Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)

The omnivore’s dilemma is that which confronts every human before eating: I can’t eat anything, so how do I choose? Pollan argues that culture has long helped solve this problem but that, in America in particular, the erosion of those cultural practices (due to the lack of any stable national tradition and the pressures of capitalism that profits from the anxiety of consumers) has led to the reinstantiation of this dilemma: “the state of nature in the modern supermarket or fast-food outlet, throwing us back on a perplexing, nutritionally perilous landscape” (303). Omnivory is therefore a great boon to animals like rats and humans (we can live anywhere on just about anything!), but also a great danger (how do we know which things are good for us?). The specialized eater, like the Kuala for instance, never has to think about its food, but it can only live in Eucalyptus groves.

The book is stuffed with interesting scientific, anthropological and sociological analysis. For instance, Pollan makes the claim that industrial agriculture has completely altered the traditional food chain. Whereas before one could draw a clear line from the energy of the sun being converted into potential energy by plants, which then pass on those calories onto increasingly complex organisms, now the food chain can offset this reliance on the sun by drawing energy from fossil fuels (of course, the sun is lurking in the background, but fossil fuels are finite) (7). As a whole, the book is geared towards overturning the tendency in American culture to forget these complex histories (both macro and micro) implied by a food chain. How can we perhaps link this project of remembrance (or memory formation) to the projects of Nietzsche and Freud? How can we theorize the general economies of energy circulation in relation to Bataille and Deleuze?

Pollan relies heavily on Paul Rozin’s work on disgust. Rozin and others have suggested that humans developed disgust as means for solving the omnivore’s dilemma–toxicity, bacteria, and other things connected with rotting corpses are especially connected with this “affect,” if disgust can be so categorized. But Rozin also suggests that disgust emerges from those events that confront us with our own animality (the insides of a pig splayed on the floor is what does it for Pollan (357))–not only in terms of Heideggerean angst, death, etc. but in terms of cannibalism. Pollan quotes from Ortega y Gasset and John Berger:

Humanity sees itself as something emerges from animality, but it cannot be sure of transcending that state completely. The animal remins to close for us not to feel mysterious communication with it. (qtd Pollan, 359)

The large arc of book traces a spectrum between a meal at MacDonald’s and one prepared entirely from materials hunted and gathered by Pollan. He associates eating the former with an almost complete ignorance of what one is eating, and the latter with an almost complete knowledge, two extremes that he believes need to be preserved “as rituals” bookending eating practice. While the latter exacts a physical and financial cost that is immediate and felt, the former exacts price on nature, on public health, and the future. The division is Marxian through and through, and the entire book could be read as performing a parallel function to Marx’s tracing the seemingly “natural” emergence of surpuls-value (the mystery of capital) into the thickets of industrial capitalism.



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