Tag Archives: choice

Food and the paradox of choice


As most of my students have probably figured out by now, I love the RSA Animate series (and the RSA lectures more generally – this recent talk on ethics and public policy by Jonathan Wolff is a good overview of the importance of nuance, and how almost nobody is 100% in favor of any given position), And it makes sense that I would like them: they’re deliciously tangential and chock full of seemingly disparate facts. The most recent one (above), Renata Salecl’s talk on “choice”, is a good springboard to revisit food choices.

I didn’t know who Salecl was, so I Wikipedia’d her, and am entirely un-shocked to learn that she’s Zizek’s ex-wife. And, as an aside, I’m also wondering when post-Marxixts will stop referring to “late capitalism”. . . it’s been late for over a century now, so I’m not sure if historical materialism is going to show up for dinner.

It’s not coincidental that many of the anxiety-inducing choices portrayed in the video are food choices (setting aside, for now, the happily anthropomorphic cow), and this plays into the larger point: that the capitalist system of production emphasizes a cultural model in which choice (a la Friedman’s Free to Choose) reigns supreme. The result, though, is that we get lost in a sea of choice. Salecl goes to far as to say that “the ideology of is actually not…optimistic and it prevents social change.” On the face of it, this seems counterintuitive, but it plays into a rich literature on the role of media and political alienation in the modern world (panem et circenses for the 21st century). Hence the paradox: more choice equals less control.

So what does this have to do with food choices? Lots. Lewis Lapham’s recent piece does a characteristically lucid job of tracing the rise of the new food culture. He doesn’t phrase it in these terms, but much of the battle lines between ‘hands off my burger’ libertarians and the more ‘hands on’ left-liberal and (broadly) environmentalist approach is captured by this response to a WSJ piece on the AMA’s call for competitive eaters to put down their dogs. “They also say that the resources could be better served feeding the hungry. Does anyone have a problem with NASCAR as they burn up thousands of gallons of fossil fuels every weekend? What a bunch of dolts.” Yes, “BIG Eater”, I do have a problem with that.