Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Politics of Diet: "Eco-Dietetics," Neoliberalism, and the History of Dietetic Discourses

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Politics of Diet: "Eco-Dietetics," Neoliberalism, and the History of Dietetic Discourses

Article excerpt

Is it possible to eat our way into a new social formation? A growing number of farmers, chefs, and eaters think so. United in their opposition to industrial agriculture, processed food, and pleasureless eating, they have been calling for a new food system centered on fresh, organic, local, and/or "Slow" foods since the 1960s (Belasco 1989; Pollan 2010). This article contends that these movements have collectively established a new discourse of food politics that can be termed "eco-dietetics." By situating contemporary food movements within a larger history of dietary advice, this study both demonstrates that reflections on diet have long been important topics in the history of political thought and contests the increasingly common criticism that the new food movements are disguised forms of neoliberalism.

Scholarship on the subject has already delineated two historical dietetic discourses: the humoral regime that structured European medical thought until the nineteenth century (Jouanna 2012; Nutton 2012; Shapin 2014; Siraisi 1990; Temkin 1973) and the nutritionist regime that replaced it (Pollan 2008; Scrinis 2008, 2013; Shapin 2014). While humoral and nutritionist dietetics created and investigated humors and nutrients, respectively, eco-dietetics created and investigated as its object of knowledge the effects of eating on the environment, what the Slow Food (2015) movement calls the links "between plate and planet." Although others have described the new food movements as "countercuisine" (Belasco 1989) or as the "food quality paradigm" (Scrinis 2013), ecodietetics is shown here to be the most appropriate name for what these movements have collectively become.

Several critics have accused the eco-dietetic movements of abandoning traditional politics in favor of a consumerism which, however self-conscious, is still tied to a capitalist model of markets and thus supports rather than challenges contemporary neoliberalism (Guthman 2008; Lavin 2013). Such critiques have found both academic and public traction. Writing in the New Yorker, for example, John Lanchester (2014) laments that

if shopping and cooking really are the most consequential, most political acts in my life, perhaps what that means is that our sense of the political has shrunk too far-shrunk so much that it fits into our recycled-hemp shopping bags.

His jeremiad concludes by emphasizing that "not so long ago, food was food." Lanchester, however, too hastily confines politics to heroic speech and action. The dietary advice offered by advocates of eco-dietetics implies a new understanding of the ways in which politics permeates dietary practices. According to this understanding, politics happens whenever social formations are actively maintained or reconfigured.1 By developing new notions of the body, healthy food, moral eating, and the source of knowledge about food, eco-dietetics therefore develops a form of politics that resists neoliberalism. This image of politics is not shrunken, but enlarged. If it fits into a shopping bag, it is only because that bag was produced in a particular place; made out of specific components; known as an object within a specific regime governing the production of knowledge; consumed in a unique fashion; and is therefore not "just a bag"-just as food has never been "just food."

The Politics of Dietetic Discourses

From Aristotle to Arendt, political thought has often been hostile to categorizing eating and drinking as political. Scholars who do study eating in such a light usually frame the political in terms of state policy and focus on dietary guidelines, agricultural policy, and the regulation of food corporations (Nestle 2007; Paarlberg 2013). This state-centered understanding of politics, however, is quite narrow (Connolly 2002; Wolin 2004). The politics of eating exceeds the state, and its history traces the emergence and competition of various dietetic discourses with unique conceptualizations of the body, health, morality, and authoritative knowledge about food. …

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