While most people in the US are familiar with the ubiquitous Kellogg cereal brand, few know how it relates to US geography, science and technology around the turn of the 20th century. In A Geography of Digestion: Biotechnology and the Kellogg Enterprise
(University of California Press, 2017), Nicholas Bauch
explores the digestive system as a sociomaterial landscape developed from the Battle Creek Sanitarium, as run by Dr. John Kellogg. Bauch wants to focus less on Kellogg the man, but rather on Kellogg’s ability to enroll actants (a la Latour) in his geographical digestive network. Kellogg’s religious background as a Seventh-Day Adventist, and his scientific and medical training, made purity and cleanliness his central goals at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Responding to the social and personal problems of indigestion and stagnation, Kellogg instituted a regime of tests, procedures and strict dieting (amongst other restrictions) to cure such prevalent ills. Kellogg thought that natural food was too impure a diet, so instead he turned to highly processed foods as developed in his experimental kitchen, which incidentally was how the first cereal flakes were made. Even with such plain and processed dieting, Kellogg found the human digestive system unable to process substances efficiently on its own. This problem led Kellogg to conceptualize an extended digestive system by developing a sewage system. Eventually, Kellogg became reliant upon industrial farming in rural Michigan. New developments in industrial equipment, such as grain-threshing machines, and industrial chemicals, to enrich the soil, provided a relatively clean and efficient food production process to fulfill the sanitarium’s needs. Before his death, Kellogg thus purified the nature/culture binary of food in favor of scientific approach, and engineered a collective digestive system across Battle Creek and nearby areas.
While some of Kellogg’s ideas seem antiquarian to today’s standards, Bauch makes a compelling argument for why we can see Kellogg’s paradoxical influence on today’s US food production and consumption. While Kellogg railed against the dominant “natural” cuisine of his day in favor of a new approach to processed foods, the new food movements of today are decidedly critical of processed foods; while Kellogg wanted zero bacteria in the gut, today there are numerous products that are probiotics. What the new food movements gain from Kellogg is not his precise views, but rather his focus on the gut and the potential medicinal properties of food.
A Geography of Digestion
presents not only a geographical history, but a methodology for exploring sociomaterial processes as landscapes for future researchers to use in other contexts. As such, scholars interested in the relation between science and space, food studies, and materialist approaches to the body will find much use of this recently published work.
Chad J. Valasek is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His research interests includes the history of the human sciences, the influence of the behavioral sciences on medical practice and health policy, and political activism around science and the arts. You can follow him on Twitter @chadjvalasek.