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Scott Stoneman, Learning to learn from the food crisis: consumer sovereignty and the restructuring of subjectivity

“In every case, the geography of anger is not a simple map of action and reaction, minoritization and resistance, nested hierarchies of space and site, neat sequences of cause and effect. Rather, these geographies are the spatial outcome of complex interactions between faraway events and proximate fears, between old histories and new provocations, between rewritten borders and unwritten orders” (100).
-Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger

Since the subject of this issue of Politics and Culture is food and the continuing struggle by the dispossessed and disenfranchised to manage their own food, the diversely disciplined contributors to this issue have necessarily persuaded themselves that it is important, now, to intervene in what Walter Benjamin called the “fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist” (Benjamin 254). Demanding food sovereignty means taking food seriously as a question of justice, survival and sustainability, and of how to imagine radically democratic registers of political and economic participation. It also means thinking about food in terms of the pedagogical. As Julie Guthman notes in her interview in this issue, food is becoming an increasingly important object of study among the privileged class of educators and intellectuals who, Guthman insists, bear the responsibility to “reflect on potential levers of transformation” rather than gorging on the capital which accompanies the rhetoric of prescribing what to eat.
The privatization of social concern that has driven neoliberal cultural politics at the “end of history”, or what Giorgio Agamben terms the “lasting eclipse of the political” (Agamben 121), has left a social and cultural vacuum in which the collective agency required to build living alternatives to contemporary global gastropolitics is left gasping for air. Filling this vacuum are, on the one hand, radical movements like Via Campesina that assert the “right to have rights,” or the right to “act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each,” (Arendt 296) in relation to the vital labour of growing and raising food. On the other are notions of consumer sovereignty which offer what we might call an “informational” model of imagining the subjectivity of the consumer: if consumers are informed adequately and accurately about the sublimely large networks of neoliberalized and protectionist profit and supply that constitute the global food system, if they are educated in the exploitative conditions of food production (as well as revolutionary efforts to undo these conditions), they might adjust their consumption habits and, in so doing, effectively join in the “crude” struggles whose absence stunts the growth of “refined and spiritual things.”

A kind of limit case for consumer sovereignty, understood as an evolution from naive subject to savvy world citizen, is the SixthSense, a “Wearable Gestural Interface” device designed by Pranav Mistry of the MIT Media Lab. ( The device is a fully-integrated Personal Digital Assistant (or PDA) which mediates the wearer’s every interaction with their daily environment. One of the more striking features of the gadget is that it carries a projector outfitted to display information—including live news broads and information culled from various internet sources—onto objects in the user or wearer’s immediate vicinity. The type of cyborg consumer sovereignty this prototype allows us to imagine is one in which the screen-ing of the world, a virtualization of the topography of everyday experience, opens onto a certain liberal utopian fantasy: enhanced with the power to project onto a box of cereal or bag of chips the relevant information he or she needs to make sound decisions, the shopper-as-subject becomes the reliable and reassuring check on an otherwise unsustainable level of deregulation and corporate autonomy. This technological fantasy is underwritten by the dream of a world where all social problems are overcome by the sound choices of informed individuals.

This aligns nicely with the basic presupposition of liberal thought: that the individual, and more precisely the individual’s capacity for a rational expression of autonomy, is the foundation of all politics, or (under neo-liberalism) all prosperity. But can consumer sovereignty be said to act as a “potential lever of transformation”? As a concept and political practice, consumer sovereignty and the privilege of knowing are not only insufficient solutions for the corporate logic which has wrought our present global food crisis and made entire populations disposable, it is the very ideological source of this inequality. Instead, it operates as a normative or regulatory ideal which forecloses radically cosmopolitan ethical considerations regarding food and food crises. To posit the educated autonomy of the consumer against the necropolitics of the current food system amounts to what Henry Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux term an “[e]rsatz democracy of consumers” (221), attenuating leftist food politics and undermining the fight of groups like Via Campesina against the vampires of neoliberal globalization like Monsanto, Wal-Mart and Cargill.

Julie Guthman, Michiel Korthals and Clive Barnett et. al. have insisted that such gestures to the primacy of individual decision-making at the supermarket—while by no means irrelevant to food politics—are part of a desperate rear-guard action to preserve extant modes of biopolitical governance and colonial privilege against emerging movements for sustainable food cultivation and circulation. The limitations of this conceptualization of the shopper-subject should be considered in terms of what Deborah Britzman calls a “resistance to learning” provoked by knowledge which is “ felt as interference or as a critique of the self’s coherence” (118). Indeed, Sharon Todd writes that the most common response to the weight of responsibility implied by witnessing the depth of one’s usurpation of the Other is “a powerful attempt to squirm out,” to escape the pedagogical move which attempts to unseat the student’s attachment that teaches him he need not feel remorse (94). This necessitates the radical generosity of “making education inconsolable” (49). Todd finds evidence in the experience of guilt of the self’s problematic attempt to flee the sort of knowledge which unsettles its attachment to a certain subjectivity. “[G]uilt emerges,” in her account, because responsibility for the freedom of the Other (and indeed for the future as Other) “demands too much of the self” (110).

Today the dispossession underpinning all forms of corporate food cultivation appears to be producing a global epidemic of starvation and hopelessness. The most “dramatic” and “tragic” symptom of this hopelessness, for Indian feminist and ecological activist Vandana Shiva, is the escalation of suicide rates among Indian peasants “employed” by that most elemental thing, the land, yet facing a “crisis of survival” as a result. Since the monopolization of seed distribution began in 1997, 25,000 peasants in India have committed suicide. In India, there has been a concerted effort by the state to reinscribe statistics regarding farmer suicide along intelligibly “neoliberal” lines: reports purporting to apply “scientific analysis” have insisted that the causes are psychological, not economic, and that much can be done to address the problem by requiring farmers to “boost up their self-respect (swabhiman) and self-reliance (swavalambam).” To what extent can competing notions of sovereignty be said to act as the hidden linkage between farmer suicides, the contemporary politics of disposability and the struggle for a sustainable system of participatory economics in food production?

Food is the “quintessential consumable,” in the words of contributor Chad Lavin, not only because it has the unique property of actually being ingested, or because (even when not eaten expressly for this purpose) it exists to fuel the body, but because the nourishment and pleasure food provides has a singular character, a certain sovereignty, and is vital to the formation of community. If we trust Sharon Todd’s point that “the other commands the subject into being and in so doing inaugurates responsibility,” if we agree with her reading of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas which suggests that responsibility for the other is not just a phenomenological possibility, but “the very structure of subjectivity” (109), then it follows that for a regime of power as destructive as neoliberalism to persist, it has to either continue to suppress an inaugural yearning for justice or effectively restructure subjectivity through pedagogical tropes such as consumer sovereignty.

Works Cited

-Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
-Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
-Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd ed. Cleveland: Meridian, 1958.
-Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
-Britzman, Deborah P. Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Toward a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
-Giroux, Henry A., and Susan Searls Giroux. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
-Shiva, Vandana. “The Suicide Economy Of Corporate Globalisation.” ZMag 19 Feb 2004 15 Mar 2009 <>.
-Todd, Sharon. Learning from the Other: Levinas, Psychoanalysis, and Ethical Possibilities in Education. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.

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