durkheim’s anomie: gastropolitics, veganism — religion and synthesizing new moral communities

Not entirely sure how to start this one. Last night or early this morning, while I was reading on the last train home, someone moved to the seat across from me to ask what I was drawing. I told him I wasn’t drawing anything but he wouldn’t accept that as an answer so I was forced to show him the page I was reading, annotations and all. He looked a little surprised and asked if it was for school, I said no and explained it’s just a book I have been excited to read for a long time and don’t want to miss anything. When we parted ways, I looked down on the page with a fresh pair of eyes and felt like… what is the point in this intellectual euphoria when unshared? So I thought it might be nice to synthesize the work of several authors I’ve been reading and relate them to a gastropolitical and social concept that I am – whether I want to admit it or not  -completely entangled in: veganism.

In the last two months of summer, I have spent the majority of my intellectual spirit pouring myself into, labouring with and carrying theoretical speculation about morality with me in silent conversation. Without overstating the significance of this inquiry I do want to point out that a certain existential angst has been destabilizing my deontological and phenomenological experience since… forever and it is driving for reasons not yet decipherable.

Put simply, the lack of deconstruction or self-reflexivity …or maybe just the absence of critical interrogation afforded into the rigid (conservative, religious) moral matrix of my family and the subsequent forced integration into the ultra-left bubble of modern academia left me dazed and confused. However, I did not recognize this confusion until three years later, this summer. Instead, I immediately embraced the politics of my surrounding community (the severely leftist individuals from the leftist groups in the most left-leaning faculties of a neoliberal university i.e. radicals/sjws of the social sciences/humanities). I did this not once, but three times. First I adopted the perspective held most widely (one of queer theory, standard sjw political agendas – safe spaces, privilege etc.) until I rejected this ideology in favour of a more radical denomination (radical marxist feminists) only to denounce that set of politics (luckily just before shaving my head and getting “the personal is political” tattooed on my right forearm) at the end of last summer in exchange for a reformed version of leftist politics centred less around the experience of white women and more concerned more with the oppression of people of colour. There are aspects of bpd written throughout this series of events that I could get into but I’m already so off topic and I want to reel in this mess sooner than later.

So while I spent a summer reaching for the bar to hold onto in the bus only to expose a tuff of long dark armpit hair with pride only to willingly apply false eyelashes and go clubbing (“clubbing” – or as I remember, drinking to excess, standing in a line, arriving, spending 5-10 minutes convincing myself not to leave only to commit the same crime everytime: leaving without any notice/explanation) every weekend only three months later, I’m trying to explain just how I came to find discussions of moral psychology and psychoanalysis as my personal conduit for self-understanding. With the new admission to my parent’s claims that yes, I was just reflecting uncritically the politics of those around me, I want to also be able to say that I am dedicated to seeing both (all) sides of artificially dichotomized issues. More importantly, I want so desperately to reconcile the personal and political, not just for myself but for everyone who I encounter – it seems like a political discussion without an analysis of the moral communities in which political ideologies are born and the cohesive and productive role these perspectives hold, is a one dimensional attempt to uncover a truth that is multilayered, complex and embedded in a system of cultural and moral diversity (existing with an actual purpose). So yes, moral psychology is quite the tool, for me right now, it is the tool.

My god, while I doubt that an introduction to what I actually wanted to talk about required such an elaborate and personal anecdote, I am committed to creating a context for concepts to be tied more the real world and less to the anonymized cloud of ideas. And so there it is.

In “The Righteous Mind”,  American psychologist Jonathan Haidt says this:


Haidt sees religion as a social fact. He understands critics of religion like the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their assertion that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s abilities to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims. Yet he reconciles this with Durkheim’s definition of religion:

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices with unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” 

To synthesize these seemingly polarized perspectives, Haidt challenges the either/or and works to establish an understanding of the psychology of religion. (I should note here, that this tangent about religion is another way to speak more broadly about morality – for me, the experience of adopting a “radical marxist feminist” praxis felt significantly more exclusive, dogmatic and spiritual than my 18 years of Christian church-going.)

rad fem .jpg

photo from exactly a year ago…the literature in my bag/arms, typically on loan from the university library: a consistently transparent means to assess the source of my internal turmoil of the current period.

So Haidt is interested in looking at religion as automatic (intuitive) process of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community rather than focussing on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers. He uses Durkheim’s emphasis on religious belongingness over religious believing to get at what is it that makes religion such an effective cultural adaptation.

This cultural adaptation works to challenge one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. And history proves that rituals, laws and constraints work best when sacralized. Haidt writes, “sacredness binds people together and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.” Anthropologist Roy Rapaport agrees, “to invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.”

As E.O. Wilson articulates, “Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” 

And it works. I can honestly look back and assess the relationships that both my parents engaged in and attribute most of the trust and reciprocal altruism to a foundational, shared religion. Most times, with few exceptions, the words “he/she’s a Christian” were all the justification my parents needed to be open to an idea/proposition. And the community built around me, of families who shared a generalized set of sanctified morals and standards of behaviour, was significantly more defined, reliable and durable than the secular communities I know now. Haidt stresses the moral benefits of religion as how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. “It’s the friendship and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness.

This all comes back to Durkheim’s hypothesis that we are Homo duplex, designed (by natural selection) to move back and forth between the lower (individual) and higher (collective) levels of existence. Thus, religion works to symbolically enact the central miracle of social life: e pluribus unum (or “out of many, one” – an American motto). 

Throughout the book, Haidt is making the case that human minds coevolved with religion. He argues that group selection adaptation accelerated during/after the transition to agricultural societies and that religiosity evolve because successful religions made groups more efficient at “turning resources into offspring. Haidt writes, “Religion is therefore well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”

So what happens to those of us who are less inclined to adopt a religion or even those of us who actively denounce organized religion? Where can we adequately and consistently enact e pluribus unum? Can we at all? Chances are we will live a life less bound to a moral matrix, relying mostly on our own internal moral compasses. And yes, while this may be appealing for some rationalists, it is, as Haidt, describes, ” a recipe for anomie.”

ANOMIE. What is it? French sociologist Emile Durkheim described anomie as “normlessness.” Haidt understands religion as moral exoskeletons and we don’t really know what will happen when societies who forgo these exoskeletons over several generations (the first atheistic societies have inly emerged in Europe in the last few decades and are the least efficient societies ever known for turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few.)

Anomie is a concept I feel is particularly salient in the everyday. Living in a city (a city that is relatively WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic – in the global scheme of things) , there is a pronounced sense of individualistic, isolation and disenfranchisement. In fact, this city is known for it’s disconnectedness or lacking communitarian ethos. It’s reputation is resonant with the concept of anomie – everyone can be themselves and yet most of us aren’t so sure we know what self to be. I’m generalizing of course but this is what I’m getting at…

Veganism. In her book, “Eating Culture: The Anthropological Guide to Food”,  Gillian Crowther discusses gastro-anomie, a term coined to describe “the condition of unsatisfying, meaningless eating of foods from everywhere to nowhere, and especially captures the disintegration of existing food rules which do not extend to new ingredients, flavours, dishes and eating opportunities.” This is of course a process produced by the globalization of food production and distribution, creation of industrial cuisine and connected to issues of food security and food sovereignty. So as I carried Haidt’s perspective of morality into my interpretation of Crowther’s gastro-anomie, naturally, I was left considering where the fuck I can infuse vegan ethics into all of this. And this is what I am beginning with. Veganism is criticized, and rightly so, for being inconsiderate  or dismissive to culture.

“Gastro-politics”, coined by Arjun Appadurai, is used to capture the notion of “social drama” and “identity work” that plays out during a meal. Cuisine is inextricably bound to culture and within it can exist tradition, kinship, intimacy, solidarity, enculturation, socializaion, morality, sustenance, sociability, it can extend social capital and reify social order, it can reinforce, construct and communicate identiity etc. etc. you get the picture. And veganism demolishes all of this. Sure you can maintain a style or cuisine, adapting it to omit eggs meat and dairy, but there is an element of reformulation that must be reconciled. So how does this tie into religion? I’m honestly getting there, please be patient. Veganism, on the other side of the argument, has the potential to synthesize or reconstruct a new moral community, tied together not only through cuisine but through an established, universalized and agreed upon set of rules, bound by an ethos – or maybe even an ideology (of which cuisine/food choices become the central praxis.)

I’m not saying that vegans are a new moral community all of their own – in consensus, harmony and operating with a nuanced and compassionate ethos to guide the gastro-anomie of our time. However, there is something to be said for the way individuals from very different lifestyles and backgrounds can immediately ground themselves in a similiar reality the moment they both share that they are vegan. Working at a vegan restaurant, I can honestly attest that there is an undeniable synergy that works to organize otherwise different human beings in an honest, autonomous yet connected way. I’m not sure if this makes sense at all, but I do think this is a topic worth thinking about a little more, given the definitions of religion and anomie and gastro-anomie above. Durkheim’s notion of belongingness is so central to vegan “communities” – vegan potlucks are hosted constantly and while I have only been once or twice, it is in a sense, profound that so many strangers are willing to cook for eachother and share an entire afternoon together simply because they share the common identity tag: vegan. God I hate myself just typing that last sentence. I think I want to mull this over a bit more but for now, thanks for putting up with the sporadic glimpses of my psyche. If you can, I really do encourage you to read Haidt’s book on moral psychology if you feel that existential angst creep into your musings on morality every now and again. I’ll leave you with a couple fragments of his work.

morality definedmorality1normative vs. descriptive definitions


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