About the Author
Kath Weston is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. A Guggenheim Fellow and two-time winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize, Weston is the author of several books, including Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor; Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age; and Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship.
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Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World
By Kath Weston
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Kath Weston
All rights reserved.
Biosecurity and Surveillance in the Food Chain
At first it seemed like just another school day in Sutter, California. Groggy eight-year-olds stumbled out of bed while family terriers yipped and working parents raced to get their children out the door. But this morning in January 2005 was different in one crucial respect. As the children donned their T-shirts, sweatshirts, and jeans, they topped off their outfits with a school board–mandated identification badge that contained a tiny radio frequency transponder. Readers installed in doorways at the school and handheld devices issued to teachers could instantly register the information encoded on the badge and track wearers' movements on campus. Students who refused to wear the new tags on lanyards around their necks became subject to disciplinary action. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags had already begun appearing in consumer goods — clothing, packaged food, even automobile tires — as well as the ankle bracelets used to track prisoners. But this was one of the first times public officials had used the technology systematically to monitor children.
At the time, the Sutter County episode generated intense debate. InCom, the company that installed the RFID system, praised the technology for making it easier for teachers to take attendance. An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer characterized the program as an egregious instance of "kids walking around with little homing beacons." Administrators contended that the tags enhanced campus security; one alarmed parent countered that the lanyard attached to the badge introduced new "risks" such as strangulation. The school district superintendent, for his part, called the technology "exciting ... cutting edge ... kind of Star Trekkie" (Lucas 2005b, 2005a). Techno-lust notwithstanding, this particular voyage to new frontiers, noted a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, had brought the district "a whole galaxy of trouble" (Lundstrom 2005).
The controversy that dogged the Sutter County initiative sounded well-worn, if important, themes familiar to scholars who study surveillance: privacy concerns, the mandate's allegedly Orwellian and dehumanizing aspects, claims for improved safety and efficiency, fascination with the wonders of technology, apocalyptic fears of becoming inscribed with the Mark of the Beast, and critiques of the profit motive involved in the sale of tracking devices (see Haggerty and Ericson 2006; Lyon 2001, 2006; O'Harrow 2005; Parenti 2003; Whitaker 1999). Responding to parental opposition and threats of legal action, the Sutter County school board provisionally shut down its RFID monitors, vowing to reintroduce a better-designed system in the future.
As time passed, the Sutter County Schools initiative no longer appeared to be an isolated incident. One year later, a Cincinnati-based company called CityWatcher.com, which conducted video surveillance for police and other clients, gave employees the "option" of using an electronic key to access the room where sensitive records were kept or having an RFID chip implanted in their arms to trigger the room's electronic lock (Sieberg 2006). In Mexico the attorney general's office had already chipped high-ranking officials in order to allow them to access restricted areas (Weissert 2004). Before long, a private school in Tokyo would make international news by affixing wireless transmitters to students' backpacks ("Overcoming Hang-Ups" 2007:8). In 2013 a Texas school district introduced RFID-chipped badges in order to secure extra state funding by proving that students were on campus. When one of the students tried to contest her suspension for refusing to wear the badge, a federal judge ruled against her (DesMarais 2013). Organic metaphors that had framed discussions of a body politic for centuries acquired new salience as surveillance technologies conferred unexpectedly material meanings upon the so-called long arm of the state.
As the Sutter County Schools experiment unfolded, the San Francisco Chronicle noted a less well-developed angle to the story: in previous deployments, RFID technology had primarily been used to track animals ("Chipped Kids" 2005; Lucas 2005b). Microchip implants in pets generated a spate of feel-good stories about caretakers reunited with little wandering Nigels, Cocos, and Fluffies. Cartoonists added radio transponders to the accessories worn by cows, sheep, and pigs in the comics. Before RFID tags ever found their way into the public schools of California or the government offices of Mexico's capital city, the most extensive state-sponsored programs for electronic tracking of vertebrates in North America involved livestock, that is, creatures destined for the dinner table. Indeed, what made the Sutter County story news at all was the application of these technologies to a youthful class of animals known as humans.
Considered in this context, the way that one of the children involved in the Sutter County experiment described her experience of wearing the tag appears prescient. "Look at this," she told her mother when she came home from school brandishing the badge. "I'm a grocery item. I'm a piece of meat. I'm an orange" (Lucas 2005b). Her description presumes a system of industrialized food distribution in which the constituents of meals appear on store shelves divorced from the sociality of the plant or animal to which they were once integral, always and already rendered piecemeal for sale. Surveillance technologies render the edible bits and bobs of that body accountable, much as the rendering plant transforms the body into marketable parts.
The back story here is a tale of face-to-face relations and lost intimacies, the eclipse by modernity of a fabulous era in which farmer-artisans grew their own food, kids raised sheep to enter into county fair competitions, and milk came from a named cow like Bessie. Only once Bessie has been reduced to a picture on the dairy carton at the grocery store can a child express alienation by identifying with an orange or a shrink-wrapped cut of beef. Perhaps, then, it is not the tried-and-true topic of privacy — at the heart of the Sutter County controversy — that raises the most suggestive questions about the relationship between technology, intimacy, and food repackaged into "resources" but rather the appeal to technology to supply the intimate knowledge about whereabouts and well-being that people have long derived from conversation, observation, and labor.
In this regard, the defense of the RFID experiment formulated by Patti Draper, a Sutter County School employee, is telling. "We only have your children's best interests at heart. We're trying not to lose them," she explained to reporters (Lucas 2005a). Which, of course, only begs the question: Why should these children have seemed in imminent danger of becoming lost? Because they disappeared on a daily basis into the bowels of a modern bureaucracy known as the educational system? People who live in settings where the organization of labor allows adults to keep children in sight know where a child is in a way that the techno-intimacy of the RFID tag promises but can never fully deliver, since tags can be exchanged, mislaid, destroyed, reprogrammed, or even surgically removed. At the same time, any fetishized characterization of face-to-face relations as intimate by definition loses sight of the fact that intimacies do not automatically spring forth from relationships unless they are animated, not least by relations of production.
One of the earliest usages of the term techno-intimacy appeared in a talk on diasporic subjects' Internet use delivered by Geeta Patel (2002), in which she described "a curious form of intimacy — techno-intimacy — remote, and at once familiar (a familiarity through remoteness, a familiar remoteness) to those whose intimacies are produced across distance." In her work on Japan, Anne Allison (2006) has used techno-intimacy to describe the affective, often sentimental, attachments produced through virtual interactions with aspects of high-tech devices such as characters in a computer game. Here I extend the concept to encompass intimacies generated by relations of production that deploy technology to reconfigure the world as an alienated (and therefore distanced) collection of resources, the better to extract them for profit, whether those resources take the shape of nuclear energy, water, or pigs on their way to becoming pork.
To know where your food comes from, in a calculus of face-to-face relations, is to have previously encountered the plants and animals that end up on your table, or at least the fields in which they grew and the people who raised them. To know where your food comes from, in the calculus of techno-intimacy, is to have the ability to link a store-bought product by bar code or lot number to a particular location. One way techno-intimacies abjure anonymity is by producing what Michael Pollan (2006:135) calls "storied food." For example, codes supplied with filets allowed consumers to pull up stories on Canada's "This Fish" website (thisfish.info) about the geographic origins of the particular fish they were about to cook, along with biographical snippets about the fisherfolk involved. The website developed a rather heroic character for its "harvesters" (and for the moral economy of traceability more generally), with little attention given to the many other crew members, processors, shippers, and retailers involved in the food chain. This sort of traceability is, by definition, highly selective about which faces a consumer sees, as well as what sorts of cultural narratives coalesce around them on the screen.
Over at MeineKleineFarm.org ("My Little Farm"), based in Germany, the motto was "Wir geben Fleisch ein Gesicht" (We give meat a face). From the very first click a visitor found herself nose to snout with the magnified visage of a pig that had been rooting around for something tasty. "Glücklicken Schweinen" (happy pigs), "relaxende Rinder" (cattle taking it easy), and a remarkably limber "Aerobic-Schaf" (aerobic sheep) garnered their fifteen minutes of fame on the home page in close proximity to photos of organic hamburger rolls and lamb sausages. While the animated countenances of these frolicking animals presented themselves in already existing realist fashion, the better for consumers to get to "know" their food, it was no accident that the company's slogan spoke of giving meat a face. Indeed, the proprietor, Dennis Buchmann, had thought carefully and philosophically about the move to pair photographs of individual animals with meat products from those same animals. But without the technological mediation of photography and the Internet, the website's call for customers to renounce anonymous mass-produced meat ("auf anonymes Massenfleisch verzichtet") would not have made sense. After all, most of them could not meet their meat "in person," as it were, until it arrived in a container with the animal's "portrait" on the lid. Some found this pairing upsetting, but the whole point, according to Buchmann, was to encourage meat eaters to face the fact that animals died for their dinners. These animals, too, had had lives. In this way Meine Kleine Farm sought to undercut any sentimentality associated with nostalgia for the lost intimacies of small-scale agriculture.
Note, however, that the scale of operations in mediated encounters with "storied food" has little bearing on their techno-intimate effects. Industrial agriculture might not (yet) be set up to bottle particular pigs into their very own jars of wurst, but enterprises of all sizes can and have used animal portraiture, scanning devices, web links, and so on to foster the sense of intimacy that sells products. Although the politics of small-scale and industrial agriculture might seem miles apart, the intimate knowledge of "where food comes from" that each promises to generate, with face-to-face relations on the one hand and machine-forged techno-intimacies on the other, is compatible in both instances with the "digestive turn" in political thought described by Chad Lavin (2013). Where intimacy and animacy are concerned, the ongoing controversy over the application of surveillance technologies to living bodies stages a Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft drama for our times.
The opposition between Gemeinschaft, with its idealized community of personal connections forged through kinship or religion, and Gesellschaft, with its equally idealized depiction of the rationalization and attenuation of ties in modern bureaucratic settings, shadows a number of contemporary social debates about the effects of capitalist finance on the provision of resources such as food or shelter. During the Great Financial Crisis that engulfed the world in 2008, for instance, commentators in English-language business publications mourned the loss of face-to-face relations in banking, arguing that if bankers had maintained personal ties with their clients, à la Jimmy Stewart's character in the film It's a Wonderful Life, instead of repackaging shady loans and selling them off to the highest bidder in some faraway land, the ripple effects from mortgage defaults would not have been so damaging and millions of people would still be living in their houses. A new breed of cross-border lenders, critics argued, had ignored at their peril "old industry axioms of 'know-your-customer' and 'lend locally to long-standing corporate and individual clients'" (Guerrera 2009:10). Never mind that the plot of It's a Wonderful Life turned on the threatened demise of the family-owned Bailey Building and Loan Association, which survived a bank run only to nearly succumb to the forgetfulness of Uncle Billy, who misplaced a deposit that constituted the bulk of the Building and Loan's reserves.
Critiques of agribusiness, in theory and in practice, have applied a similarly romanticized Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft dichotomy to the food chain. They often associate intimacy with face-to-face relations per se, whether it be an intimate acquaintance with grass-fed cattle on a particular farm or the intimate knowledge of animal habits acquired in the course of caring for them personally. It is an association that threads its way through sources as diverse as environmental journalism, the reasons students give for leaving college to become apprentice organic farmers, and the accounts rendered by anthropologists who are busy studying foodways in this place or that (see Counihan 1999; Counihan and van Esterik 2007; Sutton 2001).
Why do I call this association of intimacy with community and face-to-face relations romanticized? Because on the Gesellschaft side — the "modern," industrial, bureaucratic side — of the equation, the worker stationed with a scanner at the entrance to an industrial-scale feedlot, like the teacher with a scanner stationed in the school hallway, uses the latest technology to enter into a face-to-face relationship, however fleeting, with each passing RFID accessorized cow. In Japan technologically traceable food is sometimes called "food with a visible face" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], kao ga mieru shokuhin), with a nod to the capacity of tracking regimes to link retail food packages to narratives of origins, fisheries, growers, and farms (Hall 2010:827). Meanwhile, over on the Gemeinschaft side of the equation, you might have a daydreaming organic farmer, whose inattention to a disease- or drought-stricken raspberry bush that is "staring her in the face" leads not to an intimate understanding of the plant's predicament but to its demise. No one better understood the perils of treating the Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft dichotomy as anything more than an ideal type than its inventor, Ferdinand Tönnies, whose father's business merged cattle breeding with merchant banking in ways that straddled the divide.
Sponsors of the surveillance systems that have introduced techno-intimacy into the food chain usually don't think of themselves as trafficking in any kind of intimacy. Instead, they have legitimated their efforts by keeping a social evolutionary version of the Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft drama alive. The ostensibly lost intimacy of the family farm must be replaced, they argue, with more practical and efficient, albeit faceless, modes of accounting for what happens to bodies in the course of being eaten or fed. In their eyes, intimate relations with animals belong to an outmoded agricultural world that cannot survive today's market pressures. Rather than accept this story at face value, as it were, I would argue that if you want to understand what ails the food chain, you cannot consign intimacy to the past, or even to a present-day revival of artisanal farming. It makes more sense to inquire into the kind of intimacies (techno or otherwise) that different modes of producing food generate.
Excerpted from Animate Planet by Kath Weston. Copyright © 2017 Kath Weston. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments. Generosity and Nothing But viii Introduction. Animating Intimacies, Reanimating a World 1 Food 1. Biosecurity and Surveillance in the Food Chain 37 Energy 2. The Unwanted Intimacy of Radiation Exposure in Japan 71 Climate Change 3. Climate Change, Slippery on the Skin 105 Water 4. The Greatest Show on Parched Earth 135 Knowing What We KNow, Why Are We Stuck? 5. Political Ecologies of the Precarious 177 Notes 199 References 217 Index 243
What People are Saying About This
"Once again Kath Weston masterfully upturns the lexicon of everyday life, this time by illuminating intimacy not only as a psychic or spatial relation, but as ecologically lived. This is a humbling and beautiful book that tells stories of inescapably cohabited destruction in witty, clever, but no less tragic terms."
"Animate Planet luminously draws out how our bodies, ourselves, our foods, our waters, our chemicals, our devices, our radioisotopes, our climate, and our planet are all animated, for good and ill, by their ecological intimacies with one another. Kath Weston brilliantly shows us that such animacies are signs of today’s globally uneven spacetime and require a reinvigorated, and fully political, animism—an exciting analytic that this book dazzlingly realizes."