Food, Sex, and Sustainability: a Plea for the Ethical

Is the so called food revolution really a liberal, feel good, mostly elitist movement? Is buying organic, or dutifully recycling, or going to farmer’s markets more about feeling good about oneself than it is about engaging in a political movement that affirms radical change? And, finally, and more controversial, is not the sentiment that authentic radical change has to begin with the individual him or herself, one vote at a time or one consumer at a time, not an ideological corollary to a consumer society that empowers that subject by way of the illusion of choice? This paper begins with a gesture of incredulousness that is reminiscent of St. Paul and Karl Marx; namely, how can so many well intentioned people be so profoundly duped? How can we not see that behind the immediate gratification of our virtuous little sacrifices lies the material conditions of productive forces whose utter dependency on the social relations that it creates is essential to its survival – and that, consequently, the only way out of this interlocked relation is an economic and political intervention that registers something like a real revolution?

So what is it about food that can lend insight to the liberal disposition of being duped? Doesn’t something like a food revolution seem more palpable and realizable than world peace or solving the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock? After all, eating is not only something we can all agree on as being necessary, we can also remark how it is valued as something enjoyable and communal, perhaps even an idea that we could all rally around, a kind of secular ecological principle that cuts through the haze of religion and politics. To put in different but related terms, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the happy 90’s of financial growth, many have claimed our time to be post-ideological – meaning, no time for ideological debate; rather, it is time for hard pragmatic decision-making to bring forward the global, neo-liberal village. Since 9/11, however, politics is indeed creeping back unto the world stage with mixed and rather pathetic results – indeed, the Fukuyamian liberal, democratic world order is in question. What is needed is an emancipatory political discourse that mobilizes a collective movement. The enemy, to be clear, is the iron fisted logic and perceived necessity of capital – what Mark Fisher has so aptly called Capitalist Realism, and which, in a word, can be thought of as the screen that provides the symbolic coordinates from which all social, political and economic phenomenon is measured and determined. What does this have to do with food, and the so called food revolution?

It is precisely because food elicits pleasure, custom, sentiment, as well as the necessity of nutrition for our very survival that enables the topic of food to bypass or even obfuscate the political, and, instead, settles for a moral behaviorist, one consumer at a time, paradigm that, I argue, only manages to reify capitalist realism. Again, no time to debate different political ideologies, or to forget how utopian ideals only divulge into power hungry blood baths. Rather, we must change our everyday practices, learn new habits that can affect the world – we need to just do it. And so rather then solicit the cross or the sword, let us rally behind something we all can agree on! In order to get to the core of this problem I will create a direct relation between sex and food in order to expose the conceit of this liberal deception. My theoretical point of departure is Jacques Lacan’s ontological claim that what frames human relation is the impossibility of the sexual relation. Essentially, I will posit that love is to sex, what sustainability is to food: Each acts as a fantasmatic supplement to suture the impossible relation between, on the one hand, self and other, and, on the other, food and health. To traverse the liberal fantasy of sustainability, we need an ethics informed by Immanuel Kant and Sigmund Freud to accompany an economic and political movement.

The relation between food and sex is one that does not need much introduction or even convincing. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile dipping back into the work of the Freudian field of psychoanalysis to tease this relation out more so than meets the eye. In the Freudian universe something is awry; we humans are not at home; there is an insurmountable gap between nature – or the dictates of necessity, instinct, and reproduction – and culture – or how the swerve of the signifier produces contingency, desire and enjoyment. Freud’s crucial insight about sexuality is that the relation between a sexual aim and its object never achieves a one to one correspondence, that the aim is always in excess of the object that proffers some relief of excitation, that, in a word, the sexual aim is always in excess of or deficient to the object it seeks, or thinks it seeks. The consequence of this dehiscence at the very heart of our being is the formation of neurotic or perverse symptoms to, essentially, negotiate the displeasure caused by a sexually inhibited aim. To be clear, the sexual object as such is not the problem; the problem is the way the object – e.g., the breast, the mouth, the anus, the voice, the gaze – become overlaid with signifiers – or, more precisely, the way these ‘excited’ or anxious ridden objects are dampened, even instrumentalized, with signification. To repeat, the gap between the sexual aim, otherwise known by Freud as the pleasure principle, and the sexual object, the reality principle, represents the dehiscence or cut that marks our being with what Eric Santner has called a surplus animation. To put differently and hopefully more clearly, this gap is the space out of which we become subjects of desire, and it also the space out of which the Freudian notion of the drives are developed. To identify with the feeling that one is not at home in the universe is to admit that we are sexed beings driven by enigmatic impulses and signifiers. As such, neurotic symptoms or perverse disavowals constitute the norm of human behavior.

The point of bringing Freud’s ontology to the foreground of this panel topic is to say two related things: 1) pathology is the main driver in animating human behavior and 2) there is something in our being that tends to go against this main directive. Now, pathology, a word also dear to Immanuel Kant and his attempt to formulate an ethics beyond self-interest, has a two-fold related meaning: it designates that our actions are animated by self-interest and, secondly, that our actions are being animated from another scene. As such, pathological attachments or neurotic symptoms constitute an economy of means which, always already, obscure the self-avowed pretensions of its ends. Not only this, and most importantly, it is the economy of means that produces pleasure – in other words, in the face of the excitation and tension caused by the phantom objects of our desire, we derive great pleasure and satisfaction with our various replacement objects. So, for example, the act of recycling and buying local and organic can function as a pathological means to satisfy an end; namely, to use a virtuous act to disavow the knowledge of a food crisis that teeters on catastrophe. Here, the awareness of a food crisis is screened out by the fantasy, one that couples sacrifice with pleasure, of the moral worth and contribution of individual acts. I will return to this below when I discuss the superego, but suffice it to say here that fantasy, for Lacan, is a necessary supplement to the fact that sex is never simply sex.

Food and food consumption shares the same structure to that of sex and the sexual act. Food goes in the mouth and eventually comes out of the anus. It too becomes subject to the swerve of the signifier, opening up an excess and disharmony to the mere act of satisfying hunger. We could say, I think with confidence that food is to sex, what eating is to fucking. The common thread that quilts together the analogy is desire. Think of the solemnity and manners that surround the act of eating, as if a breach in protocol would tear asunder the fragile and arbitrary hold of symbolic authority. I am reminded of a friend who once told me that she always cherished her father eating at the dinner table because it was during these moments when he was exposed as most vulnerable. Couldn’t we say that the primal, self-satisfying act of eating is much like masturbation, and that, as such, it demands a whole constellation of manners and rituals to screen out the disgusting act and noise of chewing? The symbolic investitures that frame the act of eating provide an exact, formal corollary to the act of sex. Of course, just like with sex, one’s excessive and/or deficient relation with eating necessitates the fantasmatic supplement to offset or, better, spiritualize the attendant pathologies.

But what if the post-modern theoretical intervention is correct; that is to say, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s diagnostics of the end of grand narratives, or Fredric Jameson’s writings on cognitive dissonance, or Zizek’s symptomatic analysis of an ineffective symbolic register? In other words, the symbolic investitures that frame eating and sex, within contemporary U.S. popular culture, no longer stick on the level of tradition, let alone community, which gives rise to the proliferation of imaginary reconfigurations of the meaning of eating and fucking, at once idiosyncratic and personalized. We live in a time of great dietary experimentation, complete with references to pre-historic times, personal optimization, and social narratives that runs the gamut from obesity to slow food. In the same vein, we are living in a time where there is not so much a sexual revolution going on, but an increasing narrativization of the sexual act, that is, a rethinking of traditional manners in the name of liberating the sexual act to accommodate an expression more aligned to the immediate gratification of consumption than something like the body or love. What I argue is that far from returning to something like nature — under the guise, for example, of paleo-times for diet or the age of Gaia for sex or sustainability for capitalism, we are merely miming the logic of capital; namely, the polymorphous perversity of sexuality, to quote Freud, is becoming commoditized. Or to put differently, the eating and fucking narratives that concern a return to nature are fantasmatic supplements that screen out the traumatic knowledge that these narratives are merely self-referential, and, therefore, so many hysterical responses to the utter lack of an emancipatory and collective future. Peel away the fetish character of this activity, and what we find are feel good narratives justifying masturbatory practices.

All of this is to set up a defense of Kant’s and Freud’s contribution to ethical thought against a predominately and hegemonic consequentialist ethics, and, by extension, a democratic consensus. The crux at the heart of ethical theory is the relation and the gap between justice and law, and the subsequent ethical issue of obedience. The tricky point, of course, is that the obedience in question is not just juridical law but also moral law. Why eat organic, buy local, and boycott the corporations if such an injunction is not juridical? How can obedience to the moral dictates of the food movement feel good, even pleasurable, but for the wrong reasons? Both Freud and Kant agree that even when we instinctively or rationally obey the law, we do not always do so for the right reasons. Kant goes so far as saying that such a perversion is the root of radical evil. Todd McGowan writes, “. . . Freud contends that the basis of our acquiescence to the law lies in envy, envy of other’s satisfaction, and this inevitably distorts all social arrangements. Similarly Kant posits that our devotion to the law is never devotion to the law for its own sake but for some attendant pathological motivation.” Insofar as a moral dictate is premised on sentiment – e.g. empathy for a neglected mother-nature, compassion for inner city obese kids, pity for caged and slaughtered cattle, et cetera – it cannot be unalloyed from the way such feelings provide the moral subject with the pleasure of self-satisfaction. Radical evil, for Kant, is when a good cause serves an end that precipitates evil. So, for example, the inconvenient truth of global warming, an inconvenience that can ironically provide the moral liberal subject with a religious do good attitude, may actually aid and abet the evil consequences of what this truth does not honestly and even violently confront – namely, the logic of capitalism. Now, this paradoxical situation in which an inconvenient sacrifice of pleasure yields a self-interested pleasurable result is precisely the function of the superego. To cite Lacan, what the superego commands us to do is enjoy! This is why the superego mocks our fidelity to good behavior in direct proportion to our attempt to adhere to a parallel moral commandment. To feel bad for wanting to do-good is a symptom of the superego imploring us to enjoy – to enjoy eating better, or having more intimate sex, or optimizing our health. It is like purchasing a mushy organic apple that you know is going to taste bad when there is a nice shiny, crisp conventional Fuji apple sitting right next to it for half the cost.

Essentially, the injunction to eat organic and buy local is perfect fodder for the superego in a postmodern age in which the binding and even normalizing power of guilt is losing its bearings. I realize that that might sound abstract and far-fetched. But from a psychoanalytic point of view, the superego is constitutive of our being for the precise reason that we can never truly get a hold of or understand the arbitrary and non-sensical origin of the law as such. Thus, in spite of the appearance of a withering Christian, Juridical or moral law, the superego pays no heed to this appearance; for it is not something that dissipates with a relaxing of moral commandments or symbolic investments. In fact, the loosening of moral ties or the withering of symbolic investments has the effect of making the distinction between the obscene superego law and the symbolic law of the Father break down, causing a gray zone of confusion between the binding power of juridical law and the idiosyncratic expression of a law that is supposedly self referential. From here, you can see how the superego’s injunction to enjoy sex more, or to enjoy food more can lead, paradoxically, to a proliferation of idiosyncratic feel good and do good narratives, like Gaia, Paleo, or Green business (or living off the grid), that essentially frame and screen out the lethal dimension of enjoyment itself, or what Lacan called jouissance. From the point of view of Michel Foucault, what we see is the neo-liberalization of disciplinary practices and regimes that were not too long again under the auspices of social institutions. Today, it is the corporation and the bio-politics of governmentality that effectively manages populations. This, of course, is the crux of my argument. Insofar as we frame the food revolution in terms of individual sacrifice, acts of kindness, self-disciplinary measures, a shift in habit formation, or compassion in action we become duped by a neo-liberal, ideological prejudice. Frenetic, do good and feel good activity complete with a thoughtful but idiosyncratic life philosophy, but without any impact on the economic and political problem. In fact, such a disposition only feeds the de-territorializing logic of capital – that is, the way capital subsumes protest and dissent into its productive machine.

To conclude, in order for the Food movement to become an emancipatory and collective ethical and political movement, indeed a revolutionary project, a short circuit has to be triggered between, on the one hand, the moral pathology of the everyday life of the food movement (which is to say, the self-aggrandizing pleasure associated with an identification with the correctness of the movement), and, on the other hand, the corresponding belief/hope in democratic, consensus building, reform politics (which is to say, a disavowal of the collusion of capitalism and politics). To put differently, what the short circuit exposes is how the moral pathologizing of the problem is a self-interested, feel good disposition that operates by disavowing the orange alert political and economic situation that stares at us in the face. A consensus building movement premised on the belief in reform politics is sustained, ideologically, by an ethos grounded in moral psychology.

This won’t work. The one feeds off the other, all the while keeping in tact the economic base. If sex is to love, what eating is to health and sustainability, we need to take a page out of Lacan’s understanding of love. To love is to traverse the fantasy that sustains love as the playing out of another scene. What appears in the absence of the pathological attachment is the impossible and traumatic thought of the two. What the food movement needs is the courage to declare the impossible, which is not only about identifying the real problem (namely, how Capitalism is not only the cause of the problem but also manages to dictate the terms of the solution itself) but of having the courage to think beyond it (for example, what Alain Badiou has called the communist hypothesis), and, as a result, to more forcefully counter the liberal, moral behaviorist, one person at a time deception.

About David Denny

David Denny is chair of the Culture and Media department at Marylhurst University. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He teaches classes in Critical Theory, Film Theory, and contemporary political thought. He has published articles on Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” in the International Journal of Zizek Studies, and on the academy award winning film “The Hurt Locker” in Theory and Event (both articles can be accessed online). He is currently working on a paper on the documentary film Restrepo.
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