Eating Animals

Dominant posthumanist discourses posit that the animal as object must be reconceptualised as the animal as subject, thus shattering the age-old dualism between humans and non-humans.[i] This ‘decentering of the human’ unravels the notion of human exceptionalism (Anthropocentrism – the position of humans as the centre of meaning, value, knowledge and action[ii]) and seeks to blur, if not totally disrupt, the previous human/animal boundaries that exist in humanist discourse. Rather than placing humans at the top of some hierarchal structure which is premised on supposed ontological attributes which are exclusively the preserve of humans, posthumanist thought attempts to ‘level the playing field’ and see human animal life and non-human animal life as co-constituted and co-constructed in a tangled web of being.[iii] Posthuman relations are said to be ‘local, fluid, contingent; contesting familiar hierarchies of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/non-human.[iv] Importantly, these relations, while never fixed, are said to be ones which are disputed, wherein both humans animals and non-human animals have agency.[v]

It seems that this new ontology has profound implications for the ‘perpetual, intimate and deeply symbolic act of eating animals [which] in large part defines the human-nonhuman relationship’.[vi] In this piece I shall examine how two leading posthumanist thinkers, Donna Haraway and Carol Adams, address the issue of humans eating animals.[vii] Before doing so I need to situate myself as a vegetarian in this debate, I need to ‘show my hand’.

My earliest memories of eating animals are traumatic. Sitting at the dinner table, perhaps four years old, looking at pieces of meat on my plate as my brother dug into the homemade apple pie and custard we could only savour if we finished our ‘first course’. I have strong memories of forcing meat into my mouth and down my throat both with utter disgust, both to get to the apple pie, but also to satisfy my parents. This revulsion at eating animals, the gristle and bone of it, has stayed with me ever since. While I was not, of course, aware of the specific moral reasons for not eating animals I distinctly remember that I felt that there was something wrong with doing so. As soon as I was released from the strictures of home cooking and entered university I immediately stopped eating animals, and have not wittingly eaten any since. Now my understanding of my dietary preference is informed by more than just disgust. Now it is driven by compassion, even though it seems unfashionable and anti-intellectual to declare such a thing. My basic premise is that I know I cannot willingly kill an animal, therefore I am not prepared to let another human or a machine act as a proxy for me. But it is more than simply the killing, I object to the whole process of the farming of animals, be it in a factory setting, or on idealised ‘mom and pop’ farms celebrated by so-called ‘locavores’.[viii] What right do I have to take the life of another animal when I am in the fortunate and privileged position to be able to not do so and still eat healthily?

Haraway’s thinking around humans and animals is informed by her long and sustained engagement with feminist thinking, particularly as it relates to instrumental relations between and within human and animals. She argues that the ‘objectifications and oppressions of sexism, colonialism and racism’ have ‘terrible similarities’ with how instrumental relations are formed between human and animals. Although she argues that too much emphasis has been placed on the ‘critique’ of these relationships ‘and not enough to seeing what else is going on’.[ix]

Haraway’s attempt to ‘seeing what else is going on’ in these relationships foregrounds her commitment to ‘becoming with’ – to the breaking down of normative relations (e.g. human/animal) by thinking about and playing with ideas of subjectivity and agency. For Haraway unions (‘co-habitation, co-evolution and embodied cross-species sociality’[x]) take place between human and animals (multi-species relationships) in which both make distinct contributions to, and are transformed by, each other as ‘companion species’. [xi] By ‘companion species’ Haraway does not only refer to those animals traditionally associated with companionship, such as pets, rather she refers to all relational interactions and entanglements between and within humans and animals.[xii] These entanglements are ‘not just about pity’ as they are also about ‘work and play’.[xiii]

Critically, she contends that if these entanglements between ‘companion species’ are guided by communication, understanding and compassion a ‘flourishing’ of ‘well-being’ takes place between humans and animals.[xiv] She argues that this ‘flourishing’ results in new and ever changing forms of kin and kinship which, in turn, result in the creation of new networks of affinity and affection.[xv] These kinships and networks (coalition building), destabilise and rupture existing thinking (what Haraway calls ‘the Great Divide’ between humans and animals) giving way to the expression of ever-evolving new ontologies.[xvi]

Within this paradigm how does she address the farming, killing and eating of animals? Haraway generously notes in regard to the killing of animals for humans that ‘I am afraid to start writing about what I have been thinking about all this, because I will get it wrong – emotionally, intellectually, and morally – and the issue is consequential’.[xvii] With this caveat in place, Haraway begins by articulating that despite the fact that animals are turned into ‘meat-making machines in the death camps of industrial agribusiness’ it is a ‘misstep to pretend to live outside of killing’.[xviii] She contends that it is impossible to eat and not to kill, which makes it crucially important to ‘live responsibly’ and ‘kill responsibly’.[xix] The problem is not about killing per se, but about how modern capital has made animals eminently ‘killable’ on such massive scales.[xx] Because asymmetrical relations exist between humans and animals when it comes to food and eating, there is a obligation on the part of humans to minimise the suffering of animals as ‘companion species’. She contends that animals in farms are not simply ‘objects’, but working ‘subjects’ with forms of agency, and as such humans must share in their suffering – in a ‘practical opening to shared pain and mortality’.[xxi] She argues that suffering needs to be shared as ‘respect … looking back, holding in regard, understanding that meeting the look of the other is a condition of having face oneself’.[xxii]

Haraway makes specific reference to veganism in When Species Meet. While recognising that veganism can contribute to the creation of ‘powerful feminist positions’ she rejects its saliency in relation to the consumption of animals. For Haraway veganism is a form of absolutism, restricting freedom of choice, as well as being an expression of being ‘self-certain’ – a state of being which she rejects as ‘the God trick’.[xxiii] In addition, she asserts that veganism reinforces anthropocentric thinking in that it revolves around humans bestowing ‘rights’ onto animals via the medium of the command ‘thou shalt not kill’.[xxiv] Lastly, she rejects veganism on the grounds that it leads to extermination, suggesting that domesticated animals would be reduced to ‘curated heritage collections’ if veganism was universally adopted.[xxv] In terms of praxis, as it relates to the eating of animals, Haraway briefly draws attention to agropastoralism as a response to the ‘meat-industrial complex’ and promotes small-scale, intimate and individualised forms of animal hunting and eating within strict environmental and ethical bounds.[xxvi]

While there is much to commend in Haraway’s response to eating animals, not least of which is her desire to ‘stay with the trouble’, her response to the farming, killing and eating of animals is not without its omissions and limitations.[xxvii] For the remainder of this piece I intend examining these omissions and limitations with particular, but not exclusive, reference to fellow posthumanist scholar, Carol Adams. This is not to imply that Harraway and Adams do not share many common views and ideas about human/animal relations in other areas.[xxviii]

Adams’ conceptualisation of the relationship between humans and animals is entirely mediated by her understanding of herself as a ecofeminist vegan. To simplify a complex theory, she places great emphasis on an ideology that ontologises animals as ‘meat’, whereby humans eat animals as ‘meat’ rather than as animals which are always, what she calls, ‘absent referents’ in this eating. Through her writing she has attempted to ‘expose’ this ontology as an embedded feature of racist and patriarchal societies, where women have, and continue to be, objectified as sexualised ‘edible’ objects in similar ways – what she calls ‘the interlocking oppression of women and animals’.[xxix] When animals simply become ‘meat’ it normalizes their consumption as something that is part of ‘their nature’, they are ‘culturally constructed as edible’.[xxx] Adams’ argues that to restore the ‘absent referent’ a ‘feminist animal care theory’ is required which highlights the significance of ‘sympathy, empathy, and compassion as relevant ethical and epistemological sources for human treatment of nonhuman animals.’ This theory includes a ‘dialogical mode of ethical reasoning … wherein humans pay attention to—listen to—animal communications and construct a human ethic in conversation with the animals rather than imposing on them a rationalistic, calculative grid of humans’.[xxxi] Adams argues that this care ethic is a ‘radical political situating’ which demands praxis because there is no neutral ground, ‘one is implicated either by choice of flesh or resistance to flesh … there is no impartial semantic or cultural space’.[xxxii] This is a radical departure from Haraway’s conditional acceptance of killing and is ‘self-certain’.[xxxiii]

Adams’ critiques Haraway’s concept of conditional killing as a ‘philosophy of contingency’ which emphasis the specific over the universal.[xxxiv] Hunting is a typical example. While Haraway accepts hunting in certain circumstances Adams notes that despite there being no ‘absent referent’, ‘neither the violence of the act, nor the end result, a corpse, is eliminated’.[xxxv] More specifically, Adams critiques Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto which she argues is ‘ambiguous and inconsistent’ full of ‘half responses’ which, Adams suggests, are ‘a bargain with the established order’.[xxxvi] In particular she finds it ‘extremely disturbing’ that Haraway refers to circus animals as ‘working’.[xxxvii] This critique of Haraway’s suggestion that animals ‘work’ and experience ‘degrees of freedom’ in ‘factory meat industries’ is picked up strongly in assessments of When Species Meet.[xxxviii]

In a scathing criticism, Carmen Dell’Aversano describes Haraway’s contention that animals ‘work’ in factory farms and ‘labour’ in experimental labs as Orwellian, postulating that in using such ‘frankly offensive language’ Haraway manufactures theoretical justifications to accept the world ‘as it is’.[xxxix] Erika Cudworth and Zipporah Weisberg both challenge Haraway to define what sort of agency animals have in factory farm settings other than to die, claiming that such animals have no agency at all in a sociological sense.[xl]

Weisberg also critiques Haraway’s ‘sharing of suffering’ narrative, questioning its purpose. If it is not meant to end or even alleviate suffering, what is it for? ‘What is empathy for the victims of violence, if it does not lead to action to alleviate that violence?’, she asks.[xli] Haraway enjoins us to ‘stay at risk and in solidarity with instrumental relationships’ but it is not at all clear what risk we are putting ourselves to in doing so, when it is only animals that endure risk in such relationships.[xlii] A number of critics have focussed on Haraway’s assertion that certain animals are ‘killable’. Eva Giraud contends that this position, which normalises the categorization of certain animals as ‘killable’ secures the structures of industrial agriculture.[xliii]  Dell’Aversano states that if humans did not implicitly consider animals ‘killable’ ‘it would not occur to them to kill them purely in order to consume their corpses any more than it occurs to them to kill other humans in order to consume their corpses’. Thus, the categorization of animals as ‘killable’ is, in and of itself, the problem.[xliv] A similar argument can be made in relation to Haraway’s apparently unproblematic use of the word ‘meat’ throughout When Species Meet despite Adams’ concerns with how this word operates to normalise the consumption of animals.

Perhaps the most sustained criticism of Haraway’s work as it relates to eating animals are in response to her views on veganism. This critique takes a number of forms. A number of commentators take exception to her characterisation of veganism as a form of absolutism. Adams draws attention to the way in which Haraway, by characterising veganism as such, normalises the eating of animals and in so doing ‘protects the dominance that ontologises animals as edible’.[xlv] Weisberg attacks Haraway’s ‘narrow and pedantic’ argument that even vegans cannot live without killing. While she agrees that it is impossible not to live without killing, ‘we can at least do our utmost to avoid killing’.[xlvi] This point is expanded by Stephanie Jenkins who states that Haraway’s argument fails to distinguish between the ‘degree, kind and intent of killing’ asserting that ‘the killings for which a vegan is responsible differ significantly from those that an omnivore enacts’.[xlvii] Lastly, Haraway is critiqued for reducing a commitment to veganism to emotion. In particular Haraway argues that Adams has adopted a vegan diet because of her ‘love of animals’.[xlviii] Not only does this misrepresent the deep theoretical approach to veganism of someone like Adams, it implies that veganism is adopted only because some humans simply and narrowly want to become advocates of animals.[xlix]

What most of these criticisms of Haraway’s work allude to is the apparent absence of praxis in Haraway’s work, one which speaks to a disjuncture between deeply theoretical work, such as Haraway’s, and the more praxis orientated work and thinking of posthumanist thinkers within so-called critical animal studies. The latter accuse thinkers such as Haraway of depoliticising animal studies. For them ‘theoretical understanding must be grounded in and geared toward practical application, to bring about real change’.[l] Weisberg states that Haraway’s work ‘has become paradigmatic of a largely depoliticised approach within animal studies’ accusing her of undertaking ‘discursive exercises’ rather than attempting to ‘create the conditions for any concrete ethico-political transformation’.[li] Giraud offers a similar retort, accusing Haraway of ‘indistinct ethical framing’ which creates ‘blind-spots that perpetuate humanist norms and values’.[lii]

It is certainly fair to say that Haraway’s When Species Meet is overflowing with ambiguity when it comes to issues of animal suffering and eating animals. For example (and this is not an exhaustive list), when elucidating her theory of ‘shared suffering’ she states that it will ‘never be fully possible, fully calculable’, and ‘I am trying to picture what sharing could look like if it were built into any decision to use another sentient being … the language of nonmimetic sharing and work is not going to be adequate, I am sure’;  in regard to ‘ways of living and dying’ (eating animals) she states that ‘reasons’, though ‘obligatory’, are ‘radically insufficient’; she contends that we must ‘cohabit well without a final peace’; while the claims of animals and humans who hunt and eat them ‘require action and respect without resolution’.[liii] Such indefinite statements which lack any real substantive meaning or, more importantly praxis, contrast sharply with Adams’ contention, which may be in part directed at Haraway, that ‘no matter the … academic concern for totalizing theories that consume slippery, ambiguous meanings and possibilities, eating as an act is something that is locatable.’[liv]

Haraway seems to want to muddle her way through what she sees as the complexities of our relationships with animals, which includes those relationships of eating animals, in her ‘staying with the trouble’. As a committed vegetarian I find this position difficult for like Adams the question of eating animals ‘comes with an insistence’ which asks ‘knowing what I know, now what will I do? … Pay attention! Pay attention now‘.[lv] Despite this, my personal journey in terms of eating or not eating animals is complicated. While I am currently vegetarian, I have previously been vegan. I was vegan for about 18 months a few years ago. I became a vegan because I understood that animals were living and dying in appalling conditions for me – male cows, male chickens were being euthanized as part of the production of milk, cheese, eggs etc. Female cows were being kept in a permanent state of lactation for me, the list can go on. Why did I return to vegetarianism? I am not entirely sure. Were my reasons entirely selfish, I simply wanted to eat dairy products? Was it just too much trouble to seek out vegan food? Did I lack the courage to be the ‘outsider’ in social settings? These are my ‘troubles’ that I need ‘to stay with’ and work through. How do I explain my choices ‘in the midst of webbed existences’?[lvi] I have to admit that I am not entirely sure, but what I can say is that undertaking this piece has brought be once again to veganism.

After three years I am now ready to become vegan again. The logic of it is too compelling to ignore. I am ‘Paying Attention!’ once again. Veganism is a ‘refusal, a break, a fissure’ which is perhaps the only concrete action one can take to unsettle the symbolic role that animals as ‘meat’ have become and displaces the structural position of animals, our ‘companion species’ as ‘consumable’.[lvii] I am with Adams, there is a compulsion to act. Yes, of course it is important that we think and theorize like Haraway does, but theory is only theory (locked away in its ivory tower) and no more if there is no praxis. For humans that are troubled by how we treat and eat animals veganism is a concrete, realisable step that, while not a ‘God Trick’ solution, does make a contribution to not only easing animals suffering, but to exposing wider injustices in the world.

Postscript 1 – And just as I’ve turned again to veganism I learn about microontologies – the lives of bacteria, fungi and protists that make up 90 cells in our bodies. What do the more than 600 species of bacteria in our mouths mean for veganism?[lviii] Here is more trouble.

[i] I think it right to state upfront that I have limited sympathy for labels such as ‘posthumanist’. There are no pure theoretical positions as all theorizing is in a constant state of flux. As such, I consider the term posthumanist as little more than a useful tool to help us with our thinking. While the terms ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are both socially and biologically constructed we cannot make sense of any posthumanist discourse without hanging onto them. Thus, for the sake of this piece whenever the term human is used it refers to the ‘human animal’, whenever animal is used it refers to the ‘non-human animal’.

[ii] Adam Weitsenfeld & Melanie Joy, ‘An Overview of Anthropocentrism, Humanism and Speciesism in Critical Animals Studies’, in A. J. Nocella (et al), Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social Justice Approach to Liberation, (Peter Lang: New York), 2014, p. 2.

[iii] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pres), 2008.

[iv] T. Hefernan, quoted in Helen Pedersen, ‘Release the Moths: Critical Animal Studies and the Posthumanist Impulse’, Culture, Theory and Critique, 52, 1, 2011, p. 72.

[v] Zipporah Weisberg, ‘The Broken Promises of Monsters, Animals and the Humanist Legacy’, Journal of Critical Animal Studies, VII, II, 2007, p. 27.

[vi] Weitsenfeld, p. 28.

[vii] Haraway asserts that she is not a posthumanist, but is rather ‘who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind’. Haraway (2008), p. 19.

[viii] Kathy Rudy, ‘Locavores, Feminism, and the Question of Meat’, Journal of American Culture, 35, 1, March 2012.

[ix] Haraway (2008), p. 74. She asserts that she is ‘nourished and instructed’ by feminist work on the relationships between human animals and non-human animals, p. 74.

[x] Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, (Prickly Paradigm Press: Chicago), 2003, p. 4.

[xi] Joan F. McAlister, ‘Donna Harraway’, in J. Simons (ed.), From Agamben to Zizek: Contemporary Critical Theorists, (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh), 2010, pp. 131 – 135.

[xii] Haraway (2008), pp. 16 & 164 – 165. She states ‘companion species – coshapings all the way down, in all sorts of temporalities and corporealities – is my awkward term for a not-humanism in which species of all sorts are in question’, p. 164.

[xiii] Haraway (2008), p. 22.

[xiv] Haraway (2008), p. 36.

[xv] She states that ‘To be kin … is to be responsible to and for each other, human and not’, D. Haraway, ‘When Species Meet: Staying with the Trouble’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 2010, p. 53.

[xvi] McAlister, pp. 143 – 135.

[xvii] Haraway (2008), p. 79.

[xviii] Haraway (2008), pp. 79 & 84.

[xix] Haraway (2008), pp. 296 & 81.

[xx] In When Species Meet Haraway also makes a conditional defence of the killing of non-human animals for scientific research, pp. 68 – 93.

[xxi] Haraway (2008), pp. 80 & 83. She continues, ‘Human beings’ learning to share other animals’ pain nonmimetically is, in my view, an ethical obligation, a practical problem, and an ontological opening. Sharing pain promises disclosure, promises becoming’, p. 84.

[xxii] Haraway (2008), p. 88.

[xxiii] Haraway (2008), p. 295 and pp. 88-89.

[xxiv] Haraway (2008), pp. 80 & 105, Eva Giraud, ‘Veganism as Affirmative Biopolitics: Moving Towards a Posthumanist Ethics’, PhaenEx, 8, 2, 2013, p. 56.

[xxv] Haraway (2008), p. 80. She characterises veganism as an ‘extermanationist nonsolution’, p. 105.

[xxvi] Haraway (2008), p. 295 & pp. 298 – 299.

[xxvii] Haraway (2010).

[xxviii] Haraway noted in 2010 that she was ‘much more in alliance than not’ with vegan ecofeminists and animal rights activists. Annie Potts and Dona Haraway, ‘Kiwi Chicken Advocate Talks with Californian Dog Companion’, Feminism and Psychology 20, 3, 2010, p. 331.

[xxix] Carol Adams, Neither Beast Nor Man: Feminism and the Defence of Animals, (Continuum: New York), 1995, p. 15, Carol Adams, ‘Why Feminist Vegan Now?’, Feminism and Psychology, 20, 3, 2010, p. 304. She argues, ‘Ontology recapitulates ideology. In other words, ideology creates what appears to be ontological: if women are ontologised as sexual beings (or rapable as some feminists argue), animals are ontologised as carriers of flesh. In ontologising women and animals as objects, the dominant language simultaneously eliminates the fact that someone else is acting as an subject/agent/perpetrator of violence’, Adams (1995), p. 101.

[xxx] Adams (1995), p. 107.

[xxxi] Josephine Donavon, ‘Feminism and the Treatment of Animals: From Care to Dialogue’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 31,  2, 2006, p. 306. There are obvious similarities here to Haraway’s ‘becoming with’.

[xxxii] Carol Adams, ‘About Ecofeminism’, see, http://caroljadams.com/about-ecofeminism/.

[xxxiii] This is not to imply that Adams is certain that veganism is the only answer, rather that veganism is ‘part of the answer’ to eating well. Adams (2010), p. 312.

[xxxiv] Adams (1995), p. 102.

[xxxv] Adams (1995), p. 103.

[xxxvi] Adams (2008), p. 125.

[xxxvii] Adams (2008), p. 125.

[xxxviii] Haraway (2008), p. 73.

[xxxix] Carmen Dell’Aversano, ‘The Love Whose Name Cannot be Spoken: Queering the Human-Animal Bond’, Journal of Critical Animal Studies, 8, 1, 2010, p. 117. She continues, ‘Whatever Haraway would like (us) to think, animals murdered for food do not “work in meat production” and animals tortured to death in experiments do not “work in laboratories” any more than rape victims are “sex workers”.

[xl] Erika Cudworth, ‘”Most Farmers Prefer Blondes”: Social Intersectionality and Species Relations’ in Bob Carter & Nickie Charles (eds.), Human and Other Animals: Critical Perspectives, (Plagrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2011, p. 158. Weisberg, (2009), p. 35.

[xli] Weisberg (2009), p. 40.

[xlii] Haraway (2008), p. 70.

[xliii] Eva Giraud, ‘”Beasts of Burden”: Productive Tensions between Haraway and Radical Animal Rights Activism’, Culture, Theory and Critique, 54, 1, 2013, p. 104.

[xliv] Dell’Aversano (2010), p. 123.

[xlv] Adams (2006), p. 16. Giraud argues that Haraway’s approach has the effect of supporting ‘totalising structures’ which perpetuate the consumption of animals. Giraud (2013), p. 73.

[xlvi] Weisberg (2009), p. 44.

[xlvii] Stephanie Jenkins, ‘Returning the Ethical and Political to Animal Studies’, Hypatia, 27, 3, 2012, p. 3.

[xlviii] Haraway (2008), p. 299.

[xlix] Giraud (2013), pp. 50 -51.

[l] Weitsenfeld & Joy (2014), pp. 28 – 29.

[li] Weisberg (2009), pp.  40 & 59.

[lii] Giraud (2013), pp. 66 & 73.

[liii] Haraway (2008), pp. 83 – 84, 88, 299 – 300.

[liv] Carol Adams, ‘An Animal Manifesto: Gender, Identity and Vegan Feminism in the Twenty-First Century’, Parallax, 12, 1, 2006, p. 122.

[lv] Adams (2010), p. 315. Original emphasis.

[lvi] Haraway (2008), p. 72.

[lvii] Adams (2010), p. 315 & Giraud (2013), p. 50. In typically opaque fashion Haraway stated in 2010 when asked to explain her opinion of veganism: ‘Much too late for my soul’s comfort, I saw vividly the bravery, wisdom, cogency, and diversity of vegan and vegetarian thinkers and activists, among feminists, biologists, and many other communities of practice.’ Potts and Haraway (2010), p. 332.

[lviii] Myra J Hird, ‘Meeting with the Microcosmos’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 2010, p. 36 – 38.

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