Tom Tyler: The theme of this issue of Parallax is ‘Animal Beings’, and specifically an investigation into ways in which human beings can or should be considered animal beings. Do you consider this an appropriate approach to the question of animals and identity?
Carol J. Adams: Well, first, hoorah! Any writings that explore and extend the discussion of our being animals, and our relationships to other animal beings, makes me hopeful. Of course, as you well know, the concept of the ‘animal’ or ‘animal beings’ usually exists in relationship to concepts of human beings in a dyadic dance of definition by negation. When we eliminate the negation that animal has meant to the human, the absence of the human (qualities) that being animal has meant, how does this also redefine, and perhaps dethrone ‘human’? A popular feminist button in the States asserts that ‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are human.’ I won’t wear that button. I don’t find that a radical notion; I find that a conformist notion even though I understand why it is so insistent on this point. While it goes without saying that ‘humans are animals’ the way this insight has been used has been hierarchically, i.e., racial and sexual distinctions were used to equate people of color and women with other animals or to impute animal characteristics on those who were not white, propertied men. ‘Human’ became a definition not only about humans versus (other) animals, but also defining who among Homo sapiens would have the power to act as ‘humans’ – voting, holding property, making laws, committing violence with impunity. Human has always been a label that is tied to power. But for feminism to want firmly to establish women’s ‘humanness’ while upholding the boundary between humans and other animals, defeats what I believe to be the truly radical insight of feminism. Josie Donovan and I articulated what we saw as the radical insight of feminism in our introduction to Animals and Women: ‘We believe that feminism is a transformative philosophy that embraces the amelioration of life on earth for all life-forms, for all natural entities. We believe that all oppressions are interconnected: no one creature will be free until all are free – from abuse, degradation, exploitation, pollution, and commercialization.’1
When we begin to explore what it means to be ‘animal beings,’ too, we often begin by acknowledging our commonalities: we bleed, we experience pain and express it, some of us females share the experience of pregnancy and lactation. I think such politics of identity can be both promising and limiting: while having lactated makes me sympathetic to the degradation and miserable experience of nursing pigs and cows [page 121] under confinement situations, I would not want to imply that experience is required to cultivate sympathy for suffering. Yet, lactation is an example of continuity across species, and many such examples of experiencing continuity or commonality exist. Neal Barnard, founder of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine traced his vegan awareness to participating in an autopsy in which human ribs were removed from the body. Then he went to lunch: ‘This day in the cafeteria, they were serving ribs for lunch. They looked so much like the human ribs that I couldn't eat them.’2 An anti-Vietnam war activist told me that she traced her vegetarianism to the day she stopped at a slaughterhouse to get blood to use for an anti-war protest, walked away with the blood in hand, sickened with the thought, ‘what’s the difference?’
As you know, I had to postpone this interview because of a medical emergency. And it was in midst of this crisis that I was reminded of what it means to be an animal. A close friend had to have her right leg amputated to the knee. After the surgery they had a problem adequately medicating her for the pain. Apparently some amputees feel no pain. For her, this was not the case. She returned to the room after being in the recovery room, crying ‘my leg, my leg.’ That was horrifying, but I didn't have time even to feel that horror because the nurses summoned me in to hold her hand so that she would not have to have her hands bound to the bed. My partner was holding one hand and I the other as five nurses worked to settle her in. She was trying to grab at the bandage around the stump, and so the necessity of not letting go was urgent. When the pain medication finally took hold and we sort of slumped into chairs by her bed, all I could think was ‘and animals will bite off their own legs to escape a leg-hold trap!’ (Trappers call this a ‘wring-off’.3) Seeing the pain she endured from the amputation, I could only imagine the pain that animals must endure in such a trap that they will self-amputate to escape it.
When I give an example such as this of trans-species commonalties, am I drawing an analogy, identifying grounds for empathy, acknowledging continuity? Or all three and something more as well? And do we have to have similarities established in order to stop harming animals? Do we perpetuate a biological approach to other animals? I admire Barbara Noske’s proposal that we need an anthropology of other animals, not a zoology.4
Gail Melson, the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children, examines the role of animals in the development of children. She suggests that children may see animals, including domesticated animals, as ‘interspecies peers.’ This sense of interrelatedness prompts moral questions such as ‘why are we mistreating/eating our peers?’ Melson explains, ‘Precisely because children accept animals as other living beings, they raise issues of just, fair, right, and kind conduct.’5 Unfortunately, we socialize children to forget this recognition and accept utilitarian relationships with other animals. (By the way, if we saw ourselves as animals, I think a part of the antiabortion movement would lose its forcefulness, because it fetishises the human embryo over the full term nonhuman animal.)
Once one becomes aware of two things - one’s own animal body and what we are doing to other animals’ bodies because of our claim of human superiority - once those two awarenesses inform your thinking and being, how can you not want to write a manifesto, i.e. a sort of scream to the world, ‘What are you doing? And why are you still doing it?’ [page 122] But people, especially those in academia, are supposed to be measured and reasoned so you measure your words to find a way to get others to listen (and perhaps the result is an academic paper!). I realized half way through writing The Sexual Politics of Meat that if I sounded angry and the book felt like a rant people wouldn’t read it; they would walk away. So I had to learn to hide the anger, or work with the anger, and massage it into prose that didn’t betray the anger but arose from the motivation of anger.
TT: You suggest that one might declare ‘I am a vegan because I am an animal’, but it is also the case, I think I am right in saying, that you are a vegan because you are a feminist. Prompted by your work, I have long been struck by the fact that veganism, even more so that vegetarianism, is an explicitly feminist issue: it is female animals who are forced to produce milk and eggs, for instance. You mention a manifesto: do you envision this as a vegan-feminist manifesto perhaps? What would such a proposal look like?
CJA: Yes, one could envision a manifesto. With your prompting, it seems time to articulate at least four main vegan-feminist claims:
1. Flesh eating and veganism should properly be defined as relationships with other animals. Flesh eaters choose one relationship, one that in the Western world I would characterize as dominance and murder, and vegans choose another.6 The reason I would like to establish that flesh eating is a relationship that humans chose among other choices in relating to other animals is that it helps to put debates between flesh eaters and vegans in perspective. It is never just two people debating the choice to eat dead animals. There is a third animal involved, one who has disappeared. That is what activists point out with comments such as vegan activist Bruce Friedrich’s, ‘I can survive without greasy chicken wings — but the chicken can’t’.7
2. As your comments suggest, I would like to see reproductive freedom for all female animals, not just human females. What Barbara Noske has called ‘the animal industrial complex’ requires the absolute exploitation of female animals.8 There would be no eating of domesticated animals if female animals weren’t kept pregnant to produce the animals being consumed. There would be no milk, if cows weren’t kept lactating; no eggs if chickens weren’t kept ovulating. All flesh eaters benefit from the alienated labor of the bitches, chicks, (mad) cows, and sows whose own bodies represent their labor and whose names reveal a double enslavement – the literal reproduction forced upon them, and the metaphoric enslavement that conveys female denigration, so that we human females become animals through insults, we become the bitches, chicks, cows, and sows, terms in which our bodies or movements are placed within an interpretative climate in which female freedom is not to be envisioned.
3. No matter the multiplicity of selves we each might constitute, and the academic concern for totalizing theories that consume slippery, ambiguous meanings and possibilities, eating as an act is something that is locatable. When one eats, one eats with one mouth, uses one tongue, swallows with one throat, digests with one stomach (stapled or unstapled). I am always surprised during a conversation with poststructuralists and postmodernists that those who aren’t vegan announce this [page 123] to me. They seem to confirm that they are implicated by their implements: the fork they wield over a dead animal’s body is not only a dead end for the animals but for theories that oppose totalizing epistemologies while participating in totalizing ontologies that leave farmed animals an undisturbed category.
4. I am a vegan-feminist because I am one animal among many, and I don’t wish to impose a hierarchy of consumption upon this relationship. Let the worms eat me when I am dead, and let the worms eat the bodies of the animals usually destined for human mouths. When I say I am vegan-feminist because I am one animal among many, I am not articulating a manifesto based on otherness. If we begin by saying, ‘we are animals, we move in animal bodies, we are connected to and related to -- kin and akin to animals’ -- then I don’t think we see animals as others. What we are writing about, gesturing toward, is not a resituating of animals as ‘others.’
TT: Would it be accurate to describe this proposal as a ‘posthuman’ vegan-feminist manifesto, dealing as it does with questions of gender and power hierarchies within the context of nonhuman identity and modes of being?
CJA: I’m not sure that I am the one to articulate a posthuman feminist-vegan stance, because I still locate myself within the radical feminist arena. First, my theories arise from my years of activism against battering and rape. Second, the information about the abuse of the reproductive systems of other animals prompts me to examine how this affects our inability to see them as individuals. I discuss this toward the end of The Pornography of Meat, and how this rebounds on women's status.9 In The Pornography of Meat, drawing on images from popular culture, I try to show how the gender that is associated with other species (women) and the species that are associated with the exploitation of femaleness (domesticated animals) become locked in interconnected oppressions. I think this is the work of a radical feminist.
TT: Your proposed manifesto seems to raise questions of autobiography, which puts me in mind of Derrida’s lecture ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’.10 This piece is by far Derrida’s longest discussion of animals currently available in English, and certainly the most radical from a vegan-activist perspective. It is, I think, a heartfelt piece: what Derrida has to say about his relationship with his cat, and his comparison of factory farms with the Holocaust (not in itself a new idea), for instance, demonstrate a genuine animal rights sensibility.
CJA: Around the time that Derrida’s fascinating paper was being translated into English, I was in the UK at a conference called ‘Millennial Animals.’ Cary Wolfe and I were the keynoters. Cary was familiar with the content of the paper and explained what was in it. I remember a part of me simplifying it in my mind to ‘how Derrida’s discovery of his body because of his cat, influenced and politicised Derrida’s thought about other animals’. Of the many feminists who were in the group listening, several began a discussion around the issue ‘why does it take Derrida’s discovery, through his cat, of his body, to make this worthy of discussion? This is something women have known and said for years!’ Cary agreed, but said, if I can paraphrase: ‘because it is Derrida who is now saying this, it is very important.’ And it is true, it is exciting that Derrida said it, but I also think the autobiographical aspect itself is pedagogical. Often, [page 124] when I talk to flesh eaters I say, ‘tell me about your relationships with animals.’ I find this is a way ‘in’ to their deepest feelings and sensibilities. Their reflections are not necessarily as profound as Derrida’s insights, and yet within the process of reflecting there is always the potential for movement toward a less hierarchical relationship with other animal beings because of what they have experienced in and through a trans-species relationship.
TT: Would your manifesto push Derrida’s approach a little further: ‘The Vegan Animal That Therefore I Am’ perhaps?
CJA: It would only have to be the littlest of a push, because Derrida remarkably identifies the most egregious actions we as humans have taken against other animals (including subsuming them all under one name). Derrida has it all there, and when he speaks about what is happening to animals in contemporary society, you feel a heat in his words. A vegan manifesto, one might argue, is in the center of his paper, even though it is not precisely articulated. His citation of Genesis 1 ends just before the verse that establishes that the ‘dominion’ introduced in Genesis 1:26 (no matter what the word ‘dominion’ itself means in that verse) is delimited by existing within a vegan world (Gen 1:29). I know he is moving toward his discussion of Genesis 2, and of what follows, yet veganism is implicit in the early chapters of Genesis. Another myth he returns to, the myth of Prometheus, has been associated with the introduction of meat eating to human beings11 as it is only through the intervention of fire that animals’ dead bodies are consumed (notwithstanding oysters and sushi). But it is in his mode of discourse in the section when he talks about humans’ treatment of animals, that one might feel one is reading a manifesto: ‘Everybody knows,’ he says: ‘Everybody knows what terrifying and intolerable pictures a realist painting could give to the industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal, and genetic violence to which man has been submitting animal life for the past two centuries.’12 (I wonder if he ever saw the paintings of Sue Coe!)
And ‘Everybody knows what the production, breeding, transport, and slaughter of these animals has become’.13 He also says, ‘No one can deny the suffering, fear or panic, the terror or fright that humans witness in certain animals’.14 These are the rhetorical devices of a manifesto. They don’t hesitate to be explicit, and they pose a question to the reader: would you deny? Do you know?
TT: Donna Haraway has, of course, written two manifestos already: for cyborgs and for companion animals.15 I know you have reservations about the latter: what are its limitations from the perspective of a vegan-feminist manifesto?
CJA: I think she is attempting something more profoundly personal here. But I found the final product, her small pamphlet, extremely disturbing. It feels uneven, as though it were cobbled together. And her voice is not so much ambiguous as inconsistent. Sometimes it feels downright petulant. It’s the lacunae in Haraway that disturb. Reading it against and with Derrida make what is left unsaid so damning. Derrida’s feels to be a manifesto in all but name; Haraway’s a manifesto only in name, more an apologia. Discussing circuses, Derrida paints a picture of ‘an animal trainer having his sad subjects, bent low, file past.’16 Haraway, through a reference to Vicki Hearne’s beliefs, defends ‘circus trainers,’ referring to animals in the circus as ‘the animals they [page 125] work with’. At this point, with all the information about circuses, why would someone alert to how words work, choose the euphemism ‘work with’? Derrida, as you point out, does not shy away from engaging the issue of the Holocaust and genocide when talking about what is happening to animals, while Haraway pauses to condemn ‘the outrageous equating of the killing of the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, with the butcheries of the animal-industrial complex’.17
Regarding animal rights, Haraway is dismissive, calling us the ‘rights besotted’.18 Derrida, more generously, acknowledges ‘In response to the irresistible but unacknowledged unleashing and the organized disavowal of this torture, voices are raised – minority, weak, marginal voices, little assured of their discourse, of their right to discourse and the enchantment of their discourse within the law, as a declaration of rights – in order to protect, in order to appeal (we’ll return to this) to what is still presented in such a problematic way as animal rights, in order to awaken us to our responsibilities and our obligations with respect to the living in general, and precisely to this fundamental compassion that, were we to take it seriously, would have to change even the very basis (and the basis is what I wish to discuss today) of the philosophical problematic of the animal’.19
Haraway’s embrace of Vicki Hearne’s position, a position left fixed by her death, results in an impatient, and I would argue, dated, dismissal of ‘animal rights’. Haraway’s aversion to animal rights doesn’t seem to have mutated or adapted since Hearne’s 1991 article against animal rights.20 I wish I could understand the categorical disparagement of animal rights that, with a broad sweep, includes even those animal advocates who challenge ‘rights language’, a large majority of whom are women. For which companion species can we safely advocate if we wish to avoid her derision? Only dogs? I do not comprehend why a feminist concerned with relations between species decidedly ignores the many feminist scholars who have been writing and talking about this issue, some for at least twenty years. Haraway is interested in finding the ‘relational model of training’,21 making her disinterestedness in a relational model for veganism and other relationships with animals more shocking. Derrida says ‘no one can deny the unprecedented proportions of this subjection of the animal […] No one can deny seriously, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves, in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence that some would compare to the worst cases of genocide (there are also animal genocides: the number of species endangered because of man takes one’s breath away)’.22 Yet Haraway seems to.
And what of dogs? She is interested in ‘naturecultures’ - the naturecultures of humans and canines, for instance, and ‘ethical relating, within or between species’. She condemns ‘impulse buyers’ of special breeds of dogs who then dump their dogs,23 but the breeders for whom the ‘whole dog’ is both a kind and an individual (perhaps the beginning of the problem), and who continue to produce these ‘purebreds,’ escape her critique in this part of the manifesto. Where do the impulse buyers get their dogs?
Can a manifesto compromise? Shouldn’t a manifesto leap to the place where compromise, or half responses, are seen as what they are, a bargain with the established order against which your manifesto is standing? Like a manifesto for [page 126] companion animals that uses purebreds as the referents? Why breed animals? Why claim for history more value than contemporary situations?
While Haraway acknowledges the ‘scandal of the meat-producing “animal industrial complex”’,24 she only finds historical irony in the introduction of ‘Basque Pyrenean mountain dogs, who were nurtured in the purebred dog fancy, onto the ranches of the US west to protect Anglo ranchers’ xenobiological cattle and sheep’. Surely there is more than irony here. She seems so hesitant to address herself to the species with whom humans have the least ethical relation - the animals that people eat - indeed, referring to a stop at Burger King to get ‘burgers, coke, and fries’.25 Her book was published after Burger King started selling veggie burgers, but she fails to tell us what sort of burger she bought.
Haraway protects the dominance that ontologises animals as edible just as the sheepdogs she celebrates protect the ontologised ‘livestock’. She renders unto the renderers the bodies of animals. ‘Livestock’ become the untouchable natureculture intersection and not because of the prions from rendered ‘mad’ cows that cannot be destroyed, but because she cannot or will not acknowledge the possibility that livestock might also be companion species.
I know Haraway is not alone in viewing ‘animal rights’ discourse as proscriptive and ideological, that some people believe a certain possibility of becoming is denied when one tells another what not to do, that we deprive another when we speak or make demands, that activists are dictating to others. But in any evolving natureculture, we should stipulate that flesh eating, unlike debates about it, involves more than human beings. Humans consume animal beings. In human-oriented arguments, the fact that others are dictating to animals by eating them disappears. If we agree to one of the points I propose in the vegan-feminist manifesto, that at least three beings are involved in a discourse about flesh eating (the speaker, the hearer and the animal being eaten), then we see that there is an a priori deprivation within these critiques that needs to be acknowledged: the death of the animal.
TT: How do you account for this persistent academic resistance to ‘animal rights’ discourses?
CJA: Perhaps an academic finds ambivalences more acceptable than the activist, who desires something more tangible: non-ambivalent action. And perhaps it is an ‘easy out’ - sweeping away difficult questions because it appears the answer, i.e. ‘rights language’, is wrong.
TT: Your most recent paper, ‘Post-meateating’, considers animal rights as a modern movement in a postmodern age.26
CJA: This may offer another explanation for the dismissal of animal rights discourses. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I proposed that nonhumans used for meat were absent referents. In ‘Post-meateating’ I explore the implications of Frederic Jameson’s insight that in general we have passed from the modern period with nature still a referent, to a postmodern period with culture as the referent. His insight suggests that in a [page 127] postmodern time the animals have been loosed completely from their status as absent referent — instead the referent will have a cultural context only.
When postmodernism supplanted the idea of the individual, autonomous subject with the idea of multiple selves and a fluid subject, Tom Regan’s scholarly attempt to claim consciousness and biography for animals, The Case for Animal Rights,27 seemed to lose its relevance. (But why not attribute such multiple selves to other animals too?) The animal rights movement that traces itself to Regan or Peter Singer has the misfortune of articulating a modernist claim just as postmodernism absorbs and displaces modernist thinking. It appears dated, announcing in its activism (boycotts/placards/lobbying) its own supposed anachronism. It appears absolutist and serious in a time when irony and self-deprecation prevail. It is seen as too literal, too preachy. Trying to get culture to get back to the referent ‘animal’ is seen as too boring, not playful.
This appears to be what People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) knows. They often deploy visual images but with cultural referents. They use supermodels. They use actors. They take any cultural idea that is circulating and appropriate it. Rather than producing for general consumption the ‘bleeding Jesus’ pictures, as one Catholic friend calls them, of damaged, injured animals, PETA puts on Mickey Mouse masks to protest animal experimentation. They’re ironic.
PETA seems to acknowledge that for many people the referent, animals, is gone. And they are trying to work with what is there, cultural consumption, by manipulating cultural images/issues. They are trying to get people to talk about veganism without having to address what has disappeared. It doesn’t matter who they piss off. In fact the more the better. Tastelessness is newsworthy; nonhuman farmed animals aren’t. The strongest reminder for me of this is that people continue to eat ‘beef’ after the news about mad cows.
One of the results when the cultural becomes the referent, is not only that we forget we are animal beings, but we are allowed to forget that other animals are animal beings, too! Karen Davis says the human hand is the cruelest thing a chicken will know.28 The non-ambivalent action the activist wants is to stop that hand. I think I still cling to words like ‘integrity’. What sort of referents are animals in scholarly discourse? Are they allowed to be embodied animal beings? Are they impaled by forks over scholarly dinners or not? What are the hands that are a part of our own animal bodies doing?
Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1990, 2000), and several others books that explore the intersection of oppressions. With Josephine Donovan she has edited Animals and Women (Durham NC: Duke, 1995), and Beyond Animal Rights (New York: Continuum, 1996). She has been involved in the anti-domestic violence movement and the pro-choice movement for more than thirty years.
Tom Tyler is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University. His published research concerns the uses of animals, and the persistent expression of anthropocentric and anthropomorphic assumptions, within philosophy and critical theory.
More interviews and information are available at Carol J. Adams. Essays by Tom Tyler are available at his Research page.