Riedner and Mahoney, _Democracies to Come_

Riedner, Rachel, and Kevin Mahoney. Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. Print.



In this book, Riedner and Mahoney ask us to think about the place and potential of pedagogy in the current context of neoliberalism. More specifically, they ask: “How can pedagogy be conceptualized as a site in which to intervene in culture and to act politically?” (xiii). As they articulate an understanding of pedagogy as a rich site for political intervention, Riedner and Mahoney explain:

“Pedagogy, as we understand it, is a practice of learning that creates ways of knowing that suggest political possibilities. Pedagogy is a praxis of learning strategies for intervening, reassembling, and inventing sustainable relationships of solidarity, networks of affinity, that hold out the possibility of countering neoliberal hegemony. And pedagogy is always inscribed in a particular context, a particular conjunctural moment.” (3)

Ultimately, Riedner and Mahoney argue for an understanding of pedagogy as rhetorical action. Pedagogy, then, is not just a matter of running the day-to-day of the classroom, but should rather be understood as an important means of producing and reproducing social relations, of producing and reproducing identities, and of intervening into systems of domination and control.

Riedner and Mahoney frame their arguments about pedagogy as rhetorical action within a discussion of neoliberalism as a “strong” rhetoric. Neoliberalism, they argue, is persuasive in that it is an authoritative, dominant discourse that acts materially on bodies, practices, identities and communities. According to Riedner and Mahoney, “Neoliberalism is the pedagogy of Empire” (10).

Thinking about neoliberalism as a strong rhetoric pushes us to focus on the role affect plays in the persuasive power of this rhetoric. Riedner and Mahoney argue that affect is not something that exists outside of capitalist production and reproduction, but rather than affect is central to capitalism’s power to corral labor. As they highlight the centrality of affect in the working of neoliberalism, Riedner and Mahoney draw special attention to the power of despair. They refer to arguments from Thatcher and Fukuyama that insist that there is no alternative to neoliberal policies. Despair works powerfully to convince us that even when we find conditions, practices, or policies deplorable, we have to consent to them because there is nothing else that can be done. Despair works to reinforce a sense of closure or containment that is part of neoliberal rhetoric–that is, the sense that we are in a system that we cannot get out of and our options for changing that system are severely limited.

Riedner and Mahoney argue that it is vital that we understand the role that affect, and despair in particular, play in neoliberal rhetoric so that we understand the importance of pedagogy as rhetorical action that can begin to open up space and possibility in this closed fabric. In the book’s final chapter, Riedner and Mahoney highlight the activist work of the Zapatistas and the scholarly work of people like Judith Butler as both working to rearticulate conditions and practices in order to open up new ways of understanding, establish new vocabularies, and enable new forms of response. Riedner and Mahoney argue that this is the kind of rhetorical action we need to focus on: action that creates a new sense of possibility and enables response, intervention, and hope in the face of despair.

Quotable Quotes:

“In the current moment, in the moment of Empire, in the moment of neoliberalism, pedagogy becomes a space of learning whose purpose is to develop an understanding of new structures and in so doing develop literacies for new, critical perspectives for democracies to come. If we think about pedagogy in this way, it becomes a cultural force for democracy in its own right; a cultural literacy, which intervenes in a multiplicity of systems, institutions, formations, and constituencies to create meaning. As a practice of meaning-making, pedagogy becomes rhetorical action: a political practice of making, reproducing, and remaking of social relations, identities, and intervening in relations of dominance and exploitation.” (7)

“As a rhetoric, as a pedagogy, as a theory, as an ideology, as a means of understanding collectives, selves, and their relationship to each other, neoliberalism produces bodies, emotions and identities. Neoliberal rhetorics do things.” (39)

“Despair works to close off the ability to think or feel alternatives. Despair, reinforced by nostalgia, clues us in to how neoliberalism as a rhetoric has to acknowledge its own incompleteness. Yes, in the very same move, neoliberalism seeks to posit its naturalness and to reduce resistance or hope for alternatives, to an issues of coping and creates its own ‘disorder’—regulating those who would think another world is possible as remnants of days gone by.” (70)

“The collective reworking of emotional master narratives in this way is a form of collective cultural production that stands in direct opposition to the reproduction of the existing social order.” (84)

“[T]he act of creating opening in the fabric of a seemingly settled hegemony—a disruption of the familiar or dominant discursive terrain, a gesture to openness and unknowingness—is a key political action that is an integral aspect for producing even the possibility of counter-hegemonic action.” (91)

Susan Wells, Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing

Wells, Susan. Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.



In this book, Susan Wells looks at the work that went into producing various editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves between 1970 and 1984. Wells’s work in the book draws on archival research and interviews with women involved with the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective during the period in question, and traces the ways in which the New Left and the Women’s movements each function as important literacy sponsors in the work of the collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves is a significant work because it was one of the first major texts written about women’s health, and because it was one of the first to apply a specifically feminist political frame to thinking about women’s health. As Wells explains, the book is also significant because the collective was able to move the book from being produced in an independent, New Left publishing house to a major publisher while maintaining the political aims of the book. Ultimately, Wells argues that the book is also distinctive because of the way the book was written, produced and circulated by the collective.

While Wells’ analysis of the production of Our Bodies, Ourselves necessarily traces some of the history of the collective, her analysis is ultimately focused on what the text of Our Bodies, Ourselves does as a feminist intervention into discussions of women’s health and on the specific strategies and practices the collective employed to produce the text. Wells argues that there are three distinctive textual strategies at work in Our Bodies, Ourselves, and she fleshes these strategies out in greater detail in the books’ chapters. These textual strategies include:

  • Distributed authorship: The book is not merely a collaboration between members of the collective, but also included experts and readers as collaborators. Above all, the collective as a whole maintained ownership of the text.
  • The text breaches its own frame: The text invites the reader in as an agent and as a researcher, including narratives of women’s experience alongside more traditionally scientific information about women’s bodies. The reader is hailed by a collective “we” that simultaneously invokes a strategic essentialism while also creating a sense of a diverse and varied “we” with very different experiences of the body.
  • The body is invoked throughout the text as “reafferent”: Reafference refers to “the sensation of touching, viewing, or otherwise manipulating one’s own body” (12). Rather than a traditional patient-doctor model where knowledge of the body is passed from the top down, the text of Our Bodies, Ourselves encourages self-exploration as a way of establishing a sense of agency and autonomy with regard to one’s health.

Select Quotes:

“The writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves imagined the book as part of a conversation that was both intimate—the reader, book in hand, would look into a mirror at her genitals—and consequential—the book would provoke political organization and activity.” (100)

“Autonomy would not come easily; women were urged to decide things for themselves, but they were also warned that real choices could only be secured through collective action.” (109)

2013 C’s Presentation: Indexing Massive Bodies

Here is the script of the talk I gave in Las Vegas at this year’s CCCC. Please feel free to share and to contact me with any questions or comments.


Indexing Massive Bodies: Tracing the Circulation of Public Health Information

Anna Hensley, CCCC Las Vegas, March 2013

You don’t have to go far in the world before you get hit with another story about obesity. Over the past thirty years, the average weight in the US has increased by about 20 pounds and we’re in the thick of ongoing, panicked discourse about what this trend means. As a feminist researcher interested in discourses surrounding the body, what concerns me about this discourse is how narrow it is. By that, I don’t mean that there isn’t any disagreement or resistance to the way the obesity crisis has been framed. When I talk about how narrow the discourse is, what I mean is that these divergent voices are hard to hear and seem constantly drowned out by an overwhelming discourse that not only stigmatizes fat but that relies on a rhetoric of crisis that works to authorize troubling practices of surveillance and discipline.

In their book Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance, Rachel Reidner and Kevin Mahoney argue that affect—and particularly feelings of despair—have a powerful disciplinary effect in the context of neoliberalism. When we are made to feel like there are no alternatives to the circumstances we find ourselves in, we’re less likely to resist. They argue that opening up space and envisioning alternatives thus becomes progressive and vital rhetorical action.

Scholars in the field like John Trimbur, Jenny Edbauer, and Rebecca Dingo have emphasized the importance of not treating rhetoric as static but looking at how terms, texts, and rhetorics circulate. They argue that we need to pay attention to how values shift as they move through different contexts, and also to the kinds of histories that texts and terms bring with them as they travel. The discourse surrounding obesity is complex in its ties to longstanding bias against fat, medical discourses, influences from diet and beauty industries, stigma against disability and discourses of healthism. Because of these multiple and intertwined strands operating, I want to argue that one of the ways rhetoric can productively engage with these discourses is to begin tracing some of the specific terms, scales, and studies that underlie the myriad public health claims made about obesity as a way to highlight the values underlying these discourses but also as a way to open up space for different ways of articulating the situation.

So today, to provide an example of what this might look like, I want to focus on recent debates about the practice of sending out BMI (or Body Mass Index) report cards and challenge the current terms of the debate by looking at the history of the BMI and the way it has circulated as a key frame for the way we currently understand obesity.

BMI Letters in Massachussetts

Earlier this year, a North Andover Selectwoman, Tracy Watson, received a letter from her son’s school telling her that 10 year old with a BMI indicating he was obese. According to Watson, her son is constantly active—he plays football, wrestles, and practices martial arts. When interviewed, Watson’s husband pointed to NFL player Tom Brady as an athlete who is considered obese, arguing that the BMI scale is an arbitrary measure that does not take fitness into account. (Original story here.)

The letter Watson received is part of an iniative instituted by the Massacussetts Department of Public Health in 2009 that requires schools to measure the height and weight of all students in 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th grades and use that data to determine their BMI score. The schools are then required to send confidential letters to parents informing them of their children’s BMI and, in the event a child is underweight, overweight, or obese, advising them to consult their pediatrician.

The Massachussetts BMI initiative is just one of several examples of schools creating what have been called “BMI report cards.” Schools in Arkansas and Oklahoma also track students’ BMIs and BMI report cards have become a nation-wide policy in Malaysia. Schools and other state agencies that require the BMI reports argue that the practice is a much-needed intervention into rising rates of childhood obesity. People who support BMI screenings in schools argue that parents need to be made aware of children’s increased risk for cardiovascular disease as adults. Other schools argue that the data from the screenings allow them to plan for educational programs that will help support the health of students. But the reports remain controversial in every place where they’ve been instituted.

While Watson’s son laughed the letter off, thinking it funny that anyone would consider him “obese,” Watson fears the effect the letters have on children’s self-esteem and their body image. Watson’s fears aren’t at all unfounded. A recent study from the Keep It Real campaign found that 80% of 10-year-olds have been on a diet at some point in their lives. The study also found that 53% of 13-year old girls have issues with the way that their bodies look. By the time girls reach the age of 17, that number increases to 78%.

This helps illustrate the tension at play in these BMI report cards: schools are collecting this data in response to the crisis-laden rhetoric surrounding obesity. While opponents of the letters often argue that they are an invasion of privacy, supporters argue that tracking student weight has become a necessary in the face of rising rates of childhood obesity. But this practice, which makes individual children’s weight a matter of institutional concern, which places children in categories like obese, underweight and normal, and that raises the weight of some children as a problem, are contributing to national (and even international) trends of children becoming deeply body conscious at earlier and earlier ages, with potentially disastrous effects—in terms of esteem, in terms of risk for disordered eating, and in terms of the health risks associated with constant dieting.

Watson’s story has been covered by a number of news affiliates in the Boston area, as well as a few national news outlets. What’s striking to me as I read through this coverage is that there have been comments on different articles online where readers say something to the effect of: “I’m uncomfortable with these letters and would probably be upset if I received one about my child, but what else can we do? People are dying and we need to intervene.” Here is the power of despair at work. When we have a discourse that frames bodies in terms epidemics and crises, we’re more inclined to submit to invasive practices that involve forms of surveillance and disciplining we’d otherwise object to. But if we begin to trouble the frame that these claims are based on by tracing its history and tracing its context, I think we can begin to articulate some new possibilities and open up some more productive terms for talking about bodies and health.

BMI: Context and Circulation

BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by the square of their height (in metric). This produces a number that places a person within one of five categories: underweight, normal, overweight, obese, and morbidly obese. A BMI of 24 is seen as normal, for instance, while a BMI of 28 would be classified as overweight and a BMI of 32 would be considered obese. The scale was originally developed in the 19th century by Adolphe Quetelet, a scientist who played a major role in developing the use of statistical averages to measure human experience. Quetelet’s scale wasn’t of much interest until Metropolitan Life Insurance Company began to use the model in the 1940s as a way to measure death rates of their policy holders. Ultimately, MetLife deemed the scale unreliable because their use of the scale depended on self-reported (and often inaccurate) weight and height data. Since then, the scale has become widely used, becoming the standard for determining rates of obesity for organizations like the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.

There are other means of measuring body fat or determining obesity (for instance, skin fold measurements and underwater weighing), many of which are seen as producing more reliable health information. However, the BMI has become a popular scale for a couple of reasons: 1) it can be calculated using easily accessible data like data that has been self-reported or assessed through various agencies or clinics; 2) it’s inexpensive to collect large samples of data.

But for all its efficiency, the BMI has continually been criticized for its inability to measure or account for information believed important in various measures of health:

  • Doesn’t account for differences in bone mass and density
  • Doesn’t account for somatic differences: more or less muscular, numbers tend to be higher for people with longer torsos
  • Doesn’t account for differences among various populations: women tend to have more fat than men, African Americans tend to have higher BMIs, Asian Americans tend to have lower BMIs, especially unreliable for children
  • Doesn’t actually represent health problems: BMI, for instance, does not tell us if a person actually has high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Doesn’t account for the way particular placement of fat on the body may affect health. Does a person carry their weight around their thighs or in their torso?
  • Doesn’t distinguish between subcutaneous (under the skin) fat and visceral (surrounding the organs) fat.

People are interested in BMI data from a health standpoint because it places us into categories (normal, overweight, obese) that may correlate with higher rates of certain chronic diseases. But the meaning of these correlations is hotly debated. Despite frequent claims that BMIs that exceed the normal range are associated with higher mortality rates, a recent study found that people who fall within the “overweight” range actually have lower mortality rates than people with a BMI of 25, which is the upper limit for the normal range. However, overwhelmingly, the specific language of these categories is used to not only categorize bodies but to do so in a way that frames them in terms of their potential for disease. The CDC emphasizes on their website that BMI “is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems.” But it’s not uncommon to come across discussions of overweight and obesity as already indicating disease—of being disease in and of themselves.

What’s more, despite the BMI’s reliance on a “normal” category, BMI is less about statistical averages (which is where it began) and more about prescriptive norms. BMIs in the US are rather evenly distributed across the normal, overweight, and obese categories but the overwhelming sense is that we should all fit into a normal category—something troubling given the basic nature of human diversity and the various limits of BMI as a framework. Again, while organizations that rely on BMI data like the CDC, NIH, and WHO use the word “normal” to refer to people with BMIs between 18.5 and 25, it’s not at all uncommon to see some slippage in terms in public discussions of obesity where this “normal” category is referred to as “ideal” or as “healthy.” This slippage reminds us that with the way BMI circulates, this “normal” category isn’t “normal” in the sense of being average—it instead represents a rather narrow window of acceptable embodiment that we’re supposed to fit into.

So if we return to the question of the “fat letters” being sent home with children in MA, what does understanding the context of the BMI open up for us? I want to put forth a couple of suggestions:

  • The terms and history of the BMI appeal to late capitalism—it’s efficient, it places bodies into discrete and universalized categories, and it further normalizes the body. In this spirit, sending home letters is a relatively easy, hands-off intervention that works to place responsibility for children’s body size on parents and implicitly moralize parents’ attempts (or lack their of) to act on the letters they receive. What would it look like for schools to stop treating student bodies as problems to be dealt with and instead create holistic programs that treat student bodies as integral to their learning experience and to carve out space for movement and well-being in educational settings.
  • As Julie Guthman argues in her book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, small shifts can take on big meaning. It could only take a weight loss or gain of a few pounds to shift between categories. This is important because these categories are the basis for a lot of panic-inducing claims that we’re bombarded with. It’s a very different thing to say that 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese than to say that, on average, Americans have gained around 7 pounds over the past decade. When we keep this in mind, and keep in mind the frequent shifts and changes bodies—especially children’s bodies are undergoing—I think it gives us more pause and allows for a more measured response.
  • The categories outlined by the BMI are arbitrary and are less about statistical averages and more about prescriptive norms. Value difference and challenge scales that don’t allow for difference. What’s more, the categories are a distraction—we get fixated on a number that is, at best, a thin reflection of health. What happens if we remove an emphasis from weight and instead focus on key health indicators? What happens if we talk with children about health in holistic ways that emphasize mental wellbeing, and that remind us all that our bodies are not static and any productive version of wellness needs to focus on caring for our bodies as we can throughout our lifetimes.
  • The BMI contributes to the medicalization of weight where bodies are framed as problems to be fixed or potential problems to be avoided. Given the statistics from the Keep It Real campaign, these messages about good bodies and bad bodies are weighing heavy on children. We need to develop frames for talking about wellness that aren’t pathologizing or moralizing bodies. But we also need to develop ways of talking about health and wellness that don’t makes these moral categories—that is, that remind us that being a healthy person is not the same as being a good person, and that illness and disease are not personal failings.

I think there is more that we can cull from exploring BMI in more detail—and there is a lot of work that remains to be done about the way these terms circulate. But the point I hope I’ve made is that when we start to unpack the values and politics that give rise to frameworks, we can start to challenge them more productively. This work isn’t just a matter of contextualizing terminology and frameworks, and it isn’t just a matter of debunking bogus claims that we might come across. It’s about engaging in and encouraging critical health literacy practices that move us out of a place of despair and into a place of possibility.

Edbauer, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies”

Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35.4 (Fall 2005): 5-24. Print.


In this article, Edbauer explores and critiques the limits of focusing on the rhetorical situation. Echoing the concerns of other writers like Barbara Biesecker and Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Edbauer argues that the model of the rhetorical situation, while useful for talking about rhetoric as contextual, is still limited because it treats rhetoric as a conglomeration of discrete elements like audience, constraints, exigence, rhetor, etc. Edbauer further argues that the model of the rhetorical situation focuses on rhetoric as “taking place” and that this place-based model treats rhetoric as being more static than active. Because she believes that the rhetorical situation can be a useful framework, Edbauer does not advocate that we do away with this model, but rather that we shift our thinking about the rhetorical situation to account for the ways rhetorics circulate and shift in meaning through various social networks. Edbauer thus advocates a shift in focus from a more static rhetorical situation to more varied, shifting, and evolving rhetorical ecologies. Edbauer believes that the model of rhetorical ecologies extends what is most useful about the rhetorical situation, while reminding us of the importance of both history and of the way rhetorics move through lived space and social networks and argues that “this ecological model allows us to more fully theorize rhetoric as a public(s) creation” (9). The framework of rhetorical ecologies encourages us to think about rhetoric as moving through “open networks” and reminds us that rhetoric is created (as Edbauer puts it, we “do” rhetoric) within publics that are continually shifting and evolving. This is important because it means that rhetoric does not enter a public fully formed and static, but is rather constructed through the influence of various factors within the social field and is similarly transformed by these changing factors. Rhetoric doesn’t exist outside of these open networks, but is produced, circulated, and transformed within them.


Edbauer demonstrates the way rhetorical ecologies open up new possibilities for analysis through her discussion of the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign. Edbauer explains that  the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan developed as a response to the influx of chain businesses in areas of Austin known for the prevalence of unique local establishments. Edbauer argues that the framework of rhetorical ecologies helps us better contextualize this campaign within the larger context of capitalism in the US and helps us understand the multiple, and sometimes contradictory ways, that the slogan has been taken up. In other words, rather than allowing us to see the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign as a singular moment of resistance against an influx of chain businesses, the framework of rhetorical ecologies allows us a deeper understanding of the rhetoric of the campaign by placing it within a larger historical and economic framework and by allowing us to trace the multiple shifts in meaning as the slogan is appropriated by different groups with different political and rhetorical aims. The example of the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign is also an excellent illustration of how often rhetorics circulate and shift, and a reminder of the importance of analytical frameworks that can account for these ongoing movements.


Key Quotes:

“[W]e find that networks involve a different kind of habitation in the social field. To say that we are connected is another way of saying that we are never outside the networked interconnection of forces, energies, rhetorics, moods, and experiences. In other words, our practical consciousness is never outside the prior and ongoing structures of feeling that shape the social field.” (10)

“Consequently, though the rhetorical situation models are undeniably helpful for thinking of rhetoric’s contextual character, they fall somewhat short when accounting for the amalgamations and transformations–the spread–of a given rhetoric within its wider ecology. Rather than replacing the rhetorical situation models that we have found so useful, however, an ecological augmentation adopts a view toward the processes and events that extend beyond the limited boundaries of elements.” (20)

“When we approach a rhetoric that does indeed engage with the living, hooking processes that are already in play, then we find ourselves theorizing rhetorical publicness. We find ourselves engaging a public rhetoric whose power is not circumscribed or delimited. We encounter rhetoric.” (23, emphasis in the original)

Guthman, “Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice”

Guthman, Julie. “Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice.” Cultural Geographies 15 (2008): 431-47. Print.


In this article, Guthman describes the experiences of students at her home institution (UC Santa Cruz) who do extended field work with alternative food programs. More specifically, Guthman’s article deals with the frustration and disappointment many students experience during this fieldwork when the communities they are working in (largely urban communities of people of color) appear to reject the alternative food projects meant to help them. Guthman argues that the primary problem with these alternative food projects is the fact the way that whiteness unconsciously runs through them, such that these programs are designed more so with the interests of white outsiders in mind than with the specific needs and desires of the communities of color they are meant to serve. Guthman argues that the experiences of her students illustrate both the importance of this kind of work for illustrating to students the need for establishing more cooperative relationships with communities and the need for food politics to reflect on the ways whiteness is constructing its discourses and its activism.

As she carries out her research, Guthman aligns herself with Toni Morrison’s call to shift focus from the objects of racism to its subjects. In this movement, Guthman also aligns herself with researchers who have tried to challenge the invisibility of whiteness by taking whiteness up as a critical site of analysis, and she builds on this stance to argue that whiteness is constructing food justice movements in unseen ways that we need to understand better in order to create a more progressive and more effective movement. Guthman identifies a set of three discourses that largely structure conversations about food justice. In detailing these different discourses, Guthman argues that each involves significant tensions that emerge primarily from raced histories that mainstream, white food justice movements haven’t taken into account. These discourses include:

  1. The discourse of “the aesthetic of organic, natural food” (435). For many white organizers, the symbol of soil is vitally important while some black groups are trying to distance themselves from the historical associations of dirt, filth, slave diets, etc.
  2. The rhetoric of “getting your hands dirty.” This discourse assumes that the desire to work with and tend land is universal, but it ignores how fraught agrarian images are in the US, especially for African American and Latino communities.
  3. A focus on alternatives as the best way to transform food systems in the US. A lot of these alternatives are based in countercultural movements and Guthman argues that the most popular of these alternatives depend on localism. But an emphasis on the local can also be tied to problematic associations between localism, xenophobia, and conservatism.

Guthman explains that the majority of the students who do alternative food field work are motivated by these three discourses and, informed by these discourses, are motivated to go into the field to educate people in urban communities of color about how to eat and grow “good food.” According to Guthman, “if people only knew…” becomes a refrain among students, implying that if people only knew where there food was coming from, they would make different, better choices about what they ate. Guthman argues that this refrain implies a missionary zeal to educate the other towards enlightenment. While the students all take coursework prior to going into the field that deals with issues of privilege, whiteness, and the limits of alternative food programs, Guthman argues that their responses prior to and after field work show that only the experience of working in these communities for extended periods of time can productively reveal the problematic whiteness and privilege at work in these discourses.

In the field, the students begin to understand the tensions inherent in the discourses above as the people they are working tell them things like that they feel like they are being asked to work without pay, that they have no interest in getting dirty, that the foods grown in community gardens and brought in via CSAs and farmer’s markets don’t interest them, and that they feel they would most benefit from having access to a basic grocery store. Through these interactions, students begin to understand the need for programs that don’t depend entirely on alternatives and that are more collaborative with community members.

Ultimately, Guthman draws on the students’ changing perspectives through their field work to make two arguments. First, she argues that while the students’ field work experiences might create discomfort, they are necessary for helping students internalize the limits of discourses constructed through whiteness and privilege, and necessary to help students envision more productive ways of engaging in food justice work in the future. Second, Guthman argues that the limits of alternative food programs and the largely white discourses they depend on illustrates the need for a shift in activist focus from alternatives to the systemic issues that give rise to food justice issues in the first place.

Key Quotes:

“[T]he intention to do good on behalf of those deemed other has the marking of colonial projects, in that it seeks to improve the other while eliding the historical developments that produced these material and cultural distinctions in the first place. In this case, the mission of correcting eating practices is kept ideologically separate from the fact of US capitalist development, much of which is founded on the devaluation of racialized labor, most manifestly in the food and farming sectors, that made many who work(ed) in that sector dependent on cheap food. In this context, it is also worth remarking on the language of ‘food deserts’ which, like the ‘dark continent’ is itself layered with colonial codings, evoking images of places beyond repair separated from the processes that make them seem so.” (436)

“Indeed, one conclusion to be drawn from this article is that addressing the food desert problem through an alternative supply side emphasis is inadequate and possibly misguided. […] If this is the case, it may well be that the focus of activism should shift away from the particular qualities of food and towards the injustices that underlie disparities in food access.” (442-3)

“So, if an objective is to enable whites to be more effective allies in anti-racist struggles–indeed to draw upon the resources of white privilege, there is much to be said for participatory action, despite the multiple discomforts it creates. By the same token, such participation seems to call for a different sensibility than is currently operative, one that encourages those who wish to convert, to listen, watch, and sometimes even stay away instead. This approach might allow others to define the spaces and projects of food transformation.” (444)

Steger and Roy, _Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction_

Steger, Manfred B., and Ravi K. Roy. Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.



This book offers precisely what the title implies: a short, but relatively thorough (given the length of the book), introduction to neoliberalism and the economic policies it has led to. The greatest strength of this book is the historical context it offers towards better understanding neoliberalism, specifically through a brief discussion of neoliberalism’s intellectual genealogy, as well as its different “waves” in the 1970s/80s and the 1990s. Steger and Roy explain that the “neo” in neoliberalism refers to a return to an emphasis on the free, self-regulating market of classic liberalism, but adjusted with an eye for increasingly global markets. In contrast to protectionist measures like tariffs and regulations designed to strengthen and stabilize national markets, neoliberalism advocates the erasure of regulations in order to work towards a single, free global market.

They characterize neoliberalism as having three different dimensions, and thus discuss neoliberalism as an ideology, as a mode of governance, and as a policy package. As an ideology, neoliberalism assumes production and exchange of goods is a key part of human experience and treats a free, global market as key to realizing better economic and political conditions across the globe. As a mode of governance, neoliberalism “encourage[s] the transformation of bureaucratic mentalities into entrepreneurial identities where government workers see themselves no longer as public servants and guardians of a qualitatively defined ‘public good’ but as self-interested actors responsible to the market and contributing to the monetary success of slimmed-down state ‘enterprises'” (12-13). As a policy package, neoliberalism emphasizes policies that follow the “DLP Formula”–that is, policies that deregulate the economy, liberalize trade and industry, and privatize state enterprises. Other neoliberal policy decisions might include tax cuts (especially for business), cuts to social welfare programs, anti-union policies, the establishment of tax havens for foreign investments, dissolution of global trade restrictions, cuts to government size, and programs to integrate global economies. As they cut social welfare programs, neoliberals employ “accountability” and “responsibility” as key catch words, shifting the ideal of responsibility from the government as responsible to care for its citizens to the idea that individuals are (morally) responsible for caring for themselves and their immediate family units.

Steger and Roy explain that the global market advanced by neoliberalism is promoted through five primary claims, which are:

  1. Globalization is about the liberalization and global integration of markets.
  2. Globalization is inevitable and irresistible.
  3. Nobody is in charge of globalization.
  4. Globalization benefits everyone (in the long run…).
  5. Globalization furthers the spread of democracy and freedom in the world. (54)


After summarizing the first wave (characterized by Reagan and Thatcher) and the second wave (characterized by Clinton and Blair) of neoliberalism in the West, Steger and Roy offer a handful of examples of neoliberal policies in place in different Asian countries and then in South America and Africa. The primary difference between those neoliberal policies put into place in Asia vs. South America/Africa is that the policies in place in Asia were advanced by the individual countries themselves and tailored to suit the particular national context as much as possible. While these policies have not been universal successes and have resulted in the same increasing gulf between the wealthy and the poor seen in the West, they at least speak more closely to the specific social, political, and economic context of each country. In contrast, neoliberal policies have been instituted in South/Central America and Africa largely through structural adjustment programs designed by the West in a one-size-fits-all model that have has disastrous effects on local economies and done little to successfully rebuild failed economies. These one-size-fits-all programs assume that markets are universal, but this assumption has proved patently false by the way these programs have continually failed. In the book’s conclusion, Steger and Roy wonder about the future of neoliberalism as people begin to feel the economic effects of markets made unstable by a lack of regulation, as well as seriously diminished social welfare programs. They also point to the fact that organizations like the World Bank and the IMF have abandoned their previous structural adjustment programs in favor of programs more tailored to the specific contexts and economies of particular countries.


Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy”

Wendy Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7:1 (2003)


In this essay, Brown argues that definitions of neoliberalism frequently obscure what is new or “neo” about this system and ignore the way neoliberalism undercuts and erodes democratic institutions in places like the US. She argues that neoliberalism has significant political implications precisely because it is bigger than a set of economic policies. According to Brown, the logic of neoliberalism extends market values to social practices, institutions, and public policies, essentially emphasizing a new set of values upon which governing decisions are made. Brown argues that this shift is politically significant because the values and logic of neoliberalism are incompatible with the values of liberal democracy, and the political Left needs to be thinking about what this incompatibility might mean for their political landscape.

Brown’s essay is primarily focused on analyzing the political implications of the rise and proliferation of the logic of neoliberalism. In the course of this analysis, she defines the features of neoliberal political rationale as follows:

  1. Applying a market logic to all decision making.
  2. In contrast to laissez faire ideology, neoliberalism assumes that the free market is a construction that requires the involvement of the state—not where the state regulates the market, but where the state functions in service of the market
  3. Neoliberalism prescribes activity for the individual subject, encouraging individuals to see themselves as personally responsible for “managing” their lives and working to discipline subjects by moralizing this “freedom”
  4.  Neoliberalism changes what constitutes “good” social policy by making market rationale the measure against which policy is measured


Key Quotes:

“[N]eo-liberalism is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism. Rather, neo-liberalism carries a social analysis which, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.” (emphasis in the original)

“Put simply, what liberal democracy has provided over the last two centuries is a modest ethical gap between economy and polity. Even as a liberal democracy converges with many capitalist values (property rights, individualism, Hobbesian assumptions underneath all contract, etc.) the formal distinction it establishes between moral and political principles on the one hand and the economic order on the other has also served as insulation against the ghastliness of life exhaustively ordered by the market and measured by market values. It is this gap that a neo-liberal political rationality closes as it submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation.”