Thursday, July 12, 2012

FEA: On Traci Warkentin, veganism, and animal studies

Traci Warkentin writes what is easily the most controversial (in terms of the themes of this blog and to my readers) of the various posts of the symposium. I also want to say that the comments section of that post is particularly lively and interesting, so make sure you don't just read the original article (though read it), also go read the comments. Okay, before going into the more nuanced territory, let me get out the parts that I agree with fully and strongly:

Animal ethics, in both its continental and analytic varieties, have often ignored feminist contributions generally, and ecofeminists contributions specifically. This is particularly problematic in terms of discussions of vegetarianism and veganism, in which so much interesting work has been done by ecofeminists. Even if ecofeminists haven't added work that can't be found elsewhere (and, to be clear, they have), it would still be important to include them as an important part of our archive in animal studies (I've made this point before).

Now, I want to get to the more nuanced parts of Warkentin's contribution. I need to admit that I am not fully sure what Warkentin is arguing, and I hope that I do not read her post incorrectly. Warkentin seems to be ill at ease in two senses of veganism in animal studies. One is a tendency to move from a sense of the Universal and Same Human who is a meat-eater, and then move to another Universal and Same Human, who is now suppose to be a vegan. In other words, it isn't the advocacy for veganism itself that is the problem, but the sort of homogeneity of the subject and intersubjective relations that seem to be problematic. She also seems to feel the idea of veganism as a market choice, and in imposing upon the subject a sense of being a consumer, as deeply problematic. Alongside this last concern is a related one that would see within certain vegan identity formations a belief in veganism as innocent. These are all points I fully agree with and endorse. Many of them are points I have written about before here, and also are included in a forthcoming article of mine in the Journal of Critical Animal Studies. These are valuable contributions. It is vital we do not confuse our veganism with some sort of innocence, and at the same time the reduction of veganism to a mere consumerism (as Peter Singer's understanding of vegetarianism and veganism as boycott) is all unsustainable. 

I have a question and a comment I would advance for Warkentin. The first is what part advocacy for veganism should be a part of animal studies? While engaging with the literature of ecofeminsts are extremely important, it isn't as if this is a settled question in the literature, and from reading your post I am unclear how you see the relationship of veganism and advocacy.
The second is the level to which being a vegan is deeply lonely. I say this particularly as someone living the middle of GA. When I sometimes bring up dietary identity questions, it isn't so much as a way of demanding to see someone's papers before giving them legitimacy, as much as wanting to draw out kinships and connections. So, for example, when I was at the recent Non-Human Turn conference, there was not great vegan options at the lunches that were provided. I was standing in line with Brian Massumi at one point, and he was wondering about if there was meat in a wrap. I asked him if he was a vegetarian or a vegan. This wasn't a way creating some sort of dualism, but a moment of kindred spirits, of seeing someone go through something I go through.
The opposite of veganism is so universal it doesn't have a name. Carnivore? Omnivore? Meat-eater? Carnivorist? None are particularly satisfying or common. And often the events you describe have struck me less as trying to create new dualisms or demanding people's papers before letting them talk, as moments of relations or trying to break free of a profound loneliness against that unnamed universal subject on the other side (which is why I agree that the refusal of a contextual moral veganism is also problematic).

1 comment:

Traci Warkentin said...

James, I really appreciate your thoughtful review on your blog and the question posed. I do feel that advocating for veganism has a place in animal studies, an important place. Practicing veganism is the most immediate and intimate (and probably has the biggest impact given the sheer numbers of animals caught up in meat, egg, dairy production) way for one to positively impact animal lives, which should be a goal of animal studies, in my opinion. That said, I think there are many ways animal studies can contribute to improving animal lives and human-animal relationships, and would hope that those are pursued by scholars even if they do not identify as/with veganism per se. This goes hand-in-hand with corresponding critical and culturally sensitive debate (which has been raised in my piece and in several of the comments above).

In my teaching, I use an ecofeminist intersectional analysis of the food industry and intensive animal agriculture and find it to be extremely effective for educating students about the multiple oppressions involved for animals and humans. I always show the documentary, Food Inc., very early in my environmental ethics course, after which students are increasingly able to engage in an informed discussion and critique of North American eating practices that extends far beyond oversimplified questions of eating meat or not. Interestingly (although not surprisingly), as they become more aware and involved in discussions, at least two or three students will typically begin to practice vegetarian or vegan eating practices entirely of their own volition, typically by about midterm. This occurs without me declaring my own practices or explicitly advocating for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle (although I am always willing to talk about my choices when asked). I believe that it is very powerful for the students to come to it on their own and I anticipate that their commitment to these changes will be stronger and longer lasting through this process. I am sure, though, that there are many other effective teaching strategies as well.

In response to your concluding comments on the loneliness of being a vegan and vegan scholar among a still vast majority that is unaware and/or unconcerned with animal rights and welfare, I recognize the necessity and relief of discovering like-minded souls through identifying oneself as such. I hope my piece doesn't give the impression that I am suggesting a total refrain from doing so. I also don't want to underplay the major significance that some conferences are providing vegan catering. You've reminded me that this is still quite rare (I have been very lucky and selective about the conferences I participate in lately). My concern remains about the perceptions that veganism is the only moral option and that it is necessary for one to be taken seriously as an animal studies scholar, or else lack credibility.