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Response to “The Weight of Obesity”

I am inspired by The Weight of Obesity. In the short few weeks that I have had it on my desk, I have come to consider it as a text to think with, an approach to learn from, and material to teach. The text will inform my own practices as an anthropologist, a science studies body, a teacher, and—on a good day—a writer. Just to wrap up my praise: like very few others, this text accomplishes what any book should: it makes one live with it, through it, and see the world through its eyes. If a book has eyes, that is—and of course, not to over-privilege the visual among the senses.

In these few short weeks that I have lived with this text, I have come to think somewhat differently—or, to be more precise, I have become differently aware—of my transactions in the store. Do I pin or do I pay in coin, when and why, and how if at all does it matter? When my cheese goes on the scale, what’s on or in the balance? What is “balance,” or a balance, anyway? When I buy my bread at the French bakery and my dairy at the farm fresh store next door, rather than at the Albert Heijn supermarket, what am I buying for the extra cost—what is my balance, there? When I refuse to buy a scale (any scale) for my new house, what is it that I am resisting? When I decide to embrace the challenge of vegetable week and confine myself to a diet without meat, how do I balance nutrients, calories, and pleasure; cravings and satisfactions; needs and tastes; belly feel and shifts in body image; motivations and considerations; relationships with or to people, animals, knowledge, numbers, and things? And what does that very phrase: “confine myself to a diet without meat” reveal about my normal; how is it or has it become normal to eat in this particular, meat-oriented way?

It’s not as if, as a science studies anthropologist, I wasn’t looking at everything in life as an experiment in knowing, anyway—but The Weight of Obesity has re-animated my curiosity about the materialities of the transactions of the day-to-day.

In what follows I will name just a few aspects of the book that I think are strengths. There are many I won’t dwell on. For instance, I am not attending here to the many ways in which the book demonstrates how the global is made in the local; I am eschewing its nuanced discussion of economics and economies; I am leaving aside the connections drawn between terroir, taste, and the genetic dispositions of race—all areas close to my own work. One other caveat: some of the words I am using here may sound critical, as they do not usually connote praise. So let me say upfront that my comments flow from respect for the author and pleasure in engaging her text.

What I like about this book is that it is a little raw. I didn’t make an error; I purposely didn’t say that it is still a little raw. For I don’t mean to say that the text isn’t polished. Make no mistake, this text’s “rawness” is the result of a lot of painstaking, careful authorial work. What I mean is that The Weight of Obesity succeeds in showing, attending to, respecting the conditions of its production. It has achieved this rawness; it is a feat.

Let me explain. At every turn, we learn from Yates-Doerr how she learned. How she learned from, about, with, the women she lived with, the patients she helped treat, the families she helped cook for, the markets where she spent her Quetzales, the forces that turned obesity into a Guatemalan problem to be solved. It is this learning, and the visibility of the work of finding her feet, grappling with contradictory circumstances (contradictory for anthropologist and interlocutors, both), resisting the pressures of taken for granted questions, understandings and interpretations, and undermining the terms that are mindlessly used in measuring, calculating, and intervening in metabolic conditions, that make this book such a fascinating but also such a rich—rica—read.

Meanwhile, the argument is extremely carefully crafted. By articulating her doubts but also her meanings and certainties, the author leads us through a landscape of her own devising that we have no problem believing is the landscape we would recognize, were we to be in her shoes. In her shoes. Carefully qualifying, positioning, and calibrating whose shoes we are in, without hedging or apologizing, she gives us the sense that this is how it is while it might at the same time be or be understood differently.

The result is that this text profoundly destabilizes one’s sense of knowing anything forever. That may not be what we typically demand of a book, that it undermines our sense of knowing anything forever or for sure. While in anthropology and science studies we are surely less forgiving of books that project certainty, that doesn’t mean that we are necessarily sold on the idea that it is in the doing of the making of the stuff that finds its way onto the page, that actualities emerge. And surely when weighing a book’s potential use in the classroom, as I am seriously contemplating—to throw it at college-age engineers-in-the making—a book’s destabilizing features may not be what one is looking for. But it’s precisely this sensibility of shifting actualities that I come away with after reading The Weight of Obesity and it’s precisely this shift in our understanding of what reality is made of that I would like to impart to my engineers.

For it is a profound, and profoundly important, achievement, to rattle our certainties, rat them out, shake them to the bones. What I appreciate here is that the book undermines conventional wisdoms gently, incrementally, one at a time, weaving its destabilizing web cautiously, carefully, and devastatingly, until by the end one’s faith in calculatory logics—even if it were solid to begin with—is no more. What one comes away with, meanwhile, is a profound trust in the world-making powers of ethnographic observation (and so of the ethnographer/author/authority’s complicity in actualizing the actualities that solidify in her text), and a sense that if anything is real in this world it’s the connectivity of the relations that, through living together, one builds.

What conventional wisdoms are we talking about unsettling here? What is it that I would like my engineers to learn a thing or two—or three—about? Among other things, what I’d like to them take away is the triple nature of numbers: (1) a sensitivity to the arbitrariness of numbers, standards, measuring practices, and the interventions that flow from them. At the same time, (2) a sense of the performative work that these numbers and the interventions that are based on them do in and on the bodies of the Guatemalan citizens whom they diagnose with obesity or metabolic disease. And then (3) the awareness that the priority of numbers in the practices of the social sciences invites the ethnographer to mobilize them while also pointing, always, to their conditions of production.

Numbers are everywhere in this book: numbers indicating the size of the population, the size of the body, the size of a bunch of tomatoes, the size of the price paid for the bunch of tomatoes, the size of Guatemala vis-à-vis the rest of the world, the size of the problem of obesity in Guatemala and elsewhere. Numbers are about relative size. But Emily insists on asking where these numbers come from, how they are made, what they are used for, and what they bring about. What they perform. So not only do numbers point to relative size; once you make it a practice to take them seriously, they are and are made of relationships. After a few chapters, it’s impossible to see a number, any number, without asking questions about its relationships.

I have done some similar things in my work on the calorie. On calorIES, as the conditions of production of the calorie, and the use of calories in a variety of practices, showing that there is not “one calorie” (M. de Laet 2017). If there were a starting point for collaboration between myself and The Weight of Obesity (or its author), it might be there: a joint effort at destabilizing the calorie, this metric that in certain day-to-day practices of eating, cooking, and measuring the body machine, is such a fixture and appears or is made to seem such a fixed, known entity.

But then I’d have to have materials such as these! I am blown away by the materials that make this book and that in turn are made by the making of this book. Which means that I truly esteem the author and her nuanced, careful attention to and patience with relations, relationality, and the materiality and actuality that these effect. Care and patience shine through in the Weight of Obesity and it is the weight of the responsibility that flows from this care that makes the book, in the end, such a gift. So, thank you.

I’d like to conclude by posing a question about problems and solutions. To do so, let me first quote an exchange on Facebook with my friend A:

A: If you can’t describe a problem accurately, you can’t solve it

B: The answer is 42

A: OK, you have found an exception. You are correct, sir.

Marianne can’t help chiming in: It’s the other way ‘round.

A: S’il n’y a pas de solution, c’est que il n’y a pas de probleme

Marianne: C’est la solution qui “construit” le probleme.

A: Absolument. That’s how I feel about solutions to climate change—as if climate change is THE problem, rather than a symptom. The “solutions” construct and obscure the problem(s).

Marianne: So nice to have friends in this uncomprehending world…

Funny. I turned that back into a relationship without even realizing it…. Anyhow. I don’t want to make this an issue of causality or construction, really. What my French didn’t allow me to say is that once a solution has been articulated, it is as if “the” problem is a fixed, stable, and known entity. So the solution runs ahead of the problem, and the problem, in a way, is an artifact or an intended consequence of the solution. And I wonder if obesity in Guatemala isn’t the “solution” that then frames what is “wrong” with the country, with its citizen body, with its body politic, and with globalization in general. The Weight of Obesity, or so it seems to me, insists on the unbearable weight of obesity as a “solution”—or explanation—of wrongs. And it does a nice job of destabilizing obesity and confronting it with its “others.” But then… what? To put this otherwise, I’m intrigued to see what doors this kind of insistence on instability might then open.

 

References

de Laet, Marianne. “Personal Metrics.” In B. Littig et al. (eds.) Methodological Reflections on Practice Oriented Theories, Springer Verlag 2017; paper available upon request.

 

Marianne de Laet is an Associate professor of Anthropology and Science, Technology, and Society at Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, as well as a research associate in the Eating Bodies research project at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. Her work, which lives in the realm of Science and the Senses, especially geared towards connections between tasting, sniffing, and knowing, concerns the work of categories. Always interested in destabilizing frameworks that are easily taken for granted, she investigates how categories are made, how they do their work, how they get stabilized and even essentialized, and what is produced if we investigate their conditions of production and their consequences, so as to imagine how ordering might be done differently.


One Response to Response to “The Weight of Obesity”

  1. Pingback: Book Forum — Emily Yates-Doerr’s “The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala” | Somatosphere

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