Saturday, January 05, 2008

Our Bodies, Our Laws

How does law grasp us as subjects, as bodies, as minds? Food critic and Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan provides us with a striking example in his brilliant new book on contemporary American food culture titled, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin Press). According to Pollan, the most pernicious trend in American food norms was the emergence of "nutritionism,"which is an ideology that encourages humans to understand their need for food as a pursuit of an optimal mix of underlying macro (fat, protein, carbs) and micro (vitamins) nutriments.

This is a startling and persuasive thesis that flips on its head most of our usual assumptions about the growth of scientific knowledge and its role in guiding our lifestyles. Pollan, a professor of journalism, turns out to be an able socio-legal scholar as well, excavating the history of food regulation from the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (which among other things required imitation foods like margarine to be clearly labeled as such) to the 1973 FDA regulations that ended this ban, and substituted the modern regime of food nutrition labeling (modeled above by the FDA's own "Label Man").

I have long been enthralled by these food labels as a powerful example of how law enables as well as constrains. Middle aged and prone toward middle spread, I have long relied on those bright little quadrangles to help me avoid consuming hundreds of calories of bottled beverages whose front labels screamed out hand-crafted healthiness! Surely this is an example of law creating a circuit of freedom in producing self-control and choice. But if Pollan is right, it also marks the submission to a deeper way of understanding and acting on one's body.


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