Eric Schlosser. (2001). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

356pp.
$25              ISBN 0395977894

Reviewed by Michael W. Apple, University of Wisconsin, Madison

March 25, 2001

Understanding Relations

        During the decade of the 1970s, critical scholarship on schooling was strongly influenced by perspectives that saw schools and other cultural institutions as simply mirror images of economic forces. This spawned a serious debate about whether cultural content, form, and processes had a degree of “relative autonomy.” This debate ultimately prefigured a good deal of the emphasis on specificity, non-determinativeness, the processes of cultural production and consumption, and similar themes that are found in material in cultural studies, postmodernisms and poststructuralisms, and neo-Gramscian analyses. Yet it also led to something else—a lamentable tendency towards over-theorization. So much time has been spent on the articulation and then rearticulation, and then re-rearticulation, of “new” theories, that the empirical realities of schools, curricula, teaching, children, and the connections between all this and the larger society sometimes get lost. Finally, it has unfortunately led many people to either ignore economic realities and class relations or to treat them as simply “textual,” as linguistic constructions that have little empirical basis. If this wasn't so dangerous, it would be nearly laughable.
        Of course, it is absolutely crucial that we articulate new theoretical perspectives. But they become all too arid unless they are applied to those areas that are of pressing concern to education and the cultural, economic, and political tensions and conflicts in which it participates. Further, we need models of doing this that incorporate such theories, but that also do the work that demonstrates how we might actually apply theories from, say, cultural studies to these concerns. (A fine example of this is the analysis of the history, economics, and use of the Sony Walkman found in the book, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman [Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, and Negus, 1997]). Yet, even without such overtly theorized studies, at the very least we need analyses that show in rich historical and empirical detail how the economy, the state, and cultural forms interact in all their richness and complexity—and that illuminate the effects of these interactions on educational matters. Enter Eric Schlosser.
        Occasionally books are written that are so compelling that they demand to be read by large numbers of people no matter what their disciplinary affiliations. Even more rarely, some of these books are written in such a way that their concerns cut across political tendencies and across the divide that separates “popular” from “academic” books. Fast Food Nation is one of those rare books. It is a form of critical journalism in the tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It speaks to the growth of fast food culture that now permeates a large portion of our daily lives, to our eating habits inside and outside of our homes and schools, and to the construction of desires among our children (and ourselves). This is what might be called its cultural agenda. But like all good cultural analysis (or at least what good cultural analysis should do if it is not disconnected from the material realities and inequalities that pervade our society), it connects these cultural forms to the hidden lives of the workers and labor processes that produce fast food commodities, to the manipulative ways the products are marketed, to the health costs their consumption creates, and to the environmental destructiveness that accompanies all this. And it then offers some suggestions for interrupting the forces that are creating these negative effects. This is an immensely ambitious agenda. But, to a considerable extent, Schlosser pulls it off.
        In academic terms, Schlosser engages in what is called “relational analysis.” That is, any activity or object is known by its connections to other activities or objects. In critical social and cultural accounts, however, the task is to examine these activities and objects in relation to their hidden but real ties to the reproduction or subversion of relations of dominance and subordination. Within the tradition of critical educational studies, there is now a long and valued history of such analyses. Perhaps an example of thinking relationally in our daily lives would be helpful here.
        In preparation for writing this essay, I walk into my office, turn on the lights, turn on my computer, get into my preferred word-processing program, and begin to type. We can interpret this as a set of simple physical acts. Michael Apple goes to his office, turns on the lights, and then turns on his computer. The lights and the computer go on—and that is the end of the story. But is that the end of the story? Yes, the lights and the computer came on. But hidden behind my actions are sets of relations that connect me deeply to this economy, whether I am aware of it or not. Since Madison, Wisconsin burns coal to produce most of its electricity, I have just had an anonymous—but no less real—relationship with the miners who dug the coal, many of whom work in dangerous and exploitative conditions, are badly injured, suffer from serious health problems, and whose jobs are now under threat. Thus, even such simple things such as turning on lights and computers link me in powerful ways to the manner in which this society organizes paid work, deals with the people who have and do not have such work, engages in environmental politics, and so on. If the topic of this story was not lights and computers but hamburgers and french fries, then this approach is exactly what one would find in Fast Food Nation.
        The topic of fast food, the hidden relations that underpin it, and what this means for education is something on which I've written before. In Cultural Politics and Education (Apple, 1996), for instance, I use the example of our love of “cheap french fries” to critically examine the connections between the globalizing tendencies of international capital, the foods we consume, and the presence or absence of educational possibilities in a number of nations. Begging the reader's indulgence, I wish to include a portion of that section of the book in this review, since I think that it speaks directly to the relations that Schlosser uncovers so well.
Education and Cheap French Fries
        The sun glared off of the hood of the small car as we made our way along the two lane road. The heat and humidity made me wonder if I'd have any liquid left in my body at the end of the trip and led me to appreciate Wisconsin winters a bit more than one might expect. The idea of winter seemed more than a little remote in this Asian country for which I have a good deal of fondness. But the topic at hand was not the weather; rather, it was the struggles of educators and social activists to build an education that was considerably more democratic than what was in place in that country now. This was a dangerous topic. Discussing it in philosophical and formalistically academic terms was tolerated there. Openly calling for it and situating it within a serious analysis of the economic, political, and military power structures that now exerted control over so much of this nation's daily life was another matter.
        As we traveled along that rural road in the midst of one of the best conversations I had engaged in about the possibilities of educational transformations and the realities of the oppressive conditions so many people were facing in that land, my gaze somehow was drawn to the side of the road. In one of those nearly accidental happenings that clarify and crystallize what reality is really like, my gaze fell upon a seemingly inconsequential object. At regular intervals, there were small signs planted in the dirt a few yards from where the road met the fields. The sign was more than a little familiar. It bore the insignia of one of the most famous fast food restaurants in the United States. We drove for miles past seemingly deserted fields along a flat hot plain, passing sign after sign, each a replica of the previous one, each less than a foot high. These were not billboards. Such things hardly existed in this poor rural region. Rather, they looked exactly—exactly—like the small signs one finds next to farms in the American mid-west that signify the kinds of seed corn that each farmer had planted in her or his fields. This was a good guess it turned out.
        I asked the driver—a close friend and former student of mine who had returned to this country to work for the social and educational reforms that were so necessary—what turned out to be a naive but ultimately crucial question in my own education. "Why are those signs for **** there? Is there a ***** restaurant nearby?" My friend looked at me in amazement. "Michael, don't you know what these signs signify? (Note 1) There's no western restaurants within fifty miles of where we are. These signs represent exactly what is wrong with education in this nation. Listen to this." And I listened.
        The story is one that has left an indelible mark on me, for it condenses in one powerful set of historical experiences the connections between our struggles as educators and activists in so many countries and the ways differential power works in ordinary life. I cannot match the tensions and passions in my friend's voice as this story was told; nor can I convey exactly the almost eerie feelings one gets when looking at that vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scarred, and increasingly depopulated plain.
        Yet the story is crucial to hear. Listen to this.
        The government of the nation has decided that the importation of foreign capital is critical to its own survival. Bringing in American, German, British, Japanese, and other investors and factories will ostensibly create jobs, will create capital for investment, and will enable the nation to speed into the 21st. century. (This is of course elite group talk, but let us assume that all of this is indeed truly believed by dominant groups.) One of the ways the military- dominated government has planned to do this is to focus part of its recruitment efforts on agri-business. In pursuit of this aim, it has offered vast tracts of land to international agri-business concerns at very low cost. Of particular importance to the plain we are driving through is the fact that much of this land has been given over to a supplier for a large American fast food restaurant corporation for the growing of potatoes for the restaurant's french fries, one the trademarks of its extensive success throughout the world.
        The corporation was eager to jump at the opportunity to shift a good deal of its potato production from the US to Asia. Since many of the farm workers in the United States were now unionized and were (correctly) asking for a liveable wage, and since the government of that Asian nation officially frowned on unions of any kind, the cost of growing potatoes would be lower. Further, the land on that plain was perfect for the use of newly developed technology to plant and harvest the crop with considerably fewer workers. Machines would replace living human beings. Finally, the government was much less concerned about environmental regulations. All in all, this was a fine bargain for capital.
        Of course, people lived on some of this land and farmed it for their own food and to sell what might be left over after their own—relatively minimal—needs were met. This deterred neither agri-business nor the government. After all, people could be moved to make way for "progress." And after all, the villagers along that plain did not actually have deeds to the land. (They had lived there for perhaps hundreds of years, well before the invention of banks, and mortgages, and deeds—no paper, no ownership). It would not be too hard to move the people off of the plain to other areas to "free" it for intensive potato production and to "create jobs" by taking away the livelihood of thousands upon thousands of small scale farmers in the region.
        I listened with rapt attention as the rest of the story unfolded and as we passed by the fields with their miniature corporate signs and the abandoned villages. The people whose land had been taken for so little moved, of course. As in so many other similar places throughout what dominant groups call the Third World, they trekked to the city. They took their meager possessions and moved into the ever expanding slums within and surrounding the one place that held out some hope of finding enough paid work (if everyone—including children—labored) so that they could survive.
        The government and major segments of the business elite officially discouraged this, sometimes by hiring thugs to burn the shanty towns, other times by keeping conditions so horrible that no one would "want" to live there. But still the dispossessed came, by the tens of thousands. Poor people are not irrational, after all. The loss of arable land had to be compensated for somehow and if it took cramming into places that were deadly at times, well what were the other choices? There were factories being built in and around the cities which paid incredibly low wages—sometimes less than enough money to buy sufficient food to replace the calories expended by workers in the production process—but at least there might be paid work if one was lucky.
        So the giant machines harvested the potatoes and the people poured into the cities and international capital was happy. It's not a nice story, but what does it have to do with education? My friend continued my education.
        The military dominated government had given all of these large international businesses twenty years of tax breaks to sweeten the conditions for their coming to that country. Thus, there was now very little money to supply the health care facilities, housing, running water, electricity, sewage disposal, and schools for the thousands upon thousands of people who had sought their future in or had literally been driven into the city. The mechanism for not building these necessities was quite clever. Take the lack of any formal educational institutions as a case in point. In order for the government to build schools it had to be shown that there was a "legitimate" need for such expenditure. Statistics had to be produced in a form that was officially accepted. This could only be done through the official determination of numbers of registered births. Yet, the very process of official registration made it impossible for thousands of children to be recognized as actually existing.
        In order to register for school, a parent had to register the birth of the child at the local hospital or government office—few of which existed in these slum areas. And even if you could somehow find such an office, the government officially discouraged people who had originally come from outside the region of the city from moving there. It often refused to recognize the legitimacy of the move as a way of keeping displaced farmers from coming into the urban areas and thereby increasing the population. Births from people who had no "legitimate" right to be there did not count as births at all. It is a brilliant strategy in which the state creates categories of legitimacy that define social problems in quite interesting ways (Fraser, 1989; Curtis, 1992). Foucault would have been proud, I am certain.
        Thus, there are no schools, no teachers, no hospitals, no infrastructure. The root causes of this situation rest not in the immediate situation. They can only be illuminated if we focus on the chain of capital formation internationally and nationally, on the contradictory needs of the state, on the class relations and the relations between country and city that organize and disorganize that country.
        My friend and I had been driving for quite a while now. I had forgotten about the heat. The ending sentence of the story pulled no punches. It was said slowly and quietly, said in a way that made it even more compelling. "Michael, these fields are the reason there's no schools in my city. There's no schools because so many folks like cheap french fries."
        I tell this story about the story told to me for a number of reasons. First, it is simply one of the most powerful ways I know of reminding myself and all of us of the utter importance of seeing schooling relationally, of seeing it as connected—fundamentally—to the relations of domination and exploitation (and to struggles against them) of the larger society. Second, and equally as importantly, I tell this story to make a crucial theoretical and political point. Relations of power are indeed complex and we do need to take very seriously the postmodern focus on the local and on the multiplicity of the forms of struggle that need to be engaged in. It is important as well to recognize the changes that are occurring in many societies and to see the complexity of the "power/knowledge" nexus. Yet in our attempts to avoid the dangers that accompanied some aspects of previous "grand narratives," let us not act as if capitalism has somehow disappeared. Let us not act as if class relations don't count. Let us not act as if all of the things we learned about how the world might be understood politically have been somehow overthrown because our theories are now more complex.

The World of the Hamburger

        In a exceedingly clear and un-mystified way, Schlosser demonstrates all of this. He brings the social relations that stand behind the empty versant plain of my story back home, forcing us to pay attention to what is happening in our own backyard. By taking us through the entire circuit of production of fast food such as hamburgers and french fries—from the processes behind the creation of these commodities from farms, ranches, and meat packing plants, to their selling and circulation, and then to their consumption in ubiquitous fast food restaurants (and now even more in our schools)—he is able to show us what the hidden relations actually are and what their real and determinate effects also are on our health, on the environment, on children's lives, on schooling, and on the workers who do the unseen labor to produce and sell these things.
        The ultimate effects of his well-written and compelling description of the lives and effects behind our fast food culture can often be devastating. His discussion of how this culture is now permeating school lunches—often in ways that are dangerous not only to the immediate but also long term health of our children—should make any thoughtful educator be just as concerned with the food we serve in schools as with the knowledge that is served up as well. His summary of what is happening is short but eloquent. “There's shit in your food.”
        But the effects of his descriptions on the reader are nothing compared to the real and material effects of our ever increasing demand for fast food on the workers in the meat packing industry. There the labor—often done by Latinos/as specifically brought in to work in these “factories”—is constantly being intensified. Workers labor under grim and very dangerous conditions, ones all too reminiscent of the “satanic mills” Marx described in his justly famous accounts of “primitive capitalism.” Nor are they anything like what happens to workers in, say, Macdonalds who wish to unionize, only to find that the notoriously anti-union company closes that franchise and opens a new one down the block which refuses to hire the former workers who sought a union for protection against their truly awful working condition and salaries. Nor finally is it anything like what happens to independent farmers and ranchers who find themselves caught between the muscle of multinational food processing giants and their own wish to be autonomous and to make a decent living that is also respectful of their land. Here, rural America, like the rural area I described in my own vignette earlier, becomes simply one more site for profit making, no matter what the social cost.
        The story isn't pretty, but then much of this nation isn't pretty either if you reposition yourself to look at it from the bottom rather than the middle or the top. Yet, Schlosser also tells a different story, one with rich American themes. The biographies of the entrepreneurs who began fast food chains is also the story of working class men (they were almost all men) who had dropped out of school early on and who, through hard work and a good deal of luck, became wealthy. Horatio Alger meets modern mass production techniques. Indeed, one of the more fascinating parts of the book is the ways in which Taylorized forms of production and labor control (ones, by the way, that also led to the creation of our dominant models of curriculum development and to the introduction of behavioral objectives in schools [see, e.g., Kliebard, 1995; Apple 1990]) were introduced into food production in restaurants and became the signature of fast food marketing.
        Schlosser also shows that the ultimate goal of most fast food companies is to create a process in which workers have absolutely no discretion whatsoever and need only the very limited skills required to load the machinery that will do nearly all of the actual cooking and serving. The fact that fast food restaurants now employ a huge number of workers—in many ways the industry has become the largest private employer in the United States and in nations such as Brazil—has important implications for our educational system. We are repeatedly told by neo-liberals that we must make closer connections between our school systems and the (paid) economy. But if the paid labor market is increasingly structured around “Mac- jobs” with their low-wage, part time, non-unionized, de-skilled labor—as much of it is—what kind of future are we preparing our children for? The world that neo-liberal school critiques live in, one in which the private sector is always better than the public sector and the common good and social justice will have to look out for themselves, looks more and more like what Schlosser describes (Apple, 2001). It amazes me that we can listen to their unabashed boosterism of the benefits of the unregulated “free” market without wondering what world they live in. Certainly, after reading Fast Food Nation it will be harder to listen to their claims without raising some serious questions about who benefits from the ways this society is currently organized.

Interrupting Fast Food Culture

        At the beginning of this essay, I noted that Fast Food Nation is also interested in raising challenges to the ways fast food is consumed, how it regulates our desires, and how it impacts on our lives and those of our children. Schlosser's suggestions for interrupting these things are useful but rather limited. His major—and justifiable—suggestion is for us simply to “just say no.” Don't buy the things that fast food now markets in our schools and restaurants. Certainly, boycotts have proven to be effective, in communities and in schools and universities (see, e.g., Zarni and Apple, 2000). However, leaving it up to the individual parent, student, or school seems rather too weak to me. How might one actually begin to strategically organize such a movement? There are lessons to be learned from previous actions among individuals and groups here. As I show elsewhere, sometimes these movements can actually cut across ideological boundaries, as in the left and right coalitions to challenge Channel One in schools that are currently growing nationally (Apple, 2001).
        Further, there are many instances across the nation of students themselves mobilizing against what they see as destructive environmental and economic policies and against racist, sexist, and homophobic policies and practices. Can we build on these tendencies? Do they provide elements that can help us think more cogently about interrupting dominant economic, political, and cultural forms? Schlosser is not aware of these movements. It would have strengthened his analysis and proposals for action if he had included them. It certainly would have provided more reason to be hopeful.
        Of course, asking Schlosser to do all of the heavy lifting of telling us how to organize against the cultural and economic forms that have led us to a nation that accepts “shit” in our food is a bit unfair. It takes us off the hook. Just as my friend and student did for me during my trip to that Asian nation, Schlosser has given us some powerful pictures of the relations we have with forces that act in hidden ways. It's now our task to take the realities he's helped to uncover and to popularize and to do something about them. I for one haven't eaten “shitty” food for many years and am involved in national and international movements that challenge its dominance. What will you do?

Note

I have been asked by my colleagues there to keep the names of the nation and the restaurant chain anonymous because of their fear of retribution by powerful forces there.

References

Apple, M.W. (1990). Ideology and curriculum, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M.W. (1996). Cultural politics and education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Apple, M.W. (2001). Educating the "right" Way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York: Routledge.

Curtis, B. (1992). True government by choice men? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H, and Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kliebard, H. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum, 2
nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Zarni and Apple, M.W. (2000). Conquering goliath: The Free Burma Coalition takes down Pepsico. Campus, inc., G. White (Ed.). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp.280-290.

About the Reviewer

Michael W. Apple
John Bascom Professor of Curriculum & Instruction and
      Educational Policy Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
225 N. Mills Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53706
Email: apple@education.wisc.edu

Michael W. Apple is John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A former elementary and secondary school teacher and past president of a teachers union, he has worked with governments, dissident groups, unions, and educators in many countries to democratize educational research, policy, and practice. He has written extensively on the relationship between education and power.

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