meanings by connecting content directly to work beyond the post.

Process

I have been realizing, as the semester has progressed and I have become more comfortable with my own voice in this context, that there is freedom in blogging that is not as easily enjoyed in more traditional mediums for academic work. Throughout the blog, I’ve developed a voice that is both academic and casual, that is at times fully sincere and at others exasperatedly sarcastic.

I have also evolved in the selection of topic. On January 28th, 2013 I announced that the blog would be about “food, the body, and power.” I broke this down. In my section on BODY in this first blog post, I retrospectively read Judith Butler on the bounded body and our own professor Christina Sharpe on marked bodies, on raced, sexualized, gendered, and classed bodies. I read in this early blog the ways that my other academic work has impacted the building blocks with which I built food work in this blog. These idea and linguistic cross-pollinations carried forward throughout my blog and I like that my blog has referenced not only our own class, but other classes as well, both from this semester and the prior. I believe that these multiplying references and inextricable connections are part of the truth of food.

With food, the body, and power on the mind, I progressed into the blog, beginning with a piece on environmental justice as inspired by reading the work of Allison Truit. Her work on mal-distribution of resource and environmental burden immediately brought previous work that I had done in East Somerville, in our own backyard, to mind.  From there I considered colonialism, but through a new lens of the tomato and the power of (constructed/imagined) taste. Shortly thereafter my blog took a turn into my own home communities: Portland, Maine and the university. If community had not explicitly been an important word in my introductory blogs, it became one of the most central ones. Beyond community, key themes included local-ness and product. These posts asked, how are symbols (of locality, of “womanhood”, of community, of class/status, of wealth) deployed to sell product and to reinforce hegemonic orders of knowing? I ended the blog thinking about representation, identity, and product, especially within the context of community, farming, and food.

THINK: Emerging and Re-Emerging Themes

Victus Radicalis Word Cloud
Victus Radicalis Word Cloud

As the above word cloud shows, some of the most repeated words in my blog are: think, community, animal, food, farming, farmers, local, market, women, Maine, Indian, Europeans, American, product, producer, public, white, patriarchy, Oakhurst, eat, work, people, family, and tomato. I like that the central word is THINK. Though it is fully accidental, as “thinking” was never a theme in and of itself, I like that this is the central word because it is both a command/request/plea and a proud and anthropological admission of my own ways of knowing.

One of the strongest emerging themes in my blog, as well, I believe, as in our class, is that of community. Food is at once fully intimate and fully social and political and therefore closely tied to experiences of community. We have read about the urban farm, about soup for soil initiatives, about the possibility of expanding community to include a multispecies awareness, about political communities of veganism and its relationship to feminism, about campus communities and dining halls, and about Boston’s new market district plans. In our last class we got our hands out of a comfortable seat in the classroom and into the dirt of a community garden in Medford. We’ve considered community as it empowers and unites, as it requires space, as it is connected to learning and growing and regeneration. We, even if the community elements have been implicit in these conversations, have also considered violence. Part of the evolving engagement with community in this blog has reinforced the idea that it is not only a state or a community to which we do not belong that might do us violence, but our own communities and the ways in which they order us based upon our socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, conventional beauty, etc that may harm us. The field of food does not escape the habits we have developed and symbolically maintain that do  harm to others and to ourselves. The field of food and farming is also wrapped up in communities of status, of racism, of  consumerism, of exclusion, of privilege, and of imperialism. In many ways, my blog has explored the ways in which food and farming relate to community (re)building and the ways in which this building can be beautiful as well as violent (it may be one or the other or it may contain elements of both).

FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON CONTENT & POINTS OF REALIZATION

A few more points of realization.

As already explored, community is central to this blog. This semester I have had realizations about community’s closeness with food, land, and farming. I have also had realizations that have helped me to articulate community’s importance beyond land, beyond public, and beyond place. In writing about community, I have explored both its potentials for beauty and its potentials for violence.

I have been realizing the importance of product and the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of fully de-mystifying the roots of a personal relationship with a concept, goal, belief, or food (“Back To Nature” is Kraft brand?!). I have been exploring the ways in which concepts of “local” or “family-run business” have become important tools of marketing and realizing that I am not always sure how I would even define “local” in the first place.

I have been realizing that I am not really sure how I define “natural;” that when I get down to it there is something about “natural” that means untouched or pure or safe to me, but that when I more fully consider what retreating into this might entail I recognize its privilege if not its impossibility (non-existence). Even as I recognize the privilege of a retreat into the natural, I also recognize the importance of being able to imagine nature.

I have been realizing that my own identity is closely wrapped up in what I eat and how and with whom I eat it. Differently but relatedly, I have been realizing that my identity may then be tied up in places and processes that I know little about.

I have been realizing that food is intersectional, cross-disciplinary, and messy with a wide and tangled relevance.

 

In the spirit of the core topics discussed here, I hope that the reflexivity and open conversation of the blog with self and with other will be another small example of an act of (love and) community in the world of food.

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On Communities and On Work

Watch the video on Battery Farm.

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A Vertical Garden

We’ve read this semester about farming and its importance in the community. We watched the film The Garden about a community garden that was integral to the livelihoods of the neighborhood in which it was situated. We saw the community struggle to keep this garden alive. We’ve read about food as a tool of community, about creatively structured urban gardens, about soup for soil projects that work to provide food to the neighborhood while testing chemical levels in soil.

Above is a video that calls for aid in the rebuilding of Battery Urban Farm in New York City after it was hit by superstorm Sandy. Battery Urban Farm explains “we teach children how to grow and eat healthy food, and provide a thriving public farm to the 6 million visitors, residents, and commuters who pass through our park every year.” This farm and their call for community aid following a geographically unusual and highly destructive storm highlights the importance of spaces like this in the first place – community spaces that are centered around life, growth, and learning; gathering spaces that are not based around monetary exchanges or consumption; – and their fragility. Battery Urban Farm’s call for aid highlights the dynamic, fluid, and morphing nature of community. Community is, but is not only the garden. It is, but is not only space. Community is standing by our brother/sister/friends. Community is opening our doors to our fellow people, regardless of (or even because of a love of) their color, especially in times of need (a note on the linked article: it is enormously insufficient. A crucial but absent detail: it is a white man who did not open his door for a black woman and her children). Community is working to build and re-build space and fighting to keep it. Community is standing by our families and by our neighbors. Community is work every single day.

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Selling Back To The Land

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“21st Century Gypsies” on the Daily Mail
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Urban Outfitters: “On the Road with Our Festival Look Book”

Consider the above image from an article in the Daily Mail titled “21st century Gypsies: Stunning pictures show how new-age travellers are now adopting traditional horse-drawn caravans.” I found this article posted on a friend’s facebook. The images look like they came from a fairy-tale book (they are filled with people just as white-washed, glittery, and conventionally attractive in an other-worldly way). Alternatively, the montage also brings to mind an Urban Outfitters campaign (the most recent of their advertising endeavors is even titled “On the Road with Our  Festival Look Book”)

These images relate, in my opinion back to those presented in the J.Crew advertising catalog. They relate to the controversy around the Back to the Land Movement. They relate to status, to marketing, to the odd ways that food and farming and land have been figured into something that sells to the general public without being figured out of something that is harming our planet and many (if not all) of the people on it.

These images tell us about who farmers are. They tell us that farmers look a certain way, that they dress a certain way, that they travel a certain way. In many ways, they de-politicize farming and movements that call for a return to the land. Choosing to return to the land becomes not an act of love, an act of activism and politic, an act of necessity, an act of familial tradition, an act of religion, an act of self-preservation or self-assertion, and instead becomes an act of luxury and of beauty.

How does the well-branded commodity catch like the flu? (Those who study neuromarketing have some ideas). When I see images such as these and I think of the proliferation with which they circulate in our social spheres – I only wish that food and earth as it connects to justice, to anti-corporatism, to anti-imperialism, to environmentalism, to anti-racism, to community empowerment, to health, to history and all the internal complexities that these connections contain could circulate with such tenacity.

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On Lentils, Authenticity, and Being a Whole Made of Parts

Thinking about lentils: thinking about place, thinking about race, thinking about culture (eek!), thinking about consumption, thinking about authenticity.

soak beansI was at the store some weeks ago buying ingredients for lentil soup: lentils, lemon, ginger root, garlic, cumin seeds, potatoes… As I was checking out, the man working at the store asked me what I was cooking. I told him I was making lentil soup – like dal – and he commented that it was funny how many Americans were eating Indian food these days. I told him I grew up eating it in an Indian-American family and he gave me a long glance (genetics have decreed that my features be light for being brown).

Eating lentils always has me thinking about where I come from and what food means when one is thinking about where one comes from and also about the sort of inescapable oddities facing diasporic peoples when they cook/eat/live/speak where they come from. My family eats a lot of “Indian” food and though my father learned much of his cooking when he lived in India for a while as a young man, my grandfather grew up in America, my father was born here and so was I. The food we cook is Indian, theoretically, but in so far as Indian food is invitation-indian-cooking-madhur-jaffrey-paperback-cover-artrelated to India as nation-place, it is not so much Indian food that we cook, but some kind of blend of Indian and American.

Like we never use ghee. Like the first recipe book my dad got for me was Madhur Jaffrey’s “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” which, as I recently discovered, is a book written specifically for the Westerner. Retrospectively, this is unsurprising given the title of the book (Indians may not really need an invitation to cook their own food) and descriptors of the book such as the one on Amazon: “this seminal book, originally published in 1973, introduced the richly fascinating cuisine of India to America—and changed the face of American cooking. Now, as Indian food enjoys an upsurge of popularity in the United States, a whole new generation of readers and cooks will find all they need to know about Indian cooking in Madhur Jaffrey’s wonderful book.” I guess I had never realized the audience of which I was tacitly a part. Realizing it would have lead me, surely, to further question our authenticity as (diasporic) Indians so it may not have been an accident that I found myself in the dark for so long.

There’s more beyond Jaffrey. Like that our spices are rarely freshly crushed. Like that one of our favorite curries has a very strange and large cacophony of spices in it, reaching far beyond the more traditional turmeric/cumin base. Like that we eat basmati rice, but my father loves butter and we make it in an electric rice cooker and sometimes we might eat it as a side to steak. Like that we rarely eat with our hands (though sometimes we do and my Irish-Italian step-mom usually still uses a fork). Like that we mispronounce “chapati” and even though my best friend from home who is Indian-born told us the right way to say it, we never seem to remember.

Sometimes these inconsistencies make me blush to carry my last name, make me feel as though when I recall my familial background to others (especially to  friends who are white), I have to say it while laughing . But I help myself when I begin to challenge the categories with which I am building my understanding of self, food, country, culture, and color. I help myself when I dis-aggregate culture. When I consider American culture or American food and realize that I would never dream of defining either except perhaps in ways that would insist that anyone looking for an overview leave all definitions spacious, it helps me to do the same with Indian culture or Indian food. This breaks down notions of essentialized culture and disrupts binaries of East vs. West. There are a million different particularities residing in the Indian and American nations making a book description like Amazon’s -”cooks will find all they need to know about Indian cooking in Madhur Jaffrey’s wonderful book” – all the more absurd.

I help myself when I engage with notions of authenticity and truly consider the sorts of ideas I am authorizing when I imagine that I, or any other person, could have integral to their personhood an authenticity or non-authenticity. My mispronounced “chapati” existence is precisely authentic as it is precisely the way my diasporic-mixed-Indian family is. My light-skinned darkness, a color neither here nor there, dis-aggregates whiteness and chips away at the possibility of whiteness as purity. My “white” presentation is half-brown.

Our food does carry culture for us. It does carry our Indian-ness and it also carries our American-ness. It is exactly authentic in itself, as we exist as mixed Indian/Europeans eating mixed Indian/American food with ingredients purchased and prepared in Portland, Maine.  Here we are. All of our parts are in fact a whole.

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The Naturals: enjoy 25% off every purchase with code springbest!

I was thinking about J.Crew today. And what does J.Crew have to do with food/farming/related activisms/community/spaceplacebody, one might wonder? J.Crew would like us to see a connection. Take a look at J.Crew’s campaign The Naturals.

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“Our featured green-minded guys dish the dirt on what it’s like to work with Mother Nature, Martha Stuart and even a large herd of hungry goats. Plus, they reveal five (or more) wildly fascinating facts about their specific line of work.”

In The Naturals campaign “green-minded guys dish the dirt” with J.Crew. We see a series of handsome men (both young & old) displaying a lucky taste for fashion (and dirt). First I wonder at the title: “The Naturals.” Who/what are The Naturals? Are these men The Naturals? What does it mean to name a farmer The Natural? Especially, what does it mean to name a series of farmers The Naturals on an advertisement campaign of an American retail giant? It feels a little bit like the way Oakhurst instrumentalizes the word “community.” But who can possible determine where the lines of community might begin or where they might end?

What sort of idea am I defending when I cringe at the naming of a group of farmers as The Naturals? Perhaps it is because I am tapping into views of “nature” as a twin in a binary. It may be tapping into the notion that nature is pure and untouched (by capitalism, by consumerism, by body image, by status symbols, by racism, by classism, by (hetero)sexism… – by all the things that J.Crew will both tacitly and explicitly reproduce) and apolitical.

And is there a way to step away from the political? Is there a way to pass into nature and leave a myriad political and social space behind? (Related questions, among others, might be – who might have the fortune to even consider such an option? OR is this even a just aim?) Certainly, if one is imagining that there might be a truly quiet space-and sometimes it is not even about being in the space per se, but about having the faith that it is there-, J.Crew appears to be trespassing into it.

Regardless of what we think when we think “natural” or when we think “nature” – there are a few things here that I will argue are certain and are reflected in this advertising. There are certain spheres of thought that many of us share when we consider the natural and J.Crew is tapping into these in order to sell their products. Disturbing as the thought may be, these days nature sells.  Another thing, farming appears to be developing a complex relationship with class and status. We can look back to a previous post on the (a)typical laborer for more on the creation of a particular kind of high-class and desirable farmer.

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The Princeton Graduate: A(-)Typical Laborer

Lately I have been thinking a lot about community and by community I especially mean my hometown, Portland Maine. Today I want to write about Farming & Life After College, which as it were, is relevant also to a community of mine, the university.

Natalie Kitroef of the New York Times writes “After Graduating from College, It’s Time to Plow, Plant and Harvest.” I want to examine some of her rhetorical bases.

First, Gregory Clark says of rhetoric, “Americans tend to be fairly vigilant about attributions of identity that are addressed to them directly and polemically – symbols that are immediately recognized as ‘rhetoric.’ But many, if not most, of the symbols that people encounter in their culture are not so obviously rhetorical” (2004, 51).  While I might at times question the interest of the American public in being thoughtfully vigilant, I fully agree that rhetorical symbols and language are not always presented as such, or even necessarily understood as such by the individual producing them.  We have many fields of social rhetoric, I might argue, that we may tap both consciously and unconsciously to re-teach ourselves and one another certain truths about the order of things (and people).  Clark details the work of Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which aims to explore the role of art as rhetoric. Burke writes of art and the symbol as something that “‘give(s) simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity.’ Symbols do that by ‘codifying’ for people a ‘pattern of experience’ they share and displaying it back to them as a ‘metaphorical truth’” (2004, 52). Using Burke’s description of symbols in art, I want to turn back to a more traditional understanding of rhetoric as spoken or written, and explore symbols in language with Ms. Kitroef.

Kitroef opens her article: “It was harvest time, and several farm hands were hunched over a bed of sweet potatoes under the midday sun, elbow deep in soil for $10 an hour. But they were not typical laborers.” In fact, all of these laborers have undergraduate degrees (Colorado State, Wesleyan, Skidmore, Princeton (!)). A strong, though subtle, undercurrent through all of Kitroef’s article is the idea–we might say rhetorical symbol–of the “typical” and the “atypical” laborer. To return to Burke’s definition of rhetoric, symbols give simplicity to complexities otherwise unclarified and present themselves back to us as a patterned truth. In Kitroef’s  piece she is both accessing and re-producing a symbolically based elitism. We may not even notice that she is doing it, as the most visibly purported purpose of her article is to change our minds about who is laboring. She seems to be writing to re-brand farming, so that we see its social value, its allure, and its importance.

In fact, her use of language such as “typical laborers” speaks less to a change in patterned and classist thinking and more to its maintenance. Kitroef wants to ask us to re-examine and re-value farm labor, but she is doing so vis-a-vis a well-established elitism that dictates that it is an individual’s possession of certain social markers (in this case, especially wealth and education level, but also skin color, gender, sexuality, etc…) that make their work valuable, not the actual work itself. She is not asking us to re-imagine manual labor as valuable and prideful; she is instead pointing out to us that Princeton (Skidmore, Wesleyan, Colorado State, Tufts) doing manual labor is valuable. It is an important distinction.

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J.Crew’s The Naturals, featuring Dustin John

We can look briefly to J.Crew’s recent campaign, The Naturals (more on this later), to see the success of someone like Kitroef’s re-branding of farming.  Looking at Dustin John’s picture we can consider the kind of role that J.Crew might have in helping to create the image of a particular type of farmer that is privileged, desired, status holding, and luxurious. We see the man who can luxuriate in dirt. Or, put differently, we see the the particular kind of man–the atypical laborer– on whom dirt can look luxurious.

I do not mean to suggest that college graduates should not go into manual labor and farming, nor that it is impossible for farming with a college degree to be a subversive post-grad activity. What I am suggesting is that re-defining farm labor as valuable because college grads do it (rather than re-defining farm labor as valuable, period) works to actively reproduce hegemonic orders that systematically value certain people above others.

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The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Critical Review

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Carol J. Adams. The Sexual Politics of Meat. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York, 1990.

 

The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams outlines the interconnectedness of vegetarianism and feminism. Adams explains, “Not only is animal defense the theory and vegetarianism the practice, but feminism is the theory and vegetarianism is part of the practice” (217).  Adams works, in this text, to expose the many tendrils of patriarchy and calls for a holistic deconstruction of its power and violence. To this end, she makes a convincing argument. If one wishes to destroy patriarchy, one must destroy not parts, but all of it. “We have to stop fragmenting activism; we cannot polarize human and animal suffering since they are interrelated” (15).  The violence that affects women may share much with the violence that affects animals. If a feminist wishes to destroy patriarchy, Adams argues, she must understand the multiple levels on which patriarchy operates. Practicing feminism, therefore, involves practicing vegetarianism. Practicing patriarchy involves oppressing women and animals alike; it involves consuming meat.

So what, according to Adams, are the interrelated oppressive structures that vegetarianism and feminism must recognize? To begin, the consumption of meat has been linked with male strength and virility. Vegetables have been feminized and women equated with the passivity and illogic of plant-life. Adams goes on to illuminate other similarities between vegetarianism and feminism, between animal and human female oppression. These range from the continuities between sexual violence and animal oppression to those between war and hunting. She notes that feminist and vegetarian critiques receive similar responses from the powers-that-be. They are threatening and so patriarchy attempts to disable them. They are publicly trivialized, pathologized, de-politicized, and accused of being unproductively negative.

Both animals and women also suffer from the deployment of the absent referent. This is one of Adams’ more useful comparisons. The relationship between live animals and meat is highly obscured. The live animal, killed in order for us to eat, is the absent referent in a carnivorous meal. Through its enforced absence, the live animal is robbed of its subjecthood and understood as an object for consumption. Likewise, women are sometimes the absent referent. Language, symbolic actions, and images may fragment the woman and objectify her. Here we see a useful connection between the making of social meat and the making of social women.

In so far that patriarchy and meat are intertwined, and we have just seen some of the ways in which they are, it makes sense that deconstructing patriarchy might involve deconstructing meat and the oppression of animals that allows for it. That said I take issue with certain of Adams’ attempts to do this. I find it quite frankly offensive to describe rape of human females as follows, “you are held down by a male body as the fork holds a piece of meat so that the knife may cut into it” (82); or, “they [survivors of rape] feel like pieces of meat” (82)… “phrases used by rape victims when describing their feelings suggest that animals fate in meat eating is the immediate touchstone  for their own experience” (81). Adams simply cannot speak for what “they”, survivors of rape as a group, feel like. Much of my own work centers around concepts of rape and sexual assault in our cultural imagination. Though I do not doubt that they exist, I have never come across an account of sexual violence that centered on meat metaphors. I am not saying that her analysis is without some validity, but she makes universal an experience that is not universal. She instrumentalizes stories of survivors to make a point about vegetarianism and in doing so mystifies, or even counteracts, her own argument against patriarchy. I found similar issues in her conflation of human slavery and animal captivity.

In conclusion, a central take-away with which I leave this book comes more from my criticism of it than my reading it. While I believe it is a valid and worthwhile effort to attempt to make inter-connected the violences committed upon different groups (animals and peoples), I do not think it is worthwhile or necessary to equate the outcomes of these violences for the bodies onto whom they are enacted. Beyond unnecessary, I find this counter-productive and trivializing of experience. Animals may suffer under patriarchy; that does not mean their pain should be equated with memories of slavery or experiences of sexual violence. Sure, violence is violence. But not all experiences of violence are the same and forcing their same-ness serves only to silence those bearing trauma. It is sufficient to say that patriarchy’s violence affects not only women but also animals; it is a trivialization of and disrespect to human (and arguably animal) experiences to universalize violence’s impacts on those who survive it.

 

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Returning to Oakhurst, Thinking about Local-ness and Community

I want to return here to the idea of Maine’s own Oakhurst as a producer of “truly local major dairy.” I want to engage with the work of Linda B DeLind titled Place, work, and civic agriculture: Common fields for cultivation and think about community and the roles of consumer and producer in local discourses.

Oakhurst, on its product website, brands itself as local first by giving the interested viewer a manicured tour of the Bennett family in charge of the business, just as their “father” and “grandfather” and “brother” did before them. [If we're still thinking about dairy farming as "feminine" farming, we can at least rest assured that being in charge of a dairy business has still been the lot of the men in the family.]

Digging a little more deeply into the Oakhurst website, I found a blog post from 2012 that stated that Oakhurst milk comes from 73 different farms in Maine. If Oakhurst claims its locality to the state of Maine, which it does, then it has not violated its branding as such. An important disruption of the concept of local, I think, comes in the relationship between producer and consumer and the inescapability  of these binary roles. First, the consumer is not just local (if we’re still taking “local” to mean “the state of Maine”), as Oakhurst has expanded its enterprise to sell their milk throughout Northern New England and Eastern Mass. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the “major”-ness of Oakhurst fully prevents any relationship between the dairy farmer and the persons who drink their milk. As Linda B. DeLind has argued, we need to create more complex and “organically grounded identities for ourselves,” thus helping us to break out of consumer-producer relationships.” Oakhurst’s practice of local-ness, even as it was started by Mainers and draws its milk from Maine farmers, fully obscures community relationships between one “producer” and another, between one “consumer” and another, and between the “producer” and the “consumer” thus employing the term “local” to describe a situation voided, in many ways, of community.

I use the words “producer” and “consumer” here for literal lack of better ones. This is exactly Oakhurst’s type of local. It leaves no room to even imagine a different style of community relationship.

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Hometown Markets

I want to think briefly, and return to thinking more extensively, about markets. Last week our New Food Activism class went to downtown Boston and we thought about big ideas like space and public and putting them together public/private space and local and waste and food chains and tourism.

We went to the site of what will be in the next year or two the Boston Public Market. The Boston Public Market hopes to make a Market district out of the Quincy Market/Haymarket area. Read more here. While we meet with one of the organizers of the market-to-be I was surprised to hear my own hometown, Portland, Maine mentioned in the list of priors the market was studying as it formulated its own model.

The Portland, Maine market, familiar of course for any of us who are local to the area, is a study of failure. As I remember the opening and short existence and closing of the Portland Public Market anecdotally, I used to go there with my mother not infrequently when she had a moment off work,  I decided I might like to know a little more about the Portland Public Market’s recorded history. Google has thus far offered me little. It is a curious absence in our recorded history. The Portland Press Herald has passing mentions of the firm that has purchased the space but little exploration of what happened in the space in the first hand.

Almost needless to say, a not insignificant portion of the markets non-success was a Whole Foods, which announced its arrival in Portland in 2005. The Portland Public Market closed down in 2006. Even before the Whole Foods Moved in, we had a large “health-food” but semi-local grocery store called Wild Oats that was surely already competing heavily with the Portland Public Market. Whole Foods closed them down to.

I want to conclude, because the woman from the Boston Public Market planning commission, spoke only of Portland’s failure, that we do have a blossoming, bustling, homey, and definitely local, Public Market House. Check it out. This article, by Robert Bukaty, explains that the Market House was born directly out of the closing of the Portland Public Market. One of the vendors central to the market house’s construction explains, “None of us really wanted to go and set up shop on our own, so it was either choosing to close or rebuild something in terms of what we believed in.” This market has only a small grocer with fresh breads from Big Sky bakery (my favorite!) and a limited but still a selection of groceries. Upstairs there are stalls selling coffee, soup, smoothies, burritos, plantains, and more.  Every Wednesday when the season permits there is a farmer’s market in the square right outside the market house. We’ve salvaged something. Or if salvaged is not the right word, we’ve created something new in our own sort of “market district.”

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Milk in Maine: Representations of Woman as Product

Watch the video at Keep Your Milk In Maine. I want to think about what’s being sold and what’s being leveraged to sell it; I want to think briefly about local-ness and, finally, I want to think about milk, women, and feminism.

Oakhurst Dairy

If we look closely at the webpage, we will see that the Keep Your Milk In Maine campaign is brought to us by Oakhurst. Oakhurst is a large Maine-based dairy company that serves Northern New England. On their website, Oakhurst explains that they are the “only truly local major diary in Northern New England and Eastern Massachusetts.” I pause over the phrasing “only truly local major diary.” How big can local be? What exactly does local mean? Oakhurst, even in its own self-branding, seems to be aware of the tenuous closeness of its two central descriptors: “local” and “major.” It must insist, “truly”! While Oakhurst brings us the “Keep Your Milk in Maine” campaign, their product symbols (see to the right) are notably absent from the web page. Instead we see multi-generational family farms and young cows suckling at the bottles offered by two young sisters. Though Oakhurst claims local-ness, and I would argue in a way that ultimately obscures ideas of the community and the local (a different topic for a different day!), even it understands its image as far enough away from the market for local that it is not included on the Keep Your Milk in Maine campaign website.

As we have already stated, Keep Your Milk In Maine is a campaign launched to educate consumers and to enlist their purchasing power to the cause of locality. All of the people interviewed for this video emphasize the idea of the “family farm” and most of them are women. This should not escape the viewers attention. Watching the promotional video had me thinking both about lady farmers and feminized protein (milk & eggs) and the connections between them. Why are women farmers the highlighted voice in the Keep Your Milk in Maine campaign? If the milk is the product of the video, what are the featured women who make it? What does it mean to use women to sell milk? I might suggest that the conceptual distances between women and milk, between women and family, and between women and product are made small in this promotional video. Women, I would argue, are used here as a surrogate representation of the family and therefore of the “local”. The milk is the product, but in many ways so is the implication of Oakhurst “locality” and so are the women positioned to sell it.

I also want to ask are there “feminine” ways to farm (is milk a “feminine” product)? Are there feminist ways to farm? I am not anywhere near the first to be asking these questions. Angel Flinn argues that to be feminist is to be vegan. Flinn asserts that the “entire animal industry is built on the exploitation of the female reproductive system.” In talking about the inhumanity of forced insemination of female milk-producing cows, Flinn fumes, “inconScreen shot 2013-03-31 at 12.36.30 PMceivably to me, even women perform this job.”

“The diary cows are our life, really” explains one sister in the Keep Your Milk in Maine video.  Laura Kane, another thinker commenting on women and farming, seems to suggest that farming opens a sort of space of empowerment for women. Yet in Flinn’s formulation, many types of farming cannot be feminist. Young women working at dairy farms cannot be feminist. Young women working at farms where animals are killed with instruments cannot be feminist. In their formulation, we who eat their food, likewise, cannot be feminist.

I argue that Flinn’s formulations do little for us in an effort to interpret a campaign like Keep Your Milk in Maine with a feminist lens. It is of little import to the producer or to the general viewer of the film whether these young women carry on their days with an eye towards self-empowerment; it is actually impossible to know (though, again, Flinn would likely argue that because they are producing feminized protein it is necessary that the farmers do not practice feminism). I am arguing that it is the tacit symbolic representation of woman as product that hangs here in the balance, not the literal relationship, as experienced by the woman, between the woman and what she is producing. It is the conflation of woman and family, the conflation of family and local and product, even the conflation of woman and “feminine” that is centrally at stake in videos such as this.

 

 

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