The Timeless Relevance Of Robinson Crusoe

Published 300 years ago, Daniel Defoe's classic story of shipwreck and survival still has much to teach us about human nature and the environment.

Crusoe remains an indefatigable presence. But why?
Crusoe remains an indefatigable presence. But why?
Roger-Pol Droit

PARISThe Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe appeared, anonymously, in London in 1719. It was presented as an authentic memoir. Daniel Defoe's name didn't appear on the second edition either, but the work was immediately and widely successful.

For three centuries, attention has turned to various aspects of these strange and surprising adventures. And in all this time, interest has never waned. Crusoe remains an indefatigable presence. But why? And what can we make of him in the 21st century?

There are multiple reasons for the book's success, too numerous to be addressed here. Crusoe's travels and adventures are described with meticulous precision that is all the more surprising given that Defoe never actually traveled. The novel — which is supposed to describe a spiritual journey of redemption of a former slave trader who discovers his own humanity — has become an unavoidable reference is children's reading.

In addition to a comic opera by Offenbach in 1867 and a film by Buñuel in 1954, there are countless adaptations in comic books and animated films in which Crusoe plays a minor part. In literature, from the 18th century to today, a number of interpretations can be found in libraries. Among the notable variations are novels by Michel Tournier in 1967 and 1971, J.M. Coetzee in 1986, and Patrick Chamoiseau in 2012.

Crusoe became mythical early on. The work embodies, above all, the relationship humans have with their own survival. It poses, in an exemplary way, questions about relationships between culture and nature. Work, ingenuity, stubbornness, cleverness and cunning: these are the principal qualities that allow him to turn adversity to his advantage. Crusoe begins as a marooned and miserable man, alone and with no resources. But these qualities create, little by little, the prosperous master of a small earthly paradise.

At the same time, the myth embodies the triumph of hard work, the happiness of a simple life, the overcoming of adversity, and the discovery of human relationships at the very heart of their apparent absence.

Rousseau wasn't wrong. He used Robinson Crusoe as an educational tool in the third book of Emile. In his eyes, the solitary adventurer teaches that the division of labor is not an absolute constraint — a single man can accomplish very diverse tasks — and that life in the wilderness is fuller, more complete and thus truer than it is in cities.

Voltaire disagreed with this naturalistic simplicity. In his Letter to the Doctor Jean-Jacques Pansophe, in 1766, he wrote, "The true happiness of man is to live alone, to eat wild fruits, to sleep on the bare earth or in the hollow of a tree, and to never think." He advises Rousseau to have Emile read nothing but the Bible, "the excellent story of Robinson Crusoe," and his own works.

And for us? What are the lessons for tomorrow? I see two of them.

In rereading the tale of Crusoe's first days on the empty island, one should notice that he doesn't cease to recover and reuse all of the useful materials from his shipment, the remains of the shipwreck. This is a potential lesson for all given the current prognosticators of collapse and apocalypse. If our world is shipwrecked, we will initially survive by taking fragments of its tools, machines, and products, and reusing them in innovative ways.

More subtly, the deepest lesson of Crusoe is that we will never truly be alone once we have been socialized. What does he actually do in his radical isolation? He thinks with words learned from others. He acts and organizes himself using mental patterns developed in his education. He applies rules and recipes that he didn't invent but inherited.

His island is deserted, but never his brain. The ultimate lesson from this lone sailor is, in the words of the poet Henri Michaux: "One is never alone in one's skin."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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