Ideologies of Food: A Reply to Webb

Ideologies of Food: A Reply to Webb August 4, 2011

At six this morning, I was butchering three large catfish—one of them well over twenty pounds. I filled a small cooler with fillets. We ate catfish for dinner last night and we will eat catfish again (and again). Tonight, and for lunch tomorrow.

Catching fish—especially big ones—is thrilling. Cleaning them isn’t. I recall my adolescent, nausea-filled regret the Sunday evening when I shot nine rabbits—a personal record—and had to clean them all, each one stinking with delicate summer fur sticking to me and my knife. I don’t hunt rabbits anymore.

Back to the catfish: Unlike other fish, catfish bleed thick, red blood that clots and sticks to your hands, and it is very hard to kill them mercifully: until rigor mortis sets in it’s hard to tell if they’re dead or not. There is very little romance in cleaning a fish, especially a whole mess of them.

Catch-and-release is the luxury for those who fish for pure, indulgent sport: it carries the reward of the catch and the minimal responsibility of a safe release. Fishing for food is very different: sure, you get the rush of the catch, but you also face the responsibility and labor of harvesting, storing, and cooking. The reward comes full circle in the end as food. If you cook well: good food.

To put it crudely: I find the pretensions of catch-and-release fishing ass backwards and self-deluded. As expensive and delicate as your tackle may be and as sophisticated and barbless your sensibilities, at the end of the day, catch-and-release exploits fish as objects for cheap (albeit often extremely expensive) pleasure, void of the responsibilities—and gore—of food-making.

Catch-and-release is quintessentially liberal: the bloodless violence that conceals the disenchanting objectification of secular individualism within a pious creed of tolerance, mutual respect, and compromise. The liberal man is a predator like the fly-fishing snob who only photographs his pristine catch: they both insult their prey by refusing to eat it outright, and in doing so consume more voraciously than ever, by living out the delusion that they are not predators at all, or at least the good predators.

Those who hunt and fish for food, especially because they need the food, see and experience something about the tragic beauty of nature that the self-righteous, liberal “sportsman” is blind to.

I am not trying to imply that one ought to fish or hunt or even eat meat. What I am saying is this: those who hunt and fish for “sport,” without the responsibility of food-making, are wrong to moralize or act uppity. And, of course, those who make food from their prey should do so with a sense of solemnity and respect for the life they take and blood they spill.

This view I hold explains some part of why I am in concert with the spirit of a recent article by my colleague and dear friend, Stephen Webb: Against the Gourmands: In Praise of Fast Food as a Form of Fasting, in the issue on food and flourishing in The Other Journal. Webb has been involved with the topic of food and theology for some time. A more careful look at his thoughts can be found in his books, Good Eating and God and Dogs.

Webb and I disagree about politics and this article is no exception. We are worlds apart. We also disagree about a great many other things in this article. For one, Webb’s puts his tortured sense of conservatism on grand display: a so-called conservatism that is thoroughly liberal, progressive even. A conservative, one would think, would be skeptical of change and certainly drastic changes to the ways we eat. Wendell Berry is deeply conservative in this way. Webb is not.

No, Webb declares himself to be “a supporter of free markets and an optimist (for the most part) about technology.” This leads him to wax optimistic about corporate food production to the futuristic extreme of “in vitro” and “cultured” meat products. It seems like so-called conservatives these days don’t care about conserving much except the free market, which is not a conservative thing at all: it is as free and liberal as can be, willy-nilly even.

Webb’s tortured conservatism aside, his biggest mistake is to try to speak of food without recourse to the phenomenological experience of food and eating. (Babette’s Feast and fried catfish both immediately come to mind.) And what about the body? Surely we are not cars that run on fuel, surely our bodies are not combustion engines. For Webb, there is little difference. He invokes platitude after platitude about this thing called “food” to the point of making the laughable claim that, since the only non-utilitarian meal is the Eucharist, we might as well eat McDonald’s the rest of the time.

All these objections (and more) aside, Webb’s article does insert an important, irreverent tone, a dissonant note, amidst the trendy, sanctimonious discourse on food. When Webb critiques William Cavanaugh, Michael Pollan, and their ilk, I disagree with his formal analysis (that basically amount to some cheap shilling for capitalism) but firmly believe that, sometimes despite himself, Webb awakens the dark, cynical irony embedded in the ways we think about—and practice—eating, fishing, and the rest. (Ironically, the jolt Webb’s article provides is not unlike the way Pollan’s body of work has affected so many others, including Cavanaugh.)

By the way: Webb eventually defeats his own argument for capitalism and vindicates Cavanaugh’s objections against it. Webb shows how the market coops everything, including the socially conscious, fair trade, free range, all natural, no preservatives, community garden types. Even Michael Pollan. This is precisely what is wrong with capitalism, and there is no way to fix it.

Socialism will never do, only a departure from modernity itself, a second enlightenment, an Age of Re-Enchantment will work and the Church has the resources and the imagination to begin. To detach the influence of sin within the domain of free markets, as Webb suggests, will certainly not do either. (The other Eucharistic and theological commentary in the article appear promising but only describe Eucharist as the exception to all other food, redeeming fast food from social taboo.)

As I see it, the deeper point goes back where I began: there is a liberal ideology of consumption that hates to acknowledge itself as a predator. There is a deep-seated self-hatred and deception lurking in and around the righteousness of fair trade coffee shops, fly fishing boutiques, and organic food specialty stores.

Webb, in his unapologetically capitalist spirit, tell us what the more pious, in vogue types surely won’t admit, but believe all the same: there is no catch-and-release in real life. There will always be tragedy and blood—even at Holy Communion.

A bloodless, sterilized world of secularism, individualism, and nation-states, born from the liberal womb of modernity is a toxic, disenchanting ideology that hides its absent core: nihilism.

Almost time to go fishing.

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