more on gastropolitics: consumerism, commodification, aesthetization & crisis (review of ch.6/8 gillian crowther)


IN REVIEW: Gillian Crowther’s “Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food”


Crowther’s part four begins with a chapter on commensality and gastro-politics. “Gastro-politics”, a term 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, socialization, morality, sustenance, sociability, it can extend social capital and reify social order, it can reinforce, construct and communicate identity etc. etc.

Chapter six dives into the social underpinnings of sharing food and the cultural and ritualistic significance embedded in this practice. She underscores the general principle of sharing food, a principle often so central to our everyday that it becomes mundane in character and thus rendered unobserved: eating is a means to forge relationships, from social identity and present cultural identity. Crowther breaks up the seemingly overlooked patterned aspect of our eating rituals and forces us to analyze these patterns with a new set of eyes. She exposes the taken-for-granted nature of our socially patterned, culturally constructed eating practices. By doing this, she forces the reader to reconcile what they have always known to be “just the way it is” with the vast and diverse eating patterns of social worlds outside of their own.

More philosophically, Crowther later touches on the element of time and the way in which societies have “reorganized” time following the industrial revolution, reorienting time to fit the needs of production rather than nutritional and social needs. Crowther highlights the transformative role the advent of capitalism and industrialization had in reshaping not only people’s relationship to food but also their relationship to time, status, and each other. The “social anchoring of meals” delineates a shifting meaningful experience built into the shared consumption of food.

Transposing the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, 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. Gastro-anomie becomes a useful term in describing the absence of meaningfulness relevant to food in the modern consumer age. The normlessness experienced by consumers disorients and alienates individuals from culture, collective groups of people and from healthy habits.

In resistance to this normlessness, Crowther introduces several methods of resistance, conscious or unconscious, to the gastro-anomie of our current age in dietary and spiritual practices of fasting and abstinence. She writes, these facts “reinforce people’s knowledge of their faith and adding emotional weight through the foodstuff consumption, embodying the meaning within the consumer.” (155) Here she articulates a means of reinstating meaningfulness for the consumer through the act of abstaining temporarily. This is quite interesting in discussions of consumerism as it would suggest that a temporary withdrawal from the pervasive world of buying and spending could perhaps reel our ideological indoctrination of consumerism back into a more mindful perspective, one that sees the illogic of a life driven by purchasing goods and cultivating desire for material goods. The way Crowther determines meals as rituals that organize social order can also be paralleled by the way in which shopping and participation in the market structures social life today. The ritualistic nature of meals extends to the rituals involved in shopping as they both involve symbols, which as Crowther describes, “serve to condense complex cultural meanings into an object, sounds, gestures, and the like, which are understood and acted upon by the participants, often in an unconscious manner.” (155) Through symbols, just as we can “eat our identity” we can also “shop our identity”, through the signification provided by the externalized production of images and information that stand in for actual internal identification.

Additionally, the subject of “commensality”, a term described by Crowther as “the act of sharing food with other people, an expression of ongoing social relationships performed in accordance with cultural rules of eating etiquette” could theoretically work to explain the communal process of consumerism. Consumerism mirrors this act of sharing that expresses social relationships just as sharing a meal as the norms of relaxation, vacation (shopping together) and gift-giving demonstrate the collective aspect functioning within the ideology of consumerism.

Later, Crowther analyzes the commodification of cuisine as it enters the public realm. This commodification process not only puts a price on food itself but it expands beyond food to commodify the particular social and cultural presence that the food is couched within. Specifically in multicultural societies, eating becomes almost unnoticed as a means to “identity work” (162). In this framework, meals become a defining social institution for humans, a way in which kinship, a system learned through socialization and enculturation, is enacted and reinforced through ritual expression.

Thus, gastro-politics becomes a way to imagine how culture, social life and politics imbue meaning through food and meal-sharing. Crowther articulates, “it is about using food as a means to negotiating a sense of self within the cultural and social systems”. In a consumeristic society, the self is so precarious as an understood entity that it must be reiterated through consumption and constructed as a “consumer” and therefore food becomes yet another site of meaning construction for which the self can emerge as a contrived and externalized version of who someone might be.

Chapter 8 of Eating Culture delves into the globalization of food production and distribution and subsequent gastro-anomie that is a consequence of this. As capitalism accelerated in the past 60 years, Crowther chronicles expanding retail distribution of industrial cuisine. She identifies ingredients of the modern day as “dislocated, mobile, disorienting”, a poignant and suggestive point that directs the reader to reflect on their own relationship to ingredients taken for granted by themselves but likely unavailable or unknown to their grandparents 60 years ago. She cites fast food as the key indicator of gastro-anomie. The massiveness, availability and unavoidable presence of fast food, both the actual food itself and the ideology of the brand, however, is also a key indicator the extent to which consumerism dominates a society. Fast food has become a religion of sorts, with people identifying their utmost desires and insatiable with the products of fast food joints. The followership consumers have devoted to said fast food joints signifies both reliance, dependence, exaltation and domination.

Standardization, with production mechanized and de-skilled and sale branded incorporates “ritualized friendliness, queuing, and customer participation in tasks that were once someone else’s job.” (211) Crowther writes, “It is the indisputable food, and all it stands for – undermining local culinary traditions, cheapening labour, compromising the environment, and damaging health.” This is central to the dictated role of consumer prescribed to each individual of industrial society. Consumers become incarcerated in their one role of consumer and end up more mindless, separated from one another, irresponsible and disconnected from ourselves. Crowther brilliantly summarizes the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the global population, citing cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases becoming responsible for 36 million deaths or 63% of annual global deaths in 2008 (211).

Later, Crowther depicts the gastro-anomie suffered by Indigenous peoples and ethnic groups who did not voluntarily switch to a new diet but instead, their transformation of diet occurred through the convergence of wider economic, political and social forces. The inclusion of this section illuminates the colonialist and imperialist connotations hidden within the “nutrition transition” imposed on groups oppressed by colonists. Through the “reshaping of bodies across the globe” fatness, once a symbol of collective membership and care has now taken on new meaning as a negatively associated physical characteristic, stigmatized and dangerous. Through the shift to consumerism, neurosis and disease increase exponentially. Crowther indicates the dynamics of classism within developing societies and the developed world and the way in which “society’s assumptions about obesity point to chronic stigmatization of the obese, rather than a reflection of on the systemic causes, which is itself symptomatic of a pervasive class system.” (215)

As the three overarching consequences of consumerism remain alienation, dehumanization and inequality, Crowther grapples with the latter. She points to the system that brings overabundance and obesity in some areas of the world while simultaneously bringing food shortages and hunger in all societies. Her concern with global food security leads to a discussion of food sovereignty, a fairly new and comprehensive political discourse. This movement challenges global consumerism and capitalism by embracing local culinary knowledge and traditions and local food sources and protecting the environment and livelihoods of people. This, would, in theory be a direct opposition to global capitalism and consumerism as the commodification of products and experiences works to dissolve national and local knowledge and disseminate a global religion of consumption. The cultivation of local food systems and culinary traditional reaches beyond the world of mindless consumption to ground itself in something present, particular and separated from the consumer world.

Furthermore, Crowther breaks down the newly established “Slow Food Movement” which seeks to reconcile ecology and gastronomy, ethics and pleasure. “It opposes the standardization of taste and culture and unrestrained power of the food industry multinationals and industrial agriculture.” (221) Thus, the Slow Food Movement achieves that which commodification works to destroy: uniqueness, integration of subject and object and mindful consumption. This, reconfiguration of food ethics and consumption stands as a reflexive and self-aware attempt to resist the alienation of consumerism. It is a movement precedented by the very notion that a return to thoughtful relationships between people and between people and objects will harness the ideological power of consumerism and reappropriate this agency, directing it towards self-expression, actualization and connectedness.

To demonstrate the illogic rationale of capitalist markets, Crowther positions the 2006-2008 Food Crisis as evidence for the failing consumer system. The crisis brought the number of malnourished people across the world to nearly 1 billion. Food riots, food commodity prices doubling, droughts and soil erosion illustrate just how incredibly backwards the industrial agricultural food system is. The solution, Crowther cites, was to intensify agricultural practices – the very practices that contributed to the problem in the first place. This marks the dedication and ideological indoctrination those with power have in a failing system. Embeddedness, the extent to which we are so deeply invested to the methods of global consumerism, renders the world hungry and chaotic. Additionally, the asymmetrical international division of labour central to the consumer system dictates that developing nations are projected to become “the major suppliers of food distributed to the world’s urban centres, where it is estimated that 70% of the world’s entire population will be living by 2020.” (225)

After all of this, Crowther traces another consequence of this food system under capitalism. One-third of the annual global production of food is lost or wasted. (226) Again, the consequences of this are experienced asymmetrically. The greatest losses occurred at the production end where small-scale farmers growing non-traditional export crops do so the expensive of their own food security. However, the rigorous aesthetic standards demand by food distributors and retailers sees nearly 30% of food grown by these productions going to waste. This of course ties into Dewey and Weber’s critique of consumerism, detailing the “aestheticization of society” whereby all things become commodified. Within a consumer society, the standards that organize worthiness for consumption become ever more rigid and impractical, and yet, they become so thoroughly embedded in the consumer’s understanding of “purchasable”, these standards are maintained through consumption patterns. In developed states the term “waste” denotes a deliberate act o which lies in the hands of consumers where 15% of all edible food is thrown away. (227)

Finally, in concluding her chapter about gastro-anomie, Crowther describes the gap between nutritional knowledge and the social practice of eating in North America. The emerging prescription of a “balanced diet” and its associated social connotations signal a selective utilitarian approach to food consumption. The meaning and meaningfulness imbued in this approach privileges control of food as a path to “personal attractiveness, moral superiority, high status and dominance.” Thus, meaning is clearly ascribed to food beyond the nutritional content, “placing eating back into the people’s social lives and their engagement in the social order.” (232) The dichotomization of “good foods” and “bad foods” infiltrates public discourse on food, by blurring the lines and making it unclear whether a balanced diet is in pursuit of nutritional aspirations and aesthetic aspirations or a combination of both. Regardless, situating food as a means to social dominance allows us to see the way food initially functioned as a social fact, a way to connect with one another, then became a source of individualized, externalized identificatory and gratification achievement, back to existing in the social realm but not as a path to connectedness but instead a means to acquire prestige and high regard, as equally individualizing as it’s former phase. In an “urbanized, mechanized, stratified, and capitalist society” with commercialization of food protection, food discourse becomes wrapped up in a slew of social and personal meaning and lack thereof. Championing traditional national cuisine as a model to follow, promoting culture rather than science, is a form of salvaging gastronomy. To accomplish this, Crowther implies we must pursue deindustrialization and ruralization of people’s culinary knowledge.


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