Porkopolis and The Secret Life of Groceries

There’s this ascendent form of writing showing up everywhere from self-improvement books to books about how complicated things are: Start with a story of a person, could be a person from history, could be someone who came to your workshop, could be someone who stands in as the exemplar of a situation too big and complex to get a handle on. Focus on that person’s story to help readers understand the human scale of the enormous forces affecting them and, by extension, us. This form of writing has a long history in political writing, and it’s for sure effective and grippy. We are story-based beings. Because of this, maybe, the stories we tell shape the scope of how we think about what’s possible, what we can do next – and this is one reason I’m inspired by the work of places like The Center for Story-Based Strategy, because they help re-imagine the kinds of stories we can tell. Also, I’m a total sucker for both stories and stories about irreducible, brain-exploding levels of complexity. So these two books, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis, and Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries, were like candy to read. Terrible, terrible, horrifying candy. I feel like, read them? But don’t stop where they stop, because there is a core problem with where they land with the stories they tell.

Both books tell really amazing narratives about our entanglement with and embeddedness in ramifying tangles of the material production of what we consume. Both show that things are waaaaaaaay more complicated than you’d imagined. But both land at the end in a kind of shrug – things are so complicated, so intensely intertwined, so impacted and so overdetermined that we just ¯\_(:( )_/¯ (that’s my edit to make the Shruggie emoji like, sad shruggie).

The Secret Life of Groceries will show you how everything in grocery stores is pretty fucked. Everything we buy comes to us by truck, shipped by truckers who are themselves a profit source that keeps the trucking industry going – trainees who end up paying to drive, experienced drivers losing money year after year, people living in rigs they don’t own. When we look at grocery workers, shrimp production, how new condiments come to market, we find that it’s all, just, impossibly bad. Benjamin Lorr is a beautiful and a clever writer, and this book has a lot of the compelling rhetorical turns that made his previous book (Hellbent, a brilliant reflection on yoga) unputdownable. But in this book his philosophical interventions are less grounded – a lot of the book is about judgement and the space of aesthetics, but he leaves out quite a lot of the politics of collectively determining what is good and beautiful – even in cases, like trucking or grocery working, where he mentions in passing the work of labor organizers.

Porkopolis will show you how everything in factory farming (pigs) is pretty fucked. Everything we touch, from asphalt to the covers of books, to the traces of pig fat in diesel fuel that we breathe in because of the grocery trucks driving on our roads, contains pig remnants. Alex Blanchette is also a beautiful and a clever writer, though in a much more consciously and unashamedly academic mode than Lorr (and with that particular frisson that one comes to expect these days from Duke books, like any one could be the one to coin a new, necessary theoretical term). Blanchette shows how growing pigs under conditions of vertical integration, as in the case of the company he did ethnographic work with, shapes not only the industrial pig but also the human workers needed to tend the pigs, the ecosystems around factory farms, and far-flung webbings of material conditions invisibly tied to the interspecies factory floor. The book is the result of years of careful and hands-on ethnographic work and it is interesting and complicated.

So I’ll read and recommend both of them. But they both end precisely where I wanted them to continue, to say – given this endless entanglement, to echo Eva Haifa Giraud’s also pretty unanswered question, What comes after entanglement?

Blanchette suggests we consider deindustrialization. He says, “For the story I have tried to tell across this book is not one of domination and unmitigated agribusiness power but, instead, one of creative desperation to keep this system afloat. So many processes, from the blood of mares and the taste of cate, to human kinship relations and musculoskeletal systems, are riveted through hogs to create this system of cheap meat. And many more will have to be added in the future to keep it running. Large-scale agribusiness is totalizing because it is so fragile (and fragile because it is so totalizing); it is a story not just of domination but also of desperation in its efforts to cling to shopworn forms of value that no longer seem sustainable” (245).

Here is a long quote from the end of Lorr’s work:

“This is to say, the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve. The adage is all wrong: it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are. Retail grocery is a reflection. What people call the supply chain is a long, interconnected network of human beings working on other humans’ behalf. It responds to our actions, not our pieties; and in its current form it demands convenience and efficiency starting from the checkout counter on down. The result in both incredible beyond words – abundance, wish fulfillment, and low price – and as cruel and demeaning as Tun-Lin voluntarily choosing to return to those boats. To me this is a hopeful as it is depressing. We are in dialogue with this world, not at its mercy. We have a natural inclination toward what is right that is as powerful as any selfishness. But for those out there who bristle at this reflection, who want to scream the patently obvious fact that meat is murder, that labor without choice is exploitation, or whatever their own personal horror is, who want to shake the world awake to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done. At best, food is an opening, like any maw, that might lead us inside. Somewhere darker, more unknowable, a place where the real work of change may finally begin.” (“Climbing out to Fresh Air”)

The thing is, the place we find ourselves is neither dark nor unknowable – many people, from pigs to shrimp workers, insemination experts, the people harvesting mare’s blood to produce the chemical that causes the sow to ovulate so that she can be inseminated on a schedule, the people driving the shrimp to market, the people sterilizing their boots to keep the pigs alive – know in the clear light of day how bad and wrong things are. And many of them, like the people organizing for the lives of migrant workers, know with great precision where the real work of change needs to begin. It’s not a mystery that we do terrible things to one another and our world, it’s just capitalism and colonialism, buttressed with hefty doses of border militarism and the continual threat of state-sanctioned murder. So I don’t regret reading these books, and I know that part of what’s happening with my response to them is all about the fact that any time I’m working on a book I come to read everything in terms of the work I’m doing – so right now, working on a book about collective organizing as a better response to complex wrongs, of course I’m frustrated at all books that focus on complex wrongs without telling us stories about how people do or might stand in solidarity with one another. More books to read! More books to write!

Unclean eating for #settlervegans

I think of Brecht’s poem “To those who follow in our wake.” One stanza says:

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad to be among the haves!
But how can I eat and drink
When I take what I eat from the starving
And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.

Written in 1939, in exile from Germany, Brecht’s context is profoundly different than ours. And yet, when he writes: “I ate my food between slaughters/I laid down to sleep among murderers/I tended to love with abandon” I find that he speaks to questions that remain current. Brecht’s answer to the question But how can I eat and drink/ When I take what I eat from the starving/ And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?: Make trouble for the rulers. When you are betrayed to the slaughterer, hope that your death causes them to sit easier on their throne – which is to say, while we dwell in this life of eating and drinking although (and sometimes because) others starve and thirst, make rulers sit on that throne with less ease.

I think we can make trouble for our rulers through turning our attention to what it would take to answer the question how should we eat. This re-orientation starts with shifting to a relational understanding of consumption. I follow Lisa Heldke in this productive shift from substance ontologies to relational ontologies in thinking about food. She argues that many of our ethical decisions about food come down to what are in effect substance ontologies – that some particular thing is to be eaten, or not eaten, and the “eatability” quotient depends on the characteristics of the thing in question. As Heldke notes, substance ontologies give us a lot of traction on individual decision making – they can have a kind of clarity of classification, and their epistemic demands are fairly mild. So, if you have decided for reasons to not eat meat, all you need to know is if some given food contains it to decide whether or not you’ll eat it. In thinking about the specifically ethical and political dimensions of what to eat, Heldke notes that substance ontologies are less helpful. Asking why you eat or don’t eat meat opens the question of how to decide which animals suffer, why we attend primarily to mega-fauna, what considerations show up aiming to present further global warming, and how to assess the comparative needs to beings involved in food systems. Heldke also suggests that there is a kind of moral absolutism frequently bundled with substance ontologies that actively gets in the way of attending to the relations involved in making something food. As she writes:

Food, in particular, is deeply relational—by definition. To be food is to be (defined as) something that can be eaten by something else, and eating is, of course, a relationship. But the relational character of food extends far beyond the stage at which it is actually consumed. To become food—to be rendered edible, palatable, delicious—means that a living thing has been part of scores of relationships, both natural and cultural: with the soil in which a plant is grown and the sun and rain that enable its growth; with the factory workers who process a raw material for market; with the heat and the metal pan that turn an ingredient into a “dish” in someone’s home. In industrialized society, foods are the products of extremely long and complex sets of relationships (Heldke 83).

Thinking about all food choices as relational, as “with-y,” in Heldke and Raymond Boisvert’s terms, constellates them as congealed relations; this orientation opens ethical and political questions so that we can consider our responsibilities to a much broader and more complex web of interconnections.

Immediately, a relational ontology unsticks previously frozen decision making; instead of judging the ethical and political relationships of consumption based on the substances being consumed, we can ask about the relationships congealed or enacted in the consumption. We’re not eating things, we’re participating in relationships, and how responsibility to those relationships unfolds is contextual. The context and meaning-making of consumption is situated in relation not only to the distribution of power, harm, benefit, and more as it’s practiced in the present; that context is also a trace of the history that shapes the material conditions of eating, drinking, and so on.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s short story “Circles Upon Circles” describes a Nishnaabeg mom, who has been out gathering wild rice with her family; as they put the canoe on the car and start to leave her settler partner gets into a discussion with some fellow settlers who would prefer to have a beach on the lake, rather than the shallow waters that wild rice plants need to grow. The narrator reflects:

They want a beach. We want the rice beds. You can’t have both. They want to win. We need to win. They’ll still be white people if they don’t have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won’t be Missisaugua if they can’t ever do a single Missisaugua thing. (Simpson 78)

Substance ontologies focus on the rice; is it good or bad to eat local, wild-harvested rice? Relational ontologies look at the context in which rice is tended, harvested, related with, and the web of historical and present relationships that make up what we are. And these relational ontologies are not fixed by, for example, categories like “Indigenous” and “settler,” nor do Indigenous practices of relationality with hunted animals translate to settler practices of eating factory-farmed meat. As Margaret Robinson has argued about veganism and Mi’Kmaq legends, there are specific contexts in which animals are understood as offering themselves as a sacrifice so that others can live. As she says,

The values obtained from an ecofeminist exegesis of Mi’kmaq stories can serve as a starting point for an Indigenous veganism. The personhood of animals, their self-determination, and our regret at their death, all show that choosing not to ask for their sacrifice is a legitimately Aboriginal option. (193)

She continues:

Because Aboriginal people are the targets of genocide, the cultural practices we adopt or reject are vitally important…Some may argue that the embodiment of Mi’kmaq values into new practices, such as veganism, is not a legitimate development, and may even threaten the ways our treaty rights are assessed by others. Yet those who value only the preservation of an unchanging tradition join with the colonial powers in seeing no place for contemporary Indigeneity. There is more to our culture and to our relationship with the land, particularly as women, than hunting and killing animals (193).

Robinson compellingly shows that relationships – to culture, oral history, land, animal relations, and more – are both situated in relation to their history and malleable, undetermined. Conceptions of relational ontologies may help settlers understand both that it is possible to be in relations of consumption without purity and that no relation is transferable. Instead, relationships are situated and personal, collectively shaped and intimate. Taking a relational ontology approach changes the conversation we’re having about what we should eat; it invites us to clarify the stakes and reasons we’re making one decision and not another.

At a stroke, white settler vegans can stop asking whether Indigenous people should eat that seal meat, let them tend their own relations, and turn instead to asking what relations we are placed within when we make food choices. And at the same stroke, white settler omnivores can stop talking about Indigenous people thanking the deer for offering his life to the hunter as they bite into a fish burger made from tilapia imported from China.

This turn from substance to relational ontologies intensifies rather than resolves the contradictions and imperfections associated with consumption. Or, perhaps it is better to say that it refuses the lie that there is any way to eat or drink that is free from suffering. In practice, I would say that few vegans actually believe that eating vegan frees them completely from implication in relations of suffering. There are, though, the self-righteous few, such as a colleague who eats vegan and believes that everyone should adopt it as a lifestyle, advocating for example for a departmental policy that all food served at colloquia will be vegan and critiquing people who eat animal products or wear leather or wool. This colleague feeds her many cats chicken, which is completely appropriate and necessary to being a good nurturer of obligate carnivore animal companions. So in practice, although she is avowing a substance ontology, she is enacting a relational ontology, in which she holds her own behavior to one standard but respects the boundaries of her companion animals’ needs. I believe being honest about these kinds of relational decisions liberates us from hypocrisy and a particular form of performative virtue signaling; it may also be a kinder way to get on together.

A relational ontology of eating invites us to perceive the act of eating as only one nodal point in a distributed web of connection and co-constitution, consumption and waste management. Instead of taking the boundaries of our bodies or of the substances we take in as the source of the answer for how we should eat, we can turn outward to look at the conditions of the production of food – what relations are nourished in the soil when things are grown in one way or another? Whose hands tend the plants, and what are the conditions of their lives? Who processes the substances that become food? How is the waste generated by that processing handled? Where does the water that nourishes the animals and plants in their growing process come from? Where does it go? What microbes are encouraged to proliferate by which practices of using low-dose antibiotics in feed of various sorts? What are the practices of sewage management that handle the material afterlife of our eating – do we shit into drinking water that then needs to be treated? What are the carbon costs of consuming food that is shipped long distances versus eating foods grown in heated or cooled greenhouses nearby?

Frequently we won’t know the answers to these questions. But if we learn a little about the conditions of food production at industrial scales we might make policies that look like substance decisions, but which actually track our best approximation of holding relations in view. So we can do an analysis of what the costs and effects of one eating decision or another are, and use particular agential cuts as our guides. “Eating local” might be a synonym for “I try not to eat food grown in drought-ridden areas stealing water from diminishing aquifers and processed by people living in conditions of agricultural slavery.” But, of course, local food wherever we are is frequently tended by people who are precarious workers experiencing tremendous harm in their work. As with any cut, this will be a limited and impure decision. Oddly, holding a relational ontology in view as one of our guidelines for asking how we should eat allows us to recognize that there is only, ever, unclean eating. We cannot get it right, we will always cause other beings to suffer and die in order for us to live, and we cannot individually solve the scale of problems given us simply by living on this earth, nourishing our bodies and excreting waste.