Cosmopolitanism and original sin

I’ve been working recently on cosmopolitanism – particularly investigating its relationship to foodscapes and foodways. It’s led me down a nice genealogical path right back to Kant, who I’ve yet to properly read (thank you Wikipedia!), not to mention the Greeks, whose word it is originally. I’ve just finished typing up my notes on Bruce Robbins’ “Comparative Cosmopolitanism” (1992), which does some very similar work to what I did in the first draft of the paper I’m delivering in India next week, but with far greater sophistication and depth. It will tie in very nicely to said paper.

The thing I’m really interested in this second (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), is the criticism of the knowledge of the cosmopolitans – Hage comes to mind in particular with his discussion of Heidegger’s argument about the ‘discourse of value’ – that is, those doing the valuing are in the position of power that allows them to value those who ‘exist’ to be valued. In Bell and Valentine’s (1997) chapter on food consumption in communities, the authors define cosmopolitanism as involving “the cultivating of ‘globalised cultural capital’ as a form of lifestyle shopping which, crucially, involves possessing considerable knowledge about the ‘exotic’ [or] ‘the authentic’” which they point out is often referred to as a “colonisation or an intellectualisation of popular culture” (135-136). Robbins offers a clear defense for the knowledge of cosmopolitans ‘to educate future citizens of the world’ rather than ‘future policemen of the world’ (he’s writing about America just after the ’91 Gulf War). But what about the ‘naysayers’, those who object to cosmopolitanism on the grounds that it is elite, based perhaps on assumptions around Bourdieu’s study of distinction and class boundaries maintained by the cultivation of particular knowledges?

What struck me was an issue I’ve had with the Adam and Eve story for a very long time. As the story goes, Eve led Adam astray, overstepped her human boundaries set by God and was tossed out of Eden for it to a life of toil and mortality. What did she do? Was it that she disobeyed God? Perhaps. Was it that she sought knowledge from the apple? Was it that she was curious? Were these her sins? Arguably, it was all of the above – and the fact that she valued knowledge over obedience is one for the philosophers to nut out. (And we shall here entirely ignore the spineless Adam’s ‘she did it’, which appears to have done him or his kind little good anyway, and makes me suddenly wonder whether he even took a bite, but I’m just being cheeky now.)

In the past, a primary concern I’ve had with this story is the other major ‘punishment’ for her ‘sin’, which was to endure pain in childbirth, which, interestingly, is because of those damned big heads of human young, chock full of readiness for knowledge. I will maintain my position that it was this Judeo-Christian story that led to millenia of Western women to think the pain of childbirth was a punishment, and that as soon as medical advances made it possible to avoid this punishment and growing secularism made women increasingly comfortable with saying such things as “we don’t ‘deserve’ this pain”, we had an epidemic of high intervention childbirths with a slurry of unfortunate side effects.

But I digress, because today I’m annoyed at this story as it seems to recur in the arguments against distinguishing oneself with knowledge, as though knowledge is somehow ‘bad’ or even ‘sinful’. If I may be provocative, it sounds like the Christian Right trying to shut down dissent again – which sounds suspiciously like what God was doing back there in Eden. Hm. Perhaps I’d best stop there, before somebody notices I’m not a Christian. Also, before I’m accused of defending ‘elitism’ uncritically, which is not my project. Of course, I don’t have to defend anything, since I’m just talking to myself here anyway…

Hey, another funny thing just occurred to me (I’m a bit slow sometimes) – to get the knowledge, Eve had to taste the apple. Is taste the original sense? Or is it just foundational or essential to identity making practices? Not that the Bible is the definitive authority on such things, of course…

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

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