Fast Food Nation: the smell of an argument

English: McDonalds' sign in Harlem.

English: McDonalds’ sign in Harlem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An LA Times review of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2001 called the book a “passionately argued, incendiary polemic.” While I agree that Schlosser’s long documentary essay, which emerged from a lengthy Rolling Stone feature, is passionately argued, I’m not sure “polemic” is accurate. As we read this work, and give more thought to the rhetoric of Schlosser’s writing, I want us to think through the ways his argument works. I suggest, once again, that there are good lessons here for our own essay writing–and those lessons need not be limited to a form of argument known as polemic.

polemic is a contentious argument, usually about a controversial topic; the word from Greek derives from “war.” A polemic (and the polemicist) works toward establishing the truth of his/her position or side in the topic and refuting the position of the other. Polemics are thriving on cable television. And though they are a type of rhetoric, employing, as any argument would, rhetorical strategies, they are of a more limited type. As we have seen with the tradition of the essay, fixed positions are problematic; self-doubt works well in an essay. And so a good essay is not polemical, even though it might be highly rhetorical, arguing passionately with its readers. If Schlosser’s work were a polemic, it might be viewed as anti-McDonalds or anti-meat. Although that charge was made about him–a point he addresses in his afterword–I don’t think it is an accurate claim or reading of his text.

I suggest that a broader and more inclusive and accurate approach to Schlosser’s rhetorical work in this book is to think of the basic modes of persuasion for any argument, the way any writer or rhetor can address his/her argument to the audience. These modes are: ethos, pathos, logos. We can use these three categories for persuasion to examine the rhetorical elements of this book as we work through it. As you read, look for passages in the text that might fit into one of these categories:

  • Ethos: an appeal to the credibility/authority of the writer
  • Pathos: an appeal to the emotions and experience of the audience
  • Logos: an appeal to logic and evidence provided in the text

Immersion and exposition are elements of essay writing we touched upon previously–with Emerson and Dillard, among others. I would suggest that Fast Food Nation provides an intense example of immersion. We find both immersion of the writer in the field–taking us into the beginnings of fast food in California, into the slaughterhouse and processing plant where the food derives, interviewing key figures; and immersion of the reader in the information and experience. Like Dillard, Schlosser adds to the examples of immersive details the power of sensory experience. Pathos matters for immersion; but for the argument to be compelling, the evidence and information presented must be credible and sufficient, and so ethos and logos are important as well. Keep in mind the extensive information that Schlosser brings into the narrative and footnotes at the end; the notes, you might have noticed, run more than 50 pages.

As you read through the book, identify moments that you find particularly compelling. But also, mark places where you feel the argument, the rhetorical project of this book, is less compelling. Be prepared to share those in class as we explore the rhetorical work of this essay. And, as always, think about the ways you can write about, and write with, these rhetorical lessons in mind.

My somewhat strange title for this post comes from one example of immersion that we find in chapter 7, when Schlosser turns to the meatpacking industry, beginning with a visit to Greeley, Colorado. “You can smell Greeley,” he writes, “long before you can see it.”  This sensory detail also serves his argument, that America is affected by the “effects of this new meatpacking regime” long before they can see it. And its seems to me we get a sense here of Schlosser’s rhetorical project in response to this problem–of smelling before we can see or understand: that we need to pay attention to what is going on right in front of our eyes, even if we can only smell it.

Some further links to consider for this work.


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