Tag Archives: nutrition

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.

 

[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]