Several years ago, I wrote a short article for Jacobin Magazine called “Soviet Space Opera,” on the occasion of Neil Armstrong’s death, in defense of space travel and the Promethean dream of human interplanetary colonization.
The piece was intended as a provocation, in keeping with the editors's stated dedication to Marxist, or at least left-wing, polemic. The decline of space travel and the futurist utopianism associated with it, I argued, coincided with the failure of actually existing socialism and the communist idea. I was at the time just beginning to engage with certain elements of what has since become a full-scale accelerationist revival on the Anglo-American left, exemplified by Alex Williams and Nic Srineck’s Accelerationist Manifesto.
In keeping with this engagement, my polemic was also at least partially aimed at certain backward-looking , romantic, and potentially defeatist tendencies on the left—localism or the more quasi-primitivist strains of the environmental movement—as dissected by Greg Sharzer, among others, in his No Local.
Leigh Philips is one of the writers whose work I cited in my article. Philips, a science writer and self-described “modernist,” wrote an essay entitled “Put Whitey Back On The Moon,” which both preceded and inspired my own polemic. Philips argues—against neo-liberals and the anarcho-localists of the left alike—that the central planning of the state socialist variety is a necessary prerequisite for grand, collective, projects such as space exploration. He advocates a return to such projects as the best way to build a twenty-first century socialism, which would include “guaranteed incomes, well-funded pensions, a transformation to a low-carbon (or even carbon-negative) economy, and investment in space exploration."
So I was surprised when Philips suggested that I had abandoned my earlier views in criticizing what I think is a rather poor essay, entitled “A Plea For Culinary Modernism," by Rachel Laudan, that recently appeared in Jacobin.
Laudan’s essay, for me, was a case study in false dichotomies and an exercise in bash the straw hippie, which in this case, is the artisanal or slow food movement, subsumed under the term, “culinary luddism.” Laudan begins the essay by outlining her long relationship with organic and artisanal methods of food production, before letting her readers know that traditional food was really bad and hardly natural, or in her words: “to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.” In other words, “natural” and “organic” are modern inventions. But are Michael Pollan and his fellow travelers, advocates for organic and artisanal food, really offering their prescriptions as historical claims? And are they rejecting the modern age or modern industrial agriculture in its entirety as opposed to calling for a set of (perhaps dubious) alternative agricultural practices in the very modern form of national food policy proposals?
In terms of her own policy prescriptions, Laudan calls for a better industrial agriculture and “an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.” While I agree with Laudan’s proposal and endorse the need for a better industrial agricultural system, I suspect so too would most of her putative opponents. These are just a few of the problems I had with a piece in which the author praises McDonalds and fast food in general because it supposedly freed the poor and working class woman from slaving in the kitchen all day, as if these were the only two alternatives, and without mentioning the negative health consequences of Big Macs on working class communities where this modern wonder is what most people can afford in terms of time and money. Nor does Laudan mention food deserts. Nor the labor conditions of modern farm workers.
Laudan, under the guise of historical demystification and policy prescription, outlines an aesthetic position: culinary modernism. Like certain iterations of artistic modernism, Laudan defines her edible modernity against the romanticism of the slow fooders. In a recent, and, for me, illuminating, interview published in the wake of the Jacobin essay (which, it should be noted, is a fifteen year old piece of writing republished by the magazine) Laudan admits as much: “it’s romanticism and it has older roots. Pollan’s three rules (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”) had already been advocated by Rousseau in the middle of the eighteenth century. Rousseau praised the peasant diet. According to him, the sturdy inhabitants of Swiss valleys grew tall, strong on milk straight from the cow and vegetables straight from the garden. Not for him aristocratic French dining with cooks who disguised meat with sauces to titillate the nobility into overeating and obesity.”
As Laudan recognizes in the excerpt, culinary aesthetics are socially and politically overdetermined in a way that is recognizably modern. Romanticism is a product of nascent modernity, born of enthusiasm for and then disillusionment with the French Revolution. European romantic fantasies of a natural life, from which modern people have fallen away, speak to the dislocations attendant upon capitalist modernity. The various romanticisms, reactionary and progressive, functioned as both immanent critique and symptom of what Marx would later call alienation. The same could be said of the foodie neo-romanticism that even Laudan tacitly acknowledges as having changed the industrial food system for the better: “Look what’s happened in the 15 years since I wrote the article. Walmart’s become a major player, so has Monsanto, celebrity chefs, sustainability, and locavore have become household words, fats and sweeteners have been vilified and un-vilified, and now Taco Bell is removing artificial flavoring and coloring, corporations are scrambling to make their products appealing to those who want healthful and organic foods, and McDonald’s is in trouble. No one could have predicted or managed these changes. And many have happened through the power of the word. So I’d turn down the offer [of a hypothetical food czar position]. The pen is mightier than the czar!”
Most modernist movements, of the artistic sort, build on the romantic critique of modern alienation even while rejecting romanticism and its conventions (think of Eliot’s The Waste Land). Culinary modernism is more accurately described as a futurism, in line with that avant-garde’s over-identification with modern technological processes; this over-identification famously included the movement's first, Italian, adherents' brief rejection of retrograde pasta in favor of futuristic food.
Futurists, such as F.T. Marinetti, sought to overcome alienation and, in the words of Benjamin Noys, “solve [the] suffering of labor by integrating labor into the machine” (Noys, Malign Velocities, 21). In fact, both futurism and romantic primitivism of the Thoreauvian sort offer an experience of the sublime in place of a systematic political analysis or program. They are understandable, but insufficient, aesthetic responses to various political and social deadlocks.
All of this might seem very far afield from the issue of slow vs. fast food, although food, its production, and consumption are nowadays a great example of a (symptomatic) politics by other means. These reflections came out of my debate with Leigh Philips on the Laudan piece, as I mentioned above, which was in many ways more interesting than the essay itself. I have reproduced this debate below or at least the first exchange, which Leigh Philips posted on his own blog.
One of Marx’s great innovations in relation to earlier radicalisms was his reconceptualization of the opposition between the progressive’s year zero future orientation and a historicism marred by reactionary traditionalism. Revolution, shaped by historical limitations and possibilities, does not represent a complete break with the past and its traditions so much as its radical reconfiguration. Walter Benjamin, the great critic of futurism, best exemplifies this ethos in his "Theses on The Philosophy of History," when he writes: "Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments” (Thesis II). This model of the past, and our relationship with it, represents one possibility for rethinking the human relationship with the planet—the environment—in a way that is consonant with a broadly modernist socialism, but without falling into the opposition between neo-futurist Jetsons and eco-localist Flintstones—a topic to be explored in future blog posts.
What follows is the conversation between myself, science writer Leigh Philips, and others in response to Laudan's Jacobin piece mentioned above:
Anthony Galluzzo Historical accuracy isn't really my criterion for whether food is good or not. "Artisanal"—another flavor of gourmet—is better aesthetically. And as noted below, too many straw men or rather straw hippies here.
Yes, we need a better, more sustainable, large scale industrial agriculture, of which small scale organic farming will form a tiny part. Why always these antinomies? So our only choice is between McDonalds ("edible" garbage) and "Luddism?" This is a C student-level example of the false dichotomy. And why are the masses consigned to Big Macs again? Note the subtle hints of reactionary cultural populism-fancy food is only for fancy people, after all!
And as for celebrating bad mass produced food as a "modernist" gesture...this increasingly predictable kitsch Jetsonism is veering into self-parody at this point. I will take farm-to-table over Soylent any day.
Anthony Galluzzo The problem isn't the technical point (s) per se—there is a campy aesthetic here—a callow 1950s era futurism (the wonders of Jell-O and canned foods) used as a fuck you to some hypothetical Park Slope neo-hippie. Tiresome.
A sensuously aesthetic life for all—which will include "reconfigured" traditions, many of which were once the province of elites—should be one primary goal of socialism.
And do Michael Pollan or Anthony Bourdain really offer their recipes as historical claims? Please. Sophisticated geek trolling—the future as endless McRibs at the Jetsons' place. Kill me now.
Will Hough This'll do for sorting things out, thanks.
"A sensuously aesthetic life for all—which will include 'reconfigured' traditions, many of which were once the province of elites—should be one primary goal of socialism."
Anthony Galluzzo I am critiquing the article, if you didn't notice. My point being that a sustainable future will depend on a better, large scale industrial agriculture and small organic farming. These false dichotomies make for stupid—ideologically coded—debates.
Anthony Galluzzo Cheer whiz and Spielberg movies—a Marxist vision that even Fox News can get behind, Seriously, I generally love Jacobin, but this article is embarrassing and the constant trolls will only undermine the magazine. Also, some more nuanced takes on environmentalism would be nice. It's not always an either/or.
Miguel Antonio Gomez Oh but there is a dichotomy, Anthony Galluzzo! There is indeed a big contradiction between the two "modes of production"! The most obvious one is that they compete for resources: space, land, water, financing, etc...
Anthony Galluzzo So what's your take on the essay, Miguel Antonio Gomez? We need to go all organic and local? Neo-agrarianism? Elaborate.
Leigh Phillips I'm surprised at your antagonism to the article, Anthony, after the other day, you were quite rightly fulminating against Carol Lipton for her salmagundi of anti-vaxx, primitivist, pseudoscientific, Malthusian, "other ways of knowing," noble-savage brain rot. This essay is countering many of the same tendencies with respect to food. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to all the evidence-phobic, faddish waffle everywhere you go about gluten-free, chemical-free (impossible unless what is on offer is a perfect vacuum, as everything is made of chemicals), paleo, local, all-natural, organic, anti-GMO, etc., etc. It’s not trolling to contest the problems of what the author calls "culinary luddism." It’s not the term I would have chosen, as the Luddites of the 19th Century were a lot more complicated than the term luddism would suggest, but otherwise, the essay is a brilliant, provocative piece of popular history.
More broadly, we are living at a moment when a rainbow of anti-modern ideologies dress themselves up as anti-capitalist, or at least anti-corporate. Yet for all their claim of opposition to capitalism, when you scratch the surface, they very frequently turn out to be quite neoliberal and market-friendly while unconsciously drawing on 19th Century counter-Enlightenment thinking or early 20th Century Blood and Soil reaction, and usually come marinated in postmodernist anti-rationalism and relativism.
We find these counter-Enlightenment ideologies within a great deal of environmentalist thought in particular; within the technophobic opposition to nanotechnology, space exploration, cloning, genetic modification, neuroscience, human enhancement, etc., etc.; within the essentialism of identity politics; within the mysticism of alternative medicine; within the scepticism of civil liberties mounted by safe space, trigger warning, ‘no-platform’ forms of campus censorship; but also within foodie culture. To contest the Malthusianism within environmentalist ideas is not to deny climate change, or stop worrying about overfishing or pollution, say, but to propose real solutions to these problems. To contest technophobia is not to embrace the "gadgets + capitalism = awesome" naïveté of a Wired or Popular Mechanics magazine, but to offer future-oriented egalitarianism. To argue against the magical thinking of alternative medicine is not to abandon our challenge to Big Pharma. To contest the censoriousness, viciousness and victimology of SJW berserkers is not to abandon the fight against racism, misogyny and homophobia, but to argue for a better, universalist mode of campaigning against these phenomena. Similarly with this critique of the ahistoricism of contemporary foodie culture, the argument is not to damn aesthetic pleasure in artisanal food, craft beer, etc., but to remind of their fundamental dependence on industry that has brought so much benefit and how industry is not to be done away with, but captured by us and planned in the interest of all.
A growing number of Marxist writers—myself included and I think a lot of folks in "the Jacobin ecosystem," if you’ll permit me to project a little here—are growing increasingly frustrated with the hegemony of such counter-Enlightenment ideas on the left and are groping towards a way of critiquing them without alienating those who unfortunately but with the best of intentions embrace these ideas. The Accelerationists likewise are largely on the right track, albeit steeped in a philosophical register impenetrable to most. Elsewhere, the self-styled Eco-modernists are interesting and definitely coming up with very good solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss but insufficiently confronting the contradictions of the market system.
Do we always get it right? No. Are we sometimes inelegant, ham-fisted or even sneering in this regard? I’m the first to admit that my curmudgeon performance around these sort of issues is a little clumsy at times. But this isn’t the same as trolling. And for all the fumbles, I remain convinced that our best hope for breaking out of the neoliberal impasse lies in a universalist, global, future-oriented, labour-centric revival of the modernist project, not a small-is-beautiful retreat to some Golden Era that never existed. And so this critique must continue to happen, however maladroit it may be sometimes. (That said, I don’t think this essay is maladroit in any way. It’s a superb piece of writing)
Anthony GalluzzoThe fact that you're surprised illustrates my point, Leigh Phillips—apparently there are only two caricatural positions on this (and other issues) where one is either Carol Lipton-a "hippie" devotee of counterenlightenment—OR an unequivocal advocate of McDonalds.
Some general points: there was no one Enlightenment, and romanticism is also a development within the aufklarung-imminent critique—which both Hegel and Marx understood. The problem of alienation and its overcoming was central to Marx's project. I am just as disturbed by scientism and recent attempts to posit some reductionist folk enlightenment—reinventing Marx as a technocrat, for example—as I am opposed to the obscurantism I critiqued on Ms. Lipton's thread. Both positions are equally false antinomies, as is the opposition between a reified technophilia and a reified technophobia. Human techne must be a conscious, collective, and rational praxis conceived with both material limits and human ends in mind (which include a non-alienated mode of human living, plus the aesthetic, affective, and imaginative dimensions of human self-making).
As for the specific issue addressed in this article, who is advocating the complete abolition of industrial agriculture here? One of the writer's many straw men in what is a very poor article. Certainly not me—look at my comment above. I wrote that we need an industrial agriculture that is better—more sustainable, healthier...and yes, more conducive to aesthetically preferable foods. Such a development does not necessitate the complete abolition of organic farming, which will play a role in food production.
As for the article, it is a beastiary of fallacies: for example, modern organic farming is just that: modern. It is dependent on modern agricultural techniques—adapted to a different scale—and does not imply a return to the medieval period or feudal relations of production—a conclusion either dishonest or moronic on the writer's part. You notice the author's historically illiterate use of Luddism—one of many such flaws here. I don't think Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain, or other artisanal locavore types—gourmets and gourmands—would claim they are making historical statements about actual peasant diets, nor are they offering a blueprint for revolution; it is better, more aesthetically pleasing—pethaps healthier—food that they advocate in the end. McDonalds is shit. The poor should not have to eat McDonalds, Everyone should be able to eat farm to table luxuries, although it can't make up all of our diet....
Will Hough I'm just going to peek in again to say that I feel like a prize fight promoter.
Anthony Galluzzo...and I am sorry, but it is hard not to see in this essay a certain, deliberately provocative, cultural politics, camouflaged as no bullshit empiricism. It's bash the straw hippie married to a reactionatey populism—McDonalds FUCK YEAH!—that I can also detect in other forms (celebratory paeans to the blockbuster mode of culture industry). Sophisticated trolling, which sometimes mars a magazine with which I am in broad agreement.
Also, I see no value in equating eco-radicalism, SJWs, and trigger warnings under the broad, and largely meaningless, category of irrationalism; while I might be opposed to these phenomena individually, they are distinct things and must be criticized on their own terms.
The team sport mentality—with its cartoonish misrepresentations (primitivist! futurist! You either accept the entirety of a position or you are the enemy or an SJW or a witch) is as far from dialectical as you can get. Intellectual progress won't happen when our only two argumentative modes-and this isn't directed at you in particular-are snark or cheerleading.
Anthony Galluzzo I am done. This consumed my whole day. My two cents.