pretty pedestrian pdf

hi everybody (hi dr. nick)

pretty pedestrian

this is a slim volume of poems. i wrapped this up today and the filetype extension .pdf is the bow. i hope you find it diverting, therapeutic, cathartic and whatever else you need. i can assure you that it will not meet all of your needs. maybe it’ll stroke a few underused metaphysical muscles? or those that i feel are underused, that’s why i piled these words onto pages. need to massage those spots that our present reality leaves aching. pining, you know.

with adoration ❤

hit me up for a physical book if you like it like that

k doggy


A Social Way of Thinking 2.0

Preface: What follows is an excerpt from a sprawling half-cooked work of memoir/critical theory/political ecology. The full piece is in her gestation period.

christmas lights angel

St. Catherine’s St., 2016

A Social Way of Thinking

Jack Spicer understood himself analogous to a satellite. He was no creator of content, but just its  interceptor and transmitter, like a radio, the translator mediating between frequencies.  His writers were extra-terrestrials with long-rage thought waves.

I turn outwards for insight, too. Sometimes I intentionally quote people, and I relish in the propelling of their words into the present. It is by intercepting them and carrying them forward that I keep ideas and language alive. Passing through mind ideas are ever shifting, growing in scope, considered at different scales, re-contextualized, critiqued and parodied. I refuse to deny the wisdom of my elders. So far, I have been gifted names for my first two public endeavours into social media. I consider these gifts to be markers of the contributions to my life given out of generosity by two of my closest friends at this time: Esteban and Richard.

Back to Jack Spicer. He wrote the following, section IX of XV in Fifteen False Propositions Against God (1958):

“After you have told your lover goodbye

And chewed the cud of your experience with him

Your bitter experience:

What else?

Perhaps trees. Slippery elm. Birch.

That knows no thankless nights. Oaktrees and palm

Ready to start a revolution.

No you should stay there with your roots in the ground

Ready to drink whatever water

The rain is willing to send you. The rain

The cow

And my true body a

Revolution.” (199)

This poem and its broken clauses offer me an incomplete conceptualization of the world. In the breaks between stanzas and the indentation between words on one line, there is room for a historical reservoir. “Your bitter experience:/ What else?” The break is a silence that defers to an archive of experience. The space suggests that reflection upon the constitution of the present is always already conditioned by an individual’s personal history.

mossy green gold tofinoi

En route to Tofino with Mama-D, 2016


Drinking “whatever water,” (199) the volume and type of nourishment is variable. What is available as a resource to growing, individual entities is a product of contingent social, geographical and temporal plains. Each growth is a singularity, developed at its genetic metabolic rate and in concert with the material and metaphysical landscape of the era. Materially, the language of Spicer’s poetry grows out of the poet’s own lived experience in the world. The more-than-human environment he interacted with in the Pacific Northwest is a lush surround. There is resonance between the experience of being at the whim of the weather, perhaps facing a storm, and being abjectly vulnerable to simultaneous structures of human power. One is overcome by, but also acting decisively in reference to one’s framework.

Spicer’s Pacific Northwest gives the reader access to a scale at which life is being lived that is beyond the human. In the poem above, the trees have a materiality that can be reached to for stability. It is a political act: Reaching out to ecology, Spicer holds the roots of a different kind of life, one that can’t be undone ideologically: the biological life of the green plant. He writes of processes of decay, renewal and change. The Earth’s ecology is key to any materialism. My childhood has outdoor resonances, memoire involuntaire with a personalized replacement for the realist cookie. (Berlant ).

Mossy. Sticky resin and the lemony bite of ants on the tongue. Raspberry leaves crushed with mint. Chive flowers and cherry leaves, clovers and spiky, verdant buttercup seeds. They were succulent under the tooth. It is a way of living, to live with the Earth. I like to think of the way I am with nature by way of Butler and Gregory’s account of a social movement taking place: “collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture.” In this way I moved twigs into fairy houses, insulating them gingerly with spaghnum. So I co-created with the irreducible materiality of minuscule pine limbs.

The materials of the Earth are “[r]eady to start a revolution.” (Spicer 199). Medicinal flora, the water cycle, the resilience of the dandelion and the clover and their kin that grow in disturbed ecosystems, the symbiotic brilliance of bacterial cultures. I would call this intellectual moment Political Ecological, a point iterated by Nancy Fraser. The foremost world crises involve the environment: climate change, air pollution, chemical waste, desertification, salinization, algael bloom, fish species collapse, the diminishment of biodiversity, the endangerment of apex species, to name a few. Environmental factors become impossible to separate from human circumstances. The paradigm of that interrelationship: global warming has been linked irrevocably to human activity since the Industrial Revolution. The ramifications of our relationship as a species to nature are unfolding. At present date, August 30, 2015, there are 340,000 refugees fleeing horror in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, and crossing into European borders to seek asylum. Major world news outlets have published titles like “Mass migration is no ‘crisis’: it’s the new normal as the climate changes” (Ellie Mae O’Hagan, The Guardian), “Global insecurity and refugee crisis linked to climate change: expert” (Chris Arsenault, Reuters) and “Call It What It Is: A Global Migration Shift From Climate, Not a Migrant or Refugee Crisis,” (The Huffington Post); they are reporting on the refugee crisis as a crisis induced by climate change. In the same week, the Atlantic covered it with the haunting article “The Black Route of Death From Syria.” The Syrian conflict was provoked in part by a drought that lasted from 2006-2011, causing waves of displaced rural labourers and their families to relocate to urban areas; this was a precursor to intense public discontent with the government in power. On the topic of climate change, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) makes the following projection:

“…for many this will mean a conscious move to another place to survive. Such moves, or the adverse effects that climate change may have on natural resources, may spark conflict with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources.”

The interplay of geopolitics with natural resources impacts the lives of billions. In Alberta, for example, applications for employment insurance (EI) have risen by seventy-four per cent in the last year, increasing over eight consecutive months, and Alberta now leads Canada as the province with the most people collecting EI. The development of the tar sands ground to a halt as a result of the Saudi Arabian glut of the resources market. In addition to resource conflicts, the impacts of natural disasters are managed differentially by human systems of oppression. Environmental hazards the likes of Hurricane Katrina and the poisoning of the Athabasca River and the Chipewyan peoples, inordinately touch the lives of indigenous people, racialized communities, the working poor, and the Global South. Keeping a critical politics of the way we co-exist (within the institution) has traditionally been the the domain of political ecology. Political ecological approaches, which stress the role of ideological and social stratification in the access to and legal definition of “nature,” have contributed to discourse and decision-making processes in British Columbia.

That what is “natural” is effected by human activity is no news to a staples economy. Resource exploration does benefit from a Judeo-Christian mindset about the natural world, which centres the perpetuation of the human and seeks human dominion on Earth. At this time in history, the environmental genocide of indigenous peoples to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry is its most publicized in the media, and yet persists. Water located in British Columbia is sold to a transnational corporation, Nestlé, for $2.25 per million litres. It is being resold for the systematic generation of economic capital, to animals exchanging their labour for currency, whose basic biological function depends on the constant availability of water. Although the legal system would call Nestlé an “individual,” all of the actors who carry out the mandate of the company are part of the reproduction of this system that depletes reservoirs. In order to afford and maintain their lives, they reproduce systems of exploitation in which they are embedded daily, directly and indirectly. (Latour). The corporatization of resources, and corporate capitalism more broadly, are deeply entangled with the material world and highly questionable. That is the terrain of political ecology. (Fraser, Crisis). The market does not operate within the same system of our biosphere: there is no natural self-regulation of abstract finance; the “invisible hand” is a myth. The rain has agency, too, and its process is distinct from us humans. It’s part of a world that persists even when you are dead.

That world is populated by a diversity of entities, some electronic. Spicer figures himself a radio, and the technological content of his work lives in a similar era. The writer died in 1965, long before Web 2.0. This is part of what makes us unique, not as one species but as individual humans: the personality and physical interface of the machines we are raised in the midst of. (Benjamin 218). Haraway calls us “chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids.” (1991).  The more-than-human is a discussion of the world and those objects/inventions that mediate between humans and the Earth. As technology is invented at an exponential pace, the technological moment that overlapped with my childhood was truly a blip in household media. I have had a long presence on the internet, in one guise or another. I can add Google, Ask Jeeves and Rollercoaster Tycoon to the “vanilla process of socialization” I underwent in the years of “mommy-daddy-and-me” being the central unit of my life. (Berlant, Desire/Love 2, Cruel Optimism). In my teens, my iPod was one of my closest companions. Donna Haraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in 1991, the year of my birth. It is a work of socialist feminism and “blasphemy,” and both a conceit for human heterogeneity and a materialist account of the transformative effects of relationships with technology. For Haraway, Michael Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field.” As it turns out, my relationship with my desktop PC, through which I engaged with hobbies such as downloading music, accumulating Neopoints, messing around on Photoshop, group chatting on AIM and writing melancholic fan-fiction, has prepared me well for adulthood. That two-foot deep desktop computer almost crushed my dad when he was walking it down our grey carpet staircase in North Van. He was wearing old leather slippers with worn soles, a frictionless match. Technologies shape our lives in numerous ways.

seeing capitalism in an avocado

seeing capitalism in an avocado

Preface: From a few years back. Real academic style but hopefully with enough pizazz to keep it compelling. Avocados are so sexy, curvaceous. Mother Nature’s butter.

Kathryn Mandell

GEOG395: Sundberg

Seeing Capitalism in an Avocado

Wintertime is here in Vancouver. While kale and arugula are still growing tall in nearby garden plots, the diet that I am accustomed to is reliant on imported food. The connection of my metabolism to the livelihoods of people in other regions of the world is fascinating and unsettling. (Sundberg, 2012). I eat their labour, but see and taste only its outcome: the commodity. In order to better understand how I have come to have a relationship with these material objects, I have undertaken the project of defetishising a commodity that I consume on a daily basis: the Hass avocado, supplied by Calavo Growers (a Californian corporation). My methodological approach is a commodity chain analysis. I have referred particularly to the work of Tanaka (2008) and Romero (2006) to inform my approach theoretically, and have relied on the latter’s highly detailed examination of the avocado industry in Mexico. Tracing a commodity chain is a useful framework for probing, within the limits of this paper, the geographical and social processes that are crystallized in the fruit. My investigation has found that the social relations contained in the avocado both secure exploitative relationships and provide space for resistance. A commodity chain analysis allows for an examination of the political and economic contexts for these outcomes. The Mexican state, and the economic models it has deployed, has been necessary to the facilitation of large-scale avocado production and export. (Romero, 2008, p. 67). Moreover, the exertion of power by the imperialist United States, in concert with Canada, have skewed the financial benefits to these two states while skewing the consequences to be mainly felt across the border in Mexico.

Unfortunately, a language barrier makes the defetishisation of the avocado difficult – the bulk of literature that deals with the socioeconomic context and intimately experienced impacts of the avocado industry in Mexico is in Spanish.

A Brief History


Archaeological studies have found evidence of avocados in Mitla, Oaxaca, from 700 B.C., as well as in Tehuacan, Pebula, from approximately 7,000 B.C. (Stanford, 2002, p. 295). The presence of avocado orchards in Michoacán contributed to the Spanish Colonial perception of “The Paradise of Michoacán,” a vision of the region as bountifully productive of food and warm in temperature. (Buchenau, 2005, p. 119; Stanford, 2002, p. 295).

A plant breeder in California developed the vigorous and resilient Hass variety of avocado in the 1920s. (California Avocado Board, 2012). By 1957, it was imported to nurseries in Michoacán, and from there the bud wood, a shoot of the plant from which avocados can be propagated, was made available to Michoacán growers. (Stanford, 2002, p. 296). It only took a handful of years for Hass to be recognized as the most productive variety. Hass soon supplanted other breeds on a great number of crops. (Stanford, 2002, p. 296).

Hass avocados are now the single most recognizable cultivar. Contemporarily considered the generic variety, Hass represent an estimated 85% of global avocado production. (Litz, Gómez Lim & Raharjo, 2007, p. 170). Mexico is the world’s primary producer. (Ashworth, Chen & Clegg, 2007, p. 325). Their production is concentrated in Michoacán, where 6000 avocado orchards cover approximately 90,000 hectares of land. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189). The heterogeneous landscapes of the region create a variety of microclimates, which together allow for year-round avocado production. Thanks to the unending growing season, Michoacán is the world’s largest producer of avocadoes, and is responsible for 40% of world avocado production as of 2005. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189).

The Commodity Chain

This list of steps reveals that the avocado supply chain is built into countless identities – it requires the labour of and makes contact with bodies in distant geographical, social and economic contexts. By following the avocado from an orchard in Michoacán, Mexico, to the Mount Pleasant Buy-Low where I purchase the fruit, the involvement of humans and non-human actors in its supply chain become visible. The information in the next paragraph, detailing the steps in the commodity chain, is sourced from an informal interview that I conducted with the avocado buyer employed by Western Produce, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler based in Langley. His name is Craig McCullough. I have supplemented the information that he courteously provided with corroborating pieces of the story, from alternative sources – these are noted appropriately.

oaxaca avocado harvest

The commodity chain begins on the avocado orchard. Here, they are harvested by male Mexican employees, who use hooks with nets to gather the fruit and place it in clean boxes, which are transported by covered trucks to a Calavo packinghouse. (Salazar-Garcia, 2005, p. 4). The company’s regulations state that they must not touch the ground at any point during the harvest. (Salazar-Garcia, 2005, p. 4). Orchard owners will have signed contracts with Calavo, to secure their payment and the company’s supply of avocados. (McCullough, 2012). In the packinghouse, predominantly female employees inspect each individual product as they roll by on mechanized conveyor belts. (Salazar-Garcia, 2005, p. 32). The avocados are sorted according to size and level of ripeness, hot-dipped or fumigated to remove any microbial hazards and pests that could make contact with other countries, and then packed onto pallets. (McCullough, 2012). Twenty-two pallets, carrying eighty 25lb cases, are placed on a truck that is then sealed, again to ensure that no unwanted substances make their way into the United States. (McCullough, 2012). At this point, Calavo maintains responsibility for transporting the product from the field to the wholesaler. Avocados are highly sensitive to temperature, and are damaged by refrigeration; the interior of the truck is kept at 55-56 degrees Fahrenheit. At no time is the load unsealed during the trucker’s trip north across the United States, until, upon reaching the border, customs agents open the seal, unload and inspect the order. From here, Westcoast Produce picks up the supply chain. (McCullough, 2012). A Canadian employee transfers the pallet to a branded truck, and will continue up to Langley, where Westcoast Produce is located. Westcoast Produce is a wholesaler for Buy-Low Foods. (McCullough, 2012). Their warehouse is equipped with humidity and temperature-controlled zones, too, to maintain quality and appearance. Another employee, based out of their warehouse, consults the orders that have been placed by retail outlet buyers. This employee will build Buy-Low’s order, which would include produce from elsewhere in the world: bananas, kiwis, potatoes will be consolidated with the avocados in the requested quantities, and delivered on yet another truck. (McCullough, 2012). Once the avocados have been unloaded at Buy-Low, a staff member may put one case on display and keep the remainder of the shipment in a temperature-controlled zone. (McCullough, 2012). In the fruits and vegetables section of Buy-Low, avocados will be arranged next to produce with complimentary colours, and organized to suggest food combinations to customers – typically, avocados will be placed beside tomatoes. From the time an order is placed by Buy-Low, it takes approximately ten days before the requested avocadoes are delivered. (McCullough, 2012). The chain culminates with me, the consumer, and the many others like me who shop at the big-box store. Browsing the aisles, we pick up the food that we will make into our sustenance.


Avocados and Land Reform

75% of avocado orchards are located on private property, while the remaining 25% are on ejidos, or communal property. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189). Agricultural plots in the communal sector tend to be between 1 and 5 hectares in area. Conversely, individual commercial operations may cover a tract of land as wide as 500 hectares. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189).

Land tenure and economic systems are organized by the state, so the political context for the demarcation of space for the supply chain is of interest. The present state of avocado production is in part a result of generations of political and economic upheaval. (Romero, 1998, p. 67). Agrarian reforms have taken place many times over, as presidents have been pressured to follow contradictory mandates. (Assies, 2008, p. 34). Both the peasantry and business sector have been vocal in demanding that the government respond to their respective needs; in acting in the interest of one party, the interests of the other must go unrealized. (Assies, 2008, p. 45). Presently, the economic viability of small landholders is low. (Romero, 1998, p. 108). In order to create context for the current state of land tenure and productive ability, I utilize the work of Assies (2008) to detail a few critical moments that have been the result of government policy.

The use of land for large-scale private agriculture was encouraged by state policies in the first half of the 20th century. (Assies, 2008, p. 58). For Assies (2008), this is especially true under the consecutive administrations of Camacho, Valdés and Cortinez. (p. 45). As landownership became increasingly concentrated in agribusiness, the ejido sector was utilized as a source of inexpensive wage labourers.  (Assies, 2008, p. 45). That division of land and the valuation of commercial agriculture over subsistence production is foundational to the present configuration of the avocado industry. (Assies, 2008, p. 43).

Decades later, in the 1970s, national programmes advocated for the aggressive expansion of avocado production. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189). As a result, surpluses of the fruit saturated the national market, and profitability declined for much of the 1980s. (Stanford, 2005, p. 189). Under president Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), the state transitioned towards an export-oriented economic development model. (Anonymous, 2012). Liberalization of the economy was furthered by the following president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, under his “Liberty and Justice for the Countryside” program. (Assies, 2008, p. 48-52). Part and parcel of this rolling out of neoliberalism and rolling back of the state was agrarian land reform in the 1980s and 1990s. (Assies, 2008, p. 48-52). The current land tenure systems in Michoacan are the result of these land reforms, and adjustments made to the Constitution in 1992. (Assies, 2008, p. 33)

In line with this neoliberal regime, the expansion of exports was considered crucial to economic stability. Having penetrated the European market in 1982, the US was the next major export opportunity. Major commercial avocado operations supported negotiations of a NAFTA, and organized meetings to bring together government representatives and growers. (Stanford, 2005, p. )

Avocados faced unique obstacles in the US market: Mexican avocados were perceived by California growers as rife with invasive species, and unfit for entry into the country. Mexican agribusiness and government collaborated to design a campaign that would fight avocado insect pests banned by the U.S. This phytosanitary campaign was highly involved: technical surveys of pest populations were coupled with eradication strategies across Michoacan. Testing for pests demonstrated that a number of large avocado orchards were free from unwanted organisms. (Stanford, 2005).

In the 1980s, two economic shifts at the national scale had immense impact at the scale of the individual. First, the sharp decline in oil prices in 1982 spurred the “Mexican Crisis.”  In response, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) installed austerity policies in Mexico, and demanded a shift from previous economic models to a free market model. (Romero, 2006, p. 41). Second, in order to play by the rules of the NAFTA, the Mexican federal government was forced to reduce agricultural subsidies. Most avocado producers rely on bank loans and loans from major avocado producers, if they can acquire them, and are burdened with high debt. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2004, p. 54; Stanford, 2005, p. 199). For avocado producers, the lack of available subsidies is compounded by the phytosanitary campaign and its associated regulations, which together opened the US to Mexican avocados. These state directed systems have impacted all avocado producers, including those who do not grow for export. Regulations dictate methods of maintaining orchards, harvesting, and transportation to packinghouses. Additionally, all orchards must be registered with SAGAR. This strict state regulation is predatory: its requirements are unaffordable to many small landholding farmers, who are uninterested in exporting the fruits of their labour. Regardless, state regulations that were created in order to satisfy the United States are applied to all avocado farmers. Barred from participating in the sale of avocados in the national market, they are forced into wage labour in order to provide for themselves and their dependents. (Romero, 2006, p. 81). Sometimes, the lack of available capital leads to an alternative choice, which increases the linkages that comprise the commodity chain. This is the case when male adults leave Michoacán for the United States and send remittances home to their families; Romero (2006) documented that remittances have enabled small landholders to take control of their avocado orchards and enter the export market. (p. 84).

This discussion of US trade policies is foundational to my commodity chain, as it is a US corporation that handles and delivers the avocados I eat. Calavo invested in the construction of a branch plant in Michoacán, in 1998. (Hogeland, 2004, p. 1271). The capital accumulated by the supply chain is disproportionately allocated to Calavo, due in part to the vertical integration of their supply chain.

Figure 1. Map of the distribution of Calavo avocados from Mexico. (Calavo, 2012).

Calavo was able to establish itself in Michoacán because of the NAFTA. Former President of Mexico Felipe Calderon stated that high export sales of avocados are proof that NAFTA, “in general, has been beneficial for Mexicans.” (Avila, 2008). This sentiment is corroborated by radio broadcasts that are funded by the government. The advertisements feature avocado farmers, who publicly praise the NAFTA. One of these broadcast slots quotes farmer Benito Camacho of the Uruapan region of Michoacán, who says that, because of NAFTA, “there are low-income producers who now have a tractor… now we have our little pickup truck.” (Avila, 2008).

Unsurprisingly, the advertisements hide alternative assessments of the NAFTA. The expectation that the free trade agreement would result in job creation and income increases was not met. (Romero, ). This is especially true for the peasantry, who instead of experiencing improvements in living standards, suffered the most severe implications of the NAFTA: …. () The commodity chain reveals the powerful actors in the industry, and the political and economic histories that have endowed them with influence. In this case, the IMF, the government of the United States, the Mexican government and a Californian corporation are intimately involved in a global production network that has supplanted small landholders, replaced the cultivation of staple crops with crops for export and increased reliance on expensive, imported food products. They’ve also given me access to abundant, cheap avocados.

However, power is not entirely exclusive to those influential actors. Those with less capital have acted back within the framework of the production system for their own benefit. Thus, while the majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of elite producers, there is some opportunity for resistance.

The Eye of the Consumer: Aesthetic Requirements for Export

Whether or not an avocado will make it to the market depends on physical characteristics that signify quality. This part of the supply chain – the methods used to meet standards and the assessment of each individual product – reflects the aesthetic preferences of consumers, or at least their interpretation by retailers and buyers. (Stanford, 2002, p. 294). In order to meet these criteria, avocado growers have formally agreed to postpone harvesting until the fruit reaches a particular stage of growth. (Salazar-Garcia, 2005, p. 32).

The End of the Supply Chain: Consuming the Avocado

Personal and social identities are cobbled together through actions. The consumption of food is meaningful to any identity-building project, and the reasons behind eating or not eating particular foods are an important part of this process. (Tanaka, 2008, p. 2).

No avocados are grown for commercial markets in Canada. Eating a fruit that is definitively from another country helps to create our definitions of “here” and “there,” solidifying an imaginary of Mexico in a physical and consumptive act. (Tanaka, 2008, p. 2). However, Tanaka (2008) reminds me that we can completely detach a commodity from its cultural traditions. (p. 93). Thus, although I often see an image of Mexico when I eat a fruit that was grown there, it is (was, perhaps, after taking Sundberg’s Geographies of Latin America class at the University of British Columbia, and after writing this paper) a mainstream imaginary of Mexico that I envision. The “Paradise of Michoacan.” (Stanford, 2002, p. ). Thus, my connection to Mexico through this consumptive act has more to offer through an Occidentalist analysis than it has to say about Mexico. (p. 94).

I typically consume half of an avocado a day. Three of my four roommates covet the buttery green fruit. We have expressed to one another the sense of anticipation we feel, knowing that the next meal in the day will incorporate avocado. It is an important, ritual act. Eating them makes each of us feel well physically and mentally. This feeling of well-being that we associate with avocados is partially due to the constructed idea that avocados are a healthy food to eat.

In Canada, avocados are advertised for their health benefits. Canadian Living Magazine included avocados in its “Glossary of Healthy Fruits,” stating that eating the fruit can lower cholesterol levels. (Rosenblum, 2008). Featured in the fruit section of Canada’s Food Guide, that half avocado that I eat is recommended by a division of the Canadian federal government, Health Canada. (Health Canada, 2007). Images of the fruit are often employed on advertisements for spas. I first ate avocados as a snack provided by my Caucasian, Canadian mother. Since then, as I have sought out information on personal health, popular websites, magazines and books on nutrition have encouraged me to consume them. While I eat an avocado, I am aware of their benefits to my reproductive system, my heart, my skin. The fetishization of avocados allows for this connection to them as a functional product for health.

Fundamentally, consuming fruit connects our metabolisms to Michoacán landholders and employees, as well as to those who have been displaced by its production. (Sunberg, 2012). Although all actions are inevitably political, I was ignorant of the political nature of my avocado consumption. Perhaps it was inevitable that, having completed my research for this paper, I should feel a heightened sense of unease about eating avocados. Cherry, DeSoucey, and Ellis (2011) investigated the ways in which research on consumptive practices influences the behaviour of the researcher themselves. Now, I see myself as an active participant in a system that is highly polarizing. However, I understand in spite of that knowledge, I will continue to eat avocados. I might not eat half of one every single day. Although I am embedded in the lives of those at the beginning of the chain, the parts of the narrative that are problematic to me are outcomes of the interaction of powerful corporations with state legislated land tenure and subsidy programs. My consumption fuels this system. Still, I feel infinitesimally small in the commodity chain.



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Japanese restaurants. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (NR37108).

interpreted imaginaries

Kathryn Mandell

Oct. 10.12

Geog395, Sundberg

Interpreted Imaginaries

I have never been able to erase myself from mind, remove it from my body, and so act as a value-neutral observer. A result of this inability is the filtering of information through my particular positional lenses: my gender, ethnicity, class, geographical location, and affiliations. Information is reinterpreted and re-personalized at every point at which it is learned or rewritten, (re)producing geographical imaginaries and inequalities. (Sundberg, 2005). Whether or not those imaginaries and inequalities become persistent is hinged on the power and prestige of the interpreter. I support this argument with examples from Sluyter (2006) “Humboldt’s Mexican Texts and Landscapes” and Mills, Taylor and Graham (2002) “Two Woodcuts Accompanying a 1509 German Translation of Amerigo Vespucci’s Letter to Pietro Soderini (1504).”  I have also referred to Raffles’ (2002) “Intimate Knowledge,” as the work contributes to a dialogue on dominant interpretation.

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Figure 1. Illustration from a German translation of Amerigo Vespucci’s letter to Pietro Soderini, Strassburg, 1509. (Mills & Taylor, 1998, p. 67).

My own perspective, that all acts of understanding are interpretive in nature, led me to a body of work called hermeneutics. Although I do not have the space to incorporate hermeneutics into my argument, it is related to critical and feminist geographies; specifically, it acknowledges the impossibility of a “[g]od’s eye view,” and seeks out the ways in which knowledge production and knowledge are situated. (Kinsella, 2006). In other words, “once we accept the notion of vantage point, we become aware that no one has a total vision from any place in the world.” (Greene, 1995b, p. 18, from Kinsella, 2006). Certainly, my vantage point provides less than a total vision of Latin America. Regardless, I am also a producer of knowledge. Some of my prominent conceptualizations were made in educational institutions, within the limiting structure of a curriculum. What was taught in the classroom was, therefore, grounded in the situated knowledge of my teachers, all of whom were white, multiple-generation North Americans, themselves likely taught in Eurocentric institutions; all of whom, at least by the time they were writing on a blackboard in front of me, were middleclass. In the classroom, the conquest of the Americas was taught in broad brushstrokes. To me, a thirteen year-old who dreamed in historical fiction, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the “New World” and the following colonial project were exhilarating and romantic adventures. Now, I reflect on my younger perceptions of Latin America as being Orientalist, and sympathetic to the colonizers. Through layered interactions within the locales I occupied – school, home, friend circles –, I interpreted the conquest as the benevolent encounter of hardy pioneers with colourful Indians. From my interpretations, the narratives I engaged in school and on the playground were bound up in a civilized/savage binary. On a small scale, I reproduced Eurocentric conceptualizations of history.

Working briefly with Raffles’ text, I found another site of interpretation in the translation of information from non-scientific, “local” language to scientific, “universal” measurements and terminology. Raffles learned that Amazonian anthropogenic rivers, the object of his research, were nothing new or exciting to the people dwelling in close proximity to them. Still, their knowledge of the manmade rivers would not be considered legitimate until recorded by a scientist, and the research submitted through the appropriate institutional channels.  In this example, the asymmetry is clear: local, experientially learned knowledge was inferior to the hegemonic scholarly belief that river-dwelling Amazonians could not intervene in nature for their own purposes. Raffles suggests that the rivers went unseen by scientists for so long because the questions that would bring them to light didn’t need to be posed. A dominant conceptual framework of the way a forest works already existed, and research questions primarily remained within the confines of this framework. Following a science/nature binary, the power and the prestige of the academic discipline of ecology made their narratives persistent. (2002, p. 326-327).

The second form of interpretation is made on more epistemologically equal ground, the interpretation by one person of work put together by others. This is a process of emphasizing particular sentences, findings, and thoughts, and de-emphasizing others. The interpretation retains only pieces of the original text. Sluyter argues that Humboldt was selective in his research, at times appearing to have made only cursory glances at relevant manuscripts. It appears to Sluyter that he highlighted evidence that corroborated his findings, while neglecting to incorporate contradictory analyses. Indeed, Humboldt did not incorporate specific, telling works into his depictions of Latin America. An eyewitness account of Mexico’s Gulf lowlands, in Historia verdadera dela conquista  dela  Nueva Espaia, by Diaz del Castillo (1632;[1632]1986, from Sluyter, 2006, p. 371), describes the author’s encounter with a major population centre that Humboldt makes no mention of: “…on seeing such a large city, and having seen no other larger, we greatly admired it, and how it was so luxuriant and like a garden, and so populous with men and women…” With his supporting evidence, he was able to maintain his position that the Gulf lowlands were relatively undeveloped. Although the degree of honesty and rigor in his research is questionable, Humboldt’s popularity and reputation gave his arguments weight enough to revive the “pristine myth” of the Americas. (Denevan, 1992, Sluyter, 2006). The influence of his work is debated, but it is widely considered to have freighted motivation for past and present economic development strategies in the Gulf lowlands. (Sluyter, 2006, p. 379).

Making sense of material observations is also an interpretive act. Though maps of Humboldt’s exploration show that he traveled through agricultural lands in Mexico’s Gulf Lowlands, and at a period of the dry season during which stone vestiges of terraces should have been visible, he makes no mention of major human interventions in the landscape. Reminiscent for me of the way teachers galloped through a history of Latin America, the amount of time available for study can determine the depth of analysis. The speed with which Humboldt traversed the Gulf Lowlands – spending two days there, in contrast to his six months spent taking field notes in the Lower Basin of Mexico – must have influenced the amount of terrain he crossed. Indeed, he refrained entirely from visiting Zempoala, the precolonial city noted in the previous paragraph. Such a sight may have unseated his observation that the Gulf Lowlands were relatively unpopulated. Additionally, interpretation is mediated by personal affect, in Raffles’ words the “mediator of rationality.” (2002, p. 332). Citing the role of affect in Humboldt’s observations, Sluyter states that the potential for contracting yellow fever “seems to have negatively influenced his judgement” of the Gulf Lowlands. (Sluyter, 2006, p. 377, 369).

Another site of interpretation is the translation of words across languages, where there is a high potential for differing, personal understandings and the  mistranslation of text. In Colonial Spanish America: A Documentary History, the authors state that translations of Vespucci’s “Letter to Soderini” (published 1505-1506) magnified enticing parts of his writing. What is memorable to the interpreter is often emphasized in its reproduction. His depictions of the people he encountered on his journey to the Caribbean framed them as primordial, sexually unrestrained and brutish. Vespucci’s vantage point here is notable. Mills et al note that Vespucci wrote to satisfy certain agendas – to continue the funding of his voyages, to appease and tease European curiosity about newly charted territory – shaping his own interpretations. From his own social location, he depicted Americans in contrast to Western Europeans, and in holding customs familiar to him as the standard, found they were wrought with “deficiencies.” (1998, p. 60). The stratification of power is clear here: just as Vespucci interpreted the landscape of Latin America, those translators and artists, as well as an audience of Western Europeans, interpreted and his work to make his ideas persistent. Meanwhile, the narrative of those Caribbean peoples, cast as inferior to Vespucci’s, went unheard.

The artist who created woodcuts to accompany a German translation of the letter visually interpreted Vespucci’s words. He infused the pieces with his own perspectives on the “New World,” a place he had not traveled to himself. In doing so, he reinterpreted the traveler’s textual representation of Americans. In their distance from European societal structures, they are made out to look unhampered, the image of intimidation. This narrative was reproduced with Vespucci’s, each functioning as affirmations of inequality, deftly placing native peoples closer to nature in the nature/culture binary.


Figure 1. Illustration from a German translation of Amerigo Vespucci’s letter to Pietro Soderini, Strassburg, 1509. (Mills & Taylor, 1998, p. 67).

By situating knowledge, and attempting to make visible the personal texture of interpretation and production of thought, it becomes possible to look critically at commonly held conceptions and the binaries that ground them. Certainly, my own biases have made it into this short work. “Fundamentally fostering an  attitude of vigilance rather than  denial” is a dynamic and constant project. (Hooks, 1989, p. 164, from Kinsella, 2006). Neither prestige, nor power, nor the enduring nature of an idea or a worldview gives it resounding merit. Instead, the reproduction of either can result in the exaggeration and obfuscation of alternative bodies of knowledge.


Denevan, W. M. (1992) The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82(3) 369-385.

Kinsella, E. A. (2006). Hermeneutics and Critical Hermeneutics: Exploring Possibilities within the Art of Interpretation, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(3) article 19.

Mills, K. R. & Taylor, W. B. (1998) Two woodcuts accompanying a 1509 German translation of Amerigo Vespucci’s letter to Pietro Soderini, Colonial Spanish America, A Documentary History (65-70). Wilmington DE:SR Books.

Raffles, H. (2002). Intimate knowledge. International Social Science Journal, 54(3), 325.

Sluyter, A. (2006). Humboldt’s Mexican texts and landscapes. Geographical Review, 96(3), 361-381.

Sunberg, J. (2005) Looking for the critical geographer, or why bodies and geographies matter to the emergence of critical geographies of Latin America. Geoforum, 36, 17–28.

follow the yellow, slick road

Preface: Trevor Barnes. Love him. Nothing about climate in this piece.

Kathryn Mandell     GEOG361: Barnes

November 19.2012

Kraft Dinner: Follow the Yellow, Slick Road


I don’t eat it often, but when I do, I can guarantee you that a night has tapered to its close, and the walls of my stomach are wet with booze. My roommate, on the other hand, fills her cupboard with Kraft Dinner, one among many Kraft products neatly stacked on her shelf. She finds the brand comforting, and loyally consuming Kraft gives her a feeling of being situated in her home. Tara isn’t alone: Canadians eat more Kraft Dinner than does any other country. Its sales outstrip all other grocery products in Canada. (Rock, McIntyre, & Rondeau, 2009, p 167). My interest in the gooey, shiny product lies in its reputation as the paradigm of highly processed foods. It takes only nine minutes to cook – or more accurately, to assemble – a package of Kraft Dinner. What processes go into providing that expedience? I tend to shop for packaged products at a Buy-Low Foods in Kingsgate Mall, so that is where my search down the supply chain began. Peter, a manager, told me that I wouldn’t believe how much KD they go through. My curiosity lies in the geographical paths that Kraft Dinner passed through to land on Peter’s shelves.

The product – 225g of dried macaroni noodles, packaged with a sleeve of powdered cheddar cheese – is moved along the supply chain by farmers, transportation employees, processing plants, storage warehouses and retail outlets. Its nascence, however, is in its development. The macaroni and cheese was conceptualized in a lab in Glenview, Illinois. The way that a bowl of Kraft Dinner tastes is the product of chemical and flavour analysis at this lab, where the goal that drives research is to “Make Today Delicious” for most common denominator. More than 2000 Kraft employees work as scientists, chemists and engineers. (McTigue Pierce, 2011). The research then stretches beyond these Kraft personnel in the form of capital investment: the company funds wheat research at the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario; at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and through the United States Department of Agriculture.

More Kraft employees, based in Toronto and Chicago, are involved to make connections with suppliers, communicate with them over the course of their relationship, and ensure that they are following minutely detailed Kraft procedures.  (Glenview Classifieds, Jan 17, 2012). These sourcing and global supply chain managers link the company to the product’s essential ingredients.

In order to procure these raw materials, the company signs contracts with indirect suppliers in Canada and the United States. This distance between Kraft and the farms they work with makes it difficult to render a complete supply chain, and a receptionist at Kraft’s headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, did little to assist me in my endeavour. While she insisted that my call would be returned, I have had no luck determining exactly which farms supply the company with the dairy and grains that are necessary to the manufacturing of Kraft Dinner. It is only occasionally that a relationship between an agricultural producer and Kraft is revealed – and often, only in circumstances of extreme dysfunction or marketable success. I was able to locate a dairy farm in Idaho that supplies Kraft thanks to a media storm over animal rights abuses that occurred there. In the case of grains, uncertainty over the suitability of Ontario soft white wheat to Kraft products made it possible to glean that Ontario wheat farms are engaged in the supply chain.

Searching the internet for a more exact answer, I found that questions identical to mine were asked by an elementary school student, and proved to be equally fruitless: upon asking where Kraft’s macaroni noodles come from, an e-mailed response told the inquirer that the information he sought was “considered confidential.” (Rosenblum, 2006). Even without precise information, an investigation of typical cereal farming practices in Canada makes it possible to see additional connections in the supply chain. Production of the fluorescent orange noodles is linked in the dirt to chemical manufacturers of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as to producers of agricultural machinery.

So, how to turn the wheat into flour? 80% of the grains used in Kraft’s North American grocery products, including those from Ontario, are transported to and milled in Toledo, Ohio. (Innis, 2006). An additional Kraft flourmill is located in Mississauga, Ontario. Recently harvested Ontario soft wheat does not cooked up into just the right, standardized noodle that Kraft demands. In order to achieve a consistent texture from box to box, ad infinitum, Ontario wheat is combined with U.S. breeds. The milled and blended flour is then moved along to a processing plant, where it will meet the other components of the recipe.

The ingredient responsible for the cantaloupe colour is one of the last on the list: tartrazine. This yellow dye is derived from coal-tar, and its procurement is not as easy to imagine. Coal-tars are remnants of coal carbonization, a process that produces natural gas and coke. The coal-tar is then chemically distilled twice: first, to produce pthalic anhydride, and then to produce chemical pigment and dyes. A major supplier of coal-tar substances is Ruetgers, a company based out of Castrop-Rauxel, Germany, that has a branch plant factory in Hamilton, Ontario. The plant is right off of the highway, and “optimally connected to rail and waterways.” (Ruetgers, 2010). In contrast to the relative ease of tracing production from one phase to the next, tartrazine reveals the unmappable nature of the reverberations from the supply chain. This microscopic chemical compound could cause physiological aggravation and disease in consumers. (Neuman, Creter, Elian, Nahum & Shaked, 1978).

The Kraft branch plant at which all of the elements are united is located in Mount Royal, Quebec. The location of the facility in Mount Royal has little to nothing to do with the social context, and everything to do with access to existing infrastructure. This area of Quebec has been labeled a food processing and biofood industrial cluster by the City of Montreal. From here, the Kraft Dinner makes its way by rail to Kraft’s distribution centre in Calgary. Trucks move the product to the Buy-Low Warehouse in Surrey; then Buy-Low takes over, and their own vehicles transport the shipment to the store. A truck unloads at the Mount Pleasant Buy-Low where I shop, and links up with me, the consumer.

When I interact with a Kraft product, the moment is mediated in part by the advertising and marketing strategies of the company. Kraft’s marketing division in Canada is segregated from its U.S. counterpart, and works out of the head office in Toronto, Ontario. The VP of grocery and beverages at Kraft, Chris Bell, told Marketing magazine that Kraft Canada’s advertising connects to consumer identities – Kraft “understand[s] who they are and how they consume their media. Then we make sure we have really good content that will engage them.” In spite of this proclamation of consumer understanding, Kraft has struggled to supplant the image of Kraft Dinner in the minds of Canadians as a cheap not-quite-food. At the end of the supply chain, Canadians tend to, like Tara, associate Kraft Dinner with nostalgia and comfort. (Rock, McIntyre & Rondeau, 2009). However, Canadians with less financial security, and therefore reduced food security, make alternative linkages: to discomfort, to Kraft Dinner as a “hunger-killer of last resort.” (p. 172). In these circumstances, Kraft’s advertising campaigns falter. Still, regardless of the symbolic interaction of a consumer with the food, the supply chain has been completed with a sale and profits continue to appreciate.

The capital that is generated by the Kraft Dinner supply chain has positive feedbacks in the company. In spite of the fact that the Cheese segment of the company is comparatively less profitable than other divisions of Kraft, it supplies the greatest portion of the Kraft’s North American revenue. From the wheat in the soil to store shelves, the chain exists in order to provide the capital that allows other supply chains to be dreamed up and used to grow Kraft’s profits.  Without the capital from Kraft Dinner, Kraft Singles, et al, Kraft’s ability to expand would be reduced. For the company, then, Kraft Dinner’s supply chain plays a role in the fulfillment of their capital-generating, utopian ideal: a “Delicious World.” (Lutz, 31, from Kraft, 2005. p. 2).


Chapman, S. (2012, September). Manufacturing Taste: The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner—a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are. The Walrus, 9(8).

Glenview Classifieds. (2012, January 17). Sourcing Analyst – Milk, Nonfat Dry Milk, Whey Kraft Foods – Glenview. Retrieved from foodsglenview-iid-304550211

Harris, R. (2012). 2012 Marketers of the Year Shortlist: Kraft Canada. Marketing Magazine, November 19 issue. Retrieved from: shortlist-kraft-canada-66498

Innis, J. (2006) Restoration keeps flour mill running. CoatingPros Magazine. Retrieved from: restoration-keeps-flour-mill-running

Koppers. (2003) Coal Tar Process. Retrieved from:

Kraft. (2005) Form 10-K. United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

Lutz, D. (2006). Kraft Foods. Prepared for the Global Companies-Global Unions-Global Research-Global Campaigns conference.

MacCara, M. E. (1982). Tartrazine: a potentially hazardous dye in Canadian drugs. Canadian Medical Association, 126, 910-914.

McTigue Pierce, L. (March 3, 2011). Kraft-ed innovation. Retrieved from:

Neuman, I, Creter, D, Elian, R, Nahum, H, & Shaked, P. (1978) The danger of “yellow dyes” (tartrazine) to allergic subjects. Clinical Allergy, 8(1) 65-8.

Rock, M, McIntyre, L, & Rondeau, K. (2009) Discomforting comfort foods: stirring the pot on Kraft Dinner and social inequality in Canada. Agriculture and Human Values, 26, 167-176.

Rosenblum, J. (2006) Kids to Kraft: where’s the wheat? Rethinking Schools, S.

Ruetgers N. V. (2010) Global reach is our vision: we’re making it a reality. Retrieved from:

United States Department of Agriculture. (Nov 25, 2012). Research. Retrieved from:

on queer spaces, in honour of orlando

Kathryn Mandell Feb 15, 2012

GEOG350: T. Barnes

Swimming Pool, Library: Division of the City and Social Spaces

Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Swimming Pool Library” is a novel set in 1980s London. London functions as a social arena, where the lives of strangers continuously overlap.  The structure of the city mediates their relationships.  Written in the first person, it is the central character, William Beckwith’s perspective that is projected on the pages, as he moves through social and material space.  The novel is a homosexual work, and this impacts the urban experience; familiar gay haunts are clearly marked on the city map.  In the space between these safe places, the arena is uncertain terrain, which offers the possibility of either endlessly gratifying interactions or hostile, discriminatory encounters.

Hollinghurst’s London is hermetically sealed off from the female sex, women mentioned only twice, in passing, over the course of 288 pages. The city is a men’s realm.

The aforementioned familiar haunts are highly frequented spaces for social interaction between men, and so are distinct from the urban fabric. For instance, the Corry, a men’s club and recreational center, is a closet space, “remote from the rest of the world.” (Hollinghurst, 16) It is an important setting in the book: it functions as Beckwith’s principal place of retreat, where he can ground himself as an individual as well as within a social network.  It is easy for men to approach one-another here, where they are exposed by exercising – and more so by showering – in public. Openness towards homosexuality is expected. A handful of gay bars serve a similar purpose. They allow characters to remove themselves from an urban space populated by a diverse range of people, and become more or less submerged in an enclave. Whether or not a space is designated as an enclave evolves with the relationships of those who inhabit them: bars become dear and then passé, and a hotel room — once remote – is turned by intimacy into another “underworld of life, purpose and sexuality.” (Hollinghurst, 13)

In the city these types of encounters spill out into public spaces.  Miller (1989) studied the changing geography of gay culture, and witnessed as it “mov[ed] in from the margins” in London. Every walk down the street has the potential for exchanged glances, fondling or fornication. Strangers and acquaintances, by passing on the street, can have their relationships altered. In the novel, the crossing of Beckwith’s path with Charles Nantwich, a local aristocrat, is significant.  They first meet in a dingy, cement washroom in a park, where Nantwich suffers a heart attack.  Both of their lives change as a result of this spontaneous meeting: they become intimate acquaintances, and a part of each other’s personal geography. However, the park itself is of less significance than the more general social potential of city space: for instance, the subway is a “gigantic game of chance,” where one is “jammed up against many queer kinds of person.” (Hollinghurst, 55)

Simultaneously, anonymity makes characters vulnerable in the urban landscape. There exists the “risk of rejection, misunderstanding, abuse.” (Hollinghurst, 154) James, a foil and Beckwith’s closest friend, is made a target. He is lured from a gay club by a man he recognizes, but whom he does not know. The stranger reveals that he is a policeman, and charges him with indecency – an interaction that threatens the sanctity of the enclave.  In tandem, it makes the very act of approaching a stranger more dangerous. “There is always that question, which can only be answered by instinct, of what to do about strangers.” (Hollinghurst, 153)

The arena of London is carved up by class. These divisions structure the relationships of characters. Beckwith “belongs to that tiny proportion of the populace that… owns almost everything.” (Hollinghurst, 6) He does not distance himself emotionally from the lower class. Class lines blur in his sexually charged interactions with individuals. However, geography draws bold lines. In a trip to Stratford East, the segregated nature of the city by wealth becomes clear. London in the 1980s is a burgeoning financial center, hinged on the deindustrialization of the city. Blue-collar workers, ejected by price from the city core, are clustered in decrepit flats on the outskirts of London. Coupled with his distinctively homosexual aesthetic, his upper-class status makes Beckwith an outsider there.  These lower-class sections of the city offer him greater uncertainty and hostility. With the intention of visiting a loved one on his trip to Stratford East, Beckwith is mugged by a group of skinheads. One of the muggers hatefully emits, “You can tell he’s a fuckin’ poof!” a statement which sickens him further when coupled with another realization: he must appear to be “pickled in culture and money.” (Hollinghurst, 202)  The division by class of the built environment limits the scope of Beckwith’s social life.

By contrast, the spaces that characters most frequently occupy are firmly in the upper class. Beckwith has the privilege of seeing places that people of lower status would be barred from.  He sees an opera from a private box; he sits for dinner at an austere London Club; he steps on ancient tiles in Lord Nantwich’s basement, and passively looks over his collection of artifacts and art pieces. He is also given access to the gay enclaves of the rich, inside of which he is flattered and boozed, sexual offers extended from all sides. To enter most of these spaces, he is first sniffed and assessed by a butler, the gatekeeper of the exclusive corners of the city.  An inheritance makes work unnecessary for the novel’s protagonist.  This makes it likely that he experiences more of the urban fabric than most, never confined to particular spaces by lack of resources, or responsibility to either a job or family. 

Although also upper class, James’ commitment to his work as a surgeon leaves him feeling deprived of social interaction. He sees “hundreds of people,” but “never anyone” he’d like to.  This suggests that Will is privileged not only by money and time, but also by an openness to connecting with strangers; James confirms this by explaining his feeling of being “accustomed” to having few entanglements.  He is “out of it.”  (Hollinghurst, 257)  So, it is not only the city, but also the attitude of those in it, which forms their social experience.  Meanwhile, many scenes detail James’ interactions with men at the bar and in the heightened sexual environment of the Corry. In spite of his sentiments, the “sexed immediacy of London life” (Hollinghurst, 8) appears ever present.

It is the city of London that makes these encounters possible. The sheer number of people makes most relationships ephemeral. Individuals can noncommittally cross paths with one another.  Cosmopolitanism, a partner to the globalization underway, underlies this type of interaction.  For Beckwith, the diversity found in the city is represented on a small scale in the shower room of the Corry, by the “variety of the male organ,” displayed in “instructive contrasts.”  This diverse population, when not scaled down to fit a shower, is immense. It makes the city vibrant and capricious. Moving through the social realm, interactions alter the day-to-day lives of all who participate. Beckwith’s existence is monotonous and without objective; London makes him feel alive. (Hollinghurst, 153)

Works Cited

Hollinghurst, A. (1988). The Swimming-Pool Library. New York, NY: Random House.

Miller, N. (1989) In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.

O’Hanlon, S. & Hamnett, C. (2009). Deindustrialisation, Gentrification and the Re Invention of the Inner City: London and Melbourne, c.1960–2008. Urban Policy and Research, 27(3), 211-216.

social isolation and affordability, a question(ing) of definition

social isolation and affordability, a question(ing) of definition

Preface: Some of the information in the piece has since become outdated. Also, it’s too spattered with quotation and the stylistic choices made for a university setting, making this iteration unfit for journalistic publication. Gotta shift the vernacular some. The crux of the essay is a worthwhile exploration of the meeting points of urban isolation and a hard money crunch. In its academic form:

(With deep thanks to Esteban Gonzalez for his keen editing eye.)crab park star wars

Kathryn Mandell

April 27, 2014

Social Isolation and Affordability, A Question(ing) of Definition

“Vancouver is mythologized as a healthy, sustainable, lifestyle city while these very qualities often must be sacrificed by working Vancouver residents.” (Siemiatycki 2013, abstract).

A lack of social connection pervades and perturbs the city of Vancouver. This conclusion was reached through the “My Health, My Community” survey, conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), Fraser Health (FH) and the UBC Faculty of Medicine’s eHealth Strategy Office. Almost a quarter of Vancouverites suffer from social isolation in a variety of forms and deem it a source of stress in their lives. (Howell 2014). These findings corroborated the conclusions of the Vancouver Foundation’s 2011 study, which produced a report that has been widely disseminated by journalists for its sensationally bleak message. The Vancouver Foundation’s research methods were flawed, and so its data is not empirically useful. Yet, the story has been taken up by local media (and social media) outlets, as in the articles: “Life of Solitude: A Loneliness Crisis is Looming,” “Social Isolation Has Far-reaching Effects On Us and Our Neighbours, Survey Says,” and “Alone, So Alone, in Vancouver,” to mention a few. (Renzetti, 2014; Carman 2012; Mason 2012). It has been catalytic to the local discourse on social isolation, and though the word choice in the study renders it spurious, its general conclusions on the scope of isolation have since been confirmed. The report contains a useful kernel: that having aimed to locate the issue most pressing to Vancouverites, researchers found that the fragmentation of the social landscape “beat out homelessness, drug abuse and affordability” as a source of unease. (Carmen, 2012). Neither of these reports adequately addresses the co-constitutive relationship of a lack of affordability and social isolation. I am skeptical of the view that the impact of these social issues can be understood through comparison, and that they can indeed be compared at all. In fact, social isolation is bound up in affordability, and the way that the two issues are categorized and discursively framed ends up aggravating both problems, in spite of the apparent seeking of their solutions.

In order to examine the intersectional relationship of discourse and policy outcomes on affordability and social isolation, it is pertinent to contextualize the socio-economic processes at work, in which Vancouver residents are immersed and upon which their daily lives and material supports are contingent. The central paradox of this gateway city, that “Vancouver is simultaneously the most livable and unaffordable city in the world,” has a history and plays out materially. (Siemiatycki 2013, abstract). Part of my methodology is also a critical discourse analysis, and for this I will rely on public reports published under the incumbent Vision Vancouver City Council, an elected civic government that is oriented towards neoliberalism. I am theoretically rooted in critical urban theory and economic geography, grounded in Vancouver, a city known for its postmodern fluidity and its newness. I hypothesize that to root citizens in the social landscape demands a re-conceptualization of social isolation, with an eye to the necessary stable material supports for social engagement or a lack thereof. (Butler 2011). This demands an inspection of policies that uproot and make insecure the lives of residents and language that serves to influence the municipal imagination’s understanding of the intentions, agency and achievements of government. I focus my lens on the work of the City of Vancouver’s Engaged City Task Force, which formed in response to the Vancouver Foundation’s study. The team is comprised of a diverse team of residents who have come together under the guidance of the City to devise solutions to social isolation. The research of Loretta Lees is particularly salient to this project, and I seek a similar approach to hers: towards unmasking what is hidden in the language of an entrepreneurial city government. I aim to connect policy to a broader public discourse, and probe at how the language of government affects the way that the goals of civic policy related to isolation and affordability are discussed and understood. In the words of Modan, “If we want to create communities that serve the interests of justice and equality, then we need to consider what’s at stake in the ways we talk about places, and find discourses that can sustain the kind of society that we want to live in.” (2007, 321,cited in Lees 2012, 21, emphasis hers). In Vancouver, a neoliberal government under austerity makes assumptions of capital growth, strategies towards the generation of capital which benefit the rich, and cultural individualism. (Vert 2005, 2; Peck and Tickell 2002, 388). These ideological ideals condition the types of questions posed by government; they linguistically delineate what is deemed to be an appropriate response from the state and what is considered to be alterable in the urban socio-economic landscape. Policies are made to appear both benign and necessary. (Peck and Tickell 2002, 389). I find that the claims of Vision Vancouver to be working towards a warmer, more socially connected city are made with the assistance of horse blinders, and that policy in the way that it is written and compartmentalized is in fact complicit in dislocation, insecurity, and a dearth of social engagement.

Remedies for isolation from the Engaged City Task Force

“This isn’t just about how City Hall interacts with the public, but how residents can connect with one another and make their neighbourhoods better places to live. Civic engagement matters because as a City, we cannot grapple with tough challenges like affordability, inequality or climate change with an isolated, disengaged population.” (Gregor Robertson 2014).

The Engaged City Task Force convened in 2013 and released their first report this January. The final document lays out a preliminary set of recommendations towards the alleviation of social isolation and an increase in “social engagement.” In the quote above, which headlines the City of Vancouver’s online Engaged City webpage, social connection is posed as a pre-condition to solving the affordability crisis. Vancouver is the second least affordable city in which to live, worldwide. (Cox and Hugh 2014, 2). This uncomfortable distinction specifically refers to the cost of housing in relation to income generation: real estate prices sit at close to 10.3 times the median income. In the quote above, the assumption is made that the link between the problems of social isolation and lack of affordability is unidirectional: here, the lack of social connection makes affordability difficult or impossible to address. However, it is quite evident that social isolation and affordability are connected, as research conducted in Canada and in Sweden has found. (Stewart et al 2007; Mullins, Sheppard and Andersson 1991, 464). Stewart et al  (2007, 210) concluded that “inadequate financial resources… ‘lack of time,’ [and] user fees” limit the participation of respondents. Why then are they posed as separate problems in public policy?

The Engaged City report does speak to affordability. In the text, the psyches of urban residents are recognized, and the way in which people are impacted by the interplay of financial and housing insecurity is made important, as it is stated that “the affordability issue is affecting people’s attitudes and beliefs.” (ECTF 2014, 5). However, the report absents itself from discussions of self-perception and identity formation due to limitations on the scope of the study. (ECTF 2014, 26). These ideas are, however, noted as pertinent to an understanding of social engagement. Research on economies of affect is relevant to our understanding of the isolating processes at work in this transnational, Pacific Rim city. The transition from Fordism to post-Fordism which sprung from economic recession in the 1970’s has meant the dissolution of secure, long-term positions in the labour force for many, and the disappearance of the briefly ubiquitous family wage. (Silva 2012, 506). The post-Fordist entrepreneurial city is inscribed by its Fordist past: vestigial fantasies of what constitutes an appropriate life path have perpetuated, even as post-Fordist economic reconfigurations have altered and eliminated the very structural supports that facilitate the actualization of expectations for the self. (Berlant 2011, 19). In the context of the United States, Silva (2012, 505) found that the loss of Fordist forms of employment has rendered “traditional life pathways” less accessible to the working class. The “cruel optimism” for an economic life that is unavailable is destabilizing, as “labor force participation provides an important source of identification, social contact, and emotional bonding that, when lost, can lead to social isolation and loneliness.” (Berlant 2011, 24; Mullins, Sheppard and Andersson 1991, 463).

Yet, ideology is at work in the way that the concepts of social isolation and affordability are framed. Deploying the Western trope “do it yourself,” the text exhorts citizens to find ways of combatting social problems individually, without changing the fundamental operations of government. (ECTF 2014, 17). In the context of the report the ability to afford to subsist is looked at through a neoliberal viewfinder, as in: “A lack of affordability can hamper the innovation that builds and encourages vibrant communities: a business owner or artist may be unable to take creative risks because the financial burden is too high.” (ECTF 2014, ). Then, citing again the limits to space, time, and breadth of analysis, affordability is circumscribed and relegated to housing policy, to be dealt with separately from social isolation. (ECTF 2014, 23). With the housing crisis placed to the side, eighteen additional priority actions and six recommendations for citizen involvement are laid out.

A sense of belonging is sought out in the new urban landscape of Vancouver, with a request to “rethink condos.” (ECTF 2014, 24). The study found through a survey of that both 25 to 34 years olds and people who live in high-rises and condos are “the most disconnected and disengaged.” (ECTF 2014, 8) Better design through communication with the capitalist (property developers) and administrative bodies (managers and strata councils) that are associated with condominiums is advised. (ECTF 2014, 24). This approach excuses the building typology, managerial organization, form of tenure and cost from critique, and represents isolation in the condo setting as primarily constituted by architecture.

Like this aesthetically oriented proposal, other recommendations ring pleasantly: for citizens to request restaurants to include lengthier tables in their dining areas, with the hope being that sitting closer to others will increase a sense of commonality with one’s neighbours and belonging in place. (ECTF 2014, 29). The importance of eating together is put forward again, and comprises a greater body of the report than does consideration of the financial inaccessibility of food choice in the city. The report avoids lack of affordability again here. As the Neighbourhood Action Food Group has written, “According to the Dieticians of Canada, it takes over [$]60 of income for an individual to purchase food for an adequate diet per week. Yet, income assistance rates amount to less than half this, disability rates don’t allow for it, and families on low-wages struggle to provide this too.” (Bush 2013).  Although the sums allocated for income assistance and disability are determined by the provincial government, the municipal government has the ability to strategically eliminate financial burden. The report does not acknowledge the impact of income stratification on food security, despite the fact that this economically embedded insecurity exacerbates social exclusion acutely. (Fink 2010, 2). Vision Vancouver has created a Food Strategy that has many nuanced tactics towards encouraging urban agriculture and the resilience and distribution of locally produced food. (Vancouver Food Strategy 2013). Yet, these aims are perturbed by the fundamental need for capital to acquire food items and the insistence of the government that they adhere to an urban regime that continues to increase financial inequality between socio-economic classes and apply pressure to the city’s most vulnerable income brackets through housing policies. (Peck 2010). A number of studies have located high levels of food insecurity in homeless populations, which have increased by 249% since 2011. (BC Ministry of Health 2011, 5; Cole 2014). With homeless individuals, low income earners and people who are on income assistance are at the greatest risk of food insecurity. (BC Ministry of Health 2011, i). Instead of addressing the critical impacts of low incomes and low affordability on food supply, which in concert diminish the ability of residents to participate in social life, the recommendation that the City host occasional neighbourhood-wide potlucks is proffered. (ECTF 2014, 28).

Positive language of this ilk excludes the potential for structural transformation, which is both the most exciting provision of an election and what the task force explicitly aims to make more possible to residents. The report encourages collaboration around election time with an imagined creative class, advising that “music, film, creative writing, and theatre could be used to celebrate the election period while also providing information on how, where, and when to vote.” (ECTF 2014, 20; emphasis added). Beginning with acknowledgements of challenges to engagement that could be solved through structural amendments, the report repeatedly digresses and leaves those possibilities, instead reaching for “priority actions” which recommend that city council “invest more in public engagement resources, expand and improve the distribution of notification mailouts, and develop an evaluation criteria for online tools.” (ECTF 2014, 23). These policy recommendations implicitly advocate the maintenance of a neoliberal approach to urban governance, and the alteration of the urban landscape in surface-level ways. Using the scope of the study as justification for the absence of more profound inquiry, the report literally does not leave room for strategies to reduce social isolation or encourage engagement which could infringe upon the dominant interests of the city’s entrepreneurial government. This entrepreneurial, neoliberal orientation deeply impacts the discourse in City Council on affordability, too.

Under neoliberal governance, dealing with affordability separately

Vision’s proposition that Vancouver would be made to be more affordable under their governance was central to their 2011 election platform. However, as Lees has expounded the importance of diction, definition and grammar, I find that use of positive language in housing policy is concealing real social outcomes.

Concretely, the current city council, consisting dominantly of Vision party members, has redefined a series of terms. Their deployment in policy has direct impacts on the quantity and type of material supports available to residents. “Social housing” has been re-defined, and now means that 30% of units on a property are subsidized. This redefinition legalizes the representation of a building with 70% of units leased at an unaffordable market rate as entirely comprised of “social housing.” (Flegg 2014). In tandem, the definition of “affordability” has been emptied of its popularly understood meaning; it was re-defined by the current council as an umbrella term, and is also stretched to include the category of market rate rental. This loose definition actually contradicts the criteria of affordability used for the Metro Vancouver region, and so it applies singularly to Vancouver proper. Beneath a claim to affordability, as legitimized by its loose definition, performative policy does work in the landscape. Affordability is also compromised through exception, as in the case of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, wherein a policy of “revitalization without displacement” has been succinctly abandoned and replaced with the objectives of “affordable… revitalization” and social mix. (Vancouver Sun 2014). The redefinitions of affordability and these associated terms, made to denote material circumstances that are very distant from their popularly understood meanings, facilitate state-led gentrification and serve to deepen the financial insecurity and stress that exacerbate social isolation. (Sun Life Financial, 2012).

Use of these terms, with meanings that do not match their definitions as they are understood by the public, creates a rift between the actual felt impacts of policy and popular understanding of the intentions of government. A researcher must define their terms. In this case, the use of the word “affordable” to enable the creation of elite spaces and the destruction of truly affordable homes is highly misleading. In addition, Pfiefer (2011) speculated about the linguistic liberties taken in the representation of the housing market that “political platforms are partial to boasting their numbers, and units of ‘affordable rental housing’ are immediately halved the moment you double their size to a reasonable living space.”

This language and its deployment in policy facilitate state-led gentrification. Vancouver proper currently provides a context of precarious tenure and frequent creative destruction. An alarming 21% of rental units in Vancouver are at risk of redevelopment or demolition, which places the 51.5 per cent of Vancouver residents who rent in a position of potential insecurity and under external pressure that disallows social involvement. (Crompton 2012; Ball, 2013).


Read in isolation, the Engaged City report longs after greater participation of residents in civic life, envisioning that “fully empowered communities” will “actively create a common future.” (ECTF 2014, 11). There is an urgent need for the involvement of local opinions: as projections suggest that the city will need to accommodate 130,000 new dwelling units in the next thirty years, the material impacts will be felt across this contained urban centre. (Metro Vancouver 2011, 68). However, observed with a wide-angle lens, the neoliberal policies of Vision and the post-Fordist organization of precarious employment do not allow for the kind of political transformations that the municipal government claims to seek for Vancouver residents, as individualism and the presumption of economic growth as the “only alternative” promote a post-political atmosphere. (Swyngedouw 2005, 215). The policy decisions that use language as it has been redefined by the Vision council to promote increases in “affordability” at least temporarily absolve that council of their contractual agreements of who to provide units for, how many, where, in partnership with which investors with their private interests, and to what actual end. Despite the acknowledgement of the Engaged City Task Force Report (2014, 15) that “many complex factors [affect] engagement, such as social and economic inequality, housing affordability, trust, power, discrimination, and a rapidly changing media landscape,” I found their investigation to be lacking absolutely a nuanced critique of the way current city policies intensify the negative pressures of these linked elements. The acknowledgement is unfortunately hollow.

But, again, language is important. And the power of the word: Vision. This empty signifier hangs across the city, open to redefinition — it just might be your vision that council is striving for. The language of the City portrays the intentions and plans of decision-makers concerning the housing crisis as if heroic: Mayor Gregor Robertson entered office in 2011 on a pledge to finally “end homelessness by 2015.” (Lee 2011). Vision is alternately envisioned by its commentators as a “progressive green government,” and “developer owned.” (Mann 2012; Kagis 2014) It is difficult to tell to what degree the City Council’s bargains with the urban landscape and the tenure of residents are supported by the electorate. I see a need for contributions to the local discourse on civic government, in the form of investigations into the disconnect between what policy actually does, and what the popular imagination is encouraged to understand about the objectives of government. The speculations of Pfeifer (2011) on the use of numerical quantities to imply achievements appear to be paralleled in the discourse on civic engagement: simultaneously, residents of Vancouver bemoan a lack of consultation in city planning processes, and Vision Vancouver responds by pointing to the “high number of opportunities for engagement it has offered.” (ECTF 2014, 6). This disconnect deserves closer inspection.

The use of empty signifiers and definitions that are counter to popular understanding makes political engagement appear alternately unnecessary or futile. Any political transformation in the city demands the use of accessible, intelligible language, wherein terms are defined in the same way by government as they are by the public. The problem of the compartmentalization of policy as I’ve considered here is compounded by mistranslation. Treating issues separately creates the impression that the government is making concrete, popular, positive change on issues that matter most to citizens, by naming those felt challenges and nodding suggestively to their solution. Meanwhile, housing policy and a neoliberal impetus in government promote the very practices that lead to the dislocation of tenants and the increasing cost of shelter. (Vert 2005, 4).

As they were when more than 120 citizens signed up to speak to Council in response to the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan and the social impacts embedded within, the “jeers from the gallery,” are heard in City Hall. (Flegg 2014) In this context, it is possible to envision an alternative discourse, in which an expressive public engages in productive dialogue with a non-threatening state apparatus in a mutually understood language. In light of the elusiveness of this vision, I believe that the way in which challenges to the social participation of citizens is framed in government policy and proclamations must better reflect social realities. Otherwise, the word of the state leads the city to be misinformed towards the (re)production of injustices, like the isolation of residents that deprives the fulfillment of a need to connect with others and marginalization that disrupts individuals’ ability to maintain adequate shelter. Definitions of government must match the definitions of the public sphere, so that Council can interpret political aims authentically as they write policy based on the demands that are voiced by “everyone who believes in a bright future for our city.”  (Robertson 2011).


This is a vigorous and very well-written paper, showing your ability to develop persuasive arguments in a creative and accessible manner.


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