The Purity Politics of Food Allergic Living

This is an excerpt from my book-in-progress on contemporary food allergy activism in the United States.

If you look around the average kitchen, what might you see? Perhaps a few crumbs on the countertop or table, maybe a glisten of oil on the stovetop, some food-scented dust atop the refrigerator or cabinetry. Some dirty dishes may sit on the counter, or in stacks in the sink. Maybe a thin layer of grime circles the sink’s drain. Packages of food may be clipped shut, or just folded over, spilling out the scent and substance of their contents. On those packages you might find warnings: “may contain peanuts”, for example, or “made in a facility that processes wheat, soy, and shellfish”. The standard kitchen is a functional, homey, but imperfect and impure place. Impurities are tolerated as the side effects of busy lives, or dual-earner households, or maybe even the result of conscious decisions to let the little things go and prioritize meaningful experiences or hobbies.

To a person living with food allergies, however, such imperfections add up to significant threats. Threats to purity constitute threats to safety in food allergic living in very real ways. A single crumb of bread accidentally mixed in with otherwise “safe” food might tip a wheat-allergic person into the danger zone of anaphylaxis. Material encounters can lead to physiological disorder that can put an allergic person’s life in danger – a potential chain of events instantiated as a causal cascade in the food allergy imaginary by the politics of epinephrine and death talk laid out elsewhere. Cleanliness and purity thus become paramount, ongoing projects for people with food allergies, considered to be necessary concerns for living healthfully with the condition.

The pursuit of purity has been under scrutiny from feminist and science studies scholars for some time now, where it has been understood as a political project with often exclusionary or harmfully forgetful effects. Donna Haraway’s work has been a touchstone in these conversations. Her concern with purity politics begins with her theorization of the cyborg as the figure for a messy, more-than-human politics that prioritizes the plurality of voices from below and refuses simplification of the many into the One (Haraway 1985). She elaborates these early concerns into a critique of Western fetishization of “kin and kind”, of an inappropriate interest among both scientists and lay people like in maintaining the purity of categories like species. Such moves reflect an ontological obsession with purifying nature from culture, a binary that has cascading oppressive effects for those species, landscapes, or individuals deemed to fall closer to “nature” than to “culture”; it is also at work historically and contemporaneously in eugenic projects that prioritize the pursuit of imagined conditions for species success over the thriving of individuals and multispecies collectives (Haraway 1997). Among those who have taken up Haraway’s critique of purity politics, Alexis Shotwell’s (2016) pointed address in Against Purity calls out purity as an unjustified simplification of “our ethical and political situation in the world” (6). These critiques challenge me to attend to how the material demands for purity that food allergic living seems to place upon people are implicated in the semiotics of purity ideology that helps power the engines of capitalism and how this extends certain histories of who is expected to make purity happen (mostly women).

This is not to say that some attentiveness to purity is inappropriate for living well with food allergy. However, the practical need for purity in certain contexts and concerning certain objects is sometimes outstripped by a hygienic ideal that is unattainable and anxiety-provoking. This layered – both practical and ideological – attunement to cleanliness and purity, which I call “the hygienic sublime” in this chapter and the next, is characteristic of life with food allergy for many of the activists with whom I interacted. Like David Nye’s “American technological sublime” (Nye 1994), the hygienic sublime is a moral and aesthetic experience, portrayed in its most fully developed form in stories and images depicting the ideal allergy-friendly home. Instead of connoting progress and national unity, the subjects of the technological sublime, the hygienic sublime signifies safety.

While the ideal of absolute purity matters greatly to people living with food allergy, they are also quite aware of the impossibility of consistently achieving this ideal. Proof of the importance of the hygienic ideal tends to be noted upon failure to enact it sufficiently, evidenced by rashes or other signs of systemic allergic reactions. Success, by contrast, is difficult to verify. As a result, the hygienic sublime has affective dimensions as well, triggering stress and worry that cannot necessarily be verified as justified. Part of what is “sublime” about the hygienic sublime is its very status as an unattainable, yet deeply desired, state of affairs.

The clean, volatile organic compound (VOC)-free and nut-free kitchen, the meticulously researched ingredient supply chain, the homegrown vegetables free of commingled grain or vegetable contaminants: these are the best expressions of the hygienic sublime. Seeking or convincingly performing the hygienic sublime has the power to instill feelings of responsibility and safety while reducing the risk of allergic reactions toward zero. This is especially the case for mothers of allergic children, who often devote considerable money and time, and even give up paid employment, to the pursuit of hygienic ideals. The hygienic sublime thus feeds off of traditional divisions of domestic labor – labor that is also racialized in complex ways – in its portrayals and practical enactments. The purity politics of the allergic home is a politics conjured up by the subtleties of material interdependencies between human bodies and the foods they consume to nurture them but fully realized with the help of hoary histories of gendered and racialized work.

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