The Human Use of Martian Beings

April 26, 2007

In last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times, Michael Pollan published an article about how farm subsidies in the U.S. act as an economic incentive to eat poorly. It’s an interesting topic in and of itself, but the article, titled “You Are What You Grow,” contains the following line, which brought my attention to other matters:

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

The appeal to a researcher from Mars is a fascinating rhetorical strategy that is also not entirely novel; I’ve seen any number of Martian workers summoned up to criticize Earth culture. Yet I have to wonder what exactly Pollan hoped to gain by this device. He acknowledges the obvious contradiction of this state of affairs when he writes in the very next line that “such is the perversity of the farm bill.” So perhaps he doesn’t want to merely point out the “perversity” of these subsidies, but to point out that they are so intertwined in our system of governance and eating that few denizens of Earth are capable of seeing their absurdity.

And yet, this seems to be at cross-purposes with his very thesis that this is a peculiarly American problem. Why, then, wouldn’t a public health researcher from Europe, Asia, or Africa suffice for his purposes? It may be that an appeal to reason shared by Martian and human alike has the same function today as appeals to divine reason have had in times past (and, of course, in certain ignominious circles still). For an action – be it sodomy or subsidizing corn – to be offensive to a single person is apparently not enough; instead, that action must be discursively magnified in such a way that it offends against the rules of the universe.

John Berger, in his essay on Disney, claims that (and I’m sadly paraphrasing because I loaned this book out) Disney’s way of making animal cares perfectly congruent with human cares is the equivalent of saying, “There is no escape from this banality.” I have to wonder if the God who winces at butt sex and the Martian public health researcher (because alien cultures naturally have the same professions and needs as we do) who takes apart our Twinkies aren’t also forms of this same humanistic nihilism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: