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Jonathan Safran Foer - Eating Animals (2009)

January 5th, 2010 (11:55 am)

For those who have seen the spread of vegetarianism as reaching its zenith, it’s interesting that the major contribution of meat-eating to global warming is providing a new impetus to vegetarianism, one based on self-interest rather than compassion for others (and therefore, one might assume, providing an argument more likely to be accepted and acted upon). Despite this, many of those who are happy to go on anti-warming marches or install solar panels remain resistant to a basic, and easy, change which might be one of the most significant possible for an individual to take in terms of acting on climate change. I would put this down to what might be termed ‘identity protest’ – a willingness to endorse an identity as a protester (to which, heaven knows, we’re all liable) as long as it doesn’t actually demand any meaningful change in our own lives – in other words, the incorporation of protest as a purchased identity in the context of capitalist social structure. But all this is by the by. From this vantage point, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new work on the meat industry is timely and important, and most important in that it is likely to reach a new audience who have been dismissive of earlier central works such as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.

The most successful parts of Foer’s book are the beginning and the end, dealing with his personal experiences with food, bringing in cultural theory from Benjamin to Derrida, and touching on interesting issues such as the continuing sociocultural importance of eating (or refusing to eat) with another, the community and emotional aspects of food practices. The central part of the book, in which he presents the case against factory ‘farming’ both in terms of cruelty and in terms of health consequences for humans in the natural environment and the nature of food produced by industrial methods, will not present factually new information to anyone familiar with the hideous cruelty and the gruesome and disgusting aspects of industrialized animal ‘husbandry,’ but are still shocking even for those who do have such familiarity.

So far, so good. However, to use an appropriate metaphor, there are a number of elephants in Foer’s room. The first of these is capitalism. Foer spends a great deal of time with non-factory farmers, for whom he evidently has a great deal of admiration – and although he acknowledges that even in this context killing is problematic, and that any argument for meat-eating supports the factory system, what is most in evidence here is a characteristically American desire for a pre-capitalist system of community agriculture which contains an inherent ethic of care – and while there is certainly some truth to this evaluative comparison of past and present, in terms of human health impact as well as cruelty, one wonders whether this basically conservative-nostalgic perspective is somewhat overstated (indeed, a deep and peculiarly American nostalgia, whether for old-fashioned farming communities or for the family circle and celebrations such as Thanksgiving – according to Foer, despite the crimes of the past, ‘the holday that encompasses all others,’ one about which ‘there is nothing specifically American’ as a celebration of American ideals). Essentially, the reason for the existence of factory ‘farming’ (and, incidentally, a contribution to the cruelty practiced in factory farms and slaugherhouses due to the dehumanisation and exploitation of workers) is the social system of industrialized capitalism and bureaucratic management, and while Foer recognizes this in terms of the problems in the industry, he does not address the question of whether a better system (if that is indeed to be the goal) is possible within that structure. Indeed, in demonstrating the way in which labels like ‘cage-free’ are false, and in documenting the takeover of Niman meats, Foer points to this conclusion.

But this issue points to a deeper problem – the status of animals with regard to humans. Why should we consider that, as long as animals have had an acceptably comfortable life and a sudden death, it is acceptable to kill them for the unnecessary pleasure of our palates (this issue – the pleasure of palate as a concern overriding morality – is one Foer does raise)? In numerous places Foer cautions that we should not think of animals as (morally) equal or equivalent to humans – but if not, why not? I would argue that it is thinking of animals as somehow lesser or inferior, morally or otherwise, which gives moral license to use them instrumentally, and that while this view persists we - or rather, they - have no chance of decent treatment. The old canard is also brought out that we are ‘unable to avoid violence and therefore should do it more humanely, ’ but again, it is not explained why this is so, or, if indeed it is so, why this would legitimize any killing we choose to do. Given Foer’s extensive research, it would have been nice to see at least a little more consideration of ethics as a subject in regard to these issues (a topic on which much has been written) – and in terms of Foer’s interesting but somewhat facile engagement with theorists such as Derrida and Benjamin, I would have been interested to see his approach to these issues. On the philosophical note, the issue of gender is also one which could be more closely examined, given the connection, on the one hand, between meat-eating and masculinity and on the other, in practice toward animals (females as machines for re/production, males for slaughter).

Another central issue, and one which has sometimes been neglected, is brought into focus here (though being the scholarly type I am I would have liked to see further historico-social exploration rather than Foer’s meandering approach) – the social nature of eating, even in our society in which this centrality, and eating as an act of community and social bonding, has been gradually elided and fetishised as a boutique activity for special occasions. It is still difficult to reject the food another offers you, to refuse to partake in the community of the table, and such refusal is often experienced as a hurtful rejection and an insult. This is a deeper question than that of social conformity to custom, although that is one which also plays a significant role (imagine the response to meat-eating which might arise in someone brought up in a veg/etari/an society – somewhat like most people’s presently to murderous cannibalism, I would imagine). The abovementioned nostalgia expressed by Foer dovetails with this aspect of food practice as one which still plays a greater role in social relations than we might assume. Nonetheless, as the conclusion points out, it is the social aspect of eating, the way in which our own choices influence others, which makes a change of diet an act which has effects beyond those of an individual boycott.

A final unconsidered question is the milk and dairy industry, and the issue of pets – Foer relates the complexities of his relationship with his own dog, but there is no exploration of the cruelties of milk, egg and honey production (or wool, silk and leather), or the perspective that the relationship between humanely farmed animals and their 'owners,' or between pets and their 'owners,' is in a best-case scenario one of benign slavery and dependence. And why go vegetarian if one is to feed meat to a cat or dog? Indeed, for this reader at least, slavery is a theme which often comes to mind while reading this work, from the too-convenient ‘knowledge’ of inequality which justifies turning a being into a thing, to the widespread invisibility of the moral aspect of the problem, and the issue of kindness or humane practice as one which invisible-ises the problem rather than resolves it (despite issues of pragmatism). This similarity, indeed, has been extensively explored by Marjorie Spiegel - while the fact of the connection between killing animals and killing humans has likewise had proponents such as Charles Patterson and David Sztybel, in particular his paper 'Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?'. Unlike the case of slavery, however, short of technology which today is unimaginable it seems unlikely that animals will ever be given the opportunity to voice their sufferings in the way that slaves could – for the ‘humanely farmed’ but slaughtered turkey to talk back to the farmer.

Despite these flaws (not to mention the perpetuation of the thoroughly exploded myth of Hitler as a vegetarian), this is an important book and one which brings out some important and under-considered points. While many of these originate with other thinkers, in weaving them together Foer nevertheless does the reader a service. He takes to task ‘humane omnivores’ such as Michael Pollan, quoting B. R. Myers on a common, but little-noted, intellectual sleight-of-hand when discussing eating animals: 'One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties.' On a similar note, the argument that it is (more) acceptable to eat animals when one has demonstrated oneself capable of hunting and killing them personally is also characterized as a ‘forgetting,’ one which is greater than that undertaken by everyday consumer meat-eating because it pretends to have addressed the question.

As one who has done a fair amount of reading and thinking on this issue, I am not the book’s intended audience. Without obviating the seriousness of the problems I raise above, it may nonetheless be, if not necessary, at least pragmatic, to avoid philosophical complexity and ethical consistency in the name of reaching out to a larger audience, and in putting thought-experiments (like a meatless Thanksgiving) which may reach where logical argument cannot. Indeed, where pragmatism should end is a highly vexed question in the case of meat-eating – is it more positive, for example, to encourage one meat-free day a week with the aim of reaching more people, rather than encouraging a more ethically acceptable vegetarianism which is also more alienating and easily dismissed? The case of the vegan who builds slaughterhouses, which Foer presents here, exemplifies these difficulties, although for me they are not so 'difficult' as it is convenient to make them appear – one asks oneself how one would behave if one was advocating for humans. Nonetheless, Foer’s enthusiasm is apparent throughout, and for all its shortcomings this is a highly accessible book, and as enjoyable as a work detailing the gruesome treatment of animals ever can be, one which will reach a wider audience than other works on animal rights or animal ethics, and one which will change behaviour – and as such, it is an important contribution.