Monday, September 14, 2009

The decommodifying effects of culture

Daniel and I would like to think that the title of our blog plays off of Adams' famous closing argument without being exactly like the umpteen other blogs out there entitled "Facts are Stubborn Things". In addition, it signals that things other than dry facts are stubborn or in some sense resilient within the scope of reasoned argument. All that's to say, don't grumble about this week's narrative emphasis and focus on lived philosophy. Is/ought and fact/value distinctions recognized, the latter half of these distinctions will always be important fodder for reasoned discussion, and will always be the locomotion behind the bare facts.

My wife and I checked out the audio version of Barbara Kingsolver (and family)'s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for a longish drive a few weeks ago, and have since finished it up over a few sittings at home. The book chronicles a family's year of living on a farm in the Appalachians, growing their own food and buying exclusively from local, sustainable sources. We loved the book- we've also broken into some Wendell Berry over the past year, tried our hand at growing a few herbs and an heirloom tomato plant ourselves, and are generally beginning to break in to educating ourselves more properly about food culture, agriculture, and other more tangible senses of "cultured" life than I might find in the intellectual cultures where I normally spend my thinking hours.

The book presents a compelling argument against industrialized farming and its adverse affects on the economic life of communities, and I think that the particular way it chooses to do this is its most important contribution.

In many critiques of commodified agriculture, an apocalyptic tone pointing out to us just how far we have come since the early 20th century in destroying American farm life is an important wake-up call for us all. But this in itself will often simply shock a consumer into helplessness rather than into any sort of action. Or, if it does goad on to action, the result may limit the opposition by defining it solely as opposition. What should be a cultured life is reduced to activism against the evil factory farms or a capitalist foe... it results, that is, in someone with whom you can't sit down for a chat without getting frustrated by their missionary zeal.

Kingsolver approaches the issue quite differently. While there are plenty of informative asides that put the stakes in grotesquely sharp perspective, the focus of the book is a straightforward look at how a family lives in an alternative manner. The concern is less about fixing a system and more about making a home or a community, which will in turn work towards fixing the system. The mode of discourse is pre-political. One might also say that the cultural mindset has a decommodifying effect.

As such, it avoids typical critiques from capitalist perspectives to local food cultures. Although there is no opposition to the idea, Kingsolver's point is not, "we need to radically break-up large industrialized farms and impose strict ethical regulations on how agribusiness functions" ...rather, it is "our family would rather buy the lumpy tomatoes from the guy down the street who works a half acre than the artificially pretty (but tasteless) one from that guy who's never grown a tomato in his life." That's just consumer behavior at work. Rational? Irrational? Regardless, it's difficult for detractors to critique the local and sustainable food culture as a family or personal option without resorting to ideological reactions against it, because such a culture simply doesn't operate on the level of political vying for legislative support or economic imperative. It's just how the Kingsolver family (or the Kuehn family, or others) has decided to live their life... or even just this week, or this grocery store trip.

Presenting any sort of culture in this way may at first glance appear less compelling- there are no meta-analyses that would universalize the point that is being made or offer proper justification for following such a lead on an larger scale. But getting caught up on this lack misunderstands the basic way that culture functions, I think. It over-professionalizes our consideration, and the tendency to do so comes largely from the fact that this is the way that we're accustomed to assuring a reliable imprimatur on our approach to life. One day, however, we may very well wake up to realize that we've ceased to be able to consider our life in a reflective manner without the help of official studies and analytical justifications. This leaves us not only vulnerable to the tyranny of the expert, but also to the whims of the emotive and spiritual resources that we've always had but no longer know how to direct or control.

This isn't to say that there aren't rational reasons to critique or reject the industrialized food industry, or that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does not present these reasons- there are, and it does. But even when the stubborn facts are laid on the table, one still must choose how to prepare dinner in a wise manner.

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