Monday, 22 January 2018

But you're not defending sugar, are you?

When people find out that I'm researching sugar, the first assumption is that I'm joining in the attack on sugar - perhaps by finding out how sugar consumption can be reduced, or exposing the nefarious workings of the sugar industry. When I tell people that I'm not attacking (or endorsing) sugar, and  certainly have no intention of concluding what people should or shouldn't eat, there's a momentary pause, and the puzzled, slightly disappointed question: "But you're not defending sugar, are you?"

Firstly, I'm pretty sure that sugar doesn't need defending. In spite of its currently demonised state, demand for sugar is alive and well, and so-called 'big sugar' and its associated industries remain a powerful lobbying force. Having said that, I'm half tempted to try something along the lines of what French Literature professor, Richard Klein, describes as 'contrarian hyperbole', arguing that "when anything has been so debased or so glorified that its value is taken for granted, it becomes rhetorically necessary exaggerate the value of its opposite in order for skepticism to be heard at all". He brought this to bear beautifully in his books, Cigarettes and Sublime, and Eat Fat, but I'm not sure that I can carry this off with the same aplomb...Although the presumption of indefensibility makes me want to try. But in any case, this wouldn't constitute a 'defence' of sugar so much as a means of opening up the discussion. Which leads me to my second point...

I want to move away from polarising debates about the toxicity and over-consumption of sugar, and certainly want to distance myself from efforts to persuade or coerce (targeted) people to eat in normatively endorsed ways. I want to suggest that the attack on sugar is not about sugar per se - for example as a foodstuff of disputed nutritional value - but rather, I'm beginning from the premise that the prevailing discourse of sugar as 'public enemy number one' is functioning to obscure and silence dissenting voices while neutralising troubling social processes: for example, the normalisation of fat-phobia, the naturalisation of social inequalities, and the assertion of the primacy of 'health' as a marker of good citizenship. The project, then, aims to explore not how much sugar people should eat, but rather, what is silenced by the attack on sugar and what is brought to the fore. What goes missing in the rush to blame sugar and what is given centre stage? And to what intended and unintended effects?

This is my challenge - to find a way to think about sugar that makes me neither an apologist nor an anti-sugar warrior, but rather, which enables me to enact a thoughtful pause; to refuse the rush to "do something" that characterises anti-sugar discourse and practice to create spaces where we can explore wider questions of social inequality, food and environmental justice and embodied diversity.

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