The Ideality of Organic Foods
May 13, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Discussing the "New Spirit" of Capitalism, Slavoj Žižek says that we buy commodities not (just) for their utility or to evoke status, but rather to "get the experience provided by them" and to make life "pleasurable and meaningful". He then uses organic foods as an example of this: "Who really believes that half-rotten and overpriced 'organic apples' are really healthier than the non-organic variety?"

First of all, I wish he would have used the word "better" as opposed to "healthier" because my concern with organic foods (or really anything that is marketed as somehow superior to similar products like "all natural" "cage-free" "hybrid" etc.) involves their production, regulation, and their consumption.

Does buying products like these really have little to no benefits to society, the environment, and to our health? Has just another illusory desire been created and quenched by capitalism?
posted by ReWayne to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, for a long and ongoing argument on the blue you can read through this thread

I think you’ll find that, like most debates, the answer is somewhere in between “total corporate marketing bullshit” and “good for the body, earth and soul”
posted by Think_Long at 10:05 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

On one side, you have enormous corporations with huge marketing budgets based in decades of research on how to manipulate consumers into giving them money. On the other side, you have consumers, many of whom have good intentions, some of whom are well educated about nutrition and environmentalism and economics, and very few of whom are capable of making wholly rational choices in the face of such marketing.

Even without marketing, though, people have biases that make it hard to act rationally. They'll spend not just money but time and energy on things that have practically no effect while completely ignoring some other things that have huge effect. For example, they'll walk to the store to fight global warming but fly halfway around the world twice a year without a second's thought. They'll leave their urine sitting in the toilet but take 20 minute showers. Etc.
posted by callmejay at 10:21 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

This strikes me as a quite shallow drive-by swipe at a complicated issue.

And the sentence itself doesn't make much sense: is he contrasting half-rotten organic vs. non-rotten non-organic? Or half-rotten organic vs. half-rotten non-organic?

I can't even tell if this is better characterized as straw-man or apples vs. oranges. Either way it's dumb and doesn't really contain enough meaning to argue over. (Though his larger point sounds interesting).

I don't have much opinion about organicness or half-rottenness or healthiness or whatever, but in my experience farmers' market apples are waaaaaaay deliciouser than the (generally half-rotten) ones my local grocery store carries, which tend to look like they fell out of the garbage.
posted by Erroneous at 10:24 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

This strikes me as a quite shallow drive-by swipe at a complicated issue.

Well, we are talking about Slavoj Žižek here.

I don't know the context of the piece, but you can unpack it in certain different ways: organic as a Veblen good, or as part of a complex sociocultural model of distinction.

Since Žižek is a Lacanian, you could also make the argument that 'organic apple' is subject to the whole signifier/signified slippage, particularly in the context of the modern supermarket. What signifies that an apple is organic, other than a label? (Or, to be tricksy, what signifies that an apple is an apple other than a SKU?) Perhaps it's the fact that it veers from the ideal apple that the produce section has accustomed us to, sprayed and sized and waxed and sometimes even wrapped in plastic, selected for colour and shape, not taste. In that context, the signifying power of 'organic' often becomes intrinsic through flaws -- the bumpy apple, the ugly heirloom tomato, the carrot speckled with dirt.

At the same time, though, proponents of organic foodstuffs will often argue that they represent a return to signification -- tomatoes that taste of tomatoes, apples that taste of apples -- where the 'perfect' supermarket Macintosh is merely a simulacrum of appleness.

And that's enough theoretical guff for one comment.
posted by holgate at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Is this from the essay Architectural Parallax: Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle? I think the question of whether organic apples are or aren't more healthy for you is irrelevant to his point. It's the mode of consumption of organic food that marks it as part of the "new spirit" of global capitalism rather than an alternative to it.
Consumption should sustain the quality of life, its time should be “quality time” – not the time of alienation, of imitating models imposed by society, of the fear of not being able to “keep up with Joneses,” but the time of the authentic fulfilment of my true Self, of the sensuous play of experience, of caring for others, from ecology to charity.
For Žižek, even if organic food is really better for you, it's still a bad thing. I think he would totally reject the usual opposition between the good, authentic, locally-owned organic foodstore vs. the evil corporate greenwashed Walmarts and Whole Foods.

The relevant Lacanianism here is "les non-dupes errent." Those who see through the illusion of greenwashing are the ones who are truly deluded. They desperately try to sustain the fantasy that the neighborhood organic food store and local organic farmer represent an alternative to capitalism, trying to avoid the fact that they are already acting as capitalist entrepreneurs innovating new forms of Imaginary consumption, functioning as the necessary supplement to the corporate behemoth.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:35 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does buying products like these really have little to no benefits to society, the environment, and to our health? Has just another illusory desire been created and quenched by capitalism?

I think I mostly want to second Erroneous's characterization of the argument here, but I'd also suggest that critical theorists are, perhaps, not the best-informed sources to go to when analyzing matters of ecology and health.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:50 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I buy most of my (non-organic) produce from a local small-scale farmer.

I suspect I'm doing far less damage to the environment than I would be by buying organic from Whole Foods, given that far less energy is used in the process of transportation and refrigeration. (He delivers a big box o' veggies to me and several of my neighbors every other week, which makes his transportation operation particularly efficient, as I don't have to drive to the store.)

We also need to get over the whole "Organic = Good; Synthetic = Bad" argument. There are plenty of "bad" organic farming processes, and also plenty of synthetic chemicals that have few known environmental side-effects.
posted by schmod at 12:57 PM on May 13, 2010

You might be interested in this book that I'm reading right now: Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves.

The author coins the term "inverted quarantine" to describe the organic consumer movement, and compares it to building a fallout shelter as a response to the threat of nuclear war, or white flight to the suburbs to escape from the problems of inner cities. Rather than addressing global problems with large scale collective action, inverted quarantine focuses only on the individual. Of these examples, organic consumption is unique, since it follows one of Žižek's formulas of the chocolate laxative: chocolate normally gives you constipation, so this product acts as both the cause and the cure. "Are you constipated? Eat more chocolate!" Organic consumption is similar: "Is individualistic capitalist ideology getting you down? Go shopping and express your free choices as a consumer!"
posted by AlsoMike at 1:00 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

To extend the argument further:

1. There are no proven health benefits of eating 'organic' food. Now, not everyone gets excited by 'proof' otherwise there would be no homeopathy (and homeopathy user set and organic food buyer set have significant overlap)

2. Just like with many other product often the drive to buy is a 'return to our roots' and to move away from supporting evil corporates. Often people dont realise that the major profits from purchase of organic food end up with the same or equially 'evil' coprorations. As someone said in a TED talk: 'You run away from supporting Big Pharma only to land in the arms of Big Placebo'.

3. Customer choice as a driver of corporate change: For years students have boycotted Nestle and other companies for their bad practices related to infant formula. Some of them have worked. So some may think that by buying organic they will change the world. It doesnt seem to work because organic farming methods have very low yield so if the whole world used organic millions would more would die of hunger than they do now.

So in general, the argument for buying organic food stands on very flimsy grounds if you analyse it rationally. Of course the Soil Association would disagree with me. But before you get excited it is a lobby group funded by the Big Organic
posted by london302 at 5:11 AM on May 14, 2010

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