Thursday, October 23, 2008

From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need. -Marx

People tend to ask me often, and rightly so, how I managed to find nutrition from philosophy--two disciplines that seem so unrelated that most people wouldn't even consider them potential bastard cousins. One is steeped in the humanities, the other in empirical data and science. When I was in undergrad, I read a lot of philosophy, including some political/social theory by Marx which had a resounding influence in my life, especially his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, specifically his alienation theory.

Simply put, Marx's theory explicates the idea that the Industrial Revolution, through the advent of mass production and mass commodification, has made us more alienated from each other as human beings. To paraphrase, Marx says that one of our greatest attributes as human beings is the ability to create, to be creative, to make (and in fact this is what sets us apart from animals) and to be able to share those creations with one another. The idea of mass production not only negates the ability to exercise our minds through creativity (a worker on an assembly line is simply going through the motions that someone else has told him/her to do), but it also extracts this relationship of creator to recipient of the creation. Taking away these enormously important human traits makes us unable to self-realize. When you subtract this formerly very interactive, rich, meaningful exchange, everything becomes simply commodity from unknown to unknown. It all loses so much meaning. To have so much means to value everything a bit less as well.

There are more facets and stronger philosophical implications to this theory that I also draw from frequently, but for our purposes this might work (please ask if you are confused).

Suffice to say, I became fascinated with food in France. This is such a truncated version of a story, but it's a blog and I know people do not care to read forever.

I connected the idea of alienation with this new food movement--mass production, unrecognizable ingredients, 30,000 new products a year hitting the market, of course coupled with fierce marketing campaigns; You begin to see this lack of connection between farm and plate, between creator of product or food itself and consumer of it. You also begin to see a real lack of human connection with food, where it used to be. You're probably starting to get the idea.

Well, reading Michael Pollin's new book, In Defense of Food, the other day I found he summed it up incredibly well when he was advocating shopping at farmer's markets as opposed to grocery stores (pp. 159-161):
"If you're concerned about chemicals in your produce, you can simply ask the farmer at the market how he or she deals with pests and fertility and begin the sort of conversation between producers and consumers that, in the end, is the best guarantee of quality in your food. So many of the problems of the industrial food chain stem from its length and complexity. A wall of ignorance intervenes between consumers and producers, and that wall fosters a certain carelessness on both sides. Farmers can lose sight of the fact that they're growing food for actual eaters rather than for middlemen, and consumers can easily forget that growing good food takes care and hard work. In a long food chain, the story and identity of the food (Who grew it? Where and how was it grown?) disappear into the undifferentiated stream of commodities, so that the only information communicated between consumers and producers is price. In a short food chain, eaters can make their needs and desires known to the farmer, and farmers can impress on eaters the distinctions between ordinary and exceptional food, and the many reasons why exceptional food is worth what it costs. Food reclaims its story, and some of its nobility, when the person who grew it hands it to you. So here's a subclause to the get-out-of-the-supermarket rule: Shake the hand that feeds you...
...Regulation is an imperfect substitute for the accountability, and trust, built into a market in which food producers meet the gaze of eaters and vice versa."

Philosophy has a place in nutrition and now it is time for me to learn the science. To be a comprehensive researcher and writer, both disciplines will come into play, ideally. I want to take this idea that Pollin puts into motion here, even further. Nutrition is becoming part science, part philosophy.

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