You Are What You Eat: Senior Capstone Course Explores the Politics of Consumption

By Tom McLaughlin

It seems like people are using every means possible these days to make a political statement – but food?

Actually, whether we realize it or not, food always makes political arguments, posits Aaron Hostetter, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden.

“Think about what we are trying to say when we make a fancy dinner or decide to eat organic or only shop at one store over another,” says Hostetter, a Collingswood resident. “Why do we choose to eat what we do and what do we think we are doing when we make that choice?”

Aaron Hostetter

These are the kinds of questions being hashed out this spring in Hostetter’s engaging senior capstone course on consumption. As the Rutgers–Camden researcher explains, the course centers around the premise that the primary role of middle-class America is to be a collective of consuming agents.

He explains that, while economic research has typically focused on the production and distribution of goods, the next phase of a product’s life cycle – consumption – has been overwhelmingly undertheorized and understudied. Nonetheless, where others have held off, Hostetter digs right in, excavating theories stating that the choices an individual makes regarding what to consume invariably say something about their character, individuality, and even freedom.

“If you are stuck eating what people give you, then you aren’t really free,” says Hostetter. “You are bound to a cycle of production.”

To take it a step further, says the Rutgers–Camden scholar, if one’s act of eating is perpetuating systems that are unjust, then the consumer, too, is just as culpable in perpetuating that injustice.

“You are a part of it,” he says. “This is one reason why boycotts appeal to people and can be so effective – you are refusing to give your money to someone that offends you. That’s yet another instance of how we are always using consumption to negotiate our political reality.”

On a typical day in Hostetter’s class, it isn’t uncommon to hear students discussing topics such as the merits of Marx’s “fetishism of the commodities” – the notion of overvaluing commodities over the labor that went into creating them – or Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” – a term that the economist coined to refer to the buying of expensive items to show them off; in effect, showing that one belongs.

As the discussions evolve, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, students are discovering just how pervasive – and often insidious – the politics of consumption is in their everyday lives. For instance, he notes, one of his students recently wrote a paper critiquing a book in which brand consciousness is highly valued. Putting the book under the microscope, he says, the students are able to consider how the book inculcates brand culture, which is unethical and potentially dangerous, especially in marketing the book to children.

“In a broader context, we can examine the ways in which people define their existence and behaviors by buying brand-name products,” says Hostetter, who has a book in the works exploring how food is used as a political object in medieval romance literature. “Items that no one needed five years ago are now omnipresent and producers continue to create markets for things that redefine our lives in significant ways.”

Hostetter hopes that, ultimately, his students will gain a practical understanding of their own consumptive behaviors so that they are aware of the statements they are making and what they are supporting.

“That is about the best I can hope for,” he says. “It isn’t revolution, but it is self-consciousness.  By being aware of your consumptive behaviors, you can choose what you will or won’t do.”

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