Food III: refusing to choose


The last couple of days I have been raiding the 10th anniversary issue of Saveur magazine. It introduced me, for instance, to the “eat local” movement.

This is pretty much what it sounds: a movement that encourages consumers to provision their tables from local farms.

There are lots of happy effects: the growth of farmers’ markets, unmediated relationships between producers and consumers, the creation of tiny niches of producer experiment and consumer response, the diminished use of preservatives, and so. But there is something odd about the movement, especially when it veers in the direction of orthodoxy. Some advocates of the Eat Local movement believe you can’t eat oranges unless you live in the Sun Belt.

This put me in mind of the manifesto penned by von Trier under the title Dogma 95. Von Trier and pals decided that the only thing that would save film making was a strict set of rules, rules they aptly call the “vow of chastity.” Among them: no additional lighting, no sounds not native to the scene being shot, all films to take place in the here and now, and my personal favorite, rule no. 6: “The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)”

Von Trier is a right wanker, this much is well known. (If you don’t believe me, treat yourself to his recent film Dogville.) But it is still hard to credit how utterly and astonishingly cowardly is the vow of chastity. It’s as if von Trier and company feel obliged to hew to orthodoxy because anything else puts them on a slippery slope. Without the uncompromising direction and discipline of the vow, von Trier could not trust himself to make a good film. (Allow a little added sound, and, before you know it, you’re making the Sound of Music.)

I’m all for people making better films but something in me wants to say, “well, you know, if you are saying you can only make good films when you surrender the creative options the art form makes available to you, I have to wonder whether you are not declaring your incompetence as an artist. If you have to give up your ability to make choices, you shouldn’t be making choices in the first place. Choices are what we pay you for, both in salary and reverence.”

The Eat Local movement as this same quality. It is a self imposed limitation. Not doubt this springs from good motives and a certain seriousness of intent, but really, when you decide to give away what a culture of plenitude and transformation makes available to you, are you not declaring yourself unworthy of this culture?

We see this from time to time, a certain panic in the face of our thoroughgoing dynamism and multiplicity. This was funny when the Fluxus art movement said, what would happen to my art if I imposed this tiny, nuttily arbitrary little constraint upon myself? But when it is practiced in this wholesale manner, to foreswear all the technological advances of film making, or the distribution system that puts Brazilian food in my back yard, one feels obliged to shake one’s head. Isn’t there a Greek myth, or is it a Grimm’s fairy tale, about a man who is given everything and then decides he doesn’t want it? Can the economic actor really be this perverse?

The economics and anthropology enterprise, the one that wonders at the emergent properties of markets and cultures, depends on the supposition that actors will make choices. Without these choices, experiments do not happen. The invisible hand falls still. Nothing “emerges.”

What’s really scary about this “choice against choice” inclination is that it dresses itself up in indignation. It becomes the way sophisticated people show their discernment in matters of food and film, and their disdain for the mainstream. Is this what the avant-garde has come to? It is no longer an experimentation in the very new, an exploration of the far edge of possibility, but a refusal of the full range of choice. Could this be a fit of pique practiced by the Left in protest against the fact that markets did what markets were supposed to stand against: the creation of more and more options and the effortless incorporation of the new. Can we say at least that the most important locus of creativity and innovation has moved away from the artist into the very thing the artist stood against: the marketplace?

Na. Couldn’t be.


Andrews, Colman. 2004. Ten Years of Cooking and Eating in America, 1994-2004. Saveur Magazine, 10th Anniversary Special. October 2004, pp. 87, 94.

For more on the creative powers of the marketplace: Tyler Cowen in print: Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Consumer Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. and on line.

More on the “eat local” movement here.

More on “Dogma 95” and the vow of chastity here.

7 thoughts on “Food III: refusing to choose

  1. Eric Arnould

    The eat local, like the slow food movement are obviously pro-local. And surely we recognize that not all food is created equal. Were it not so, the entire appelation business in wine, for instance would be out the window. But location matters in the production of food, not just wine, truffles and cavier being just two up-market examples, but oregon pears and new york state apples also come to mind along with italian olive oil and greek olives. But it is also a blow back to corporate control over the food chain and the values of homogenization and marketer controlled segementation and product differentiation MNC control implies. So I think this is different than van Trier’s manifesto (a wanker indeed). But it also does represnt plenitude by suggesting that all directions have merit as emplaced directions not merely as trajectories.

  2. Ennis

    I’m hardly an eat local person, but I did have a fascinating experience over the summer which makes me think they might have something.

    I live in a painfully small town, with few decent restaurants, but a first class farmers market. Most of the stalls sell local produce. I got to eat green beans picked that morning, fresh from the fields. Oddly enough, one or two stands sell the usual off the plane/train/truck produce from across America and the globe. So I could eat local apples, or apples from Chile. Local asparagus or asparagus from california, etc.

    I gotta say here … the local produce made the other stuff taste like cardboard. And here’s the odd thing – the local stuff wasn’t heirloom. It was the same national breeds that are selected for looks and durability, but not for taste. Local farms here actually supply a large portion of the region. But even these plastic breeds tasted so much better fresh than shipped in.

    I’m glad I get fresh produce year round. But the quantity has come at a clear cost to quality.

  3. steve

    In an artisitic context, imposing some formal constraints can often be productive. Think about meter and rhyme in poetry, or even Hitchcock’s Rope (one single shot). Playing tennis with the net down doesn’t always make for a better game. (But the van Trier set of constraints seems more like a hairshirt than an interesting formal constraint.)

    In life, where there is no audience and one is not creating art, such self-constraint is silly unless productive of superior experiences. If faraway food is better or in season, I fail to see how avoiding it improves anyone’s life. On the other hand, I can dimly perceive why someone might adopt the Amish way of life (although it is so not me it isn’t funny), because those constraints are related in an understandable fashion to certain forms of community and contemplation.

  4. Scott McArthur

    ‘when you decide to give away what a culture of plenitude and transformation makes available to you, are you not declaring yourself unworthy of this culture? ‘
    ‘Can we say at least that the most important locus of creativity and innovation has moved away from the artist into the very thing the artist stood against: the marketplace? ‘

    Your hand is very heavy this morning Grant. SLAP!
    I am not sure why you felt the need to strike. It was as if you perceived a mass movement towards ignorance and scarcity that needed to be STOPPED RIGHT NOW.

    I donno. I don’t think the market can be subverted by these things, even if they obtain the largest possible sanction. The Soviet Union failed, right? How is a voluntary organisation for market isolation dangerous? Like I say to agressive Christians, is your God so weak that he needs you to do this? Remember, he’s God, neither of us can stop him. The same goes for markets. They simply are there and they can withstand these things.

    And is self imposed restriction necessarily less creative? I think creativity lies in the individual and in exchanges between individuals (the market). The individual alone is still a source of creation, he does not become barren because he wont trade. Do you really think that only commerce can create?

    In some ways you can imagine these ‘attempts’ at market restriction as efforts at product differentation. The individual jumps out of the market to make something in secret and have something interesting to exchange later, all the while boasting that he has given up on commerce.

    In this sense Van Trier is just trying to please the market by making something different. He is trying to be a better market participant wherther he knows it or not. It’s pretty funny really.

    PS – Did you see Breaking the Waves by Trier? He’s a one trick pony (human cruelty) but oh what perfection in that sentiment.

  5. cmb

    It’s bad enough that my friends consider food a moral issue (“I was a bad girl today and ate a cookie”; “I was a good girl today so I can have this cookie”) but now it’s becoming a political issue as well. Today I ate an organic orange that was delivered to my door in the midst of a snowstorm. Was that right? Wrong? It was certainly juicy.

  6. Rob

    The “farmer’s market” here in Austin is a blatant rip-off. Every Saturday, these people set up booths in Republic Park and sell their wares.

    First of all, most of it isn’t produce. There’s a lot of handcrafts and prepared items, like cheese. But some of it is produce and it is undoubtably good, but not noticably better that what you can get at the upscale supermarkets. The problem is that it runs 50-100% higher than the supermarket.

    I guess the farmers figure they need to be compensated for trucking everything in by hand, but as a consumer I think I’ll just keep shopping at Central Market (which claims to buy local when possible).

    The whole “farmer’s market” thing just seems like a way to separate do-gooders and food purists from their cash.

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