THE 
RED
CRITIQUE
 

Borderless Cuisine: The Diet of Neoliberalism  

Amrohini Sahay

 

8

Oil and War

EATING CLASS

The Imperialism of "Eating Well"
Kimberly DeFazio

Intoxicating Freedom: Drinking the Class Divide
Robert Faivre

The Class Regimen of Contemporary Feminism
Jennifer Cotter

Let Them Eat Stigma: A Review of Fat Land
Julie Torrant

IMAGE AND IDEOLOGY

Main

Corporate capitalism has produced, over the last two decades, not only world music and a new global cinema, but its own culinary version of globalization. While "fusion cuisine", the experimental blending of cooking techniques and ingredients from different national cuisines in single dishes, began as the latest avant-garde culinary trend catering to the jaded tastes of affluent American restaurant patrons, it has definitively gone beyond being simply a passing fad to penetrate the daily foodways in the West. Today one can find fusion food not only in the upscale eateries of urban world cities from New York to Sydney and New Delhi, but in a variety of mass-market venues. The giant British retail firm, Marks and Spencer, for example, recently launched an assortment of pre-packaged fusion meals, while viewers of the American television station the Food Network have weekly access to shows by celebrity fusion chefs such as Ming Tsai and Wolfgang Puck. A proliferation of fusion cookbooks now feature not only elegantly photographed dinners of Asian Barbequed Quail, Shrimp and Veal Wrapped in Rice Paper, and Warm Curried Oysters with Cucumber Sauce and Salmon Caviar for the coffee tables of the upper middle class, but fare for the working masses in such inexpensive cookbooks as Wraps Around the World: Fusion Fast Food (Abbeville Press, Inc., 1998).

But fusion cuisine is not—as it is often represented—simply about a new and healthy dietary diversity based on "nutritious and flavorful alternatives" recently available to Americans (American Dietetic Association, "America's Quest for Flavor Creates 'Fusion' Foods", November 16, 1998, http://www.eatright.org/pr/press111698.html). Nor is it about a tired academic debate as to whether or not it constitutes a new postmodern artform or continues in the modernist vein. Rather, the ideological import of the new cosmopolitan food has to do with its place in producing a cultural imaginary that naturalizes corporate globalization in order to produce a citizenry acquiescent to the economic interests of monopoly capital.

At the core of this cultural imaginary is the "transnationalist" theory of globality, a corporate theory whose purpose is to legitimate the social relations of transnational capitalism by focusing on its secondary, cultural and political aspects and thus blocking any systematic knowledge of the labor relations—that is, the class relations of production—which, in actuality, constitute the essence of capitalist globalization.

Whether it is relayed in the pages of the daily news organs of the corporate media, or in academic and business books and journals, in the transnationalist view globality means the arrival of a new "post-class" capitalism which has displaced the primacy of the economic with the cultural. Now, it is said, capitalism has been transformed into an information and services society, a form of "post-capitalism" where knowledge—what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their "leftist" legitimation of the dominant corporate views call "immaterial production" (Empire, Harvard UP, 2000)—has displaced labor as the main source of social wealth. In the new "post-capitalism" therefore the exploitation of labor is no longer the foundation of capitalism. Instead, as Malcolm Waters states in a widely cited primer on globalization, "the inhabitants of the planet now appear to have entered… a phase of 'cultural economy'" (Globalization, Routledge, 1995: 95). Characteristic of this supposedly new phase is, as Water's continues, that in the "culturalized global economy, world class is displaced by a world status system based on consumption, lifestyle and value commitment" (95). Basic to transnationalism is thus the displacement of labor with knowledge, and class—as the situation of the subject within the relations of production—with lifestyle—the place of the subject in relations of consumption.

It is in this context that fusion cuisine (alongside other elements of "global culture") has become not simply a new marketing phenomena in highly competitive and delocalized food markets, but an allegory of the post-exploitative "culturalized global economy". The ideological promise behind fusion is thus perhaps most clearly stated by food writer Sylvia Ferrero, who proposes that in putting forth sites of transnational consumption "the process of globalization blurs the center-periphery distinction upon which previous models of global interaction have been based" ("Comida sin par. Consumption of Mexican Food in Los Angeles: 'Foodscapes' in a Transnational Consumer Society", Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, Routledge, 2002: 195). Fusion, on this view, is the diet of the new "postnational" world culture founded on new social relations of ecumenical consumership that are negating the labor relations of an international division of labor founded on imperialist exploitation of the nation-states of the periphery.

The narrative of fusion cooking as part of this ideological tale of "post-imperialist" globalization is told in a variety of registers. It is vividly evoked, for example, by the "father of fusion" and world famous entrepreneurial restaurateur Wolfgang Puck himself. Puck's version of the "decentered" cuisine originated in his celebrated Santa Monica restaurant Chinois with a menu which "outrageously" mixed the "classical" techniques of French haute cuisine with Chinese ingredients. In Puck’s framing, his innovation in the use of cooking techniques and ingredients from both East and West constitutes nothing less than a "cross-border" cuisine, a pathbreaking "culinary evolution" (The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook, Random House, 1986: xv) which "respects" different national culinary traditions even while "democratically" fusing them into something "new". The political parable behind Puck’s rhetoric is quite clear: the grounds of the "cross-border" cuisine lie in the unfolding of the world market in a cultural reciprocity that undoes the hierarchies of colonialism. The new regime of open markets and "free trade" upon which fusion depends become here a symbol of the possibilities of "horizontal" (cultural) consumption, enabled by a borderless world which suspends the "vertical" (economic) hierarchies between "the West and the rest". It is an ode to deregulated, borderless capitalism as the horizon of a consummative cultural equality.

This manufacturing of a transnational consciousness for global capitalism-without-borders is similarly echoed by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison in their Fusion Food Cookbook (Artisan, 1994). Like Puck, Carpenter and Sandison's corporate tale of fusion cooking is also relayed as a sign of the arrival of a new, borderless world civilization which is "changing and challenging our gastronomic lives" (8) and, in the process, revolutionizing America through its taste buds. In their thin attempt at providing a historical dimension to their explanation of the meaning of the new cuisine, Carpenter and Sandison tellingly rewrite the material history of the imperialist penetration of the globe as a series of "lifestyle changes". Thus as they say in their culturalist reading of "culinary history as a series of fusion events", the first "huge global interchange of food" inaugurated by the Spanish and Portuguese after the arrival of Columbus in America gave rise to the first great "flavor revolution" (8). The brutal process of genocidal colonization of the Americas and inauguration of capitalist slavery here becomes not one of the main sites of the primitive accumulation of capital by the West but simply the story of the progressive democratization of "taste".

Equally ideologically significant is their account of the "second great flavor revolution" of fusion cooking as an effect of globalization as it is popularly viewed today. For Carpenter and Sandison, eating the "exciting" new transnational cuisine is nothing less than a lifestyle exercise in American culinary democracy "made possible by jet travel, mass media, new immigration, and a globe-trotting, affluent and growing middle class", combined with the daily arrival of "ingredients from around the world […] in major cities [which] are then spread through sophisticated shipping systems" (8). Evidently for them, when restaurateurs in the rural mountain town of Hendersonville, North Carolina can "includ[e] flavor accents such as papaya and basil puree with smoked shiitake sauce", and diners in Jackson, Mississippi enthusiastically consume Smoked Salmon Wontons, and Grilled Swordfish with Sweet Jalapeno-Lime Marmalade (8), then the "global community" based on an "enlightened" and non-exclusionary world economy has at last arrived. Carpenter and Sandison's tale of fusion mystifies globalization as yet another moment in the evolutionary tendency toward the free movement of trade, commodities and people, providing their readers with a lesson in the neoliberal economic mythology of capitalism as the progress of "freedom".

But locating the new deregulated mode of food consumption as the space of freedom and liberation from the norms of tradition is not only the preserve of corporate cookbooks and the daily culture pages of the mainstream press. The corporate view of traveling food which is sold to the average reader as turning "dinner plates into a delicious, unified mix of cuisines from many cultures" (Karen Feldman, "Around the World in One Entrée", The News-Press, June 28, 2002), is given a high philosophical twist for elite academic audiences in the discourses of the emerging cultural studies of food where it emerges as nothing less than a "radical" postcolonial act portending a freedom of "identity" beyond any limits.

In her recent book Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities (Routledge, 2000), for instance, poststructuralist feminist Elspeth Probyn, writing from Australia, defends fusion cuisine against the charge of "inauthenticity" made by some British food writers. As Probyn writes, by advocating for cuisine in its "authentic" (that is "national") mode, "food writers by and large serve up static social categories and fairly fixed ideas about social relations" (25). From her Foucauldian-Deleuzian perspective, as Probyn makes clear, food has little do with issues of physical nourishment and the needs of the eating body. Rather, "eating and food are the ways in which we perform identities and produce realities" (21). Eating, in short, is for Probyn an exclusively cultural matter—beyond the necessities of the working body. The appeal of fusion here is then as part of a performative self-writing and "self-care" of the body through acts of "subversive" and self-pleasuring cosmopolitan consumption. As for transnationalist writers in general, so for Probyn the new geographies of consumption that globalization makes possible have little to do with the labor relations of globality which underpin the regime of transnational consumption. They are rather sites of the new middle class "ethics" of self-care as a mode of individual "resistance" to the "alignment of tastes, food, and class that threaten to colonize the body in fixed identities" (31). But while Probyn represents such an updated poststructuralist ethics as a liberation from "alimentary conservativism" (24-25), and thus an act of a "transgressive" cosmopolitan subjectivity, it is of course anything but transgressive. The class politics of such a lifestyle ethics is that by focusing on the individual pleasures and desires of the body in its performances of consumption, it marginalizes any analysis of the global structures of production which in fact constitute the political economy of the body—its diet, its pleasures and its limits—in transnational capitalism.

Whether marking the new borderless cuisine as the zone of a radical resistance to "alimentary conservativism" or, more mundanely, as part of a new emphasis on flavor against the "boring" food habits of established national cuisines, transnationalist discourses of food locate dietary change as a matter of an emerging transcultural lifestyle in fluid markets.  In doing so they displace food as fundamentally a class issue framed by the question of labor in the relations between metropole and periphery. To put this differently, the national is not—as bourgeois theorists of the nation have always claimed—a secondary question of culture. Rather, the national is always about the "place" of class in the international division of labor. Like the first "flavor revolution", the second is also founded on the brutal practices of colonial exploitation of the economies of the South and is part of capitalism’s new phase of intensified global exploitation in its search for surplus profits, a form of sustained economic warfare on the world working class (now being supplemented by a return to the barbarism of traditional colonial military conquest and occupation).

To clarify: all developments in capitalist culture are, in the last analysis, driven not by their "own" logic, but by the logic of the fundamental antagonism of wage-labor and capital which underlies the capitalist mode of production. As Marx and Engels long ago explained in the first materialist analysis of what in its latest manifestation is now called "global culture", the development of a cosmopolitan world culture is itself an effect of the need of the bourgeoisie "for a constantly expanding market for its products. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country […] In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations" (Selected Works, Volume 1, International Publishers, 1986). But, as they also make clear, what is fundamentally at stake in the expansion of the world market itself is the search for cheap surplus labor, which is integral to the continual expansion of profits upon which capitalism depends. The world market, in other words, is constituted not simply by the exchange of "things" but is founded on the commodification and exchange of labor itself: the source of profit. Imperialism and colonialism are thus fundamentally based not on relations of international trade, but on the historical transformation of the South into a cheap exploitable wage labor pool for capital. Behind the newly intensified geographies of cosmopolitan consumption, in short, lies the geography of the intensified exploitation of labor.

Today, a central aspect of this geography of intensified exploitation is the de-regulation of the nation-state which is driving the privatization and restructuring of agricultural production in the nations of the South away from meeting the subsistence needs of their local populations and toward production for the world market, a development which is producing catastrophic effects in the nation-states of the periphery. Thus behind the increasing availability of the variety of cheap and fresh ingredients from around the world now available in the supermarkets of the North, is what Enzo Mingione and Enrico Pugliese refer to as the emergence of a global agri-food complex dominated by (predominantly US-based) transnational corporations and implemented through such neoliberal free trade treaties as GATT and NAFTA and the soon to be implemented FTAA. As they explain, at the basis of the "new international food order" is the "increasing specialization of local agriculture toward export production" based on "the decentralization of Fordist labor processes profiting from the exploitation of low paid workers" in the periphery ("Rural Subsistence, Migration, Urbanization, and the New Global Food Regime", From Columbus to ConAgra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food, Kansas UP, 1994: 65). This corporate domination of food production in the South is leading not only to the intensification of such labor practices as contract farming—essentially labor intensive piece work production often in conditions of exposure to harsh agricultural chemicals—but also to the large scale expulsion of workers from the rural sector, producing a huge population of highly exploitable urban poor who perform low-wage work in the urban cities of peripheral nations, and (if they can manage to migrate) in the urban zones of the metropole.

And, just as the labor relations of imperialism which have historically shaped the diet of people in the rich countries of the North are now changing their foodways under the impact of the domination of transnational agribusiness, so they are shaping the diet and foodways of the exploited workers of the South.

One of the main contradictions of the new transnational agri-food order is thus that hunger in "underdeveloped, agriculture-based countries […] can be observed as a situation of overproduction"; not, that is, because of the lack of availability of foodstuffs, but "because the hungry population [has] no buying capacities " (Engione and Pugliese 53). Thus in countries like India, as in most of Latin America, "much of the rural population is declining into chronic starvation and food consumption is dropping while food exports boom" (Chomsky, World Orders Old and New, Columbia UP, 1996: 128).

The result of the domination of world food production by monopoly capitalist agribusiness is not only mass starvation but mass malnutrition for the peoples of the South. For instance, in Mexico, after US government subsidies to transnational US agribusiness has led to subsidized food exports with which local Mexican farmers cannot compete, and after the implementation of IMF-World Bank prescriptions have shifted Mexico's agricultural production "to export and animal feeds benefiting agribusiness, foreign consumers, and affluent sectors in Mexico", "malnutrition [has become] a major health problem, agricultural employment [has] declined, productive lands [have been] abandoned, and Mexico, formerly self-sufficient in agriculture, [has had to begin] to import massive amounts of food" (Chomsky 162). Thus for those in the South who are able to even afford to purchase food, the development of the global agri-food regime has simply accentuated "the polarization between the dietary habits of the wealthy and the poor on a global scale" (Engione and Pugliese 66). Where the "wealthy are increasingly attentive to qualitative, multicultural habits involving organic agriculture, ecological and health concerns…[the] poor are [increasingly] exposed to standardized, imported mass-produced food" which is a major source of global malnutrition (Engione and Pugliese 66).

Any complex understanding of fusion cuisine needs to focus not on celebrating the diversified consumption patterns of the metropole and of its agents in the periphery, but on examining the material conditions, the conditions of production for profit and private property ownership, upon which such consumption is based. The new transcultural cuisine which is being aggressively marketed to consumers in the West as the sign of an enlightened cross-border civilization is, in its essence, not "food": it is a class trope for the deregulation of any limits upon the imperialist exploitation of workers in the nations of the periphery—which now goes by the name of "globalization".

But the class "other" of fusion cuisine is what Marx and Engels theorize in the Communist Manifesto as also the outcome of the borderless world of capitalist globality: the basis for the international solidarity of the "workers who have no country". The urgent necessity to build such a revolutionary—red—internationalism of workers' solidarity in order to overthrow the brutal contradictions of capitalist globalization and found a new classless society in which the globally integrated forces of production are collectively owned and organized to meet the needs of all should not be allowed to be obscured by the class desires of transnationalism.

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