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