Lifestyle choice: a brief note

I’m currently completing a book manuscript called ‘The Biopolitics of Lifestyle’. So when Tony Abbott made his comments that Aboriginal’s living in remote communities are making a ‘lifestyle choice’, I thought “great, I may need to write another chapter”.

This is not simply a poor choice of words, but reflects a governmental rationality that seeks to place responsibility on to individuals. Education, health, welfare, employment all become ‘lifestyle choices’ for which the individual is responsible.

The affluent, gainfully employed, highly educated sections of society make good ‘lifestyle choices’, while the poor, sick, Indigenous and asylum seekers are characterised as making bad ‘lifestyle choices’.

Abbott is not the first to use this phrase to justify . In 2002, Philip Ruddock described asylum-seekers as making ‘lifestyle choices’.

“In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims do not come from a situation of persecution; they come from a situation of safety and security,” he said.

“They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a lifestyle choice.” The Australian, ‘Ruddock blames “lifestyle” refugees’ by Alison Crosweller and Megan Saunders

This governmental rationality shifts responsibility away from governments and communities, and on to individuals. It also serves to trivialize some claims (living in a remote community or seeking asylum) by comparing them to frivolous consumer lifestyle choices (Pepsi or Coke, holden or ford, apple or pc).

Of course, when we talk about the Australian Lifestyle of ANZACs, footy, beach, sun, boats, and weekends, things get very serious. Governments use this notion of lifestyle to build monuments, go to war, and demonize minorities. But that is another matter all together.

In the current context the rationality of ‘lifestyle choice’ shifts responsibility onto individuals in remote communities and justifies the Western Australian government’s decision to cut services and remove people.

Depoliticising Indigenous Health via Consensus and Statistics

‘Politics’ has become a dirty word in Australia. To ‘politicise’ an issue is regarded as obfuscation. Good governments ‘govern’ and make ‘policies’. And good oppositions should work with governments to produce policies not debate endlessly, or so we’re told – usually by sitting governments.

While a lot of the ‘politics’ has devolved into oppositional tactics, political debate is essential for democracy.

At a minimum political debate should reveal the reasons and justifications for a particular policy. However, false consensus and the use of statistics are increasingly used to depoliticise debate of important issues. A recent example is Indigenous health.

Dangerous Consensus

indexIndigenous health is an area where “every opposition wants the government to succeed”. However, perhaps it is this consensus that has resulted in continual failure.

The 7th Closing the Gap report was presented in Parliament earlier this month. Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a sobering speech, noting that most targets were not on track “despite the concerted effort of successive governments since the first report”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, however, called on the Government to reverse the budget cuts to social services that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations and compound existing inequalities. Coalition MPs were unhappy with this suggestion. Some walked out and others said Shorten was playing political games on an important occasion.

The focus on consensus – that everyone wants to Close the Gap – has reduced Indigenous health and education to a national human interest story. It is bracketed from the realm of politics and serves either to inspire or a cathartic release. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote and scandal”.

In breaking with the ritual bipartisanship, where Opposition and Government solemnly agree that “more should be done but it is all so very difficult”, Bill Shorten re-politicised Indigenous health, if only briefly.

While liberal political philosophy values consensus established via publicly justifiable reasons, when consensus is assumed, publicly justifiable reasons become redundant. The presumption of consensus between the two major parties on indigenous health (and anti-terror legislation and asylum seeker policy) lowers the expectation of rigorous political arguments for or against certain positions.

Shorten broke with the consensus game and exposed the gap between Abbott’s rhetoric of “concerted efforts” and the first budget he delivered. Budgets are not simply economic documents, but reflect political and moral decisions about the lives that are valued.

Politics of Life Expectancy

Not unrelated, last month Treasure Joe Hockey attracted ridicule with his comment in a 3AW interview ‘that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable, that a child is being born that is going to live to a 150’.

Close-the-Gap

Hockey’s comment received some support from Professor Peter Smith who points to advances in medicine and public health as reasons to expect a continued increase in human life expectancy.

Professor John Quiggin however suggested that these claims are highly dubious and ignore the fact that the extension of life expectancy in the 20th Century ‘came from a reduction in death rates for the young.’

Will Cairns also pointed to the success of reducing death rates. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia that

our numbers plummet as we approach 100 years of age because all of these interventions [public health, disease treatment, nutrition] make no difference to the reality that we eventually wear out and die. Apart from the odd unverified outlier, only one person has ever been confirmed as living for more than 120 years.

Hiding Politics in the Statistics

Like the assumption of a consensus, Hockey’s use of life expectancy statistics to justify changes to the health system hides the political nature of these decisions.

Altering the financing of the health system through strategies such as co-payment schemes may appear reasonable. We are told Australia’s population is ageing and more people need to use the health system. However, what these statistics hide is the disparities of life expectancy in Australia.

While a child may be born today to live to 150 120, the latest ‘Closing the Gap‘ report reveals that Indigenous Australians born today can expect to live more than a decade less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The reality of significant gaps in life expectancy should be the cause for alarm and inspire the creation of a more equitable health system. Yet often population statistics hide the details. As Professor Mick Dobson notes, ‘Statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties who live diminished lives. We die silently under these statistics.’

Statistics: measuring and managing people

Vital statistics have been used to govern populations since the 17th century. But it’s important not slide over the word “statistics” too quickly as its literal meaning is hidden through repeated use.

Statistics is not simply about numbers but “state craft“. By knowing birth and death rates, and the incidence of disease it is possible to establish probabilities of epidemics, movement of people, and to order the State in a rational manner.

Vital statistics also enable the segmentation and division of populations. We see this all the time in professional sports. The explosion of statistics about batting averages, field goal percentage, or a players historical probability of kicking a goal from a certain angle against a certain team all help coaching staff to know who is performing and who is not.

Divisions in the details

Despite appearances, the use of statistics as political tool for governing a population is not neutral. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault notes the way vital statistics introduce a power over life or biopolitics. The increased knowledge about nutrition, physiology and sexuality in the 19th century lead to the creation of norms from statistical averages that allowed political strategies to regulate human life. Close-the-Gap-005

Statistical analyses are used in public health to show the distribution of disease and enable interventions in populations. But as Foucault notes, these techniques also allow the identification of lives that are healthy and should be fostered and which lives are not performing and can be neglected.

A danger with the celebration of a statistically increasing life expectancy, is that it masks the very real health inequalities faced by many Australians. This is seen in a number of areas:

  • allow for certain health issues to be prioritised (e.g. ageing population), while others marginalised (e.g. health inequalities)
  • enable the allocation of funding towards some research (e.g. Medical Research Future Fund), while moving it away from other areas (e.g. preventive health)
  • suggest a particular financing models for the health system (e.g. co-payment), yet discount others (e.g. progressive taxation).

These are not simply economic decisions, but political and ethical decisions about which lives count. For too long the supposed neutrality of statistics and the assumption of consensus have allowed the political reality of Indigenous health inequalities to be hidden. To close the gap we need to recognise the historical and political processes that have made it and maintain it.

The Nightmares of Tony Abbott

In promising a new approach to government Tony Abbott has reverted to the well-thumbed pages of the politics of fear playbook that dominated domestic and international political rhetoric between 2001 – 2008.

In a speech to the nation he repeated his four step plan for terrorism – ‘a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim‘ – but also drew bizarre links between ISIS and people who “cheat” the welfare system.

It’s clear to me, that for too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt.

There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink.

And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.

We are a free and fair nation. But that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have: Well, that’s going to stop.

In connecting immigration, welfare, and the judicial system to ISIS – or as he prefers “the Islamist death cult” – the Prime Minister bundles complex and disparate institutions and policies under one banner of “national security under threat”. In using this politics of fear that equates the people on welfare or bail with ISIS, Abbott hopes to swiftly pass new legislation that purports to secure us from these fears and neuter any opposition.

The rise of the Islamist death cult in the Middle East has seen the emergence of new threats where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack.

As a nation we are responding to this threat. Abroad, Australia is working with allies to disrupt and degrade the Islamist death cult. At home, we have provided our security services with more powers, more resources and stronger laws.

We are currently considering additional legislation on data retention that’s before the Parliament – and this will make it easier to keep you safe and we want to get this legislation passed as quickly as we can.

But this is an old trick and a trick that further reveals that Tony Abbott (and most senior Australian politicians) are bereft of ideas. There is no vision other than more freedoms and less threats.

As the BBC documentary ‘Power of Nightmares‘ shows, politicians in Western liberal democracies following September 11, 2001 no longer offered visions for a grand future. They, and we, have grown cynical of dreams where “the only fear is fear itself”. Instead, the focus is on nightmares. Whoever can portray the greatest fears, yet also assurance of deliverance, is king.

This tactic arguably receded with the elections of Rudd in 2007 and Obama in 2008. Both had optimistic visions. Rudd had his “2020 Summit” and Obama his “Yes We Can”. However, with financial crises, widening gaps in economic equality within nations and between them, as well as the return of Islamic terrorism with ISIS, these optimistic slogans rang hollow and arguably reinforced cynicism. Today, there is a return to a politics of fear.

With his leadership in question Tony Abbott is resorting to a tactic he knows well from his time in the Howard Government. He may not be able to answer who he is or what he stands for in positive terms, but he is able to conduct an orchestra of threats and fears – Labor, ISIS, debt, welfare fraud, radicalisation of youth, ‘inter-generational theft’, and lenient bail laws. In orchestrating these fears, he is able to give us this assurance: “As a country, we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.”

Abbott is hopeful that this new tough line of government will save his leadership. Perhaps it will. But maybe this time we will recognise the old negative tune and demand something new – something more courageous and imaginative than borders and laws to protect “us” from a fictional “them”. Perhaps we will recognise the folly of jumping at nightmares and spectres that we help create and sustain.

See Tony Abbott’s full message here: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-02-15/message-prime-minister-0

Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)

Neoliberal Public Health and the Rhetoric of War

If we look beneath…the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war? (Foucault 2000, : 46-47)

At dawn, on 11 November 2008, Julien Coupat was seized by French police and ‘preventively arrested’. French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie regarded Coupat and his associates as ‘pre-terrorists’ part of an ‘anarcho-autonomist cell’ (Anonymous 2008; Nardi 2009). Prior to the raid and arrests of November 2008 Coupat and his eight friends were not ‘pre-terrorists’ but nine individuals seeking to establish an alternate form of life to the consumer-driven existence found in the affluent suburbs of Paris from which they came. Moving to the village of Tarnac the nine grew their own food and “reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly” {Toscano, 2009 #191}. According to the villagers they were charming ‘self-sufficient students’ (Anonymous 2008). However, when a nearby section of railway was sabotaged through a small explosion the farmhouse transformed into a cell, the individuals into ‘pre-terrorists’ and the friends became known as the Tarnac 9 an anti-capitalist anarchist group with global reach.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations. Photo: C. Mayes

The seizure of Coupat as a ‘pre-terrorist’ serves as an example of the political rationality influencing governmental strategies seeking to forecast and control not only threatening events, but pre-empt the very possibility of the events occurrence. The governmental drive to pre-empt, mobilizes the biopolitical seizure of life by taking control of individual bodies and regulating the life of the population. The imperative to target subjects that threaten the security of society produces a need to identify subjects prior to the actualisation of the subject as a threat. For Coupat, his irregular form of life attracted the gaze of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), provoking preventive intervention in order to secure the population from a possible terrorist threat. Thus the urgency to prevent a terrorist event provided the conditions in which the production and seizure of ‘pre-terrorist’ subjects is possible.

The identification of pre-terrorists in order to lead a preemptive battle in the war on terror is mirrored by features in the public health’s war on obesity that seeks to identify and target pre-obese bodies in a war on obesity.  Although some may object to the suggestion of parallels between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on obesity’, particularly the comparison between counter-terrorism and public health, however, it is important to note that these comparisons are not my novel creation or the cynical and hyperbolic imaginings of social theorists (Biltekoff 2007). Politicians, public health advocates, health policy makers and the media have drawn metaphorical and literal parallels between the threat to global and national security posed by terrorism and that posed by obesity.  Perhaps the most widely publicised comparison was made by the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who described obesity in the US as ‘the terror within’ and that ‘[u]nless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt’ (Carmona 2003). Public health advocates and the media in Australia have also drawn links between the threat of obesity and the threat of terrorism (Bartlett 2008; Gard 2007). These comparisons could be explained as merely misguided attempts to draw on the rhetorical force of the post-9/11 terrorism discourse in order to heighten the urgency for action on obesity. However, I contend that the appeal to war is not merely rhetorical, but indicative of the ambiguous relationship between neoliberal politics, public health and war in the West.

created by Brandon Knowlden, an art director from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com/#/obesity-is-suicide/

“Obesity is Suicide” by Brandon Knowlden from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com

The militarisation of public health discourse and policy serves as an example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s principle that “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 2004, p.48). The appeal to war enables the neoliberal state to justify intervention in the life of the population and individuals as matter of security. Rather than considering the ‘war on obesity’ as merely mirroring the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, I contend that they share a political rationality that aims to secure the life of the population by pre-empting future threats through acting on subjects prior to their manifestation as an actual threat.

The suggestion that the ‘war on obesity’ and public health campaigns are manifestations of neoliberal political rationality could be seen to jar with critiques that such initiatives are examples of the Nanny or Welfare State. However, while the neoliberal state may withdraw from nationalized financial system, it does not abandon its monopoly on war and violence (Foucault 2004, p.48; Harvey 2009, p.82).

Of course the war waged against terrorism is of a different order to that waged against obesity. While the former requires an explicit appeal to the state’s monopoly on violence, the latter is a ‘peaceful’ continuation of war through a politics that is “perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2004, p.16). The continuation of war through politics “sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” and instils this disequilibrium in the political institutions and the bodies of individuals.

In launching a ‘war on obesity’, the intervention in the life of the individual and population is framed by the Hobbesian mythos that the state provides security and protection. Considering obesity as threat to be secured and in employing the terms of war, the neoliberal state can justify intervention into the lives of the people. Against the background of the neoliberal monopoly of war the future is secured through the production and governance of subjects in the present. It is here that the wars on obesity, drugs, gangs, poverty and terrors begin to resemble each other.

References

Anonymous. 2008. “Cabbage-patch revolutionaries? The French ‘grocer terrorists’.” The Independent, December 18, 2008.

Bartlett, Lawrence. 2008. “Obesity more dangerous than terrorism: experts.” The Age, February 25, 2008.

Biltekoff, Charlotte 2007. “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.” American Studies no. 48 (3).

Carmona, Richard H. 2003. Remarks to the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference. edited by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foucault, Michel. 2000. “Society Must Be Defended.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.

———. 2004. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. London: Penguin.

Gard, Michael. 2007. “Is the War on Obesity Also a War on Children?” Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre no. 11 (2):20-24.

Harvey, David. 2009. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nardi, Sarah. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Adbusters, 14/07/2009.

The Trial of Homo Abacus: Security through Calculation

From out of the whirlwind:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38: 4-7)

Fate, providence, karma and the “sins of our fathers” are some of the paradigms used to explain disasters – from the micro to the macro. Each paradigm has a certain economy of security – prayer, sacrifice, confession – that wards off (or halts the cycle) of disaster. In this predictive age of the present, however, there is a continual fine-tuning of statistical analyses, scientific measurements, and mathematical models that purport to replace superstitious incantations with scientific exactitude. Prayers are still offered, by some, but like software licensing agreements that are hastily clicked on, earlier economies of security have become a mere formalities. Haollowed practices. Remnants of a simpler past.

Moving away from fatalistic or providential understandings of disaster and toward calculating control has placed human agency at the centre of prediction and prevention. It is not a god that can save or destroy us, but homo abacus. The fallout from recent events such as the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the L’Aquila earthquake demonstrate this shift.

The scientific community, government inquiries and investigative journalists increasingly place human agency in the centre as the cause and control of disaster.[1] Was the Fukushima plant designed and maintained to withstand a tsunami? Did BP, Transocean and Halliburton cut costs in construction and maintenance in order to increase profits? Why didn’t the scientists of the Major Risks Committee predict the effect of the L’Aquila earthquake? The inability for these scientists to adequately answer this final question resulted in jail sentences “for underestimating an earthquake that killed 309 people in the town of L’Aquila in 2009”.[2]  Although natural events undeniably play a role in these scenarios, contemporary security strategies and discourse position human agency as the crucial point on which attempts to govern unknown futures stand or fall.

The purported obesity epidemic is another example. Although in this instance everyone is expected to adopt the practices of homo abacus – the calculating and measuring human. There are obvious differences between the obesity epidemic and the L’Aquila earthquake or Deepwater Horizon disaster. My point is not that they represent equivalent threats to society, but that a similar rationality is in operation that seeks to govern unpredictable and incalculable events that are entwined with human agency. Just as the L’Aquila earthquake cannot be dismissed as tragic natural disaster beyond human control, the obesity epidemic cannot be dismissed as relatively benign social and biological phenomenon that is plateauing.[3] Rather both have provoked countless experts that are producing knowledge, developing techniques and deploying strategies to govern future unknown threats to population health, safety and economic security.

Further, like the scientists of L’Aquila who stood trial and were sentenced for failing to predict the earthquake, each of us are on trial while simultaneously serving as jurors in the trials of others. Although some more so than others. Counting calories in. Counting calories out. Measuring waist circumference. Assessing daily percentage intake. Weighing bodies. Pinching flesh.  Dividing body mass by the square of height. These are some of homo abacus’s (in)calculable duties that secure the self and others. These are the new incantations of control that make us believe we can prevent the whirlwind and answer any questions it may pose.


[1] Risa Maeda, “Japan Fukushima probe urges new disaster prevention steps, mindset,” Reuters, July 23, 2012; Steven Mufson, “BP, Transocean, Halliburton blamed by presidential Gulf oil spill commission,” Washington Post, January 6, 2011.

[2] Sunanda Creagh, “Researchers alarmed by jail sentence for Italian scientists,” The Conversation, October 23 2012.

[3] Michael Gard, The End of the Obesity Epidemic  (New York: Routledge, 2011)., 168

Inviting Judgement: A Note On Everyday Life, Eating and Smartphone Apps

I recently purchased an iPhone for the purpose of researching an app called The Eatery. According to a review from Time The Eatery “asks you to snap a picture of your food, and provides you with a healthiness meter that rates not just your current meal, but your noshing habits over time”. The stated logic of this app is that others are better at judging the healthiness of your food than you are. Over the past 28 days I have snapped 214 meals. Each meal has been assessed by other users along a spectrum from “fat” to “fit”. An aggregate of the individual meal ratings in a week tells me how I ate in comparison to previous weeks, days and other users. For example, in the week of June 3rd I “ate 73% healthy” which was “4% healthier than last week. Thursday was [my] best day, and Monday was [my] worst day.” The more data the more details. I eat most of my meals at home. My “healthiest” meal was at Korean restaurant. And my “unhealthiest” meal was at my parents.

Of course, there are several significant disconnects in all this:

  1. The description and visual representation of the food is not identical to its actual nutritional content. E.g. A meat pie described “homemade” accompanying a well-lit photo gets a healthier rating than a mere meat pie in a dimly lit room.
  2. The “healthiness meter” does not account for the overall diet. E.g. Mandarins and apples get ratings of 90-99%, yet a diet consisting of only mandarins and apples could not be consider “healthy” let alone 99% healthy.
  3. Nutritional health is valued over Well-being. E.g. This app, like many others emphasises the nutritional function of food. Leaving aside the place of exercise in physiological health, food also plays a significant role in individual and communal well-being. One user put a picture of a piece of chocolate cake with the label “My 16th Birthday Cake”. On the scale of “fat-to-fit” this would rate poorly, but is the “health” of a birthday cake only located in its nutritional value or can it include notions of well-being and hold symbolic importance.

There are many other ways to consider this app and the increasing use of smartphones to measure and quantify life. However one of my primary interests is in the way everyday life is increasingly colonized by dual operation of smartphones and biomedical norms of health. Innocuous habits such as snacking on crackers with peanut-butter are not only judged against purported values of nutritional health but we willing offer up these practices for judgement. Not unlike the penitent turning to the confessional, perhaps we recognise a value in having these activities judged and scrutinized by others.

The allusion to the confessional is not incidental. Michel Foucault writes that Western society has become a confessing society. “One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctors, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else…Western man has become a confessing animal.”[1] There’ll be more on the confession in a future post, but the point I am currently interested in is the attention given to the mundane and quotidian as effective of social and biomedical reality.

Many aspects of The Eatery and other apps that quantify life through measuring everyday habits are not new. Although food, exercise and health-related activities have been made conspicuous but smartphones, these developments are just the most recent in a long history of interrogating and routinising everyday life.

Charles Taylor elucidates some of this history in comparing Aristotelian to Protestant ethics. According to Taylor, “traditional, Aristotelian ethics” regarded ‘ordinary life’ – the life of production and the family – as holding mere “infrastructural importance”, serving as “the necessary background and support to ‘the good life’ of contemplation and one’s action as a citizen”.[2] In the Reformation, Taylor locates “a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life”.[3] Rather than finding the ‘good’ or ‘higher’ life in philosophical contemplation or monastic retreat, Taylor, following Max Weber,[4] argues that ordinary and everyday life becomes a locus for political action and self-understanding. The importance and affirmation of everyday life “becomes one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization” and “colours our whole understanding of what it is truly to respect human life and integrity”.[5]

The measuring and quantifying of everyday habits and health-related behaviors is arguably a continuation of these processes – a secular working on the self that serve (bio) political ends of physical health and longevity rather than salvation in the next life, or in more Calvinist tones evidence election. Instead Th Eatery and practices like it demonstrate a vigilance over ones bodily health and attempt to align the everyday with norms promoted by putative nutrition experts.

In reinforcing the place of the everyday at the centre of the good life, The Eatery contributes to a ressentiment that values nutrition over pleasure or the “high rating” mandarin over the “low rating” celebratory cake. This is not inevitable, although the tide certainly appears to be moving in that direction. However, I contend that new pleasures will respond. Rather than nutrition over pleasure, there will be pleasure and nutrition, binging and purging, and detoxing and retoxing. That is, an agonism of consumption that is both/and not either/or. But more on this another time.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.59.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

[5] Ibid., p.14.