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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Animal Rites

NAKED Lunch--a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. -- William Burroughs

Part One: Vegetarian Criticisms, Vegetarian Selves

What might a proper vegetarian critical theory look like and to what uses would it properly be put? I come to this question as an ethical vegetarian myself, a "strict" vegetarian, but as one for whom such fiercely exacting specifications of identity and practice, as well as the urgencies which provoke their assignment and insistent repetition among vegetarians and others, produces a certain anxiety. How many vegetarianisms are there, after all, and which of these are the strict ones? In the service of just what ends are these strictnesses observed? When is one’s vegetarianism finally strict enough, and can one be too strict about it?

Vegetarian criticisms will be likely to assume as their work either one of two tasks. Perhaps most obviously, vegetarian criticisms will seek to ameliorate the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of especially human ones by documenting as best it can the facts, complexity, intransigence, and adverse consequences of that suffering. Another possibility is that vegetarian criticisms will seek simply to document the vicissitudes in the ongoing emergence, circulation, and ramification of vegetarian identities, cultures, practices, and discourses.

Crucially, these two projects will often appear to be at odds with one another. Recall the classic antagonism expressed in Marx's complaint in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, distinguishing critics who describe and interpret the world as against those who strive more actively to change it. The "meticulous, gray, and patiently documentary" rigors of vegetarian criticisms tasked simply to trace the complexities, complicities, and aporias in the fraught normative and practical intercourse of human with nonhuman animals will inevitably, at least occasionally, frustrate the work of activist vegetarian criticisms tasked to contest the legitimacy of the abuse of nonhuman by human animals.

That the two more obvious projects vegetarian criticisms will take up seem to be at odds with one another provokes the usual range of tensions between them and among the critics who would undertake them. And these tensions are unusually exacerbated by our awareness that the export of intensive and factory farming methods beyond the North Atlantic West, the production and patenting of animal species, among other comparable forces freshly afoot in this moment, represent in fact an unfathomable intensification of the risk and range and intractability of nonhuman animal abuse at the hands of the human ones. And of course this intensification has occurred simultaneously with and apparently in sublime indifference to a proliferation of academic and nonacademic critical discourses about animal rights and animal suffering.

To the familiar frustration of the "activist" with the concerns of the "theorist" I can offer little consolation that is likely to satisfy her -– except to say that we can never know in advance just which of the quandaries that preoccupy theory today may provide resources deemed indispensable to activism tomorrow. And yet, if history is any kind of reliable guide, we can be sure that at least some of them will.

In this essay I concentrate much of my attention on the work of the feminist-vegetarian theorist Carol Adams, who seems to me certainly an exemplar of what I would mean to evoke with the term "vegetarian criticism," and who has been my own primary point of departure in determining what form vegetarian criticism would take in my personal practice.

Adams has bemoaned a recent proliferation of vegetarianisms and vegetarian identities, from the extraordinary coinages by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of the "pollo-vegetarian" and the "pesco-vegetarian" –- eaters of the slaughtered bodies of chickens and fish, respectively -– to the much more familiar "lacto-ovo vegetarian" diet, which restricts consumption of animal products to eggs, milk, cheese and the like.

In the Introduction to her book Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1994) Adams writes of this terminological broadening and hence thinning of the concept of "vegetarianism." "[W]hat is literally transpiring in the widening of the meaning of vegetarianism," she writes "is the weakening of the concept of vegetarianism by including within it some living creatures who were killed to become food." (p. 27)

While I sympathize with the thrust of this observation, I am uneasy about the extent to which it seems to rely for its force on the conjuring up of a vision of a "strong" vegetarian practice we should attain to. This "strong" vegetarianism consists not simply of the reasonable (for vegetarians, at any rate) vision of repudiating the treatment of animal bodies as food, but, further, the vision of the occupation, by means of this disciplinary restriction, of a space of purity in which the real difficulties of determining the course of proper conduct in the interminable commerce of human with nonhuman animals are inappropriately trivialized.

Adams seems sometimes to advocate a vegetarianism figured as a revolutionary outside of the sphere of political power and violence. She writes: "Either one consumes cooked animal flesh (do you?) or one does not (I don’t). There is no neutral ground from which to survey this activity and the debates about it." (p. 25) But to what extent has Adams herself, in assuming just this point of departure for her thinking of the question of the animal for ethical conduct, posited precisely a kind of high ground here, and so refused a more precarious and dangerous thinking of the terrain?

In the deeply personal "Coda" that closes Neither Man Nor Beast, Adams gestures at complexities which would seem to undermine radically any project (such as that, arguably, of her own book) to figure vegetarianism as an available practice of purity. "[B]esides clothing many people," she writes, "dead animals’ bodies are in camera film, videotapes, Jell-O, rubber tires, house paints, tennis racket strings, emery boards, car antifreeze, and countless other products." (p. 203) It is easy to see that a commitment to vegetarianism will nudge me away from the purchase of a fast-food hamburger, but the application of the principle would seem to become more vexed when the question is whether or not I should purchase a leather wallet, or a wool sweater, whether or not I should rent a video, visit a doctor’s office, swat at a gnat, or hail a taxi.

What might it mean, for instance, for a wool sweater to be figured as an "animal product," and so shunned by strict vegetarians, while a cotton sweater produced by hungry children wage-slaving in some multinational sweatshop in Southeast Asia will not be so figured and hence will be chosen as a properly "vegetarian" alternative? Or, if both sweaters are refused, to what extent will it sensibly have been one’s vegetarianism that has governed each of these decisions?

There would no longer seem to be any question of a conclusion that reframed the rigorous either/or with which Adams’s book began. It would seem either hopelessly implausible or appallingly trivializing to offer up an either/or to the effect that "either one will choose and then manage to separate somehow from the utter ubiquity and complexity of late modern globe-girdling industrial and bureaucratic practices of nonhuman animal exploitation (I have) or not (will you?)"!

Interestingly, Adams closes the argument of her book instead with an evocation of the uses to which nonhuman animal skins have been put historically in the production of written and printed texts, among them no doubt any number of the texts on which she has depended herself to formulate her own critique. In this I read a (too?) subtle registration of her own imbrication within a constellation of practices of animal exploitation she is nonetheless resisting and renegotiating, but from which an absolute or perhaps even satisfying separation and escape is finally impossible, however necessary.

"[R]esponsibility is excessive or it is not responsibility," insists Jacques Derrida in an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy ("’Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject," in Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, eds., Who Comes After the Subject? New York: Routledge, 1991). "A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the small or grand inquisitors." (p. 118) It is a typically rich passage from which I will draw for now just the modest lesson that to take seriously our ethical responsibility to others in general we should rather assume our actual responsibilities forever just exceed our capacities than risk a complacent acceptance of harm we could indeed address or worse, drift into self-righteous deployments of ethical language in the service of projects of active harming. My worry is that when they are figured as a kind of "pure" or "strong" or "strict" and yet attainable or even attained ethical vantage, the very vegetarian sensitivities and practices which appear perhaps to the majority of people as an almost impossibly rigorous and difficult ethical practice may have instead the paradoxical effect of making ethics altogether too easy.

To treat an animal, whether human or not, ethically, properly politically, say, as a peer in the arrangement of the world, is to risk a derangement of that world. The encounter with a peer demands "respect for the other at the very moment when, in experience... one must begin to identify with the other, who is to be assimilated, interiorized, understood ideally[.]" I have elided a parenthetic aside in this quotation so as to highlight it: "I am speaking here," Derrida explains, "of metonymical ‘eating’ as well as the very concept of experience." (pp. 114-115.) It is important that in the assertion earlier in the same paragraph that "[v]egetarians, too, partake of animals, even of men," this "partak[ing]" does not share in the scare-quoting of the "metonymical ‘eating’" he conjures up so soon after.

Derrida assures his conversational partner(s) that it is not his intention "to start a support group for vegetarianism, ecologism, or for the societies for the protection of animals" –- all of which are treated rather breathtakingly as equivalent -– nevertheless, he immediately adds the spritely proviso that offering such support to vegetarians "is something I might also want to do, and something which would lead us to the center of the subject." (p. 112) Indeed.

But as things stand it is no simple task to determine just how to make use of whatever support Derrida is providing here. It is no simple task for vegetarian criticism to decide when to take eating as just a quotation of eating, when to treat eating as literal or figurative, when to proscribe, question, tolerate, or affirm practices of partaking of others. And in the matter of these determinations, the example of Derrida’s own practice will scarcely guide us –- he is by no means vegetarian himself! –- even while he provides reason to question no less the example of those vegetarians who imagine that by the simple repudiation (however difficult in execution) of "red meat" -– or of corpse-eating altogether -– or of consuming corpses, eggs, and dairy products –- or all of these, as well as cosmetics, modern medical treatments, and manufactured good generally -– who imagine that by means of any comfortably prescribable delimitable repudiation whatever they can thereby solve to their satisfaction, once and for all, the ethical "problem of the animal."

The vegetarian imperative is to my mind a voracious one, and in fact, finally, unsatisfiable. This is not only because, as I have suggested already, contemporary practices of animal exploitation are impossibly imbricated with everyday life. More, one of the best ambitions of a vegetarian criticism would be to join in the work of recent feminist, queer, and race theorists to trace and inflect the flows of force, knowledge, meaning, desire, and power that arise through formations of identification and disidentification –- all in the service of the urgent but interminable projects of emancipation, equality, and the self-determination of peers in the world. Carol Adams has begun this work already, most conspicuously in her classic account of the co-construction and co-dependence of sexism and carnivorism (a conjunction Derrida designates with the aptly unlovely term "carno-phallogocentrism"), The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990). In other work, Adams has gone on to begin to explore articulations of "speciesism" (another ungainly term, I know) with racism and heterosexism. The chapter "On Beastliness and a Politics of Solidarity," in Neither Man Nor Beast (pp. 71-84) is particularly important for this.

In her formulations of the idea of the "interlocking oppressions" of sexism, racism, speciesism, and the rest, however, Adams sometimes seems to assume a seamless alignment of the interests of the oppressed as well as to summon up the spectacle of a no less monolithic oppressor, with the consequence that her critiques tend to hold out the promise of a clean and complete break with oppression as such. If only!

This utopian dream of an attainable outside to the play of power attends even her most careful formulations: "We recognize that expanding the category of Other to include the other animals must be done carefully. If it is not, it could provide an escape for white middle-class women from engaging in solidarity with oppressed people, by focusing instead solely on oppressed [nonhuman] animals. This would be completely inappropriate. To set up a hierarchy between the two issues is a false choice. That is not our focus, nor do we endorse such a response to this essay. In fact, the oppression of people because of race, sex, and class and the oppression of animals are interwoven" (Carol J. Adams and Marjorie Proctor-Smith, "Taking Life or ‘Taking on Life’" in Carol J. Adams, ed. Ecofeminism and the Sacred (New York: Continuum, 1993, p. 300.) The argument here seems to suggest that justice is achievable once and for all by dint of careful attention and a little hard work.

Against such a conception (however comforting) I am interested in thinking through the problems and possibilities of a sense of freedom that is achieved and maintained instead from moment to moment in the interminable negotiation among never-fully-reconcilable claims among peers in the face of insuperable though shifting asymmetries of power, authority, creativity, and satisfaction. I am attracted to this alternative conception since intelligible race- sex- and class-identifications, for example, would seem to me to be opportunistic sociocultural formations with long and hopelessly convoluted histories, articulated with, through, and against one another in unexpected ways. Hardly protagonists in a single story in a single key.

"Vegetarianism" writes Brian Luke (in "Taming Ourselves or Going Feral? Toward a Nonpatriarchal Metaethic of Animal Liberation," in Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan, eds., Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) "certainly carries quite different meanings and implications depending on one’s class, gender, race, religion, culture, physiology, etc." He goes on to illustrate the point with the example of Alice Walker who, despite a fierce vegetarian conviction ("eating mean is cannibalism"), has eaten flesh in deference to regional identification ("it is hard to consider oneself Southern with [Georgia ham]"), in respect of the incomprehension of a cherished friend, and other circumstances as well (pp. 295-296). The example would seem to resonate with special force in light of the uses to which Carol Adams has repeatedly put Walker’s slogan "We are one lesson" in the service of the image of a conspicuous convergence of properly just ends.

It complicates I think rather than undermines Adams’s painstaking documentation and analysis of the "historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in... suffrage movements and twentieth century pacifism" The Sexual Politics of Meat, p 167) to ponder the example of moments in these histories when in spite of an awareness of interlocking oppressions people are urged by the exigencies of strategic advantage and in the flow of uneasily shifting negotiations of conviction to make difficult choices among struggles and investments.

I am thinking here especially of Reginald Abbott’s discussion (in "Birds Don’t Sing in Greek: Virginia Woolf and ‘The Plumage Bill’" in Adams and Donovan, eds., pp. 263-289) of Virginia Woolf’s first feminist polemical essay, "The Plumage Bill," in which she declared that she would choose –- for the first time in her life, and in the face of a moral repugnance at the very idea of such a thing -– to wear an egret plume in her hat precisely in protest against the misogyny of male advocates for nonhuman animals who sought to blame the extraordinary scope and violence of the slaughter of birds for their plumage in the early part of the twentieth century on the so-called frivolity of bestialized and infantilized women and their hunger for fashion, rather than on the men who were after all the actual hunters and domesticators of the birds, and who administered the entire system of governance, industry, and investment that made this exploitation possible.

More threatening to the spirit of Adams’s genealogies –- and to her utopian insinuation in them that the fact of oppression resonates in the presence of others who are oppressed and impels solidarity among them -- is a recognition of the intimate relation historically between fledgling movements against vivisection and for animal protection generally with antisemitism in fin-de-siecle Europe.

"The societal response to the ritual slaughter of animals by Jews [was] itself brutal [!] and direct," writes Sander Gilman in Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (New York: Routledge, 1995). "The anticruelty forces in Europe and America teamed up closely with the anti-Semites, who saw everything associated with the Jews as an abomination, to label this form of slaughter cruel and barbaric… Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw in the Jews’ refusal to use ‘humane’ methods of slaughter such as ‘chloroform’ a sign of their ‘unnatural separation’ of human beings from the animal world he attributed to the spirit of Judaism… In the 1883 meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna, the argument was made that the protection of ritual slaughter, or at least its lack of condemnation, was a sign that the Jews controlled the political process in Europe." (pp. 135-137)

On the view that is emerging here, a vegetarian criticism could scarcely hope to provide a key to history, or ultimate weapon in the abolition of violence from public affairs, but would at most examine the ways in which the figure of animality has contributed to the ongoing articulation of other identifications, or perhaps explore the urgencies that govern vegetarian identifications including but not exhausted by straightforward projects to alleviate the suffering of nonhuman animals, eg, the attractions of power in any virile stewardship over a "brute" nature; ascetic renunciations in the service of common or garden varieties of self-laceration; ambitions of transcendence through attachment to notions of an originary naturalness, organicity, pacifism, or disciplinary hankering after purity, etc.

Talk of vegetarian identity inevitably recalls for me the fact that I have personally encountered incomparably greater hostility and incomprehension in a career of self-disclosure as a vegetarian than as a gay man. It is revealing (and not a little amusing) to register just how often the negative reactions occasioned by my "coming out" as a vegetarian have paralleled pretty much exactly what I had expected but for the most part rarely confronted in coming out as queer. Specifically, I have been told that my vegetarianism is "just a phase" (even after fifteen years of the practice). I have been told repeatedly that my vegetarianism is "unnatural." All manner of the long-awaited bad Darwinian and Biblical citations have been typically adduced in support of the "unnaturalness" claim. And certainly nobody who has witnessed the surreally urgent debates among vegetarians and their opponents in which the shape of an incisor or the length of the intestine is trotted out in triumph in support of a claim of propriety or inevitability for this identification or that can imagine that debates about genetic predispositions to gayness are infinitely remote from the contours of debates about vegetarianism.

Be that as it may, these promises and dangers, it would seem, have haunted the figure of the vegetarian from the very moment of her sudden and quite self-conscious entrance into public discourse in 1847, to the present day. Against the Oxford English Dictionary’s "authoritative" derivation of the term from an irregular truncation of the word "vegetable," Vic Sussman maintains (in The Vegetarian Alternative: A Guide to a Healthful and Humane Diet, as discussed in Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat, pp. 78-79) that the designation "vegetarian" was derived "from the Latin term homo vegetus -- a mentally and physically vigorous person. Thus, the English vegetarians [of the nineteenth century who coined the term and then applied it to themselves] were trying to make a point about the philosophical and moral tone of the lives they sought to lead."

Again, I cannot deny that this resignification of the vegetarian name has its attractions, especially against those formulations which would make the vegetarian a synonym for the mindless or the hopelessly humdrum. Nevertheless, I cannot help but remember the uses to which figures of "soundness" and "wholeness" and fantasies of the ethical production of "mentally and physically vigorous person[s]" were typically put in this period in the consolidation of moral and social projects of policing and "pruning," projects the trajectories of which eventuated as often as not in genocidal rages for order.

Now, it may seem that to italicize worries of this kind in the face of the harrowing reality of shattered animal lives and the necessity to intervene in their behalf risks an altogether unnecessary troubling or, more hyperbolically, paralysis of action. But I want to emphasize that it is precisely because practices and justifications of nonhuman animal exploitation exert in their un(der)questioned un(der)theorized ubiquity a special, formative (if not foundational) force and near ineradicability, that the spectacle of their strength and scope occasions dreams of total transformations of society and radical refashionings of personality. Surely such sweeping vegetarian imaginaries, however satisfying it may be to inhabit them, represent no less dangerous distractions as theory’s painstaking attentions are at their worst to the fleeting, complex, and even contradictory urgencies of ethical action and judgment as they fall to us in a public sphere that contains a plurality of both human and nonhuman actors.

Part Two: Body Politics, Bodies Politic

I maintain that, in the North Atlantic West at any rate, what we have come to think of as culture, society, the public realm, the space of politics, the sphere of civility, and the like have all been produced and policed on the basis of an ongoing practical, institutional, and discursive demarcation of human from nonhuman animals. Sometimes it is conjured up in the vision of an idyllic, or perhaps instead a nasty and short, but always, always brutish "prepolitical" state of nature from which civilization is imagined to have emerged and to which some will fear it is again degenerating... Sometimes it is evoked in the inarticulate cries issued at the "postpolitical" poles of public intercourse offered up in the torturer's touch or the lover's embrace... Come what may, the margins of civil space are haunted by the ineradicable specter of the animal, the beast, the brute.

Of course, this demarcation of human from nonhuman animals provides an ongoing justification (or, more often, a dismissal of the very need for justification) for the uses to which we put animal lives and animal bodies in the service of a taste for "meat" or of a faith in exclusively technical solutions to political problems. But also, crucially, this demarcation provides us an ever-ready abjected population of individuals who by signifying the "utter" absence of agency and rationality serve as a presence to contrast conpicuously with other luckier, more privileged populations of individuals as they seek to signify and inhabit the valorized conceptions of agency and autonomy they crave.

Even in so notorious a case as that of Descartes, his absolute denial of intelligible experience to nonhuman animals takes the form of the claim that animals are merely insensate machines -- with the chief consequence that what will follow from this claim is an anxious enumeration of tests with which he can then stave off the haunting prospect that human beings might be mistaken thereupon for machines themselves.

The task of the fraught and fragile demarcation of human from nonhuman animals is rarely primarily to deny altogether the reality of the richness of experience of those animals who are unlucky enough to fall to the wrong side of the divide, but to dismiss the relevance of that suffering to ethical life. The crucial consequence of the human/nonhuman animal demarcation is the constitution of a sprawling class of beings whose pains and pleasures are construed simultaneously as real, but as pains and pleasures that do not matter. Further, the cultural and institutional machineries by means of which social divisions between human and nonhuman animals are drawn and maintained go on inevitably then to buttress and "naturalize" other vocabularies of oppression and acceptable violence.

That is to say, racist, sexist, and heterosexist discourses (and other practices and institutions which accompany them), for example -– not to mention discourses of childhood, disability, madness, indigence, illness, foreignness, criminality -– are almost always also bestializing discourses as well. And so, they will always rely for their intelligibility and force in some measure on the fantastic figure of the being whose experience is real but does not matter and on the assignment of that status or an approximation of it onto another bestialized class of individuals. As witness:

"It is clear," writes Aristotle in Book I of the Politics, "that the rule of the soul over the body, and the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient[.]" To understand the character of this apparent clarity, in light of the uses to which Aristotle subsequently puts it, we need only recall Mill’s question from The Subjection of Women: "[W]as there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?" And so, a natural hierarchy is proposed -– a hierarchy at once natural and expedient -– an apparently spontaneous and self-evident order, conjured up for all that through the heavy hand of the ones who would rule.

From here, Aristotle disgorges a dizzying thread of equivalent tyrannies, all them underwritten in this way by "nature." "The same holds good of animals in relation to men," namely, that they are properly ruled and disposed of in a way expedient to men. "Again" -- this without a pause for breath -- "the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior[.]" And then, why, who can fail to notice that "the one rules, and the other is ruled[?]" "[T]his" we will call, of all things, a "principle," and one which, "of necessity, extends to all mankind."

Again, here we have the claim of a natural order, dragging in tow the shadow and stain of the authority that would keeps it that way. "Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body" –- and such differences, as we have seen, are not necessarily such a rare thing come to think of it –- "or between men and animals... the lower sort are by nature slaves." And, so, naturally, they slave away.

"[I]t is better for them," not to mention, let us say, for their masters, "as for all inferiors" -– for the beastly body and its passions, for beasts in general, women, slaves, and the rest –- "that they should be under the rule of a master." "And so," this a few chapters further along, "in one point of view," possibly indeed in Aristotle’s view, "the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to," and, fortuitously enough, do, "practice against wild beasts and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed" by us, nevertheless, stubbornly, "will not submit" to us. "[W]ar of such a kind is naturally just." Natural, indeed, and expedient.

"[E]ating a dead chicken at a fast-food restaurant," write Carol Adams and Marjorie Proctor-Smith (in "Taking Life," p. 300) "is dissociated from the experience of black women who, as 'lung gunners,' must each hour scrape the insides of 5,000 chickens’ cavities and pull out the recently slaughtered chickens’ lungs. Ninety-five percent of all poultry workers are undereducated black and Hispanic women who face carpal tunnel syndrome and other disorders caused by repetitive motion and stress… Indeed, meat packing is considered one of the ten worst jobs in the United States."

The harrowing behind-the-scenes work through which animal bodies are converted into "meat" is inevitably done by marginalized and abjected human populations... populations whose marginalization and abjection is surely figured significantly through their own bestialization... the discursive machineries of which are in turn facilitated and consolidated by the work they themselves are doing, as it insinuates itself from moment to moment, as much by its hiddenness as by its apparently undislodgeable taken-for-grantedness ever more deeply into the fabric of everyday life...

Now, to highlight the working of the figure of the beast in the oppression of human populations in this way, even if this effort were to buttress a conviction that might bring this harrowing machinery of bestialization to an end, is paradoxically to run the risk on some accounts of an absolute instrumentalization of nonhuman animals. "No argument could reveal the essence of speciesism more clearly," writes Peter Singer (in Animal Liberation, p. 203) than that the "reason against cruelty to animals is that it may lead to cruelty to human beings."

To this I rejoin that this objection relies for its own force on a stubborn maintenance within the vegetarian impulse of the human-nonhuman animal demarcation. How else to account for the assumption that "bestialization" names only a practical and discursive traffic between human beings on the one hand, and all other animals on the other? While I am interested indeed in a analysis that would trace the career of the figure of the beast within the identifications of queers or women of color, for example, this does not foreclose an interest in tracing its trajectory in the stories of hens, of cows, of dolphins, of spiders, as well. To insist that the field of legitimate concern to an animal activism must somehow remain autonomous from humanity is finally to refuse nonhuman animals the status of peers in a shared world so as to ensure them never more than the status of the protected.

It is crucial to notice in this connection that even practices and vocabularies of liberation, whenever they are mobilized and organized by the conventional claim that "we will no longer be treated as ‘mere’ animals!" necessarily simultaneously undermine as well as reanimate certain conspicuously asymmetrical relations of power. They do so by challenging their own location with respect to the human/nonhuman demarcation but otherwise fortifying it.

But surely, it cannot properly be the ambition of vegetarian criticism or activism to eliminate this distinction altogether, however. Not even the most utopian advocates for animal rights expect –- barring radical genetic and prosthetic interventions, say -- that one day nonhuman animals will find their way to the voting booth, or urge the propriety of extending to nonhuman predatory animals, for example, human standards of fairplay or penalties of law. And though I am sensitive to the ways in which observations of this kind are typically used to dismiss or trivialize the very idea of vegetarian sensitivity and practice this seems to me no good reason to refuse to register their significance and force altogether.

The question whether the institutions of a properly "vegetarian" radical democracy, say, would seek to respond more to the claims of human vegetarians or to those of the nonhuman animals themselves is one that has received inadequate attention from those who are sympathetic to vegetarianism and animal rights. And the same can be said of the question, does vegetarian criticism properly seek to represent the interests of "voiceless" animals (and so, as Donna Haraway fears, perhaps cynically augment the power of the critics themselves -- rather as those who claim to represent the "interests" of voiceless fetuses do) or to register the reality of animals’ voices (as Carol Adams rejoins)? What are the stakes of the vegetarians themselves, as animals of a kind among others, in particular framings of "the" animals’ agenda?

What are we to make of the fact that so far by far the principal effort of animal advocacy has been to "bring to voice" the suffering of nonhuman animals? The traditional project of animal rights movements, for example, would seem to be an enterprise to rearticulate the foundation of liberal rights from a shared essence, divine spark, or rational intellect, to one of a shared capacity to experience pain. But does such an effort rely on a mistaken, if well-intentioned, belief that the awareness of another’s pain will necessarily urge an intervention to alleviate that pain when, as often as not, this awareness might instead mobilize projects that insidiously manage and maintain the sufferer as sufferer, as spectacle of suffering?

Is a being who is figured as one whose pain is all that matters about her really better fit to participate as a peer in the political realm than one whose pain does not matter at all? And what is the place of animal pleasures in such a conception of the political?

Too often vegetarian dreams of a world made safe from harm amount to a vision of a world under gas. They amount to disavowals of the ineradicable antagonism generated by plurality. And they offer up blunt repudiations of the pleasures that accompany the hardship occasioned by this antagonism.

What is wanted instead is a reconceptualization of the political in which both human and nonhuman animals count as actors and potential peers. This reconceptualization would be facilitated I think by the insistence that the relation of a human being to his ham sandwich or to her leather jacket is always already a relation between animals, always already a political relation between potential peers, and not a prepolitical, instrumental relation of human beings to the realization of their wants.

There is little question in my mind that such a reconceptualization of politics would have as one of its consequences precisely a diminishment of the exploitation and an amelioration of the suffering of many nonhuman animals and possibly many human ones as well. This is because I think that this exploitation and suffering has largely been possible only because it has been thrust off the political stage and figured as a matter of concern to engineers and not ethicists. But I suspect that we cannot properly expect from this reconceptualization the provision of an angle of view from which the propriety of particular ethical and political judgments, even in such elementary matters as the eating of the flesh of particular animals for food or the suffering of particular animals in the context of medical testing, can ever be absolutely certain in advance.

For me, vegetarian criticism must actually take as its point of departure the inevitability of human/nonhuman animal demarcations, an inevitability that is continuous with the concomitant inevitability of ongoing demarcations among animals, human and nonhuman. And this vegetarian criticism should take, then, as its tasks, both the perpetual troubling of these demarcations and the documentation of their transformations and effects. This would seem to me to be a critical practice that comports well with a sense of the political that has as its constitutive anxiety the simultaneous recognition of the necessity and the impossibility of eliminating violence altogether from public life, a sense of the political which provokes a seriousness the strictures of which afford not purity, but, it is to be hoped, among other things, perhaps a real measure of pleasure.

Parts of this paper in earlier versions were delivered as "Animal Rites: Vegetarian Criticism, Vegetarian Selves," at the Conference "Culture Is Ordinary," held at Bowling Green State University, April 18, 1997, and as "Abject Beasts" at the 12th Annual Boundaries in Question Conference, "Subject, Object, Abject," Friday, February 28, 2003, at the University of California at Berkeley. I want to thank both Carol Adams and Judith Butler for their comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as someone who is struggling with a kind of "loss of faith" in her vegan identity, and transitioning (maybe?) to a more lacto-ovo space, your thoughts provided a helpful and different framework. thanks for sharing.