Tuesday 27 August 2013

Contentious Satisfaction: The Appeal of a Good Fight vs. the Challenge of Good Work

Frederik Van den Stock, The NY Times, 24 11 2012
The idea of a "food fight" has tremendous imaginative purchase: search for images of the phrase and you find an amazing series of portraits of people looking unimaginably satisfied. With handfuls of tomatoes and facefuls of dinner and glee, people are acting out something that is almost constantly both an appealing affordance of food and totally taboo: not only wasting food, but making a huge mess of it--on other people.

The appeal of food fighting has been on my mind this summer as I have continued my tour of various ways of understanding food and narrating such understanding. What provokes me to write this week is how enthusiastically--and persistently--people will engage in long arguments about food: at dinner, on radio shows, and, to an amazing extent, in website comments fields. 

At the same time, people seem relatively quiet about food domains where it's clear that much work needs to be done--and even clear what work needs to be done. The examples that struck me were encountered in the course of spending several days at farm harvest gatherings over the past several weeks, where people engage in endless debates about what would make genetically modified crops like golden rice efficacious in meeting the promises associated with it--but it was often hard to get people to help making dinner (where even better conversations took place), wash dishes, or volunteer to work with the many excellent seed monitoring, youth development, or even just weeding efforts taking place on these amazing farms.

You could chalk it up to just preferring to sit around and talk, rather than doing hard work--but people put an emphatic amount of effort into their contentious debates, enough so, in fact, that it prompted me to think about how much good work could be achieved with some of that effort. This is not at all to devalue the effort of the debate, either--but rather to point to an interesting dynamic that seems to be at work: the contentious dialogues with lots of unknown bits are the ones that grip some people and the ones where the effort is straightforward and there's a consensus about the necessity and value of the work attract others. Are these in tension? Are these different personalities? Do they conflict or avoid each other? Especially given the way people follow their compulsions around food rather doggedly, these seem like important wrinkles to sort out in the messy tablecloth that is the conversational domain of figuring out the difficult bits of food work.

We would very much like to invite reflections on this--are there comment strings on blogs about food assertions, for example, that you think should be archived for posterity? (I often wish I kept better track of some of these spaces where people really hash out their differences on super random food topics like the health of canola oil, or, today's, the reputed health or toxicity of things made with cherry or apricot kernels...) Food efforts you just can't understand why people aren't joining? (Especially when they seem so willing to jump right into debates about others?)

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