Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The diet alibi

This article in the London Review of Books -- LRB | Steven Shapin : The Great Neurotic Art -- investigates the Atkins diet craze from a loftily skeptical point of view, concluding that all diets all serve the same function of calibrating the balance between the self that desires (an appetitive self) with the self that controls desire (the moral self), and that these latest diets sell the promise of magical self-control without willpower, a transformation that requires virtually no will or determination of your own. Strange that people would be so eager to be transformed and yet have no special wish to control what they are transformed into. "The Atkins diet is a latter day theatre of agency," he explains, and very profitable for the corporations which now stage it. It seemed to me that Shapin backed away from some of the more incisive implications of what he argues, but he does raise a number of extremely interesting points.

Eating is the most basic kind of consumption, and thus perhaps it is the most constituitive of our notions of self in a consumer society. Shapin puts it this way: "the practices attending the production, preparation and ingestion of food make up much of the substance of moral and social order. Foods are clean and unclean as well as nutritious and non-nutritious. They define racial, regional, religious, national, class and cultural identity: consider the haggis, the hot dog and chicken soup." This ties in very closely to anthropological interpretations of consumption like that of Mary Douglas. The rituals of eating provide a society with its boundaries, with tangible manifestations of its values. Consumption practices constitute a language through which we can speak our identity in a way more fundamental than words.

Because eating involves literal ingestion of the symbols embodied by food, a kind of transsubstantiation is implied, where you eat what the food symbolizes and become that thing in the deepest way available to us. Shapin explains, "The material transformation is simultaneous with the possibility of social and moral transformation or the advertisement of the social and moral states to which you are laying claim. A temperate person is someone who eats temperately; a posh and powerful person is someone who gets an 8 o'clock table at the Ivy; respect for life is shown by vegetarianism; red-blooded machismo by the consumption of red meat; your friends eat with you at home; you have coffee with your colleagues; the High eat later than the Low, thus making a standard display of delayed gratification and acquiring the associated status of those who can wait an hour longer than others for their food. Self-nourishing and self-fashioning both happen at the table."

In other words, eating is a way that we manifest our class position, our identity, without conscious thought, and it's a way that ideology is made materially manifest, in the way Althusser theorized. Nothing seems more given, more natural than eating, when in fact how we go about it is highly constructed, full of messages. Baudrillard was so struck by this that he went so far as to posit, in "For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign," no natural needs, no natural appetites at all, that they are all produced by the demands of a given socioeconomic system, a social formation. Apparently, if the social formation demanded that we not eat at all, he opined, we'd never feel hunger, and see it as a perfectly natural life to gradually starve to death. Or we just wouldn't experience hunger as a kind of privation, we would exist in a society where food was always made plentiful, and was consumed at a subconscious level.

But the concept of which needs are natural and which are unnatural is at the heart of any diet regime; diets serve to draw that boundary: "The metabolic science that justifies the low-carb programme inscribes characteristic views of the will and the self. Some of the appetites in the motivational menagerie of the late modern self are natural, healthy and not to be resisted, but others are unnatural, brought into being by the artifices of the civilising process." Diets try to pitch themselves as more natural, using as evidence the supposed more natural and more healthy condition that being on the diet results in. But the ideal state of health, too, is culturally produced, in inflicted with class distinctions -- healthy is what the powerful/wealthy deem it to be, how they appear publicly to manifest their superiority.
It becomes tautological: the concepts of "proper diet" and "healthly state" are defined mutually, and confer legitimacy on each other. And both in turn are used to define which foods are "real" (Meat is, sugar isn't) and which appetites are appropriate and which are addictions, aberrencies that must be corrected by systemic intervention. In other words, the dieting industry is an institution that defines deviancy, like prisons, health care systems, schools, and so on, as any of Foucault's work can explain at length.

Atkins diet books, according to Shapin, makes their readers recognize their deviancy, but allows thn to rectify it without much effort or will. He sees this as a major shift from pre-modern dietary regimes, which emphasized self-control and moral restraint. The sin, the deviancy these diets fought was gluttony, overconsumption, failure to recognize one's proper limit. This fits well with the mercantile economic theory, and its strictures against luxury consumption, and the social status system, which relied on luxury consumption to manufacture and make legible class distinctions (this was encoded in sumptuary laws). But under consumer capitalism, subjects must be encourage to go beyond their inital sense of limit in their appetite; their appetites to consume must be continually stimulated, not suppressed. The entire economy rests on this. So it makes sense that new diets encourage you to indulge, and stress how much luxurious eating you'll be permitting yourself. Shapin details this motif at length, concluding, "Weight-loss the low-carb way is said to be wholly compatible with lusty connoisseurship." But diets hold on to their aura of being a disciplined regimen, thus giving dieters the best of both worlds, a illusory feeling of self control and agency as well as a moral alibi for luxurious indulgence.

So there is change in the conception of self traced by contemporary dietetics that is in perfect keeping with the demands of a consumer society: new diets show "the submergence of notions of individual volition, partly in ideas of external or genetic determination, but also through the straightforward rejection of the notion that self-control is either instrumentally necessary or morally desirable." The Atkins diet takes as its moral basis that we should indulge ourselves in the proper "real foods" when we eat, that the reward for natural eating habits (minus sugar) is being able to eat as much as we ever feel like (we'll never want more than what is right and no appetite control therefore is necessary). The reward is not better control over our impulses, but the freedom to indulge impluses completely -- this is the exalted natural state, entirely opposite of what was held to be the essence of humanity before, that is humankind's ability to exert rational control over his animal lusts. The new human is absolved of all forms of guilt, encouraged to banish guilt as a pathological sign of the aberrant self shaped and called into being by false needs (stimulated by the sugar nexus).
The result is a modern subject who feels obliged to consume as much as possible, to view his reluctance to consume as pathological, and finds his reward not in any inner-dervied satisfaction but from conforming to an ideal that comes from without, generated by a logic the subjet has never generated or asked himself to consciously affirm.


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