The Voltron Star Shooter. Photo by John Kratz.
Look, nerds, I get it that Voltron is fighting against evil and my analogy makes it seem like Voltron is evil. But Voltron probably is evil for someone. Also, for those not in academia, this might get a little inside baseball, but hang in there with me because I think we could all stand to better understand “obesity,” fat shaming, and non-human rhetorics.
Obesity has been posited as an epidemic. The problems with this are many and varied, but one positive thing that should have emerged from the epidemic label is a change in scale from individuals to populations. And yet, we still have well-educated people like Geoffrey Miller tweeting stupid, fat-shaming things about obesity. When this happened back in June, I followed the discussion in my own discipline via Collin Gifford Brooke’s blog post and the comments it generated.
As I read more and more about rhetoric, food, and technology, I’ve found that the stasis point in discussions like the obesity one seems to come when we look through the wrong lens, at the wrong scale. We are so used to thinking in terms of individual agency that when we look at issues like obesity all we can see are overweight individuals. That’s when we get fat shaming. But individual actors are not the only (or even the most important) rhetors anymore. Brooke points this out by positing the clothing industry as a rhetorical actor:
And if there are those among you who doubt the idea of non-human rhetorics, let me introduce you to the suasive force of the clothing industry. When you are the wrong size, as a man, there’s really only one place where you can buy clothes, the big-and-tall store, usually located in a strip-mall. For a long time, big-and-tall clothing was constructed according to the principle that there was only one true body shape, and that you were just taller or wider. Even when the clothes “fit,” they often didn’t.
Commenter Thomas Wright picked up on the A&F CEO Mike Jefferies comments and steered the conversation back to the individual scale.
I used this post as a springboard for discussion in a rhetoric class today, and the first comment from a student involved A&F CEO Mike Jeffries. Jeffries has quite clearly stated that fat people don’t belong in his company’s clothes. So in this case, we can in fact trace it to a single human actor. It is not silly to feel that you are left out of the A&F clothing line (or, for that matter, several other clothing lines).
To say Wright steered the conversation back to the individual is not a criticism; the individual is so engrained in this conversation, as almost all the comments attest to. This issue feels personal, individual. But I think if we look at something like obesity on the personal level—whether we are looking at obese individuals or fat-shaming individuals or obese, fat shaming individuals—we miss a lot of what is really interesting about “obesity.” The scare quotes are necessary because as we look more deeply into “obesity,” we find that it withdraws every time we get close to identifying it, let alone positing a “cause.” As Lauren Berlant has pointed in in “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” “the case [of obesity] is not a thing, but a cluster of factors that only looks solid at a certain distance” (763). When we start to look at clusters of factors, we can see non-human actors.
Non-human rhetors are kind of tricky to identify and wrap our individual-centric brains around. When we think of rhetoric, we think of a person speaking or even a person tweeting. Even if we think of a corporation or university, we think of it as made up of people who could get fired for tweeting stupid things. Commenter Nate Kreuter suggests that it seems like the fashion industry is human because it is made up of humans.
[I]t seems to me that the fashion industry is very directly a human rhetoric/suasive force, in that all of the problems, dilemmas, and judgments you describe here exist in clothes and fashion precisely because that industry is a direct manifestation of the people who control/drive the industry (even if we might not always be able to trace that to an individual actor or group of actors).
I see Kreuter’s point. Perhaps we need another word for complex things that are made up of other complex things where the whole is different from the parts. I think Berlant’s words work here, too. The fashion industry only “looks solid at a certain distance.” I’m sure if we were fashion industry insiders, we would have more access to the indirect, contradictory forces at work within that industry. Perhaps the industry is not so driven and controlled as we think. Point is, (I think) something can be non-human even if it is made up of humans. For one thing, the concept of “human” was made up by humans and is not that precise. When we come up with a concept to set ourselves apart from the rest of the universe, it is bound to come with blind spots. Furthermore, motives (the things that control/drive) in corporate entities complicate our ideas about what humans are. Perhaps one’s motives applied to a rhetorical situation will have unintended consequences when conjoined with the motives of other actors. Perhaps one’s motives are working at cross purposes with another force within the corporate entity and thus the entity is locked in stasis. Perhaps one’s motives are no match for money.
To illustrate this notion, I want to point to another industry, the food industry. Again, this is not just one industry, but many interlocking industries. For the sake of this conversation, let’s just look at one U.S. agency involved in this industry: The United States Department of Agriculture.
At the same time it was engaged in an anti-obesity campaign, the USDA was also helping Domino’s Pizza develop a new line of pizzas with 40% more cheese so that it could sell back to consumers the surplus milkfat that resulted in American’s shift toward reduced fat milk. Enough consumers, purchasing as individuals at the grocery store, made “healthy choices” about milk that it shifted the dairy landscape. The USDA responded by putting the milkfat back into splurge foods like pizza. Buy whole milk and diligently make homemade food every night or buy skim milk and get a pizza on a Friday night. Either way, the dairy industry will get your money and cram milkfat down your cheese hole.
So the USDA is involved in some conflicting activities. Guess which endeavor it spent more money on? If you guessed obesity, then you are not catching my drift. The arm of the agency that sells cheese has a budget of $136 million (as of a few years ago). The arm of the agency fighting obesity has a budget of $6.5 million. Who do you think is going to win?
So while individual people do make up these organizations, the suasive force does not come at the individual level.
Think about Voltron. Sure the individual robot lions are actors, but Voltron is the more suasive actor. Corporate personhood (the farce that it is) aside, corporate actors are not the same thing as individual human rhetors. Even if humans make up corporations, agencies, and industries, there is a different persuasive force that happens when they band together with money, technology, and each other.
Come to think of it, perhaps banding together with money, technology, and each other is also the key to dealing with some of these seemingly intractable issues.