Sunday, January 3, 2010

A grower's gaze

The big storm is over; it lasted three days and dumped a little more than a foot of snow, which drifted to a couple of feet in spots, but was no worse than some of the big snows of past years, and not nearly as bad as feared. Nor did the power go out, despite everyone's expecting it. This illustrates the principle that the first few large storms of the winter season are oversold by the weather forecasters. A corollary is that once the snowstorms start coming in earnest, they are under-predicted.

Yesterday I was reading Foucault's history of the birth of the medical clinic, chiefly to explore more deeply his concept of the "gaze," in preparation for a seminar in music and cultural policy that I'll be teaching this spring. In the course of thinking about it I realize that among the many "gazes" there are growers' gazes. The gaze, for Foucault, is both penetrating and authoritative; it describes itself as moving inductively from  observation to pattern-fitting and understanding. In truth it is not so empirical, not so inductive; the known patterns pre-empt the observation, and guide it to a pre-ordained, if not foreknown, conclusion. So the doctor's gaze observes the patient in attempting to diagnose a disease. In the early days diagnosis was done chiefly on the basis of a pattern in symptoms; after the nineteenth century and scientific testing, symptom-diagnosis is confirmed (or not) on the basis of lab tests, whether blood tests or today's MRI or CT-scan.

The grower's gaze involves the health of the plant in its ecosystemic context. Increasingly the authority of the factory farmer's gaze is undermined by the enormous inefficiencies (not to mention dis-ease) of the product. University agriculture schools that used to support factory farming--as Earl Butz said, "Get big or get out!" (Butz was secretary of agriculture under Eisenhower, or was it Johnson?)--now develop and encourage natural and organic methods, though not exclusively. I can recall a time in the 1980s when along the roadsides signs with N/S printed on them were stuck up here and there. The N/S stood for "no spray"; that is, the transportation department sprayed the roadsides with weed-killers to keep the vegetation down, but they wouldn't spray if there was such a sign. The property owner then had the responsibility of taking care of it by mowing. Today on the island the roadsides are mowed, not sprayed. Times are changing.

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