Food reflects power relations.
—Chloë Taylor 2012, 113
Chloë Taylor’s thinking attends closely to the import of the concrete and the everyday, as this representative citation attests. Her writing on food, for example, involves careful discussions of eating, appetites, and dietary norms, as well as the policing of desires and identities from the alimentary to the sexual. As part of this work, Taylor turns to Michel Foucault for philosophical resources. Foucault writes, “The body . . . is poisoned by food or values, through eating, habits, or moral laws; it constructs resistances” (1984, 89; cited Taylor 2010, 72). As Foucault is positing here, we become aligned with moral ideals when we partake of foods and food-related rituals that are, inevitably and unavoidably, value-laden. (We could ask questions about ourselves such as: Do we choose to eat meat? Why or why not? With whom do we break bread? When and how do we abstain from food? How do we judge others’ food choices?) Foucault’s affirmation of the body as a site of resistance suggests that food and eating might also become sites of emancipation, embodied ways to subvert rather than ingest “poisonous” values. (Here, Taylor’s work prompts us to ask questions about more edifying ways to eat, such as taking up veganism.)
But why turn to Foucault, especially when it comes to urgent questions related to moral values or liberation? Erica Meiners poses this question in the context of this symposium on Taylor’s new book, Foucault, Feminism and Sex Crimes: An Anti-carceral Analysis. Meiners’s question is an existential one, raising the stakes of methodological choices themselves. As Meiners points out, anchoring a project in Foucault means that other anchors might be missed, like activists or artists who might lack the “stamp of anointed Great Thought” but who proffer meaningful models for resistance. This question—Why Foucault?—is also at play in Hasana Sharp’s response, which reminds us of the tendencies of some Foucauldian feminisms to evade the liberatory promises of radical feminism. In both commentaries, this question gains urgency because of the central premise of Taylor’s book in which feminist commitments are aligned, pragmatically and morally, with anti-carceral commitments. What emerges from these interventions—and from this symposium as a whole—is a set of vibrant reflections on feminism, sexuality, gender, justice, and desire, as well as important insights into Foucault’s oeuvre and into our own daily experiences.
The anti-carceral framing of Taylor’s book provides a way to think through an under-theorized aspect of Foucault’s work on criminology and sexology: namely, how the construction of the “sex offender” and other sexual deviants underscores the imperatives of biopower, resulting in more rather than less sexual violence. Three critical prison studies scholars, participating in this symposium, help us to consider the sedimented dynamics by which these imperatives saturate daily life. Kelly Struthers Montford’s response, for example, situates the prison system in its broader historical context: given that colonialism and incarceration are mutually implicating practices, on this account, the anti-carceral project of Taylor’s book must also be a decolonial project. In turn, Katarina Bogosavljevic and Jennifer M. Kilty examine an additional case, beyond the book’s own case studies, in which mandates of biopower lead directly to carceral practices: namely, the case of HIV nondisclosure. As their response highlights, anti-carceral research includes the very affective and emotional attachments to criminalization that often remain dislodged by academic work.
While these arguments implicate all of us, in our own activities and lives, they bear particular consequence for professionals whose work intersects with carceral systems. Writing as a psychiatrist, Suze Berkhout reflects on the significance of resistance from within prisons, in the form of food refusal. By putting psychiatry itself on the hook in this reflection, Berkhout poses the question, “How might we communicate across difference and restructure our imaginaries in relation to justice?”
While this query gains specific meaning in the context of psychiatry, it is an urgent one for all of us. Rather than a system invested in justice, the carceral system is better described, in Dean Spade’s terminology, as the “criminal punishment system” (2011). Taylor’s anti-carceral philosophy is in solidarity with important feminist work by Spade, Angela Davis (2005), Lissa Skitolsky (2020), and many activist-scholars who call for the abolition of the prison system as a way to further social justice. Prisons, widely understood to be “useless” as mechanisms for undermining crime, are themselves sites of horrific and systemic violence, as Taylor’s book makes persuasively clear. Since reforms of the prison system only serve to reinforce the logics of carceral punishment, abolitionism is a political project that seeks to undercut these logics altogether. What could and should take its place, however, is a pressing philosophical question. This open-ended question, elaborated in various ways by the symposium responses, invites us all to reflect on the stakes of resisting capitalist, white supremacist, ableist, gender normative, and imperialist systems of social control.
Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture and Empire. New York: Seven Stories, 2005.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 82–83. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
Skitolsky, Lissa. Hip-Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness? Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2020.
Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. New York: South End, 2011.
Taylor, Chloë. “Abnormal Appetites: Foucault, Atwood, and the Normalization of an Animal-Based Diet.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 10.4 (2012) 130–47.
———. “Foucault and the Ethics of Eating.” Foucault Studies 9 (2010) 71–88.
———. Foucault, Feminism, and Sex Crimes: An Anti-carceral Analysis. New York: Routledge, 2018.