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Friday Food Blogging: Local Food and Care June 26, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Uncategorized.

In a comment to a much earlier post, Dwight Furrow wrote:

Even though I don’t have a personal relationship with a winemaker in Chile or a coffee producer in Nicaragua, it isn’t obvious to me why I ought to care less about their circumstances, or value their product less than that of local producers.

This raised an interesting issue in my mind that I finally have the time to think about. In particular, I am wondering if it is possible to care–to have an authentic ethical relationship–to an individual you don’t meet? In his comment above, Dwight suggests that such a relationship is possible. I myself am not sure either way, but I thought I would try and articulate a position in opposition to Dwight in the hopes of talking a bit more about these issue. In arguing against Dwight, I intend to enlist the aid of two rather disparate thinkers: Emmanual Levinas and Michael Pollan.

To begin with, Levinas makes a strong case that the only authentic relationship between two individuals can come in the form of a face to face encounter. In fact, Levinas goes so far as to argue that human subjectivity is constituted by this encounter. As he writes in an essay on Kierkegaard, “This putting in question signifies the responsibility of the I for the Other. Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. This is what constitutes the ethical.” As Levinas sees it, the face of the other person puts a demand upon us and it is through responding to this demand that we become ethical subjects. Put another way, without this face to face contact, we can’t be ethical and we can’t even be subjects. Perhaps I am pushing Levinas too far, but it does seem that for him we can’t form the right kind of relationship to an other absent this face to face encounter.

In his The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan makes what I take to be a similar claim. In his discussion of industrial organic farms, Pollan argues that in order to produce food on an industrial scale, one must use industrial practices. In the chapter “Big Organic” Pollan examines how one of the largest organic food companies in the world (Earthbound Organic) grows and processes baby lettuces. One of the most startling revelations Pollan makes is that once the lettuce is harvested from the field, it follows the exact same path that conventional lettuce follows. That is, aside from the method of growing, the processing of organic and conventional produce is identical. In this same vein, Pollan quotes a “post-industrialist” farmer who argues that, “the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye…”

Furthermore, in this same chapter he discusses the disconnect between how people conceive of organic food and the reality of its production. All of this together suggests to me that one can’t have an authentic, caring relationship with a farmer one never sees working on a farm one never visits.

Anyway, these are just some thought, I would be interested in hearing the comments of others.



1. Dwight Furrow - June 30, 2009


Interesting post which obviously has ramifications beyond food production.

With regard to Levinas, of course, interpretations are controversial. But I don’t take the face to face encounter to be referring to geographical proximity. You don’t have to be in the same location to have an authentic ethical relationship. I think this is the most plausible reading of Levinas because, if I recall correctly, he says this in one of his interviews, and also because, especially in his later work, he emphasizes language as the source of a face to face encounter.

As I understand it, “the face of the Other” refers to the vulnerability and particularity of the Other. And this can be expressed in language, not through the content (the Said) but through a dynamic, dialogic event (the Saying). I take it the key features here are (1) that the Saying invites response, whereas the Said does not–speaking to the Other rather than speaking about the Other, and (2) the Said articulates what has already been said, while The Saying is creative.

So it seems to me, Levinas doesn’t give us any reason to think distant others properly attuned to the vulnerability of the Other could not have a genuine ethical relationship.

On the other hand, there is a good deal of empirical research that suggests the physical presence of another person deeply influences our moral responses (versions of the Trolley Problem, executioners unable to perform their function when face to face, etc.)

Perhaps we might want to say that genuine ethical relations are more accessible when they involve geographical proximity but it is not a necessary condition.

As to food production, you say “Pollan quotes a “post-industrialist” farmer who argues that, “the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye…”.

Well, since when have there ever been guarantees? It is not as if there were no scoundrels “back in the day”.

But Pollan is raising what I take to be the central moral problem of our time. We have dependency relationships with countless people we can never meet. With regard to industrial food production (or any industrial production for that matter) it is very easy to get through the day forgetting that you have customers for whom you are responsible. Thus, social structures have to be organized in such a way that such forgetting is not so easy. That is the main point of Reviving the Left.

What sort of organization might that be you ask? Well, that is not a conceptual question. My work is done here, he says evasively.

Ian Duckles - July 6, 2009

Thanks for the illuminating response! One issue unconnected to food that this discussion raises for me concerns the viability of virtual encounters. That is, is it possible for there to be an authentic (what a loaded word ‘authentic’ is!) encounter in a virtual environment (like Second Life or an MMORPG, or blog comments). I go back an forth on this, but if such encounters could occur in a virtual environment, this might provide a framework for the social structures Dwight is talking about.

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