sovereign fictions

Yesterday I was re-reading Laurent Berlant‘s essay “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)”.  I think it’s quite a brilliant essay, particularly the first half where Berlant critiques the idea of sovereignty as it is used to describe individual agency.  Berlant’s argument revolves around the Foucauldian notion of biopower, that is:

“the power to make something live or to let it die, the power to regularize life, the authority to force living not just to happen but to endure and appear in particular ways [which are related to] the normatively framed general good life of a society” (p756).

One of the ways in which life in our late capitalist society is regularised is through the imperative of health (another is labour, another consumption).  It’s worth noting that, as Berlant points out, the definition of ‘health’ under capitalism equates to ‘fitness for work,’ a concept warrants a great deal more elaboration than I’ll giving it here.  In short, capitalism requires a ‘healthy’ population in order to secure a productive labour force.

The idea of health, the imperative to be healthy, to cultivate a healthy lifestyle, compels the population to certain behaviours – the regulation of diet and exercise, the consumption of products and services supposed to promote health, the allocation of time to particular healthful behaviours.  Such behaviours are posited as individual choices that individual sovereign subjects can (should) make for their own betterment and happiness.  Yet this elides the way that such ‘choices’ are compelled, and – this is Berlant’s concern in the second half of the essay – the ways that such choices are foreclosed by the very system which requires them.

The argument that emerges in this first part of Berlant’s essay is that the very notion of sovereignty is a neoliberal fiction.

That’s not to say the fiction should be done away with altogether – “some may want to continue using the concept because of the history of investment in it as a marker for the liberal sense of personal autonomy and freedom or because of the association of democracy with the legal protection of the body politic and subgroups within it” (Berlant 756).  It is (currently) a politically useful, and even necessary, fiction: “legal and normative ghosts have precedential power, after all” (p757).  It’s a fiction that is central to many of the aims of fat acceptance as a movement, and I think that’s important.  But I still think it’s a fiction.

In the second part of the essay, Berlant enumerates the ways in which late capitalism wears out its labouring population, and here we find familiar arguments about increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the ease and affordability of fast food, the lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables in poorer neighbourhoods, the spatio-temporal barriers to exercise, the comfort of eating, the horrific and life threatening consequences of obesity.  To be clear, I don’t think Berlant is invoking these consequences to promote fat hatred, but rather in an attempt to connect her arguments about the everyday exploitation of capitalism with real-life consequences – the ‘slow death’ of the labouring population.

The thing is, such a connection is overly simplistic and does a disservice both to actual fat people and to the arguments against modern labour relations.

I’m almost too bored with the argument to bother saying that actual fat people have a wide variety of eating and exercise behaviours, just like non-fat people.  That we eat out or eat at home or skip the gym or walk to the shops just like non-fat people.  I actually don’t want to argue that eating and activity have no bearing on weight, but that to equate fatness simply with sedentary-ness and over-eating not only perpetuates fat stigma, but obscures the real stakes of her anti-capitalist argument.

The conditions of workers and consumers under late capitalism, the slow death of the labouring population, is important not because it (maybe) causes fatness, but because of the conditions of workers and consumers under late capitalism. Access to fresh, tasty, and nourishing food is important, not because a lack of access might contribute to increased weight, but because access to fresh, tasty, and nourishing food is important.  Addressing the lack of time, space, and energy left to exercise is important not because being sedentary might make people fat, but because addressing the lack of time, space, and energy left to exercise is important.

These things are all extremely important issues in and of themselves.  There is no need to co-opt the ‘plight of the obese’ to make them matter, and doing so damages both sides of the argument.  I find this is a common problem with otherwise excellent critical work on fat done outside of fat studies.  What’s more, in talking about fat people as an abstract category, it misses the complicity of this approach with the frequent violence done to actual fat people.

5 Replies to “sovereign fictions”

  1. The funny thing about the definition of health in the current system of whatever the hell we’ve got is that it’s about athletic capacity wildly beyond anything people are likely to need. I’ve been mulling about what’s going on with that, and haven’t gotten very far with it.

    One hypothesis is that, in some important way, there’s so much stuff that competition for status has developed an additional layer. You can’t just buy a status-conferring body, you have to work on it yourself in addition to spending money to get it.

  2. Brilliant.
    I try to make this point all of the time — as you said, There is no need to co-opt the ‘plight of the obese’ to make them matter, and doing so damages both sides of the argument.

    Thank you for helping me advance my thinking and tease out where the errors are in lumping together the problems of late capitalism and what I would call poor work and life conditions.

  3. Yes. =)

    Also, this is excellent insight into alienation of the labouring population and as such I’ve shared it.

    Slightly different note re (physical) ability beyond need:
    The same happens with schooling and pushing students through subjects they won’t need or understand. But the consequence is the same: there’s no opting out.

    There SHOULD be.

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