Research

“Nature contra Capitalism? Ethics and the Market in Canada’s Wild Food Trade.” 2009–present.

This, my dissertation research, focuses on the Canadian trade of wild food products, like chanterelle mushrooms and wild blueberries. My focus is on contradictions in how consumers and producers, as well as the public and regulators, conceive of the value of such foods.

Urban consumers and publics often celebrate wild foods for having a high ethical value, similar to organic and local foods. This ethical value comes from the fact that these foods are seen as opposites of the products of the global industrial food system. This system is thought to destroy health, exploit labour, and harm the environment by prioritizing profit, or economic value, to the exclusion of all else. Choosing to consume foods seen as wholesome, natural and just is thought of as a way to instead take a stand for wellbeing. Wild food is the ultimate form of this “ethical eating” because it is most synonymous with nature, the key concept in these movements.

But for the producers and regulators of wild food these products are one of many from the forest, and like others are valued primarily as a means to make a living. What is most important in rural contexts of production is the efficient extraction of economic value from natural resources. In contrast to urban imaginations, the reality involves industrial-scale methods of prospecting and harvesting that suggest wild food as more a part of, rather than alternative to, the status quo.

This contradiction—between the consumption of wild food imagined as a nature-saving, ethical good, and the reality of its production as a nature-using, economic good—mirrors existing critiques of organic and local food alternatives. Many see these “movements” as illusory, self-congratulatory fantasies marketed to wealthy elites. I argue, however, that this perspective is far too simplistic. For instance, producers also find their own sorts of ethical value in wild food products: through them they replace the abuses and poverty of wage labour in capitalist centres with the freedom, enjoyment and meaningful survival made possible by self-directed work in nature—a survival under continual threat of clearcut by industrial logging. And consumers also highlight wild food’s economic value, whether in celebrating the trade for supporting local and indigenous businesses, or in conspicuously consuming what are in fact often rare and expensive items.

What is needed is an understanding of how these various, apparently contradictory aspects of ethical and economic wellbeing are actually more connected than opposing. The truth is that, for producers and consumers to be able to engage in the trade of wild food, to be able to generate and access its value as both an ethical and economic good, they must translate conflicting aspects of that value across vast physical, social and cultural distances.

By investigating how distinctions between the economic and the ethical, the natural and the industrial, and the rural and the urban are made, lived and overcome, my work provides a compelling case study that illuminates themes of broader interest to all Canadians: about the value of our natural resources, about the importance of conserving and developing them, and about the divisions and connections between urban, rural and aboriginal communities.

“Conceiving of Delicious Revolution: Food, Pleasure and Body/Mind Dualism.” 2007–2009. [online].

My Master’s research investigated the cultural politics and intellectual history behind the idea of delicious revolution: the claim that, by attending to the ways we eat, and particularly to the pleasures of eating, we might remake the world in a more just and ethical way: that we might live to eat, rather than just eat to live. I showed how the claim of delicious revolution is reflective of a new model of personhood, one that finds a guideline for living in the conditions of embodiment, and particularly the experience of life lived eating.

I analyzed philosophical thought on the body ranging from Socrates through Marcus Aurelius to the present, in order to show how present uses of the body as an ethical force for good invert a long history in which the body was suspect, seen a force disruptive to ethical conduct.

I then turned to contemporary advertisements for food to demonstrate the logic of food that is both good for you and delicious: a logic that at once maintains the appetites as suspicious and misleading, while at the same time harnessing them to notions of health and wellbeing based on the triumph of reason.

Finally, I used these two foregoing accounts of the historical and contemporary relationship between food, the body and ethics to interrogate the discourse of movements, like Slow Food, calling for delicious revolution, and demonstrate their ambivalent embrace of this novel new understanding of the ethical.

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