The Hygienic Sublime: Making Food Safe for People with Food Allergies

Presented at Dietary Innovation and Disease Conference, Venice, Italy, June 2016

Abstract: The “hygienic sublime” is a highly choreographed set of practices, demonstrations, and discourses that people managing food allergies enact to create allergen-free, “safe” conditions for their highly reactive bodies. The Like David Nye’s “American technological sublime,” the hygienic sublime is suffused with American aspirations of progress and the pursuit of the Good Life. For individuals and families managing food allergies, the condition presents not only an existential threat to the body of those with allergies, but also a threat to the attainability of a wholesome American childhood and “normal” social life. Ordinary practices of domestic labor, like house cleaning and food preparation, are positioned as the key elements for ensuring the safety of food allergic children and adults in a highly elaborated fashion. The link between domestic labor and disease strengthens the moral connotations of such care work and reinforces the traditional, conservative gender relations concerning who is responsible for taking care of home and kin. When intensified, the very same complicated food production practices that make tracing ingredients and their origins difficult for people with food allergies also seem to offer the promise of producing safe foods that sustain their lives. These intensifications are, perhaps, characteristic of life as an eater in America, where food and eating are now capitalist endeavors that exploit intensive supply chain management techniques and loose regulatory oversight to produce ever-increasing returns.

Ultimately, two things are at stake in this exploration 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 the enactment of the hygienic sublime?