A couple of years ago I had a job interview with a US university. During the interview one of the panelists asserted that “Australia is an anti-intellectual country”. Evidence for this claim was our prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott. “How could you elect a guy like that?”
Aside from the surprise at having the intellectual status of my nationality called into question during an interview for a philosophy position, it was also very odd considering Tony Abbott is a Jesuit and so was the panelist citing him as evidence of Australia’s anti-intellectualism. I refrained from pointing this out to him.
Anyway, petty as it might seem, I did get a spring in my step this morning at the thought of that guy waking up to the new intellectual dawn of Trump’s America.
Sometimes headless images are powerful. It’s September 25, about 5 weeks before Halloween. I remember reading and hearing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”as a child, and being about as scared as Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster who encountered the Headless Horseman. That image is a sure sign of fall and foreboding.
But other headless images are scary in a different way.
Samantha wrote about the “headless fatty” several years ago on this blog. Several of the bloggers have commented in posts about this phenomenon. Here’s some of what Sam said:
I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about…
Over the past hundred years, industrial agriculture and the globalised food system have produced cheaper, longer lasting and more diverse food items. We can now enjoy tropical fruits in winter, purchase whole chickens at the price of a cup of coffee, and eat fresh bread long after it was baked.
Once celebrated as the benevolent results of food science and ingenuity of farmers, these cheap and safe foods are dismissed by critics as the tainted fruits of “Big Food” – the culinary version of Big Tobacco and Big Oil.
Food is no longer simply a matter of taste or convenience. Our food choices have become ethical and political issues.
An innocuous but central strategy in these debates is the food label.
In recent years there has been an explosion of ethico-political food labels to address concerns such as slavery, nutrition, environmental degradation, fair trade and animal cruelty. These disparate concerns are unified by their connection to the amorphous culprit “Big Food”.
The idea is that by knowing what is in our food and how it was produced, we will reject unethical food corporations, buy from ethical producers and thereby promote justice.
But is this necessarily so?
The power of truth to awaken the slumbering consumer giant has been in place since at least the mid-1990s. In the introduction to her landmark book, No Logo (1999), Naomi Klein outlines her hypothesis:
that as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporation, particularly those with very high name-brand recognition.
According to Klein, when the veil is removed and people discover the “secrets” behind their consumer products, an outrage will be unleashed that will transform the global web of capital.
We see this logic in calls for food labels to reveal unethical food production practices of Big Food. By giving consumers more information, it is believed they will use their buying power to force change. Perhaps.
Limits of ethico-political consumption
First, a danger of ethico-political consumption is that citizens are transformed into consumers, and political action is reduced to shopping. Rather than holding companies and governments to account for unethical practice, it becomes a matter of consumer choice.
For example, most of us would consider a proposal to use consumer choice as a way of resolving slavery in the American cotton industry during the 19th century to be a perverse idea. Slavery, we like to believe, should be outlawed. It is not an issue to be solved through consumer preference. Yet today we find ourselves in a situation where we are trying to solve issues of slavery and exploitation through consumer choice.
Today, 45.8 million people are living in slavery. According to the Global Slavery Index, 4,300 are working in Australian food production or sex industries. Many more work in the global food system, of which Australia is a part.
A second problem with ethico-political consumption is that the consumer response is susceptible to co-option by the very corporations that are being protested. Due to the vast array of products sold by trans-national corporations, it is possible for corporations to maintain highly profitable but “unethical” products, along with less profitable but “ethical” products.
For example, Pace Farm is one of the largest producers of cage-eggs in Australia, yet they also sell free-range eggs. They also have other brands that are not obviously associated with Pace Farm, like Family Value.
In 2013, Oxfam launched Behind the Brands. This campaign draws attention to the influence of multinational food corporations on the global food system and negative impacts on women, workers, farmers, land, water and climate. Although the campaign uses a variety of strategies to critique these corporations, much of the focus falls on consumers.
A popular image associated with the campaign shows the way hundreds of popular food brands are actually owned by ten corporations. It’s worth noting this chart is several years old and some of the listed brands have changed hands, but its point remains.
The image has been repeatedly shared on social media and is commonly accompanied with the text “the illusion of choice”. However, clearly there is choice here – there are hundreds of brands, each with thousands of products. Of course, the sentiment of the “illusion of choice” statement isn’t simply that we have only a single choice of soft drink or cereal, but that all choices lead to one of ten transnational corporations.
The more troubling illusion, however, is not that the thousands of products lining the supermarket shelves are owned by ten corporations, but that political consumption – the proverbial “voting with your wallet” – is illusory.
The illusion of consumer food choice as an ethico-political act is not the pernicious creation of food corporations, but co-creation of public health experts, consumer advocates, governments, food ethicists and a host of others.
Even if these labels serve to disrupt corporate brands, they also trap individuals into responsibility for systemic and global issues, such as public health, global poverty, animal welfare or fair working conditions. This isn’t to say we are absolved, but the idea that more consumption will solve the problems of consumption is self-defeating.
Using labels or apps to draw attention to the political and ethical features of consumer choice is a fine objective, but largely symbolic. If certain activities of food corporations and the global food system are considered unethical, then a plurality of approaches is needed – one of which needs to be international and domestic legislation.
Companies are not interested in the public good. It is not their responsibility to be good…if we want them to play differently, we have to change the rules.
For the past decade, there has been an over-reliance on self-regulation and naïve expectations about corporate social responsibility. This needs to change, and not by simply adding a new label to our food.
In response to Pete Evans’ advice that “calcium from dairy can remove the calcium from your bones”, Dr Brad Robinson used Facebook to ask Evans.
“Can we make a deal? You don’t give medical advice and I won’t tell you how to best shuck oysters. Agreed?”
Sounds reasonable, yet the lines aren’t so clear.
The medical community has been engaged in a long and ambiguous embrace with celebrity chefs, nutritionists and various other popularizers of medical advice. The dietary advocacy of St. Jamie Oliver (aka mockney gobshite), for example, has been lauded in the British Medical Journal for doing “more for the public health of our children than a corduroy army of health promotion workers”.
Jamie Oliver in his latest documentary, Jamie’s Sugar Rush. Photograph: Channel 4.
While it is unlikely that Pete Evans will receive similar praise in the Medical Journal of Australia, the medical community has (along with a host of other actors) contributed to the conditions for celebrity life-guides to flourish.
For instance, medical and public health concern over the health-effects of micro-practices such as playing computer games, microwave dinners, dairy consumption, sugary drinks, feeding infants formula, alcohol consumption, or mode of transportation contributes to the production of a population seeking clear and authoritative guidance.
The sources through which such guidance is disseminated extends well beyond the clinic, but it isn’t wholly divorced from the clinic either.
Lifestyle magazines, health websites, television programs and smartphone apps commonly feature “medical experts” as a means of legitimating the guidance on offer. And the use of these tools, especially apps or m-health, is increasingly encouraged by physicians. For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners states that:
M-Health tools can provide continuous, pervasive healthcare at any time or location. By using m-Health, healthcare professionals and patients have the opportunity to continuously monitor health conditions and access health information outside of the general practice environment.
Considering that a significant proportion of the 3 billion apps available via Google Play or iTunes are health-related, the idea of simple demarcation between legitimate and illegitimate advice is naive at best.
The debate over who can give health-related advice is not new. However, the rise of various technologies, coupled with the dual movement of anxiety and fetishization of food in the present, creates an environment where a clear demarcation of legitimate from illegitimate sources of guidance is hard to find.
The fact that Dr Brad Robinson used Facebook to voice his concerns is revealing – especially as his page seems to largely function to promote the success of his private obstetrics and gynaecology practice.
Of course none of this is to suggest that there is no basis from which to judge different guidance or to highlight the spurious nature of Evans’ advice. The point is simply that the medical community has contributed to the creation of life-guide celebrities and that the contest of over medical knowledge and guidance is more complex than simply saying people like Evans should shut up until he has a white coat and stethoscope.
Answers to this simple question often appeal to science. Nutrition science, we are told, can tell us what we should or shouldn’t eat if we want to be healthy, fit and prevent disease. But are these appeals to nutrition science legitimate? We think in many cases the answer is “no”.
In a recent article in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry we critiqued three types of nutritional scientism: (1) the oversimplification of complex science (including suggesting causation from probabilistic conclusions from observational studies) to increase the persuasiveness…
Cover image: Toby Burrows (image) and Michael Cutrupi (dancer). From ‘nothing to Lose’ by Force Majeure. From The Biopolitics of Lifestyle, Routledge (2015).
I suggested the image after seeing Force Majeure‘s dance production ‘Nothing to Lose‘ at the 2015 Sydney Festival. This production was billed as exploring ‘fat’ – ‘the powerful little word, full of baggage and judgement’.
At the time I was finishing off the final draft of my book, which was also exploring aspects of this word and its medicalized cousin – obesity.
While I was not able to discuss ‘Nothing to Lose’ in my book, I remember that it reminded my of Chantal Mouffe’s remarks on public art as,
‘bringing to the fore the existence of alternatives to the current post-political order…[and] making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate’.
The production powerfully challenged the commonsense ways of seeing bodies and the ways that they are obscured. This was most clear in a performance where half a dozen dancers moved towards, and into, the audience while relentlessly repeating condescending cliches: “have you tried dieting?”, “such a pretty face”, “have you looked in the mirror?”, “have you considered some exercise?”, “do you really need that?” and on, and on.
The ‘Nothing to Lose’ dance performance is an important way of highlighting and confronting the social and political imperatives surrounding bodies, notions of health, and what types of bodies are allowed to be seen and under what conditions.
I hope that my book is able to live up to its cover and do something similar, even if in a more turgid form.
Despite the rallies and Channel 7’s broadcast of an “in-depth” interview with the founders of Reclaim Australia, the disintegration of the far-right populist movement appears imminent. Unlike their American cousins, The Tea Party, they do not have significant financial backing and the poor showing of “patriots” at the Parramatta rally last month suggests that this grass-roots movement lacks organisation and/or a critical mass of people willing to get out on the streets to call for “non-patriots” to get out of the country. However, the devolution of this movement is not a victory of Australian multi-culturalism or common-sense.
Reclaim Australia gets small numbers to their rallies because they are unnecessary. Why spend a Sunday afternoon shouting in the streets when the political and economic system is silently re-asserting the normal order of things?
The normal order of things is maintained through symbolic and systemic modes of violence. Unlike physical violence directed at specific subjects, the symbolic and systemic violence operates in the background. For example, the violence inherent in the production cheap consumer goods that benefit the lives of some while exposing factory workers to physical harm when making our flat-screen TVs in Mexcio or iPhone’s in China.
Most of us do not see this violence because it isn’t directed at us. We only see the subjective violence of shootings or physical aggression. The subjective form of violence overshadows the systemic and symbolic forms of violence that allow the normal order of things to continue smoothly (for some). This is the violence inherent in fierce border protection policies or laws that target racial and religious minorities. It is the violence embodied in language that strips subjects of their humanness (e.g. illegal maritime arrivals) and makes the violence that they suffer either excusable or somehow deserving.
Systemic and symbolic violence tends to be invisible to those who benefit from the normal order of things that those modes of violence sustain. It is like a trompe l’oeil or the duck-rabbit illusion. For those who benefit these policies and arrangements look like caring necessity – “we need to protect ourselves” or “It is prudent to monitor Muslim boys because they are prone to radicalization”. However, to those on the other side, these policies and arrangements are experienced as exclusion and brutality.
In this context, Reclaim Australia will wither away, not because there is insufficient support for their message, but because Australia is already well and truly claimed. This claim is sustained by the long history of violent colonisation and occupation, the effects of which persist today. However, it is a claim that needs to be continually reasserted on the bodies and lives of non-white migrants.
In her recent book The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes this “claim” as a white possession. White Australia’s existence as sovereign possessor is derived from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. As Moreton-Robinson notes, there is a deep anxiety that ‘racial others’ will in turn dispossess white Australia. The main utility of Reclaim Australia is as a warning that the normal order of things is being challenged. It is like a “flare-up” of the appendix in the body of white Australia, or to use another metaphor, a canary in a mine. Reclaim Australia is an expression of the anxiety that white Australia’s sovereignty is challenged.
The fear associated with a challenge to white sovereignty is seen in Native Title disputes. There is a deep fear that Indigenous claims will dispossess white Australian sovereignty over cities, suburbs, parks, beaches, arable lands, and natural resources (see Kerr and Cox’s ‘Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy‘). Yet, the reality does not lend credence to the anxieties and fears of white Australia – ‘the majority of Indigenous people in Australia do not have land rights, nor do they have legal ownership of their sacred sites.’
In the case of Islam, the fear of dispossession is also unfounded. According to the 2011 census, 2.2 % of the Australian population indicated they were affiliated with Islam. Of course the debates over Australia, radicalization, extremism, Islam, citizenship, borders and all the other nodes connected to this assemblage are not about evidence or facts. But control over who is admitted into white Australia, and the form that admittance takes. Some are wholly absorbed, while others remain in permanent parenthesis (asylum seekers).
While those attending Reclaim Australia rallies (and those sympathetic to their narrative) may feel that Islam is an existential threat to the white claim to Australia, the terms and conditions of political and social reality are established by and for a white Australia. The challenge is not to reclaim Australia, but to place the current claim in the context of historical and contemporary forms of violence that privilege those who possess whiteness and its associated symbols and markers.
In the words of Stan Grant, we need to challenge that violence and our own attachment and benefit from it.
Australians who so laudably challenge the bigots among them need also challenge themselves. What are they prepared to give up? Land, history, flag, anthem, myth or identity – all of it is on the table if we are truly serious. Other countries fight wars over these things: we can do it in peace.
Last Saturday I helped setup some of the artwork for the Creative Conversations exhibition (click the link for details).* The exhibition has a number of diverse works exploring themes relating to asylum-seekers, climate change, migration and borders. I was particularly struck by a work using the medium of wallpaper – Whose home is this? by Lauren Fraser
From a distance the wallpaper looks like a series of imprecise rectangular clusters separated by irregular terracotta coloured strips. As I got closer, however, the imprecise clusters became tiny faces and bodies held tightly together by a labyrinth of fences and walls. The wallpaper sits behind, yet is framed by, domestic items of a lamp, couch and cushions.
Reflecting on themes of asylum and the temporality of life, Fraser says that this ‘settled setting juxtaposes with the restless, relentless backdrop’ of human faces in holding cells. This is pertinent in Australia where we are told that our borders, our way of life and our homely comforts must be protected.
Yet, in the background of these domestic comforts are the faces of those whose lives’ are disposable victims of crimes committed by unidentifiable perpetrators, or at least perpetrators are unwilling to accept they are complicit.
Fraser’s work reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s short-story – The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Le Guin describes an idyllic town, Omelas, where there is peace and the citizens experience unbelievable happiness. Yet, the peaceful and harmonious existence of the citizens of Omelas comes at a cost. Not to them, but to a child kept in a dark cellar under the town.
The child is unloved, naked and unfed. A kind word can never be spoken to the child. That is the bargain that makes Omelas such a pleasant town for the citizens.
As Le Guin notes, while some of the adolescents are uncomfortable with the arrangement,
they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
Like the child under Omelas, a mass of human beings live miserable lives while we experience peace and stability and the occasional #firstworldproblem. This is the bargain of the sweat-shop, the bargain of fossil fuel exports, the bargain of de-radicalization laws targeting racial and religious minorities, and the bargain of free trade policies that are freer for some and than for others. This is the violence hidden in the background that makes our normal life run smoothly and peacefully.
It is significant that this work is hung on the wall of Newtown Mission, a 150+ year old Methodist Church. This location heightens the moral, political and historical tension of the work.
The Church in Australia has been a beneficiary of colonial violence that dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands and their culture. It has enabled that violence to be hidden in the background as an unfortunate part of a wider moral project of “civilizing” and “Christianizing”.
Yet unlike the utilitarian calculus of pleasure for many and pain for some that determines the bargain set by the citizens of Omelas, aspects of the Church have sought a counter-history that identifies with those who Jesus called the “least of these“. That is, those who the powers of the day discard as disposable waste, yet are described by Jesus as possessing a value that is more than the wealth of the world can afford.
Or in a more secular register, these are people who cannot be reduced to a footnote on a policy document. As the philosopher Michel Foucault says, suffering must never be ‘the silent residue of policy. It grounds an absolute right to stand up and speak to those who hold power.’
Those of us in Omelas, Australia, or wherever must reconsider our own material interests of domestic peace in the foreground and become aware not only of the wallpaper in the background, but the floor boards that hide the stolen land under our feet.
Sitting on the couch next to Fraser’s work is discomforting and unsettling. As it should be.
*The exhibition is being held at Newtown Mission (king St, opposite the Dendy Theatre) from 1 – 8th November.