Why I don’t eat other animals (or their juices)

As someone who has spent a long time living with a plant-based diet and wrestling with many of the philosophical and personal issues Adam alludes to in his post, “Why am I not a vegetarian?” I feel compelled to give a response particularly to the matters of killing, hospitality, and dispositional ethics. I apologize for the length of this, as Twain said, I simple “didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

To jump right in, I agree with Adam that abstract appeals against killing are rarely valuable, but this is because, as Haraway, Derrida, Butler and others have mentioned, these abstract, categorical appeals always fail to take an account of the discourses through which certain bodies have been made killable while others reserve the right to kill. In the case of our consumption, certain bodies (and not others) are made killable when they are rendered legible through discourses of species, animality, ability, edibility, proximity to the human, etc. Within the context of meat eating, and by pointing toward an ideally administered death penalty as one example of a way killing could be acceptable, Adam inadvertently highlights this juridical production of animals as edible. By citing the right to kill those who have committed heinous crimes in the context of the potential “non criminal putting to death” of other animals, it is as though cows ought to be killable because they are guilty of being edible. Adam does not make this strict parallel, but the logic gestured toward is so common in meat-eating discourses it was worth at least a brief mention (for more, see the section on Edible Intelligibility here). So while I agree with that we cannot simply suggest killing is always bad, we must also agree that whom and when we kill are not neutral facts of biological consumption, of law, etc., but products of discourse, language, and power. That we can begin the conversation with the given that by meat we do not mean the flesh Homo sapiens is precisely evidence of the discursive production of those who are edible and those who are not. For a poststructural, non-essentializing version of compassionate eating choices, a genealogy of edible bodies and their production as edible in the first is as important as the ontological inquiry about the species-specific richness of each life that stymies my justification for systematically consuming them.

Turning toward the issue of hospitality and community, I want first to say something about who is hosting whom. In discussions of vegetarianism and hospitality, it is often important to remark that to accept the hospitality of some is to reject the invitation and hospitality of others. As in Derrida’s reading of D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” in Volume 1 of the Beast and the Sovereign seminars, there are invitations for communal being coming from all kinds of bodies. And to accept the flesh of one body as the condition of hospitality is to reject the invitation of the body on the table—an invitation to rethink our relationships otherwise, for community, inter-being, new ways of living together. Imagine you’re invited to two homes in one night, and the meal you choose to attend serves you the loosing neighbor for dinner. It is only by assuming certain forms of invitation count as proper hospitality that other kinds of invitations, or other hosts, end up on our tables instead of hosts themselves. Surely we have all been invited or provoked by others into mutual spaces where we are shocked to find ourselves allowed to walk close to the bear, to drink next to the deer, to cross paths with the squirrel, to be cuddled by a chicken. These are no less invitations for community than sharing a hamburger with a friend. But perhaps there is a way to have dinner with one host while still accepting the invitations of other, harrier or feathered hosts.

To make a slightly less philosophical and much more pragmatic point, I think its also important to admit that there are a number of things each of us would not consume or partake in at a hosts house simply because it is put before us. These things include various drugs, sexual engagements, other forms of abuse, or insert whatever sort of thing might violate your ethical or aesthetic sensibilities. If meat is not on that list, then lets be clear that it has less to do with not wanting to become burdensome for a host and more to do with the frequency with which this particular violation is served and thus made illegible as a violation in the first place. This particular violence against others is built into the food system as a norm while drugs and wife battering are not always on the menu at a guest’s house. Adam is right to note that he is simply repeating the symptom of a much larger problem—namely that certain forms of violation do not appear as violation, they have become the norm such that those who feel otherwise are the odd ones. Thus the frequency with which we are made to say, “serve whatever you’d like, but I choose not to eat meat” is far higher than our need to state, “serve whatever you will, but I won’t be partaking in the cocaine.” But I have no doubt Adam would alter his good-guest policy were there something that actually did violate more central ethics—if they were slaughtering subalterns in the back-yard or serving up hotdogs made of Muslim virgins. There’s a great bit in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello where Elizabeth compares her encounters with meat and leather in moments of hospitality to the experience of walking into a house where the lampshades are made of virgin skin and knowing it is impolite to say anything or protest. In other words, not wanting to be a poor guest is not a cause for continued meat eating, but already the result of an ethics that doesn’t take certain violations seriously. And of course, if you don’t take the violation seriously, then whether or not it subsequently violates a host’s sensibilities is rather beside the point.

I’ll also point to James Stanescu who’s response to Adam’s post already mentioned the different forms of community that begin to emerge in veg ethics. Pragmatically, it is not only true that new friendships are forged, but that old ones take on new dimensions, often with greater and deeper intimacies. As a girl from a food-stamp, meat-and-potatoes family, where Christmases were always filled with animals and animal products (in Ohio, we’ve never even seen a vegetable without sour-cream and butter on it), I can confidently say that this familial community was not thwarted, but deepened by the choice to display and respect multiplicity rather than mere conformity. I have likewise found this deeper intimacy in my travels or random invites. If I state that I choose not to eat meat or animal products, I almost always find hosts amenable. Just as they must avoid peanuts so my partner doesn’t go into anaphylactic shock, they are very often glad to know and even curious about my choices. If a host is baffled, I offer to bring a dish, to show up early, to offer ideas, or offer to host them instead. There are a few, but very few, instances where I’ve found myself somewhere with nothing to eat and an upset host. But it is far more frequently the case that a host or party guest and I simply rub each other the wrong way—even while eating vegan treats—than that my veganism is prohibitive or invasive.

Dispositional issues and prescriptive ethics are certainly the place where I find deep kinship with Adam’s philosophical and personal hesitations. I respect anyone who thoughtfully attempts to wrestle together past traumas, current commitments, pleasures, and projected encounters, and I feel much kinship with many of the experiences of poverty and religiosity that Adam mentions. I too have a bit of trauma from an evangelical, propositionally driven upbringing and I have no interest in forming an ethics around giving up something or around the idea of purity. I am thus constantly rethinking and renegotiating dispositions of plant-based eating. Because, lets be honest: “avoidance” is hardly a compelling or sustainable ethical narrative for most. So out of philosophical conviction as much as personal sustainability, my consumptive ethics endeavor to be movements-toward instead of away-from—toward a better self, a more compassionate choice, a deeper relationship with other bodies, greater respect for others, a better calculation and synthesis of my complex surroundings in this moment and then the next moment and then the next. Its easy to dismiss a puritanical and essentializing veganism, as it is easy to dismiss puritanical forms of almost anything. But the veg-isms I am most familiar with have mostly to do with ongoing calculations of care and compassion, not reductive systems decided once and for all. So the willful privileging of others has precisely provided a way out of prescriptive ethics and into an open, ceaselessly negotiating, compassionate ethics of care that the religion of my childhood rejected. For me, the ethics of being a more compassionate person toward other animals is a gesture of moving toward reduced meat (even with the occasional hotdog, Adam) and animal product consumption, not strictly away from certain products. In fact, I hate calling myself vegan precisely because of the puritan status is conveys; I almost always try to say, instead, that “I am living toward a more compassionate, increasingly plant-based life.” This allows me, my hosts, and others flexibility while also providing space to talk about and highlight the very real violences against, privileges of, or real suffering of others. I reach for a plant-based diet that takes care and relationship (not law) seriously—a care for multiple animal bodies and circumstances (with sapiens and non-sapiens), and includes the animal that I am as an object of care as well. Ethics of care, grounded as they are in non-essentialism and possibility, are open, allowing for mess-ups and changes and re-doings but with a guiding impetus that we love ourselves, love our neighbors as ourselves, and take care of the least of these, even sometimes, when it is not convenient to do so. And if that impetus isn’t Pauline, then I don’t know what is.

It is also worth noting that to chose, categorically, to eat other animal bodies is no less a prescriptive ethical choice than veganism. But rather than prescribing necessary action, the former prescribes the essence of and ethical right of access to certain bodies. An ethics of care for others circumvents the prescriptive quality altogether, by suggesting, as Butler does, that we “shelter precarious life when it is in our power to do so.” And is not the table a moment when it is in our power to do so? Of course, here power needs to be interrogated in light of class and race accessibility, and I would love to see this engaged on this blog, especially in this context.

Finally, at the end of the day, I think where Adam and I might differ is not in the pragmatics of veganism as protest or my singular ability to change systematic problems (although its clear that enough voices do bring change, as Stanescu already addressed in his response). The question is, if we begin to know other lives differently, making constant reference to their complex intelligence, emotions, desires, play, language and abilities to suffer, then doesn’t this merit redrawing the lines of edibility? This is not a discursive point. Just like combating rape culture means reconnecting the value of the individual with her body and deconstructing masculine privilege and assumptions of constant access, rethinking animal consumption requires reconnecting the bareness of meat to the individual, full-personed bodies to whom it belongs and deconstructing our privileged access to the flesh of those who are not ours. So plant-based diets are not a quest toward non-killing per se, but a move toward rethinking who is killable, how they are made so, and what privileges we have wrongly assumed about ourselves in the process of that making. I think vegan ethics of care move us toward increasing relation and choices rather than severing and narrowing them, toward affirming community, not cutting off; it requires more calculations, not fewer, more choices, not less. From this perspective, the daily or tri-daily personal negotiations of who is on and who is at the table need to be re-written as affirmations of multiple hospitality invitations, rather than negations, and as constellations of single choices (not systems), of “intentional and voluntary actions” or what Foucault calls, “practices and arts of existence” rather than prescriptive, always consistent ethics. I think Adam and I stand in solidarity when we admit to all the complicated, sometimes very quotidian reasons people eat one thing or another (and certainly I know that demonstrating the culinary delight of plant-based deserts, mac-n-cheeses, and veggie dogs is half of the battle). But care-based (not law or avoidance based) explorations of diets would accommodate many of the daily, pragmatic experiences of eating that Adam and I both so value (variety, excitement, comfort, etc). So I think the question is not just about the kind of person we are, will become, or even the kind of people we eat. It is about how ready we are to risk non-prescriptive, more flexible, more compassionate choices in order to really hold in tension a greater number of concerns, values, and individuals whose lives matter.



5 thoughts on “Why I don’t eat other animals (or their juices)

  1. Really appreciate this post. Thanks. I’m not vegan or vegetarian, though I have low meat consumption compared to the average Anerican, but I find arguments such as this one are very good for making me return to more base issues about what bodies are valued and which are expendable. So I’ve been wondering about other kinds of bodies in this regard and I’m curious about the position of the non human animal that seems to be the border line between plant life and human animal life. That is, why is animal life distinct from plant life in the particular way that it is? I’m really not trying to be pedanti or make a slippery slope argument (if we stop killing animals we’ve got to stop killing plants!), but I’ve always been curious why one wouldnt take the lines of argument here and apply them to plant life?

  2. I really appreciate this post as well. It is more thoughtful than my original post — which was more an admission that I don’t have a good reason than anything — deserved.

  3. Adam- I was really happy to have a sort of rhetorical invitation to blog, as I’d just gotten back from time with Anthony and another AUFS fella who suggested I start posting a few things. I often find it uncomfortable to come out of nowhere, so I was grateful for a helpful provocation.

    amaryahshaye – Thanks for engaging here! The plant vs. animal question really deserves a post all its own, but in lieu of that, I’d say three things. 1) I spent all last summer with Janes, in India. In addition to excluding meat and some other animal products, they do not eat root vegetables or other plants whose entire body is harvested (from potatoes to spinach, etc). They eat only plants that give of themselves (like fruit falls from a tree) in an attempt to consume but not strip life from others. I think this is an excellent place to begin thinking about plant life and what absolute death vs. harvest might look like (there is a famous story of a mango tree that you could check out, if you’re interested). This has huge implications for farming practices as well as individual plants, and really does merit some serious consideration, I think. 2) I guess I hold to a metaphysics that refuses clear distinctions between animal and plant classifications (which often fall apart anyway, given how collaboratively bodies work, or facts like that the Homo sapien body has 10 times as many microbial cells as it does human cells). There’s no reason not to consider plant bodies ethical subjects, or to consider human bodies plant subjects. I think the ethical implications of being so thoroughly imbricated in material forces that can’t be divided into categories are pretty powerful. I mean, if we began to consider the consquences of our actions on plant bodies, maybe such a reorientation might help us rethink deforestation, monocultures, seed suicide, etc. Instead of only trying to protect the human subjects living in these places, or even the charismatic orangutang populations, we actually saw the trees themselves as valuable ethical stakeholders? 3) I think questions about including plants if we include animals are spot on to recognize that ethics must extend beyond other mammals or animals, and probably go way, way, in fact, all the “down.” You’re right to recognize that the question often appears like an excuse to keep eating animals–if we have responsibly toward everyone and lines can’t be drawn, then no choice is totally right and therefore animals are okay. Since even that logic still maintains that humans are not on the menu, they make clear that ethical boundaries are still relevant even in places where ethical subjects are everywhere. I think the main thing poststructural ethics of care draw us toward is a radical awareness that the silly thing we do three times a day has serious consequences on other bodies, and perhaps those consequences could be lessened if we started considering others (from under-paid migrant workers to cows to over-worked land) in at our tables. If eating is one of the primary and most intimate ways I interact with other bodies (including humans), then who I eat really matters, and the fewer bodies I consume and the less pain they feel and the richer their lives can be if I simply leave them be is a way of taking that intimacy (and my own body) more seriously.

  4. When I first went vegan it seemed like such a huge change that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. Since then I’ve actually been able to invest myself pretty deeply in it through a radical indulgence of a personal tendency toward libidinally-tinged perfectionism and enjoyment of self-discipline, coupled with the sorts of utopian self-cultivation and other-directed compassion discussed so wonderfully here and in James Stanescu’s post. A grafting of sci-fi images of posthuman plasticity and cyborg self-programming onto my dietary endeavors (especially with regard to the effort that goes into juicing fruits and vegetables on a daily basis) is also part of the way I narrate it to and motivate myself. It’s really been pretty rewarding. I feel great physically and believe in it, and have found ways to be creative with and take pleasure in the culinary options. But I try to maintain an awareness of the ways it’s highly circumscribed by complex social and economic factors, and avoid being self-righteous about it.

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