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.
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.