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Food and Identity

Page history last edited by PBworks 11 years, 8 months ago

Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are. - Brillat Savarin


How do our interactions with food - from thinking about, to selection and preparation, to consumption and disposal of leftovers - shape our ideas of who we are, who we want to be, who we don't want to be?


The point of this page is to reflect on how food shapes our identity. Instead of rating restaurants here, we can consider how our experiences at particular restaurants affected us as individuals part of a greater whole. To illustrate:


Stuart and I more often eat at cheaper venues, in particular Vietnamese and Chinese in Victoria Street, Richmond, or Chinatown in the city. Aside from the obvious cost benefits of this behaviour, we do it because in some small way it makes us feel more connected to our notions of Vietnamese and Chinese cultures - although we have not been to Vietnam, we did spend 6 weeks in China many years ago - and we have certain ideas about the rituals and actions surrounding these food practices. We love the rapid, extensive chopping that precedes the even more rapid high-heat cooking process of so many beloved Asian foods, typically made from whole, fresh ingredients and select sauces. We also love the complexity of the flavours that have all the appearance of being just quickly tossed together but in fact carry hundreds and thousands of years of history in their combinations. And of course, like all the 'knowledge class' (John Frow's term), we like knowing about things outside of our everyday experience. Does this make the experience any less valid? Is it mere cultural voyeurism? Or is there a deeper effect on us and the people who provide these rich food cultures?


The following considerations were posted on a food list to which I subscribe (ASFS). The writer is mapping the contents of a fridge as a site of place & identity. Her concerns are how the fridge: becomes a reliquary for contemplation of that which is to become oneself; defines an anthropological dig precipitated by meal and carried out at a frenzied pace; frames one's Arcimboldian portrait(s) of lifestyle choices; is a fetishistic totem of domestic status, often as empty of meaning as it is of nutrition; is a cryogenic chamber of suspended alimentary decay.


Some ideas on representation and symbolic violence: What are the ethical limits of the imagination? What is the ethical responsibility of the author or literary critic who attempts to imagine or represent another? What kinds of violence are enacted in the move to represent an “other?” How does one avoid the collapse of the distinction between the self and other people and the consequent subjugation or effacement of these others in imaginary acts of representation? How also, would one (re)present an other in a historically and politically responsible way? What ethical challenges exist in quotidian experiences? Does ethical criticism presuppose liberal humanistic values?


SUTTON, DAVID E. Remembrance of repasts: an anthropology of food and memory. xii, 211 pp., illus., bibliogr. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers, 2001.


The best I can find is China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West, by J.A.G. Roberts (Routledge). I have also found helpful The Globalization of Chinese Food, eds David Wu and Sidney Chung (U.Hawaii). I hope that these help.


"Indian Identity in Multicultural Melbourne. Some preliminary observations" Salim Lakha; Michael Stevenson Journal of Intercultural Studies, Volume 22, Issue 3 December 2001 , pages 245 - 262


The study of food, eating, and culinary institutions became a burgeoning subfield of sociological and anthropological research in recent years (Beardsworth and Keil 1996; Bell and Valentine 1997; Fine 1996; Lupton 1996; MacClancy 1992; Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo 1992; Warde 1996; Warde and Martens 2000; Watson 1996).



Tammi, my first tentative draft of an annotated bib. I'll drop some text now and then the books later. Don't really have anything to go by re: format. Thought I'd stick the conference justification in the first para and then follow through with an explanation of authenticity lit as I have seen it.


I guess since the last time we talked, commodification and sociality of objects has been an inevitable hurdle, and reading Appadurai, Frow and others has been pretty significant to altering my interest in European polemicists such as Debord.


View of commodification has shifted from inevitable attacks on agency and subjectivity into questions of ethics and ethical engagement despite commodity culture. I think that's how I would want to position the conference - an interest in the sociology/anthropology of the 'jargon' of authenticity rather than philosophical issues about subject itself. This focuses on our primary research areas - social research into food culture and identity practices. Would allow us an opportunity to network people who are into this. If you are happy with this idea, then you can help me make this obtuse bit of writing more acceptable. If not, we have much more to talk about.


Oh, am about to look at Jameson and please tell me if Mauss was worthwhile. My head hurts - ow! Back to thesis.



othered selves:

cultural commodities, authenticity, and the ethics of cosmopolitan difference


This conference seeks to convene greater attention to the boundaries and ethical dilemmas that skirt between the commodification, consumption and representation of ‘things’, be they subjects or objects, cultural artefacts or cultural traditions. It is informed by the treacherous distance between intellectual traditions handed down from Buber, Kristeva, and Levinas, that position engagements between the self and other as epiphenomenal, and traditions more concerned with the ethical foundations that bind the social and political relations between communities of difference, and of migrant and transnational strangers together, suh as Honig, Kukathas, Habermas, Beck and Benhabib. It is guided by debates which consider both the necessity and irreconcilability of the symbolic violence contained in the adjudication and representation of cross-cultural practices, artefacts and peoples. It entertains the practical conditions of obligation and interdependence necessary to more forcefully clarify the position of cultural difference, civic pluralism, cosmopolitan and postnational citizenship within emergent liberal democratic paradigms of political membership and inclusion. These concerns are organised around the theme of authenticity, in particular embracing the long-standing, multivalent and perhaps intractable debates which constitute authenticity not only as an ethical ideal but as what Adorno problematised as ‘jargon’, referring to the yawning gap between symbol and social context, the sign and the real, a phenomenon engorged by post-industrial capitalism.


Charles Taylor (1992) traced the modern ideal of authenticity to the start of the eighteenth century and to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s invocation that morality begins from the voice within, that what is morally good is inherent to us. Subsequent interventions from intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin (1936) have explored the relationship between authenticity and art, tying the notion of authenticity to the ‘aura’ of an original document or work. Theodor Adorno (1973), reflecting upon the use of authenticity in the German existentialist tradition, refashioned a critique against the aura, or jargon of authenticity, through its capacity to provide gestures of autonomy, but without content. Drawing upon Marx, Adorno elaborated that the symbolism inherent to the jargon of authenticity may not lead to representations of actual social relations. Nonetheless, Rousseau’s notion of authenticity, though reframed and critiqued by the likes of Benjamin, Adorno, Sartre, Heidegger, Taylor amongst others, has been largely sustained as a distinctly liberal ideal attached to autonomy, originality, and irreproducibility within the human subject as an absolute good. Beyond the more instrumental aspects of exchange economies and consumption, authenticity embodies, as Trilling suggested, a moral inclination which identifies ‘a downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins’ (1970: 12). Ensconced in the meaning of authenticity is what Kwame Appiah recognised as the transformation of moral autonomy from a mere value to an ideal (2005: 37). This reflects not only Rousseau’s recognition of the moral imperatives inherent to each individual, but the desirability of its fulfilment and maximisation (Morgenstern 1996: xiii-xiv).


The moral ‘economy’ within which discourses of authenticity are confined subsequently mediates a displacement between the relevance of authenticity as an ethical ideal, and its extension to social practices where the social value of a subject, a culture, or a cultural artefact becomes defined through its correspondence to what it claims to be, through the certification that it belongs to an alleged origin, author, aesthetic or primordial cultural root. The vagaries that attach to the desire for authenticity as a social practice flow from the subjugation of these kinds of moral relations, cultural economies which sponsor discontinuities between people and things, and the circulation of ‘things’ as commodities (for instance MacCannell 1973; Appadurai 1986: 45; Trinh 1989: 88; Heldtke 2003: 45-59). The hunger for authenticity exists through the regimes of value which structure demand, production and consumption. While a host of intellectuals starting with Adorno (1973; 1991) through Debord (1968) to Baudrillard (1968; 1970; 1973; 1981) have theorised the collapse of meaning through hyper-real commodification, interventions which have reflected postmodernity’s brutal climate against signification, these approaches leave little room to consider or explore the autonomy, integrity and purity of subjects and objects, cultures and goods, as having differentiated meanings between social groups and places (Jackson 1998: 104), or as precarious and reformative negotiations independent of the marketplace (for instance Appadurai 1986; Miklitsch 1998). John Frow (1997), for instance, complicated the notion of exchange by describing two orders of social relations, the exchange of gifts, and of commodities, the simultaneity of which defies market logic. Insofar, the approach of Adorno, Debord and Baudrillard leaves little room to consider the ideological register which allows these theorists to assign an ‘epochal coherence’ to the social world in the first place.


Given the argument from social and cultural theorists interested in the sociality of objects, commodities, and the commodity fetish, that commodification is as much enabling and productive as it is limiting and destructive, the postmodern impulse gives way to more nuanced ethical dilemmas about the contradictions inherent to the logic of capitalism and capitalist production. It is in the liberal ideal of authenticity that the autonomy of the self is founded, and that the desire for a total and integrated self instigates the ethical paradox in which the commodity form joins the desire for the authenticity of objects and others. As Jon Goss has argued, the commodity market produces idealised contexts of consumption, what Mikhail Bakhtin described as ‘chronotopes’ (1999: 50).


The symbolic repertoire of ‘the other’ is thus grounded by economic exchange, in the uneven power relations between dominant and dependent, colonising and colonised, first-world and third-world, sexualised and gendered populations. Displacement of the sign in these kinds of social contexts grow, according to Spooner, ‘partly because as the gap grows we appropriate more and more of the symbolic dimension of life in the other society, and inhibit the indigenous symbolization that would generate the authenticity we seek’ (1986: 228). In the commodity market authenticity resembles the kind of radical impossibility Zizek (1989) considered, where the hunger for the authentic remits itself to the purposively fetishistic and narcissistic misrecognition of others. Thus power relations underscore the production of authentic cultural, ethnic or gendered difference, exposed to both the dangers of reification (Jameson 1979; Fraser 2000), and the mimetic practices or adaptive preferences by cultural and ethnic entrepreneurs (Chow 2002: 107-10; Lukes 2005: 134-9). This disjuncture often displaces and denies the dialogic construction of self, identity or value through social relations (Appiah 2005: 107; also Grillo 1998; Benhabib 1999). It also denies the contested agency implicit in negotiations defined by the demand and supply of cultural commodities. While an excess beyond the commodification of social life may persistently exist, the logic of market forces, the power of the commodity, also exercises an influence on the scope of lived experiences. Michael Taussig in The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980) described the danger of commodity fetishism in great depth, mapping contexts ‘whereby the products of the interrelations of persons are no longer seen as such but as things that stand over, control, and in some vital sense even may produce people’ (1980: 5). The power of objects, through the reification of authenticity, to make and displace subjectivity is especially pernicious where it represents a morally dissociative power relation mediating life chances and social possibilities within human populations and communities.


These themes and philosophical issues inform the scope of this conference. It is attuned to the momentous and intractable extent of the dilemmas implicit in the subjects and themes of authenticity. It recognises that the way authenticity might be negotiated may range from expressions of mundane and lived cultural difference to arguments that it exists beyond signification, like Lacan’s notion of ‘the real’. The strength of this conference is that it recognises these philosophical dilemmas can wait, can be set aside to concentrate on the primacy of the ‘jargon of authenticity’ within fields and areas of social research, and thus positioned as a context to explain authenticity’s role in modes of cultural production. This bracketing enables a practical engagement with authenticity, its lived idiosyncrasies. It allows us to ask: what markets? To ask questions about situated regimes of cultural coherence. To ask: what modes of expropriation? To ask: what kinds of mimetic identity practices. To ask what the preoccupation with authenticity in situated instances tells us about the lifeworlds we research and inhabit? It provides a social context to frame ethical engagements through commodity culture. Most importantly this focus turns the eye of analysis back to the academe (Asad 1975; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Guha and Spivak 1988), to reflect upon our vested interests in cross-cultural knowledge production, and submits the most important ethical dilemma not as our capacity to represent others, strangers, foreigners, cultural artefacts, cultural difference, or culture, per se, but what we do ethically to ourselves, our subjectivity within communities of difference, as scholars and thus as vanguards of the symbolic violence tied to the representational act.


Key words/themes Tammi? These are the ones that matter for me:-


1. ethnicity as a commodity form

2. sociological practices of authenticity and authentification

3. hybridity versus authenticity


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A selection of regional cookbooks and television programs on Italian and Vietnamese cuisine.


ethno-multiculturalism, popular multiculturalism and cosmopolitan multiculturalism

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