Digesting Choice

by Maddie Chera

Yesterday morning, Dr. Rachel Black (of the Boston University Gastronomy program), began her presentation entitled “Gastrointestinal Ethnographies: Digestion As a Culturally Mediated Bodily Process” by arguing that digestion gets unfairly excluded from our studies of food, because, unlike production and consumption, we cannot control digestion. As a result of the devoted focus we have given to “choice” in the Sawyer Seminar, the introduction to this talk acted as an intellectual trigger word, catching my attention. Black’s presentation, which was part of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition-sponsored panel EATING AS A BODILY PRACTICE: CONTESTED EATING, BOUNDARY-MAKING AND BORDER CROSSING (chaired by Black and organized by Bodil Just Christensen and Line Hillersdal), was meant, in part, to pose the body as field-site and even its unconscious practices as mediated by culture, but it also seemed to argue that conscious choice could yield changed digestive effects. This latter point clashed with the working understanding of food choice that I have currently formed from the seminar conversations. In my mind, food choice is significantly limited, not only during the processes of digestion, but even in the stages preceding food’s passage through the alimentary canal.

In this way, Black and I came from different starting points. Her conclusion that one could feel some sense of reconnection to and agency over the digestive system, through practices like the Ayurvedic cleanse that she undertook, rested implicitly upon the premise that other food-related processes, like purchase and preparation, were already clearly characterized by assertion of personal control and active choice. Meanwhile, over the past several months, I have become highly skeptical about the degree to which we as procurers, preparers, and eaters can freely and individually choose in any meaningful way. The possibility of free choice seems all the more improbable in the case of an involuntary process like digestion. If everyday consumption behaviors are determined more by political structures and habitus than my thoughtful expressions of self-direction, then how could the way my intestinal villi absorb nutrients be related to my intentional will?

This particular question is all the more relevant for me (get ready for some brief anthropological reflexivity…) as I have recently, due to some late-semester tummy troubles, been attempting to explore the relation between psychological stress and indigestion. While adopting a short-lived gluten- and dairy-free diet led to little noticeable effect,  some increased attention to maintaining an equanimous attitude seemed to help a bit. In light of this recent revelation and of Black’s presentation, I find my position on our freedom to choose foods and our relationships to them once again complicated. Can an event like a two-week cleanse (Black’s was complete with castor oil, lots of ghee, and, at times, little else) or a period of digestive discomfort draw our attention so closely to our everyday practices that we can actually disrupt, or at least affect, the way our bodies react? Are the boundaries between the self and the world, between culture and nature, so easily crossed, as Black implies, that choice can be exerted on the contractions of our colons? And if so, what roles do habitus and political and market structures play in restricting our potential choice in this internal realm? If we are to refer to digestive processes as “practices,” as Black does, then how does culture (and politics and economics) actually shape these practices and how we feel (physically, mentally, emotionally) about them?

These queries are almost enough to make my stomach churn! I plan to keep considering them, but for now, I think perhaps some post-conference rest is the best choice for my gastrointestinal field-site.

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