The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Michael Pollan, Berkeley journalism prof and NYT Magazine contributor and writer on the politics of food, has been the center of a lot of media attention recently for his book THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. The book's heart is a neat little conceit: follow several meals from production to consumption. Divided into three main sections, Pollan's book looks at a fast-food meal, a meal prepared with ingredients produced on organic farms, and a meal that Pollan hunted and gathered himself.

For me, the most interesting part of the book by far was the initial section, which looked at industrial food production. Much of this field has been tilled before, notably by Eric Schlosser in FAST FOOD NATION, but where Schlosser was just a muckracker--a great one--Pollan looks at food production and consumption from a more philosophical standpoint. However, the section on industrial food production was quite similar to Schlosser's argument. Where Pollan differs is in his ultimate thesis for this part: that pretty much everything Americans eat, and how they eat it, is a result of the massive surpluses of corn produced by midwestern farmers, encouraged and subsidized by the Department of Agriculture. (Earl Butz comes in for predictable opprobrium.) Farmers are encouraged to produce as much corn as possible, not even stopping when prices drop dramatically because they are guaranteed subsidies. So what do we do with this corn? Pollan argues that processed food--much of which ends up being 80% corn and corn-derived chemicals--is the answer. Like Schlosser, he demonizes high-fructose corn syrup, but he also points out how corn is the origin for a vast amount of the things we eat.

The most disturbing part of this section is Pollan's description of the use of corn to feed ruminant livestock. Cattle are meant to eat grasses, but because there is so much corn and it's got to be used, livestock scientists have figured out how to feed it to them. They don't like it, and their systems rebel, leading to constant infections (and the need for massive infusions of antibiotics), but it's cheaper than feeding them grass. Pollan asks, as an adjunct question, why the French can eat so much fatty stuff, so much animal fat, and not have our health problems. Although he only finds one scientific article to back it up, he suggests that our meat and milk itself--and our chickens and hogs--are less healthy FOR US, not just less healthy themselves, because of what we insist on feeding them.

It's a very powerful argument about the relentlessness of capitalist logic--produce as cheaply as possible, use economies of scale--and about how that kind of logic artificially isolates costs so that our meat and grain SEEMS cheap but that doesn't take into consideration all of the other costs: armies in the Middle East ensuring that we get our oil, landscapes ruined by manure lagoons or agricultural monoculture on a massive scale, global warming, etc.

I was less interested in the rest of the book, and although Pollan seems to really have gotten a kick out of hunting his own boar and gathering his own morels in the Berkeley area I just don't see that as an option for a metro area of 10 million or so. (This isn't what he's proposing, though.) His ultimate prescription is, essentially, EAT LOCALLY. Eat from small farms in your area, avoid processed food so as not to encourage the massive industrialization of food production that stands behind it. "Organic" itself isn't crucial; organic farms can be just as industrial, and just as harmful and cruel, as conventional ones.

Friday, July 21, 2006

baby contemplative

baby contemplative
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
at one week... figuring stuff out. His brother left him alone, for once.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

second babies

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
It's surprising just how little panic there has been with this second boy compared to the first. We don't get all agitated about every sound he makes. This makes our lives easier (as does the fact that he sleeps like a dream--5 hours at a stretch! we have to wake him to feed him!), but at the same time it's a little sad. His brother, though, makes up for everything, and is absolutely in love with the baby.

Boy 2, day 2

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The baby on his second day extrautero, with aunt and cousin... his brother was looking on from the side

Saturday, July 08, 2006

boy 2 finally here

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
He finally decided to show up at about 8 in the morning on Thursday, July 6; 7 pounds 7 ounces, healthy, in good spirits. Mother too. Apparently he shares a birthday with George W. Bush, Nancy Reagan, 50 Cent and the Dalai Lama. He was 10 excruciating days late, just like his big brother. Now the hard part begins.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


Laura Miller's RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS: BOOKSELLING AND THE CULTURE OF CONSUMPTION appears to be another dissertation-turned-book, this time from UC San Diego to the august offices of the U. of Chicago Press (whose proofreaders could use a kick in the ass, with several glaring nonstandard usages such as "turn-of-the-century" hyphenated and used as a noun). The book was very appealing ot me because I specialize in a subfield of literary studies called "book history"--essentially, we look at books from when the leave the author's hand and focus on how they are produced, printed, distributed, sold, and used by consumers. (Literary analysis isn't really part of book history.) Book history draws on economics, literary studies, history, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, which is what made Miller's book particularly interesting to me.

And she delivers as a sociologist, quoting C. Wright Mills and Bourdieu and the other suspects and bringing in a bunch of scholarship of economic and cultural history that was new to me (and may well prove valuable). Her book is a history of retail bookselling (she does touch on wholesaleing and distributing, but only in passing) over the last century but its primary focus is on the real issue in bookselling over the last forty years: the conflict between chain stores (from Crown to Waldenbooks to Barnes and Noble) and the "independents" (variously defined as one-outlet owner-operated stores to smallish regional chains such as Bookstop). Miller looks at almost every aspect of this conflict, from customers' responses--she clearly has done a bunch of interviewing, much of which I suspect didn't make the transition from dissertation to book--to owners' reminiscences to the American Booksellers Association. The problem is she doesn't seem to tell us all that much more than bookstore patrons probably already know: the chains are a threat to the independents but at the same time are beneficial to the book industry in general; "rationalization" and "commercialization" tend to be bad for small books and small publishers and small distributors; B&N and Borders try to make their stores appealing in several culturally inflected ways so as to mask the essential economic transaction they hope is at the heart of a bookstore visit. Maybe I'm missing something, but I didn't find the book particularly trenchant in its argument. What it does well--as well as any source I've ever read--is provide historical, economic, social, and theoretical context for this issue.

Oh: baby 5 days late now.