Consumer Dominance and Commodity Affection: Encountering Desires & Anxieties at Whole Foods Market

Authors: Jonathan Lowell*, University of Texas
Topics: Cultural Geography, Agricultural Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: Commodities, Consumption, Whole Foods, Food, Food Ethics, Anxiety, The Senses
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Astor Ballroom II, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper uses the case of Whole Foods Market to explore the ways in which food commodities reflect the values and anxieties of well-heeled urban consumers. It attempts to link together the insights of Marx's commodity fetishism, and the concerns and critiques of ethical consumption through the conceptual framework laid out in Tuan's work, Dominance and Affection. Tuan's work on the making of pets is interested in the workings of power in relation to proximal relations, and though commodities are often defined by their distal relations, I argue that Whole Foods Market attempts to make those distal relations feel proximate through a combination of narrative, ethical appeal, and sensual engagement. Tuan's ideas on how those in dominant social positions can develop affection over those dominated as a means of justifying and assuaging any anxiety over that relationship can help shed new light on the encounter between commodities and consumer and the ethical entanglements that lie therein. In particular, this paper examines the ways in which Whole Foods Market engages consumers' senses as a pathway into intimacy and affection in the construction of the relationships between producers, commodities, consumers, and the firm itself. The visual regime of the store, with its images and narratives of farmers, serves to activate consumer imaginations and feelings of ethical responsibility, while the more tactile senses of touch, taste, and smell serve as a means of assuaging the anxieties embedded within consumption practices.

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