Sunday, 13 April 2008

from "broccoli & desire"

By Peter Benson & Edward F. Fischer.

Economic power and risk as presently distributed across the broccoli trade — between farmers, middlemen, exporters, food conglomerates, and consumers — does not equate with the real interdependence of actors. On both ends of the commodity chain, desires for something better appear ever elusive. The powerful cultural image of algo m'as ["something better"] may be thought of as a dual structure of feeling. It is at once an ideology and a lived and felt reality. Its ideological force, in fact, has precisely to do with the fact that the something better of algo m'as really matters for broccoli growers and consumers alike. In the Guatemalan highlands, impoverished living conditions, histories of violence and warfare, the felt power of desperation and urgency, and emerging feelings of modernity combine such that desiring is not totally distinct from needing, such that “something better” becomes compelling and intractable in a setting of ongoing social suffering and violent acts (Fischer and Benson 2005). If Maya farmers are exploited, it is not simply at the level of wages or prices, but more profoundly at the level of desiring, maintaining their existential investment integral to the normative operation of the broccoli trade. On the consumption side, many broccoli eaters internalize models of healthy living and eating and are compelled — they say need — to eat vegetables in pursuit of cultural aspirations for wellness. Yet, like the algo m'as that never arrives in Tecp'an, these desires are never fully requited because the increasing consumer surpluses of cheap food year-round do not offset diminishing levels of satisfaction and happiness (the so-called “malaise of the American middle-class” grounded in an ongoing reality of dissatisfaction and imperfectability; see Storper 2000).

Desiring is ubiquitous across the commodity chain, although its meaning and force vary. Desire is the condition of possibility for the broccoli trade. It mobilizes energies andmakes producers and consumers into reflexive agents who monitor their own practices and comport themselves to the opportunities and risks that blossom out of this seemingly innocuous vegetable. By coming to understand the lives of broccoli farmers and eaters, we may achieve a pragmatic view of the food chain, realizing a convergence of desires around investments in “something better”. Such a viewpoint leads to a more complicated way of operating upon global connections, including both localization strategies (shifts to more localized markets) and globalization strategies (elaborations of ethical and political connections between unknowing consumers and producers). Either way, broccoli is revalued not in terms of mutual needs but with a greater appreciation of collectivized desires that are already the basis of the operation of this global flow.

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