Monday, March 09, 2009

Michael Benton: The Politics of Meat 3.0

But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat,
while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice.
With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. "Like a dog!" he said: it was as if the shame of it would outlive him.

—Franz Kafka, The Trial

I believe that eating meat in itself is not immoral; at least that is what I have told myself as I continue to eat it (although, in the interest of environment, I try to limit my consumption). For me, the issue is the "way" in which we currently raise animals and slaughter them--factory style, injecting drugs, inhumane (kind of a stupid word, but at least it communicates a sense) conditions, environmental pollution, issues of sustainability...

Has anyone read Michel Faber's brilliant novel Under the Skin that acts as a parable about factory style slaughter of animals (in the dystopian tradition of 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of Flies, We)--allowing us to see it from the animal's viewpoint (in this case, particularly vivid for a male perspective).

Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat first chapter "The Patriarchal Texts of Meat" has very vivid examples of how we raise our food and how what we eat plays a strong role in our attitude toward our fellow humans (in Adam's case of men toward women--which she demonstrates with visual advertisements that sexualize meat eating).

Many Holocaust survivors made strong connections between their experiences and the factory style breeding and slaughtering of animals, becoming vegetarian/vegan as a result. Richard Rubenstein in his brilliant book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the the American Future makes the same point in the development of a ruthlessly efficient technocratic-bureaucratic order that understands only the bottom-line of efficiency--the most bang for your buck. As a reader of Rubenstein's book states:

Modernity laid the foundation, and bureaucracy provided the means. Bureaucracy's roots are deep in military organization. Both require a hierarchical structure with decisions made only at the top. Both require layers of non-individuals who follow orders without thought or input, even if the end of the process is massive death. We were (are) just following orders. Just let me do my job. Don't bother me. Bombing cities, manufacturing cigarettes, dealing drugs, killing the earth become matters not of choice but of necessity. To make a moral judgment - any moral judgment - is to set oneself outside society.

Can we make the same assumption along the lines of those who engage in the abuse of animals (either by choice or necessity)? Anyone who has chosen the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle understands very vividly how our society treats anyone who chooses to step outside its dominant order of treating animals as products to be consumed (as food or pets or entertainments).

If we can understand the setting up of camps for the apatrides (this history being repeated in the "War on Terror") as leading to the atrocities of the concentration camps of WWII, could we also make the argument for the development of factory style slaughtering of animals as a step in the same direction?

For a discussion of this consult Richard Rubenstein's Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the
American Future

Giorgio Agamben in The Open: Man and Animal, Means Without Ends, and State of Exception has been wrestling with these philosophical issues. Danesh Wadiwel, in a review of Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal and Charles Patterson's Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust states:

There is a certain humanist line of thinking that suggests that violence is invariably accompanied by what can be described as ‘dehumanisation.’ According to this standpoint, the instigator of violence suspends the humanity of his or her victim, in order to circumvent the ethical deterrents that would normally prevent the use of violence. In many respects this strikes us as true: the human subject of violence is frequently ‘objectified,’ they are treated as ‘pigs,’ ‘vermin,’ ‘dogs,’ as sub-human. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the greatest acts of violence against humans appear to be accompanied by a dehumanisation that is of commensurate intensity. The Holocaust was no exception to this. Dehumanisation was found in the Nazi labour and extermination camps, not only in the forms of violence and death prevalent there (for example cattle cars and mass exterminations), but in the plight of those in the camps, who as a result of starvation, brutal working conditions, indignity and violence, are said to have lost touch with their ‘humanity.’ A survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau recalls: "You could watch human beings turning into animals" (Volkel in Steinhoff, Pechel and Showalter, 1991: 236).

The humanist will say "Stop treating humans like animals: respect the human and violence will not be possible." But there is alternative line of thinking that responds in an apparently oblique way to the humanist: "Stop treating animals like we treat animals; then it will not be possible to treat humans like animals." Understood in this fashion, human violence represents not only a capacity for dehumanisation alone, but is tied closely to the justification of violence against the non-human. This reflects not only the capacity for humans to harm each other, but draws attention to the sustained incarceration, torture and violence that is directed towards animals in slaughterhouses, experimental laboratories and factory farms. It was perhaps this line of thinking that prompted novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer to observe "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

Should we introduce the concerns of animals into the "political sphere"? How disconnected must we be from the environment to think that they do not deserve the same considerations that humans do... is our domination, exploitation and mistreatment a sign of our collective (in)sanity. If we can make a designation of the slippery slope of the "state of exception" leading to the destructive depersonalization of humans, can we not delineate that same process in our treatment of animals?

Giorgio Agamben: Means Without Ends

PBS Frontline: Modern Meat


Ruth Ozeki: Creating Novel Life Forms

With all of this in mind, with my politics, in the reality of contemporary food production, I believe I should become at least a vegetarian?

1 comment:

Scu said...

Interesting. If you are really interested in reading further on this topic, there are a lot of places to go. However, and underead but really brilliant book is Netz's Barbed Wire.