I Don't Hate Farmers
In the US, Farmers are Capitalists, not Workers! (Plus Feminist Theory 101)
[I don’t hate farmers, as rendered by wombo.art.]
There’s a good chance that if you follow me on Twitter and have encountered the essays I write with Jan Dutkiewicz, you may think I hate farmers. I’ve carved out a social media image as someone who is skeptical of agrarian puffery and who is critical of how agriculture in the US operates as a sector. But my consistent point is not that farmers are bad people; it’s that farmers are people, made from largely the same stuff as you and I. They are bound by many of the same fundamental motives, and have most of the same virtues and failings as the other people you know. It just happens to be the case that they own farms and that ownership shapes their interests in particular ways. In the context of the contemporary United States, most farmers are businesspeople and their behavior is best understood in that context, because it turns out that, taken as a group, they tend to behave much like you would expect businesspeople to behave. The first section of this issue is the first in a series that thinks through the implications of that observation. I’ll be going into greater depth about the economic structure and demographics of American farmers in future issues, but I’m going to start things by offering some analytic clarity about how I define farmers and farming in the context of the contemporary United States.
But do stick around, because past that you’ll find the first entry in a new regular series, Feminist Theory 101, where I walk you through the readings for my grad “Foundations in Feminist Theory” course. That means it’s not actually 101 (Technically, at Duke, it’s 701)! Then we’ll check in what I’ve been reading and learn about an exciting virtual event (featuring lil’ old me in conversation with Jack Halberstam) that you should register for. Finally we’ll have a laugh, and listen to a slamming track. Enjoy!
I Don’t Hate Farmers, Part 1: Defining Farmers
[Get a load of that Yeoman!]
Understanding farmers as businesspeople doesn’t really jive with the nostalgic agrarian image of farmers that pervades American culture, which is to say it goes against the commonsense definitions many people operate from when they think about agriculture. A fundamental premise of agrarianism is that farming is ennobling work and that farmers are naturally good people. The Jeffersonian version dominant in the US adds political virtue to the mix, with the robust independence of small farmers the root of the democratic spirit. Often enough, this also spills over into Wendell Berryesque ecological virtue too, where farming produces a strong ethic of care for the land and broader nonhuman world.
There are many problems with these assumptions and I think the empirical record to support them is, at best, weak, but the main thing I’d emphasize for now is these assumptions treat farming as a category of labor. As a result, this kind of thought slides into the assumption that the class interests of virtuous farmers are naturally aligned with other people who labor. Better yet, American popular culture tends to view farmers as paradigmatically working-class such that supporting farmers is assumed to be a best way of supporting the working class. I think this is all wrong, or, at least, it is a distortion of what class offers as a useful category of materialist analysis. It’s true that many farmers wrap themselves in the symbols of the American working class and huff and puff about being real and authentic Americans, unlike yours truly, a pointy-headed coastal elite gender studies professor. But it’s also true that the median farm household in the United States holds an astonishing nine times the net wealth of the national median.
[A good tweet imho]
As I tweeted to much agrarian teeth-gnashing, farmers in the United States are mostly older, rich, white people with conservative political beliefs. While that’s (imho) a fair and defensible description, many people on the internet seemed to think I intended it an insult. I did not. Rather, I think it’s useful to know something about the actual demographics of American farmers and most people simply don’t. As a result, they labor under some basic misperceptions about what incentives drive decision-making in agriculture, as well as how one would constitute a political coalition to reshape those incentives. You will frequently hear lefty urban progressive sorts arguing for an alliance on food issues between the working classes and farmers, an alliance premised on historical precedents such as the populists and the Farm-Labor movement. For reasons I’ll be getting into in greater depth in later issues, I don’t think those precedents make much sense and that the comparison to farming in the United States 50 and 100 years ago is inapposite. Today, most farmers have class interests that don’t align with workers. Farmers have good reasons to prefer lower wages, weak environmental and labor protections, lower taxation, and fewer social welfare programs.It sucks that those are their interests, but, well, that’s the reality of the situation. And these things do not coherently match the interests of people who sell their labor for wages—particularly when those people happen to sell their labor to farmers.
Since I’m rapidly descending into polemic, let me pull back and offer you the concrete definition I’ve been teasing. I define farmers as people who own businesses that generate revenue from the production and sale of agricultural commodities. Sometimes they own the land they are farming, and sometimes they are just renting it. Sometimes they are successful and profitable, and sometimes they struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes they make decisions about what to do that are driven by, say, community spirit or religious devotion rather than profitability. But usually not. Most commercial agriculture in the United States is characterized by the production of high volume, low margin fungible commodities, and that kind of agriculture doesn’t just appeal to profit-maximizing business sorts; it actively selects for them and it has for generations. Put bluntly, farming in the US has been operating like this for a very long time, and most farmers who preferred to operate their farms as something other than businesses went bust long ago. Indeed, the people still in the game in 2022 are probably the sorts who bought out the farms of those sentimental and virtuous sorts who, say, put the air and water quality of their community above the lucrative construction of a hog CAFO.
[A Missouri hog CAFO and adjoining manure lagoon.]
The one thing you’ll notice in my definition above is that farmers in the United States are not characterized by performing any particular task that is necessary for agriculture. In my definition, a farmer isn’t someone who plows a field, plants a row, or plucks a ripe tomato. Farming isn’t a kind of “labor,” in this sense; it’s a property relation. Farmers own a particular kind of business, and because of the way laws are structured in the United States, that gives them the legal right to decide how that business is run, including how to dispose of the revenue the business generates. Agricultural workers, by contrast, sell their labor to that business in exchange for wages, and, under most arrangements, they don’t have a legal claim to the revenue the business generates or the future use of the business’s property, including any land it may own. They don’t get to decide to give themselves raises, to sell farmland, to plant corn instead of soy, to go organic, or to reduce pesticide use. And if they do happen to do any of those things without the permission of the owner, they will quickly find themselves out of a job.
To be clear, the value of my definition is particular to how agriculture and property relations are structured in the contemporary United States. Because land tenure in the United States is governed by strong real property rights, there is a decisive analytic distinction between ownership and labor. For the most part, owning land gives you maximal leeway to decide how it is used (zoning rules excepted), while doing labor on that land does not. This is not a universal or timeless way of organizing things and, indeed, for most of human history, other systems of property governed how the bounties of agriculture were disposed. Land tenure based in usufruct, for example, gives primacy not to an “owner” of land—if such an owner even exists their claim might be very weak, indeed—but to whoever does the labor of cultivating it (actually making use of it). Indeed, the last half century has seen an ongoing struggle between the practitioners of small-scale “peasant” agriculture in the global South and various forces of structural and agricultural adjustment that would like to force them from a system based in “customary” and collective land access to one rooted in individuated real property claims. The important thing to note is that United States is already in a regime based entirely on real property claims and that it has been that way, for the most part, since settlers violently wrested control of land from indigenous peoples who governed land access differently. Unlike much of the global South, there are very few “subsistence” farmers in the United States and those few who do exist are largely committed to it as a lifestyle choice, not out of necessity. But given that 98% of all farm households hold wealth above the national median, subsistence farming makes about as much economic sense as reducing the portion of your income you spend on eating out by buying a small restaurant.
All that said, many farmers contribute substantial labor to their own businesses, and, historically, particularly outside of antebellum plantations, farmers (and their families) were the major source of labor in American agriculture. There were subsistence farmers in the recent past, as well as many more farmers who produced a considerable amount for home use out of thrift and necessity. That’s just no longer the case. Many farmers may grow some small amount of food for home use (the amazing Sarah Taber had an excellent thread on this a while back), and many are the primary source of labor for their own farms. But it would be a mistake to understand this as labor in the same sense as the person who sells their labor to the farmer for wages, particularly as it relates to class interest and formation. Imagine that John owns a farm. He performs some of the work on the farm, but it’s a big farm and so he also employs two other people, Sam and Clem. It’s a profitable harvest and John intends to save some of the revenue, retire some outstanding debt, and spend some of it on a new tractor. Sam and Clem, however, have a shared interest in reaping more of those profits through higher wages and they demand raises. If John gives it to them, it will mean less money in his pocket, even though, of course, he works on his own farm.
Of course, there are more legal arrangements that might intervene—some farmers both own a farming business and draw a regular salary from that business and farm rental complicate the story as we’ll discuss in a future issue—but the point that I want to make here is that the financial interests of a person who owns a farm tend to be overdetermined by their interests in ownership even when they contribute labor. This is precisely because they can hire someone else to do labor they don’t want to do. This is what I mean when I say farming in the United States is a property relation: it’s defined by ownership. You can hire other people to do the labor and still be a farmer, but you can’t be a farmer without owning a farm. (Note: I’m also distinguishing here between farm as business entity apart from a particular plot of land and the conventional definition of a farm as a particular and definite place; think of how a barbershop is not reducible to the building it is housed in and can, in fact, relocate and still be conceptually the same business entity.) In a more general sense, I’m also defining farmers as capitalists. I don’t mean this in the sense that they are dogmatically capitalist in their ideological orientation (though they often are); I mean this in the sense that their economic interests are formed around the ownership of capital, which they use to extract surplus value from the labor of their employees.
I know, I know, none of this fits with the sentimentalized vision of farming as a lifestyle and para-identity category. Some people may, in fact, be offended by the idea that I’m saying that agricultural workers aren’t farmers, as if recognizing them as laborers was somehow an insult. I don’t intend it as an insult, and I think the distinction I am drawing critically underscores what you need to know to understand the structure and trajectory of American agriculture: who ultimately controls how land is used. Until we move away from a system of land tenure rooted in real property rights, I see no other way to make sense of the incentives that drive behavior in American agriculture. We’ll return in a future issue to the economic structure and demographics of American farming and how it relates to those incentives.
Feminist Theory 101
[Bell Hooks, feminist theorist,1952-2021]
Oh bother. I’ve started with a lie. This isn’t 101, which means barebones and basic. We’re diving into the deep end in this series. This semester I’m teaching a graduate course called “Foundations in Feminist Theory.” It’s the only required course for doctoral students enrolled in Duke’s Graduate Certificate in Feminist Studies, the graduate credential my department offers. The basic premise of the course, as the title indicates, is to introduce our graduate students to a core set of readings from feminist theory that will given them a good overview of the shape of the field and a representative sampling of common approaches to feminist theorization. That’s a massive task, because, well, the body of literature encompassed by feminist theory is vast and complicated. In fact, one could imagine teaching this course in countless ways. But how will I teach it? I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do a running commentary on my syllabus as it develops over the course of the semester. Some of you who are already well-versed in feminist theory and may enjoy kibitzing on my approach, while others, who don’t know anything about feminist theory, may take the opportunity to learn a bit. Hopefully, you’d get more out of actually taking a class with me, of course, but you could also come up with a compelling introduction to feminist theorization just by following along. This is the first installment in that exercise so we’re starting with the basics: what is “feminist theory”? (Because we also handle introductions, house-keeping, and syllabus review in the first class, this first set of readings is somewhat shorter than future weeks.)
We ponder that question over the entirety of the semester, but the first week of readings offer some preliminary thoughts on the issue. First up, we read Elizabeth Grosz’s essay “What is Feminist Theory?,” a text that was originally published as the conclusion to a 1986 volume that Grosz edited with Carole Pateman. Grosz is a preeminent feminist philosopher who, until recently, was the Jean O’Barr Chair in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies here at Duke (the chair now occupied by Jennifer Nash). She offers both a strong definition of feminist theory and a useful periodization for its emergence. Namely, Grosz distinguishes between two successive phases of feminist theorization: “equality” feminist theorization that gave way, over the 1960s and 1970s, to what Grosz describes as “autonomy” feminist theorization. “Equality” feminist theorization prioritized establishing the equality of women as objects of knowledge. Heretofore, Grosz correctly notes, social theory had tended to be either silent about sexual difference altogether or, to the extent that it addressed it, considered it an exclusively natural and ahistorical phenomenon that social theorization need not explain. Equality feminist theorists, then, worked to extend familiar traditions of social theorization to what they considered the objective social reality of sexual difference and its subjective experience. Thus, some feminist thinkers modified Marxist social theory such that it could explain the lived realities of sexual difference through historical materialist analysis, while other feminist thinkers made similar interventions in liberal, psychoanalytic, and existentialist theoretic traditions.
Grosz contends that these efforts, however, faltered primarily because they were confined to concepts, particularly in ontology and epistemology, that held patriarchal assumptions as invisible defaults. Under these conditions, women could be viable objects of social theorization, but only insofar as they appeared in that social theory as damaged or incomplete men whose differences were trivial or incidental to the major mechanisms of the theory (class for Marxists, the psyche for Freudians, etc.). Grosz argues that autonomy feminist theorization, by contrast, has worked to not only theorize from the perspective of woman—to make women not just valid objects but also valid subjects of knowledge—but to create the conditions of possibility for feminist social theory that is autonomous and not merely corrective. Indeed, much of this theorization calls into question the subject/object divide, and posits that knowledge production does much more than merely describe its objects: it transforms them. Careful readers would note that Grosz was not calling for a feminist disengagement or wholesale dismissal of social theoretic traditions. Her point was that an autonomous feminist theorization need not validate women’s experiences through the criteria of patriarchal social theory; to the contrary, they would evaluate the tactical value of the concepts of patriarchal social theory from the perspective of the autonomy and self-determination of women:
But what has dramatically changed is the feminist attitude towards the use of patriarchal discourses. Instead of these discourses and their methods and assumptions providing uncriticised tools and frameworks by which women could be analysed as objects, now these discourses become the objects of critical feminist scrutiny. Such discourses and methods are now tactically used without necessarily retaining general commitment to their frameworks and presumptions. Feminists do not seem to eager to slot women into pre-existing patriarchal categories and theoretical spaces; instead, it is women’s lives, and experiences, that provide criteria by which patriarchal texts can be judged. (193)
The purpose of this tactical engagement, Grosz suggests, is a two-fold project with reactive and creative components: feminist theorization entails (1) an anti-sexist phase that uses women as subjects of knowledge to criticize and eliminate patriarchal and sexist assumptions from social theory and (2) a transformative political phase that uses women as subjects of knowledge to generate new concepts about social reality. This latter component, in Grosz’s rendering, is necessarily open-ended and speculative: “It cannot be specified in advance what an autonomous feminist theory would involve, for this contradicts the very idea of autonomy, the right to choose and define the world for oneself.” (196) Moreover, this shifts the objective of feminist theorization from offering a complete and totalizing explanation in competition with patriarchal explanations to, instead, “as a strategy, a local, specific, concrete, intervention with definite political, even if provisional, aims and goals.” (196) Feminist theorization, in this articulation, is not a closed project of re-norming or re-disciplining intellectual practice according to a single, correct model—which Grosz sees as intrinsically masculinist—but it does seek “a new discursive space, a space where women can read and think as women.”
Grosz’s narrative is roughly progressive in form: it charts the emergence of feminist theoretical practices that grow more critically incisive and robust as they move from equality to autonomy. Given that the text was written in 1986, the historically-minded reader, anticipating the course of both academic and popular feminism in the coming decades, may be prepared already to ask: but what does Grosz mean by women? Is this category a sufficient basis to sustain the discursive space and strategic momentum Grosz envisions? The dominant narrative of feminist theorization in the 1980s and 1990s, as we discuss in later weeks, is that “woman” as a category came under scrutiny, first, because of the term’s exclusionary deployments (“woman” too often meant “white, middle-class Western woman”) and, second, because of French poststructuralism’s love of obscurantist deconstruction (“woman” was too clear and coherent to generate an adequately radical politics). Let us bracket these questions for now—we’ll come back to them in the next week—as we turn to bell hooks’s essay “Theory as Liberatory Practice” (1991).
Like Grosz, hooks was a prolific feminist thinker who, until her recent passing, taught and founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College. Unlike Grosz, hooks also attained a substantial popular readership and public profile, and many of her works, including her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), are explicitly concerned with the relationship between theorization and practice. hooks offers a concise, but useful definition for theorization in the essay, defining it as “making sense out of what is happening.” (61) By this, hooks means that theorization is the intellectual process of questioning social reality and speculating as to how it can be organized otherwise. This process, she insists, is not intrinsically liberatory—as she learned as a child in her parents’ home, questioning can bring punishment and pain—and sometimes that which announces itself as a question is actually more of a comment: “The possession of a term does not bring a process or practice into being; concurrently one may practice theorizing without ever/knowing possessing the term, just as we can live and act in feminist resistance without ever using the word ‘feminism.’” (62)
hooks concern here, and throughout the essay, is with how academic feminist theory can be an instrument of alienation and subjugation, one that promises to question social reality but ultimately works to reinforce it. hooks contends that this occurs through “the segregation and institutionalization [of feminist theory] . . . in the academy” where “written feminist thought/theory” is valued “over oral narratives” and where theorization is estranged from practice and action. (63) If Grosz’s narrative was progressive, hooks gloss here is one of regress, with the growth of academic feminist theory in the 1970s and 1980s creating distance between authorized theorization, on the one hand, and activists and the lived experiences of most women, on the other. This is most evident for hooks in what she describes as “hegemonic feminist theory,” centered on texts that are “highly abstract, jargonistic, difficult to read, and containing obscure references” and that outside of academic contexts “would not only be seen as useless, but as politically nonprogressive, a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice.” And, yet, hooks worries that too many people confuse the authorized academic discourse of feminist “theory” with theory as a social practice of collective reflection, questioning, and exploration, a problem hooks has observed in both the spaces of black and feminist liberation. In those spaces, hooks finds that the attitude towards black women, in particular, sometimes bends towards “censoring” and “anti-intellectualism” that mirrors the “silencing that takes place in institutions wherein black women and women of color are told that [they] cannot be fully heard or listened to because [their] work is not theoretical enough.” (68)
hooks is well aware that the this ambivalence—when does a questioning thought spur transformative action and when does it delay it—cannot be relieved so long as theory is posed as distinct from practice. If theory is understood as the questioning thought that precedes and prompts action, it will surely be the case that at some point we must call to suspend thought—stop asking questions!—so that the “real” action can commence. By contrast, theory should be understood as a social act itself that is done always in relation to the world and to others within it, that “emerges from the concrete, from my efforts to make sense of everyday life experiences, from my efforts to intervene critically in my life and the lives of others possible.” (70) It is the potential for this critical intervention—the condition for theory as a liberatory practice—that informs hooks’s writing style and her desire to “speak to the widest audience of people,” even at the risk of being devalued as insufficiently “scholarly” or “theoretical” in “academic settings.” (71)
I linger on this question of style and jargon because this is a thorny problem for feminist theorization. As hooks suggests, exclusionary protocols are an intellectual problem for a body of literature that takes collectivity, inclusion, and openness as grounding commitments. As recurring complaints about obscurantist postmodern nonsense make clear, it may also be something of a marketing problem for feminism, though given the success, politically and commercially, of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), the most common target of this complaint, the opposite may well be the case. And, yet, as the final two readings for the week suggest, we may want to question the assumption that difficulty is always alienating and off-putting, rather than seductive, enthralling, and invigorating.
Along those lines, Jordy Rosenberg’s “Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day” (2014) traces the author’s relationship to that difficult text as it dovetails with Rosenberg’s difficult relationship with his mother. Rosenberg (no relation) is an english professor at the University of Massachusetts and also author, among other things, of the thrilling, gorgeous, and popular novel, Confessions of the Fox (2019). Rosenberg confesses to a multi-decade love affair with Gender Trouble, which he first read as an undergraduate in 1990. Like many undergraduates who first encounter the text, it didn’t make much sense to him. And so his love affair was not characterized by the way his object made itself accessible—no good love affair is—but more by the way, in its opacity, it tugged at the seams that knit the world through his gender, sexuality, body, and family, a process that horrified his mother and led to their estrangement. He could not yet understand what Gender Trouble promised, but it whispered at alluring possibilities beyond the horizon of his mother’s staid aspirations “to assimilate successfully and raise blonde girls who married doctors.” But difficulty in relation is still a kind of relation, and as long as we are in relation to a thing, it continues to transform us, though transformation may feel vexing and painful. After his father passes away he reconciles with is mother. Then she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he moves back to New York City to care for her. When she passes, Rosenberg rereads Gender Trouble “in 24 hours. I read it through straight, with no breaks except for sleep.”
“There are some things that are hard for no reason and there are some things that are hard for a reason,” Rosenberg writes.
Gender Trouble is hard for a reason. It is hard because things that seem simple—that seem to be commonsensical—are actually hiding something: that the naturalness of gender is a language that is composed of a whole host of occlusions. . . Gender Trouble enacts an anti-common sense. You have to subject yourself to the difficulty of its language in order to begin to unstitch the only-seemingly coherent logic of gender, order, and discourse that you have grown accustomed to, that has been made natural to you – no, through which you, your gender, has been made to seem natural. Gender Trouble has to be hard.
Rosenberg recounts a much later conversation with his friend, Camille, revisiting their respective first encounters with the book: “Did you feel it was going to save you? I asked. Camille nodded. Did you understand it?, I pressed. Not the first time, no. Not a word.” How is it that texts we do not understand can transform us so powerfully?
Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s “We Aren’t Here to Learn What We Already Know” (2016) offers our final perspective on this issue, and I assign it not just because I think it is a brilliant and incisive commentary on what theory is and does, but also because it offers a series of practical suggestions for how to engage it as a reader. Tompkins teaches at Pomona College and she is the author of Racial Indigestion, a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in how to bridge studies of race and food. The essay is a reflection and explication of a handout that Tompkins gives to students who take her feminist and queer theories class, and it outlines in detail good habits, effective strategies, and useful dispositions for reading difficult theoretical texts. And they will be difficult. “Theory is both descriptive of the world we live in and speculative as well,” Tompkins explains, “in that it seeks new worlds and new language to understand what seems to be ‘natural’ and ‘normal.’ If the ideas that theory wants to express were easy to say, they would not need to be said.”
The key is to learn to do well what is also at the heart of hooks’s definition of theory: to pose good questions. For Tompkins, good questions stage a conversation with a text by inviting the reader to treat the text’s force as still speculative, open-ended, and creative. “Theory is not theology, though it sometimes tries hard to be,” writes Tompkins, which means that while the reader should attend to and “excavate” the text’s argument, they should also be prepared to take the text to places the author may not have foreseen or intended. Tompkins describes this as the challenge to “interact critically with the writing, to begin to push at the limits of not only the content, but also the shape of the thinking contained within the content.” Later, Tompkins describes the “‘refractive’ effects of language” one finds in theoretical works “as beautiful and as breathtaking as the speculative work of literature itself.” Theory is often evaluated for its predictive or explanatory value, but Tompkins encourages her students to consider its aesthetic force as well: “The aesthetic work of theory is also a form of theorizing, a measure of its own epistemic work, part of the world, the ontologies it hopes to produce.”
Tompkins too worries about questions that are more of comments. Readers should and will have opinions about texts, but “questions that are really buried opinions are narcissistic and unproductive.” Tompkins contends—correctly, I think—that a “successful classroom happens when every member, including the teacher, abandons ego and terrified performances of mastery and instead can show up and say: I don’t get it.” This requires not just a tolerance, but a hunger for honest questions, questions to which the questioner does not yet know the answer. This is a question that “dances on the edge of what is knowable, what it is possible to speculate on, what is available to our immediate grasp of what we are reading, or what it is possible to say.”
Across these readings, the question of what feminist theory is are inextricably linked to the institutional and discursive spaces where feminist theory is done, whether it be among a group of committed activists, at an scholarly symposium, or in a graduate seminar. To pose a question, no matter how honest and incisive it may be, in institutional contexts that are designed to cage and redirect the very force of questioning into, instead, forms of mastery and social capital may well blunt and deactivate the creative and speculative force—the openness—that all four of these readings, despite their differences, nominate as central to feminist theorization. And since all four authors, to say nothing of myself and my students, are institutionally located in the modern university, we turn in the next installment to that institutional site—its transformation, its limits, and its potentials—as central to the doing of feminist theory.
Things I’ve Been Reading
Alastair Reynolds’s Inhibitor Phase — I first started reading Reynolds almost twenty years ago when he was still writing the first entry in what became the Revelation Space trilogy. That series is work of dark, gothic space opera in which humanity, having reached out into the near galaxy, has a run in with an ancient artificial intelligence, called (by humans) “The Inhibitors.” It turns out they “inhibit” the evolution of intelligent life by ruthlessly wiping out any spacefaring species they encounter. It’s one of many science fiction series offering explanations for Fermi’s Paradox (see also Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past series) and while murderous aliens isn’t a particularly creative answer to that paradox, the series renders its answer in with an unrelenting grim creepiness. Inhibitor Phase is the fourth entry in the series, and the first in more than a decade. (Reynolds fills in enough plot that you don’t need to have read the prior novels to enjoy it.) It is set after the inhibiting has nearly run its course, with humanity now reduced to a few scattered settlements hiding in galactic backwaters. Like its predecessors, it’s weird, bleak, and horrifying with drips and drabs of Lovecraftian cosmic (and body) horror, but it’s likely a satisfying read for anyone who enjoys gothic space opera.
Claas Kirchhelle’s Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production — Kirchhelle’s mammoth work is likely to be the standard history of the topic for a long time to come. It is careful, comprehensive, exhaustive, rigorous, and, even for someone who already thinks quite a bit about the externalities of food production, frequently eye-popping. It covers the development, application, and regulation of antibiotics in food systems since World War II in both the United States and the United Kingdom. For the time being, I’m more interested in the US side of the story. According to Kirchhelle, the antibiotic uptake in the US was so rapid and pervasive that it obtained an infrastructural function, whereby livestock farmers began to prophylactically douse animals as a matter of course to sustain productivity and not to treat or manage specific infections. At once, the regulatory framework assessed the risks of these treatments only in terms of toxicity and carcinogens, overlooking the the risks posed by the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The result is that the existing regulatory framework does not internalize the most substantial risks associated with widespread antibiotic use in food production and, at once, regulators fear that shifting to a different regulatory framework will lead to price shocks because of the now infrastructural function. This is, to a degree, a bleak story—not murderous aliens bleak, but, well, pretty bleak—but it is never boring and it illustrates many of the larger problems with meat production and modern society’s naturalization of cheap meat as a consumer entitlement. (Jan and I talked about this last week as well in The New Republic.)
(For context, this account just tweets out questions Judith Butler has posed in her texts. This is a pretty damn good one.)
Here’s a quick plug for something I’m doing later this month that I’m really excited about and that you can join me for. The very fabulous queer critic J. Jack Halberstam will be visiting Duke at the end of the month to talk about his new book, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, and, then, to do an event, live and virtual, with yours truly on Friday, January 28 at 11:30AM. We’ll be pre-circulating works in the progress and then commenting on each other’s essays before opening the floor to questions and comments and questions that are more of comments from the audience. I don’t know yet entirely what Jack has in store, but my essay looks at how to bridge a conversation between histories of environment and sexuality through a queer re-reading of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (I published a small bit of it elsewhere that I mentioned in the last issue). It’s called “Cruising Nature’s Metropolis: Towards a Queer Environmental History” and if you’ve ever been curious about my academic work, it could be a fun place to start.
This track is just so juicy.
What’s to Come in The Strong Paw of Reason
In the next main issue, we’ll have a look at my guiding philosophy for practical anti-imperialism. Plus, we’ll do the next installment of Feminist Theory 101 and all of the other regular features. But before we get to any of that, we have an exciting (and edifying) guest post coming next week. Thanks for reading!