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Matthew Wolf-Meyer


Yesmar Oyarzun


 I'm your host Yesmar Oyarzun.


Today I'm sitting with Dr. Matthew Wolf Meyer, a Senior Research Fellow at Tampere University's Institute for Advanced Study, we're talking about his work on excremental politics and race, or what digestion and its products, shit, have to do with whiteness.


The following resources are additional references made in this conversation. 


Origins (On Roots/Routes in/into Anthropology)

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

  • Martin, E. (1994). Flexible bodies : tracking immunity in American culture from the days of polio to the age of AIDS. Beacon Press.

  • Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history. Viking.

  • (in a more biographical sense) Wolf-Meyer, M. J. (2019). Theory for the world to come : speculative fiction and apocalyptic anthropology. University of Minnesota Press.


On Race and Whiteness

  • Roediger, D. R. (1991). The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. London: Verso.

  • Wolf-Meyer, M. J. (2016). Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. University of Minnesota Press.


On John Harvey Kellogg and the Natural Foods Movements

  • Bauch, N. (2017). A geography of digestion: Biotechnology and the Kellogg cereal enterprise: University of California Press.

  • Markel, H. (2017). The Kelloggs: The battling brothers of Battle Creek: Pantheon Books.

  • Wilson, B.C.. (2014). Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the religion of biologic living. Indiana University Press.


On Shit

  • Bourke, J. C. (2009). Scatalogic Rites of All Nations: Martino Fine Books.

  • Wolf-Meyer, M. (2017). Normal, Regular, and Standard: Scaling the Body through Fecal Microbial Transplants. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 31(3), 297–314.

  •   Wolf-Meyer. (2020). Recomposing kinship. Feminist Anthropology (Hoboken, N.J.), 1(2), 231–247.

On Disgust

  • Douglas, M. (2002). [1966] Purity and danger : an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

  • Godoy, M. (2018). “Want Your Child To Eat (Almost) Everything? There Is A Way.” In All Things Considered. NPR.

  • Le Breton, D. (2020). Sensing the world : an anthropology of the senses. Translated by C. Ruschiensky. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 

  • Stoller, P. (1989). The Taste of Ethnographic Things. In The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology (pp. 15–34). University of Pennsylvania Press.



Welcome to the Medicine Race Democracy Lab Speaker Series. I'm your host Yesmar Oyarzun. Today I'm sitting with Dr. Matthew Wolf Meyer, a Senior Research Fellow at Tampere University's Institute for Advanced Study, we're talking about his work on excremental politics and race, or what digestion and its products, shit, have to do with whiteness.


So, welcome. And thank you again, for sitting with us. We want to do a thing where we're starting at the very beginning. And so we like to ask where you're from and where you grew up and what it was like. And maybe that can lead into also how any of that ended up peaking your interest in the kind of stuff you're doing now.



So I grew up in suburban Detroit, and was born in the mid 70s. And suburban Detroit. It's a weird place, but it's also a really paradigmatic place. And it's where sprawl kind of comes from Yeah, and the kinds of logics of racial segregation that have really organized the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century in the United States, where Detroit is a really predominantly black city, although there's white enclaves and Latino enclaves. And then the suburbs are almost entirely white. And there's gradients of whiteness in that kind of David Roediger sense that you have more recent immigrants living closer to the city center, who are, you know, kind of, “less white” than the people who are really deep in the suburbs. And so I grew up initially kind of close to the city. And then my parents moved us pretty far out into what was then “the country,” which I guess is also in scare quotes, and is now just the middle of the Detroit suburbs. And my, I don't know how much you want to know about this stuff. My parents' families were both farming families and had emigrated to the United States in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, and we had farms for a really long time, and then sold those farms to turn them into suburbs. And you know, saw subdivisions kind of build up around where those farms were. 



And so anyway, my dad was a general practitioner and had family practice outside of Detroit for about four years from the 60s through the early aughts. And so my foot was always in a kind of medicine in a way, and he and my mom met because she was a nurse, and then quit being a nurse in order to become a therapist. I don't want to read too much into my biography, but that's inevitable. But you know, that they were really kind of I mean, my mom still is country, people in a way, despite kind of growing up in rapidly suburbanizing spaces, they were really country people. And so when they moved us out to the country, it was really to replicate something like their childhood, I think, and, you know, my mom, and we'll get into this. I'm sure, my mom was really a product of the kind of natural foods movement in the 70s. And so, you know, we grew up without soda and without chips and without lots of processed food. Right. And that was, that had its challenges and rewards, but it definitely informed a lot of our childhood and adulthood. 



But you know, race has always been one of those things that has really informed my experience. And part of it was really growing up with the implicit and often explicit racism of the white people around me. And I think I was of a generation of white suburban kids who were not afraid of the city. There was a lot of racist fear about Detroit, people in my parents generation, especially the generation kind of immediately after them because of the riots— although I don't, I'm not sure that riot is the right word for it, but— and the kind of systematic antagonism between the suburbs in the city. There were just a lot of bad feelings. And growing up as a teenager, it started to be like, “Why do these people feel the way that they do about this place?” And “Is it warranted?” And so I was, you know, venturing into the city as soon as I could drive and really became aware of how intention entrenched that racism was as limiting, it really was for people's imaginations. And so I think that's one of those things that I've always been working against, but it's always writing against whiteness. And sometimes it's more explicit than other times. But it is one of those things that I'm constantly coming back to and wrestling with.



And I also was very lucky to be assigned your book that details a little bit about that. Maybe a little more than here. But the next question leaves off the sort of race bit. So if you have three touch points that I recognize in your work, it's race and whiteness, STS and, of course, anthropology and biomedicine. So what sort of brought you to that intersection of STS— biomedicine you talked about a little bit— but the sort of, one, question of biomedicine and its counterpublics and publics, so things like forums that are not really “biomedicine proper” but are really part of how people get their information about health. And if you want to go back and talk about your mom's involvement in or interest in the natural foods movement, I think that would be really interesting as well.



Yeah, so there are probably multiple trajectories to think about. I think the most disciplinary trajectory is that I really came out of a literature and philosophy background. And up until my PhD was really working in American literature. And it was, while I was getting a master's degree in American Studies that a couple faculty were like, “I don't think you're really like, a literary scholar. I think you're a social scientist.” Like the kinds of questions that I was asking and the kind of methodologies that I was interested in, they were pretty unconvinced that literature was my future. And I agree with them. I was kind of going stir crazy doing literary kinds of stuff. And so I started to kind of cast it out. And a couple of people were like, you know, you should really look at anthropology because I think ethnography is what you're really interested in. And so I asked for recommendations for stuff. And the two things that people have recommended to me were Emily Martin's Flexible Bodies and Sid[ney] Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, which are not representative of anthropology as a field. Emily's book is a really, really STS kind of project. It’s, you know, in the US, it's working with scientists and physicians and you know, medicine and it's publics, and Mintz’s book is entirely historical. Both really are big forays into capitalism and its relationship with, you know, contemporary American life, although Mintz’s is a little more intentionally, right? But he's trying to tell the story about the origins of industrialization. And so I thought, “Oh, this, if this is what anthropology is, yeah!” And it is not what anthropology is. 



I got to my first foundation seminar at Minnesota, and we started with The Nuer, and I was like, “What in the world is this? Why are these people in Africa talking to other people about their cows?” Like, this wasn't, this is not the anthropology that I was promised. And it took a while, I think, for me to realize, you know, I've become more historical in my appreciation of things, but it took me a while to adjust to what the majority of the field is, and what the sensibilities are that animate it. And I benefited from working with Karen-Sue Taussig, who was one of Emily's students from Hopkins. And Karen-Sue is really an STS med-anthro person, and she really made it possible going into STS in anthropology in a way that I'm not…. If I were somewhere else, I'm not sure that I would have had quite the same support. 



And I had gone into that graduate program, not entirely sure what my project was going to be, but really interested in thinking about urban spaces and what happens at night, not nightlife in the sense of like going to the bar necessarily, but all the labor that happens within urban spaces in order to kind of maintain everyday life. And as (I've told the story many times), but part of that project was me thinking about “What's everybody else doing, and how do I get out there? So if everybody else is sleeping, who can I talk to about sleep?” And there's a well regarded sleep clinic associated with the university there and I reached out to the director and told them what I was interested in and he was like “Oh, you should come over and check out what we do.” And I did. Then within an hour, I was like, “Oh, this is the dissertation.” Everything that I'm interested in about American everyday life and capitalism and governance and stuff like that I can do in this clinic and use sleep as the focus. And so, you know, in a lot of ways, I stumbled into STS because of the project in that it was about scientists and clinicians and their clients and families and activist networks and stuff like that. But that really that framing built on my exposure to Donna Haraway stuff previous to that. Donna had always been in there somewhere. And then as the STS stuff started to come into focus, it just sort of clicked into place. 



The challenge was, maybe this is the long version of the story. I mean, that in an urban hospital, it was a bunch of white doctors working with a pretty stratified population of patients. Because of their location and the fact that they were a state hospital, they saw a lot of minority patients, although that may be the wrong characterization. So there are a lot of black and indigenous clients that came into the hospital, and a lot of recent immigrants from Somalia and Central America. Because it was a really well regarded clinic, it also catered to people who flew in from elsewhere to see a specialist. So you would see in the clinic, both marginalized communities receiving really good care from some of the really well-regarded specialists, and you would occasionally see people who are flying in from Los Angeles just because they need to see a particular person and they're footing the bill themselves. And so it had always attuned me to how race is showing up in the clinic. And then from there, it started to, you know, give these bigger questions about how is race organizing scientific knowledge production more generally. And what you get recurrently are these attempts of biologists to look at (there's gonna be a bunch of scare quotes in all of this) like “primitive people” who live today in order to kind of figure out how we used to sleep. So they do these projects where they put the various kinds of sleep monitoring technologies on people in Sub Saharan Africa, in a village, in order to figure out how they're sleeping, because that's a proxy for how humans would have slept 50,000 years ago, or 200,000 years ago, which, I mean, there are all sorts of problems with it. And the most immediate problem is the racism inherent in using any kind of existing population as a proxy for some kind of ancestral population. So I mean, that's all to say that what started as a kind of clinical observation of just like what's happening in the context of capitalism and American medicine became an entryway into thinking about how race informs something like scientific knowledge production more generally, right? And that, that it kind of needed to be taken on in a lot of ways because the racism in medicine is often very apparent when you're talking about like predisposition to certain kinds of disease. And it dovetails with genomics in a lot of ways but one of the things that has animated me throughout a lot of my work is like, where are the other more pernicious places that racism shows up? And one of those places is the American diet. 



Should I just start talking about the American diet, and its racist origins? 






So whether we like it or not, we are like all the children of John Harvey Kellogg, in that Kellogg really, and his brother, they really invented the American breakfast and, from the late 19th century into the early 20th century, the reconfiguration of the American diet around breakfast as this grain based cereal-informed meal has propelled our ideas about health and wellness. And, you know, if you think about the, “What are the other breakfast traditions?” or “What are they responding to?,” they're really responding to a kind of European model of breakfast, which is really heavy in meat. And it's really heavy in carbohydrates, you know. So in Kellogg's language, right, it's pretty greasy, and it's heavy, and it's bad for digestion. The Kellogg's are Seventh Day Adventists, so they're predisposed toward vegetarianism. And they really use that as a foil for casting that kind of typical American diet, and by which I mean typical white American diets, as being this kind of unhealthy and degenerative thing, that the kinds of things that Americans are eating in that moment are holding them back individually by creating disease, but they're also leading to what Kellogg refers to as race degeneracy, that what people are eating is leading to the kind of corruption of the human race. 


And so on the face of it, Kellogg's invented toasted cereal and, you know, what they really see as being healthy for us is regular bowel movements that are facilitated by the consumption of a pretty fruit- and vegetable-based diet. And so if you want to start the day, right, what you need is a meal to get your body activated. And part of that activation is having a quote unquote, “regular bowel movement,” right? And so grains are the most useful thing to that end, and they shouldn't have sugar on them. They, you know, the kind of toasted corn flake is the paradigmatic Kellogg cereal.


And so it's part of what they're trying to do is really articulate. Well, they, I mean, it's really John Harvey Kellogg, but he's really trying to articulate how through our diets, we can become better individuals, and we can become better white people, that as a race we can become better people. And so throughout his work, you know, he contrasts his presumed readership, which is really a kind of emerging white middle class in the United States with “savages” and “uncivilized people” and “Indians.” He has, it's not dog whistles, it's just the racist language of its time. And he uses them as counter examples, both in the kind of what could go wrong, but also what a better relationship with nature can provide us. And so on some level, you have the kind of figure of the noble savage that is both in finer tune with its physiological drives and their relationship to nature, but also is subject to a kind of uncivilized corruption because they have like, baser coarser characteristics that they succumb to. And so what he really wants to do is get Americans, white Americans to snap into thinking differently about their diets for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our race. 



So the Kellogg's are important in that way. And what happens over the course of the early mid 20th century is that many of their ideas get picked up kind of unscientifically, by people who are interested in a kind of return to nature in the American diet. So if you think about what's happening, generally, you know: canned food is taking off, a lot of processed stuff is taking off the big enormous agro industry in the United States, people are eating more and more meat, you know that there is a lot going on that is shaping the American diet toward things like Wonder Bread, and the kind of intensely processed food stuff that really characterizes the American diet in the second half of the 20th century. And so in counterpoint to that you have a bunch of people who are really interested in “natural food.” 


And part of those natural foodways, is really thinking about, you know, raw food, it's thinking about fruit and vegetables and nuts and grains, and what are at the time, really “ethnic foodways,” right? They mark them as being ethnic. So there are these foods that exist on the fringe of whiteness that they're really interested in bringing in. So a lot of that stuff is fermented foods, and what we would now kind of think of as probiotic foods. And so one of the examples that I write about in the book is how yogurt becomes “white.” And the history of yogurt in the United States is that it's really associated with particular families from southeastern Europe and they create these small markets that grow over time. But whenever it's in the press, it's always a novelty. And it's always like this “ethnic thing” that Americans don't have a taste for. And you might not like it, but it's actually good for you. Right? And that, like, you've probably heard that from your parents. But that's the discourse. Yeah. 


And it gets to the point where the way that you sell yogurt to the American public is you put sugar in it. And so in order to make things palatable in especially the mid century, you have to sweeten everything, and that sweet whiteness is what makes yogurt succeed in the American market. And now, you know, (I’m giving you a sweep of this whole book, apparently), but now what you see is this return of like nature again in the sense that sugar is being evacuated from all of these foods, in order to kind of restore the real taste. And that part of what the market is trying to organize around is how do you get people to eat things in their strictly natural state, so natural yogurt as opposed to highly processed stuff. I mean, it's really a way to think about the construction of whiteness, and its relationship to food, and what's coming into the body and what's leaving the body. 



Because one of the other things that Kellogg is really hung up on is what the smell of our excrement tells us about ourselves. And over and over—  I mean, this is a guy who wrote a ton—  and over and over again, in this work, he's really interested in what's coming out of our bodies, and how that's indexing some kind of internal corruption. So in order to kind of fix that, you have to, you know, fix what's going into the body. And so there are these kinds of diagnostics around creating and maintaining whiteness in a body. And it's all about cleanliness and the cleanliness and naturalness of the substances that we're putting into ourselves in order to make ourselves as healthy as can be. And so you know, what you get when you think about how they're constructing whiteness through all of these dietary ideas, I mean, part of it is the incorporation of what were once ethnic foods into mainstream American foodways. And part of it is changing the taste of those things. 


But it also aligns with, you know, ethnic whites becoming more and more white over the course of the 20th century. But it also depends on this persistent foil of what other people are eating. And that's both around what Kellogg refers to as “poor whites.” There are those people out there who are eating things that are bad for them and they’re “poor white people,” but also who's not marked, and that's often anyone who's not white in the United States, right. So he doesn't talk about Black people. But he does talk about “savages.” And there are ways that he uses those kinds of rhetorical tools in order to really buttress these ideas around that. At least that's the first half of that book.



I was gonna ask a different question, but I want to ask now about science and Kellogg. And I’m interested in how, to what extent Kellogg sees his way as scientific or is drawing on science, or if it's just like— I think this is a great word, so I'm not gonna say lack of a better word— but is it just like shit divining? Is he really trying to be this really scientific like “this is the real way” and like, I don't know if experimentation or anything has anything to do with that. But like is he drawing on the ways that the body really does work, or is it “You will know your body is working if you produce that kind of thing?”



Sure. It's hard to understate how impactful Kellogg was in his moment. So like early 20th century, Kellogg is one of the most recognizable Americans. John Harvey Kellogg is. He's the face of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. He's really a public intellectual, you know. He's publishing a book a year, you know. And they're everything from cookbooks to, you know, how-to pamphlets to kind of like scientific monographs that are in the latter case, I think are probably the best examples in terms of what you're asking about. You know, he doesn't do a lot of experimentation on his own, but he's reading a lot. And so he's really trying to distill the contemporary medical and scientific landscape into the stuff that he's working on. And that's both in the monographs that he's writing, but also in the practice of the Sanitarium. And you know, in retrospect, you can see how a lot of it was really shaped by what we might now think of as like medical fads. Like the amount of enemas that they were giving was way out of proportion to how many enemas anybody shouldn't be getting, but he's really wedded to this idea of regularity of the body, as demonstrated by bowel movements. In order to get there, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy. Like, they're totally fine. You know, regular exercise is really important, regular sleep, all this stuff, but he's really trained to build up this idea of regularity. 



I mean, you know, he's a eugenicist, fundamentally. And so a lot of the people of that generation, he has some pretty, straightforwardly racist ideas that have no bearing and actual science, but like, they get carried away with a lot of those notions. So you know, on some level, he's really accurate if you're talking about just the straight up physiological functioning of the alimentary system in a human body. The man knows how food moves through a body, like through observation, and through the scientific literature. But in terms of some of the other stuff, you know, it's not really grounded in sound science, right. But nonetheless, as a public intellectual, he really shaped the terms of the debate around the American diet. And, you know, the notion of wellness and health and all that stuff really comes straight out of Kellogg. And I think that this is one of those challenging things to really convey, that our very notion of wellness and health are tied to a eugenicist who is a pseudoscientific doctor in the early 20th century. And so there is racism built into all of those notions, and it's difficult to see because it's been baked in for so long, and it's so constitutive of how we eat and what we eat, and when. Kellogg made our everyday lives in a way that is hard for us to scrutinize.



That is so very interesting. I now wish I would have asked you a question about Dr. Oz running for Senate, but we're gonna table that discussion for another time, maybe. But I want to talk about sweetness, and I want to talk about spiciness, because spiciness is one of those sort of big categories that separates the ethnic from the white, at least today. And new fermented foods like kimchi, that have become popular and have experienced “whitening” of them are foods that are spicy that would not necessarily have been considered healthy, just because they are spicy back, you know, even 20 years ago, right? And so I'm going to ask you the very long question, because I think I worded it kind of right the first time. So one of the things that your work makes me think of are the sets of rules about what is proper for babies and children to eat, especially. And so the common notion that children can't have spicy food, and it's bad for them that it's actively gonna, like hurt them. And of course, children all over the place, consume spicy foods from the time they're small. I'm one of those children. I grew up in Cajun Country in Louisiana. And so that's also part of my I don't know, self that I recognize. And so I want to ask you about the racial politics of healthy foods with regard to flavor and relate that to the racial politics of disgust that you talk about. 



Although spicy is not always talked about as disgusting. There are some kinds of ways that spiciness and disgust may work in tandem. And so I'm thinking about disgust, or I want to think about disgust sensationally, so this spiciness as potentially disgusting because it gives you this burning feeling that's “bad for you” and that should cause a reaction in you, and that reaction should be that “Obviously, it's bad for me.” And so I'm thinking about disgust as part of this politics of sensation and about sensation sort of being a way that we identify or disidentify with other people, and disgust as a sort of sensation that is, unlike the others that's not you know…. It's not like sight, or even taste, right? Disgust is a feeling that we have. Definitely, we can feel it. It's a sensation. But it's also not necessarily “objective” (if any of the senses are actually objective anyway?), but it's much more constructed. But maybe I'm theorizing for you. So you can take it back and theorize for me instead. But I want to ask about how you would connect those things.



So taste and disgust always go together. And some people would disagree with you. There are a lot of psychologists, especially, who think that disgust is like one of the primal emotions, that all humans show disgust, and they show disgust in relationship to particular kinds of things. And so human shit is one of those things that we always find disgusting. And that's just not true, right? And this is kind of where it started, where this whole project kind of started around that problem, that all these people seem to think that disgust is universal. And it's not. It looks different in different contexts. And you don't have to be much of a[n] anthropologist to know that things like incest look radically different in different parts of the world. And American experiences of disgust around incest are, you know, totally particular to our society and our moment. And so we'll get to spicy food, I promise. 



But so where this all started was with this book called [the] Scatological Rites of All Nations, which was written by an American named John Bourke who is in the military and participated in a bunch of kind of westward campaigns that displaced a bunch of Native American communities throughout the west and southwest. And Bourke has this experience where he's with the Zuni, and they have this ritual where a bunch of the men urinate into a big urn, and then they drink from it. And he, in his “American civility,” is totally dumbfounded by a bunch of men drinking urine. And so it starts this letter writing campaign, on his part, where he writes to other ethnographers of the time to see if they've seen anything like that. And then he digs into the historical and ethnological literatures around the use of human waste in ritual practice. And I mean, he basically doesn't exist in the history of anthropology. But he's one of those people who, “Oh, if anthropology started with this, instead of Franz Boas or Tyler or something, what would the kinds of questions that we would have been?” Because he's really interested in well, so our disgust is totally fabricated. Our disgust around human waste is totally fabricated. And if you look at the history of the use of excrement, in both like, in I mean, that in the broadest possible sense of human shit and urine and snot and pus and stuff like that, consumed in all sorts of different ways by all sorts of different people to have all sorts of different kinds of effects. And so he's really interested in the kind of overlap between magic and medicine and how what we think of in the colonial United States as “medicine” is really something that's kind of like, purified and it's purifying. And so it, you know, really leads him to think about the invention of disgust in some ways. And he's— I don't want to be too sympathetic toward him— but among racists of his era, he's not totally terrible. But he wants to really think about “Well, what if we kinda dismantle discussion? What does it show us?” 



So that set the stage, in many ways, for someone like Kellogg who's really interested in (I'm going to distill one of the things that he says, which is): “If your food provides you any pleasure, you're doing it wrong.” His model of eating is not that you have some kind of, like, pleasurable gustatory experience. It’s like he refers to it as “physiological eating.” Like, you are eating the things that your body needs.  


Like their desire is not part of it. And you know, [he] talk[ed] specifically about all of these things that people put on their food to make it taste good are “not food.” So the whole category of what we now think of as the condiments, those don't count as food. They're just there to mask what you're actually doing, which is this kind of physiological eating. So he railed against condiments, but within that, is really interested in spicy stuff. That spicy stuff is also not food. 



And so people who are you eating spicy stuff are not eating food, that it’s both kind of masking the physiological stuff that you're supposed to be consuming, but it's also interacting with your body in ways that are potentially dangerous. So if you expose your stomach to too much spicy stuff, it's gonna fall apart. And so yeah, at some point somewhere, he's talking about how infant mortality in, I think it was like Latin America, is probably because those babies are eating too much spicy food at an early age and it's eroding their stomach lining. And it's like, probably not, you know? I don't think spicy food has that much to do with those children dying. But you know, he really sees spicy food as being this thing that is troublesome, and that it's associated with particular kinds of people. And so if you are thinking about the standard American diet, it is not something that has a lot of taste, and it is definitely not something that is spicy. Those are things that are associated with other people. And so you can kind of see how in someone like Kellogg, the ideal is to really have a totally neutral eating experience. That's what it's like, it doesn't taste bad. It's not disgusting, but it has no pleasantry to it either. Right? That it's just something that you consume in order to get back to work, or get back to everything that's not eating. 



And so part of what I think, you know, we're digging ourselves out of— and I'm not sure who the “our” is in that figuration— but are these ideas around blandness and neutrality in food. And one of the ways we get it and you know, hit it in your question is through the ethnic food aisle in the grocery store. If you think about where the spicy food is, in the grocery store, it's localized into just a couple places. It's always associated with ethnic differences. It, you know, you get your spicy Cheetos or whatever. There's a way that it bleeds out from there, but when you think about really spicy food traditions, it's in particular kinds of places. So yeah, I mean, there's this piece on NPR not that long ago, where they were talking to an Indian chef about what children eat in India. And she was like, “They eat what everybody else eats. It’s just what we do.” And the interviewer is like, “But, you know, isn't it spicy, very spicy for kids?” And the chef’s response is like, “Well, we just put a little yogurt in it. And then over time, we take out the yogurt, and they've just acquired a taste for it.” And, you know, when you think about the acquisition of taste, it is a sensory sensibility that you have to cultivate in particular kinds of ways. 


And that's why I really think it's analogous to disgust. When you think about disgust, you have to think about it as something that's cultivated. It's not something that's primordial, and that you, and I say this as a parent: you have to teach kids not to play with their waste, or to be interested in it in the right kinds of ways. But you have to cultivate those sensibilities. 


And I think that it's not…. I mean, your question, it's challenging, because, you know, so much of the STS literature really wants to get us to rethink objectivity in some sense. And that, you know, we're pretty good at thinking about how something like vision has been really shaped by the kind of dominant discourses, the structure, the way that we see the world. We're less good at talking about that in terms of disgust and taste, because it's such a subjective experience. Or we come to think of it as such a subjective experience. But we have to think about that stuff, too, in terms of how it gets cultivated, and how it gets shaped in the kind of racial logics around all that stuff.



I think that the point about disgust being cultivated is actually very related to the next question, even though the next question was about something totally different before. So I was thinking you there's, especially in the FMT work you're talking about, and that's fecal microbial transplant work. You're talking about regulation and the sort of ways that people try to regulate their bodies and one of the things that comes up in there and is related to one of the other sort of major themes of this lab— that is, democracy— is the sort of tension between self regulation and experimentation with one's body and government or you know, external regulation. Cultivation of taste, or disgust versus disgust, is also a way that we regulate our bodies. And although the government doesn't regulate too much what we give our kids, I think some people are also more likely to be seen as bad parents if they give kids the wrong stuff or cultivate the wrong disgust as well. But the question is really, you can talk about FMT or you can talk about disgust, or you can talk about sort of anything that you've looked at over your career. But that tension is between the regulation of ourselves and of our children and the government regulation and the stakes of that.



Yeah, so when I was casting about, thinking about this project in the beginning, one of the things that I quickly stumbled on is fecal microbial transplants. So people with certain kinds of gastrointestinal problems started to experiment with taking excrement from a healthy person, and you turn it into a solution by adding some distilled water and straining out any large bits and put it into an enema basically, and then you insert it into the colon of a recipient. And the idea is that all of the healthy microbiota in a healthy person's body is going to be infused into a sick person and restore the balance of their microbial communities. And for some things, it is incredibly effective. There are certain kinds of microbial imbalances that an influx of a healthy microbiome can fix within 24 hours. And so you have people who are chronically ill, just better. And that has led people to experiment with FMT for a bunch of other stuff, because they were, you know, we're kind of coming to understand that our brains are not these totally isolated organs, but are tied to our entire body (I mean, surprise, surprise, but), and that the stomach has and the digestive system, as a whole, has more nerve endings than anywhere else, and so maybe if you change the microbial constituency of the digestive system, you're also going to have these effects on the nervous system more generally, right?? So people have experimented with it for autism and Alzheimer's, and, you know, they have really— depression— you know, they have tried to use FMT to fix all sorts of different kinds of things. And, you know, it has less effect than people would like it to, but for a while, it kind of had this silver bullet reputation, that there are so many things that this might fix. And if we understand that our microbial communities are the thing that are really determinative of our health, then what have we got to lose because there's really no downside to an FMT. 


The side effects tend to be non-existent. But what you do have to do is overcome what clinicians refer to as the ick factor. So the idea of putting somebody else's shit into your body is not something that everybody is on board for. And so what they have found is like, if people are in a clearly really life-threatening situation, fair game. They've tried everything else, they'll try this. And so desperation is this key element in getting people to kind of reconfigure their disgust. “Okay,I'll give it a shot.” But if you're talking about, you know, something else, people are a little less likely to be willing to do that. I mean, over the almost 10 years that I've been working on the project, there's been all sorts of stuff around restrictions on its use, and that's led to a lot of people doing it at home. If you can find a healthy donor, and you can get their sample tested and make sure that it's safe, which you can do through any sorts of you know, lab services, then you can just do it at home, and you don't have to tell anybody. And so what happened was, there's an internet network of patients who use FMT and help support other people and their use of it and there's kind of a whisper network around clinics that will help people and all sorts of stuff. 



But it got me really interested that like that stuff paired with the Kellogg stuff really started to point toward regulation as this problem. Like you think about American bodies over the course of the 20th and 21st century, regulation is a key framework for thinking about what's happening with bodies. And they’re asking the question, regulation that moves between something that we do with ourselves and are aware of in ourselves to, you know, family structures to communities, to the institutions we work with to the state, right? There is a way that regulation is the way to cross cut all of these social forms, right? And that if you think about regulation and its relationship to regularity, you start to think about, or I started to think that but you know, how you structure individual bodies with how you structure everyday life more generally, and how the management of life becomes this governable object. 


And so, you know, the challenges that FMT starts to open up is that for a moment, at least, the FDA in the United States banned its use. And it was telling people that they couldn't do something that was entirely low tech and relatively safe, but just because they didn't know what was going to happen. And it seemed like this, and, you know, it was a real imposition on people's lives in some sense. But it echoed with, for me, it echoed with all of the calls towards self-regulation that I would see throughout the history of American dietary thinking. This is all part of a continuum around the organization of our bodies and ourselves. And so, you know, part of the story that we're maybe the story that The Colony Within really tries to tell is this relationship between regulation and regularity and disgust and taste and desperation. And (it's kind of) the way that those forces construct a certain kind of whiteness that's really organized toward what goes into our bodies and what comes out of it. I think I have to end that paragraph right there. Does that all make sense? 



That does make sense. And you just mentioned the book. But I want to ask, what's next? 



Yeah. So I'm, this book is so close to being done. I just want it to be done. That's where we are right now. So I'm really hopeful that over the next month, I will finally get it off my desk. And that would be great. And we talked about most of it. I think that you know, from internet support groups to fad diets to Kellogg and the history of colonialism and disgust, it's all in that project. And I guess where it ends, and the one thing that we haven't really talked about is really thinking about, if these are the problems in some sense, what's the framework in order to think about what do we do with it, right? And so I really try to make an argument at the end of the book for thinking about stewardship as a way to think about the self and its relationship with the environments that it interacts with. And so that's everything from our microbial environments to our landscapes. Like stewardship, one of the lessons that we really pull from the history of American colonialism and medicine and the diet is that finding some way to care for the other, while we care for ourselves, is kinda really a critical turn. And so if we're going to take the possibility that attention to the microbial will really change the way we think about human health, then that has to be tied to understanding that we have to care for environments to, like you have to care for the microbial and the environmental as much as you do for individual patients and their bodies, because they're inseparable. So we'll see how that goes. But that's the end of that book. 



And then I have two things that I have been kicking around for a long time and finally need to commit to. One is, in some sense, the kind of capstone to what I've been working on for a while, which is this book about the biology of everyday life. And it's based on a class that I teach, which is, you know, we talk about sleep for a week, and we talk about menstruation, and we talked about reproduction, and we talk about eating and defecating, and just all of these basic human physiological processes, it's kind of put into the context, a very Mary Douglas-y context, to think about “purity and danger.” Right? And so what it tries to do is pair these physiological processes in order to think about what they show about the organization of society in a broader sense. 


So sleep and menstruation get put together in order to think about temporal rhythms, both in a kind of daily way, but a monthly or annual kind of way, and over the life course. Can we think about time and its structuring of bodies in a slightly different way? And that's really not based on fieldwork. That's, I talk about as “ my Mary Douglas book,” because it's really based on other people's work and tries to systematize a lot of work around the anthropology and history of human bodies and their variations. So I'm really hopeful to finish that soon. 



And the other one is this book, it kind of comes out of the disgust stuff, that is thinking about bad feelings and methods. And so I think right now that book is called “Tell Me How You Feel.” And it's gonna have some subtitle that's like, “Experiments with Affective Methodology.” And so that's organized around like contempt, and grief, and disgust, and boredom, and anger. And they're all— I've written a couple of the chapters— but they're all actually focused on like documentaries or other kinds of public media. And part of what I have been wrestling with for a while, is like, so many academics have positive feelings about the work that they do and the people that they work with, right? 


So it's really typical in anthropology for people to have deep sympathies and friendships with the people that they do fieldwork with. And I had a really early experience with someone who I really didn't like, and that has stuck with me for a really long time. Because I think that and then I've had graduate students who have had really, you know, troubling fieldwork situations, right, and relationships with people in the field. And it really felt like the way that we talk about good feeling and the work that we do obscures what you get out of feeling bad, right? And so I really wanted to think about: well what if you dwell with bad feelings? And what does it open up for you? And I wanted to do it in relationship with publicly accessible stuff so that people could watch those documentaries and feel bad too.


 And whatever the feeling was, and to read the chapter and kind of work through those feelings. What do I get out of it, but also what do you get out of it participating in that kind of affective experience? So I'm working on it, and who knows when that will be done. But you know, I’ll linger with my bad feelings for a while. Yeah. Anyway, there's more, but those are the relevant things.



Thanks for listening. For more on Dr. Wolf-Meyer’s work, you can click on the links provided at the end of this transcript to access things like the articles we've talked about today. You can also find out more about Dr. Wolf-Meyer’s work by visiting


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