University of California Press, 2012, 332 pages.
Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese might seem like an odd book to review for Somatosphere, but a quick glance reveals chapters such as “Microbiopolitics” and “Ecologies of Production” which feel as familiar as well-worn flannel. The Life of Cheese examines the values and meanings produced in tandem with artisanal cheese: a process where cheesemakers involve themselves with landscapes, ruminants (goats, sheep, and cattle), bacteria, fungi, thermometers, and farmers markets. The Life of Cheese is a book about artisanal assemblages in America. Examining American agriculture—artisanal and conventional—through assemblages is a worthwhile endeavor and one that has potential for many future research projects. I hope that I will be one of them.
The first chapter “American Artisanal” introduces two important concepts underpinning Paxson’s analysis: the “unfinished commodity” and the “post-pastoral ethos.” An “unfinished commodity” is a saleable object that contains multiple values (economic, moral, personal, etc.) and an unveiled history of production. For example, the story of Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue is an integral part of the commodity and not a fetter hidden beneath an avalanche of advertising. When cheese is sold at market, photos of the farm, family, and animals might be placed alongside it to tell its tale. The commodity’s biography is consciously exposed and elucidated by its makers. This is a far cry from most food purchased at the grocery store where advertising and packaging aim to obscure the commodity’s life history. I have reservations about the “unfinished commodity” being distinct and separate from other commodities.
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