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“The Vanishing Supermarket: Capitalism, Exclusivity and Impossible Desires in Post-2000 US Food Culture”

Sat, November 8, 8:00 to 9:45am, Westin Bonaventure, Floor: Level 1, San Gabriel A (L1)


In this paper I would like to extend my ongoing research by engaging more intensely with Lauren Berlant’s monograph Cruel Optimism. I would like, particularly, to add to the forms of unachievable aspiration that interest Berlant another possible example: the farmers’ markets and independent outlets among the other cultural fronts of that “organic” food movement that today often seems to present itself to its customers as a more sustainable, more ethical, alternative to the multinational supermarkets. Not least because I find it so resonant myself, I am very interested in exploring the nature of this appeal. My interest especially is in how this organic or gourmet movement responds to those moments when it struggles to fulfil its hope of erasing the supermarket from view. From cookbooks to farmer’s market leaflets, I would like to keep a wide range of texts in mind here, but as I do so I would also like to focus on some new recipes in particular. New US manifestations of this most ancient genre, I would like to suggest, recast it as a site of anxiety about the paradoxical erasure of individuality under consumer capitalism. Here it becomes, in certain key cookbooks and lifestyle magazines, a liberal source of cruel promise: a text that seems to grant its implied and isolated reader access to a privileged experience of culinary authenticity, but which then, via telling references to impossible ingredients or grudging references to their more affordable, but substandard, substitutes, tacitly assumes a continuing reliance on the more banal routinized form of consumerism incarnated by the supermarket chain.
In this movement, I will argue, these recipes follow a pattern that any bullied child would recognise. No sooner do they promise pleasure, access to the exclusive circle that they profess to control, than impose unexpected barriers, raise the price of admission, or otherwise set new terms of exclusion. Time and again they thus tease readers, and cruelly it would seem, with the prospect of an independent lifestyle before confronting them again with horrible facts of their own humdrum consumerist life. Of course, I will remain keen here to acknowledge other aspects of the organic food movement, and I will pay tribute to its success in supporting local businesses in the face of overwhelming corporate dominance. Nonetheless I will linger on this fine tension between privileged inclusion and exclusion that I feel is to be found in many post-2000 recipes. My concluding remarks will subsequently delve into the broader question of how our culture now handles commodity consumption. In an earlier culture and in an earlier literature, l will note, shopping and the individual stores in which it took place offered to narratives numerous opportunities for extended description and, especially, chance but meaningful interpersonal encounters. Supermarkets in US literature since the 1960s, by way of contrast, seem either conspicuous by their absence or else to be places in which individuals again grow mindful of their isolation or otherwise feel spiritually lost. Do we find a counterpart, in post-2000 recipes, of this apparent tabooing of dominant and homogenous consumption? Are our most commonplace acts of commodity acquisition now also among our most secret, somehow hidden in full view? Is our culture in flight from these ordinary consumerist settings, more comfortable with those other identities on offer among the organic cheeses and heirloom tomatoes of the organic food scene?