Thursday, June 5, 2014

Becoming-vegan as ethical transformation.

Adam Kotsko recently had a post over at his place, "Why am I not a vegetarian?". This will not be a direct response to all his concerns, excuses, and explanations. I will mostly be talking about vegetarianism and veganism here in its ethical dimensions. There are, of course, environmental reasons, labor reasons, etc. that one might want to be a vegetarian or a vegan. However, I do want to highlight a couple of his points:
Another reason: a distrust of ethical consumer choices. Yes, factory farming is an abomination. If there were laws proposing to outlaw it, I would support those laws, regardless of their effect on the cost or availability of meat. In the meantime, I purchase organic meat when possible. Yet I just don’t have it in me to make a big deal out of it or insist on it, just like I don’t have it in me to move heaven and earth to make sure my garbage is recycled. I make my token gesture, but systemic problems have systemic solutions. I’m part of the society in which I live, and no amount of ritualistic keeping my hands clean is going to change anything. [...] For me, it seems like becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person, and I don’t want to make that particular change. Maybe something will happen to make that change plausible and even urgent at a gut level, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I want to say that his rejection of personal responses to systemic issues is a legitimate critique. Though, of course I am not sure I want to go so far as Adam does in his rejection of the ability of personal decisions to change the conditions for other animals. But, in general, the factory farm is exactly the sort of thing that individual consumer choices will most likely not have dramatic effects. Indeed, it would be important, particularly in relation to abolitionist discourses, to consider the limitations of voluntarism and vanguardism. So, if the idea of vegetarianism and veganism as boycott is not functionally sound, why promote it? And I think this is where I also, even more strongly, agree with Adam, when he states that "becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person." Veganism and vegetarianism in this sense is a kind of askesis, a practice of self-production. This pretty clearly drawing upon the work of the later Foucault, and I am by far not the only one to make this argument (you might want to look at Tanke's "The Care of the Self and Environmental Politics," Taylor's "Foucault and the Ethics of Eating," my "Towards a Dark Animal Studies," and Dean's "You Are How You Eat?"). One of the things I find interesting in Foucault's argument is that the cartesian understanding of how a self changes is challenged. Under the usual, what we will call cartesian, view, first you understand the world correctly, and from that correct understanding, you will do what you should do. Right knowledge precedes right action. Under this view of the world, the biggest hurdle to societal arrangements and policy decisions is that people don't know what is true. In other words, the biggest reason we haven't confronted global warming is global warming deniers. Not, you know, that even if we somehow all agreed that global warming was happening and bad, we might still have right action. In Foucault's turn to classical philosophy, we get a different understanding against the cartesian view. In his view, we have to have certain practices that then produce the ability to access certain truths or understandings of the world. Action precedes knowledge, or at least understanding. So, if we want to mitigate the unthinkable suffering of the factory farm, if we want to divert the environmental global suicide pact that is being driven by the expropriation of animal labor and lives, then I think vegetarianism and veganism is going to be key. It will be key not just as an end reality (the end result of challenging the systemic violence to animals will probably be vegetarianism and veganism), but also as a way of producing the sorts of subjectivities that bring about systemic change in the first place. In other words, we need vegetarianism and veganism not because of a consumer boycott, but because we need a different kind of persons.

This gets to a different part of Adam's post:
I also don’t want to be a pain in the ass for hosts. I don’t want to constrain the choice of meal someone can prepare me in their home or the choice of restaurant. This is one key principle from Pauline Christianity on which I will not budge: always be a good guest, always accept what’s put before you. I don’t want them to experience my dietary preference as a moral judgment on them — which will likely happen at least sometimes, whether I intend it that way or not. It’s not as though they or I can do anything about the system of food production, so why create bad feelings?
While not a direct answer, it reminds me of Leela Gandhi's excellent book, Affective Communities. In her chapter "Meat"she recounts the story of Mahatma Gandhi's vegetarianism. When he left for England to study law, he made a promise to his mother to be vegetarian. He had not particularly been a vegetarian before that promise, and felt it was a superstition. He was often made fun of in England among his peers, but he kept his promise. In so doing he found himself in different communities than he would have otherwise. He became radicalized on issues of socialism and anti-colonialism. Along with being a different kind of person, there is always the chance that our vegetarianism and veganism will put us in different communities, perhaps produce different kinds of communities (I take it as a sort of given that host/guest relations are constitutive of community).

Now, none of this is given as a good transformation.  Along with her story of M.K. Gandhi, Leela Gandhi also replays another story happening at the same time, the story of the first animal welfare law passed in the West, and the animal welfare support of James and John Stuart Mill. Gandhi shows how both the Mills and the animal welfare laws come deeply from places of colonialism, and the policing of of the underclasses (I address some of this in a little more detail in this old blog post). Even with those risks, I still feel we need changes.  I do think we need new kinds of persons, we need new relations to other animals, we need new communities. And all of this means that the issues of veganism and vegetarianism are sorts of attempts at Humeian political problems, that is to say, they are attempts at extending partial sympathies.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's no like button...
so "like".
it might be interesting to explore more what you said in the last paragraph though, relationship with other struggles, how to be sensetive to other cultures and classes without giving up the animal rights struggle.

Philippe said...


You wrote: “In [Foucault] view, we have to have certain practices that then produce the ability to access certain truths or understandings of the world.” Do you have a specific reference for this point?

Foucault (also) argued the opposite. In an interview he did with Didier Eribon in 1981: “Une critique ne consiste pas à dire que les choses ne sont pas bien comme elles sont. Elle consiste à voir sur quels types d’évidences, de familiarité, de modes de pensée acquis et non réfléchis reposent les pratiquent que l’on accepte. Il faut s’affranchir de la sacralisation du social comme seule instance du réel et cesser de considérer comme du vent cette chose essentielle dans la vie humaine et dans les rapports humains, je veux dire la pensée. La pensée, ça existe, bien au-delà, bien en-deçà des systèmes et des édifices de discours. C’est quelque chose qui se cache souvent, mais anime toujours les comportements quotidiens.”

Twice here (and more in the rest of the interview) he insists: practices are grounded [reposent] on various way of thinking [modes de pensée]. And later: thoughts animate daily behavior.

The main argument being: one can pretend to act in a revolutionary way, to undertake transformative action, but if his or her way of thinking has not changed, then the action will most likely reproduce the actual conditions.

Now I wouldn’t go that far as to argue that, in Foucault’s view, thought precedes actions. And I would be curious to see in which context exactly he has argued –if he did– that “action precedes knowledge” or understanding (the work of Brian Massumi comes to mind when discussing this matter).

Foucault’s effort, it seems to me, is in the undoing of the fiction that traditionally separates theory and practice. A similar undoing is at work with Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben (among others).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

Scu said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment, I appreciate it. I agree that the relationship of becoming-vegan to a broader issue of interlocking forms of oppression, intersectionality, and multidimensionality are all key.

Philippe, hopefully more later. I am mostly drawing from the lectures under The Hermeneutics of the Subject. So, for example, he states, "It is a general feature, a fundamental principle, that the subject as such, as he is given to himself, is not capable of truth. And he is not capable of truth unless he carries out or performs a number of operations on himself, and number of transformations and modifications that will make him capable of truth." (p. 190 in the English translation, the 3 February 1982: Second Hour lecture). There is a lot more throughout that lecture course, and elsewhere. I am not sure this exists in the tension with the interview he did with Eribon. When we look at Foucault's work on askesis, thought is often presented as an action and a practice (you get things like journals and practices of reflection). Thinking here is not divided from action, but is also understood as being a part of action. It is possible I was speaking too schematically before, but I don't want to completely divide action and thinking, but it might still be possible to divide thinking and knowledge. So, critique and criticism can be modes and habits of thinking that produce different forms of knowledge. In order to have access to this knowledge, the subject is going to have to have transformations. Some of which will be thinking, some of which will be practices of body, or of relations.

Does this get to your point?

Philippe said...

Hi Scu,

Yes, absolutely to the point. Both in the understanding of thinking as an action (just as it would be possible to understand action as a form of thought) and in the proposition to make a distinction between thought (pensée) and understanding. There’s a similar idea at work with Jean-Luc Nancy, I believe. In his essay “L'amour en éclat” he clearly distingues between thought as an processual experience of openness, and knowledge which is the derivative and established (as in institutional) product. Great discussion: thank you for clarifying your point and for the references. I really appreciate it.