Consuming the Unique: Food, Art and the Globalizing Infrastructures of Value

March 11, 2019

Workshop of the CEU Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, the Center for Arts and Culture, and the Center for Policy Studies

9-10 May 2019, CEU - Central European University, Budapest, Hungary

Conveners: Daniel Monterescu, Andre Thiemann

Abstract submission deadline: 22 March 2019.

This international workshop aims to bring together anthropologists, economists, sociologists and historians of food and art to discuss contemporary processes of value production, reproduction, transformation, and dissolution. Both food and art are quintessential fields of valuation, in which value is situationally un/made in uneven, increasingly globalized value chains. Here, competition is not about price alone, but also about (sometimes incommensurable) singular qualities (Karpik 2010) often glossed as ‘taste’ and ‘quality’ (Heuts and Mol 2013; Hennion 2017). We propose to disentangle the similarities and differences of valuation and taste in both fields through the innovative lens of infrastructure studies.

Prima facie, food and art seem to occupy opposite poles of global value chains, with the former catering to biophysical needs and the latter to cultural-symbolic desires. But a closer view complicates this picture. Concerning food, we witness in the last decades the rise of specialty markets, e.g. organic foods with their complicated relationship to struggles for food sovereignty (Aistara 2018). Similarly, in the wine market, several branded and territorialized wines cater to middle or upper-class tastes (Garcia-Parpet 2008), while offering symbolic identification with contested borders and gastronationalism (Monterescu 2017; DeSoucey 2010). In the art world, parallel processes of political and economic crossovers of taste are at play: a few international stars sell their art for millions of euros, while other producers barely subsist from their work (White 1993). In this scarce economy of singularities, artists are tempted to play with the affective power of political stereotypes, such as performance artist Marina Abramovic’s use of auto-Balkanizing imaginaries (Abramovic 2016; Jurgelane 2017). Thus, both the valuations in arts and foods are similarly differentiated and the generation of taste mediates transformations of sovereignty and class.

The homologies between the fields have too often been overlooked. We propose to close this gap by comparing the socio-organizational infrastructures of both food and art. Valuation is an uneven relation that is being produced, circulated, and realized through consumption (Graeber 2005; Caliskan 2007; Bogdanova 2011; Mears 2014). Infrastructures are the material conduits that allow this complex value process to unfold. But the materiality of infrastructures is also affective: it can promote trust in transparency, linking products to distant (often exoticized) locations, or inspire fear, disgust and anxiety. For instance, electric circuits, water piping, chemicals and scientific practices intersect to engineer new banana cultivars in an Ugandan high-tech lab, but frequent infrastructural breakdown threatens to exclude the Ugandan partners from the circuit of knowledge with their Australian project partners, compelling the Ugandans to step in as infrastructure and risk highly toxic exposure (Calkins 2018). Roads may speed up or break the transport of labourers, values, and imaginaries (Harvey and Knox 2015; Dalakoglou 2017); standards order markets and control quality and origin, they include some producers while excluding others (Elizabeth C. Dunn 2003; Elizabeth Cullen Dunn 2011; Gorton et al. 2011); telecommunication networks mediate the unequal flow of information (Larkin 2013), money, and credit (Guseva and Rona-Tas 2014; James 2015).

Some infrastructures perform their work visibly – like quality standards in the case of the GIs (geographic indications) or AOC (Appellation d’origine controlée) – but many infrastructures are hidden, and their “upstream” histories are generally “black-boxed”. We argue that infrastructures materially inscribe historical power relations into contemporary social life, engendering in/visible “techno-politics” like prepaid water meters that assume customers will fall short of paying (von Schnitzler 2016). But such hidden infrastructures become more visible in situations of crisis and contestation (Niewöhner 2015). In sum, infrastructures engender their own inequalities and precarities (Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018).

We will bring together senior and junior researchers to discuss how the techno-politics and contestations of infrastructures allow new insights into the history, present, and futures of valuation in the globalizing value chains of food and art.

Please submit your abstract (300 words max.) and a bionote (100 words max.) by 22 March 2019 to and Notifications of acceptance will be sent out by 29 March 2019. Drafts papers will be circulated a week in advance until 2 May (max. 5000 words), to facilitate comments by the discussants. 
For participants from outside Budapest, accomodation (3 nights, 8-10 May 2019) and travel costs will be covered.