The Hygienic Sublime: Making Food Safe for Food Allergies

Presented at Society for the Social Studies of Science meeting, Barcelona, Spain, August 2016

Abstract: For people with food allergies, even the smallest amount of contamination with the wrong food can precipitate a serious health crisis. To safeguard allergic bodies, food allergic people, advocates, and caretakers enact what I call the “hygienic sublime,” a highly choreographed set of practices, demonstrations, and discourses meant to instantiate “safe,” allergen-free conditions. Like David Nye’s “American technological sublime,” the hygienic sublime is suffused with American aspirations of progress and the pursuit of the Good Life. Ordinary, highly gendered facets of domestic hygienic labor, like cleaning and food preparation, are positioned as the key elements for ensuring the safety of food allergic individuals in both the home and in specialty food manufacturing. The same complicated industrial food supply chain management and production techniques that make buying “safe food” difficult for people with food allergies are also positioned, when properly domesticated, as offering the promise of safe foods.

Ultimately, two things are at stake in my articulation of the hygienic sublime: first, can the answer to the problem of a globalized food system that responds to the financial logic of capitalism emerge from within the system itself, using its native techniques? Second, what new ways of thinking about illness and the evolving responsibilities of private industry and the state toward the chronically ill may emerge from these enactments of the hygienic sublime?