Thursday, June 11, 2009

Coda on my last post on biopolitics in Pollan and Haraway

My last post was rather harsh in many ways. And I stand beside the analysis, completely. However, it is sometimes hard advancing critiques against people who are partial allies. Donna Haraway obviously feels a great deal of emotional confusion over her flesh eating practices. What is odd to me is that she feels we all should feel equally confused, and call that confusion political practice. I have trouble buying that.
Michael Pollan's justifications for meat eating rubs me to wrong way because he not only is trying to make meat-eating practices ethically okay, but also ethically superior to vegan/vegetarian practices. That requires some obvious push back. Also, I have frequently meet people who are former vegetarians and cite Pollan's work as the intellectual justification for their switching to flesh eating. That also bothers me. However, Pollan's work has re-invigorated arguments over the treatment of animals, government subsidies towards CAFOs, et cetera. And just as there are former vegetarians who now eat flesh, there are people who try to avoid factory farmed animal flesh who wouldn't otherwise. And I believe that the factory farm is a unique evil (even if that word is out of fashion). So, if there are people who wish to fight the factory farm I welcome them, even if I don't understand or share Haraway's moral confusion or Pollan's strange psycho-sexual desire for flesh eating*. I recognize that in the hard work of coalition building, they are allies more than opponents.

* I know that calling Pollan's arguments psycho-sexual may seem a little off, but I present this strange paragraph from "An Animal's Place"

Surely this is one of the odder paradoxes of animal rights doctrine. It asks us to recognize all that we share with animals and then demands that we act toward them in a most unanimalistic way. Whether or not this is a good idea, we should at least acknowledge that our desire to eat meat is not a trivial matter, no mere ''gastronomic preference.'' We might as well call sex -- also now technically unnecessary -- a mere ''recreational preference.'' Whatever else it is, our meat eating is something very deep indeed.


Craig said...

The word "evil" should be used more often and people fighting for the interests of animals should lead the charge. There is no other word than 'evil' to describe an abattoir, a factory farm, a zoo or a rodeo. These are as evil as African slavery or the Holocaust.

I used 'evil' quite a bit in that course I taught for the high school kids, but I went out of my way to distinguish between objective and subjective evil - likely not the best terms. One girl, who was Jewish, asked about factory farms and the Holocaust. Or, more accurately, she said something to the effect of, "Pig farms seem a like like the Holocaust." (We had just watched "Death on a Factory Farm.") Her comment lead to one of the more interesting discussions of the week: is it the case that individual farm employees are evil? are they any more evil than consumers? was a death camp guard evil? was a German who was otherwise unconnected to the Holocaust evil? This is where objective versus subjective evil comes in: the factory farm like the death camp is evil; whether the employees are evil, that is much harder to say. Some clearly are, but not all.

Scu said...

I certainly agree about the need to use evil more often.

As far as to what what happened with your high school course, I am surprised that the comparison to the holocaust went as well as it did. My brother wrote a paper on Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, and mapped how the semi-vast secondary literature almost universally refused to take seriously his comparisons between the modern slaughter of animals and the holocaust (indeed, not only was the premise almost universally rejected, it was rejected as not being serious enough to warrant a serious rejection).

However, I also agree that while it is easy to know an institution is evil, it is harder with people. (In many ways, this is the great psychic wound that Elizabeth Costello experiences in The Lives of Animals).

I almost think that the pure evilness of how we so often treat animals protects those institutions, actually. The evilness of factory farms and many animal experiments are so stunning to many of my students they almost don't believe it. They assume I must be exaggerating, or just giving them propaganda because obviously we wouldn't let something so evil exist. If your actions are evil enough, they almost defy comprehension.

Craig said...

I'm glad a student brought it up rather than myself. It wasn't my intention to talk about evil because they likely don't come across such strong moral categories in their high school classes. It was a rather remarkable moment because they began to consider whether evil is relative to the perspective of the observer. To rural folk who grew up on farms and who will work on farms, standard practices of animal husbandry are just that: standard (the law also recognizes this - if it is standard, it can't be illegal). These practices fit into their ways of living in a way that they don't fit into our own ways of living. It is no wonder, then, that when activists come into their towns looking to expose cruelty that the townsfolk experience it as an attack on their very being or way of life. To attack one pig farmer is to attack all of the farmers, whether they are organic, family or industrial farmers. I was very surprised that this discussion happened at all in class.

khrushchevinlove said...

Psychosexual? Really? It doesn't seem that off to relate sex and food in our culture, especially when applying an animalistic logic to both to pull out a supposed deeply rooted desire to both eat meat and have sex.

Scu said...

Craig, at some point we should start a discussion with any other animal studies types about classroom discussions and pedagogical content in such interactions.

I have no clue what the hell psycho-sexual means in any sort of technical sense, so I probably should have stayed away from it.
However, I don't get the desire to eat flesh with a desire for sex. That for Pollan (and one assumes other) feels that these are deeply connected issues is strange to me. You feel it isn't that strange, I dunno. It is for me. I have no desire to eat the flesh of other beings. I can understand arguments about taste, hell, even arguments about culture. But a drive and desire that is innate and fundamental is way beyond me.

greg said...

Check out Pollan's hand gestures in the Pollan/Foucault blog. Fifty years ago it would not have been beyond the pale to venture that he is consistently grasping for phantasmatic mammaries as part of a fetish arising from the oral stage.

On a more serious note, the Pollan/Haraway line of "ethical meat," especially in the context of persons who are at times highly admirable thinkers, smacks of a kind of neo-Nietzschean discourse on will--the will to decide when death is good--which carries with it the same reliance on inscrutable "drives" as it does for Nietzsche. "Drives" is often read through Freud's "libido," and this is not far from Nietzsche's intent. I would doubt, however, whether Haraway would be comfortable with the sexual politics of Nietzsche. I will leave it as an open question whether one can draw from the Nietzschean heritage without also being responsible for its genealogy.

Craig said...

The drives, for Freud and Nietzsche, are organic - characteristics of the living being regardless of what sort of being it is. Think of the the wretched tree described by Nietzsche that fights to sink its roots into bedrock for an absolutely worthless and meager existence. (In the history essay, I think?) There's obviously a lot in Freud on animals, humans and drives. The movement of the centre of the sensory apparatus from the nose to the eyes is essential in the transition to humanity and civilization for Freud. And, I think, the drives are thoroughly sexual for him - matters of forming and destroying connections.