JAY ELLIOTT – DOMESTICITY AND DISASTER


Barbara Kingsolver’s 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle begins with the following story: In the spring of 2004, Kingsolver and her family decided to leave Tucson, Arizona, where they had lived for the previous twenty-five years, and move to a small farm in rural southwestern Virginia. They had a variety of reasons for leaving Tucson. Some were among the usual reasons why anyone might move, such as a desire to be closer to extended family. But Kingsolver also had more unusual reasons, and these reasons are at the heart of the project of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver had concluded that her life in Tucson was environmentally unsustainable, and not just her life, but the whole way of life she participated in as a twenty-first century Tucsonan. In particular, Kingsolver had become deeply disturbed by the fact that the Arizona desert comes nowhere near to producing all of the food required to feed modern Tucson’s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Nearly all of the food consumed in the city is transported over long distances in fossil-fuel burning vehicles – a system that Kingsolver concluded was flirting with environmental disaster. “Our jet-age dependence on petroleum to feed our faces,” Kingsolver wrote, “is a limited-time only proposition… By the time my children are my age, that version of dinnertime will surely be an unthinkable extravagance.”

Reliance on imported food, as Kingsolver notes, is not a phenomenon limited to the Arizona desert: in fact it is characteristic of more or less all modern American cities. In response to the failure of our national food system to take account of the limited supply and harmful effects of fossil fuels, Kingsolver decided to sever her family from that system altogether. In their new home in Virginia, Kingsolver, her husband, and their two daughters undertook a year-long experiment to live as much as possible on purely local food – “food”, as Kingsolver puts it, “from so close to home, we’d know the person who grew it.” Much of what they ate they grew themselves, in their own garden: the rest they aimed to get exclusively from small farmers in their home county. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a narrative of their experiment, went on to become a national bestseller, and an inspiration to the growing “local food” movement across the country, and around the globe.

My interest in Kingsolver’s book is part of my broader interest in the cultural phenomenon of ethical consumerism. In the past few decades, many American consumers – including me, and probably anyone reading this – have increasingly come to think of the choices we make while shopping in ethical terms. The ethical consumer movement can be seen not just in the recent interest in local food, but also in everything from “natural” detergent to “fair-trade” coffee beans and “sweat-free” sweatpants. In each case, consumers have sought out these products, and often paid a premium for them, not just because they think that they are more healthy, or more tasty, or more comfortable, but also because they are thought to represent the more ethical choice. Despite the transformative effect that ethical consumerism has had on daily life for many of us, it has received surprisingly little critical philosophical attention. I think this is a shame, because it seems that ethical consumerism has not only affected how we think about shopping, but also how we think about ethics. This essay will therefore consider from a philosophical perspective both the ethical promise, and some of the ethical limitations, of the movement. Ethical consumerism, as I read it, can be understood as a fantasy, a particularly powerful fantasy that serves as an outlet for expressing our well-founded anxiety about the state of our world, and for lamenting the inadequacy of our current institutional arrangements. But to the extent that it narrows the scope of our choices to the domestic, and nurtures a feeling of despair and disaffection toward any larger society, it hinders us from imagining real alternatives to the larger political and institutional problems it aims to resolve.


I

Most critiques of ethical consumerism begin and end by pointing out that it is ineffectual. Despite the frequent reassurances found in books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that “small changes in buying habits can make big differences,” in reality the choices of the small minority of consumers who seek out these “ethical” products – well-intentioned though they may be – have little effect on the underlying dynamics of the global marketplace. Poor labor practices and environmental degradation are systemic problems that will only be solved by large-scale political action, and not by the private choices of a few well-meaning consumers. I agree with the basic thrust of this criticism: ethical consumerism can’t actually solve the problems it purports to.

Yet at the same time I’m fascinated by the intense attraction that ethical consumerism nonetheless has for many of us. Although we may know full well that our consumer choices have a negligible effect on something as large and complex as the natural environment, nonetheless we don’t want to simply give it up.

I think there are two main reasons for our persistent attachment to ethical consumerism, despite the fact that it isn’t quite what it appears to be. The first is that it expresses frustration with the failure of our political and economic institutions to deal with our most pressing global problems. We can agree that institutional change is what is really needed in order to solve these problems, while at the same time recognizing that no such change seems to be anywhere on our present horizon. All attempts to establish effective international regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, for example, have failed, despite the fact that the danger those emissions present has been well known for decades. In the absence of meaningful political progress, ethical consumerism feels like a way to take some kind of action, to do something in the meantime while we wait for our public institutions to catch up with reality.

Second, I think the criticism that ethical consumerism is ineffectual misses the point: this criticism treats ethical consumerism as if it were a practical plan of action to solve global problems. By that standard, of course, ethical consumerism totally fails. But I don’t think this is actually the right standard by which to judge ethical consumer culture in the first place. In my view, ethical consumerism is not really a practical plan of action at all. Rather, I suggest that we see it as a form of utopian fantasy – a way of imaginatively playing out what a more sustainable way of life would look like.

When we think about ethical consumerism in these terms, I think the movement as a whole makes a good deal more sense, and in particular I think we can make more sense of a book like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The book is full of fairly detailed descriptions of things like how to forage for mushrooms, how to harvest asparagus, and how to raise – and slaughter – your own turkey. Yet it’s a safe bet that most of the book’s readers have never, and do not intend to, undertake any of these things. Despite appearances, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is not in fact a book about farming, or even a book about gardening. As Kingsolver herself puts it: “This is not a how-to book aimed at getting you cranking out your own food.” The aim of the book is emphatically not that you should imitate Kingsolver, quit your job, leave the city, and take up subsistence agriculture. Instead, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and other works of ethical consumer literature – such as Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals – seek to help readers construct utopian fantasy lives around the consumer choices they make in the course of their ordinary routines. After reading Kingsolver’s book, we might look for local foods at a grocery store, or patronize a local farmer’s market. But more importantly, we come away with a set of terms by which to imagine what we are doing when we engage in these forms of shopping, terms that imbue our small choices with far-reaching significance.

In describing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and ethical consumer culture more generally, as a work of fantasy, I don’t mean that term pejoratively. In my view, there is nothing wrong with fantasy as such. Fantasies have particular powers and limits in all areas of life. However, some fantasies are better than others. In undertaking to expose the limitations of the ethical consumer fantasy, I mean to encourage us to think more broadly and more boldly about what an alternative future could look like.


II

Cultural fantasies, such as those at work in the ethical consumerism movement, are not private or idiosyncratic; they are common, public fantasies. As such, we can understand them as falling into genres, just as art forms, like film and the novel, fall into public genres. And like novels and films, the genres of our public fantasies are often hybrid, borrowing and combining elements from diverse sources. We can see the fantasies at work in ethical consumer culture as inheriting and combining elements of two great American genres – domestic melodrama and apocalyptic science fiction.

Works in the genre of domestic melodrama center on a character in mid-life – often a middle-class white woman – who seeks to fundamentally alter the conditions of her existence by shifting and adjusting her intimate attachments and her daily routine. In classic examples of this genre – such as the novel, and later film, Now, Voyager – the main character’s quest to reinvent herself centers on the establishment of a new household, or a new set of domestic arrangements. The shift to this new household often occurs against a vague but pervasive background of large-scale political failure, especially the subtle and persistent injustice of sexism. But the melodramatic response to political failure is not to seek political change per se, but rather to find possibilities of action and hope in the ordinary and domestic. For characters caught up in these forms of melodrama, the household becomes a privileged imaginative space in which fantasies of a better world can be played out in the here and now. As Lauren Berlant puts it in her 2008 book The Female Complaint, these kinds of melodrama are not so much political as “juxtapolitical”: they present their narratives both as responses to fundamentally political problems, and as an alternative to politics as such. In Berlant’s words, melodrama aims to create “an aesthetic and spiritual scene that generates relief from the political.” At the center of this scene is the fantasy that a little pluck and imagination can turn the “ongoing present” into “the scene of lived fulfillment.”

Animal, Vetegable, Miracle – and, with it, much of ethical consumer culture – belongs squarely in this melodramatic tradition. At the center of the book we find Kingsolver – a middle-aged white woman – seeking to transform herself through an alteration in her domestic arrangements. Kingsolver’s move to a new house in Virginia takes place against a background of large-scale political failure – in her case, above all environmental failure. But Kingsolver responds to that failure, not in a political mode, but in a domestic mode, by making the family home and its intimate routines stand in for a more sustainable way of living. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle even literalizes Berlant’s image of the juxtapolitical in its format: Kingsolver’s husband Stephen L. Hopp wrote a series of texts for the book which deal more systematically with the politics and economics of the U. S. food system – but these texts are carefully segregated from Kingsolver’s narrative, and juxtaposed alongside it in a series of sidebars.

Ethical consumer texts like Kingsolver’s are thus deeply indebted to the fantasy structures of domestic melodrama. But ethical consumer culture also tends to deepen and darken these elements of melodrama with imagery drawn from a rather different genre – apocalyptic science fiction. When we think of science fiction, we often think of things like space ships or alien invasions, things that may seem to have nothing to do with the folksy world of small towns and traditional crafts that Kingsolver invites us to imagine. But a deeper view of the fantasies at work in science fiction suggests a profound connection between science fiction and the ethical consumer sensibility. In her classic essay on the science-fiction films of the 1950’s and 60’s, Susan Sontag reminds us that “science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster….” In a traditional science-fiction scenario, the hero is privileged – and burdened – with secret knowledge of an impending disaster that the existing authorities are entirely incompetent to prevent. In these films, the hero and his family may survive the disaster, but often only at the cost of what Sontag calls “a radical disaffiliation from society.” More recent works of science fiction – such as the novel and later film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – have increasingly deployed a variation on this scenario, in which the dreaded disaster has already happened, and the hero is the sole survivor who has not been utterly deprived of his humanity and who alone represents a hope that humanity may begin again.

Once we begin to look for it, we see that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is saturated in science-fiction tropes of this kind. In order to describe the high-tech hubris she finds at work in our modern food system, Kingsolver writes that “like many other modern U. S. cities, [Tucson] might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned,” drawing on the language of science fiction to suggest technological excess. It’s also deployed to articulate fantasies of escape. She writes that “it felt like stepping into a spaceship and slamming shut the hatch” when she and her family began their experiment of eating strictly local. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is filled not only with warnings about the unsustainability of our present food-system, but also with dire intimations of wholesale societal collapse and grim little plans for survival. At one point, Kingsolver apocalyptically confesses: “I’ve become a tad obsessive about collecting winter squash recipes, believing secretly that our family could survive on them indefinitely if the world as we know it should end.”

The fusion of these themes from melodrama and science fiction in ethical consumer culture makes for a powerful fantasy structure. Shopping for local foods in the spirit of Kingsolver, you can easily come to feel like a consumer diva at the center of your own domestic melodrama. Unlike the public world of large and complex political and economic interests, the home seems to be a space of sovereign control, in which individual agency still means something. Making ethical consumer choices feels like a way of separating yourself from the dangers that our present political and economic system has created. This sense of the home as a privileged sphere of action is deeply reinforced by the apocalyptic expectation of large-scale societal collapse. Once that expectation is in place, the ethical consumer’s ambition to create a sustainable home can feel less like a mere lifestyle choice and more like a question of survival.

But in its focus on discrete acts of consumer choice, the structure of the ethical consumerism fantasy largely neglects the broader contexts in which consumer choice takes place. The local food movement in particular places a special premium on intimacy – intimacy between people and food, and intimacy between consumers and producers. While intimacy in its place is a fine thing, it is not a substitute for more systematic and impersonal forms of cooperation. Creating widespread access to local foods, in the form of things like urban farmers’ markets, for example, requires sustained large-scale planning, not just a series of disconnected good intentions. Second, the flip side of the focus on intimacy is a bleak sense of despair about political and economic institutions as such. While frustration with our existing institutions is certainly well founded, imagining a real alternative means thinking about what a better set of institutions would look like, rather than pretending that we can somehow do without them. In its purest form, ethical consumerism discourages political responses to our most pressing global problems and instead seeks refuge from political failure in private undertakings and domestic sentiments.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the truth of ethical consumerism lies in its scandalous willingness to dream: in its attempt to act as if we lived in a just and sustainable world, in a world in which our actions matter. In delineating the limitations of the ethical consumer fantasy, my intention is not at all to diminish our utopian impulses, but rather to turn those impulses in the direction of a more hopeful and expansive vision of the world we want.