Download Seán McCorry, John Miller - Literature And Meat

Document related concepts
no text concepts found
Literature and Meat
Since 1900
Edited by
Seán McCorry · John Miller
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature
Series Editors
Susan McHugh
Department of English
University of New England
Biddeford, ME, USA
Robert McKay
School of English
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, UK
John Miller
School of English
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, UK
Various academic disciplines can now be found in the process of executing an
‘animal turn’, questioning the ethical and philosophical grounds of human
exceptionalism by taking seriously the nonhuman animal presences that haunt
the margins of history, anthropology, philosophy, sociology and literary studies. Such work is characterised by a series of broad, cross-disciplinary questions. How might we rethink and problematise the separation of the human
from other animals? What are the ethical and political stakes of our relationships with other species? How might we locate and understand the agency of
animals in human cultures?
This series publishes work that looks, specifically, at the implications of the
‘animal turn’ for the field of English Studies. Language is often thought of
as the key marker of humanity’s difference from other species; animals may
have codes, calls or songs, but humans have a mode of communication of a
wholly other order. The primary motivation is to muddy this assumption and
to animalise the canons of English Literature by rethinking representations of
animals and interspecies encounter. Whereas animals are conventionally read
as objects of fable, allegory or metaphor (and as signs of specifically human
concerns), this series significantly extends the new insights of interdisciplinary
animal studies by tracing the engagement of such figuration with the material
lives of animals. It examines textual cultures as variously embodying a debt to
or an intimacy with animals and advances understanding of how the aesthetic
engagements of literary arts have always done more than simply illustrate natural history. We publish studies of the representation of animals in literary
texts from the Middle Ages to the present and with reference to the discipline’s key thematic concerns, genres and critical methods. The series focuses
on literary prose and poetry, while also accommodating related discussion of
the full range of materials and texts and contexts (from theatre and film to
fine art, journalism, the law, popular writing and other cultural ephemera)
with which English studies now engages.
Series Board
Karl Steel (Brooklyn College)
Erica Fudge (Strathclyde)
Kevin Hutchings (UNBC)
Philip Armstrong (Canterbury)
Carrie Rohman (Lafayette)
Wendy Woodward (Western Cape)
More information about this series at
Seán McCorry · John Miller
Literature and Meat
Since 1900
Seán McCorry
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, UK
John Miller
School of English
University of Sheffield
Sheffield, UK
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature
ISBN 978-3-030-26916-6
ISBN 978-3-030-26917-3 (eBook)
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer
Nature Switzerland AG 2019
This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the
Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights
of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction
on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and
retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology
now known or hereafter developed.
The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this
publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are
exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use.
The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and
information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication.
Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied,
with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have
been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published
maps and institutional affiliations.
Cover credit: Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo
This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature
Switzerland AG
The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland
Introduction: Meat Critique1
Seán McCorry and John Miller
Inside the “Butcher’s Shop”: Women’s Great War
Writing and Surgical Meat19
Vicki Tromanhauser
Kafka’s Meat: Beautiful Processes and Perfect Victims35
Ted Geier
Carnophallogocentrism and the Act of Eating Meat
in Two Novels by Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor 53
Adrian Tait
“Necessary Murder”: Eating Meat Against Fascism
in Orwell and Auden71
Stewart Cole
The Literary Invention of In Vitro Meat: Ontology,
Nostalgia and Debt in Pohl and Kornbluth’s
The Space Merchants91
John Miller
“They’ll Be Breeding Us Like Cattle!”: Population
Ecology and Human Exceptionalism
in Soylent Green111
Seán McCorry
Herring Fisheries, Fish-Eating and Natural History
in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn125
Dominic O’Key
“A Grain of Brain”: Women and Farm Animals
in Collections by Ariana Reines and Selima Hill143
Rachael Allen
10 Narrative Possibilities in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats161
Sarika Chandra
11 Crossing the Barriers of Taste: The Alimentary
Materialism of Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder179
Sarah Bezan
12 Belonging to This World: On Living Like an Animal
in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin197
Matthew Calarco
13 Dance with Nothing but Heart (2001): Death,
the ‘Animal’ and the Queer ‘Taste’ of the Other213
Ruth Lipschitz
14 Meanings of Meat in Videogames231
Tom Tyler
Rachael Allen’s first collection of poems, Kingdomland, is published by
Faber and Faber. She has received a Northern Writers Award and an Eric
Gregory award. She is the poetry editor for Granta magazine, is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Hull and writes on contemporary
poetry for Music & Literature, Prac Crit and TANK magazine.
Sarah Bezan is a Newton International Fellow at The University
of Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre. She is the co-editor of
Seeing Animals After Derrida (Lexington Books Ecocritical Theory
and Practice Series, 2018) and a special issue of Configurations: Journal
of Literature, Science, and Technology (Johns Hopkins University Press)
on “Taxidermic Forms and Fictions” with Susan McHugh. Her current research project, Regenesis Aesthetics: The Art and Literature of
De-Extinction Science, focuses on visual and literary cultures of extinction
and species revivalism.
Matthew Calarco is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at California
State University, Fullerton. He is author of Zoographies: The Question
of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (Columbia University Press,
2008) and Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction
(Stanford University Press, 2015).
Sarika Chandra is an Associate Professor of English at Wayne State
University. She researches and teaches in the areas of globalization studies, American Studies, Race, and Ethnic Studies. Theorizing the U.S. in a
transnational frame, she works at the intersections of race, ethnicity, im/
migration, and ecology. Chandra is the author of Dislocalism: The Crisis
of Globalization and the Remobilizing of Americanism. Her publications have appeared in various volumes and journals including American
Quarterly, Cultural Critique, and Modern Language Notes.
Stewart Cole is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin Oshkosh. His research focuses on the intersections of modern British and Irish literatures, animal studies, and ecocriticism. His articles have appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the
Environment, LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, Twentieth-Century
Literature, and Studies in Canadian Literature, and his current book
project examines shifting conceptions of animals and animality in British
literature of the interwar period. He has also published two collections of
poetry, most recently Soft Power (Goose Lane Editions, 2019).
Ted Geier is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Ashford
University and Lecturer in English and American Studies at UC Davis,
where he founded the Cultures, Politics & Economics of the Nonhuman
Research Cluster in the Davis Humanities Institute. His publications
include books on animals and culture with Palgrave Macmillan (Kafka’s
Nonhuman Form) and Edinburgh University Press (Meat Markets: The
Cultural History of Bloody London); an edited issue of New Review of
Film and Television Studies on Terrence Malick’s ecocinema; articles and
chapters on eco studies, cinema, literature, and animals. His current projects include books on “Eco Disney” and the film Children of Men.
Ruth Lipschitz obtained her Ph.D. at Goldsmiths, University of
London (2015). She holds a permanent post in the Faculty of Art,
Design, and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. Her research
draws on deconstruction and psychoanalysis and focuses on animality and
alterity in contemporary South African art. Recent publications include
“Race and ‘the Animal’ in the Post-Apartheid ‘National Symbolic’”,
co-authored with Benita de Robillard (Image & Text 30, 2017), and the
chapter, “Abjection”, in the Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies,
edited by Lynn Turner, Undine Sellbach and Ron Broglio (2018).
Seán McCorry is an Honorary Research Fellow in English Literature
at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on his first monograph on technology and species difference in postwar culture. He is
co-founder of ShARC (Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre).
John Miller is a Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at
the University of Sheffield. His books include Empire and the Animal
Body (Anthem, 2012) and (with Louise Miller) Walrus (Reaktion,
2014). He is co-editor of Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
co-director of ShARC (Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre) and
Deputy Chair of ASLE-UKI (Association for Study of Literature and
the Environment, UK and Ireland). He is currently completing a monograph titled Victorians in Furs: Fiction, Fashion and Activism and is
beginning work on A Literary History of In Vitro Meat.
Dominic O’Key is a postdoctoral researcher and teacher at the Leeds
Arts and Humanities Research Institute. He is an editor of the cultural
studies and critical theory journal, parallax, and has published elsewhere on Sebald’s nature writing and Werner Herzog’s documentaries.
His doctoral thesis, awarded in 2019, develops an analysis of how literature can simultaneously mediate, contest, and reimagine the relations
between humans and animals.
Adrian Tait is an independent scholar and environmental critic. A
long-standing member of the Association for the Study of Literature and
the Environment (ASLE-UKI), he has regularly published in its journal,
Green Letters. He has also contributed to a number of other scholarly journals, including the European Journal of English Studies (2018), and to essay
collections such as Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literary Ecologies
(2017), Victorian Ecocriticism (2017), and Enchanted, Stereotyped, Civilized:
Garden Narratives in Literature, Art and Film (2018). He continues to
explore the way in which nineteenth-century and early modernist fiction
anticipates but also problematizes contemporary, ecocritical concerns.
Vicki Tromanhauser is an Associate Professor and Chair of English at
the State University of New York, New Paltz. Her articles have appeared
in the Journal of Modern Literature, Twentieth-Century Literature,
Woolf Studies Annual, and the Virginia Woolf Miscellany, as well as in
various essay collections, including Handbook to the Bloomsbury Group
(Bloomsbury, 2018). She received the Andrew J. Kappel Prize in
Literary Criticism for 2012 and now serves on the editorial board of
Twentieth-Century Literature.
Tom Tyler is a lecturer in Digital Culture in the School of Media and
Communication at the University of Leeds, UK. His research addresses
the use of animals, and the expression of anthropocentric assumptions,
within the history of ideas and popular culture. He is the editor of
Animal Beings (Parallax, 2006), the co-editor of Animal Encounters
(Brill, 2009), and the author of CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers
(University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Further details of his research can
be found at
List of Figures
Fig. 14.1
Fig. 14.2
Fig. 14.3
Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) (Copyright Nycrama
LLC DBA Team Meat, 2008–2017)
Super Tofu Boy (MCM Net, 2010)
First Super Meat Boy advertisement (McMillen, “New Meat
Boy Ad!”; Copyright Nycrama LLC DBA Team Meat,
Introduction: Meat Critique
Seán McCorry and John Miller
It is no longer news that the intensification of animal agriculture since the
beginning of the twentieth century is a major contributor to our current
moment of mass extinctions and climate crisis. The United Nations Food
and Agricultural Organization’s landmark 2006 report “Livestock’s Long
Shadow” points out that “the livestock sector is a major stressor on many
ecosystems and on the planet as whole”, adding that animal agriculture
“is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading
causal factors in the loss of biodiversity”.1 These claims reached a wider
audience in the second decade of the twenty-first century through their
inclusion in the popular activist documentary Cowspiracy, which linked an
environmentalist critique of the ecological impacts of animal agriculture to
an explicitly vegan polemic against animal slaughter: “Each day, a person
who eats a vegan diet saves 1100 gallons of water, 45 lb of grain, 30 sq ft
of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life”.2 Animal
agriculture, and the meat economy in particular, has long been a site of
S. McCorry (B) · J. Miller
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
representational, moral, and political contestation, but this recent highlighting of its environmental costs has added a sense of acute urgency to
debates surrounding the future of meat production.
In this collection, we explore the value of literary-critical perspectives as
a complement to the more familiar ethical and political analyses of what
Annie Potts calls “meat culture”.3 Our central premise is that the practices
of our contemporary meat regime are shaped and reproduced as much by
cultural and imaginative factors as by political contestation and moral reasoning. These cultural and imaginative factors are part of what Melanie Joy
describes as “the invisible belief system [of] carnism” (original emphasis)
through which meat-eating is made to appear as “a given, the ‘natural’
thing to do, the way things always have been and always will be”.4 Joy’s
diagnosis is resonant of Nick Fiddes’ earlier identification of meat as a
“natural symbol” that articulates “a principle of power over nature” and
forms “an omnipresent thread” through Western culture. For Fiddes, this
“is not an invisible thread, but we usually do not see it”.5 Meat in both
these influential accounts is simultaneously ubiquitous and obscured. In an
era of gradually intensifying ecological consciousness, meat remains somewhat underdetermined; its consumption is tied to myths and developed
through histories that are at best insufficiently interrogated. Consequently,
literary and broader cultural studies are necessary in order to continue to
unravel meat’s complexities, to examine its affective, aesthetic, and ideological components, and to imaginatively attend to the animal lives and deaths
on which the meat industry is constructed. As such, developing the work
of Fiddes, Joy and others, the volume centres on various versions of what
we might call “meat critique”; the essays collected here all seek to unpack
and to challenge dominant narratives of meat-eating and conceptions of
animals as resources (albeit in different ways).
In order to better understand meat’s role in the current crisis, and the
place of literary representation from 1900 to the present in responding
to our contemporary meat culture, we begin by offering a brief historical overview of meat culture as it has developed in the last century in the
affluent capitalist democracies of Europe and North America. Our analysis
largely focuses on this particular geographic context because it is in these
countries that the characteristic form of modern (intensive, industrialised)
meat culture first took shape, though some of our chapters engage with the
global dissemination of Euro-American animal agriculture. Clearly, there is
significant work to be done to thoroughly engage with the literary representation of meat cultures’ development in national and regional contexts
outside of the West and in earlier periods, but that work has not been
attempted here. The history of meat cultures leads us towards a survey of
some of the ethical and representational questions that emerge from taking meat seriously as both an index of socio-cultural change and a scene of
violence. In turn, this survey allows us to articulate the ways in which the
volume aims to contribute to work in animal studies and the more recent
and more sharply delineated field of vegan studies.
The history of meat production from 1900 to the present closely maps
on to broader processes of modernisation, with technological developments stimulating a twofold process of intensification: first of all an intensification of speed, as farmers and slaughterhouse workers reared, killed,
and processed animals for the market at an ever-increasing pace; and secondly an astonishing scaling up of animal agribusiness, with more and more
corpses produced each year to satisfy the modern consumer market’s growing appetite for animal flesh. Already by 1900, the productive forces that
had been set in motion by the industrialisation of animal slaughter had
achieved such levels of efficiency and velocity as to become valued as aesthetic spectacles, as Dominic A. Pacyga points out:
At the turn of the twentieth century, a reported five hundred thousand people
visited [Chicago’s] Union Stock Yard annually. To modern sensibilities, to
take a tour of the stockyard and the packing plants—even to bring small children to the hog kill—might seem repulsive, but through most of its history
the Union Stockyard and the adjacent plants were major tourist attractions.
Fascination with the new drew these visitors.6
This “fascination with the new” perfectly captures the surprising connections between the animal body and modernity. It is not that the meat industry passively reflected modernity’s general impetus towards intensification
and acceleration; it is rather the case that the techniques that would allow
modern industrial production to increase its output were in fact devised
in the slaughter business. Carol J. Adams is one of many writers who have
noted the Chicago stockyard’s signal role in inspiring new methods of
industrial production, principally through its influence on Henry Ford,
who borrowed the stockyard’s strategies of spatial and temporal organisation for his own automobile factories: “Although Ford reversed the outcome of the process of slaughtering in that a product is created rather than
fragmented on the assembly line, he contributed at the same time to the
larger fragmentation of the individual’s work and productivity”.7 The animal body, then, is the surface on which capitalist modernity first perfected
many of its characteristic techniques of alienation and rationalised violence.
The slaughterhouse’s strange conjugation of animal and working-class bodies shaped Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the Chicago
stockyards in which the author “blends the fate of human workers with that
of meat animals” (and which is considered by Ted Geier in this volume in
relation to Franz Kafka’s fiction).8
For authors living through the great political and military crises of the
first half of the century, these crises seemed similarly to invoke this easy
slippage between industrial assembly and disassembly, lively body and inert
corpse. As Vicki Tromanhauser’s chapter in this collection shows, the experience of the trenches in the First World War showed how the same techniques of modernity that had been elaborated in the slaughterhouse could
be readily turned against human combatants. One of the effects of the
war on the cultural imagination was a renewed awareness of how readily industrial technologies could shorten the distance between human and
nonhuman animal life. The Vickers machine gun and its contemporary the
captive bolt pistol both testified to modernity’s adeptness for slaughter,
and as Tromanhauser shows, the many wounds produced by new military
technologies forced an uneasy confrontation with the fact of human bodily finitude—a recognition, ultimately, that the human is a creature of the
The carnage of the Second World War, too, would incite a turn towards
the fleshly finitude of the human animal, not least in Francis Bacon’s postwar “meat paintings”, in connection with which the artist remarked: “Of
course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher shop, I
always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal”.9 Confronted with the rapid expansion and globalisation of the market for animal
flesh in the decades following the war, a number of prominent theorists and
cultural critics were troubled by supposed affinities between the mechanised
violence of the war machines and the lethal efficiency of postwar animalagricultural production. Zygmunt Bauman imagined Nazi violence not as
an aberration or a regression but as the culmination of a certain trajectory
of modernity, pointing out that during the war, “the industrial potential
and technological know-how boasted by our civilization […] scaled new
heights in dealing with a task of unprecedented magnitude”, namely, “the
Final Solution”.10 The philosopher (and former Nazi) Martin Heidegger
brought this critique of rationalised violence to bear on the modern meat
industry when in 1949 he notoriously pronounced that
Agriculture is now a motorized food-industry—in essence, the same as the
manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the
same as the blockading and starving of nations, the same as the manufacturing
of hydrogen bombs.11
In this uncomfortable passage, Heidegger joins a chorus of writers
who imagined intensive meat production as one of the symptoms of a
technologically-saturated and fundamentally amoral postwar consumer culture.
Elspeth Huxley riffs on her cousin-in-law Aldous’s best known novel
when, in her Brave New Victuals (1965), she worries that the “ancient link
between man and beast is being greatly weakened” by the techniques of
intensified animal agriculture devised to meet the needs of a growing market.12 Though she is by no means a feminist writer, Huxley anticipates later
pro-animal feminist theory in identifying meat culture as a site of gendered
labour, recording (in a somewhat mournful key) that “the ritual of father
with the carving knife at the head of the family table is a thing of the past”.13
Rationalised meat production has replaced the spectacle of the animal body
at the table with “the tender, convenient, quickly cooked little cut of steak
in its oven-ready tray”, a displacement of gustatory and familial authenticity by the needs of the market.14 Huxley’s attitude here evokes what Jovian
Parry calls “the new nostalgia for meat”, a now relatively widespread phenomenon in popular-culture gastronomy that complicates the “meanings
of meat in post-modernity” by insisting on the “the spiritual benefits of raising and slaughtering one’s own animals”.15 If post-modernity comprises
in some senses the end of nature as a reliable conceptualisation of some
distinct more-than-human realm, then “traditional” meat production and
consumption appears as a mythic imaginary in which this lost, and deeply
conservative, sense of nature might be recovered.
One year before the first publication of Huxley’s critique of intensive animal agriculture, Ruth Harrison published her Animal Machines: The New
Factory Farming Industry. In her foreword to Harrison’s exposé, Rachel
Carson (the author of Silent Spring ) situates the book’s investigation of
factory farming within a now well-established analysis of modernity: “The
modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick
and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen”.16
For Carson and others, the meat industry is a key indicator of the moral
health of modernity, which simultaneously encapsulates the progressive
dream of technological development and consumer abundance on the one
hand, and a kind of pagan reversion to gratuitous violence on the other.
Authors like Carson, Huxley, and Harrison create a framework for criticising the perverse modernity of meat culture that would later in the century be appropriated by more radical vegetarian and vegan critics of animal
agriculture. The novelist J. M. Coetzee bears the traces of this tradition
when he writes of his experiences as a vegetarian in Texas: “Trying to live
a life on Gandhian-Shavian lines [i.e. abstemious, non-violent, vegetarian]
in the United States today” is impossibly dated, since “it is a way of life
without a future”, wholly obsolete in “an economy based on the personal
automobile and on getting people to consume more each year than the year
before”.17 Several essays in this collection engage with the diverse temporal imaginaries of meat culture. Coetzee extrapolates from the twentiethcentury American experience in imagining that meat production will continue to expand as consumer affluence grows, the “chicken in every pot” of
the 1920s becoming the monstrous over-abundance of animal flesh of the
present and future. But this is not the only possible future for meat culture.
As Seán McCorry shows in his chapter on Soylent Green, environmentallyattuned writers of speculative fiction worried that short-term abundance
could turn to longer-term scarcity, with the disappearance of “meat animals” a key indicator of ecological health. And John Miller’s chapter on
in vitro meat shows how mid-century science fiction was already anticipating twenty-first-century debates on the aesthetics and political economy of
artificial meat.
This is not to suggest that Coetzee is unreasonable in imagining our current regime of intensive meat production as basically secure for the foreseeable future. It is perfectly possible to imagine meat production continuing
despite any future scarcity crises; meat holds such a prominent place in the
imaginaries of patriarchy, individualism, and class power that it seems likely
to survive even at the cost of accelerated environmental decline. Indeed, it is
already surviving at the cost of accelerated environmental decline. Whether
or not “artificial meat” is accepted on the consumer market, it is probable
that animal flesh will continue to be sold as a pricy marker of authenticity
and luxury consumption. Despite the growth of ethical veganism in the
first decades of this century, the general tendency of meat production is
towards continued expansion. According to the FAO’s statistics, between
1961 and 2016 the number of pigs slaughtered globally nearly quadrupled, from 376,366,821 pigs to 1,478,167,073. Over the same period, the
number of chickens slaughtered increased tenfold, from 6,577,869,000 in
1961 to an astonishing 65,847,411,000 killed in 2016.18 The scale of all
this killing is such that scientists expect that the waste generated (namely
the bones of the slaughtered chickens) will leave a defining signature in
the geological record of modernity, noting that “broiler chickens vividly
symbolize the transformation of the biosphere to fit evolving human consumption patterns, and show clear potential to be a biostratigraphic marker
species of the Anthropocene”.19 Given the current vogue for renaming our
geological era (from Anthropocene to Capitolocene to Anthrobscene and
beyond), it is tempting to offer the Carnocene as another alternative: ours
is the epoch when the planet was profoundly and irrevocably damaged in
order to accommodate an appetite for the flesh of other creatures.
The immense scale of the violence attributable to our current meat culture creates substantial representational problems for novelists and other
creative artists who attempt to engage with the lives and deaths of so-called
“meat animals”. It is difficult to know how to even begin to represent 65
billion deaths within literary discourse, and this representational problem
seems in many ways to follow from the conventions of literary representation itself. Amitav Ghosh has recently shown how the novel form struggles
to respond adequately to climate change, arguing that the (bourgeois realist) novel’s preoccupation with the regularities of experience, its commitment to individualism, and its pervasive anthropocentrism all contribute
to a representational blind spot made apparent by its inability to represent encounters that are driven by extreme climate phenomena: “in these
encounters”, he writes, “we recognize something we had turned away from:
that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors”.20
Similarly, the economic and institutional contours of meat culture resist
(at least in part) any attempts to capture them within literary form. The
association of the novel with individualism, and the centring of most novels
on the experience one or several individuated subjects (who moreover are
nearly always figured as human subjects, at least in so-called serious fiction),
creates significant difficulties with regard to the problem of scale. Since
literary discourse has so far been preoccupied with representing individual
experience, novelists lack the formal resources that would equip them to
represent the lives and deaths of the 65 billion broiler chickens who are
killed for meat each year.
Of course, one possible response to this is to evade the problem of scale
altogether. The individualist tradition in literary representation is anthropocentric for reasons that are historically contingent rather than necessary,
and a burgeoning field of empirical work is showing how nonhuman animals are individuals, and thus perhaps amenable to adaptations of familiar
representational strategies.21 This empirical work on animal individuality
bolsters long-standing claims from animal rights philosophers that (most)
animals are “subjects of a life that fares well or ill for them, logically independent of their utility for others”, and that our moral obligations towards
them ought to be revaluated on this basis.22 In literary studies, this claim
has been largely divorced from its liberal rhetorical framing but otherwise reproduced substantially intact by scholars who have followed Jacques
Derrida’s influential analysis of the “unsubstitutable singularity” of animal
lives.23 If one of the characteristics of literature as a cultural practice is its
close attention to the texture of individual experience, and if one of the
outcomes of this attention is a renewal of our sense of our ethical responsibilities to one another, then a post-anthropocentric literary practice is not
entirely without resources for reshaping our attitudes to meat culture and
the animal subjects who are caught in its violent embrace.
The idea of a post-anthropocentric literary practice is one that has been
developing for some time now under the wider aegis of animal studies as a
trans-disciplinary academic enterprise concerned with examining the manifold dimensions of human–animal interaction, often (though by no means
always) with an underlying ethical and political commitment to animal
lives. Literary animal studies scholars have made significant strides towards
eroding literature’s ostensible significance as a sign of human pre-eminence,
locating moments of animal agency and identifying the ambivalences and
instabilities of humanism. Given that the conversion of animal bodies
into flesh for human consumption is a practice where relations of power
between humans and nonhuman animals are reproduced in exemplary
form, it is perhaps surprising that the literary representation of meat has
not appeared more fully and more consistently in the foreground of literary
animal studies.
Certainly, there have been significant discussions of meat in many
of the formative works of literary animal studies over the last two
decades or so. Nicole Shukin draws extensively on the material histories of meat production in setting out her conception of animal capital,
particularly the ways in which “[a]utomotive and meatpacking plants”
are “produced as parallel subjects of modern capitalism’s time-motion
economies”.24 Susan McHugh includes a chapter in Animal Stories “examining how industrial meat narratives frame more widespread anxieties
about the failure of representation regarding animal agency”.25 In Animal Erica Fudge provides an extended discussion of the cultural politics
of meat-eating and the awkward line “between edibility and inedibility”,26
which she develops in a later essay explaining “Why It’s Easy Being a Vegetarian”: meat-eating by contrast is hard “because it is so rife with contradictions”. Why in the West is a sheep “edible, while a dog is not” (and this
is a tension that Joy also explores in detail)?27 In What Animals Mean in
the Fiction of Modernity, Philip Armstrong explores the disassembly line in
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at some length, while also engaging with meat
in pre-1900 texts, most notably H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Despite the undoubted significance of meat in these (and numerous other)
important contributions to literary animal studies there has not yet been a
single volume devoted entirely to the specific question of the literary representation of meat in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (although it is
worth noting that Ted Geier’s Meat Markets: The Cultural History of Bloody
London provides a thorough discussion of meat throughout the long nineteenth century). Moreover, neither Kari Weil’s nor Mario Ortiz Robles’
introductions to animal studies contains more than a passing reference to
meat. In formulating a vegan studies Laura Wright has drawn attention to
this dearth of scholarly, cultural studies of “the discourse of meat”, a lack
which provides an important invitation to this collection not least because
Wright’s own work has emphasised the need for more critical engagement
with meat.28
Written from an avowedly pro-animal position, Wright’s The Vegan Studies Project “seeks to disrupt the presentation of a homogenous notion of
what it means to be a vegan”, discovering instead a variety of pathways to
veganism from diverse activist and cultural traditions.29 Wright’s book provides a corrective to later genealogies of animal scholarship, acknowledging the centrality of Jacques Derrida’s work to recent research in human–
animal studies while foregrounding a long-standing heritage of ecofeminist involvement in questions of dietary politics and meat critique. The
Vegan Studies Project contains a productive typology of animal scholarship,
emphasising the important distinctions to be drawn between critical or
ecofeminist work (which is broadly oriented towards the abolition of meat
culture) and human–animal studies, which is more interested in ethnographic description of existing patterns of entangled human–animal relationships, and which lacks the founding gesture of refusal that constitutes
the ethical point of departure for more critical approaches.30 Wright draws
connections between meat culture and national security, tracing the ways
in which the post-9/11 security panic drew a clear line between (carnist,
and especially pork-eating) American cultural norms on the one hand, and
“foreign”, dissident, or otherwise suspicious dietary norms on the other.
This perhaps surprising linkage supports a contention made by Emelia
Quinn and Benjamin Westwood in their collection Thinking Veganism in
Literature and Culture: Vegan Theory, as they call it, might be conceived
as an exercise in “discovering what vegan ways of being in the world might
do to our practices of reading”.31 Although our collection is not conceived
directly as an example of an emergent vegan studies, several essays in the
collection engage with veganism and/or vegetarianism (most extensively
Tom Tyler’s chapter). More exactly, the kind of meat critiques the volume
foregrounds comprises a similarly far-reaching endeavour to vegan studies
and a form of critical practice that will, we hope, necessarily inform dissident
perspectives on meat culture.
The volume begins with Vicki Tromanhauser’s exploration of the testimony of women serving as non-combatants (principally as nurses or ambulance drivers) in the First World War. These women witnessed extraordinary, harrowing scenes of the human body’s dissolution in the face of the
war’s industrial-scale slaughter; strikingly, they often described their experience in ways that foreground what Tromanhauser describes as the human
body’s ultimate “meatness”. For Vera Brittain writing in her 1933 memoir
Testament of Youth, wounded bodies gave the hospital in Camberwell a
“butcher’s-shop appearance”. More specifically, Mary Borden in The Forbidden Zone (1929) sees a soldier’s extracted knee as a “ragoût of mouton”,
while Irene Rathbone’s 1932 novel We That Were Young identifies a swollen
arm as a “nightmare German sausage”. Tromanhauser draws on the work
of Georges Bataille, Julia Kristeva and Mel Y. Chen to examine how the
wounded human body’s formlessness produces a state of ontological confusion in which distinctions between the human and non-human become
difficult to cling on to.
Chapter 2 sees Ted Geier turn to the work of Franz Kafka and to the
inescapable politics of the killing machines through which his characters
are rendered as “meat objects”. Kafka’s work is consistently drawn to punishment—most famously in “The Penal Colony” (1914) and The Trial
(1925)—and the elaborate attention to the mechanisms of slaughter suggest comparisons to Sinclair’s great novel of the Chicago meatworks The
Jungle (1910). As animals are processed into meat in Sinclair’s visceral
descriptions of industrial slaughterhouses, so Kafka’s characters are processed through violent, punitive systems towards unceremonious deaths.
Ranging widely across Kafka’s novels and stories and utilising Adorno’s and
Deleuze’s thought, Geier traces modes of subjection produced by systems
that appear as sources of wonder. In Kafka’s fictional universe, characters
arrive calmly at their deaths in a way that evokes Temple Grandin’s contribution to the design of softer slaughter systems.
In Chapter 3, Adrian Tait applies Jacques Derrida’s influential
formulation of carnophallogocentrism to two closely connected novels:
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), and Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs.
Lippincote’s (1945). Derrida’s emphasis on a sacrificial structure through
which the virile human subject emerges through the slaughter of animals
is represented in exemplary form in Woolf’s novel, most notably through
Mrs. Ramsey’s triumphant Boeuf en Daube in the key dinner party scene.
As Mr. Ramsey, that “arid scimitar”, sits assuredly at the head of the table,
Woolf dramatises meat’s symbolic centrality in a patriarchal order, though
Tait argues for a subtle refinement of this logic through Mrs. Ramsey’s
broader, more inclusive sense of hospitality. Emerging during a time of
rationing, Taylor’s war-time text lacks the sense of abundance Mrs. Ramsey cultivates in her Boeuf en Daube though there are some significant
intertextual references to the earlier novel. Like Woolf, Tait argues, Taylor
reconceives the operation of a carnophallogocentric structure, in part due
to her preoccupation with the war’s brutality and with the cruelty of the
family unit.
Stewart Cole continues the focus on carnophallogocentrism in
Chapter 4. Putting the poet W. H. Auden alongside the novelist and essayist
George Orwell, Cole examines the ways in which, despite significant tensions between them (due in part to Orwell’s homophobia), these authors
are united by a suspicion towards vegetarianism. Both Orwell and Auden
were involved in anti-fascist activism in the 1930s, though as Orwell saw
it, in markedly different ways. Orwell styled himself as a man of action and
conceived of Auden as distinctly less macho. Orwell’s critique of Auden fits
into a wider conception of masculinity that appears exemplary of carnophallogocentrism: the influence of “Nancy poets” and vegetarians is identified
in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) as one of the chief problems facing
socialism. Auden, in return was scathing or Orwell’s fixation with the ordinary or the normal. But as the 1930s progresses and the biopolitical threat
of fascism became more urgent, the anti-vegetarian rhetoric of Orwell and
Auden comes to be indistinguishable. Auden’s fetishisation of meat-eating
comes to be every bit as carnophallogocentric as Orwell’s. Consequently,
Cole argues, we should remain alert to the ways in which normative models
of subjectivity can be reasserted even in otherwise liberatory causes.
In Chapter 5 John Miller turns to the invention of in vitro meat (IVM)
over the last few years as a radical and alluring solution to the many ecological and ethical detriments of conventional meat production. While IVM (or
clean meat as it is now sometimes called) appears as a hypermodern product of technotopian capitalism, it is actually a substance with a surprisingly
long history, dating back at least to 1881 and Mary Bradley Lane’s feminist utopia Mizora. After summarising IVM’s literary history, Miller offers
an extended analysis of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s 1952 novel
The Space Merchants , a stinging critique of post-war programmes of agricultural intensification that revolves around Chicken Little, a decades-old
“hundred-ton lump of grey-brown rubbery flesh” that grows unceasingly
and supports a global industry. Although the novel nostalgically valourises
a lost pastoral world of purportedly authentic human–animal relations, The
Space Merchants is not a straightforwardly conservative text, however, but
one which raises crucial questions about the cultural meaning and ideological function of IVM.
One of the key ambivalences of Pohl and Kornbluth’s depiction of IVM
is the way in which the separation of protein from an originary animal
encourages a sense of meat as a designation which transcends species and
so might encompass human as well as animal flesh. Such cannibalistic tendencies are taken up explicitly in Chapter 6 as Seán McCorry analyses
Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film Soylent Green. From the late 1960s through
the 1970s, a new awareness of the extraordinary growth rate of the world
population reenergised Malthusian themes in environmentalism and the
environmental sciences. In the field of population ecology, the publication of The Limits to Growth (1972) and The Population Bomb (1968)
heightened cultural anxieties around “overpopulation”, and in the same
period, a thriving subgenre of speculative fiction translated these anxieties
into apocalyptic narratives of population crisis. McCorry situates Soylent
Green within an analysis of the biopolitics of the contemporary scientific
debate on population. Soylent Green testifies to the ambivalent position of
the human in the biopolitics of population management, imagining the
rediscovery of the edibility of the human body as the necessary corollary
of a thoroughly modern discourse of population management, shorn of its
vestigial commitment to human exceptionalism.
Chapter 7 takes the collection away from land as Dominic O’Key considers W. G. Sebald’s depiction of herring fisheries and fish-eating in Rings
of Saturn (1995). To date Sebald has received little attention from animal
studies scholars with the dominant critical focus concerning the humanism of Sebald’s project in the face of the holocaust. Rings of Saturn does,
however, engage at some length with the North Sea fishing industry. Drawing on Adorno’s formulation of “Natural-History”, O’Key explores how
Sebald presents nature and history as interlinked in two key scenes: the
comic description of the consumption of a particularly bleak plate of fish
and chips in Lowestoft and a historical narrative of herring fishery in which
he is sharply critical of its ecological harms. Ultimately, for O’Key, Sebald
can be seen as a figure who is significantly resistant to fish eating.
In Chapter 8, Rachael Allen turns her attention to some affinities
between the position of women and the position of “meat animals” in
contemporary poetry. Drawing on the work of Carol J. Adams and Nicole
Shukin, Allen provides a close reading of the poetry of Ariana Reines and
Selima Hill that explores the imaginative connections between women and
cows. The ambivalent relationship between matter and sign is revealed to be
a site of instability, with symbolic figurations impacting on our understanding of the body of the animal/woman, and vice versa: “Both Reines and
Hill, through their varying poetics, ensure that the material consequences
of an animal-made-symbol are foregrounded, for the figure of both the
animal and the woman”. Writing against attempts to posit the body as a
symbolic and material resource for the use of others, Allen’s poets seek to
liberate the flesh from instrumentalisation and exploitation.
A crucial and under-examined aspect of contemporary meat culture is
the way in which it exemplifies and reproduces the dominant role of the
United States in world affairs, translating the “hard” violence of the animal
agricultural system into the “soft” power of American cultural hegemony.
In Chapter 9, Sarika Chandra explores the relationship between meat and
the prestige of American culture in the global capitalist marketplace. Chandra focuses on Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats (1998), a novel which follows
Japanese-American filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little as she directs My American Wife, a documentary and cooking show foregrounding a carefully
curated image of (white, heterosexual) American domesticity. The purpose
of My American Wife is to generate a market for American beef products
in Japan. Chandra’s chapter explores how meat figures in this intercultural encounter, following Jane as she constructs the artifice that defines
the image of American meat culture on the global market, through her
repudiation of meat culture and her eventual turn towards making exposé
films that take aim at the exploitative practices of large-scale agribusiness.
The chapter concludes with some important insights into the limits of the
exposé form as a mode of meat critique.
In Chapter 10, Sarah Bezan turns her attention to the materiality of
meat through a reading of British novelist Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder
(2001). Working along lines of thought established by the New Materialist
theorists of recent years, Bezan’s reading of the novel shows how food is
no passive matter, but instead possesses its own agency and wilfulness, a
fact reflected in Crace’s fabulist narrative by the magical effects that food
induces in the eater. With the key concept of “alimentary materialism”,
Bezan refuses to position humans as solitary actors and foods as simple surfaces upon which they act, a move which the novel imagines as a weakening
of the human’s (imagined) potency and uniqueness: “Crace deconstructs
the literary field of food, which has often historically privileged the human
as a superior entity in tasting others, rather than in being tasted”. The Devil’s
Larder contests the boundary work that partitions the edible world into
human/animal/vegetable, licit and taboo foods, such that these taxonomic
categories lose their coherence, with instructive effects.
Chapter 11 sees Ruth Lipschitz confront the politics of death across
species lines, reading the performance Dance With Nothing But Heart
(2001) in the light of Jacques Derrida’s zoontology. This performance—a
collaboration between South African artist Steven Cohen and his partner,
the dancer Elu—prominently features an ox’s heart, which is at once a prop
for Elu to dance with and a corporeal reminder of animal life and death.
Lipschitz’s chapter dwells on the question of mourning as it is variously
posed for humans and for animals, ultimately discovering in Cohen and
Elu’s performance a complex interaction of sex, gender, and species that
troubles any attempt to draw a clear, insuperable line between human and
animal, loosening the hold of species taxonomies over the ethical work of
mourning the other.
If it is not too early to speak of an emerging canon of meat texts, Michel
Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) would certainly figure prominently in any
such selection. In Chapter 12, Matthew Calarco builds on his previously
published typologies of animal-activist strategies to produce a new reading of Faber’s novel. The novel imagines an ironic inversion of human
supremacy, with an alien race (who are named “human” in the text) arriving on earth to farm human (or “vodsel”) males for their flesh, which is
destined to be sold on the off-world luxury commodity market. Calarco surveys a range of ethical attitudes taken by the “human” aliens to their meat
animals, from the “they’re-just-like-us” posture of identification to a more
fundamental recognition of our (and their) imbrication in and indistinction from our environment. Taking Under the Skin as a point of departure,
Calarco elaborates an “ethics of belonging”, a quasi-spiritual experience of
the connectedness of the living which might reorient us away from a strictly
instrumental relationship to the nonhuman world.
In our final chapter, Tom Tyler explores the diverse meanings of meat
in videogames. Meat functions in videogames as a token of exchange, a
resource for exploitation, or a source of sustenance and power. Where
games maintain more complex food systems, meat “operates as the very
best kind of food”, and it “frequently bestows strength and vigour. […]
It is routinely life-giving and essential. Meat, in short, connotes vitality”.
Access to meat, then, is imagined as a necessary requirement of good health.
In some cases, though, meat also takes on a less edifying meaning, expressing the finitude of bodily life as the site of fleshly vulnerability. Tyler draws
on Matthew Calarco’s notion of indistinction to read Team Meat’s Super
Meat Boy (2010) in the light of this understanding of corporeal vulnerability, making the case that although humans and other animals “are all mere
meat, [both] are also more than mere meat”.
UNFAO, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 267., “The Facts”.
Potts, Meat Culture.
Joy, Why We Love Dogs, 29.
Fiddes, Meat, 3.
Pacyga, Slaughterhouse, 1–2.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 80.
Armstrong, What Animals Mean, 138.
Bacon, in Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, 46.
Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, 9.
Heidegger, in de Beistegui, Heidegger and the Political, 153.
Huxley, Brave New Victuals, 56.
Huxley, Brave New Victuals, 61.
Huxley, Brave New Victuals, 60–61.
Parry, “Oryx and Crake,” 242.
Carson, in Harrison, Animal Machines, vii.
Coetzee, “Meat Country,” 43.
Faunalytics, “Global Animal Slaughter”.
Bennett et al., “The Broiler Chicken as a Signal”.
Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 30.
On individuality and “meat animals”, see Masson, The Secret World of Farm
Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 247.
Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 9.
Shukin, Animal Capital, 124.
McHugh, Animal Stories, 18–19.
Fudge, Animal, 35.
Fudge, “Why It’s Easy,” 152.
Wright, Vegan Studies, 24.
Wright, Vegan Studies, 23.
Wright, Vegan Studies, 12–13.
Quinn and Westwood, “Introduction,” 5.
Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
New York: Continuum, 2010.
Andersen, Kip, and Keegan Kuhn, dirs. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. 2014.
Appian Way Productions.
Armstrong, Philip. What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity. Abingdon:
Routledge, 2008.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
Bennett, Carys E., Richard Thomas, Mark Williams, Jan Zalasiewicz, Matt Edgeworth, Holly Miller, Ben Coles, Alison Foster, Emily J. Burton, and Upenyu
Marume. “The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of a Human Reconfigured Biosphere.” Royal Society Open Science 5, no. 12 (2018).
1098/rsos.180325. Accessed 10 May 2019.
Coetzee, J. M. “Meat Country.” Granta 52 (1995): 41–52. “The Facts.” Accessed 5 May
De Beistegui, Miguel. Heidegger and the Political. Abingdon: Routledge, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet.
Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Faunalytics, “Global Animal Slaughter Statistics and Charts.” https://faunalytics.
org/global-animal-slaughter-statistics-and-charts/. Accessed 10 May 2019.
Fiddes, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
Fudge, Erica. Animal. London: Reaktion, 2002.
———. “Why It’s Easy Being a Vegetarian.” Textual Practice 24, no. 1 (2010):
Geier, Ted. Meat Markets: A Cultural History of Bloody London. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Harrison, Ruth. Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry. London:
Vincent Stuart, 1964.
Huxley, Elspeth. Brave New Victuals: An Inquiry Into Modern Food Production.
London: Panther, 1967.
Joy, Melanie. Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to
Carnism. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010.
Masson, Jeffrey. The Secret World of Farm Animals. London: Vintage, 2019.
McHugh, Susan. Animal Stories: Narrating Across Species Lines. Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Pacyga, Dominic A. Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It
Made. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Parry, Jovian. “Oryx and Crake and the New Nostalgia for Meat.” Society and
Animals 17, no. 3 (2009): 241–256.
Potts, Annie, ed. Meat Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Quinn, Emelia, and Benjamin Westwood. “Introduction: Thinking Through Veganism.” In Thinking Veganism in Literature and Culture: Towards a Vegan Theory, edited by Emilia Quinn and Benjamin Westwood, 1–24. London: Palgrave,
Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis
and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Sylvester, David. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1987.
United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. “Livestock’s Long Shadow:
Environmental Issues and Options.”
pdf. Accessed 5 May 2019.
Wright, Laura. The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of
Terror. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.
Inside the “Butcher’s Shop”: Women’s Great
War Writing and Surgical Meat
Vicki Tromanhauser
In their capacity as ambulance drivers and V. A. D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses, female non-combatants witnessed some of the most acute
bodily horrors of the First World War. Their accounts of the wounded
body queasily return us to the insecurity of our own ontological borders as
fleshly beings, vulnerable to the traumas of war, imperial force, and sexual
aggression that these untrained, genteel women serving behind the lines
work into the weave of their stories about the front. Women’s Great War
memoirs and fiction share a preoccupation with the erosion of civilization,
of England’s imperial standing, and of humaneness and humanness. The
dissolution of the human form, its slow, agonized decline into mere animal
or matter, figures the breach of psychic and cultural categories. The desperate maintenance of these eroding borders fell to the voluntary nurses
and ambulance drivers whose task as the battlefield’s “charwomen” was to
superintend the medical rites that preserved the shapely human body (properly clothed or bandaged) from its formless other (raw gobbets and fluids
V. Tromanhauser (B)
State University of New York, New Paltz, NY, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
heaped upon the floor of the lorry or surgical theatre).1 Women’s writing
of the Great War presents us graphically and unsparingly with what I will
call the matter of our own meatness, of fleshy substance that will not yield
to spiritual transcendence or aesthetic transformation. Running through
their graphic accounts of life behind the lines is a figurative insistence upon
the status of the wounded body as meat. What calls for special attention
in these texts are the places where the emphatically inedible human body
proves unable to ward off its own potential edibility.
Such fleshy entanglements are disturbingly realized in the case histories of the British physician and psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers. Rivers served
for the duration of the war in the military hospital Craiglockhart in Scotland, where he was tasked with treating officers suffering from shell shock in
order to return them to active duty. In Instinct and the Unconscious (1920)
he describes the case of a young officer who lands in a shell explosion face
first upon the rotting abdomen of a German corpse, filling his mouth with
“the decomposed entrails of an enemy” and producing “the most horrible
sensations of taste and smell”.2 This young officer he deemed “so wholly
free from any redeeming feature” as to render the man irrecoverable for
the war effort. This gastronomical trauma ruptures all boundaries between
body and flesh, edible and inedible, and thus disrupts digestion on multiple levels: inducing the retching horror of his surfacing memories that prevent him from eating or psychologically working through the violence of
combat, and depriving the Army of additional cannon fodder in the form
of another fighting unit to send up the line. Left to guzzle the enemy’s
entrails, Rivers’ patient’s war neurosis makes a pulp of national differences
and territorial designs. What emerges, instead, is a different kind of blood
or flesh bond between soldiers at war, a carnal intimacy that crosses enemy
lines and registers in the troubling likeness of bodily interiors our own raw
animal matter.
The intensely detailed depictions of wounds featured in the narratives of
nurses generate a particular mode of traumatic testimony, one that resists
sentimentalizing its brutal subject and, according to Laurie Kaplan, even
“consciously de-feminize[s] language, form, and content” through its “impressionistic realism”.3 Since, as Santanu Das argues, “[t]he ordeal of the
nurses was usually one of witnessing and helplessness rather than of survival or of any direct ‘threat to life’”, their memories appear less marked by
the repressive operations of silence and occlusion that characterize those of
combatants.4 London medical headquarters in the First World War tended
to recruit upper- and middle-class, educated women for ambulance work
and V. A. D. nursing because a prevailing class ethos to “stick it” and suffer
in silence proved advantageous to the war effort, yet a staple feature of their
postwar memoirs and narratives is the candid and painfully vivid disclosure
of the physical hardships and material challenges they faced. Braided into
this narrative of women’s visceral contact with the mutilated male body
is their own physical deterioration under conditions of extreme deprivation, including the challenges of protein scarcity met by new forms of meat
from unrationed offal to the beef extract Bovril, with which the ambulance
drivers sustain themselves in Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet …Stepdaughters
of War (1930), published under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith. An
Australian-British journalist who had worked as a munitioneer in England
but never served at the Front, Price was commissioned by a publisher to
produce a female response to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the
Western Front (1929) which she based upon the war diaries of Winifred
Constance Young, an ambulance driver in France. One of Price’s heroines,
Georgina Toshington, nicknamed Tosh, is the niece of an earl and daughter of a sportsman who boasts the stomach of a horse and “the vocabulary
of a Smithfield butcher”, both of which prepare her for the horrors of the
convoys of wounded she faces as an ambulance driver in France and allow
her to anticipate that “in another month or so she should be able to eat
what the [canteen] food resembles without turning a hair”.5
The pressures of food scarcity and rationing introduced new and unrecognizable meats to the wartime palate. This culinary ingenuity formed a
response to the Eat Less Meat campaign, which was devised paradoxically
to starve the enemy into submission by reigning in English carnivory, since
an estimated £500,000 spent daily by civilians on animal protein threatened limited national stores.6 The course of the war’s end largely bears out
the argument of the food campaign. While the English disciplined their
consumption and conserved their stores, the growing food crisis within
Germany, despite its army’s territorial advances, helped to bring about the
negotiated Armistice. Diminished food supplies resulting from the Allied
naval blockade and the failure of the German government from the war’s
onset adequately to manage and distribute existing food stores among its
military forces and civilian workers contributed to Germany’s capitulation
to the Allies in November 1918.7 Patriotic appeals to noncombatants for
dietary restraint contrast with the carnal plenitude of the battlefield, where
soldiers lived on intimate terms with the prospect of being buried in a
mess-tin, as one soldier recalls of his mate in We That Were Young (1932),
an autobiographical novel by the British nurse and pacifist Irene Rathbone
that spans the war and post-war years from 1915–1928.8 As the epigraph
to Dorothy (Mrs. C. S.) Peel’s The-Eat-Less-Meat Book (1918) pithily puts
it, “Of our men we ask their lives, their limbs—/of ourselves a little less
food”.9 By the rather grim calculus of its proportional logic, eating less meat
might save the limbs and lives of Tommies, while indulging in it raises the
spectre of cannibalism by augmenting the casualties on the battlefield.
Peel’s cookbook introduces various strategies for reducing England’s
heavy reliance upon meat and challenges widespread popular distress about
the inadequacy of a meat-rationed diet, the upper and middle classes largely
unaware that women and children in working-class families routinely survived on a diet of meat no more than once or twice a week in order to
conserve the precious protein for the primary male wage-earner. Without proposing strict vegetarianism, the volume offers various mock-meat
options like the “Lentil Roast”, a mix of red lentils, potatoes, bread crumbs,
onions and spices, which the recipe directs the cook rather desperately
to “form into a shape as much like duck roast as possible” before covering in scraps of fat, baking, and serving with brown or tomato sauce.10
Peel’s “semi-meatless” dishes offer recommendations for augmenting the
scant meat with bean or grain-based stuffing and make do with kidney,
suet, a rasher of bacon, or the scrag end of neck of mutton. And offal,
the “elegant term” for an animal’s less desirable internal organs, was
mercifully never rationed and so as one civilian wife quipped, “We live
mostly on entrails”.11 The ever-versatile “Savoury Cassolettes”, for example, calls for “any pieces of meat, almost anything of a savoury kind you
have”, thus availing themselves of the indiscriminate “porkhambeefvealfish” that M. F. K. Fisher wittily called the minced meat under rationing.12
In less competent hands than Peel’s such dishes could take ghastly forms.
The food of the grossly incompetent cook at the field hospital in Price’s
Not So Quiet… is not only poorly prepared, but literally filthy: “One is
liable to find hair-combings in the greasy gravy; bits of plate-leavings from
the day before and an odd hairpin”, and “The principle dinner is a sort
of disgusting soup-stew made of meat that hangs over a drain until it is
cut up…sinister-looking joints of some strange animal—what, we cannot
decide”.13 To consume it is to set into motion a process of bodily rot of
even the healthiest young women, bringing on food poisoning and dysentery and causing small cuts to fester and turn septic. The cook’s pot proves
a kind of microcosm of the trenches, its ambiguous “soup-stew” reminiscent of the mud that comprised such a perilous feature of the landscape of
the Western Front, combining rain and earth with biological and chemical waste, bits of iron and wire, the wreckage of industrial weaponry, and
decomposing corpses. Its contents interchangeable with the human meat
the drivers clean from the ambulances, the pot produces a confusion of
fleshes and fluids that assault the senses of the ambulance drivers no less
than W. H. R. Rivers’ patient. Responsible for swabbing the insides of the
ambulances, the canteen, and the WC, the drivers serve as what Jane Marcus calls the “charwomen of the battlefield, the cleaners of the worst human
waste we produce”.14
Like the mud that swallowed so many soldiers, the cook’s indeterminate
“soup-stew” of hair-combings, the odd hairpin, and the sinister joints of
an unidentifiable animal—which the drivers agree is “certainly not beef or
mutton”15 —raises the prospect of the body’s deliquescence, its dissolution
into formless ooze or offal. Part of the horror of the stew’s ambiguous contents derives from its implicit power to devour, sucking everything into the
pot’s iron gullet. Simmering in the cook’s pot is the fundamental confusion
of human and matter, and the frightening prospect of the former getting
absorbed into the latter as so much filth and waste, since as Price’s heroine
Helen Smith observes, “One shapeless lump of raw liver is like another
shapeless lump of raw liver” (95). In Helen’s repetitive phrasing, human
organs ripped from the body linger on the tongue and press against the
roof of the mouth inducing it to gag upon such a proliferation of waste.
Directing our attention to what must be expelled for subjectivity and
selfhood to flourish, Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva share a fascination
with the discarded and unassimilable waste that resists incorporation into
our structures of personhood and human being. For Bataille the open orifice and for Kristeva the gaping wound makes visible the formless stuff of
our being in all its turgidity, humidity, and pungency. Indebted to LouisFerdinand Céline’s narrative of traumatic experience in the Great War
trenches, Kristeva’s theorization of the abject in Powers of Horror draws
upon the injured body: “A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid
smell of sweat, of decay” and “refuses and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. […] My body extricates itself, as being
alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from
loss to loss, nothing remains in me, and my entire body falls beyond the
limit—cadere, cadaver”.16 Like so many Great War nurses, Mary (May)
Borden, an untrained American nurse who volunteered with the French
Red Cross, stood at such a border gathering that waste drop by drop
in order to separate what might live from what passes beyond the limit.
While Borden’s first husband worked in British intelligence in France, the
Chicago-born heiress funded and directed a mobile field hospital attached
to the French Army. In The Forbidden Zone (1929), a collection of sketches,
stories, and prose poems about her experiences at the Front, she recalls
her task in the hospital reception hut, which is to pace the long rows of
wounded soldiers on stretchers and to “sort out the nearly dying from the
dying,” “to know which of the wounded could wait and which could not”
before they are sped to the operating rooms at the end of the hut.17 In
one excruciating scene, Borden places a portion of a soldier’s brain that
came off from his bandage in her hands into a pail under the surgical
table, discarded as so much superfluous waste. This lump of cerebral tissue stubbornly refuses physiological salvage or metaphoric transformation,
and Borden passes over the grisly moment with sparse comment as she does
with so many of the hospital’s casualties, since “It didn’t do to think” (92).
What passes comment at the bottom of Borden’s medical slop pail constitutes a macabre embodiment of what Bataille calls l’informe, or formless,
a term he coined in a “critical dictionary” following an entry on spittle in
the Surrealist journal Documents in December 1929. Neither a fixed concept nor substance, the formless refuses to be stuffed into “a mathematical
frock coat” by philosophy and, instead, carries an operational or performative power that works within form like rot to dismantle its structures
and subvert its integrity.18 As flesh is to the well-formed, shapely body, the
formless “serves to bring things down in the world” and designates what
“has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider
or earthworm” (31). As Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss explain in
their helpful guide to the concept, the formless serves as “a term allowing
one to operate a declassification, in the double sense of lowering and of
taxonomic disorder”.19
If for Bataille humanity is “the animal that negates nature” by assuming a dignified rectitude that elevates it from the horizontally-oriented
world of the beasts, then the “task” of the formless is to knock the species
from its esteemed perch.20 The downward pull of the formless, its gravitational force, plunges us towards the proximity senses of touch, smell, and
taste, which allow greater intimacy with their objects. It is the painfully
visceral contact with bodily fluids and macerated flesh that the narratives
by and about women serving behind the front lines in the First World
War record with such startling precision. The nurse moves instinctively,
intuitively among the rows of prone bodies on stretchers ceding reflective
distance in order to feel more palpably the changes in pulse and temperature and read the spasms of jerking limbs as signs of life persisting or
ebbing away as the inanimate reclaims the animate. Such corporeal intimacy betrays clear boundaries, as Borden recalls in an active present tense
what she feels beneath the “frock coat”, or more aptly here trench coat,
of bodily form: “We dig into the yawning mouths of his wounds. Helpless openings, they let us into the secret places of his body”.21 The body
appears in all its porous vulnerability here, mouth and wound collapsing
onto one another as fleshy portals into the body’s soft interior. But passive and “helpless”, these fleshy openings also acquire a strange vitality in
Borden’s syntax, which grants them more agency than the nurse’s healing
hands, themselves suggestively swallowed into the rounded vowels of the
wounds’ “yawning mouths”.
Where the active soldier’s domain is the battlefield—the theatre of the
vigorous, athletic body—the nurse’s domain comprises what John Caputo
calls the “anarchy of the flesh” in which the shapely body melts into a suffering and susceptible mass, since, he explains, “The flesh is not the principle of the body or of bodily life but the un-principle which exposes it to
ignominious undoing and the oblivion of disease, dismemberment, diminishment, and death”.22 By contrast with the “transitive” body in its supple
and intentional movement, the “intransitive” flesh is freighted, warm, and
messy, “the thick gum of carnality that clings to every transcendental operation and holds it stuck in place” (211). Flesh menacingly gums up the
metaphysics of human subject formation and jams the machinery of our
making and world-building.
Gumming up the pious operations of patriotism and dutiful sacrifice are
the convulsions of the body’s exposed flesh, the young English carnage that
for Vera Brittain comprises a wholesale “indictment of…inept humanity”.23
Her memoir Testament of Youth (1933) takes us inside the butcher’s shop
of the Great War hospital where the soldier’s heroic body is painfully disarticulated. The loss of her fiancé Roland Leighton, her brother Edward, and
two close friends calls into question the trope of national sacrifice as the proliferation of deaths turns individual tragedy into disposable carnage. While
serving in a hospital in Camberwell, Brittain recalls the squeamishness of
patients and male orderlies alike over “the butcher’s-shop appearance of
the uncovered wounds”, which causes one orderly to faint on top of his
patient (211). Brittain’s nursing testimony shuttles between the fantasized
memory of the ideal, intact body of her lover and the more prosaic bits of
broken flesh she encounters in the hospital ward. Her fantasy of the interchangeability of British Tommies—where in nursing another soldier, she
successfully ministers to Roland “by proxy” (166)—relies upon a Christian
ethos of service and sacrifice, with its attendant topoi of redemption and
resurrection, and embraces the image celebrated in recruiting posters of the
nurse as English Madonna to the ailing soldier as sacrificial son. Roland’s
death, however, represents the ruins of heroic sacrifice, and following this
traumatic loss Brittain’s testament suggests more extreme corporeal transmutations. The mud-caked and blood-soaked clothes that are returned to
Roland’s family speak to the grueling agony of his inglorious death, “shot
like a rat in the dark” by a sniper while repairing a patch of barbed wire
(243). Betraying “the horror of war without its glory”, the shattered rags
of his uniform reek of “not ordinary mud” with the “usual clean pure
smell of earth”, but of mud “saturated with dead bodies…that had been
dead a long, long time” (251, 252). Here the idealized body gives way to
abject formlessness. His redolent remains, mingled with the matter of other
nameless dead, Tommy and Hun alike, perform a “declassification in the
double sense” of Bois and Krauss. What Brittain smells in the putrid odour
pervading the Leightons’ sitting-room is the ruins of patriotism that so
violently knock Roland from his esteemed place in the private and national
memory that Brittain “wondered, and I wonder still, why it was thought
necessary to return such relics” (251).
Amidst the gruesome tangle of shapeless flesh in the field hospital, Brittain marvels at “how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the [operating] theatre—as we did all day at frequent intervals—in that fetid stench,
with the thermometer at about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated
dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor”
(374). The medical staff’s daily meals work the transubstantiation of the
Eucharist in reverse, where flowing blood and gobbets of flesh are baked
by the hot surgical theatre into the banality of tea and cake. When a Prussian lieutenant reaches out an “emaciated hand” to thank Brittain for her
services, she instinctively takes his foreign, enemy fingers in hers, “thinking
how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, [her brother] Edward up at
Ypres had been doing his best to kill him” (376). The war’s indiscriminate
violence reduces uniformed bodies to shattered flesh, but for the nurse
who dabbles her fingers in his entrails, Brittain intimates, such corporeal
transmutations might breed not clannish malice, but friendship.
The surgical custom of metonymizing soldiers as wounded body parts
(knee, lung, abdomen, head, spine) coupled with Mary Borden’s comparison of the surgical hut to a “confused goods yard filled with bundles of
broken human flesh” tip Brittain’s homology of the operating room as
a butcher’s shop uncomfortably into the literal.24 In The Forbidden Zone
(1929), the surgical theatre comprises “the second battlefield” against annihilating death and, by extension, the ontology of the flesh itself in all its
sprawling formlessness (97). The nurse’s task, then, is to reassert the form
of the body and prevent its dissolution into raw, shapeless matter, mere
disassembled parts: “these things, but no men” (44). In the tight accommodations of the operating hut, the kitchen doubles as a sterilizing room.
Food metaphors abound in The Forbidden Zone, where the wounded “are
pulled out of the ambulances as loaves of bread are pulled out of the oven”
(79) and an electric light bed warms the patients in a kind of medical gastronomy so that “a man could be cooked back to life again” (97).
Where both time and space are in short supply, the surgical hut must also
serve as a mess hall, in which the old French male orderlies consume their
“cups of coffee and chunks of bread and meat” and hungry surgeons discuss
the oysters in Amiens over an amputee and a hemorrhaging lung (100). A
raw delicacy, oysters tease the cherished Western distinction between civilized cuisine and base fodder, dignified eater and the uncultivated animal
who merely feeds, through its uneasy textural resemblance to the gummy,
oozing lumps of human organs that fall under the surgeon’s knife. The spectre of cannibalism lurks in the surgeon’s banter much as it shadows human
omnivory more generally. As Anne Anlin Cheng reminds us, “the omnivorous body is always, deep in the background, potentially a threateningly
edible body” since “the idea of ‘human flesh’ is itself already so ambivalent, so ready to hark back to the very ‘meat’ from which it distinguishes
itself”.25 Unfolding the paradox of our omnivorous diet, Cheng explains
that the elaborate cultural and aesthetic protocols designed to conceal (if
only partially) the violence of our eating betray “the deeper uncertainty of
what constitutes the edible versus the inedible” (n.p.). To place another
under the knife is potentially “to open myself up to the vulnerability of
my own flesh” (Cheng, n.p.). It is not simply a matter of recognizing that
humans, too, are animals, but of registering more unnervingly “how being
nonhuman and other may be the very mode of our ontology. Consumption
makes otherness our own, but it also opens us up to an unruly sociality
where what is our ‘own’ becomes food for the other” (Cheng, n.p.). Feeding upon meat compels us to “remain in the ethical relay between being
‘meat’ and being ‘flesh’”, Cheng suggests, “because to remain aware of this
ambivalence is to resist the complacency of humanness on the one hand
and the condescension of imagining we can relinquish our human privilege
on the other” (Cheng, n.p.).
Such ontological confusion surfaces in Borden’s operating room, the
bewildering proximity of dead and dying fleshes nowhere more palpable
than when one of the orderlies mistakes an extracted knee the surgeon has
left boiling in a saucepan for a “ragoût of mouton” and nearly serves it up
for the casse-croûte.26 The mess of flesh on the operating table turns flesh
for the mess as literal and figurative meat become queasily entangled: “Well,
it was lucky he didn’t eat it”, the surgeon remarks, “It was a knee I had
cut out, you know” (100). This harrowing scene raises the question of just
how flesh in the Great War will be cured, since, as the orderly’s confusion
intimates, body and meat cannot be cleanly sorted. The curing of the flesh
might tender either of two ostensibly opposed outcomes: inert dead meat
or active living body. What writhes on the operating table is the fragility and
malleability of our own vital substance as it quivers between animacy and
inanimacy, sentience and matter, being and object, formed and formless,
and, most nauseatingly, edible and inedible. The whole environment of the
medical building takes on the moisture of human tissue: “The air was thick
with steaming sweat, with the effluvia of mud, dirt, blood” (98). Steeped in
human bodily fluids, the surgical space comprises one great viscous interior
where body, flesh, and meat swirl in a vast effluvia that defies medical or
conceptual sorting.
In the patient’s spilling viscera the Great War nurse confronts the horror
of Bataille’s informe, the prospect of the becoming-flesh or becoming-meat
of the once shapely heroic body. Working in a London hospital during
the summer of the Somme offensive, Joan Seddon, the heroine of Irene
Rathbone’s We That Were Young , must become “word-perfect” in the
business of changing soiled dressings, holding mangled limbs, wringing
out saturated fomentations, peeling lint from the seared flesh of poison gas
or “liquid fire” patients, and probing among “lacerated muscles” for bits
of loose bone with a “little bodkin-shaped instrument”.27 Such stomachheaving sights and smells assail her senses and images of food gone off mark
some of the most brutal assaults the bodily wounds in the ward deliver: the
“sodden pancake” of a saturated poultice emits “a warm and sickly odour”
(197), the cheek of a jaw-case named McIvor is “swollen like a bloated
orange” (201), and a surgical incision discharging yellow pus from Joan’s
septic arm resembles “a melon when a single slice has been removed” (240).
Whether as pancake, orange, or melon, physical wounds in the nursing
narrative cut deeply into the psyche and infect it with a septic reminder
that beneath our figurative human dressing we, too, might be consumable
When a septic infection from a finger wound spreads above Joan’s elbow
and lands her in hospital with a severe fever, an unsettling image of meat
surfaces in the text to upset the otherwise anesthetic textures of novel’s
traumatic witnessing28 :
her arm, now swollen to the dimensions of a nightmare German sausage, was
causing her a lot of pain. She looked at it with stupid eyes as it lay crimson
and tight-skinned on the counterpane. She didn’t recognize it. She thought
at moments that it must be her leg, which had somehow got outside the
bedclothes. (239)
In the hallucinatory image of a “nightmare German sausage” the ailing
V. A. D. confronts her own foreign meatness. Packed into the casing of
Rathbone’s fleshy metaphor is Sergeant King’s hemorrhaging stump and
the beseeching hand on the counterpane that McIvor holds out to the
hysterical lover who shuns his deformed face, crushing them into an indecipherable mass of carnage that not only passes through the nurse’s agile
fingers, but literally becomes them. A fleshy double of the raiding German
zeppelin, the at once toxic and phallic “small silver cigar” she sees overhead
shortly before her hospitalization (232), Joan’s swollen arm embodies the
nurse’s guilt for what Santanu Das aptly calls an “unwitting act of aggression”, both for the pain she unintentionally inflicts upon her patients in the
process of tending wounds and for her medical obligation to rehabilitate
patients for future slaughter as “her fingers become enemy cartridges, digging holes into the soldier’s body”.29 Here the nurse’s perverse fantasy of
nourishing the enemy by supplying it with fresh English bodies to turn to
mincemeat extends consumption to herself.
Evoking as it does the mysteries of what lies beneath the dermal layers,
the “nightmare German sausage” condenses the paradoxes that inhere in
a war machine that eviscerates human flesh in order to mould and cook
it back into the shape of a soldier, only to send him through the military
mincer once again. Such savage and brutal aggression is thinly cloaked in
the ethics of care embodied in the doting nurse who fusses over the comforts of patients only to see them in the next breath sent back up the line,
in the words of Borden, “to be torn and mangled again”.30 But what lurks
beneath the clean, starched counterpane of such fastidious attention to
anaesthetizing pain is an elaborate technology of human unmaking whose
grisly operations the temporary, volunteer nurse—always an outsider to
the calm expertise and discipline of hardened sensibilities embraced by the
trained, professional nursing force—witnesses with a searing critical light.31
Borden and Brittain repeatedly emphasize the soldiers’ unstinting politeness towards their nurses, exhibiting a model of decency and appreciation
and even apologizing for their failure of the war machine in dying. Brittain recalls one bearded German captain who would “stand to attention
when [she] re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heals together, and bow
with ceremonious gravity”.32 The patient’s display of respect and civility
before an enemy caregiver doubles as a defence of his body’s upright vigour
against its descent into the sprawling vulnerability of recumbent flesh.
If the poetry of young soldiers that poured from the Front inveighed
against the sausage grinder of a social system that romanticized national
service and glamourized the sacrifice of “children ardent for some desperate glory”, what is striking here is the way in which such a system extends
to the female body as equally edible matter.33 To jam the meat grinder’s
mincing operations, Jane Bennett identifies a special vitality that clings to
ingested matter where food enters into an assemblage with its eater and
reciprocally “modifies the human matter with which it comes into contact”.34 Perversely, the more shapeless bodily matter becomes in women’s
nursing narratives, and the less recognizably human, the more it appears
to exert agency, or what we might with Mel Chen call “animacy.” More
than Aristotle’s life concept, animacy, most rigorously theorized in linguistics, is a product of languages across cultures which alternately grant or
withdraw sentience from beings and things. Such a grammar of ordering
human, animal, and inanimate matter is invariably hierarchical and anthropocentric: what linguists call an “animacy hierarchy” denotes a “reference
cline” or scale of relative liveliness and sentience that situates humans at the
apex and descends gradually into the nonhuman animal, plant, and mineral.35 Yet if humans possess “maximal and optimal subjectivity at the top”,
Chen explains, they also prove vulnerable to associations with objects along
this cline and thus to being accordingly de-subjectified and de-animated
(40). Particularly helpful for understanding the uncanniness of Rathbone’s
image of the arm-turned-sausage is the attention Chen pays to the linguistic practices of animacy’s counter-operation, de-animation, which like
animacy works through and within our systems of representation and not
only manifests passively in “the removal of qualities especially cherished as
human” but can also entail “the more active making of an object” (48). In
mistaking her own arm for a dissevered leg that is oddly detached and out
of joint, Joan envisions in her nursing hand a flesh that is foreign at once
to her body and to her culture and that is even disturbingly edible.
While animal, female, disabled, and foreign bodies in Western cultures
have routinely been construed as consumable, it is also from such a precarious place that women’s Great War writing suggests we might forge
new alliances across the conventional lines of battle and affiliation. Its
graphic rendering of human flesh drags us down into the formless matter
on the operating table and refuses us the security of ethical distance or the
aesthetic anesthesia of abstraction. In the greater abattoir of the battlefield,
the V. A. D. nurses and ambulance drivers newly apprehended a graduated scale of corporeal matter that extends from the shapely human body
to a loose, pulpy mass, and their feeling stories ask that we come to more
intimate terms with our flesh, animality, carnality, and even meatness.
Smith, Not So Quiet, 186; Marcus, “Corpus,” 245.
Rivers, Instinct, 121.
Kaplan, “Deformities,” 37, 39.
Das, Touch and Intimacy, 198.
Smith, Not So Quiet, 11, 10.
Peel, How We Lived Then, 91.
Spencer, British Food, 303.
Rathbone, We That Were Young, 103.
Peel, Eat-Less-Meat, 12. An appendix in How We Lived Then compares compulsory food rations in Germany against British voluntary rations nearing
the war’s end in December 1917, showing the British allowance of bread,
meat, fat, and sugar exceeding the German allowance by between 30 and
40% (Peel 1929, 219).
Peel, Eat-Less-Meat, 97.
Peel, How We Lived Then, 92.
Peel, Eat-Less-Meat, 75; Fisher, How to Cook, 62.
Smith, Not So Quiet, 51.
Marcus, “Corpus,” 245.
Smith, Not So Quiet, 51.
Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 3.
Borden, Forbidden Zone, 95.
Bataille, Visions, 31.
Bois and Krauss, Formless, 18.
Bataille, Accursed Share, 61–62; Bataille, Visions, 31.
Borden, Forbidden Zone, 80.
Caputo, Against Ethics, 212, 210.
Brittain, Testament of Youth, 358.
Borden, Forbidden Zone, 98.
Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids,” n.p.
Borden, Forbidden Zone, 100.
Rathbone, We That Were Young, 195, 201, 197.
Jane Marcus calls Rathbone’s novel a “figurative painkiller”, noting how
the palliative and anaesthetic qualities that prevail in the text constitute “an
exact mimesis of nursing” and thus offer “a soothing anodyne to the reader’s
memories” (Marcus, “Nurse’s Text,” 477, 476).
Das, Touch and Intimacy, 201, 200–201.
Borden, Forbidden Zone, 81.
For the prominence and commercial success of V. A. D. war narratives and
the tensions between trained and voluntary nurses over the extent of their
emotional engagement with male patients, see Hallett, “Emotional Nursing,” 87–102.
Brittain, Testament of Youth, 376.
Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” line 26.
Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 44.
Chen, Animacies, 40.
Works Cited
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Translated by
Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1993.
———. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939. Translated by Allan Stoekl.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Bois, Yve-Alain, and Rosalind E. Krauss. Formless: A User’s Guide. New York: Zone
Books, 1997.
Borden, Mary. The Forbidden Zone. 1929. London: Hesperus, 2008.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. 1933. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Caputo, John D. Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham:
Duke University Press, 2012.
Cheng, Anne Anlin. “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids: Race at the Intersection of Food
and Animal; or David Wong’s ‘Louie’s Sushi Principle.’” Resilience: A Journal
of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 1 (May 2015).
Das, Santanu. Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Fisher, M. F. K. How to Cook a Wolf. 1942. New York: North Point Press, 1988.
Hallett, Christine E. “‘Emotional Nursing’: Involvement, Engagement, and
Detachment in the Writings of First World War Nurses and VADs.” In First
World War Nursing: New Perspectives, edited by Alison S. Fell and Christine E.
Hallett, 87–102. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Kaplan, Laurie. “Deformities of the Great War: The Narratives of Mary Borden
and Helen Zenna Smith.” Women and Language 27, no. 2 (2004): 35–43.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S.
Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Marcus, Jane. “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War.” Afterword:
Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War. 241–300.
———. “The Nurse’s Text: Acting Out an Anesthetic Aesthetic.” Afterword: We
That Were Young. 467–498.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” In The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen,
edited by C. Day Lewis, 55. New York: New Directions, 1965.
Peel, C. S.. The-Eat-Less-Meat Book. Rev. ed. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head,
———. How We Lived Then, 1914–1918: A Sketch of Social and Domestic Life in
England During the War. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1929.
Rathbone, Irene. We That Were Young. 1932. Introduction by Lynn Knight, Afterword by Jane Marcus. New York: The Feminist Press, 1989.
Rivers, W. H. R. Instinct and the Unconscious: Contribution to a Biological Theory
of the Psycho-Neuroses. 1920. Kitchener: Batouche Books, 2001.
Smith, Helen Zenna. Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War. 1930. Afterword by Jane
Marcus. New York: The Feminist Press, 1989.
Spencer, Colin. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Kafka’s Meat: Beautiful Processes and Perfect
Ted Geier
This examination of the controllable, killable meat body in the works of
Franz Kafka begins with a concern for the realities of contemporary and
historical animal and human abuse in the meat industry, quite naturally. The
title of one laudatory story about Temple Grandin, a 2015 online blog post
for National Geographic entitled “Temple Grandin, Killing Them Softly at
Slaughterhouses For 30 Years”,1 invokes the sorts of killing found in all of
Kafka’s most widely read works. The unceremonious dispatch of his characters often finishes off a story that began with an expectation of a proper
explanation, sentence, or sense of justice. Instead, the experience in Kafkan
killing machines and life systems—the two are often the same thing—is
“animal” and inconsequential. This is the connecting point to the broader
culture of meat animals and slaughter. For example, Grandin has written
about enrichment schemes in pig-rearing contexts. She is most well-known
T. Geier (B)
Ashford University, San Diego, CA, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
for designing “comfortable” killing machines, engineering slaughter transport mechanisms and ramps directing animals through the works by removing distracting visual elements or the potential to anticipate future events.
The ironic sort of welfare Grandin thus represents produces a generalized
“calm” that, over the full life of an animal built only for slaughter and consumption, produces the best-quality meat. These sorts of “softening” ideas
have a very long life to them—British animal production in the nineteenth
century, for example, underwent vast modifications, including removing a
massive live animal market at the heart of London, that were also motivated
by the need to better control animal bodies and protect them from damage
prior to their final dispatch and dissection into meat objects.2 Grandin’s
most famous and market-enriching invention may be the special trackconveyor cattle restraint system employed by large slaughter facilities. The
efficient “massive structure”, to borrow the description of the grand torture
apparatus in Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony”, is also the most productive
and profitable machine. Such innovations mitigate damage to the meat (not
the animal itself), improving animals’ lives if it produces the most profitable
deaths. Docile bodies are best for the system. One final well-known aspect
of Grandin’s story is that she produces such elegant “welfare” solutions
through her own experiences with autism and her attunement to animal
experience. This weaponization of empathy and awareness, in the industrial
application of Grandin’s remarkable insights, designs the very same conditioning of animal and human subjects-as-objects Upton Sinclair noted in
the great machinery of the Chicago slaughterhouses and the capitalist society of turn-of-the-century America. In turn, these systems of capture and
conveyance are the fundamental politics of Franz Kafka’s works.3 Throughout, I will consider specific examples from Kafka’s work of these politics
and explicate how they are indelibly formal concerns, such as his abiding
interest in the restrictive abuses inflicted by narration on its subjects. In
the end, Kafka’s characters and narrators are manufactured and controlled
meat objects, often framed through animal simile and other modes of animalizing, and led to slaughter by unknowable yet meticulous designs and
structures they marvel at, are confused by, and always are subjected to.
Kafka’s nods to the industrial systems of processing material and rendering humans nonhuman, turning lives into meat, are more than simply
metaphors of society. A nexus of meat obsessions culminate in the radical purity, unto death, of the Kafkan slaughter house, wherein politics
and voice are always-already banned, and critique itself activates slaughter. That is to say, as in the case of Kafka’s Josef K. in The Trial , that by
accepting the call to defend himself against an unspoken, perhaps nonexistent charge, the central, demanding figure in a procedural quest assures
his dispatch by questioning the functioning of the gears of justice. And
the politics in force are simple: the ambient, rational individual persists
yet always follows a course—a trajectory, by the rules of narrative progress
then—towards inconclusive death. Already “under arrest” and subjected
to these processes from the opening sentence of The Trial , K.’s ongoing
obsession with accounting for himself and accessing the proper parties of
“the law” ensure that he is a captive, enclosed creature, always following
instructions and going through doors and hallways as instructed, to the
end. The famous excerpt from The Trial , “Before the Law”, first published by Kafka in 1915 (the novel was published posthumously, in 1925),
closes: “‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made
only for you. I am now going to shut it’”.4 K.’s insistence on order and
his obeisance to protocol led him deeper into the bowels of the law, but
for all of his talking, he was always an impotent fugitive even though the
devices of subjection and killing were fit to his individuality in some way.
His mundane death was assured in advance.
The subtle animal moments in some of Kafka’s central works on “human” law, captivity, and punishment reveal this general sense of the subdued, nonhuman political subject produced by human systems. The Trial
does not announce itself as a particularly meaty or animal exegesis through
easy signals such as the “crossbreed” half kitten, half lamb in one short
story or the literal mice, dogs, and apes in others, for example. Figurative
languages of comparison associate humans “as” other animals, like them
but not fantastically turned into them. Furthermore, the fate of the human
narrator is also assured in other works without the investment in “final
sentencing” the Trial requires. For example, in Kafka’s moral-less rendition of the Prometheus myth, “The Vulture”, the man suffers, and another
asks why he insists upon subjecting himself to the punishments of being
picked over and hacked at by the bird. After a brief conversation with this
knowing would-be saviour, who only needs to go and retrieve their gun to
stop the ordeal—relief excruciatingly deferred once again, in Kafka—the
uncanny bird, who had understood every word of the conversation, dives
straight into the narrator and blood runs everywhere. It is possible that
the punishing vulture also dies, drowning in the blood. Or, this is simply the last fantasy of the dying man. Kafka is interested in variations of
the Prometheus myth, and this is at least Kafka’s fifth version of the story.
The other four are compiled as one “Prometheus” short story. That story
announces in the conclusion that there are sometimes no conclusions to
be had. In these stories especially, the fate of the aspiring human subject is
reduced to a living death as meat for an opportunistic animal. An ancient
punishment for stealing fire from the gods, the myth of being stuck on
the rock while birds peck at organs was of course also a central allusion of
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—another key text in the annals of animated
meaty assemblage. But the final pronouncement of Kafka’s Prometheus is
that everyone—even the birds—grew tired of the story. Only the mass of
rock remained.
That obstinate irrelevance haunts all of Kafka’s works. In the stories
such as “In the Penal Colony”, fabulous for its gruesome climax, the quiet
inconclusiveness of the end reiterates the total force of a political structure:
the “explorer” leaves the colonial outpost to move on to his next affair,
revealing others to be imprisoned there even when ostensibly part of the
punishing, authoritative machinery. But just as the officer in charge of the
great torture machine at the heart of the story rambles endlessly about its
beautiful architecture and the transcendent absolution its sacred punishment exacts, no such thing is in fact witnessed, in the end. There is a poetic
justice: the mute, horrible death of the machine’s main booster, the officer,
reiterates the unspeakable atrocity of capital punishment. But the rest of the
story is a parable of changing times and old guards, crucially on the way to
smoother-functioning bureaucracies and more forceful social controls that
are not unspeakable and sublimely present, but unspoken phantoms.
To return to The Trial and other stories of pointless endings: Josef K.’s
captive role before the judgement of the system in The Trial rendered him,
from the very first line, under arrest as a chained object. This is the most
beautiful political subject Kafka has wrought, and the closing idea that the
shame of dying “like a dog” should outlive him is of course another similarity: “as if” the shame should outlive him. The end. But Kafka’s endings
always reveal that a presumed purpose—even a supposedly marginal animal identity—can never hold up. There is no such afterlife, and the works
aim against moral outcomes and narrative closure alike. Perhaps the simplest example of the purposeless nonhuman is his curious, very short story,
“The Bridge”. This bridge narrates the coming of a human, and reflects
upon all the ways it will serve the human well, whatever kind of stepper
and traveller the human may be. The bridge cannot recall time, is “stiff
and cold”. But its purpose is assured: “without falling, no bridge, once
spanned, can cease to be a bridge”. Naturally, the bridge falls apart when
the very first human steps upon it, and the purposeful, personified teleological object—a way over troubled waters—“was torn and transpierced by
the sharp rocks which had always gazed up at me so peacefully from the
rushing water”.5 Even inanimate human constructions become rendered
flesh, in Kafka. Peaceful neighbours were always executioners.
The family itself is perhaps the most threatening cohort of all, if The
Metamorphosis is any indication. They await the absence of the hideous
nonhuman at the heart of the story, Gregor, who cannot even eat because of
his emergent nonhuman form, so that the young daughter with the dancer’s
body can stretch out and thrive. This sort of finish is repeated in “A Hunger
Artist,” in which a self-starving aesthete withers away and the crowds that
cannot even appreciate his art, anyway, flock to the young, natural panther
in the cage nearby. Such events compound the Kafkan fascinations with
a natural authenticity of the body, with the pointlessness of restrictive art
forms—of discipline itself—and with the competing types of life articulated
as human, animal, other. In the end, the forgettable subject is the object
designed by the social patterns in the stories.
Kafka’s labouring creature in “The Burrow”, and the always-already
arrested life in labours and anxieties in The Trial would rightly be taken
as emblematic of the central character in Kafka. The actual word, animal,
occurs only once in The Trial , and it is employed in a sexual simile when K.,
with Miss Bürstner, “moved forward, took hold of her, kissed her on the
mouth and then over her whole face like a thirsty animal lapping with its
tongue when it eventually finds water”.6 These moments in Kafka indicate
all the world: the condemned man in “In the Penal Colony” did not salute
his commanding officer. He was expected to do so every hour while the
commanding officer slept. This is a customary exercise in authority and
command, in Kafka, and the captain catches the condemned man asleep
at two in the morning, as he was intending to. He then whips the man.
The man shouts “throw that whip away or I’ll eat you alive”, written as
Ich fresse dich in the original. Fressen is animal eating, as opposed to the
more civilized, human essen. Thus, in rising up and rejecting the arbitrary
collar of animalized obedience, the man in fact claims the very animality
that pre-figures his station.
What reveals the meat animal status of those condemned in the colony is
the elaborate apparatus that doles out punishment. And another marker of
the restriction of bodies meted out by law and policy also haunts the story:
The act of meticulously reading legal documents—akin to Kafka’s daily
work in offices in Prague—recurs again and again, as does the nightmare of
illegibility. “In the Penal Colony” is perhaps the singular example of Kafka’s
disciplined bodies being punished under the sign of the law, dictated by the
written word that turns out to be inscrutable to the outsider. The archaic
sentencing instructions for the machine’s operation can be read only by the
expert officer. When the explorer asks to review these documents, guarded
and protected by the faithful officer, “all he could see was a labyrinth of lines
crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that
it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them”.7 The descriptions
of the killing machine itself run far longer, in the story. It is a technical
marvel and the machinic, physical apparatus of governance and authority.
As I will address in relation to The Jungle, the wondrous beauty of the
processing machine seduces the very object of its control. The butcher and
the meat are all articulated by the overwhelming, harrowing force of meat
processing and by unfathomable design.
The burrowing creature in “The Burrow” also pursues a private discipline by unverifiable instructions, resulting in the physical labyrinth
of his “Castle Keep” designed to “provide a considerable degree of
security”.8 Like the crossing lines of the precious sentencing document
in “Penal Colony”, which ascribes the subject-specific horror of further
inscription (the machine scrawls declarations and etches punishment upon
the body of the condemned), the Keep raises the spectre of permanent
self-torture (“is one ever free from the anxieties inside it?”) according to
an anonymous, sovereign instruction by formal, legal, organizational document. The letter of the law, famously impenetrable and perhaps even
unfathomably corrupt in The Trial, assures the constant burrower of dictated labour and object-status. He is subjected as a labouring object that
also tries to assure itself of a future labour function in the world. The
fear of obsolescence ensures his industry, just as the men in the Chicago
meatworks achieve intense velocity through the perfection of their specialization—Jurgis will marvel at their single-cut precision, regardless of the
scale of that cut. The creature in “The Burrow” is working under the orders
he believes he has been issued, and he is also under the power of a society
that always scrapes along outside as “small fries” and the terrifying thought
of a “clearly audible” neighbour, “the beast”. All of this is summarized in
the structure—the built enclosure of a burrow:
When I stand in the Castle Keep surrounded by my piled-up stores, surveying
the ten passages which began there, raised and sunken passages, vertical and
rounded passages, wide and narrow passages, as the general plan dictates, and
all alike still and empty, ready by their various routes to conduct me to all the
other rooms, which are also still and empty—then all thought of mere safety
is far from my mind, then I know that here is my castle, which I have wrested
from the refractory soil with tooth and claw, with pounding and hammering
blows, my castle which can never belong to anyone else, and is so essentially
mine that I can calmly accept it even in my enemy’s mortal stroke at the final
hour, for my blood will ebb away here in my own soil and not be lost.9
The entire narration articulates the fixation of constant, individuated industry under the yoke of social expectation and against the strain of sociation.
The focus on impenetrable and illegible architecture according to a “general plan” of unknown origin builds the subject of the experience as precisely such a subject. The personified animal terrors and metaphors for
labouring (there is a scraping and wetting of soil in “Investigations of a
Dog” that echoes these scrapings as well) here leads to one essential termination matched by so many of Kafka’s circuitous narrations:
The critter at the heart of the story is preparing for its natural, preordained slaughter and speaks about this impending fate. The narratorcreature—the subject itself in Kafka—is once again the pre-ordained meat
This is even more pronounced in the recurrence of “processing” life as
the controlled, insignificant death in Kafka, which demonstrates the works’
broader critique of the bureaucratic, decentered authority of the process.
The German title of The Trial is Der Prozess. To be sure, the standard use of
the term is as a legal category, and a noun at that. “To process” something
would lead to other choices including verarbeiten. Frankly, the “arbeiten”
therein indicates the “working upon” so many of Kafka’s machines and systems inflict upon his characters. The attending significance, as “digestion,”
is also of deep import when, as in the series of chambers, spokespersons,
and meanderings in The Castle, an interminable procedural ends in the
famously unfinished sentence: “She spoke with difficulty, it was hard to
understand her, but what she said”. The endless process is interminable,
but it is a “safe” series of wanderings and meanderings with an unclear
objective besides speaking with an authority of some sort. In The Trial,
on the other hand, the sentence is carried out. But a literally suspended
sentence foregrounds that the process has ground to a halt, and this reiterates the nature of this grinding in the first place. The subject is being
chewed upon yet again, and the cessation-without-outcome ensures that
the machine stands over its material yet again.
The unfinished business of The Castle suspends resolution, and K. is
anxious and confused throughout. The meat is hardly calm. But it has been
calmed in order to enter this final chamber: just before, K. resisted following
his contact Gerstäcker. There is talk of tending to horses—the stable and
the sty are never far from the human action in Kafka. The persuasion and
capture scene is an alluring example of Kafka’s meat conveyance motifs:
Only when K. resisted being dragged off by him did Gerstäcker tell him not
to worry, he would have everything he needed at his own place, he could
give up the post of school janitor, and would he please now come? He’d been
waiting for him all day, Gerstäcker told him, his mother didn’t know where
he was. Slowly yielding to his demands, K. asked how he planned to provide
board and lodging for him. Gerstäcker just answered briefly, saying he needed
K. to help with the horses, he himself had other business now, and he wished
K. didn’t have to be dragged along like this, making unnecessary difficulties
for him. If K. wanted payment then he, Gerstäcker, would give him payment.
But for all his tugging K. stopped dead now. He didn’t know anything about
horses, he said. That didn’t matter, said Gerstäcker impatiently, and in his
irate state of mind he actually clasped his hands pleadingly to persuade K. to
go with him.10
Routes of transport “through” the processing system take up much of the
other novels and stories addressed here, and we could gather many more.
The cross-Atlantic journey and various transport methods in Amerika, for
example, thematize immigrant experience as another version of the meat
system process, alternatively titled The Missing Person or Lost in America.
This in fact is the occasion for a renewed comparative attention to Kafka’s
fixation on processing and the classic work on the American meatworks,
Sinclair’s The Jungle. Furthermore, while Kafka’s Czech relations may have
been key inspirations for this Amerika, little has been suggested about
the striking parallels between its content and the Eastern European immigrants’ travails in The Jungle. Jurgis longs to be initiated into American
society, lacking the language at times and proudly taking on any labour
at all to have his place in the great machine of American meat business
from early on, only to be chewed up and spit out. While the novel closes
with well-known labour union slogans and a rousing solidarity movement,
it is immediately preceded by a fantasy of the perfectly organized agrarian
America and incredible potato-picking machines (among other wonders)
that reflects some of Jurgis’s taste of freedom in the open country after his
railway journey deeper into America. The close of Amerika thrusts Karl,
who is also fascinated by technologies such as the elevator, into Oklahoma
(famously misspelled as Oklahama) and a chance at American free living.
Throughout Kafka’s works, secret chambers, initiative knowledge, and special practices dictate progress; the inner workings of business and society
are the constant material of The Jungle. Both highlight these issues through
reflections on outsider status and the newcomer/immigrant’s susceptibility
to “advice” as directive processing. But the fascination with and deep love
of the system’s promise drives the protagonists deeper and deeper into the
belly of the beast.
In The Trial, K. wakes up already captured by this processing, just as Gregor wakes up already having been abjected from the society that articulates
the demand to become anything in the first place—yet both are inextricably articulated by that sociation, in their abjection, witnessed by others or
sure of others’ judgement of them. They are certainly not nothing. They
are the very material of power’s exercise. One of the official men, who had
carried K. out “fastened” or “suspended” in an immobile movement by
their direction, takes out the singular instrument: a butcher’s knife. In The
Jungle, Jurgis’s deepest impression of the meatworks’ splendour is when
the huge choppers make their perfect, single cut with their knives. In The
Trial, someone watches from a high point on a nearby building—rather
than this marking an inactive, possibly ethical community member, the
striking final blow must be read as a fascinating, perfect act of the butcher’s
precision. The two men stare at K. and evoke his fate, the knife twisted
in his heart already. The gushing litany of questions—Kafka’s indirect discourse wonders at all of the process the narration has just designed and
endured—pierces the event itself in a hail of subjective sufferings and the
quizzical certainty of procedural freedom of which Kafka is perhaps the
prime originator:
Who was that? A friend? A good person? Somebody who was taking part?
Somebody who wanted to help? Was he alone? Was it everyone? Would anyone help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? There must have
been some. The logic cannot be refuted, but someone who wants to live will
not resist it. Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court
he had never reached? He raised both hands and spread out all his fingers.11
These hazily present parties ignore the plight of the meat animal in Kafka,
rendering the human or otherwise object of unceremonious dispatch
immanently killable. Perhaps imminently is yet better: whether the eventual butcher’s offing is climactic or flat, the encircling processionals wend
only towards that end. Again, this is a mundanely “reflexive” commentary on narration, but the humble worldliness of such problems as beginnings, ends, and purpose inflects the narrators’ and characters’ lives with
the insistence of death. Awaiting dispatch, assuming rejection and affront,
Kafka’s figures constantly demand recognition yet offer nothing recognizable besides the bare fact of being there. When called upon, like the bridge,
they fall as expected, pierced, and shredded by the very same humble world
watching and “waiting” insouciantly—everything in the world is indifferent to fate. Fate, for the meat animal, was calculated and designed long
before any individual arrived to live out such an inconsequential narrative. And the community is none of the respondents Josef K. hopes for
and wonders at: they are the fans of the system. This is also Kafka’s deep
insight, when the audience for the executions of “In the Penal Colony”
or the audience in “A Hunger Artist” get bored by, or simply haven’t the
patience to appreciate, the precise art. They wander off to do something
else, or perhaps to watch another animal for a bit. This freedom to ignore,
to choose otherwise than to witness the act, is the style of insider belonging
pitted against the labouring protagonists in The Jungle and Kafka alike.
Kafka’s body of work is generally troubled by a “healthy” concern for
bodies and their abuse in such contexts. Kafka’s biography is rife with similar
fascinations, from his fletcherizing and other body fads to his vegetarianism.
In his work on race in Kafka, Mark Christian Thompson notes the ubiquitous terror of becoming meat in Kafka, which he tracks in some of Kafka’s
letters. That terror is bound to—or perhaps is a parallel idiom of—Kafka’s
anxiety about having meat stuffed in him at the sanitarium. Thompson
describes this further as Kafka’s fear of becoming an “efficiently machinelike animal”.12 The curative imposition of meat-eating invokes consumptive logics of in-corporation, which Kafka’s ascetics and aesthetics are forever resisting and negotiating. The entire trajectory of “Before the Law”,
including its theoretical afterlives, might as well be the responsibility of
human flesh consumption, the wholeness of culture and proceduralism that
barely resemble the political or the industrial. Thompson also notes that the
hunger artist’s relation to carnivorous machinations has to do with denying
the cannibalism of savagery, and furthermore, the failure of a heroic protagonist helps to condemn the savage audience itself. While the sacrifice of
the hunger artist can never be understood by the distracted audience, their
indifference marks society’s murderous identity. This sheds an eerie light on
all of the natural, untroubled interlocutors Kafka’s obsessive protagonists
run against.
Kafka’s animal efficiencies are on display in the lithe, natural panther in
“A Hunger Artist”. A litany of the short stories probes a mythical animality
that would be purer, less self-conscious than the plagued human. Emerging from the pigsty, the Country Doctor’s erotic rival, the stable groom,
unpacks the becoming-meat of the human Kafka’s compulsive narrators
jealously fear. Within the works, a constantly unsure and testimonial subject interrogates the social expectations and bureaucratic requirements of
an always-already committed sentence. No Kafkan subject is ever outside
this economy of flesh and consumption, participation and complicity. The
violent resistance of Kafka’s protagonists is “processed” as abject, failed
bodies that do not function, and cannot become automatic, cannibalistic social machinery, unto death. His panthers and young dancers appear
untroubled and automatic, perhaps even unaware and illiterate like the stable boy. Any local idiot can undo the reasoned expert: the country doctor’s
young patient subdues him by whispering that he has no confidence in him.
The story itself is perhaps Kafka’s starkest literary “processing” machine of
all—one mass paragraph, punctuated by two lyrical rests—that directs the
doctor out along an endless but pointless road.
Submissiveness is the point, and the machine that conditions submission is the preferred technology. Sinclair’s Jurgis and Kafka’s protagonists
give into every form of authority until it is far too late to escape. Kafka’s
works permit no other but the all-consuming, authoritative, ontological
machinery of the social, and there is no self without that equipment. Yet
the indignation at being made meat—just meat—motivates seemingly every
work. If there is a variation on this theme, it is simply the “brand” of failure each becomes in the end, once the narrative object has been encased.
Kafka’s horror is specifically preoccupied with this objectification, packaging, punishment, consumption, and refusal—making refuse—of the flesh.
The Kafkan meat-subject, speaking for itself in a process of interrogation
and critique, performs the fabulous lesson against subjection at the heart of
Kafka’s political claim. It may desire to simply fit in, but cannot become a
mere machine part. Its industry and self-doubt about its industry are constant. The industry of critique is also constant and culminates in silencing,
uncertainty, forgetting, death. Kafka’s critic is not only a potential cut of
meat, it is unreliable besides. One wants it to shut up. The sexual violence
and possessiveness of some of these protagonists also invites deep demands
for punishment, even for suffering. In these ways, Kafka’s works activate a
demand for justice while probing the presumption of such a concept.
For example, the horrid disaster of the justice machine in “In the Penal
Colony” and the literal arbitrariness (arbiter is judge) of the law and its
guardians—in The Trial or elsewhere in Kafka—reject the law’s sturdiness
through demolition and absurdity. But none of this undoes the law’s force.
More importantly, the systems that process the Kafkan meat doubt the
potential to manage and organize society in what might be simply called
a “politics”. Kafkan politics are impossible subjections. The meat object is
not a voter or a plaintiff, obviously, and the idiocy of the system itself further
reveals that to approach its halls with plans of improvement, redemption, or
any sort of security was the first indication that one was already thoroughly
subdued. Fitting freedom and justice to a system and a process merely
reinforced the obeisance to the collar, of course.
At this point, it will be important to consider the reception and interrogation of Kafka’s works, and literature itself as a committed political form,
as addressed within critical theoretical traditions. One direct consideration
of modernism’s political potential, beyond simply its discovery that there
are no more politics possible in the fascism of the meat system (or biopolitics, in a later diagnostic frame) is Neil Larsen’s Modernism and Hegemony.
Larsen’s book, as a whole, refuses any suggestion from modernist works
or elsewhere that the possibility for politics is ever closed off. And so if
Kafka’s wandering, withering protagonists indicate a sort of “pre-political”
or a-political frame up that renders individual lives incapable of resistance
and representation, such a notion is but a first step towards a more developed mediation of such conditions. A cursory sense of the “Kafkaesque”
might return with the charge that, as Adorno writes in Fragment 94 of
Minima Moralia, all politics and subjectivity is subsumed by “high” politics: “Where freedom occurs as a motif in political narratives today, as in
the praise of heroic resistance, it has the embarrassing quality of impotent
reassurance”.13 Larsen chooses the very same fragment from Adorno (but a
different quote) to pair with one of the two mentions of Kafka in the entire
book, despite Kafka being one of Adorno’s primary engagements on the
matter.14 Kafka’s sense of the bureaucratic parallels Adorno’s sense of the
“biopolitical” administrative life that subjects life and death to irresistible
procedure but no actual relief and freedom. This is precisely the wondrous
infatuation Jurgis has with the “irresistible” beauty of the slaughter works
on his tour of the Durham meat facilities. Those works then turn pig and
man alike into meat for the grinder, working the gears of society as capital
Rehearsing Adorno’s assessment of modernist aesthetics that resist representation and realist banality, Larsen then objects to the way Adornian
aesthetics seem to exalt this curious style of representation. A work such
as Kafka’s “recognizes” the conditions under arrest in modernity, but in
its form refuses to “represent” them. Larsen quotes from Adorno’s Fragment 94 of Minima Moralia: “Total unfreedom can be recognized, but
not represented”.15 In a, frankly, stunning admission of Larsen’s contempt
for a categorical Kafka (as modernism, apparently), there are but two references to his work throughout the entirety of Modernism and Hegemony,
and both include the indefinite article, listing “a Kafka” alongside and/or
against “a Mann”, “a Schonberg”, and naturally, “a Beckett”. The point
here is not to condemn Larsen’s meticulous critique of “Critical Theory”,
reified as a mass object in his text. But Larsen does privilege a form of critique, demanding a potency and “material” address requiring a thorough
belief in reason and analysis. The modernist mistrust of fetishistic procedure and system Kafka perhaps best represents—language and politics, for
example—refuses their opiation by refusing belief in the communicability
of that same refusal. Larsen’s analysis puts his hands all over the corpse of
humanity, poised and primed to save it. Kafka wouldn’t dare such hubris.
Larsen in fact does not deal at all with Kafka’s work, only with the spectre
of modernist aesthetics and a historical subject of critique that turns out to
be the business of critique, itself. Adorno, later in the very section Larsen
parses for a remark against the political potential of modernist aesthetics,
writes that
freedom is manifested only ideologically, as talk about freedom, in stereotyped declamations, not in humanly commensurable actions. Art is least to
be saved by stuffing the extinct subject like a museum piece, and the object,
the purely inhuman, which alone is worthy of art today, escapes its reach at
once by excess and inhumanity.16
Adorno calls Kafka “objective”, after all, in the course of an essay entitled
“Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in Our Time”.17
This he calls a “tendency”, rather than a “simply depict[ing] the world in
communicative form”.18 In a longer exegesis, one could mark the constant interplay of Beckett and Kafka, in Adorno’s “Trying to Understand
Endgame”, as expressions of the already-dead life once and after modernity’s machinations have been instilled as the only possible world. In finding nothing to compare with Beckett’s articulation of the garbage pile of
humanity in the twentieth century, Adorno resorts to calling him the heir to
Kafka. Adorno muses on titles, at another juncture, and considers Kafka’s
preferred title for Amerika, “The One Who Was Never Heard of Again”
perfect, superior: “a blank space for a name that cannot be found”.19 Furthermore, in his reflections on literary collecting, “Bibliographic Musings”,
Adorno compares his collection of political material to Kafka’s The Trial
with the human meat animal figure I have described:
Revolutionary leaflets and kindred things: they look as though they have been
overtaken by catastrophes, even when they are no older than 1918. Looking
at them, one can see that what they wanted did not come to pass. Hence
their beauty, the same beauty the defendants in Kafka’s Trial take on, those
whose execution has been settled since the very first day.20
Adorno’s lament at politics in his time applies Kafkan meat logics, in effect.
Another way to approach Kafka’s works as practical political texts on
the processing of life-unto-death is through a sort of biographical notation that probes authorial intention on specific points such as the industrial form. As it turns out, this way of testing the “reality” represented in
Kafka’s expression of suffering and control produces some further strong
sibilance with Sinclair and a tradition of meat industry critique. Sander
Gilman, for example, writes of Kafka’s biography in direct relation to Sinclair’s The Jungle. Kafka worked by day to “examine and explain industrial
accidents. He looked at how hands and fingers were caught in machinery”.
And further: “Machinery fascinated him”. Gilman then connects Kafka’s
occupation and fascination to the time of industry muckrakers, singling
out Sinclair’s work foremost, and “always with an eye toward the meanings given the physical body for the shell for the suffering soul. There one
could have no magical restitution”.21 Kafka’s work routinely returns, as
previously discussed, to this question of the machine and the human body.
In “In the Penal Colony”, especially, there are scenes in which system,
machine, building become the object of fetish—the “great structure” of
torturous punishment is worshipped by its officer, mutely adored by others
basking in the light of its work, and rooted on in cruel revenge by the condemned man saved in the final scene. Sinclair’s famous Chapter 3, in which
pigs are declared individuals and Jurgis marvels at the smooth, highlights
the very same, sublime functioning of the processing system. The Jungle
tracks the metric of human labour bodies in parallel to the processed and
rendered animal bodies—all are equivalent as material, all are unfree, but
the system’s perfection is beautiful. The system is worshipped as a source
of wonder, time and again. Jurgis notes the speed and the accuracy, precision, and production of its labourers. He wants to be incorporated by the
machine, in effect. Only once he truly has been, cast back out as refuse,
does he realize the cost of that precise process. The Jungle uses an obvious
parallel of animal bodies to humans processed by the machines of society,
though it also notes the poetry of it all—that is a word the narrator puts
in Jurgis’ mouth as the proper representation for such a beautiful process
that works so supremely beyond all calculation and mastery:
To all of these things our friends would listen openmouthed—it seemed
to them impossible of belief that anything so stupendous could have been
devised by mortal man. That was why to Jurgis it seemed almost profanity to
speak about the place as did Jokubas, skeptically; it was a thing as tremendous
as the universe—the laws and ways of its working no more than the universe
to be questioned or understood. All that a mere man could do, it seemed to
Jurgis, was to take a thing like this as he found it, and do as he was told; to
be given a place in it and a share in its wonderful activities was a blessing to
be grateful for, as one was grateful for the sunshine and the rain. Jurgis was
even glad that he had not seen the place before meeting with his triumph,
for he felt that the size of it would have overwhelmed him. But now he had
been admitted—he was a part of it all! He had the feeling that this whole
huge establishment had taken him under its protection, and had become
responsible for his welfare. So guileless was he, and ignorant of the nature of
Jurgis, again, wants desperately to become the meat of this system, just
as so many of Kafka’s protagonists and narrators submit to the process of
discovery and progress only to arrive at the final dispatch, calm and prepared
for slaughter and fit for nothing more.
One natural interlocutor for this figure, “becoming-meat”, is the work
of Deleuze and Guattari. Therein, or especially perhaps in Deleuze’s Francis
Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, concepts such as “indiscernibility” between
human and animal and a quasi-utopian flattening of all into meat express
the sensorial community under the force by which “every man who suffers is a piece of meat”.23 Deleuze notes Bacon’s hybrid creatures, or at
least an animal spirit called by the human face upon the display of carnality, splayed and flayed, subjected to the cleaver, the eye, the painter. The
coherent claim of modernist form, across Bacon and Kafka, is this undoing
of “the human” under the force of life, its collars, its inscrutable organization of individuals into masses and material. It is no accident that Deleuze
compares Bacon’s painting directly, and only, with Kafka at this point: “For
both Bacon and Kafka, the spinal column is nothing but a sword beneath
the skin, slipped into the body of an innocent sleeper by an executioner.
Sometimes a bone will even be added only as an afterthought in a random
spurt of paint”.24 The architecture of a human—the backbone—is likewise
indiscernible: classic biological form identifies only vertebrates, piercing the
veil of any more precise, hallowed status through an anonymously precise
dissection and observation.
Deleuze’s reading of Bacon with Kafka’s diary entry, “The Sword”, is
part of a series of such alignments Deleuze will make throughout the book.
Kafka with Beckett recurs again and again, and these three express not
modernity’s attack on the human—that could be resisted and vanquished—
but the laughable expectation of such contestation when the instruments of
horror are already merely instruments-at-all. To take up tools and trade in
objectification, including language, already asserts the subjection to analysis, echoing Adorno’s “Trying to Understand Endgame” in suggesting that
these are the gifted communicators of incommunicable death. There is no
death in a sociation that homogenizes life as processes, systems, and forms.
Deleuze proclaims these artists, ultimately to not even believe in death, and
certainly not to take up an assumption that life judges death.25 That is to
say, “[a]lthough Bacon likens himself to a ‘pulverizer’ or a ‘grinder’, he is
really more like a detective”.26 Kafka’s theme, decidedly, is the detective’s
pursuit without revelation: an endless process. The endless processing. Capital’s fantasy, in simplest terms.
The meat of Kafkan expression can go on with or without the descriptive
horrors of Bacon’s displays, which readers may recall most vividly in the
case of the flowering wound in “A Country Doctor” or the final gruesome
punishment of the officer, who is the highest expert on the machine from
“In The Penal Colony”. This presents a weird, uncanny bridge from Kafka
back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of all things. Renfield’s species hoarding
and designs on a multispecies feast in the sanitarium reveal the “automatic”
animus that Kafka’s subjects are incapable of, and yet the Universal horror
film version cast an all-too-perfect facsimile of Kafka’s figure as a diminutive, sickly imp taking in the potency—the bare competence—of every other,
of any other. Dracula’s carnal incorporations are the whole opposite of the
hunger artist’s exquisite abstention, and yet the Universal version presents
a parallel aesthetics of consumption in the debonair, sexy bloodsucker. The
reason to include these cross-period traditions of machinic meat consumption, including the banned cannibalistic, is to incorporate the simultaneous
terror at modernity and the slaughter house of world war globalism with
the politics of resistance at the heart of Kafka’s works. But this also highlights the seductive character of the incorporating processes. Becoming
meat means being eaten by the likes of Dracula or the bosses in The Jungle.
Kafka’s protagonist could never accept, willingly, the silver-screen suave
master each of those pathetic/egoist agonists seems to demand, though
Josef K. immediately “gives it up” to legal authorities who have no authority throughout The Trial . He gives into every form of authority. But Kafka’s
meat always fantasizes about the great authority running the works, anxiously anticipating becoming the finest meal for that singular audience.
They are the most beautiful cuts. They do not—could not—matter at all.
1. Ryan Bell, “Temple Grandin: Killing Them Softly.”
2. For general coverage on the period and the market and animal care trends,
see the work of Richard Perren, the history of Smithfield by Robyn Metcalfe,
and this author’s Meat Markets: The Cultural History of Bloody London.
3. When Kafka’s short stories are referred to, they are taken from The Collected
Stories. References to the novels are taken from open access online sources
in English and, occasionally, in the original German.
4. Franz Kafka, “Before the Law,” 4.
5. Kafka, “The Bridge,” 411–412.
6. Kafka, The Trial , Ch. 1,
7. Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 148.
8. Kafka, “The Burrow,” 339.
9. Kafka, “The Burrow,” 340.
10. Kafka, The Castle, 275.
11. Kafka, The Trial , Ch. 10,
12. For Thompson’s reading of “In the Penal Colony,” and especially these
instances of Kafka’s fear of meat eating and the sanitarium, see Chapter
Four of Kafka’s Blues, “Negro’s Machine”.
13. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 144.
14. Neil Larsen, Modernism and Hegemony, 7.
Adorno, Minima Moralia, 144 and Larsen, 7.
Adorno, Minima Moralia, 145.
Adorno, Notes to Literature I, 225.
Adorno, Notes to Literature I, 231.
Adorno, Notes to Literature II, 7.
Adorno, Notes to Literature II, 29.
Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, 45–47.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 42.
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 23.
Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 23.
Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 62.
Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 63.
Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Translated by
Edmund Jephcott. New York: Verso, 2005.
———. Notes to Literature, Volume I. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by
Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
———. Notes to Literature, Volume II. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by
Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Bell, Ryan. “Temple Grandin: Killing Them Softly at Slaughterhouses for 30 Years.”
National Geographic, 19 August 2015.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W.
Smith. London: Continuum, 2003.
Geier, Ted. Kafka’s Nonhuman Form: Troubling the Boundaries of the Kafkaesque.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
———. Meat Markets: The Cultural History of Bloody London. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 2017.
Gilman, Sander. Franz Kafka. London: Reaktion, 2005.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Edited by Nahum Glazer. Translated by Willa
and Edwin Muir, et al. New York: Schocken Books, 2011.
———. Der Prozess.
———. The Trial. Translated by David Wyllie.
Larsen, Neil. Modernism and Hegemony: A Materialist Critique of Aesthetic Agencies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Edited by Clare Virginia Eby. New York: Norton, 2003.
Thompson, Mark Christian. Kafka’s Blues: Figurations of Racial Blackness in the
Construction of an Aesthetic. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2016.
Carnophallogocentrism and the Act of Eating
Meat in Two Novels by Virginia Woolf
and Elizabeth Taylor
Adrian Tait
“Our culture”, remarked Jacques Derrida, “rests on a structure of sacrifice.
We are all mixed up in an eating of flesh”.1 The neologism Derrida gave
to this structure of thought—“carno-phallogocentrism” (italics in the original)—derives from his wider critique of a masculinist logic of domination
that has become so integral a part of the social fabric that even its gendered
dimension is lost to sight.2 In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927),
for example, Mrs. Ramsey’s sense of self-worth derives from her devotion
to and support for her family and its daunting paterfamilias. In turn, her
world revolves around the ritual of eating meat. The novel’s centrepiece, a
magnificent dinner of Boeuf en Daube, is for Mrs. Ramsey something special, something lasting: “of such moments, she thought, the thing is made
that remains for ever after”.3 Yet Mrs. Ramsey’s “perfect triumph” (86)
A. Tait (B)
Bath, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
cannot “survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (103) brought by
conflict. When in Elizabeth Taylor’s wartime novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s
(1945), her protagonist Julia sits down to eat, Woolf’s Boeuf en Daube
has become “one of the best meals I ever ate in my imagination”.4 Literate and independent, Taylor’s heroine chafes at the gendered roles she is
assigned (as wife, mother, cook), but in the midst of war, nothing, those
roles included, goes unquestioned. Julia’s recollection of Woolf’s Boeuf en
Daube underlines what this might mean; with food now strictly rationed,
the logic of carnophallogocentrism is no longer so self-evident.
Nevertheless, carnophallogocentrism somehow endures. In spite of the
fact that At Mrs. Lippincote’s depicts the workings of a society engaged in
a war of survival and itself teetering on the brink of starvation, its logic is
somehow never questioned; like the war itself, it seems (by common consent) to have been pushed into the background. The aim of this chapter
is, therefore, to discuss the way in which society’s internalization of the
act of meat-eating is represented in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s , each considered from the perspective of Jacques
Derrida’s concept of carnophallogocentrism. Before turning to the novels, however, the chapter discusses Derrida’s views on the way in which
carnophallogocentrism operates within contemporary Western society.
Derrida and the “Sacrificial Structure”
Whether or not “we each consciously glory in the subjugation of animals
whenever we bite into a piece of meat”, argues Nick Fiddes, meat “tangibly
represents human control of the natural world”.5 For those concerned with
“the crucial problem of the animal”, however, the question of meat-eating
is inseparable from what Carrie Rohman calls “a long tradition of Western metaphysics that sustains the privileging of human consciousness and
being by abjecting the animal”.6 As she explains, it was this “recalcitrant
humanism” that, in the later years of his life, Derrida set out to deconstruct, thereby opening out new ways in which to theorize “the animal
other”.7 In the essay “‘Eating Well’, or the Calculation of the Subject”,
first published in 1988, these considerations prompt Derrida to argue that
the West’s production and consumption of meat reflects “the sacrificial
structure” of dominant ways of thinking.8 It is a schema, Derrida explains,
that “implies carnivorous virility”, and which “installs the virile figure at
the determinative centre of the subject” (280). “This subject does not want
just to master and possess nature actively”, he argues; “[i]n our cultures, he
accepts sacrifice and eats flesh” (281). That subject determines the shape
and nature of a “dominant schema of subjectivity” (281) which leaves a
place open “in its very structure […] for a noncriminal putting to death”
Such are the executions of ingestion, incorporation, or introjection of the
corpse. An operation as real as it is symbolic when the corpse is “animal”
(and who can be made to believe that our cultures are carnivorous because
animal proteins are irreplaceable?) […] But the “symbolic” is very difficult,
truly impossible to delimit in this case, hence the enormity of the task, its
essential excessiveness, a certain unclassifiability or the monstrosity of that
for which we have to answer here […] (278)
What is at stake, as Cary Wolfe points out, is the “systematized and mechanized” slaughter of animals.9 “Everybody knows what the production,
breeding, transport, and slaughter of […] animals has become”, wrote
Derrida; it is “a veritable war of the species”.10
Several points follow from Derrida’s summing up of a world in which
“it is not forbidden to make an attempt on life in general, but only on
human life”.11 Firstly, “the specific structure of eating animals becomes
simply one more version of the larger symbolic structure by which ‘man’
in the western philosophical tradition secures its transcendence through
mastery of nature”.12 Secondly, and at the same time, that structure is also
extraordinarily intimate, domestic. It operates in our daily lives. Thirdly, like
the class system that it emulates or extends, it operates through a process of
differentiation or othering, attributing “[a]uthority and autonomy […] to
the man (homo and vir) rather than to the woman, and to the woman rather
than to the animal”, and excluding those others “from the status of being
full subjects”.13 The fourth, notable aspect of Derrida’s “dominant schema
of subjectivity” is the way in which the legitimacy of the act of eating meat
is so rarely questioned.14 We have, in effect, internalized this “noncriminal
putting to death”.15 To draw on Derrida’s reference to the “executions
of ingestion, incorporation, or introjection of the corpse”, quoted above
(278), society has drawn the act of eating meat deep into the complex
discursive weave through which it constitutes itself.16
Given the intricacy of the discourse with which Derrida’s schema of
“carnivorous virility” is therefore entangled, the challenge of decoding it is
substantial. Nonetheless, Derrida’s concept of carnophallogocentrism provides a framework from within which to approach To the Lighthouse and At
Mrs. Lippincote’s, novels which, in turn, enable us to better understand the
complex dynamic towards which Derrida’s work gestures. The intention
is not, therefore, to engage with the obvious philosophical question—“is
the animal other?”—but instead to interrogate the “differentiated field of
experience and of forms of life” produced by “the division between the
human and the general singular animal”, a field of experience that both
novels illustrate through their depiction of meat and meat-eating.17
Woolf and the “Perfect Triumph”
of Carnophallogocentrism
First published in 1927, To the Lighthouse marks the distance that Woolf set
between herself and the values of a patriarchal society. For Woolf, writing
in the aftermath of war, there was a compelling link between militaristic
“male power, the exclusion of women, and […] the deaths of people and
of animals”.18 “Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen
to a woman’s rifle”, Woolf would later write in Three Guineas ; “the vast
majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us”.19 As Carol
J. Adams points out, Woolf herself recognised that “[m]eat reflects back
male power every time it is consumed”.20
Moreover, and as Christina Alt notes, Woolf’s “alertness to the natural
world” was both sustained and informed by contemporary scientific developments in fields such as ethology and ecology.21 In turn, Alt observes,
Woolf’s interest in nature has sparked a now substantial body of ecocritical
discussion.22 As Derek Ryan adds, Woolf’s interest in “fur and flesh”—and
more broadly, “the creative, immanent materiality of human and nonhuman life”—signals Woolf’s relevance to “current debates in fields such as
feminist philosophy, queer theory, animal studies, and posthumanities”.23
However, animal studies have yet to link To the Lighthouse to the question of meat eating in general, or more specifically, to Derrida’s concept of
carnophallogocentrism. For example, Ryan’s Derridean analysis of the animal question (132–164) focuses exclusively on “Woolf’s underdog book,
Flush” (132), whilst setting aside the question of meat-eating.
Ryan does, however, touch on Derrida’s later response to the question
of animal suffering.24 As Ryan notes (160–162), citing Matthew Calarco,
the issue for Derrida is “an animal’s inability or incapacity to avoid pain”.25
Woolf was herself troubled by this “fleshly vulnerability”, prompting a
significant interlude in Flush, where Flush encounters a London slum.26
Here, cattle are also kept, awaiting slaughter, “already reduced to food and
drink by the humans with whom they share such close living quarters”.27
The scene reflects Woolf’s own grave disquiet at their plight, Ryan argues
(162–163), a point which in turn coincides with Adams’ contention: that
Woolf recognized in the act of eating meat a patriarchal act. The question,
Adams asks, is “[h]ow do we overthrow patriarchal power while eating its
Adams herself implies that Woolf has no adequate answer. Indeed, she
argues that, in Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, “Woolf seems to suggest that it
is when thinking about women that we will forget the meat”.29 Yet To the
Lighthouse suggests a more complex, substantive response to the politics of
“patriarchal consumption”, rooted in its depiction of Mr. Ramsey.30 Mr.
Ramsey is every bit the stern and uncompromising Victorian paterfamilias.
To his youngest son, James, he is the “arid scimitar of the male”.31 The
phrase exactly captures Derrida’s own sense of carnophallogocentrism as
at once life-denying and death-dealing, martial and specifically masculine.
It also an apt description for Mr. Ramsey, who embodies the logocentric
thinking on which these structures of meaning are raised. A philosopher of
the utilitarian and empiricist British school, Mr. Ramsey places himself (as
animal rationale) at the centre of a universe whose orderly intelligibility
he takes for granted.32 Certain that language is itself a transparent medium
for capturing reality, and never doubting “his own accuracy of judgement”,
Mr. Ramsey “conceives of his own intellectual efforts in the form of a
rigidly alphabetical progression”.33 Yet he is “stuck at Q”, unaware that
the fault lies, not with the failings of his own “splendid mind”, but with the
logocentric basis of his thinking.34 “Never was anyone at once so ridiculous
and alarming”, thinks Mrs. Ramsey (18). Nevertheless, Mrs. Ramsey keeps
her thoughts to herself, as she feels she must, in a society that imposes
separate spheres on men and women. Men, as she understands it, take up
active roles in the public sphere; “they negotiated treaties, ruled India,
controlled finance” (9). Women marry, manage the home, and care for
family, a logic that Mrs. Ramsey has herself internalized. Having borne
eight children, she devotes herself to supporting her husband, caring for her
family’s needs, and, wherever possible, arranging other people’s marriages.
“What was this mania of hers for marriage?” asks one of her house-guests
(144), Lily.
Within her own sphere, Mrs. Ramsey is herself “tyrannical, domineering, masterful” (50), as Lily’s feelings testify (144–145). Yet the values on
which Mrs. Ramsey insists are in effect those that have been imposed upon
her, and with which she has become complicit. Her daughters might “sport
with infidel ideas […] of a life different from hers” (9); Mrs. Ramsey has
taken her husband’s name, and ingested his values. The process is now so
complete that she has, in turn, become an agent of the same cultural configuration that otherwise disempowers her. Unconsciously, it is the values
of a patriarchal society that Mrs. Ramsey endorses and, within the home,
imposes, and it is through the act of eating that those values are brought
together in the sacrificial structure to which Derrida refers.
The dinner party is the centrepiece of the novel, and a scene of which
Woolf was herself proud; she called it “the best thing I ever wrote”.35
It brings together all the novel’s main characters, and puts them into a
conversation that explores but also extends the “dominant schema”, even
as that schema is enacted through their eating of meat. The dish that forms
the focus of the meal itself is, of course, Boeuf en Daube, a dish which to Mrs.
Ramsey “partook […] of eternity” (85): “an exquisite scent of olives and
oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish,
took the cover off” (81–82). Yet the dish signifies much more than itself.
“Of course it was French”, thinks Mrs. Ramsey (82). The dish reflects the
family’s cultural aspirations and its cosmopolitanism. It also embodies the
practical realities of a life of leisure, here made possible by a cook who has
spent “three days” (82) preparing it. Save for a few comments, however,
little is said about the dish. “The Boeuf en Daube was a perfect triumph”
(86), observes Mrs. Ramsey, yet the observation is placed in parenthesis.
The fact that meat is being eaten has similarly been set to one side. The
“ethical frontier” to which Derrida refers is thus quietly subsumed within
a schema that “accepts sacrifice and eats flesh” yet does so without making
manifest the contradiction that is at the centre of it: that “it is not forbidden
to make an attempt on life in general, but only on human life”.36
This schema, it quickly becomes apparent, is expressed primarily through
the men, rarely the women, and almost never the children. Mrs. Ramsey
herself is more or less silent, dominated by Mr. Ramsey. She may have organized the dinner, but it is Mr. Ramsey who sits at the head of the table, and
it is his feelings that she is constantly monitoring, ready to intervene and
make good any disturbance of the status quo. But is she entirely complicit
with the values that this dinner embodies? She does not pretend to understand a conversation that ranges over literature and philosophy and maths.
“What did it all mean”? she asks herself (86). “To this day she had no
notion” (86). Yet Mrs. Ramsey is sufficiently acute to identify and distinguish what is otherwise unmarked and unremarked: “this admirable fabric
of masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and
that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so
that she could trust herself to it utterly” (86). She clearly identifies its gendered dimension, its centrality, and the way in which she is herself caught
in its net, a net that she nevertheless trusts to support and provide for her.
“Then she woke up. It was still being fabricated. William Bankes was praising the Waverley novels” (86). In that moment, Mrs. Ramsey recognizes
that this mesh of overlapping meanings is neither permanent nor “natural”,
but constructed, and in the process of being constructed all around her;
constructed, and imposed on to (or insinuated into) the lives of all those
who have been brought to the table, from relative outsiders like Lily to her
own children.
Significantly, that moment of waking is echoed later in the novel, when
the determinedly independent Lily returns to the Ramsey’s home on Skye.
“Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt
upright in bed. Awake” (117). It is Lily who will have the last word in
the novel. Her painting, completed at last, signals the possibility that the
apparent permanencies of Mrs. Ramsey’s life—from its ideology of separate spheres to the ritual act of eating meat—might be remade.37 But just
as Lily’s own art negotiates and finally transcends the stolid, sentimental
commemorations of well-do-do life that were a commonplace of Victorian
painting, so Woolf’s narrative constitutes a new form of discourse, which
itself enacts a radical shift away from the patriarchal carnophallogocentric
That shift is radical (as the word itself suggests) all the way down to
the roots of the phallogocentric structure that is Woolf’s real subject. As
Deborah Parsons points out, Woolf was one of the “pioneers of a new subjective realism” that sought to substitute “internal revelation” for “external
description” and “the flux of momentary thoughts” for “chronological narrative and dramatic plot”: the impressionistic, as Alt suggests, is opposed
to the categorizing and categorical way of thinking embodied in Mr. Ramsey.38 Only through this new approach, Woolf argued in A Room of One’s
Own, was it possible to capture reality, “erratic [and] undependable”.39
Yet this innovative approach was itself, Parsons notes, an act of resistance
to a “dominant ‘masculine’ ideology (of which materialist literary realism
was a part)” (96).
The consequence of this radical break is apparent in Woolf’s presentation
of Mrs. Ramsey, a figure who is excluded from any meaningful engagement
with the “dominant schema”, and who, in a predictable act of introjection,
excludes herself from it. In Woolf’s reformulation of the novel as a sequence
of moments or images, however, Mrs. Ramsey’s voice is allowed to come
to the fore as one of the most prominent in the novel. It is through her
eyes that we can see the dinner of Boeuf en Daube as something far more
significant than a gathering of friends and relatives over a well-cooked meat
dish; rather, it asserts the centrality of whole structures of meaning with
which the act of eating meat is caught up.
Mrs. Ramsey’s is, nonetheless, only one voice amongst the many that
make up the dinner scene. It is, in fact, a sequence of inner monologues that
spiral out from and return to her, a trajectory whose inclusiveness undermines the (patriarchal) “[a]uthority and autonomy” of the schema.40 The
interiorization of the other may be an “attribute of man (rather than a
woman)”, but the construction of the scene asserts a different perspective.41 This, in turn, links to Derrida’s own views on what it is to eat well.
For Derrida, there is no way in which to separate oneself absolutely from
the “economy of violence” constituted by carnophallogocentrism.42 How
then, Derrida asks, “should one eat well [bien manger]?”43 If we accept
Derrida’s contentious assertion—and we need not—it follows that to eat
well is to determine “the best, most respectful, most grateful, and also most
giving way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self”;
it is a rule, Derrida argues, “offering infinite hospitality”.44 That hospitality is necessary, but in a sense inevitable; for Derrida, “the most intimate
‘being at home with oneself’ always already accommodates the trace of the
What we glimpse, therefore, in Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner party is not (or
not just) the straightforward expression of “carnivorous virility”.46 Peering
into the dish “with its shiny walls and its confusion of brown and yellow
meats”, Mrs. Ramsey feels as if they are “celebrating a festival” (82). For
her, it represents a joyous and all-inclusive feast, rather than a sombre and
narrowly “homo-fraternal” sacrifice.47 It is Mrs. Ramsey’s own idea of what
it is to eat well: a dissolution of self and therefore subjectivity—a process
mirrored in Woolf’s own dissolution of conventional narrative structures—
in and through the act of hospitality. Eating well, Derrida argued, “must
be nourishing not only for me, for a ‘self’, […] it must be shared, […] and
not only in language”.48 Although partial, Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner party is
her own approximation of that “sublime refinement”, and in its own way—
in her own way—it represents a subtle challenge to what Derrida would
elsewhere call “the threatening dogmatism of the paternal logos ”.49
Taylor’s “Recipes from Good Literature”
“Shifts in gender relations […] were a key factor in the emergence of
Modernism”, but as Marianne Dekoven argues, those shifts were often
reflected in “a male Modernist fear of women’s new power”.50 That fear,
Dekoven contends, has cast a long shadow over the reputations of female
modernists: even Woolf, in spite of “her key position in the ‘Bloomsbury
Group’”, was long held in relatively low critical esteem, and dismissed as
“lightweight, insubstantial” (224). But whilst feminist criticism has now
firmly established the centrality of Virginia Woolf’s work to Modernism,
Elizabeth Taylor has remained, as Nicola Humble suggests, a “marginal”
figure in “the literary-critical story of the first half of the twentieth century”.51 “[D]etailed work” on Taylor remains sparse, as N. H. Reeve notes
in the only recent, full-length critical discussion of her work.52 Yet the
“feminine middlebrow” novels that Taylor wrote were, Humble adds, “a
powerful force” in shaping, but also “resisting, new class and gender identities”.53
In At Mrs. Lippincote’s , Taylor extends Woolf’s argument with
carnophallogocentric structures into a much more recognizably modern
world. Written during (and set in) the Second World War, Taylor’s novel
focuses on Julia, her husband Roddy and son Oliver, and Roddy’s cousin,
the spinsterish Eleanor. Together, they have just moved into a large rented
house belonging to Mrs. Lippincote, a formidable matriarch now living in
a nearby hotel.
Like To the Lighthouse, the novel centres on family, and focuses on the
domestic. Although Roddy is an officer in the air force, war impacts on the
family only obliquely: the outside world is kept at bay. Whilst the family is,
like the Ramsey’s, well-to-do, their world is nevertheless a much-reduced
one. Their rented house is perhaps as large as Finlay’s in To the Lighthouse,
but there are no servants to help Julia with the running of it. Whether
she likes it or not, she finds herself straddling the old divide between a
family and its staff, stepping through the “plush curtains” into a world
haunted by the ghosts of “Mrs. Beeton servants, with high caps and flying
bows to their aprons”.54 Here, she finds all the accoutrements that once
provided so amply for a family like the Ramsey’s: “a great iron frying-pan”;
“a dozen meat dishes of very slightly varying sizes”; “a soup tureen the size
of a baby’s bath” (9). An old photograph of the Lippincote’s wedding day
underlines the difference between that world and her own: “[t]hey set out
that day as if they were laying the foundations of something”, Julia thinks,
“[b]ut it was only something which perished very quickly” (10).
In At Mrs. Lippincote’s, Taylor therefore creates a counterpoint to the
world of plenty enjoyed by the Ramsey family, a world whose differences
have been thrown into sharp relief by war and wartime rationing. There is
to be no more Boeuf en Daube, as Julia realises.
“I see it now and smell it—the great earthenware dish and its” (she closed her
eyes and breathed slowly) “‘confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats,
and its bay-leaves and its wine’.”
They laughed at her and she took up a spoon and was surprised that the
taste was of fruit, not meat. (155)
As this passage indicates, Julia is not remembering the dish so much as its
representation inTo the Lighthouse. “‘I like to get my recipes from good
literature’, Julia explained” (155). That reference makes explicit an important difference between Mrs. Ramsey and the dissenting Julia. Mrs. Ramsey
has little time for books; Julia reads whenever and wherever she can, even
whilst eating lunch (68), and constantly invokes books, to the consternation
of her husband, who frequently mistakes her references to characters like
Catherine Morland for real people (“‘I never knew her’, said Roddy”) (79).
For Julia, the novels which she reads are not simply a distraction from the
unwelcome realities of a straitened existence, but a means of understanding
them. She takes her lessons from literature as she does from life, perceiving no difference between them: both partake of the same structures of
meaning. For Julia, therefore, the discursive dimension of her existence is
pivotal to her appreciation of it, and of others. For example, her husband’s
boss, the wing commander, is “Rochester to the life” (48), an allusion that
the wing commander understands but happily for his peace of mind Roddy
does not (48–51), since it positions Julia as Jane Eyre. Julia’s own preference for the Brontë sisters and the work of Woolf herself (“a little too
modern” for the wing commander’s taste) (155) signals something of her
own dissenting role within that discourse.
These intertextual allusions also underline the extent to which Taylor is
herself emulating Woolf, even if it is sometimes to poke fun: Mrs. Ramsey’s
complaint that “[a] whole French family could live on what an English cook
throws away” is repeated almost verbatim in At Mrs. Lippincote’s simply
so Julia can tartly reply “[p]ersonally, I think they’re welcome”.55 Clearly,
Woolf was a formative influence on Taylor’s own writing.56 “I write in
scenes, rather than in narrative”, Taylor observed; like Woolf, she moves
the narrative point of view from one character to another.57 Whilst Julia
dominates the first few chapters, the narrative then shifts to Eleanor, and
again to Sarge, a factory worker and political radical (83–84), whilst simultaneously interleaving the thoughts and feelings of several other characters,
including Oliver and the wing commander. Like Woolf, Taylor uses these
shifts to transgress the constructed boundaries of class and gender, in so
doing, mapping a society which has itself become more fluid, and, in time
of war, more uncertain of itself.
Significantly, and by contrast with Woolf’s well-to-do characters, a lack of
servants means that Julia is brought much closer to the domestic realities
that underpin her way of life. She may day-dream of “warmth, leisure,
delight, relaxation” (42), but she does so during “many an hour washing
up, ironing or shelling peas” (99). Roddy, meanwhile, is still cocooned in a
phallogocentric world, a “leader of men, who did not know how the world
lived” (5), and who, as “a leader of men”, can and does disregard “the
intricacies of his own body” (69). Caught up in what he mistakes for a
world of action, Roddy has no need to ask where the next meal is coming
from. “[H]aving no life of her own” (20), it is Julia’s job to provide; but
“what with the war” (96), food is a prominent concern. Finding, preparing,
and cooking it also forms part of a reality that Julia resents. Exciting as
she might find it to exercise her creativity over vol-au-vents (42) and flaky
pastry (67), the necessity of cooking every day (and always for the menfolk)
infuriates her. “‘Why? Why? How did this notion get around that women
cook only for men?’” Julia demands (58). Moreover, cooking invariably
entails meat. Entire conversations revolve around mutton, pig’s liver, “a
piece of skirt” or “the way the gristle ran” (80). Menus feature “faggots,
tripe and onions, pig’s trotters, black pudding” (62–63). In shop windows,
flies circle “plum-coloured meat, the orange fat, and pallid sausages” (3).
“‘A darling little boiling fowl’” is delivered to the back door, along “with
its windpipe and giblets” (19). “[D]rops of thick blood” (40) run from a
shopping bag, thereby demonstrating that a copy of the Communist Party’s
Daily Worker is “entirely inadequate” for wrapping up liver (41). But the
culmination of this fascination with meat comes when Julia encounters
“‘the very king of butcher’s shops’” (180).
It was a welter of reds—the brown-red of the blood, the deep red of beef and
the paler red of mutton, the bluish red of a bunch of carnations in a jam-jar,
a rosette of scarlet between a pig’s ears. She looked at the pallid, lecherous
dead face, posed there with its rosette, the folds of flesh drawn into a sneer,
the suggestion that it caricatured humanity. But behind it and all around, the
shop flashed and swam with garnet, with ruby and amber. (180)
As the reader encounters these descriptions—and perhaps ponders her or
his own relationship to that caricature of humanity, mindful of Roddy’s
boast elsewhere that “all men are swine” (192)—it may seem odd that
anyone should “cherish” the act of eating meat (71). Nevertheless, this
scene in the butcher’s shop itself makes a certain sense of the barbarity it
embodies. “Through butchering”, argues Adams, “animals become absent
referents”.58 Rendered as meat, they are denied even the status of the
animal. Yet the word animal, Derrida insists, is the point of “origin” for
humankind’s sense of itself as something other than an animal.59 In Britain,
as Fiddes points out, we are further separated “from the reality of our
repast” by “[t]he names we give to the flesh of the main meat animals”
(such as beef rather than cow, pork not pig, venison not deer) (97). In this
passage, moreover, Taylor’s prose itself transforms these “butchered animals”—already artfully arranged—into a jewel-like spectacle, swimming in
colour.60 Perhaps it is not surprising that the characters in the novel do
not think to challenge the act of eating meat. Language “contributes even
further” to the absence of the animal, itself acting in a way that reinforces
the dominant schema “invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women”.61
Ultimately, even the admirable Julia is trapped by that schema, caught,
in spite of the acuity of her perceptions, within the “madness of oppression” that is life for the suburban housewife (17). But the novel also makes
a point of Julia’s “strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly
untarnished by preconceived ideas”, whether her own “or the world’s”
(26). Towards the close of the novel, Julia makes tea for a visiting clergyman. Few scenes could speak more eloquently of the “moral landscape”
that the novel’s characters inhabit.62 “Oliver”, his mother orders him, “no
impertinent questions about politics or religion” (174). In fact, it is Julia
who upsets the comfortable certainties of that landscape. In the margins of
her conversation with the clergyman about “the tussle between good and
evil” (172), she realizes that there are flies, everywhere, as if crawling over
a corpse—or over “plum-coloured meat” (173). She dispatches them with
a soon “blood-stained directory” (174). But Julia then draws a connection
between killing flies, and the Nazi atrocities about which she has just been
reading (173–174). “If I really imagined what I’m doing now, I couldn’t
do it. It is the first step towards committing atrocities on human beings”
(173). Elsewhere in the novel, the markedly more conventional Eleanor is
startled by the same conclusion, as she listens to her radical new friends,
for whom “atrocity [is] a logical conclusion […] to all they have known”
(119–120). Julia’s own conversation is interrupted. There are other callers.
The family must be given its own tea. There is a note from Roddy, using
work as an excuse for lateness (177), when Julia knows very well that he
is having an affair. And so her questions about human brutality are never
finally confronted. Trumped by matters that press closer to home, they are
once again relegated to the background. But even as the narrative lapses
into an “uneasy English silence” (121)—a way, as Julia elsewhere puts it,
“of saving our reason” (173)—Taylor’s preoccupation with “tyranny and
cruelty, with power and its operations within the family unit” has multiplied wider questions about the societal structures and schemas that control
and constrain those familial relationships.63 War, Julia concludes, “sharpens
contrasts, makes one see one’s position more clearly. Hence—revolutions
at the end of them” (199).
Julia is right, but only up to a point. Just as Julia lapses back into the role
that is expected of her, so society survived war’s end without a revolution.
In its other form, however, the war continued, the war that was then and
remains “the background to everyone’s life”: Derrida’s “veritable war of
the species”.64
“Dietary habits proclaim class distinctions”, notes Adams, “but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well”.65 In To the Lighthouse and At Mrs.
Lippincote’s , dietary habits underline the dominance of a masculine discourse which simultaneously promotes and conceals the consumption of
“dead animals”.66 As Derrida puts it, “men do all they can in order to
dissimulate this cruelty or hide it from themselves”.67 According to Derrida, this sacrificial structure reflects a carnophallogocentric schema that
installs the “virile” male—as at once carnivorous, masculine, rational, encultured—to a position of dominant centrality.68 Yet that dominance depends
on dualisms which both Taylor and Woolf reject. In Taylor’s work, the
exacting way in which relationships are rendered underlines the impossibility of sustaining the kind of rigidly bounded identities on which dualism
depends. As Taylor emphasizes, lived reality is a complex dynamic, inseparable from an embodied existence, and from the matter that influences it.
Woolf’s own critique parallels Taylor’s. As Louise Westling notes, Woolf’s
interest in the emerging field of quantum physics substantiated her own
investment in identity as a function, not of essentialist differences, but of
indeterminate flux and dynamic interaction.69 But as Derek Ryan’s own
reading of Woolf’s work underlines, matter is itself agential; it shapes and
affects all those who interact with it (174–175). This is no less true of the
act of eating meat: even as we try to ignore our entanglement with the
“economy of violence” of which it forms a part, “we partake of it”, as Derrida argues.70 Through these acts, Derrida insists, man also defines himself;
“they belong to [his] auto-biography”.71
As both novels also suggest, these acts of subjection and silencing form
part of a continuum that encompasses not only the war about which Taylor’s characters refuse to speak, but also the means by which society asserts
the superiority of man over woman, and also one class, race or nation over
another. All these processes are interlinked, and all conspire in the war to
which Derrida refers; they culminate in “the unprecedented […] subjection
of the animal”.72 “Every other shop seemed to be a butcher’s”, notes Julia
as she wanders through town, only to be confronted by the pig’s head,
with its “pallid, lecherous dead face” (180). Symbol of a society that legitimates this “putting to death”, its leer challenges Julia to consider her own
complicity in the violation of animal life, as it also challenges the reader.73
“To think the war we find ourselves waging is not only a duty”, Derrida
writes, “it is also a necessity [that] like it or not, directly or indirectly, no
one can escape”.74
Qtd, Birnbaum and Olsson, “An Interview.”
Derrida, Points, 280.
Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 85.
Taylor, At Mrs. Lippincote’s , 155.
Fiddes, Meat, 2.
Rohman, Stalking the Subject, 10.
Rohman, Stalking the Subject, 13, 14.
Derrida, Points, 280.
Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?, 69.
Derrida, The Animal, 6, 31.
Derrida, Points, 279.
Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?, 95.
Derrida, Points, 281; Calarco, Zoographies, 131.
Derrida, Points, 281.
Derrida, Points, 278.
Derrida, Points, 278.
McQuillan, “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?,” 115, 116, 114.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 111.
Woolf, Three Guineas , 92.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 178.
Alt, Virginia Woolf , 8, 3–4.
Alt, Virginia Woolf , 8–9.
Ryan, Virginia Woolf , 4, 11.
See Derrida, The Animal, 27–28.
The original quote is at Calarco, Zoographies, 118.
Calarco, Zoographies, 118; Ryan, Virginia Woolf, 161.
Ryan, Virginia Woolf, 161, 162.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 179.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 179.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 179.
Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 34.
Glendinning, Derrida, 37–38, 50–51.
Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 8; Alt, Virginia Woolf, 110.
Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 31, 30.
Woolf, Congenial Spirits, 224.
Derrida, Points, 281, 281, 279.
Bradshaw, introduction to To the Lighthouse, xxxviii.
Parsons, Theorists, 53; Alt, Virginia Woolf, 110.
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 83.
Derrida, Points, 280.
McQuillan, “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?,” 119.
McQuillan, “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?,” 121.
Derrida, Points, 282.
Derrida, Points, 281–282, 282.
Glendinning, Derrida, 18.
Derrida, Points, 280.
McQuillan, “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?,” 119.
Derrida, Points, 282.
Derrida, Points, 283; Derrida, Of Hospitality, 5.
Dekoven, “Modernism and Gender,” 212.
Dekoven, “Modernism and gender,” 230; Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 2.
Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor, 97.
Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 3.
Taylor, At Mrs. Lippincote’s , 8, 9.
Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 82; Taylor, At Mrs. Lippincote’s , 102.
Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, 127, 146, 147.
Qtd, Martin, introduction to At Mrs. Lippincote’s , viii.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 20.
Derrida, The Animal, 32.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 21.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 21; Taylor, At Mrs. Lippincote’s , 26.
Martin, introduction to At Mrs. Lippincote’s, xii.
Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor, 5.
Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, 134; Derrida, The Animal, 31.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 4.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 177.
Derrida, The Animal, 26.
Derrida, Points, 280.
Westling, “Virginia Woolf,” 855.
McQuillan, “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?,” 121; Derrida,
Points, 282.
Derrida, The Animal, 24.
Derrida, The Animal, 25.
Derrida, Points, 278.
Derrida, The Animal, 29.
Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Alt, Christina. Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2010.
Beauman, Nicola. The Other Elizabeth Taylor. London: Persephone, 2009.
Birnbaum, Daniel, and Anders Olsson. “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the
Limits of Digestion,” 1990. Accessed 8 February 2018.
Bradshaw, David. Introduction to Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, xi– xlvi. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2008.
Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Dekoven, Marianne. “Modernism and Gender.” In Modernism, edited by Michael
Levenson, 212– 231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Derrida, Jacques. Points: Interviews, 1974–1994. Edited by Elisabeth Weber. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
———. Of Hospitality. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
———. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Fiddes, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
Glendinning, Simon. Derrida: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Humble, Nicola. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity,
and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Martin, Valerie. Introduction to Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, vii– xii. London: Virago, 2013.
McQuillan, Martin. “Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?” In Derrida Now:
Current Perspectives in Derrida Studies, edited by John W. P. Phillips, 111– 131.
Cambridge: Polity, 2016.
Parsons, Deborah. Theorists of the Modernist Novel: James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson,
Virginia Woolf. London: Routledge, 2007.
Reeve, N. H. Elizabeth Taylor. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2008.
Rohman, Carrie. Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal. Chichester:
Columbia University Press, 2009.
Ryan, Derek. Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 2013.
Taylor, Elizabeth. At Mrs. Lippincote’s. London: Virago, 2013.
Westling, Louise. “Virginia Woolf and the Flesh of the World.” New Literary History
30, no. 4 (Autumn 1999): 855– 875.
Wolfe, Cary. What Is Posthumanism? London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Edited by Anna Snaith.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
———. Congenial Spirits: Selected Letters. Edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks.
London: Pimlico, 2003.
———. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
“Necessary Murder”: Eating Meat Against
Fascism in Orwell and Auden
Stewart Cole
George Orwell and W. H. Auden are most readily connected through the
former’s castigation of the latter’s poem “Spain”, specifically its twentyfirst stanza, the original version of which begins: “To-day the deliberate
increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in
the necessary murder”.1 Orwell—whose experience fighting fascists in the
Spanish Civil War had been cut short when he was shot through the throat
by a sniper—took particular umbrage at Auden’s characterization of murder as “necessary”, opining that “Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only
possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when
the trigger is pulled”.2 In framing Auden as one “kind of person”, Orwell
sets himself off against the most acclaimed British poet of their shared generation, implicitly casting himself as a man of action in contrast to Auden’s
political theatrics.3 To a certain extent, history bears this out: both went
to Spain to serve the anti-fascist cause, but while Orwell returned home
S. Cole (B)
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
having narrowly escaped death, Auden spent his time in idleness and boredom before returning to London well ahead of schedule. As a result of
such disparities, the two writers have been cast almost as nemeses despite
both being among the most insistently cautionary anti-fascist voices of the
That Orwell’s animosity towards Auden and “Spain” arose not simply
out of a perhaps justifiable sense of the poet’s engagement with the Spanish conflict as dilettantish and comparatively immaterial, but also out of a
reprehensible homophobia, has often been noted.4 But it is worth returning to the original contexts of Orwell’s bigoted disparagements of Auden
to illuminate just how bound up his brand of anti-fascism is with a certain physicalized conception of masculinity—an imago of manliness that
seems to extend as if naturally not only into anti-homosexual bigotry, but
into his no less marked contempt for vegetarians, a group he repeatedly
derides in specifically emasculating terms. Indeed, in combining a by-now
proverbial linguistic directness and self-possession with a commitment to
a normative model of masculinity and an assured disdain of the choice not
to eat animal flesh as a deviancy verging on perversion, Orwell serves more
than any other writer of comparable cultural stature to positionally embody
Jacques Derrida’s conception of “carnophallogocentrism”—a term deftly
elucidated by Matthew Calarco as “emphasiz[ing] that the notion of the
subject that is being critiqued in post-humanist thought should be understood not simply as a fully self-present, speaking, masculine subject [i.e., a
phallogocentric subject] but also as a quintessentially human, animal-flesheating subject”.5 As Carol J. Adams puts it (in direct conversation with
Calarco), the concept of carnophallogocentrism is thus useful in highlighting “the linking of carnivorous virility with the speaking subject, and the
linking of the Western subject with meat eating”.6 In examining Orwell’s
denunciations of Auden over the latter half of the 1930s in The Road to
Wigan Pier (1935) and elsewhere, one finds them woven into a discursive
context in which virile masculinity, homophobia, and anti-vegetarianism
seem inextricable. Such a context allows Orwell’s strident authorial voice to
pivot seamlessly between lamenting that “the mere words ‘Socialism’ and
‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice
drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack,
pacifist, and feminist in England” and deriding the typical socialist as “a
prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler and often
with vegetarian leanings”, one moment bemoaning the lack of a “vigorous
literature” of socialism and the next dismissing Auden (“the high-water
mark, so to speak, of Socialist literature”) as “a kind of gutless Kipling”.7
For the sake of historical specificity, it is important to acknowledge that
all this is delivered, in The Road to Wigan Pier, by way of explaining socialism’s lack of appeal to so-called ordinary people, in order that it might
be reformed and mobilized to fight the advance of fascism. Convinced
that “Socialism, in the form in which it is now presented to us, has about
it something inherently distasteful—something that drives away the very
people who ought to be flocking to its support”, Orwell thus resolves
that “in order to defend Socialism it is necessary to start by attacking it”.8
He thus takes recourse, throughout this section of Wigan Pier, to reified
notions of normalcy, deploying phrases like “[t]he average thinking person”, “decent people”, and “common humanity” in order to denigrate, by
contrast, the effete vegetarian-leaning socialist type for whom Auden and
his fellow-travelling band of “Nancy Poets” (as they are dubbed earlier in
the book) serve as the chief literary representatives (5:159, 162). Chapter
XI alone contains seven instances of the word “ordinary”, with the “ordinary man” evoked three times, alongside the “ordinary working man”,
the “ordinary objector to Socialism”, the “ordinary decent person”, and
the question of “whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian”. The choice
not to eat animal flesh, then, is posed against the common decent ordinariness that must be catered to if socialism is to shed its stench of deviance
and swell its ranks. And because, as Orwell claims at the book’s rhetorical
crescendo, “There is no chance … of saving England from Fascism, unless
we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence”, by this logic it follows that vegetarians stand ranged—alongside feminists, pacifists, Nancy
Poets, and other assorted cranks—as barriers to socialism’s popular appeal
and thus as implicit abettors of the fascist advance (5:214).
Auden would balk at Orwell’s populist vision of normalcy (“Goddess
of bossy underlings, Normality! / What murders are committed in thy
name!” he exclaims in “Letter to Lord Byron”) and would of course spurn
his brand of heteronormative virility, but he seems to have actually shared
his detractor’s distaste for vegetarians.9 Though he expresses it in a more
satirical, less virulent manner, the Auden of the mid to late 1930s, like the
Orwell of the same period, perceives in vegetarians something not only
worthy of scorn but potentially politically threatening. Though his oftcited quip, in a letter to his American publisher, about the title assigned by
Faber and Faber to the British edition of his second poetry collection, Look,
Stranger!—“It sounds like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist”—can
seem harmless enough, as so often with Orwell’s belittlements, one can see
in Auden’s twin denigration of abstinence from animal flesh and women’s
artistic endeavours an embodiment of Adams’s pioneering concept of “the
sexual politics of meat”.10 Rooted in the insight “that women and animals
are similarly positioned in a patriarchal world, as objects rather than subjects”, Adams’s theorization casts the consumption of meat as not only an
expression of bodily virility but, by extension, a continual re-consolidation
of patriarchal supremacy.11 Whether female or not, vegetarians are thus
feminized as a means of denigrating their refusal to exercise a key form of
dominance upon which the carnophallogocentric social order is founded.
As we will see, despite their evident differences as regards sexuality more
generally, Orwell and Auden perpetrate this feminization relatively equally.
One of my key contentions in this chapter is that in the case of the 1930s
context under examination, the exercise of carnophallogocentric dominance takes on a particular urgency in light of the threat posed by fascism to
the integrity of the humanist subject. Especially with the rise of Hitler and
the Nazi party—which would culminate in a Holocaust that effected what
Mark S. Roberts characterizes as “the sheer reduction of humans to subanimal abjection”—fascism comes to be seen not just as a political menace
but as a biopolitical one, the insidious guiding ethos of which threatens
not just to install oppressive hierarchies within the human species but to
pseudospeciate within humanity itself, consigning certain marked groups
to an animal or sub-animal status, often as a justificatory prelude to extermination.12 In light of this threat, the oppositional rhetoric of anti-fascist
writers, Orwell and Auden among them, understandably becomes more
forcefully humanist as the 30s proceed—thus Orwell’s repeated paeans
throughout the latter half of the decade to the “ordinary man” and, elsewhere, “the mass of the people” and “their innate decency”13 and Auden’s
claim, in the Introduction to a 1938 Left Book Club anthology entitled
Poems of Freedom, about the function of poetry (an assertion typical of his
aspirational conception of art in the pre-war years): “I think it [poetry]
makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to
deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from
Plato downwards, have deeply mistrusted the arts”.14 Crucially, however,
“more human” in this context does not mean “more humane,” nor need
decency extend beyond the species line—and in fact if it does (at least to the
extent of vegetarianism), it becomes not just fodder for ridicule but, in its
deviance from the ordinary, an affront to the common humanity that must
be garrisoned as a communal bulwark against fascism. In such a context,
both the murder of animals and the strict human–animal hierarchy that
authorizes it are ostensibly necessary in order to prevent the fascist perpetration of analogous acts of violent hierarchizing within the human species.
This brand of zero-sum logic in regards to animal advocacy is still very much
in evidence today; as Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson point out in their
analysis of contemporary left politics and animal movements, according to
such a logic, “[s]haring in human supremacy over animals—in species narcissism—provides the most effective tool for disadvantaged humans, even if
it cannot be defended philosophically”.15 Consequently, animal advocacy
movements face accusations of trivializing human suffering through their
efforts to call that protective supremacy into question. As I will discuss, this
dynamic strongly informs a prevailing negativity towards vegetarianism in
an England fraught by the growing prominence of European fascism in the
years leading up to the Second World War, and this negativity is exemplified
in Orwell’s and Auden’s writings of the era. In what follows, I will further
delineate how the outbursts of anti-vegetarian rhetoric in the latter 1930s
work of Orwell and Auden all occur within contexts that render them virtually inextricable from the two writers’ opposition to fascism, and further,
how despite their significant differences in aesthetic and even ethical outlook, both assert the requisite status of the carnophallogocentric subject
not only in their shared negative portrayals of vegetarianism but also, albeit
more implicitly, in casting meat-eating as a necessary form of specifically
human empowerment, solidarity, and resistance.
Viewed as contemporaries who rose to political consciousness in the
years after the First World War and to fame in the ideologically charged
1930s, Orwell and Auden share some crucial common ground. Born into
an assured and ostensibly harmonious Edwardian England, both future
writers observed the war from the halcyon vantage of middle-class public
schoolboys, imbibing jingoistic platitudes and reveling in a pastoral vision
of their homeland as an island of idyllic countrysides, only incidentally
the world’s principal imperial oppressor. As the postwar era bled into the
1920s, however, both young men confronted the dissolution of this mirage.
In 1922, a 19 year-old Orwell set out for Burma to join the Indian Imperial Police, a five-year experience that exposed him to “the dirty work of
Empire at close quarters” and thus became the wellspring of his lifelong
political convictions.16 Auden, though living a much more sheltered existence and experiencing a far less jolting awakening, also had a first brush
with politics at 19, when during the General Strike of 1926 he volunteered
to drive a transport bus—not as a strike-breaker (as was the case with most
of his fellow Oxford undergraduates involved at the time), but rather for
the Trades Union Congress. These marked differences in material experience amid an apparent similarity in general political orientation would
define the two writers’ public relationships as both emerged into prominence in the 1930s. The publication of Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933) announced Orwell as a formidable verbal documentarian willing to
immerse himself in conditions of poverty and hostility in order to bring
such conditions more forcefully to light. Auden, meanwhile, won instant
fame with the 1930 publication of his first trade collection, the clinical,
gnomic Poems —a book often credited with uniquely capturing the portentous zeitgeist of the burgeoning thirties and inaugurating the young
poet’s circle of friends and contemporaries as “the Auden generation”. As
Samuel Hynes puts it in his landmark book of that title: “Poems invented
a new state of mind, for a new decade. Its world had to be invented, you
might say, in order that the ’thirties could be experienced imaginatively.
The creation of Auden country is the most original literary achievement of
the decade”.17
However original, Auden country nonetheless gains much of its allure
from its frequent air of phantasmagoric irreality. In comparison to the
stark real-world situatedness of Orwell’s work through the first half of the
1930s—especially in immersive nonfictional works like Down and Out and
the essays “The Spike”, “A Hanging”, and “Hop Picking”—the poet’s
work of the same period bears the cultivated air of the fashionably engagé
rather than conveying concrete engagement. Even an overtly political middecade poem like “Easily, my dear, you move, easily your head” (later titled
“A Bride in the Thirties”), which directly references the era’s ideological
turmoil, does so within a theatrical and even campy framework that, in
seeking to draw parallels between the personal and political, amorous and
electoral realms, risks trivializing the human lives at stake amid the demagoguery it pantomimes: “Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses /
Churchill acknowledging the voters’ greeting / Roosevelt at the microphone, Van der Lubbe laughing / And our first meeting”.18 Like much of
Auden’s work at this time, the poem’s thematics are strongly informed by
an idiosyncratic mixture of, on the one hand, a political outlook broadly
if nebulously opposed to the status quo, and on the other, a commitment
to the artistic utility of certain primordialist explanatory models drawn
from contemporary literature within and adjacent to psychoanalysis—most
prominently Freud’s late metapsychology, but also the works of Gerald
Heard, Homer Lane, and D. H. Lawrence. In the case of “Easily, my dear,
you move”, this muddled cocktail manifests in the poem’s conception of
politics and sexual love alike as expressions of an impersonal Eros, blindly
and inexorably pursuing its mandate to (in the words of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, an ur-text for the thirties Auden) “combine organic substances into ever-larger unities”.19 While it is true, then, that by the mid1930s Auden’s work increasingly evidences a burgeoning politicization—
such that by 1937 he will embody the political confidence to declare that
“Liberal Democracy has failed”—the terms of that politicization remain
highly and idiosyncratically intellectualized, an unsystematic amalgam of
justice-rooted concerns shot through with post-Freudian fantasy.20
This is the context in which Orwell’s first dismissal of Auden—which
is not coincidentally also the site of his first attack on vegetarians—must
be viewed. As the product of two immersive months in early 1936 spent
meticulously recording (and very often inhabiting) the living and labour
conditions of the poor working class and unemployed in England’s industrial north, Wigan Pier is a work of intensive documentary aimed at raising
a middle-class audience’s awareness of the lives of the masses of the materially impoverished with a view, ultimately, to urging the classes into unity.
In characterizing Orwell’s leftism, John Rossi and John Rodden assert that
he “had little time for class warfare” and that he “was an old-fashioned
English radical in the sense that he believed that the English people had
more features of their lives and history that united than divided them”.21
Wigan Pier attests to this outlook both in its direct appeals to class conciliation (as when he exhorts his readers in the book’s final line, “we have
nothing to lose but our aitches”) and in its almost obsessive valorization of
ordinariness.22 Throughout the book, the working classes’ simple embodied humanity is repeatedly contrasted with the bourgeois detachment that,
for Orwell, lies at the root of societal disunity. Thus he cannot resist ending his tribute to the extraordinary skill and resilience of coal miners in
Chapter II (“The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it
would be to perform on the flying trapeze” [5:28]) with jabs at some of
his favorite bugbears:
You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Supp., and the Nancy Poets
and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for
Infants —all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor
drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal
dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
That the so-called “Nancy Poets” are included among a paragon of the
literary establishment, the head of the Anglican Church, and a caricature
of a boutique Marxist illustrates the extent to which Auden and his cohort
epitomize for Orwell not just cultural aloofness but a reprehensible—and,
crucially, unmasculine—divorcedness from the world of labour upon which
their prosperity is founded.
This contrastive rhetoric—with the middle classes depicted as woefully out of touch with the ordinary humanity embodied in working-class
habits—also extends to the realm of food, as Orwell repeatedly takes diet
as a sort of litmus test not just for ordinariness, but for humanity itself.
In Chapter VI, he presents two contrasting food expenditure budgets, one
provided to him by an unemployed miner and his wife and the other drawn
from a letter written to the New Statesman as part of what he calls “a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human
being could keep alive”—a debate occasioned by the Means Test used to
determine applicants’ eligibility for unemployment benefits (5:87). The
mining family’s food budget includes ostensible luxuries like sugar and
jam, plus two separate entries for “meat” and “bacon”, while the more
spartan one from the New Statesman (which Orwell acknowledges “represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived”) lists only brown
bread, margarine, dripping, cheese, onions, carrots, broken biscuits, dates,
evaporated milk, and oranges—all eaten raw so as to save on fuel (5:87).
In comparing the two diets thus represented, Orwell notes the scarcity
of vegetables and lack of fruit consumed by the miner’s family, remarking
that “The basis of their diet … is white bread and margarine, corned beef,
sugared tea, and potatoes—an appalling diet” (5:88). This does not prevent him, however, from pronouncing against what he sees as the essential
deviancy of the healthier alternative:
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like
oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to
the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but
the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing.
The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread
and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have,
the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may
enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man
doesn’t. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome
food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. (5:88)
While arising from a stance of compassion at the conditions of misery that
give rise to a proclivity for tasty but unhealthy food, Orwell’s account is
nonetheless driven by a humanism that, in its pathologization of a diet
rooted in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as one that “The ordinary
human being would sooner starve than live on”, betrays a disconcertingly exclusionary carno-normativity. For Orwell, those who eat in such
a “wholesome” way cannot be quite human, at least not in any “ordinary”
and therefore admirable sense. Viewed alongside his earlier dismissal of
“Nancy Poets” and remarks such as his not-unadmiring observation that
“In a working-class home it is the man who is the master and not, as in a
middle-class home, the woman or the baby”, Orwell’s reflections on diet
serve to frame a rhetorical context that weaves together masculinity and
meat eating as representative of a working-class ordinariness that is taken
to epitomize humanity itself (5:75). By the time we reach his specific comments on vegetarians in the final chapters that serve as the book’s rhetorical
apogee—where he characterizes “the food-crank” (by which he means simply “vegetarian”) as “by definition a person willing to cut himself off from
human society in hopes of adding five years onto the life of his carcase
[sic]; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity”—it seems
perfectly natural that, mere pages later, he should have slid into a lamentation of the fact that “the high-water mark, so to speak, of Socialist literature is W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling, and the even feebler poets
who are associated with him” (5:162, 170–171). Wigan Pier’s pervading
carnophallogocentric logic clumps vegetarians together with Nancy Poets
as practical allies of fascism, so thoroughly does their shared and chosen
feebleness keep them distastefully aloof from the ordinary decent working
men who, barring such obstruction by these deviant elements of the bourgeoisie, might flock to socialism in numbers enough to quell the advancing
fascist tide.
As a homosexual, Auden recoiled from the sort of masculinist rhetoric
embodied in Orwell’s critique—remarking as early as his 1929 Berlin journal that “All buggers suffer under the reproach, real or imaginary[,] of
‘Call yourself a man’”—and yet, in common with Orwell, he was inclined
both to pathologize vegetarians and to see behind their choice not to eat
meat an insidious impulse to set oneself apart from the common run of
humanity.23 Both writers see this impulse as abetting fascism, but whereas
for Orwell vegetarians stanch the growth of socialism as an anti-fascist
force by lending it an effete, abnormal, and ultimately inhuman face, for
Auden vegetarians belong to a kind of purity cult, their abstinence from
meat betraying a benighted adherence to tropes of human perfectibility
that find their amplified echoes in the virulent nativism upon which fascist movements are founded.24 Auden’s and Christopher Isherwood’s play
The Dog beneath the Skin—which received its first performance in January
of 1936, the same month Orwell ventured north to research his book—
draws this vegetarian-fascist connection through more comedic and surreal
means than Wigan Pier, but no less vividly. Following the unassuming hero
Alan Norman as he voyages out from his home village of Pressan Ambo
with the assigned mission of retrieving the disappeared local heir Sir Francis Crewe, Dogskin (as the authors dubbed it in shorthand) can be read
as an anti-fascist satire aimed not just at Hitler or Mussolini or Mosley,
but—in keeping with the Freudo-Marxian foundations of Auden’s thirties
work—at the pathological mutations of egotism that serve as fertile mediums for the fascist seed. In searching for Francis—who, as it turns out,
has accompanied Alan all along, disguised as his companionate and oddly
whiskey-loving dog—Alan traverses a fictional Europe almost campy in its
myriad travestyings of democracy, from the arbitrary monarchy of Ostnia
(where the King and Queen hold a post-beheading cocktail reception for
the wives of executed dissidents) to the totalitarian Westland (whose lunatic
citizens’ slavish devotion to “Our Leader” prefigures Orwell’s Oceania) to
an altered London (where, at the Nineveh Hotel, leggy chorus girls are
eyed, selected, and literally dined upon by the wealthy patrons). Having
witnessed this grotesque cavalcade, the audience is regaled with a climactic chorus that, in warning against the human tendency to raise ourselves
above our fellows, places vegetarians among the power-mad and the vain
as manifesting this urge to exaltation:
Men will profess devotion to almost anything; to God, to Humanity, to
Truth, to Beauty: but their first thought on meeting is: ‘Beware!’
They put their trust in Reason or the Feelings of the Blood, but they will
not trust a stranger for half-a-crown.
Beware of those with no obvious vices; of the chaste, the non-smoker and
drinker, the vegetarian:
Beware of those who show no inclination towards making money: there
are even less innocent forms of power.
Beware of yourself:
Have you not heard your own heart whisper: ‘I am the nicest person in
this room’?
Asking to be someone ‘real’: someone unlike all those people over there?25
Not eating meat is thus equated to not pursuing money, with both concealing behind apparent purity an insidious craving for “less innocent forms of
power”—presumably, given the context, the sorts of sociopathic drives to
domination that fuel the play’s roll call of farcical autocrats. Granted, the
first two lines of the above-quoted passage would seem to highlight a hypocritical tension between men’s stated ideals and their essential competitive
suspicion of one another, and so the anaphoric injunction to “Beware”
can ring somewhat ironically, as the inner voice of the afflicted xenophobe.
Viewed in this way, the warning against vegetarians can be read as implicitly critiquing the withering of tolerance—even among those who profess
devotion “to God, to Humanity, to Truth, to Beauty”—in the face of
deviance from accepted normality. In other words, the apparent suspicion
expressed here towards “the chaste, the non-smoker and drinker, the vegetarian” might actually be read as a rebuke to the mocking stance adopted
by Orwell in Wigan Pier against “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandalwearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in
England”, whereby in appointing himself the guardian of ordinary decency,
his humanism becomes an alibi for bigotry.26
Nonetheless, the very presence in Dogskin of vegetarians as emblematic
of puritanical vanity, whether ironic or not (and given the play’s mongrel
status as a picaresque anti-fascist musical revue, it is most profitably read
as both ironic and not), serves to link those who abstain from meat to
the range of other, more insidious purity- and power-seekers who populate Alan’s quest. The play’s final scene immediately follows the chorus
discussed above, and in it, Alan and Francis return to Pressan Ambo to
find it newly transfixed upon a jingoistic youth cult, the Lads of Pressan, at
whose inaugural rally the founding Vicar delivers a histrionic sermon that
exhorts: “Only those whose decisions are swift as the sirocco, senses keen
as the finest mirror galvanometer, will constant as the standard inch and of
a chemical purity need apply”.27 The Vicar’s exaltation of “chemical purity” cannot help but invoke the preceding chorus’s warning against “those
with no obvious vices”, and so within the framework of the play, vegetarians serve as minor-key examples of the puritanical egotism at the root
of the various autocracies encountered throughout—including the nascent
fascism of the Lads of Pressan, which Alan and Francis repudiate at the
play’s end by leaving the village to join (in the play’s original version, later
deleted by Auden) “the army of the other side” (555).
This linkage of vegetarians to fascists by way of a shared urge to purity
is forged even more explicitly (though still comedically) in Letters from
Iceland, the collaborative travelogue published in 1937 by Auden and Louis
MacNeice after their tour of the country the previous summer. Letters is a
book haunted by the spectre of Nazism; as Auden put it in his foreword to
the 1965 edition: “Though writing in a ‘holiday’ spirit, its authors were all
the time conscious of a threatening horizon to their picnic—world-wide
unemployment, Hitler growing every day more powerful and a world-war
more inevitable”.28 Auden’s contributions in particular are populated with
stray Nazis whose presence at the edges of the text attests both to this
anxiety and, more specifically, to misgivings about Iceland’s hallowed place
in the Nazi purity myth. In his “Sheaves from Sagaland”, for instance (a
compilation of titled quotations about Iceland from a wide range of prior
sources), Auden includes under the title “Iceland is German” the single
line “‘Für uns Island ist das Land.’—An unknown Nazi” (59). Later in
the compilation, he further ridicules the Nazi enthusiasm for Iceland by
comically re-contextualizing a quotation from Svend Fleuron’s 1933 book
The Wild Horses of Iceland:
Spread of Nazi doctrines among the Icelandic ponies
Famous scientists, doctors, politicians, and writers, mounted her and rode for
a wonderful week’s tour. Richer in experience, strengthened and refreshed
by Nature, ready for a new struggle with the arch-fiend culture, they went
home and gave lectures—Fleuron29
Like Orwell, Auden associates fascism with a crankish fetishization of
capital-N “Nature” and sees in this a dangerous puritanism. In a later
chapter, he recounts the “Great excitement” gripping the town of Holar
due to an expected visit from the brother of the prominent Nazi Minister
Hermann Goering. This leads him to reflect: “The Nazis have a theory that
Iceland is the cradle of the Germanic culture. Well, if they want a community like that of the sagas they are welcome to it. I love the sagas, but what a
rotten society they describe, a society with only the gangster virtues”.30 In
skewering the Nazis’ originary delusions, Auden once again highlights the
insidiousness of questing after purity—a distaste echoed in later recountings, first of his trip to Mytvan on “a bus full of Nazis who talked incessantly
about Die Schönheit des Islands, and the Aryan qualities of the stock” and
then of his encounter with a German woman living in Iceland who “had a
magazine from the Race Bureau of the N.S.D.P. … Boy-scout young Aryans
striding along with arms swinging past fairy-story negroes and Jews” (134,
144). As in Dogskin, Auden builds a framework within which fascism is construed primarily as a purity cult, and once again, vegetarians are inserted
into the text as affiliated members of that cult. The centrepiece of Letters to
Iceland is Auden’s rhyme-royal verse epistle “Letter to Lord Byron”, dispersed throughout the volume in four parts. In the third, Auden reflects on
the deleterious influence of Wordsworth, citing “the mountain-snob” as “a
Wordsworthian fruit” and mocking such Nature-worshippers (who, in the
book’s context, inescapably evoke Nazism) for both their fetishization of
spartan virtue (“He chooses the least comfortable inn”) and their propagation of a back-to-nature ideal of masculinity: “His strength, of course, is
the strength of ten men, / He calls all those who live in cities wen-men”.31
In the stanzas that follow, Auden distinguishes a healthy appreciation for
the natural world from the “Excessive love for the non-human faces” that
characterizes the Nature-wonk, rendering the latter’s anti-humanism in
absurdist terms:
For now we’ve learnt we mustn’t be so bumptious
We find the stars are one big family,
And send out invitations for a scrumptious
Simple, old-fashioned, jolly romp with tea
To any natural objects we can see.
We can’t, of course, invite a Jew or Red
But birds and nebulae will do instead.
The Higher Mind’s outgrowing the Barbarian,
It’s hardly thought hygienic now to kiss;
The world is surely turning vegetarian;
And as it grows too sensitive for this,
It won’t be long before we find there is
A Society of Everybody’s Aunts
For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants.32
The first of these stanzas aligns anti-anthropocentric, posthumanist
impulses with what must be read in context as the specifically Nazi afflictions of anti-Semitism and red-baiting, while the second casts vegetarians
as “too sensitive”, condensing all their silly idealistic puritanism into the
reductio ad absurdum of the “Society of Everybody’s Aunts / For the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants”—a figure which, in its assured conjuration
of the proverbial spinster aunt whose lack of a nuclear family of her own
leads her to bestow her maternal affections elsewhere (and in this case,
especially pathetically, upon lesser forms of life), manages to be misogynist, heteronormative, and carnophallogocentric all at once. As in Orwell,
vegetarians are subject not just to ridicule but to suspicion, as though our
compassionate energies are so finite that those who forsake speciesism must
inevitably indulge in intra-human forms of bigotry akin to the fascists’
That both writers dispense this belittlement towards other humans under
the banner precisely of humanism is a paradox largely attributable to the
status not just of food in general as a repository of national culture but
of meat specifically as index of the relative prosperity and sophistication
of that culture. Auden’s sections of Letters from Iceland revel in bemused
descriptions of Icelanders’ indigenous preparations of animal flesh. In the
guidebook-style Chapter IV (“For Tourists”), he claims of the local dried
fish that “The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the
skin off the soles of one’s feet”, and further down he describes Icelandic
meat as “practically confined to mutton in various forms”, characterizing
“Hángikyrl, i.e. smoked mutton” as “comparatively harmless when cold
as it only tastes like soot”.33 Later, in Chapter XI, while visiting the eastern town of Husavik, he notes that “On the pier herring gutting was in
full swing; great beefy women standing up to their ankles in blood and
slime, giving free demonstrations of manual dexterity” (137). Meat and its
modes of preparation thus serve to metonymize the magnetic strangeness
of Icelandic culture, how its isolation from the main currents of Western
capitalism allows for an unusual degree of adherence to traditional practices.
Further on in Chapter XI, Auden recounts his visit to a whaling station in
Talknafjördur, remarking that “a whale is the most beautiful animal I have
ever seen” and lamenting, “To see it torn to pieces with steam winches and
cranes is enough to make one a vegetarian for life” (147). Auden was not
actually “made a vegetarian”, of course; in fact, the previous page of his
retrospective narration finds him delighting in “the delicious pickled pigs’
trotters to eat at dinner” that are, in terms of that portion of his journey,
“about all I remember except the whaling station” (146). His reference to
vegetarianism, then, serves to figure the fleeting intensity of the upwelling
of pathos he experiences at seeing the whale torn apart; in other words,
the mere idea of becoming vegetarian is so extreme in itself as to convey
without further elaboration the extremity of his sudden shock and sympathy. Though he takes the whale’s rending as confirmation of “the cold
controlled ferocity of the human species”, both his biologistic language
and his fetishization of meat throughout the book as a conduit to cultural
authenticity betray a belief that the violence wrought by such ferocity is
inevitable and even (given that the meat so fetishized is the end product of
analogous acts of violence) necessary (148). Orwell inhabits a similar set of
assumptions linking meat to nationhood, claiming in his 1945 essay “British Cookery” that “the ‘joint’: that is, a large piece of meat—round of beef
or leg of pork or mutton” is “the central institution of British life”.34 That
Orwell should pronounce on meat as the nation’s “central institution” in
1945—at the close of the war that vanquished fascism and perhaps the high
point of British nationalism in the modern era—highlights the extent to
which meat serves for him (as it does for Auden) as an essential communal
signifier. This phenomenon, by which meat is invested with “social meaning” within a given “political-cultural context”, is encapsulated by Adams
in the concept of “texts of meat ”. In elaborating this concept, Adams writes
Meat’s recognizable message includes association with the male role; its
meaning recurs within a fixed gender system; the coherence it achieves as
a meaningful item of food arises from patriarchal attitudes including the idea
that the end justifies the means, that the objectification of other beings is a
necessary part of life, and that violence can and should be masked.35
As we have seen, despite their received status as almost writerly adversaries, Orwell’s and Auden’s work shares a carnophallogocentric stance
towards vegetarians that feminizes and denigrates (or denigrates by way
of feminizing) those who choose not to consume meat. Whether (as in
Orwell’s case) because they deviate insidiously from the ordinary decency
that will prove humanity’s salvation, or (as in Auden’s) because they strive
in futility towards a purity that can only be enforced through dictatorial
means, vegetarians serve for both writers throughout the late 1930s not
only as obstacles to fascism’s defeat, but as minor-key exemplars of some
of its core tendencies. That neither writer should perceive the foundation of violence upon which his own position is built—that is, that both
their anti-vegetarianism and their insistence upon meat as a unifying element of national culture embodies the very sort of virulent aggression
towards otherness that they decry in fascism—is a reflection perhaps of how
urgently and exclusively human the political struggles of the era seemed.
The dilemma here, however (and it is one still very much with us today),
is that in conceiving of those struggles in such anthropocentric terms, the
anthropos tacitly envisioned is male, speaking, and meat-eating—a subject which, in being thus universalized, obscures positions existing beyond
its carnophallogocentric purview, rendering them fit objects not just of
ridicule or bigotry but of extermination and consumption. While it would
be facile to castigate Orwell and Auden for their lack of what we would
contemporarily term an “intersectional” awareness—that is, for their failure to perceive that (as Claire Jean Kim puts it) “Forms of difference, and
therefore forms of domination, are co-constituted” so that “it may well be
impossible to fight one form of domination without reckoning in a serious
way with the others as well”—we can and should learn from the extent
to which that failure was determined by the charged political climate of
the 1930s.36 At times when the liberation or oppression, living or dying,
of countless human beings seems to hinge upon the relative balance of
political allegiances, the fates of nonhuman lives can seem a trivial matter,
and those who spend their energies in attempting to ameliorate those fates
can be cast as callous towards or even inflicting violence upon their threatened fellow members of species Homo sapiens. But if, alternately, we regard
speciesism not only as of a complex with other forms of oppressive hierarchizing—feminism, racism, classism, heteronormativity, etc.—but also as
inseparable from the environmentally destructive practices that have led us
to the brink of planetary disaster, then anti-speciesist, anti-anthropocentric
practices such as vegetarianism become all the more urgently necessary in
fraught political contexts. Orwell’s and Auden’s writings of the 1930s not
only alert us, through their carnophallagocentrism, to the co-constitutive
nature of oppressive hierarchies, but they also illuminate how our propensity to frame such hierarchies in strictly anthropic terms can serve, while
ostensibly challenging them, to reassert the normative model of subjectivity
that virtually ensures their perpetuation.
Auden, “Spain 1937,” lines 81–82.
Orwell, Complete Works, 12:104.
Orwell, Complete Works, 5:170.
See, for example, Bozorth, 156; Goldensohn, 88; and Hitchens, 206.
Adams and Calarco, “Derrida,” 33.
Adams and Calarco, “Derrida,” 52.
Orwell, Complete Works, 5:161, 170.
Orwell, Complete Works, 5:159–160.
Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron,” Part IV, lines 148–149.
10. Carpenter, W. H. Auden, 204.
11. Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat, 157.
12. Roberts, Mark of the Beast, 93. In employing the term “biopolitical” here,
I draw upon a strain of thought (originating with Michel Foucault and
extended by writers such as Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Roberto Esposito) that broadly distinguishes between political power, exercised in regards to enfranchised subjects, and biopolitical or
biopower, exercised in regards to bodies. Particularly useful in this context is
Timothy Campbell’s characterization (offered in discussing Esposito’s contribution) of “the long and deadly genealogy of biopolitics in which life is
protected and strengthened through death”—as, for example, in the Nazi
project of exterminations undertaken, at least ostensibly, to preserve the
integrity of the nation. See Campbell, Translator’s Introduction, xxvi.
13. Orwell, Complete Works, 11:162.
14. Auden, Prose and Travel Books, 470.
15. Kymlicka and Donaldson, “Animal Rights,” 120.
16. Orwell, Complete Works, 10:501.
17. Hynes, Auden Generation, 57.
18. Auden, “Easily, My Dear, You Move, Easily Your Head,” lines 33–36.
19. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 51.
20. Auden, Prose and Travel Books, 464.
21. Rossi and Rodden, “A Political Writer,” 4.
22. Orwell, Complete Works, 5:215.
23. Mendelson, Early Auden, 59.
24. Hitler’s own vegetarianism may very well have attested to such a connection,
as Spencer notes: “Hitler’s vegetarianism had nothing to do with humanitarianism, but stemmed certainly from his desire to be set apart, to feel superior
to meat eaters” (306).
25. Auden, Plays, 179.
26. For a detailed account of Orwell’s anthropocentric humanism within the
context of the wider treatment of animals in his work, see Cole.
27. Auden, Plays, 184.
28. Auden and MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, 10.
29. Auden and MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, 73. In Fleuron’s account, those
who ride the pony are tourists generally, not Nazis. See Fleuron, Wild Horses,
30. Auden and MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, 117.
31. Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron,” Part III, lines 90–91.
32. Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron,” Part III, lines 120–133.
33. Auden and MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, 40.
34. Orwell, Complete Works, 18:204.
35. Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat, xxxv.
36. Kim, “Moral Extensionism,” 312.
Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Adams, Carol J., and Matthew Calarco. “Derrida and the Sexual Politics of Meat.”
In Meat Culture, edited by Annie Potts, 31–53. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Auden, W. H. “Easily, My Dear, You Move, Easily Your Head.” In The English
Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927 –1939, edited by Edward
Mendelson, 152–154. London: Faber & Faber, 1977.
———. “Letter to Lord Byron.” In Letters from Iceland, by W. H. Auden and Louis
MacNeice, 15–21, 47–57, 97–105, 198–207. London: Faber & Faber, 1965.
———. Plays and Other Dramatic Writings, 1928–1939. Edited by Edward
Mendelson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
———. Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, Volume 1. Edited by Edward
Mendelson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
———. “Spain 1937.” In The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings,
1927 –1939, edited by Edward Mendelson, 210–212, 424–425. London: Faber
& Faber, 1977.
Auden, W. H., and Louis MacNeice. Letters from Iceland. London: Faber & Faber,
Bozorth, Richard. Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Campbell, Timothy. Translator’s Introduction to Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, by
Roberto Esposito, vii–xlii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin,
Cole, Stewart. “‘The True Struggle’: Orwell and the Specter of the Animal.” LIT:
Literature Interpretation Theory 20, no. 4 (2017): 335–353.
Fleuron, Svend. The Wild Horses of Iceland. Translated by E. Gee Nash. London:
Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1933.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey. New
York: W. W. Norton, 1965.
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the
1930s. New York: Viking, 1977.
Kim, Claire Jean. “Moral Extensionism or Racist Exploitation? The Use of Holocaust and Slavery Analogies in the Animal Liberation Movement.” New Political
Science 33, no. 3 (2011): 311–333.
Kymlicka, Will, and Sue Donaldson. “Animal Rights, Multiculturalism, and the
Left.” Journal of Social Philosophy 45, no. 1 (2014): 116–135.
Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2000.
Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Edited by Peter Davison. 20
vols. London: Secker & Warburg, 1997.
Roberts, Mark S. The Mark of the Beast: Animality and Human Oppression. West
Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2008.
Rossi, John, and John Rodden. “A Political Writer.” In The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell, edited by John Rodden, 1–11. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007.
Spencer, Colin. The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Hanover: University
Press of New England, 1995.
The Literary Invention of In Vitro Meat:
Ontology, Nostalgia and Debt in Pohl
and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants
John Miller
According to the research institute New Harvest, agriculture is poised to
arrive at a “post-animal bioeconomy”.1 To be specific, it may soon be feasible to produce meat by engineering tissue in laboratory cell cultures: that is,
by harvesting cells from living animals, assembling them “on a scaffold” and
feeding them with a “serum […] that promotes growth”.2 There are many
reasons why this might be thought a good idea. Conventional meat production contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, constitutes 27–29% of “humanity’s freshwater
footprint”, plays a significant role in the rise of antibiotic resistance and
underlies many other public health concerns.3 It also causes an enormous
amount of animal suffering. Tissue engineering promises meat without
these detriments.4
J. Miller (B)
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
Another readymade solution to these meaty problems, of course, would
be to look for ways of encouraging the widespread adoption of a vegan
diet, but this argument currently appears to lack sufficient force to prevent the need for research into sustainable meats. In a survey of the ethical debates around tissue-engineered meat, Hopkins and Dacey take for
granted that “veganism is not a live option for actual human societies as
they now stand”.5 Meat’s enduring cultural status as the centre of gastronomy runs deep; because of this, those involved in the development of
the post-animal bioeconomy are determined that their product should be
thought of as real meat, rather than as a second-order simulation. New
Harvest assure prospective consumers that “[p]roducts harvested from cell
cultures are exactly the same as those harvested from an animal […]; the
only difference is how they are made”.6 The point of tissue-engineered
meat is to find a way for society to resist the radical, disruptive energies
of veganism, while clinging on to the possibility that eating meat need
not spell environmental catastrophe. By this chain of reasoning, the consumption of biotechnologically produced animal flesh, what David Pearce
has called in vitro-tarianism, appears to be a sine qua non of sustainable
As yet, no name for the produce of this nascent bioeconomy has been
definitively established. At first, the most commonly used terms were
in vitro meat (IVM for short) or cultured meat, but a host of synonyms
have emerged. New Harvest prefers “cellular agriculture”, while the Good
Food Institute use “clean meat”, now also the title of a book by Paul
Shapiro.8 Other alternatives include fake meat, schmeat, vat-grown meat
or carniculture for the process as a whole.9 The ongoing quest for a stable
nomenclature indicates a product that is still commercially up-for-grabs,
but it also highlights cultured flesh as the site of a philosophical aporia.
For Neal Stephens, IVM is an “as yet undefined ontological object” which
“challenges our existing norms and boundaries around food, nature and
kinship”.10 Connectedly, at Memphis Meat, pioneers of “the world’s first
cell-cultured meatballs”, this new gastronomic and agricultural world is
known as the “second domestication”11 ; where once, far off in prehistory
(between ten and twelve thousand years ago), animal lives became entwined
with and incorporated into human social, symbolic and economic practices,
now they are to be tamed again in a far more fundamental way, the genetic
structure of their flesh rendered serviceable to human interests in a turn
Kate O’Riordan calls “the deconstruction of species”.12
Given the extent of this reorganisation of animal being, the recurrent
characterisation of IVM as “Frankenmeat” is perhaps inevitable.13 The
bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr captured something of IVM’s uncanniness in the first years of the Millennium with a series of installations as part
of their Tissue Culture and Art (TC&A) Project, notably Semi-Living Steak
(2000) and Disembodied Cuisine (2003). The coinage of Semi-Living,
Catts and Zurr explain (in terms similar to Stephens’s), brings “into question deep-rooted perceptions of life and identity, concepts of self and the
position of the human”.14 Catts and Zurr expose the ironies and contradictions within what they call the “illusion of ‘victimless’ meat consumption”.15 “By making our food a new class of object/being”, they continue,
“there is the risk of making the Semi-Living a new class for exploitation”.16
For all IVM’s utopian allure, it also functions metonymically as an exemplary sign of a dystopian postmodern future in which a “natural” order is
suspended or lost in the service of a global techno-capitalist regime. Evidently, such a shift away from established social tenets occasions a good
deal of anxiety. It may seem that our lives are being drawn ineluctably into
a new sub-natural history. Our contact with its eldritch citizens will be
of the most intimate kind. What will it mean to share our world with so
much Semi-Living flesh? What ethical relationships might evolve between
humans and the Semi-Living?
Understanding how it might feel to transition to a post-animal bioeconomy can only partially be assessed within the techno-scientific terms of
New Harvest and other such enterprises. It is here that creative literature
has a role to play in enabling a fuller, richer and subtler understanding
of IVM’s affective, imaginative and ideological dimensions. Rather than
the sui generis product of twenty-first-century biotechnology, IVM in fact
emerges through an astonishing and for the most part little known literary
history that sheds significant light on the promise of meat futures. Fiction
has conceived two anxieties in particular around the idea of culturing flesh.
The first of these is focussed on the substance or body of cultured flesh, its
status as an uncertain kind of “ontological object”, to return to Stephens’s
phrase. The second, related anxiety concerns the political structures that
IVM is taken to embody. For the majority of what follows, I focus on Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s 1952 novel The Space Merchants , which
contains the most detailed and evocative literary representation of cultured
meat to date.
In figuring cultured flesh as a flourishing but dubious future industry,
The Space Merchants provides a stinging critique of post-war programmes
of agricultural intensification that emerged in response to anxieties about
the earth’s ability to sustain its growing population. In doing so, it (in
part) nostalgically valorises a lost pastoral world of purportedly authentic human–animal relations. As such, the novel coheres with an argument
I have made elsewhere: that IVM and “old-fashioned” meat should not
be understood as directly opposed paradigms of human–animal relations
(the cruel old world versus the enlightened new regime), but as closely
interwoven discourses of animal exploitation.17 The Space Merchants is not
a straightforwardly conservative text, however, but one which highlights
presciently the complexities unfolding in current debates around IVM.
Consequently, although Pohl and Kornbluth’s novel contains elements of
a pro-meat agenda, it also complicates conventional species hierarchies and
usefully informs critical perspectives on meat. In doing so, the novel uses
cultured flesh as a point from which to critique key elements of post-war
American capitalism. Perhaps most notably, I suggest in conclusion, it offers
grounds for beginning to think of IVM as an incarnation of debt, that ubiquitous aspect of twenty-first-century social and economic experience. As
The Space Merchants materialises debt as the flesh of cultured meat, it raises
significant questions about the cultural meaning and ideological function
of IVM in the twenty-first century.
A Brief Literary History of In Vitro Meat
The Space Merchants ’ depiction of IVM draws on a larger tradition of fictional food prophecy in which cultured flesh is a shifting signifier that
embodies and elucidates the conflictedness and historical inconsistency of
narrative representations of future techno-diets. For all its apparent novelty,
IVM, or something very like it, has been present avant la lettre in fiction
at least since 1881, when Mary Bradley Lane’s novel of a feminist utopia,
Mizora: A Prophecy, raised the possibility of a “chemically prepared meat”
that liberates humanity from the “degrading” business of associating with
animals.18 Mizora exemplifies an upbeat sense of the radical possibilities
of technology characteristic of both its time and genre. As Warren Belasco
summarises, “late nineteenth-century utopian fiction […] expressed much
of that period’s faith in progress”.19 As the novel’s heroine Vera is washed
up in a female-only land underneath the North Pole, she recounts how
“[c]ounterfeiting the processes of nature” provides the Mizorans with “a
more economical way of obtaining meat than by fattening animals” (56).
Pointedly, the Mizoran diet renders famine, scarcity and poverty unthinkable while liberating women from patriarchal servitude. IVM in Lane’s
world is a key part of a radical worldview that addresses a network of injustices.
The German sci-fi pioneer Kurd Lasswitz’s 1897 Two Planets (which
includes possibly the second literary depiction of cultured flesh) echoes the
utopian elements of Lane’s fiction. A Martian invasion brings humans into
contact with the “automat sausage” as a sign of the alien race’s superior
technological and cultural achievement.20 There is rather more complexity and ambivalence in Lasswitz’s novel than Lane’s; the benefits of Martian civilisation in Two Planets seem dubious at times as the depiction of
the interplanetary culture clash includes elements of anti-colonial polemic.
Still, Lasswitz illustrates simulated meat’s role in a cornucopian strand of
thought that contrasts with downbeat Malthusian views of food futures
with their presumption of impending ecological exhaustion.21 Simulated
meat guarantees future abundance and in this regard Lasswitz’s depiction
tallies with Lane’s. As the British statesman Frederick Edward Smith, Earl
of Birkenhead would comment in his 1930 prophecy The World in 2030,
“Synthetic foods and the production of animal tissues in vitro will finally set
at rest those timid minds which prophecy a day when the earth’s resources
will not feed her children”.22 In this context, technology, in the form of
cultured flesh, represents the transcendence of ecological and ideological
limits, not as part of a corporate commodification of animal life, but as an
expression of a progressive politics that was a prominent part of the utopian
imagination from the late nineteenth-century into the first decades of the
As science fiction developed as a form of mass entertainment from the
1940s onwards, a significant number of literary allusions to cultured flesh
appear. There are, for example, brief references to butcher plants in Clifford D. Simak’s Time is the Simplest Thing (1961), carniculture vats in H.
Beam Piper’s Space Viking (1961) and Four-Day Planet (1963), and beef
trees in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977). Stories such as Arthur
C. Clarke’s “Food of the Gods” (1964) and Larry Niven’s “Assimilating
Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing!” (1978) address IVM in a more
extended fashion and foreground one of its most recurrent and disturbing
possibilities: the in vitro cultivation of human flesh for consumption by
other humans in Clarke’s story and by the alien race the Glig in Niven’s. In
contrast to IVM’s first appearances in Lane’s and Lasswitz’s fiction, what
these texts have in common is a far more despondent sense of the future during a “New Dark Age” of dystopian thought marked, as Belasco explains,
by “radical critique of consumer capitalism, technocratic efficiency, and corporate globalization [… and] a strongly Malthusian fear of overpopulation,
congestion and crowding”.24 As far as IVM is concerned, this bleak literary agenda reaches something like its culmination in 2003 (by which time
cultured flesh was more than a literary fantasy) in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx
and Crake with the disturbing image of ChickieNobs: “bulblike objects”
with “a mouth opening at the top” but no “eyes or beak” which are rather
paradoxically “liberated” by the environmentalist God’s Gardeners.25
This thumbnail sketch illustrates how the literary history of IVM develops from a sanguine faith in technology in which innovations in food production will help, like Lasswitz’s Martians, to “fulfil the idea of humanity”
(130), towards a bleak view of the catastrophic ecological consequences of
techno-capitalism which, by contrast, provides evidence of something like
the failure of humanity.
Appearing after the cornucopian enthusiasm of the inter-war years had
been successively soured by the great depression and the Second World
War and before the outbreak of 1950s’ baby-boomer optimism, The Space
Merchants occupies a significant historical juncture. Set in a future in which
an ecologically-devastated world is largely controlled by rival advertising
corporations and consumerism is elevated to the status of a religion, the narrative follows the tribulations of the “copysmith” Mitch Courteney, whose
career initially seems destined for the stars when he is given responsibility
for marketing an attempt to colonise Venus by Fowler Schocken Associates
(one of the world’s largest ad agencies). Apparent commercial intrigue sees
Mitch kidnapped; his death is announced in the media, while he is sent to
Costa Rica on a significantly-named vessel, the Thomas Malthus, to work
as an indentured labourer with the new identity of George Groby. His
new role is “scum-skimmer” on a Chlorella Proteins plantation, harvesting algae from a series of tanks in a “towering eighty-storey structure”.26
Mitch becomes involved—initially half-heartedly, later more sincerely—
with the World Conservationist Association, or the Consies as they are
known (evidently an echo of America’s post-war bête noir, the commies).
He joins a widely demonised organisation committed to fighting “the reckless exploitation of natural resources” and the “needless poverty and […]
human misery it has created” (81). Working undercover, Mitch returns
to America and is reunited with his estranged wife Kathy (also, it turns
out, a Consie agent) before surprisingly inheriting Fowler Schocken Associates when his employer is murdered. In his new position of authority,
Mitch is able, covertly, to arrange for the Consies to take over the plans to
settle Venus. The novel ends in rather schmaltzy fashion with Mitch and
Kathy launching off into space together to help establish an “unspoiled,
unwracked, unexploited, unlooted” Consie utopia (167).
The Space Merchants is the first collaboration between Pohl and Kornbluth, two of the leading lights of the Futurians, a group of science fiction
enthusiasts based in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. The Futurians were left-leaning, committedly anti-fascist and also united, in Andrew
Milner and Robert Savage’s words, by their opposition to certain forms of
“technophilic utopianism”.27 Kornbluth recalled the political motivations
that surrounded the novel’s composition as the two writers “with almost
lunatic single-mindedness […] made everything in our future America that
could be touched, tasted, smelled, heard, seen or talked about bear witness
to the dishonesty of the concepts and methods of today’s advertising”.28
Ecological and species questions are central to such critique in The Space
Merchants as well as forming an important component of Pohl’s broader
oeuvre. Our Angry Earth (1991) is a work of ecological non-fiction written in collaboration with Isaac Asimov in which Pohl claims to have been
“talking about the environment a long time before it became a fashionable subject”.29 There is also clear evidence of pro-animal sentiment in his
work, as Sherryl Vint observes with reference to The Slave Ship (1956), a
novel in which humans develop the means to communicate telepathically
with animals.30
There is one development in post-war marketing, in particular, that is
central to The Space Merchants ’ imaginative ecology. 1946 saw the inauguration of a series of annual contests that ran until the 1960s under the
heading of the “Chicken-of-Tomorrow” with the aim of stimulating innovation in American poultry and egg production. Prize money of $10,000
was put up by A&P foods in an enterprise that not only encouraged agricultural modernisation but also aimed to integrate a new breed of poultry into the American kitchen.31 At the centre of this endeavour was a
1948 film The Chicken of Tomorrow that documented the race to develop
a “superior meat-type chicken”.32 Folksy narration and relentlessly jaunty
music accompany shots of smallholders handling well cared for birds as
agricultural intensification is depicted as a continuation of longer-standing
traditions. The Space Merchants does not explicitly name The Chicken of
Tomorrow, but Kornbluth’s description of the writers’ obsessive reconfiguration of American advertising provides good reason for thinking that it
might be a source for the remarkable “bird” at the novel’s centre: Chicken
Little, a decades-old “hundred-ton lump of grey-brown rubbery flesh”
that started as a piece “of heart tissue” and which forms the basis of a huge
industry (78). This, as Susan McHugh (2011) writes of Atwood’s ChickieNobs, is the “utilitarian’s dream creature”,33 the ultimate fulfilment of
a process of hyper-rationalisation. Chicken Little is pure productivity, an
organism through which market ideology can move inexorably. Although
Pohl and Kornbluth take the name of their meat/bird most directly from
Walt Disney’s reworking of the Henny Penny folktale in his 1943 short
film Chicken Little, The Chicken of Tomorrow is the more resonant connection. As a “burlesque of industrial food processing” to quote John Brennan,34 Chicken Little is Pohl and Kornbluth’s ironic, fictional entry to the
“Chicken-of-Tomorrow” contest.
Towards an SF Ontology of the Semi-Living
The appearance of Chicken Little’s strange flesh represents a pivotal
moment in the narrative progression of The Space Merchants, initiating
Mitch’s ideological shift from capitalist to conservationist through a growing realisation of the material conditions behind the global economic system he has supported. Mitch’s political awakening is due in part to his experience as a labourer working in intolerable conditions at Chlorella Proteins,
and also, connectedly, due to his engagement with the Semi-Living body
he is forced to service. Central to his ideological education is the figure of
Herrera, an ill-fated Consie agent with a close relationship with Chicken
After ten years with Chlorella he had worked his way up […] to Master Slicer.
He worked in the great, cool vault underground where Chicken Little grew
and was cropped by him and other artisans. He swung a sort of two-handed
sword that carved off great slabs of the tissue, leaving it to the lesser packers
and trimmers and their faceless helpers to weight it, shape it, freeze it, cook
it, flavour, it, package it, and ship it off to the area on quota for the day.
He had more than a production job. He was a safety valve. Chicken Little
grew and grew, as she had been growing for decades. Since she had started as
a lump of heart tissue, she didn’t know any better than to grow up against a
foreign body and surround it. She didn’t know any better than to grow and
fill the concrete vault and keep growing, compressing her cells and rupturing
them. As long as she got nutrient, she grew. Herrera saw to it that she grew
round and plump, that no tissue got old and tough before it was sliced.
Herrera’s work with this monstrously expanding flesh is an element in a
truly global enterprise that extends “from Baffinland [in the Arctic] to Little
America”, a tourist resort in Antarctica (76). Chicken Little thus represents
a new terrestrial order in which what we might think of as real food—“new
protein” (8) as it is called in the novel—is reserved for wealthy epicureans
while the rest of the population, branded simply as “consumers”, survive
on a diet of heavily-processed, intensely-marketed “regenerated” protein
(9). While Herrera’s role brings him up close to Chicken Little, Mitch
is more distant. His job among the Chlorella underclass is to patrol the
“acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae” and to skim off any “patch at
maturity bursting with yummy carbohydrates” and then to sling it “down
the well” (76). This yucky harvest is “baled” to produce foodstuffs brimming, the company insists, with “juicyripe goodness” (71) or, alternatively,
“processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little” (76).
Evidently, Chicken Little’s abject body is meant to induce an existential,
gothic frisson which resides most notably in the troubling gap between
flesh and consciousness. To those involved with her cultivation, Chicken
Little is “alive” (86); in a limited way, she moves, both in the sense of a
continuing expansion into the available space inside the concrete vault and
in the throbbing motion the flesh exhibits. “Dozens of pipes ran into her
pulsating flesh” (86), we learn when Mitch has the opportunity to meet
Chicken Little up close.35 If this is life, it is life without mind. Lacking a
central nervous system, Chicken Little expands through a kind of vegetal energy and presumably cannot feel, even if the pulsating throb of her
body suggests something more animalistic. She is the site, therefore, of
a troubling category confusion that anticipates Catts and Zurr’s coinage
of the Semi-Living: neither animal nor plant, but rather an ontologically
ambiguous principle of growth. At the same time, there is a fleshly and,
as we shall see, even creaturely texture to this mass of heart tissue that the
novel connects to a dark, ironic familiarity.
Central to this intimacy and to the intricacy of Pohl and Kornbluth’s
imagining of cultured flesh, is the explicit gendering of Chicken Little which
contributes to a confused combination of theriomorphism and anthropomorphism. Introducing Mitch to the “concrete and lead” container
designed to protect Chicken Little from the cancers she is prone to, Herrera proudly announces “This is her nest” (86) as her biotechnological
body figuratively assumes an animal nature. Presently, Herrera professes a
certain fondness for her, “whack[ing] the rubbery thing affectionately with
the flat of his slicer” (86). The curious whack recalls a kind of workplace
sexual harassment that features elsewhere in Pohl’s fiction. The Merchants’
War, for example, the sequel to The Space Merchants , published in 1984
(some time after Kornbluth’s death), sees its hero Tennison Tarb deliver
a “friendly pat” to the “bottom” of a female co-worker (52). The connection between these incidents is distant in time, but the echo is notable.
Chicken Little is integrated into a human community of labour in a way that
forges intimacy, even implicitly sexual intimacy; note Hererra’s mission to
see that Chicken Little remains enticingly “round and plump” rather than
“old and tough”, as if part of his job is to keep her available to the stereotypical terms of heterosexual desire. As such, Herrera’s apparent affection
suggests a progression from the theriomorphic to the anthropomorphic,
bringing her into the pale of human social interactions, albeit only in order
to objectify her as the butt of his lubricious attentions. It is not sufficient
to think of Chicken Little simply as inert protein for human consumption;
she is both affectively and ideologically more dynamic than that.
There are a number of distinct elements to Pohl and Kornbluth’s construction of Chicken Little’s ontological status, therefore. Chicken Little
is animalised, humanised and victimised. Such complexity is enhanced by
Pohl and Kornbluth’s evocative use of the term “protoplasm” (87) which
insists on Chicken Little’s Semi-Living flesh as an embodiment of a fundamental, cross-species biological materiality. Protoplasm is a term with a
long history, coined in 1839 but formalised by T. H. Huxley in 1869 in
an essay “On the Physical Basis of Life” as the idea that there might be a
“kind of matter which is common to all living beings, and that […] endless
diversities are bound together by a physical, as well as an ideal, unity”.36
Huxley concedes that this notion is “shocking to common sense” (7) and
asks, poetically, “what community of form, or structure, is there between
the animalcule and the whale, or between the fungus and the fig tree and,
a fortiori, between all four?” (8). In Huxley’s work protoplasm is a term
that expresses a general edibility through the idea that there is a “single
physical basis of life underlying all the diversities of vital existence” (9).
Specifically, the “identity of that substance in all living beings” underlies
and is evidenced by “a catholicity of assimilation” (that is, the absorption
of one body into another) shared by humans “with other animals, all of
which, so far as we know, could thrive equally well on the protoplasm of
any of their fellows, or of any plant” (21). Huxley’s argument is surely oversimplified—not everything can digest everything—but the point coheres
significantly with Pohl and Kornbluth’s use of this unusual term, particularly in a significant moment towards the novel’s conclusion.
After Mitch has returned both to America and to favour with Fowler
Schocken Associates (albeit now with Consie sympathies), the company is
shocked by an apparent suicide when Mitch’s nemesis Runstead plunges
hundreds of feet to his death (though subsequently it emerges as a case
of mistaken identity). Whatever remains of the man proves “very difficult
to identify”. Looking at the body on the pavement, Mitch reflects on the
“unidentifiable splash of protoplasm. It might have been 180 pounds of
Chicken Little”, he observes (139). In this extremity, the ultimate moment
of exposure, flesh, whether cultured chicken heart or a human body, bears
an unavoidable resemblance that expresses Huxley’s general edibility and
produces a radical moment of cross-species continuity that unravels an
anthropocentric logic of human exceptionalism. While Dominique Lestel claims in a polemical defence of carnivoracity that “the regime of meat
eating is part of what it means to be human”,37 The Space Merchants offers
a different perspective and one that intersects with some significant animal
studies terminology. Pohl and Kornbluth’s protoplasmic approach is akin
to Matthew Calarco’s thought on “indistinction”, an emphasis on “the
ways in which human beings find themselves to be like animals”.38 Similarly, the corpse’s meaty splatter evokes the radical vulnerability central
to Anat Pick’s conception of the creaturely.39 To be human is also to be
matter; to be matter, by extension, is to be edible. An argument buried
not too far below the surface of Pohl and Kornbluth’s novel runs like this:
the separation of consumable protein from conscious life helps to erode
established criteria of edibility by foregrounding a common materiality that
transcends species boundaries. And buried not too far below this argument
is one of in vitro meat’s most disarming thought experiments, a speculation
that Clarke and Niven make literary mileage out of: why not eat cultured
human flesh? Without an animal body to locate the meat in a recognisable
chain of being, Chicken Little hints towards a post-species ontology (or
what O’Riordan calls the “deconstruction of species”) which, although perhaps in some ways a desirable prospect for pro-animal activists and thinkers,
operates in The Space Merchants as a key symptom of the violence inherent
in American capitalism. Chicken Little does not represent the liberation
from species hierarchy but rather the condemnation of a hyper-capitalist
disruption of a natural order in which species hierarchies are embedded. A
key part of this trajectory is the imaging of a reactionary agricultural agenda
that counteracts the depiction of the chaos of late capitalism.40
Cultured Flesh and Agricultural Nostalgia
In one of the novel’s most extraordinary flights of fancy, Chicken Little is
discovered to be more than she first appears. After Mitch joins the Consies,
he is taken to a secret office concealed, intriguingly, within her pulsating
body, and accessed by means of a whistle that produces “inaudibly high
frequency sound waves” able to “goad that insensate bulk into moving
aside” (88). As the Consies plot beneath this “mountain of protoplasm”
(88), Chicken Little is established as The Space Merchants ’ symbolic heart.
If she is the emblem of an ecocidal transnational regime, she is also, ironically, the site of anti-capitalist resistance: it is from within her abject body
that the revolution must emerge, as consumerism necessarily generates its
own counter-ideology. In entering the “hundred-ton lump of grey-brown
rubbery flesh” (87), Mitch enters the crux of the novel’s political dilemma.
Should we embrace the advance of biotechnology in the service of profit
or oppose it in the name of nature, tradition and social order? Pohl and
Kornbluth emphasise this quandary in a notable meta-fictional moment.
Reunited with his mentor in advertising, Fowler Schocken, Mitch’s explanation of his kidnap and sojourn with Chlorella Proteins tests his employer’s
credibility so far that he is suspected of suffering from some post-traumatic
delusion. As Schocken contends: “The fantasy of a Consie cell embedded in Chicken Little. The symbolism […] well, it’s quite unmistakeable”
(136). Chicken Little, therefore, has an explicit function within the novel as
an articulation of a dialectical tension between ever intensifying and more
deeply technologised food production—with all the environmental consequences and ideological structures that seems to entail—and the Consies’
desire for a traditional relationship with the earth and its animals.
Agriculture may seem an unlikely topic for sf, but as Kingsley Amis
(1960) argues, the “volume and intensity” of “nostalgia for a rural way
of life” are “tremendous” in the genre.41 From the outset of The Space
Merchants , organic life is presented as possessed with an aura that illustrates not just nature’s ideological significance to the Consies, but also its
enhanced value to the novel’s global political regime through an economic
logic of scarcity. So, the sense of prestige built into Fowler Schocken’s
plush offices is clinched when Mitch observes that “every piece of furniture is constructed from top to bottom of authentic, expertised, genuine
tree-grown wood” (8). In trying to win back Kathy (before his Consie conversion) Mitch makes an extravagant romantic gesture: “I’m going to buy
you a real flower!” (44). High-end jewellery is now made from wood (50).
For all that Consie ideology is seen as a radical challenge to consumerist
hegemony, consumerist hegemony contains a similar privileging of the natural over the simulated to that which underpins Consie thought. For sure,
in the early stages of the novel Mitch is scathing of environmentalism.
“Consie sentiment”, he reflects, comes “down to one thing: Nature’s way
of living was the right way of living” (19, original emphasis). The world
may be in a parlous state but, for Mitch, “[s]cience is always a step ahead
of the failure of natural resources” (19, original emphasis). Notwithstanding such disavowals of nature and the widespread hegemonic attachment
to commodity culture, there remains a strong affective link to the natural environment that the novel’s narrative structure endorses by charting
Mitch’s capitalist apostasy. Importantly, meat is part of this picture. Pohl
and Kornbluth’s creation of Chicken Little is offset by numerous references
to high-end real meat. Fowler Schocken, for instance, has not “tasted any
protein but new protein for years” (8). Mitch himself “can’t stand anything
but new protein” and complains at the taste of “regenerated-protein merchandise” (29). After he starts turning his copysmith skills to the Consie
cause, Mitch’s first idea is to stimulate desire for roast beef to make consumers “think about the old days favourably” (89). Cultured flesh in The
Space Merchants is very much a secondary product that serves to evoke
the supposed satisfactions of the authentic, and now luxurious, product it
A resonant moment in The Merchants’ War illustrates this interrelation
between real and cultured meats. The Merchants’ War is the story of the
fall and rise of Tennison Tarb, a star-class adman who gets addicted to
mokie-koke (a mixture of coffee and cocaine), but eventually gets his life
back under control and masterminds what seems to be the beginning of
the end of consumer capitalism. Chicken Little does not feature in the
follow-up text but there are numerous references to the ironically named
product ReelMeat, made from cell cultures (138). While serving with the
military in the Gobi Desert, one of the few enclaves yet to be incorporated
into consumer capitalism, Tarb witnesses a disturbing scene in a vineyard
outbuilding during which he discovers his friend Gert Martels has “one
bad habit”:
I smelled the shed yards before I reached it. It was used for drying grapes into
raisins, and it was heavy with a winy stink. But over and above that sickening
fruit stench there was something stronger—not just stronger. Almost frightening. It was a little like food—ReelMeat, maybe, or TurrKee—but there was
something wrong with the smell. Not spoilage. Worse than spoilage […]
They had built a fire—to see by while they ate stolen rations, I assumed.
Wrong assumption. There were half a dozen troopers gathered round the
fire in the shed, and what they were doing with the fire was desiccating an
animal over it. Worse than that, they were eating the dead animal. Gert
Martels stared up at me open-mouthed, and in her hand was part of its limb.
She was holding it by its skeleton. (125, original emphasis)
Given Pohl’s deliberate estrangement of meat-eating in this passage, allied
to Tarb’s evident horror at the unfamiliar sight of an animal carcass, it
might be tempting to identify this as a moment of pro-animal critique that
functions by restoring the “absent referent” to use Carol J. Adams’s term.
To do so would be to over-simplify the novel’s ironic structure. Tarb, like
Mitch in the early stages of The Space Merchants , embodies the mindset
of those interpolated into a tawdry consumerist ideology. Raised on a diet
of ReelMeat and Turrkee, Tarb cannot stomach the authentic savour of
roasting flesh. His astonishment at Gert holding the animal limb by the
bone demonstrates a culture estranged from its ecological roots. That the
scene takes place in the remote Mongolian desert emphasises the novel’s
aim to illustrate the recovery of a primal human identity. The language of
estrangement aids the rediscovery of carnivoracity as an elemental part of
this vanished self so that the scene has the effect of nostalgically valorising
an experience lost in the Baudrillardian body of Chicken Little. Meat in
this context functions metonymically as a sign of the ecological real. Back
to the earth means back to meat.
Conclusion: The Flesh of Debt
On one level, cellular agriculture in Pohl and Kornbluth’s world serves to
strengthen conventional meat-eating’s function as an articulation of natural
order. As such, The Space Merchants seems to gesture towards a conservative environmental and species politics: a world in which a “natural” order
of human–animal relations and of human sovereignty is recovered from the
giddy march of biotechnological progress. In doing so, the novel contains
a yearning for exactly the kind of world that Lane and other fin-de-siècle
utopians sought to critique. Yet it is hard to reduce the novel’s animal politics simply to a reactionary meat craving. An effect of Mitch’s conversion
from ad-man to Consie is that as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one side from the other. Just as Mitch is at times a capitalist and at times an environmentalist, so Runstead is a notably ambivalent
figure. As Pohl and Kornbluth endeavour to tie the threads of the plot
together at the end, Runstead is discovered to have been (in Mitch’s eyes
at any rate) “posing as a Consie who was posing as a copysmith” (165).
Nothing like an authentic ideological position is ever revealed. Rather than
a stereotypical good-guys-against-bad-guys narrative, The Space Merchants
is, satisfyingly, a good deal more complex. The novel in this way refuses the
assumption of a naïve position outside capitalist ideology. Just as the Consies meet inside Chicken Little, so Mitch uses his copysmith skills to reenergise the largely incompetent Consie movement so that environmentalism
is integrated, problematically, into the forms of consumer capitalism. If the
novel voices a reactionary appetite for old-fashioned animal flesh, it also
emphasises that such a perspective emerges from within capitalist framework that is always working to produce desire—and desire is, necessarily in
a world structured around advertising, the least stable of experiences. The
novel encourages us to take its nostalgic valorisation of conventional meat
with a pinch of salt.
This ambivalence leads us to think about the novel’s critique of biotechnology as something subtler than a reactionary fetishisation of natural meat
and something that intersects strikingly with current concerns. Melinda
Cooper argues that the development of neoliberalism from the 1970s
onwards was intimately connected with the rise of biotechnology in that
same period. Central to the operation of a neoliberal order is the availability
of debt. As Cooper puts it, in the early 1970s:
the United States transformed itself into the focal point of an effective debt
imperialism—a world empire that is curiously devoid of tangible reserves or
collateral, an empire that sustains itself rather as the evanescent focal point of
a perpetually renewed debt and whose interests lie in the continuous reproduction of promise.42
Debt, in financial terms, is what makes the world go around. On the one
hand, this observation locates a profound abyss at the centre of the capitalist
world system; as Cooper continues, “the debt form is no longer referenced
to any known terrestrial reserves”; neoliberalism is structurally divorced
from ecological reality. On the other hand, this abyss is also “deeply materialist: that is, it seeks to materialize its promise in the production of matter,
forces and things”.43 The result is a situation in which capitalism works
towards, in Richard Twine’s phrase, “the biotechnological trumping of
ecological and material limits”.44 Cultured flesh promises to achieve precisely this explosion of the terrestrial bounds to capital’s expansion in the
service of the redemption of neoliberalism’s promise. When global finance
functions in a political imaginary “devoid of tangible reserves or collateral”,
IVM becomes the necessary form of protein: food that is dreamt up from
(close to) nothing.
Significantly, debt is central to experience in The Space Merchants on
both an individual and ecological level. The conditions of Mitch’s employment on the Chlorella Proteins plantation are based on the necessity of the
worker’s debt as a means of social control. It does not take Mitch long to
realise that “You never got out of debt. Easy credit was part of the system
and so were the irritants that forced you to use it” (79). The result is that
it is nearly impossible to leave Chlorella Plantations. At the same time as
Mitch lives beyond his means, so does the planet: drawing down resources
to support an unsupportable population as the biosphere appears locked
into entropy. The planned Consie way-out by starting a colony on Venus
abandons Earth as a lost cause and, anyway, when the colony is depicted
in The Merchants’ War, it is discovered to be anything but a utopia: arid,
bleak and inhospitable.
Faced with such ruin, capital only accelerates, promising a future the
earth is not equipped to provide. Chicken Little is the abject, pulsating
form of this promise: the neoliberal beast par excellence that incarnates the
novel’s insistence on a ubiquitous ideological formation built on material impossibility. As Richard Dienst writes in a trenchant study of the
neoliberal politics of debt, indebtedness produces “a kind of reverse ecology” through which “all-encompassing economic institutions set the terms
whereby nature and humankind will pay for their own survival”.45 As we
find ourselves on the brink (perhaps) of an in-vitrotarian revolution, cultured flesh indicates not so much the triumph of the biotechnological imagination as the failure of political wisdom and the ever-deepening operation
of sustainability as a signature promise, albeit an always-already broken one,
of neoliberalism.
New Harvest, “Mission & Vision.”
New Harvest, “Mission & Vision.”
New Harvest, “Mission & Vision.”
Despite the optimism that has surrounded the development of in vitro meat,
a recent report from researchers at the University of Oxford has offered a
less rosy view. IVM may even be worse for the climate than conventional
meat, depending on the source of the energy used in its production. See
McGrath, “Cultured Lab Meat.”
Hopkins and Dacey, “Vegetarian Meat,” 93.
New Harvest, “Mission and Vision.” There has recently been a backlash
against IVM’s claim to be real meat with farmers in the U.S. looking to
legislators to ban the use of the word meat for products cultivated in vitro.
In the words of Jim Dinklage, president of the Independent Cattlemen of
Nebraska, “The word meat, to me, should mean a product from a live animal”. See Popper, “You Call That Meat?”
Pearce, “Give Up Eating Meat.”
Friedrich, “Clean Meat”; Shapiro, Clean Meat.
Shapiro describes New Harvest founder Jason Matheny running focus
groups to come up with a customer friendly name for IVM. Apparently,
“test-tube meat” and “synthesised meat” were seen to lack glamour; “in
meatro”, “green meat” and “meat without feet” were seen as more promising. Matheny’s personal favourite is “hydroponic meat” (Shapiro, Clean
Meat, 46).
Stephens, “In Vitro Meat,” 400.
Liem, “Memphis Meat Scientist.”
O’Riordan, Unreal Objects, 101.
Adams, “Frankenmeat.”
Catts and Zurr, “The Tissue Culture and Art Project,” 154.
Catts and Zurr, “Disembodied Livestock,” 106.
Catts and Zurr, “Disembodied Livestock,” 106. Part of the problem with
IVM currently is that, as Shapiro notes, “one cow fetus can provide enough
serum for just a single kilogram of meat” (Clean Meat, 62), although
progress is being made in producing non-animal based serums.
Miller, “In Vitro Meat.”
Lane, Mizora, 18, 113.
Belasco, Meals to Come, 206, 101.
Lasswitz, Two Planets, 49.
See Belasco, Meals to Come, 86 on the historical tension between the cornucopian and the Malthusians views of food futures.
Smith, The World in 2030, 20.
For a detailed account of utopian food thinking (see Belasco, Food to Come,
Belasco, Meals to Come, 126–127.
Atwood, Oryx and Crake, 237–238.
Pohl and Kornbluth, The Space Merchants , 71.
Milner and Savage, “Pulped Dreams,” 136.
Quoted in Seed “Take-Over Bids,” 44.
Asimov and Pohl, Our Angry Earth, xi.
Vint, Animal Alterity, 3.
Squier, Poultry Science, Chicken Culture, 46.
The National Chicken of Tomorrow Committee, The Chicken of Tomorrow.
McHugh, “Real Artificial,” 191.
Brennan, “The Mechanical Chicken,” 105.
It is worth noting that pulsating is, in fact, a vital element for the production
of in vitro meat. Reporting on their work with semi-living sculptures, Catts
and Zurr note the necessity for “pulsatile flow for the formation of blood
vessels” (“Growing Semi-Living Sculptures,” 367).
Huxley, On the Physical Basis of Life, 7.
Lestel, Eat This Book, 55.
Calarco, Thinking Through Animals, 5.
Pick, Creaturely Poetics, 14.
See Parry, “Oryx and Crake and the New Nostalgia for Meat” for a complementary discussion of meat technology and nostalgia.
Amis, New Maps of Hell, 149.
Cooper, Life as Surplus, 30.
Cooper, Life as Surplus, 31.
Twine, Animals as Biotechnology, 14.
Dienst, The Bonds of Debt, 127.
Works Cited
Adams, Cody. “Frankenmeat: Growing a Burger in a Petri Dish.” http:// Accessed 9 March 2018.
Amis, Martin. New Maps of Hell. London: Penguin, 2012 (1960).
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. London: Virago, 2004.
Belasco, Warren. Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. Oakland, CA:
University of California Press, 2006.
Brennan, John P. “The Mechanical Chicken: Psyche and Society in The Space Merchants.” Extrapolation 25, no. 2 (1984): 101–114.
Calarco, Matthew. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Catts, Oron, and Ionat Zurr. “Growing Semi-Living Sculptures: The Tissue Culture
& Art Project.” Leonardo 35, no. 4 (2002): 365–370.
———. “The Tissue Culture and Art Project: The Semi-Living as Agents of Irony.”
In Performance and Technology, edited by S Broadhurst and J Machon, 153–168.
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
———. “Disembodied Livestock: The Promise of a Semi-Living Utopia.” Parallax
19, no. 1 (2013): 101–113.
Clarke, Arthur C. “Food of the Gods.” In The Wind from the Sun, 3–7. London:
Victor Gollancz, 1964.
Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal
Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Dienst, Richard. The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good. London:
Verso, 2011.
Friedrich, Bruce. “‘Clean Meat’: The ‘Clean Energy of Food’.” http://www.gfi.
org/clean-meat-the-clean-energy-of-food. Accessed 7 March 2018.
Hopkins, Patrick D., and Austen Lacey. “Vegetarian Meat: Could Technology Save
Animals and Satisfy Meat Eaters?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental
Ethics 21, no. 6 (2008): 579–596.
Huxley, T. H. On the Physical Basis of Life. New Haven, CT: Charles C. Chatfield,
Lane, Mary Bradley. Mizora: A Prophecy. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007
Lasswitz, Kurd. Two Planets. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press,
1971 (1895).
Lestel, Dominique. Eat This Book: A Carnivore’s Manifesto. New York: Columbia
University Press, 2016.
Liem, Emma. “Memphis Meat Scientist: The World Is Ready for Clean Meat.” Accessed 9 March 2018.
McGrath, Matt. “Cultured Lab Meat May Make Climate Change Worse.” Accessed 23
April 2019.
McHugh, Susan. “Real Artificial: Tissue-Cultured Meat, Genetically Modified
Farm Animals, and Fictions.” Configurations 18, no. 1 (2010): 181–197.
Miller, John. “In Vitro Meat: Power, Authenticity and Vegetarianism.” Journal for
Critical Animal Studies 10, no. 4 (2012): 41–63.
Milner, Andrew John, and Robert Ian Savage. “Pulped Dreams: Utopia and American Pulp Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 35, no. 1 (2008): 31–47.
The National Chicken of Tomorrow Committee. The Chicken of Tomorrow. Accessed 7 March 2018.
New Harvest. “Mission & Vision.” Accessed
23 April 2019.
Niven, Larry. “Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing!” In The
Draco Tavern, 17–24. New York: Tor, 1978.
O’Riordan, Kate. Unreal Objects: Digital Materialities, Technoscientific Projects and
Political Realities. London: Pluton Press, 2017.
Parry, Jovian. “Oryx and Crake and the New Nostalgia for Meat.” Society and
Animals 17, no. 3 (2009): 241–256.
Pearce, David. “Give Up Eating Meat.”
david-pearce-hedonistic-imperative/. Accessed 7 March 2018.
Pick, Anat. Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Piper, H. Beam. Space Viking. London: Sphere, 1961.
———. Four-Day Planet. Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press, 1961.
Pohl, Frederik. The Slave Ship. London: Four Square, 1957.
———. The Merchant’s War. London: Victor Gollancz, 1984.
Pohl, Frederik, and Isaac Asimov. Our Angry Earth. New York: Tor, 1991.
Pohl, Frederik, and Cyril Kornbluth. The Space Merchants. London: Penguin, 1984
Popper, Nathaniel. “You Call That Meat? Not So Fast Cattle Ranchers Say.”
New York Times, February 9.
Seed, David. “Take-Over Bids: The Power Fantasies of Frederik Pohl and Cyril
Kornbluth.” Foundation (Autumn 1993): 42–57.
Shapiro, Paul. Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize
Dinner and the World. New York: Gallery, 2018.
Simak. Clifford D. Time Is the Simplest Thing. London: Pan, 1961.
Smith, Frederick Edwin. The World in 2030. London: Hodder and Stoughton,
Squier, Susan. Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.
Stephens, Neal. “In Vitro Meat: Zombies on the Menu?” SCRITPed: A Journal of
Law, Technology & Society 7, no. 2 (2010): 394–401.
Twine, Richard. Animals as Biotechnology: Ethics, Sustainability and Critical Animal Studies. London, Earthscan, 2010.
Varley, John. The Ophiuchi Hotline. London: HarperCollins, 1977.
Vint, Sherryl. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal.
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012.
Weiss, Jason. “ICYMI: Here’s a Recap of #NewHarvest2017.” http://www. Accessed 7 March
“They’ll Be Breeding Us Like Cattle!”:
Population Ecology and Human
Exceptionalism in Soylent Green
Seán McCorry
The cannibal is the perfect demon for a culture based on geographic and
scientific expansion and progress, which yet fears its own consuming appetites
and displaces them onto others.
—Maggie Kilgour, “Cannibals and Critics”1
Cannibalism is a sensitive way to reduce population pressures on scarce food
resources, while increasing the probabilities that at least part of the population
will be well fed, survive, and reproduce successfully.
—Laurel R. Fox, “Factors Influencing Cannibalism”2
As Maggie Kilgour and others3 have pointed out, cannibalism occupies
a deeply ambivalent position in stories of capitalist modernity and settler
S. McCorry (B)
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
colonialism. The rejection of cannibalism indexes the imagined moral superiority of modernity and progress: while European settlers accused many of
the indigenous peoples that they encountered of cannibalism, “we” modern inheritors of the colonial project distinguish ourselves by our abstention
from eating the flesh of our own species. At the same time, in art and in
politics, we have turned cannibalism into a potent metaphor for thinking
through some of the deleterious effects of the processes of modernisation
that we elsewhere celebrate as evidence of our triumph over nature.
Where Kilgour’s analysis centres the “geographic and scientific expansion” that characterises capitalist modernity, by the 1960s and 1970s questions of demographic expansion had begun to be articulated through this
cannibalistic frame. Modernisation had raised birth rates and reduced death
rates, and the subsequent rapid growth of the global population was emerging as a political problem. According to the demographers and population
ecologists of the period (notably Paul R. Ehrlich and the authors of The
Limits to Growth), rising populations created increasingly unsustainable
demands on the biosphere, threatening the stability of the modern world
system. In the cannibalistic denouement imagined by some of the more
pessimistic ecologists, modernity would eat itself.
Against this background of population anxiety, scientific attention was
turning towards the relationship between cannibalism and demographic
pressures. In a series of papers written in the 1970s, the ecologist Laurel
R. Fox demonstrated a strong link between high population levels and
cannibalistic behaviour in notonectids (water boatmen).4 Fox describes in
startlingly dispassionate terms how cannibalism can provide an efficient and
rational means to balance population levels and resource availability.
Of course, this research is not necessarily troubling to the modern,
humanist imagination; Fox’s research subjects are, after all, insects rather
than people, and her detailing of abundant cannibalism in the nonhuman
world might only underscore the moral superiority of modernity’s decisive
(if finally fantastical) break with nature. In the arts, however, the prospect
of an anthropophagic conclusion to modernity’s historical trajectory was
taken more seriously and rendered vividly in a number of creative projects
of the 1960s and 1970s. In this essay, I aim to draw out the imaginative
relationship between population anxiety and the consumption of human
flesh in the best known of these artistic productions, Richard Fleischer’s
1973 science fiction thriller Soylent Green. In creative work which engaged
with the relationship between cannibalism and population, anthropophagy
was figured as an indicator that the imagined victory of human over nonhuman was thoroughly precarious, and particularly endangered in our time
by the new pressures of post-war demographics. What was finally at stake in
these texts’ representations of cannibalism was an evaluation of the project
of modernity itself. Does scientific and technological development elevate
the human, as its proponents claim, or does it rather tend to dissolve human
exceptionalism through its deployment of fundamentally inhuman strategies of calculation and instrumentalisation? How does meat (human or
nonhuman) map on to this story of modernity, and with what costs for
nonhuman animal lives?
Soylent Green represents an early attempt by Hollywood to explicitly
thematise anxieties around population pressure, resource scarcity, and the
survival (or not) of humanism in the face of capitalism’s vicious commitment to efficiency at any cost. While accounts of early capitalism emphasised
frugality and thrift as dispositions that were well-suited to capitalist accumulation,5 Soylent shows how these attitudes map neatly on to postwar fears
of impending demographic crisis. Released in the period when Fox would
have been undertaking her ecological research on notonectids, the film follows her analysis by imagining cannibalism as a radical solution to resource
scarcity. We follow Charlton Heston’s Detective Frank Thorn, an officer
in a corrupt police department, as he investigates the murder of William
Simonson, a senior executive at the Soylent Corporation. As characterised
by Thorn’s roommate and mentor Sol Roth, Soylent is a monopoly which
“controls the food supply for half the world”. Roth works for Thorn as a
police “book”, a researcher whose access to archives helps Thorn to build
his cases. Roth and his fellow police books are portrayed by older actors,
intimating that literacy and humanistic learning will face an uncertain future
in late industrial capitalism.6 Roth and Thorn share a dingy, claustrophobically small apartment, an arrangement made necessary by the rapid growth
of the United States’ population. These same population pressures have
made food a scarce resource, the production and rationing of which is
carried out by capitalist monopolies like Soylent in collaboration with an
enthusiastically repressive state apparatus.
Adapted from Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!,
Soylent Green is one of a number of seventies’ films that responded to a wave
of institutional and activist environmental interventions in that decade,
notably the first Earth Day and the establishment of the United States’
Environmental Protection Agency.7 These interventions were responding
in turn to a developing awareness of the extraordinary growth rate of the
world population, which had reenergised Malthusian themes in environmentalism and the environmental sciences. In the field of population ecology, the publication of The Limits to Growth (1972) and The Population
Bomb (1968) heightened cultural anxieties around “overpopulation”, and
in the same period, an emerging subgenre of speculative fiction and film
translated these anxieties into apocalyptic narratives of population crisis.8
In the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, Soylent Green
proposes a radical solution to the problem of population pressure and
resource scarcity through the provision of a new, mysterious food source,
which in the film’s last act is revealed to be reconstituted human flesh. With
the famous line, “Soylent Green is made out of people!”, Charlton Heston’s protagonist lodges a protest against the ethically bankrupt logic of
efficiency through which capitalism has thoroughly undone human dignity
in the pursuit of profit. It is precisely human dignity which is under threat
here; no longer bound by a Christian or a Kantian ethic which would stress
the intrinsic value of human life or the necessity of treating human persons
as ends rather than means, Soylent sketches a world in which human lives
are subject to modes of instrumentalisation more commonly enforced on
nonhuman animals.
The film is riven by a tension between, on the one hand, its insistence
on the necessity and desirability of a politics of depopulation, and on the
other hand, its more traditional humanist suspicion of the costs of incorporating individual human lives into a calculus of population management,
emblematised by its horror at the recycling of human bodies as food. It is
perhaps unsurprising that this conflict between environmental consciousness and human exceptionalism should be thought through in relation to
the question of meat (human or otherwise), since, as I hope to show in the
course of this chapter, discourses of population management are frequently
underwritten by an investment in a carnivorous model of sovereign human
The action takes place in New York City in 2022, where the city’s population has increased to 40,000,000. The film’s introductory sequence
establishes a familiar critique of modernity as we move from images of
nineteenth-century settlers and agricultural scenes to the claustrophobic,
densely-populated modern city with its landfills and its industrial pollution.
Over the course of this sequence, images are cut together at an accelerating
pace, eventually reproducing the disorienting experience of groundlessness,
mutability, and velocity which, in this critical analysis, is the hallmark of
modernity. In this introduction and at several other points in the film, we
are invited to contemplate a possible future in which the nonhuman world
exists only as a spectral image and a vanishing memory.
Heston’s casting as Detective Thorn places Soylent in conversation with
two of his earlier projects, The Omega Man (1971) and especially Planet
of the Apes (1968). By 1973, Heston’s star value was firmly linked to his
aptitude for playing the figure of the (white, male) heroic subject who
encounters a situation in which his presumed sovereignty is placed into
question.9 In Planet of the Apes , Heston’s astronaut discovers that the
same characteristics which underwrote his prestige in Cold War America
counted for little in a world where human (let alone white) supremacy
is inconceivable, and in The Omega Man (a loose adaptation of Richard
Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend), he plays a scientist who is a rare
(human) survivor of global biological warfare. Both earlier films place limits
on the presumption of human sovereignty over the earth, and in both, as
in Soylent, this sovereignty is figured as thoroughly precarious.
Precarity is registered in Soylent Green primarily through the extraordinary scarcity of basic goods such as food (and especially meat, as we shall
see), leading to regular food riots as the citizens of an over-populated New
York scramble to acquire the sustenance necessary to the continuation of
their meagre existence. Unable to feed an expanding population by more
traditional means, the Soylent Corporation commissions a “highly classified” oceanographic survey (discovered by Thorn among the murdered
Simonson’s possessions), which reveals that unsustainable rates of resource
extraction have depleted the plankton reserves that formed the basis of its
earlier “miracle food” lines. This document testifies to Cold War cultural
anxieties about the incorporation of scientific knowledge into the instrumentalising imperatives of capital and state, suggesting an uncomfortable
complicity of ecologists in unsustainable practices of resource extraction.
Soylent Green, then, sketches a world in which the pastoral scenes of
its title sequence have become permanently unavailable, with open spaces
replaced by the claustrophobic proximity of bodies in the over-populated
city. In some of the film’s most striking images, Thorn navigates the city’s
buildings by carefully picking his way through the entangled bodies of his
fellow citizens—New York’s poor masses, who find shelter by sleeping practically on top of one another in the hallways and stairwells of apartment
complexes. The deleterious effects of ecological crises are also felt in public
space, with exterior shots being filmed through a nauseating yellow-green
filter suggestive of industrial pollution, as well as perhaps of physical illness—a sickness in the body of the city. In this world, fantasies of seeking
refuge in nature have been made obsolete by the dual pressure of population growth and the securitisation of the remaining natural resources, as
Thorn’s lover Shirley discovers when she expresses a desire to leave New
“We could go to another city.”
“What for? They’re all like this.”
“The country?”
“That’s not allowed. Those farms are like fortresses.”
“Good land’s gotta be guarded the way they guard the waste disposal plants
and Soylent factories and the plankton ships. You know, there are idiots in
this world who want to take everything we’ve got. Maybe Simonson was one
of them.”
“I don’t believe it. It means there’s no place for us to go.”
Thorn’s suspicion of the murdered Simonson’s redistributionist politics
repurposes Cold War anti-communism as a means for making sense of
emerging environmental justice claims concerning resource use and sustainability.10 Thorn’s commitment to the securitisation (and privatisation)
of agriculture positions Soylent Green as a Cold War narrative which engages
with contemporary projects to increase agricultural production as a geopolitical strategy for protecting the interests of Western capital, especially
though not exclusively in Asia.
The United Nations established the Food and Agriculture Organisation
in 1945 in the aftermath of famine in Bengal, China, Northern Europe, and
the USSR; and from the 1940s through the 1960s, the “Green Revolution”
in agriculture was encouraged by the United States in order to undermine
communist support in the developing world.11 Reducing the threat of
famine helped to assure a decolonising global south that its material needs
could be met under capitalism, though population ecologists warned that
increased provision of food only deferred rather than eliminated the coming
crisis of resources. As population historian Alison Bashford points out, “For
the hungry, [the ‘Green Revolution’] was about food, while for statesmen
it was about food security, the political stability that food both brought and
bought. For ecologists and Malthusians, it was unsustainable”.12
One Malthusian voice was Ehrlich, a prominent public intellectual at the
time of Soylent ’s release. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb ignited
controversy with its grim prognosis of the future of the world system under
conditions of continuing population growth. In his analysis, “The birth rate
must be brought into balance with the death rate or mankind will breed
itself into oblivion. We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms
of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out” (xii).
Ehrlich’s attention to reproductivity and his deployment of metaphors of
physical illness place him firmly within a tradition of biopolitical thinking
which takes as its point of departure the recognition that human life must
be understood precisely as life; that is, as a set of biological dispositions
and requirements (for reproduction, food, and health, say) that it is the
task of power to manage and intervene in. As Michel Foucault puts it,
excavating these strategies of “bio-power” means tracing “how, starting
from the eighteenth century, modern Western societies took on board the
fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species”.13 Foucault
identifies biopolitics as a political strategy which emerges with the development of discourses of public health and demographics in the eighteenth
century, but his descriptions of the biopolitical mode of governance are
especially resonant with the ecologically-inflected turn towards population
in the twentieth century. As he puts it, “instead of affecting individuals as
a set of legal subjects capable of voluntary actions, […] one tries to affect,
precisely, a population, […] a multiplicity of individuals who are and fundamentally and essentially only exist biologically bound to the materiality
in which they live” (21).
In the second half of the twentieth century, the question of global
population became a key site for biopolitical intervention from intellectuals, governments, and non-governmental organisations. The biopolitics
of population stand in an ambivalent relation to humanism, understood
as that mode of politics which centres human agency, capacities, and dignity. While Ehrlich wants to guarantee not only human existence but also
a certain quality of life which is compatible with human dignity, in his discourse on population he engages for the most part with those aspects of
human life—bodies, food, pathology, dependency—which are conventionally absent from humanist analyses. Humanism figures the human subject
through a conceptual schema that privileges cognition and autonomous
self-sufficiency over embodiment and dependence on environmental externalities, yet the biopolitics of population is necessarily more concerned with
the latter, however much it ultimately aims at safeguarding the “higher”
human capacities.
Moreover, in delimiting its sphere of concern and intervention, biopolitics finds itself operating in contexts which are never exclusively human,
least of all when questions of food production and security are centred.
As the political theorist Dinesh Wadiwel puts it, “The modern sovereign
[…] not only manages the life of its human subjects, but turns its attention
to the management of all animal and plant life within its domain”.14 Importantly, however much the biopolitical sovereign may aim at safeguarding
human prestige and well-being, it does so by shortening the ontological
distance between the human and the nonhuman, treating both as instances
of biological matter to be managed, fostered, or (if necessary) destroyed.
Within this frame, humans are ethically and politically privileged (in the
sense that the world system is managed for their benefit and security) even
as they are ontologically decentred by a biopolitical method which is far
more interested in them as living animals than as political subjects.
Soylent Green testifies to this ambivalent position of the human in the
biopolitics of population management. On the one hand, the human is
absolutely privileged within the terms of this discourse, so that sustainability
becomes sustainability for the human. In this vein, a major strand of the
scientific-technical debate on “overpopulation” involved calculating and
securing an optimum level of animal-agricultural production to provide
humans with a sustainable supply of animal protein.15 At the same time,
population biopolitics tends to flatten the differences between human and
nonhuman by treating humans not as sovereign subjects but as living bodies
alongside other living bodies. Soylent Green leverages this displacement of
human sovereignty by dislocating cannibalism from its imaginative role as
an exemplary signifier for “uncivilized” pre-modern values and practices.
Instead, the rediscovery of the edibility of the human body is presented
as the necessary corollary of a thoroughly modern discourse of population
management, shorn of its vestigial commitment to human exceptionalism.
In spite of their methodological focus on humans as biological actors
rather than as humanist subjects, ecologists’ accounts of global population
crisis emphasised the humanistic value of their work. In the best-selling
Limits to Growth (1972) report, for instance, the authors insist that “the
crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but
even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless
existence” (197). This, then, is a biopolitics in which power acts on the
biological life of the species in order to securitise something more valuable: human dignity, in the orthodox humanist sense. Mere survival here is
associated with (and deprecated as) the simple fact of humanity’s existence
as an animal species among others. The horror of reversion to a “worthless
existence” stalks the work of both population ecologists and Soylent Green.
But what counts as “worthless existence” here? And, thinking with Soylent Green, how does meat figure in an economy of value which confers
worthlessness on certain modes of living and dying? In Fleischer’s film,
humans are figured in ways that bypass the usual markers of humanist subjectivity. The characters are flat—narrative functions rather than biographical persons—and they are frequently referred to in ways that emphasise
their corporeality as living (or dead) bodies: Simonson, the murder victim
at the centre of the narrative, is “butchered” with a meat-hook; corpses
are neither buried nor mourned, but taken to a “waste disposal plant” (in
fact, the Soylent production line); “scoops”, or waste disposal trucks fitted with bulldozer blades, deal with food rioters, positioning human life
as biological matter to be managed by industrial machinery; corporeality is
again centred in the representation of the extraordinarily dense crowds that
Thorn must navigate in order to go about his business as a police detective,
the masses living in a proximity which is reminiscent of contemporaneous
developments in intensive animal agriculture.16
The implication of all of this is that over-populated modern life is close to
a state of “worthless existence”, understood as human life without humanist propriety. Meat enters here as an index of scarcity, a marker of prestige, and an icon of a past which is diminishing in memory. The poor are
fed by handouts from the Soylent Corporation which consist of “highenergy vegetable concentrates” made from soybeans and phytoplankton
(and, of course, human bodies). No longer “Man the Hunter”, the carnivorous origin myths which had captivated twentieth-century anthropologists like Raymond Dart (1953) and Richard B. Lee and Irven Devore
(2009 [1968]) have been swept away by a scarcity-enforced reliance on a
vegetarian diet founded on phytoplankton, the “lowest” trophic level—a
development that the film clearly registers as a loss of species prestige, and
a kind of inversion of evolutionary teleology.17
The ruling classes can buy their way out of this injury to human pride
by purchasing meat on the black market. These establishments, which are
referred to as “meat-leggers” in Harry Harrison’s novel (43), are protected
by caged enclosures in the style of a nineteenth-century bank, and they sell
meat at a price which makes it unavailable to all but the richest customers.
In the novel, we learn that dog-meat is standard fare, while beefsteak is their
rarest and most prestigious product (42–43). In a lingering shot, the film
shows us a single joint of beef, destined for Soylent executive Simonson’s
In Soylent Green, nonhuman animal meat indexes a valued standard of
living which has become a distant memory for the mass of the population.
In the speculative fictions of late capitalism, animal flesh has become (as
Jovian Parry puts it) an iconic “commodity imbued with a profound nostalgia for a simpler, better time that has since passed”.18 Thorn’s friend and
collaborator Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson in his final role) is
the film’s representative of this nostalgic melancholy. Early in the film, he
remonstrates with the younger Thorn: “You know when I was a kid, food
was food”, he says. “Why, in my day, you could buy meat anywhere. Eggs,
they had. Real butter”. Later, he is moved to tears when Thorn shows
him the beef that he took from Simonson’s apartment. Unable to cope
with the loss of the pre-collapse world, Sol finally has himself euthanised.
In the euthanasia scene we see Sol cry again as he watches a sequence of
images of the pre-collapse natural world from his bed as he lies dying. The
quasi-theological reverence of this “ceremony” quickly becomes a parody
of mourning as constrained by the efficiency-oriented imperatives of capitalism, as Sol’s body is loaded onto a “waste disposal” truck to be reconstituted as Soylent Green. Still, the two sequences where Sol weeps are
the closest that the film comes to providing us with an affirmative ethical
moment, foregrounding the power of mourning as remembrance, if not
quite as an incentive to social and political change.
What is being mourned here is not so much the biosphere that suffers
in response to human action; rather, we are invited to grieve the loss of
practices of consumption which we associate with abundance and mundane pleasures. As Rowland Hughes puts it, “The great fear expressed
by Fleischer’s film is not that human industrial activity will decimate the
natural resources of the planet and overwhelm the green areas, but that
our standard of living will be impacted upon by this”.19 Here, though,
we should note that meat does more than simply mark a formerly abundant, now unavailable luxury commodity. The end of meat functions more
specifically as a figure of post-anthropocentric melancholy: in the transition
from meat eaters, to plankton eaters, and finally to meat ourselves, we forfeit our narcissistic self-identification as apex predators, and as carnivorous
sovereign subjects.
The threat of a “worthless existence” that haunts the work of the population ecologists and Soylent Green alike is intimately linked to the disappearance of meat and its symbolic association with human exceptionalism.
Sol chooses to die rather than suffer any longer the loss of an abundance
for which meat acts as a metonym. Within the terms of this discourse,
the acute horror of becoming meat for another is the culmination of the
waning of anthropocentrism which has been produced by the population
crisis in late capitalist modernity. In Matthew Calarco’s words, “part of
inhabiting the subject position of the human is to situate oneself and other
human beings on the side of being fundamentally inedible: human beings
eat others but are not eaten by others, especially not other animals”.20
Soylent Green invites us to imagine that access to meat is a key marker of
a human sovereignty which it never seriously puts into question, however
much it regrets some of the more injurious effects of this sovereignty on
the biosphere. It registers the end of meat (and the eventual becoming
meat of the human) as a symptom of sovereignty on the wane. I wonder
instead whether we can think the disappearance of meat not as something to
be mourned, but as a productive position from which to rethink relations
between human and nonhuman beyond the presumption of sovereignty
and the instrumental calculations of anthropocentric biopolitics.
1. Kilgour, “Cannibals and Critics,” 22.
2. Fox, “Factors Influencing Cannibalism,” 940.
3. Most recently, Bill Schutt’s Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of
Cannibalism. I am indebted to Schutt’s book for alerting me to Laurel
R. Fox’s research.
4. See also Fox, “Cannibalism in Natural Populations.”
5. See, most famously, Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the “Spirit” of
6. Indeed, writing materials are unavailable to all but the richest citizens, and
Roth is astonished when Thorn pilfers pens and papers from the home of
the wealthy murder victim Simonson. Roth’s characterisation borrows from
Ray Bradbury’s Faber in Fahrenheit 451: both are former professors who
have been made redundant by the devaluation of intellectual work in late
capitalism, and both are the humanistic voice of conscience in their respective
texts, articulating anxieties about the direction of the new mass society.
7. Murray and Heumann, Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge, 93.
8. Other contemporaneous texts engaging with population pressure and
resource scarcity include John Brunner’s expansive and formally experimental novel Stand On Zanzibar (1968), Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film Silent
Running, and especially Michael Anderson’s 1976 adaptation of William
F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run (1967), which imagines a similar anthropophagic end to technological development. More
recently, The Matrix (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2004) have revisited Soylent
Green’s imaginative conceit that late capitalism will eventually turn towards
the human body as a source of cannibalistic sustenance.
For a compelling account of Heston’s filmic articulation of racialised humanism, see McHugh, “Horses in Blackface.”
Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) does
similar work to reimagine red politics as green, figuring conservations (or
“Consies”) as a clandestine revolutionary organisation.
Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold
War, 118–156.
Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth, 268.
Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 1.
Wadiwel, “Cows and Sovereignty,” n.d.
The authors of The Limits to Growth note that “food from animal sources is
of greater value in sustaining human life” (106) and produce charts tracing
the varying quantities of animal protein consumed in the developed and
developing world. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich similarly asserts that
“Protein is the key to the world food problem” (21), noting again that
animal flesh is the source of the “highest quality” protein. He is particularly
disturbed by the fact that, in the West, ‘we feed a great deal of the protein
we import to our pets’ (23), positioning this as a failure of species solidarity
with other humans.
On corporeality and proximity in overpopulation narratives, see Ursula
K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination
of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 74.
Dart, “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man” and Lee and Devore,
Man the Hunter.
Parry, “Oryx and Crake and the New Nostalgia for Meat,” 254.
Hughes, “The Ends of the Earth: Narrative and Identity in Dystopian
Film,” 28.
Calarco, Thinking Through Animals, 60.
Works Cited
Anderson, Michael, dir. Logan’s Run. 1976. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Bashford, Alison. Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine, 1953.
Brunner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. London: Doubleday, 1968.
Calarco, Matthew. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Dart, Raymond A. “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man.” International
Anthropological and Linguistic Review 1 (1953): 201–219.
Dern, Bruce, dir. Silent Running. 1972. Universal.
Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine, 1975.
Fleischer, Richard, dir. Soylent Green. 1973. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France,
1977 –1978. Edited by Michel Senellart. Translated by Graham Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Fox, Laurel R. “Factors Affecting Cannibalism, a Method of Population Limitation
in the Predator Notonecta Hoffmanni.” Ecology 56, no. 4 (1975): 933–941.
———.“Cannibalism in Natural Populations.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 6 (1975): 87–106.
Harrison, Harry. Make Room! Make Room! London: Penguin, 2008.
Heise, Ursula K. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination
of the Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Hughes, Rowland. “The Ends of the Earth: Narrative and Identity in Dystopian
Film.” Critical Survey 25, no. 2 (2013): 22–39.
Kilgour, Maggie. “Cannibals and Critics: An Exploration of James de Mille’s
Strange Manuscript.” Mosaic 30, no. 1 (1997): 19–37.
Lee, Richard B., and Irven Devore, eds. Man the Hunter. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2009.
McHugh, Susan. “Horses in Blackface: Visualizing Race as Species Difference in
Planet of the Apes.” South Atlantic Review 65, no. 2 (2000): 40–72.
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W.
Behrens. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the
Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books, 1972.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. London: Sceptre, 2004.
Murray, Robin L., and Joseph K. Heumann. Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on
the Edge. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009.
Parry, Jovian. “Oryx and Crake and the New Nostalgia for Meat.” Society and
Animals 17 (2009): 241–256.
Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold
War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Pohl, Frederik, and Cyril M. Kornbluth. The Space Merchants. London: Gollancz,
Sagal, Boris, dir. The Omega Man. 1971. Warner Bros.
Schaffer, Franklin J., dir. Planet of the Apes. 1968. 20th Century Fox.
Schutt, Bill. Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism. London:
Wellcome Collection, 2017.
Wachowski, Lana and Lilly, dirs. The Matrix. 1999. Warner Bros.
Wadiwel, Dinesh. “Cows and Sovereignty: Biopower and Animal Life.” Borderlands
1, no. 2 (2002): n.p.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Work Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other
Writings. London: Penguin, 2004.
Herring Fisheries, Fish-Eating and Natural
History in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Dominic O’Key
In this essay, I want to approach the question of literature and meat by
considering a writer whose works are only rarely thought of outside a traditionally humanist framework, let alone inside a framework that is critical of industrial meat production. This writer is the late German author
W. G. Sebald (1944–2001), whose hybrid1 prose fictions such as The Emigrants (1992) and Austerlitz (2001)—written in German and met with
international acclaim when translated into English—have been canonized
as exemplars of a late twentieth-century world literature that asks “what it
means to be human after the Holocaust”.2 The prevailing scholarship on
Sebald tends to connect his texts’ “oblique and tentative […] approach to
the Holocaust”3 to a wider thematic preoccupation with the violence of
modernity.4 Viewed in this light, Sebald’s texts are said to perform a kind
of “memory work”5 that wants to re-present and salvage the forgotten
victims of modernity. Sebald himself frames his literary project in this way:
D. O’Key (B)
Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
in public speeches, Sebald speaks of his work as memorializing “those to
whom the greatest injustice was done”6 ; in interviews, he privileges literature as an aesthetic space in which one can “rescue something out of that
stream of history that keeps rushing past”.7
If Sebald conceives of his literary project as a rescue mission, then who
or what is he trying to save? There are numerous moments throughout
Sebald’s oeuvre which allow us to argue that Sebald does not simply limit
his conception of injustice to the realm of the human. Across The Rings
of Saturn [Die Ringe des Saturn: eine Englische Wallfahrt ] (1995) and
Austerlitz, for instance, Sebald’s narrators frequently lament the ways in
which different species are utilized as spectacles. In the former, Sebald’s
narrator describes a “yellowish and moth-eaten” taxidermy polar bear as
“a ghost bowed by sorrows”,8 and he later looks on with sadness as an
encaged Chinese quail obsessively paces around a cage. This preoccupation with the forced enclosure of animals is further developed in Austerlitz. Here Sebald describes the zoological garden as an “unreal world” in
which animals descend into zoochosis as they live out their “twilight lives”
In this essay, I will concentrate on a second aspect of Sebald’s attempt to
rescue nonhumans from the “stream of history”, namely his preoccupation
with the commodification and consumption of animals as food. To do this,
I will closely read a pivotal passage from The Rings of Saturn (henceforth,
Rings ) in which Sebald’s narrator reflects on over two hundred years of
herring fishing in the North Sea. Described in the novel’s contents page
as “the natural history of the herring”, this seven-page section sees Sebald
shed light on the dramatic long-term consequences of the economic commodification and scientific instrumentalization of herring. I will argue that
this passage pushes back on anthropocentric and extractive logics which
normalize what Callum Roberts has called the “degraded condition of the
sea”.10 By bearing witness to overfishing, oceanic acidification and ecosystem collapse, Sebald’s natural history of the herring both mourns and resists
the practices of industrialized aquaculture.
In the first half of this essay, I discuss how Sebald conceives of humanity
and nonhuman nature as fundamentally interlinked. I add theoretical ballast
to this assertion by drawing on Theodor W. Adorno’s dialectical formulation of “Natural-History” [Naturgeschichte], which thinks of nature and
history as mutually constitutive. I then analyze Rings, focusing especially
on two passages set in Lowestoft which differently comment on the eating
of fish: the first is a seemingly innocuous and comic scene in which Sebald’s
narrator orders a plate of fish and chips at a hotel; the second is a historical
narration of North Sea herring fishing. Taken together, these passages’ different narrative strategies—humour, historical analysis, and the placing of
in-text images—develop a latent critique of flesh-eating and aquaculture.
Finally, I end this chapter by bringing Sebald’s natural history of the herring
into conversation with the recent “oceanic turn” in popular and critical discourses.11 Sebald’s natural history of the herring not only anticipates this
critical understanding of oceanic degradation. It can also be claimed as a
text which enlists innovative representational strategies in order to call into
question the politics of eating. Sebald, who lived as a vegetarian for ethicopolitical reasons, uses important moments of his literary project in order
to contest fish-eating.12
After Nature: Modernity and Natural History
Scholars have by no means completely overlooked the presence of nonhumans in Sebald’s work. As I have argued elsewhere,13 Lynn Wolff,
Anne Fuchs and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa all separately suggest that
Sebald’s fiction challenges the “disastrously anthropocentric world-view
of the modern era”.14 Collected together, these scholars identify that
Sebald’s fiction is not simply biodiverse in content, but that this biodiversity is part of a deliberate representational strategy that reveals the actual,
metaphorical and historiographic reduction of biodiversity in modernity.
More recently, Sebald’s work has been shown to anticipate the concept
of the Anthropocene, that term which proposes at its simplest that the
Earth has entered a new geological epoch as a result of human activities.15
Roseanne Kennedy argues that Sebald’s Rings cultivates a posthumanist
sensibility that connects together “the linked histories of globalization and
the Anthropocene”. For Kennedy, Sebald’s posthumanism “decenters the
human by gesturing towards a species view that imagines the human, like
other species, as facing possible extinction”.16 Jason Groves similarly suggests that Sebald foresees “the increasingly widespread recognition that
human activity registers itself on a geological scale”. Groves adds that Rings
“explores a postnatural world of anthropogenic climate change, biological invasion, and mass extinction”.17 Following Groves’ comments on the
“postnatural world”, we might therefore say that Sebald’s project conceives
of itself as coming after nature.
After Nature is the title of Sebald’s first creative publication, a triptych prose poem first published in 1988. Thematically, the poem explores
the emergence and consolidation of modernity at the cost of the natural world. But coming “after nature” is a complex and paradoxical idea.
While Michael Hulse’s English-language translation of Sebald’s poem renders the title as After Nature, the phrasing of the original German—Nach
der Natur—is more suggestive.18 This is because “nach der” implies after,
from, and drawn from (as in “representing”). Thus, thought of alongside J. J. Long’s persuasive analysis of how Sebald’s project critiques the
cultural-temporal horizon of modernity,19 the phrase “Nach der Natur”
becomes an announcement of what Sebald deems modernity to be: while
modernity comes after nature in a strictly chronological sense, it is in fact
always inseparable from the nature it comes after. Human history, while
often conceived of as a transcendence from nature, in fact materially relies
on and is drawn from the very nature it wants to forget. Sebald’s literary
project thus conceives of modernity as that which cleaves the human and
the nonhuman: it separates and entangles.
In order to both clarify and stress the complexities of this argument, I will
now turn to the concept of Natural-History. In his 1932 essay “The Idea
of Natural-History” [Die Idee der Naturgeschichte], Theodor W. Adorno
proposed to “dialectically overcome the usual antithesis of Nature and History”. For Adorno, natural-history is “not concerned with natural history
in the traditional, prescientific sense of the history of nature, nor with the
history of nature where nature is the object of natural science”.20 By appropriating the term “natural history” into a critical frame, and subsequently
developing the hypothesis that nature and history are in a mutual tension,
Adorno wanted to imagine how the human and its history can be just
as natural as the natural world can be historical. Adorno’s essay thus harnesses nature and history as two “mutually determining” concepts that are
intertwined with one another, as Susan Buck-Morss explains: “each provided the key for the demythification of the other”.21 As he would later
write in Negative Dialectics (1966), “it would be up to thought to see all
nature, and whatever would install itself as such, as history, and all history as
nature”.22 In other words, by bringing nature and history into what he calls
a “concrete unity”, Adorno’s dialectical method disputes the mythical aura
of both.23 But while natural-history brings nature and history into a concrete unity, it does not dissolve the boundaries between the two concepts.
As Gillian Rose writes, Adorno’s strategic deployment of chiasmus (“history is nature, nature is history”) is a rhetorical provocation which stresses
“that the underlying processes of a mode of production cannot be understood as the result of the intentions of individuals”. But neither are these
processes the result of natural laws. Rather, they are “historically-specific”.
According to Rose, Adorno uses the phrase “history of nature” “to draw
attention to the concepts of nature held by an historically-specific society”.
Thus while the concepts of history and nature may “appear immutable and
ahistorical, they are in fact historically determined”.24 Ultimately, NaturalHistory is a methodology which calls for “a reciprocal defamiliarization of
the two incommensurable poles of the dualism of Nature and History”, a
“perpetual process in which neither term ever comes to rest, any more than
any ultimate synthesis emerges”.25 It seeks to “comprehend an object as
natural where it appears most historical and as historical where it appears
most natural”.26 Natural-History is a concept of vigilance which refuses to
accept a simple binary of humanity against nature.
While it is not my intention to determine whether Sebald deliberately
set out to adopt Adorno’s concept of Natural-History, I want to suggest
that this concept offers a meaningful inroad for interpreting the way Rings
conceives of nature and history as two mutually implicated categories.
Two contextual factors will help facilitate my overlapping of Sebald and
Adorno. Firstly, Sebald often spoke openly of his indebtedness to Adorno
and the first-generation Frankfurt School’s “alternative perspective” on
modernity.27 Ben Hutchinson’s research offers the most sustained insights
into how Sebald’s literary project grew out of a lifelong engagement with
the Frankfurt School. At “every level”, Hutchinson notes, “from thematic
preoccupations to stylistic idiosyncrasies, Sebald’s work is permeated by the
thought-forms of Adorno”.28
Secondly, in both interviews and in critical essays, Sebald loosely theorizes his own concept of natural history. In 1982, for example, in an
article on Alexander Kluge and the bombing of German cities during the
Second World War, Sebald asks whether “the catastrophes which develop,
so to speak, in our hands and seem to break out suddenly are a kind of
experiment, anticipating the point at which we shall drop out of what
we have thought for so long to be our autonomous history [autonomen
Geschichte] and back down into the history of nature?”.29 For Sebald,
humanity’s anthropogenic and hence “autonomous history” is not distinct from nature. Rather, humanity’s exceptionalism is merely “what we
have thought for so long”; it is what the human has told itself, not what
is actually the case. This ideological production precipitates the very catastrophes which threaten to “break out suddenly” and propel humanity
back down into nature. For this reason, Sebald imagines humanity as
being situated between history and natural history [Zwischen Geschichte und
Naturgeschichte]. Sebald further develops these ideas in Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999), published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction (2003), and speaks in a late interview about the overlapping circles
of natural and human history.30 Keeping this Natural-Historical focus in
mind, I now want to turn to Rings and Sebald’s meditation on the North
Sea herring.
Fish and Chips, the North Sea Herring,
and Natural-History in the Rings of Saturn
Subtitled in the original German-language edition An English Pilgrimage
[Eine englische Wallfahrt ], Rings is a novelistic mosaic of fiction, memoir,
essay and travelogue. Throughout the book, Sebald’s unnamed protagonist narrates analeptically from the confines of a hospital bed, describing
a walking tour around the rural Suffolk coastline in August of 1992 that
led up to—and, Sebald’s narrator implies, perhaps even precipitated—his
hospitalization. For much of the novel, the narrator conveys how the East
Anglian coastline was fundamental to Britain’s empire and economic prosperity. But Sebald’s melancholic tone, which concentrates on entropy rather
than progress, soon reveals how the deindustrialization of the post-war
years have left Suffolk, Britain, and indeed much of the world dilapidated.
The “pilgrimage” of Rings’s subtitle thus describes a journey through the
landscapes of a country locked in a spiral of decline, in which the narrator
becomes keenly aware of the “traces of destruction” which reach “far back
into the past”.31
It is this logic of destruction which frames the narrator’s arrival in Lowestoft, a town described as having undergone a “disheartening” collapse
from “one of the foremost fishing ports in the United Kingdom” to a place
of “insidious decay” (45). “It seemed incomprehensible to me”, Sebald’s
narrator writes, “that in such a relatively short period of time the place could
have become so run down” (41). Thus Lowestoft, despite weathering the
storm of a long downturn throughout the late twentieth-century, eventually crumbles under the weight of Margaret Thatcher’s “hardline capitalist
years” [realen Kapitalismus verschriebenen Ära].32 The narrator thus characterizes Lowestoft as suffering from the consequences of the fallout of the
end of empire, and the neoliberalization and “uneven geographical development” of the British political economy in the mid-1970s.33 This contextualization frames Sebald’s narrator’s arrival and check-in at the Albion
That evening I was the sole guest in the huge dining room, and it was the
same startled person who took my order and shortly afterwards brought me
a fish that had doubtless lain entombed [vergrabenen] in the deep-freeze for
years. The breadcrumb armor-plating had been partly singed by the grill,
and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate
what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was
a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce was turned
grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish
[was ihn vorstellen sollte], lay a sorry wreck [Hälfte zerstört ] among the grassgreen peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat. (Rings 43;
Ringe 58)
Sebald’s telescopic and hyperbolic description neatly captures this scene of
joyless and tasteless British cuisine. With the emphasis placed on the messy
and soggy contents of the narrator’s plate, and the frozen then burnt then
empty then half-destroyed [Hälfte zerstört ] fish, it is understandable that
this scene has been read as an ironic joke.34 It is “probably the funniest
episode in Sebald’s work”, according to J. J. Long35 James Wood further
posits that the scene’s comedy “lies in the paradox of painstaking exaggeration (as if the diner were trying to crack a safe, or solve a philosophical
conundrum), enforced by Sebald’s calm control of apparently ponderous
diction”.36 But despite the obvious humour of this passage, it is vital to
read this scene with and after Sebald’s description of Lowestoft. Situated
within its wider context and emplotment, this scene in fact derives its comedy from the tragic industrial and natural decline of Lowestoft itself. As a
metonym for the systematic disinvestment, deindustrialization and deprivation of English seaside towns, Lowestoft mirrors the armor-plated fish
on the narrator’s plate: both are hollowed out. Thus what is undoubtedly a
scene of comedy is also a scene of grotesque tragedy played out against the
backdrop of a town’s suffering.
Moreover, if read closely, this scene of flesh-eating deconstructs itself as
a scene of (non-)consumption. For in the end, the narrator realizes that
the fish itself, or what merely “feigned” or “represented” or “signified”
[vorstellen] a fish, was nothing but an “empty shell”. This not only further
ironizes the scene but also raises a question: why is there batter but no
fish? I want to propose that the following section in Rings, the “natural
history of the herring”, offers something of an answer to this question. The
empty shell is no coincidence, Sebald’s narrative implies, but is related to the
overfishing of the North Sea. While this scene of (non-)consumption begins
as a comic undermining of both British cuisine and the author-persona’s
melancholia, it ends as something of a catalyst for a Natural-Historical
analysis of the North Sea fishing industries.
Within this Natural-Historical narrative, Sebald’s narrative simultaneously historicizes herring while naturalizing humanity. On the one hand,
Sebald demonstrates how herring fishing is a historical process which necessarily changes nature, and on the other, Sebald shows how humanity is
not autonomous but reliant on and subject to nature. Neither nature nor
humanity are static; the actions of both reciprocally affect one another.
Let us start with the latter: that Sebald naturalizes humanity. He does
this, first, in his attention to urban decline in Lowestoft, which characterizes the town as being trapped in a chain reaction of “encroaching misery” (42): neoliberalism takes hold, Lowestoft’s wharves and factories close
down, unemployment soars, personal debt increases, suicides escalate, and
education levels plummet. This sense of “organic” decline—human morbidity, depression, and educational lack—is presented as a repercussion of
non-organic political choices such as systematic disinvestment and deindustrialization. This becomes even more acute when Sebald’s narrator, walking
south of Lowestoft, notices “dozens of decommissioned and unemployed
trawlers” on the coast (44). This leads him to contemplate how “the boats
in which the fishermen once put out from the shore have vanished, now
that fishing no longer affords a living, and the fishermen themselves are
dying out” (52–53). Sebald’s original German has it that the fishermen—
just like the herring they fish—are becoming extinct [selber ausgestorben
(Ringe 71)]. Sebald thus taps into the fact that, by the time of Rings’s
construction in the mid-1990s, only thirty vessels fishing out of two Scottish ports “were catching most of the national allocation for pelagic fish,
and caught even more out-of-quota fish illegally. This policy of going for
bulk virtually put an end to hundreds of smaller boats and fishers for herring that has supported many communities on the east coast of the United
Sebald not only shows how humans are part of natural history because
of human decisions, but also because of nonhuman decisions. Throughout
Britain’s history, Sebald writes, “there were repeated occasions when the
herring avoided their usual grounds and whole stretches of the coastline
were impoverished as a result” (55). This is not a banal claim of cause and
effect, but shows how the herring’s own actions—their changing migration
patterns—directly affect the human population which relies on fishing in
a yearly food cycle. For Sebald, then, humans are a species among other
species, subject to precarity themselves, even if this inter-species relationship
is imbalanced.
Now I would like to turn to the other side of Adorno’s critique, namely
that Natural-History also historicizes nature. Sebald enacts this historicization through three key themes: over-fishing; heavy industrialization; and
what his narrator deems the Enlightenment’s “thirst for knowledge” (55).
Sebald combines these three motifs to form a critique of the separation
of humanity and nature. This is first shown in Sebald’s attention to overfishing, in particular the exhausted herring stocks, which connects human
precarity to the nonhuman precarity of the herring. “Out on the high seas
the fishing continues, at least for the present”, Sebald writes, “though even
there the catches are growing smaller”, and “the fish that are landed are
often useless for anything but fish-meal” (53). Here, Sebald implies a logic
of diminishing returns in which “ecological cycles have become subject to
the dictates of economic cycles”.38 Just as the battered fish and Lowestoft
are both represented as hollow spaces, so too does Rings connect these to
a longer-term hollowing out of the fish stocks in the North Sea.
Drawing on what maritime historians note to be the particularly wide
“historical record of [herring] fisheries throughout the modern era of European history”,39 Sebald’s narrator frequently consults what we might call a
classical or antiquarian tradition of natural history, the very tradition from
which Adorno snatched his concept. This heterogeneous tradition cultivated an encyclopedic and taxonomical perspective which classified nature
into species hierarchies.40 According to Michel Foucault, antiquarian natural history was an episteme that is synonymous with “the nomination of
the visible”.41 Reformulated in the words of Mary Louise Pratt, natural
history was also a “European knowledge-building enterprise of unprecedented scale”,42 consolidated in the nineteenth century and implicated
in imperialism. Sebald’s narrator describes how this tradition utilized herring ideologically as a “popular didactic model” of “the indestructibility of
Nature” (53). Remembering from his childhood an educational film about
fishing practices, the narrator recollects how herring fishing was regarded
as a “supreme example of mankind’s struggle with the power of Nature”
(54). In the English-language translation, Michael Hulse neatly registers
this tradition by his capitalization of “Nature”, which reifies and essentializes the concept into humanity’s other.
Yet it is clear that Sebald’s narrator critiques rather than espouses these
dominant traditions of natural history. This is demonstrated most clearly
in Sebald’s comments on the relationship between industrial aquaculture
and what he calls the Enlightenment’s all-consuming “thirst for knowledge” (55). The narrator comments that the development of aggressive
fishing practices saw an increase in the use of nets “that could take almost
a quarter of a million fish” (55). The fish would “swim up against [the
net] in desperation until at length their gills catch in the mesh; they are
then throttled during the near-eight hour process of hauling up and winding in the nets”. Because of this, Sebald’s narrator states, eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century naturalists would “suppose that herring die the instant
they are removed from the water”. Countless experiments were performed
to ascertain the truth of this supposition:
Noel de Marinière […] investigate[d] more closely the fishes’ capacity to
survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other
ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described
as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster [… T]he natural historians sought consolation in the idea
that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction
wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar
physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies
and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do
not know what the herring feels [Doch in Wahrheit wissen wir nichts von den
Gefühlen des Herings ]. (Rings 56–57; Ringe 77)
Pivoting on this “but”, Sebald’s narrator negates the earlier tradition of natural history. Rather than perceiving nature as a timeless abundance, Sebald’s
narrator highlights the co-implication of the human and the nonhuman,
and even draws the reader’s attention to the limits of human knowledge:
“But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels” (56). This
formulation does not imply that, because we do not know what the herring
feels, we can therefore do as we please. Rather than abdicating responsibility, this appeal to non-knowledge is an ethically attuned corrective that
cuts across the Enlightenment’s “thirst for knowledge”. Against the notion
that only the “higher animals” feel pain and fear, Sebald’s narrator articulates how such ideologies authorize intensive over-fishing and its attendant
threats to the species. For Sebald’s narrator, not knowing is not enough to
inflict pain.
Sebald’s Natural-History also highlights the toxicity, mutation and death
among North Sea species affected by deposited pollutants. “Every year”,
Sebald writes, “the rivers bear thousands of tons of mercury, cadmium and
lead, and mountains of fertilizer and pesticides, out into the North Sea”.
Owing to this industrial pollution, “toxic substances sink into the waters
of the Dogger Bank, where a third of the fish are now born with strange
deformities and excrescences”:
Time and again, off the coast, rafts of poisonous algae are sighted covering
many square miles and reaching thirty feet into the deep, in which the creatures of the sea die in shoals. In some of the rarer varieties of plaice, crucian or
bream, the females, in a bizarre mutation, are increasingly developing male
sexual organs and the ritual patterns of courtship are now no more than a
dance of death, the exact opposite of the notion of the wondrous increase
and perpetuation of life with which we grew up. (53)
Against the antiquarian tradition of natural history “with which we grew
up”, Sebald’s narrator documents how natural cycles of decay are made
unnatural by technicity. Acidification pushes pelagic species to extinction.
And all of this is augmented by what Long calls the “most conspicuous surface feature of Sebald’s texts”,43 namely Sebald’s incorporation of images.
In Sebald’s work, photographs, postcards, architectural blueprints, video
stills and more are deployed to both represent and contradict the text’s
content. In Rings’ “natural history of the herring”, Sebald includes both
a found postcard, presumably from the early twentieth century, depicting
the Lowestoft fish market, in which flat-capped men stand in the midst of
thousands of dead herring (54). Such an image implicitly corroborates the
narrator’s claim that herring are a “species always threatened by disaster”
(57), showing the sheer scale of the catch before the contemporary era. On
the following page, though, next to Sebald’s discussions of the dissections
of herring, is perhaps an even more important if often neglected image.
Here, Sebald includes an illustration of a fish that readers often take to be
a representation of herring. But as Claudia Öhlschläger points out,44 the
fish is not a herring at all, but a cod. This returns us to the narrator’s order
of fish and chips at the Lowestoft hotel. With cod being the predominant
choice of battered fish in Britain, the image of a cod further couples eating
practices with the over-fishing of the North Sea herring, maintaining the
specificity of both while also metonymically associating them.
Recently, there has been a critical turn towards the sea.45 Whether responding directly or indirectly to what Callum Roberts calls our “collective amnesia” over ocean health,46 a number of critics, scientists and activists—such as
Sylvia Earle, Stefan Helmreich and Stacy Alaimo, to name just a few—have
published important interventions into the fact that, since the “middle of
the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of tons of ocean wildlife have
been removed from the sea, while hundreds of millions of tons of waste
have been poured into it”.47 Thus “[h]uman biocultural practices flow into
the putatively natural zone of the ocean, scrambling nature and culture, life
forms and forms of life”, Helmreich writes.48 Tying this to the politics and
ethics of industrial aquaculture and food consumption, Jonathan Safran
Foer’s much-discussed book Eating Animals (2009) calls on humans to
imagine the scale of bycatch each and every time they consume fish: “this
plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving […]
The plate might have to be five feet across”.49 Even those of us who do
not eat fish are inextricably implicated. As Elspeth Probyn puts it in Eating
the Ocean (2016), “there is no innocent place in which to escape the food
politics of human-fish entanglement”.50
“In 1955”, Roberts writes, “the first of the great herring fisheries collapsed off the East Anglia coast of England. This herring population had
sustained a highly productive fishery for over a thousand years, but it
could not survive the onslaught of twentieth-century industrial fishing”.51
The European Commission called its first moratorium on herring fishing
in 1977. It is this context which both clarifies and heightens the stakes
of Sebald’s Natural-History, in which the North Sea is constantly represented as a space of ecological exhaustion. Throughout Rings, Sebald
invokes deforestation, storms, coastal erosion and the spectre of extinction,
among other phenomena, in order to reveal the imbrication of humanity
and nature. For Sebald, natural phenomena such as these are not merely
reducible to their natural character, but in fact become agential forces that
react to and in turn reshape human life, just as human life inevitably reshapes
the natural world. Natural-History is therefore a meaningful concept for
exploring Sebald’s work because it reminds us that such “nature” is not
just marked by human history, but that its history is human history.
In this essay, I have suggested that Sebald’s meditation on industrial
fishing practices cannot be easily disassociated from his narrator’s (non)consumption of fish and chips in the Albion Hotel. I have also argued
that Sebald’s natural history of the herring achieves two crucial interventions: first, it disrupts anthropocentrism; secondly, it demonstrates how the
world of the human has a unique power over nature, but is at the same time
fundamentally exposed to nature. To conclude, I would like to note that
Adorno’s concept of Natural-History was not meant to be a mere diagnosis of humanity’s shared fate with nature. Adorno also saw Natural-History
as part of wider materialist project that would “open up an alternative
form of re-enchantment that remains socially critical”.52 Understood in
this way, Sebald’s meditation on the North Sea herring might ultimately
be described as an attempt to find a non-violent way to representationally
“capture” herring. Sebald’s Natural-History uses language rather than nets
to bring herring from obscurity to the surface. By situating herring at the
centre of this passage, Sebald’s text registers and speaks back to the often
uncontested logics of human meat consumption. Simultaneously, Sebald’s
writing asks the reader to think through the implications of the ambiguity
rather than the certainty of animal pain: “the truth is that we do not know
what the herring feels”. If, as Nicole Shukin theorizes, “animal capital” is
that process which relies on a double “rendering” of nonhuman animals,
into figurations or abstractions of themselves on the one hand and thus into
commodities for consumption on the other,53 then Sebald’s Rings productively re-figures these abstractions and re-enchants the human-nonhuman
relationship. Literature cannot avoid the practice of rendering animal signs,
or indeed of rendering “meat” in its abstracted signification. But as Sebald’s
natural history of the herring makes clear, literature also has the capacity
to variously navigate, trouble, expose and hence “render” the damage of
meat consumption on a localized and global scale.
Acknowledgements Helen Finch’s comments, questions and criticisms have
sharpened my research on Sebald. I am also grateful to Uwe Schütte who confirmed my hunch that Sebald was vegetarian.
Wolff, W. G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics.
Cosgrove, “W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” 200.
Jaggi, “The Last Word.”
See Long, W. G. Sebald; Santner, On Creaturely Life. This essay does not
have the space to explore the ways in which Sebald provocatively connects
together the Holocaust to practices of industrial animal agriculture. I do
however examine this topic at length in my forthcoming monograph, Creaturely Forms: Animals and Late Twentieth Century Literature.
Crownshaw, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature
and Culture, 41.
Sebald, Campo Santo, 215.
Sebald and Turner, “Introduction,” 24.
Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 36.
Sebald, Austerlitz. Roman, 5. My translation.
Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, xv.
DeLoughrey, “Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene,” 32.
Uwe Schütte is one of the only critics to directly acknowledge Sebald’s
vegetarianism. See W. G. Sebald, 200.
O’Key, “W. G. Sebald’s Zoopoetics,” 225.
Wolff, W. G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics, 5. Fuchs, “W. G. Sebald’s Painters,”
173; Fuchs, “Ein Hauptkapital,” 122; Schmidt-Hannisa, “Aberration of a
Species,” 32–33.
For a thorough survey of the Anthropocene debate to date, see Lorimer,
“The Anthropo-scene.”
Kennedy, “Humanity’s Footprint,” 180, 172.
Groves, “Writing After Nature,” 269, 277.
Sebald, Nach der Natur.
Long, W. G. Sebald, 1–2.
Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 252–253
Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, 54.
Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 359.
Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 259.
Rose, The Melancholy Science, 13, 152.
Jameson, Late Marxism, 99.
Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance,” 239.
Sebald, A Place in the Country, 8.
Hutchinson, “The Shadow of Resistance,” 268.
Sebald, Campo Santo, 67.
Discussing the publication of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald concludes that
the book is “something like a description of the aberration of a species. One
can […] go outward in concentric circles, and the inner circles always determine the outer ones. That means: one can contemplate one’s own mental
health, how this is determined by one’s own family history, how this is in
turn determined by the history of the petit bourgeoisie in twenties and thirties Germany, how this is defined by the economic conditions of these years,
how these economic conditions have evolved out of the history of industrialisation in Germany and Europe—and so on until the circles of natural
history and the history of the human species collide [wo die Naturgeschichte
und die Geschichte der menschlichen Species ineinander changieren]”. Sebald,
“Mit einem kleinen Strandspaten,” 16. My translation.
Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 3.
Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn, 56.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 87.
See Bond, “On the Misery of Nature and the Nature of Misery,” 39–40;
Wood, “W. G. Sebald, Humorist.”
Long, W. G. Sebald, 86 fn. 4.
Wood, “W. G. Sebald, Humorist.”
Couper, Smith, and Ciceri, Fishers and Plunderers, 58.
Longo, Clausen, and Clark, The Tragedy of the Commodity, 100.
Couper, Smith, and Ciceri, Fishers and Plunderers, 12.
Lepenies, Das Ende der Naturgeschichte, 34, 41.
Foucault, The Order of Things, 141, 171.
Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 25.
Long, W. G. Sebald, 46.
Öhlschläger, “Medialität und Poetik,” 36.
DeLoughrey, “Submarine Futures,” 32.
Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, xvi.
Earle, The World Is Blue, 12.
Helmreich, Alien Ocean, 13.
Safran Foer, Eating Animals, 50.
Probyn, Eating the Ocean, 5.
Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, 191.
Stone, “Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature,” 249.
Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital, 20.
Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York:
Continuum, 1973.
———. “The Idea of Natural-History.” In Things Beyond Resemblance: Essays on
Theodor W. Adorno, edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor, 252–269. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2006.
Alaimo, Stacy. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Bond, Greg. “On the Misery of Nature and the Nature of Misery: W. G. Sebald’s
Landscapes.” In W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion, edited by J. J. Long and
Anne Whitehead, 31–44. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Cosgrove, Mary. “W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” In The Novel in German Since 1990,
edited by Stuart Taberner, 195–211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Couper, Alastair, Hance D. Smith, and Bruno Ciceri. Fishers and Plunderers: Theft,
Slavery and Violence at Sea. London: Pluto, 2015.
Crownshaw, Richard. The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Literature
and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. “Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene.” Comparative
Literature 69 (2017): 32–44.
Earle, Sylvia A. The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Oceans Are One. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge, 2002.
Fuchs, Anne. “W. G. Sebald’s Painters: The Function of Fine Art in His Prose
Works.” Modern Language Review 101 (2006): 167–183.
———. “Ein Hauptkapital der Geschichte der Unterwerfung.” In W. G. Sebald
and the Writing of History, edited by Anne Fuchs and J. J. Long, 121–138.
Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 2007.
Groves, Jason. “Writing After Nature: A Sebaldian Ecopoetics.” In German Ecocriticism in the Anthropocene, edited by Caroline Schaumann and Heather I.
Sullivan, 267–292. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2017.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Helmreich, Stefan. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Hullot-Kentor, Robert. Things Beyond Resemblance: Essays on Theodor W. Adorno.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Hutchinson, Ben. “The Shadow of Resistance: W. G. Sebald and the Frankfurt
School.” Journal of European Studies 41 (2011): 267–284.
Jaggi, Maya. “The Last Word.” The Guardian, 21 December 2001, https://
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno or the Persistence of the Dialectic. London:
Verso, 2007.
Kennedy, Roseanne. “Humanity’s Footprint: Reading Rings of Saturn and Palestinian Walks in an Anthropocene Era.” Biography 35 (2012): 170–189.
Lepenies, Wolf. Das Ende der Naturgeschichte: Wandel kultureller Selbstverständlichkeiten in den Wissenschaften des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Munich:
Hanser, 1976.
Long, J. J. W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Longo, Stefano B., Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark. The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 2015.
Lorimer, Jamie. “The Anthropo-Scene: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Social Studies
of Science 47 (2017): 117–142.
Öhlschläger, Claudia. “Medialität und Poetik des trompe-l’œil: W. G. Sebald and
Jan Peter Tripp.” GegenwartsLiteratur 6 (2007): 21–43.
O’Key, Dominic. “W. G. Sebald’s Zoopoetics Writing After Nature.” In Texts,
Animals, Environments Zoopoetics and Ecopoetics, edited by Frederike Middelhoff, Sebastian Schönbeck, Roland Borgands, and Catrin Gersdorf, 217–227.
Freiburg: Rombach, 2019.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturalism. 2nd ed.
London: Routledge, 2008.
Probyn, Elspeth. Eating the Ocean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Roberts, Callum. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Washington, DC: Island Press,
Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W.
Adorno. London: Verso, 2014.
Safran Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009.
Santner, Eric. On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2006.
Schmidt-Hannisa, Hans-Walter. “Aberration of a Species: On the Relationship
Between Man and Beast in W. G. Sebald’s Work.” In W. G. Sebald and the
Writing of History, edited by Anne Fuchs and J. J. Long, 31–43. Würzburg:
Königshausen and Neumann, 2007.
Schütte, Uwe. W. G. Sebald: Einführung in Leben und Werk. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2011.
Sebald, W. G. Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer,
———. Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Wallfahrt. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1995.
———. Austerlitz. Munich: Carl Hanser, 2001.
———. “Mit einem kleinen Strandspaten: Abschied von Deutschland nehmen.”
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 22 December 2001.
———. The Rings of Saturn. Translated by Michael Hulse. London: Vintage, 2002.
———. After Nature. Translated by Michael Hamburger. London: Penguin, 2003.
———. Campo Santo. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Penguin, 2006.
———. A Place in the Country. Translated by Jo Catlin. London: Penguin, 2014.
Sebald, W. G., and Gordon Turner. “Introduction and Translation of an Interview
given by Max Sebald.” In W. G. Sebald: History-Memory-Trauma, edited by
Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh, 21–29. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006.
Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Stone, Alison. “Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature.” Philosophy and Social
Criticism 32 (2006): 231–253.
Wolff, Lynn L. W. G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography. Berlin:
De Gruyter, 2014.
Wood, James. “W. G. Sebald, Humorist.” New Yorker, June 5 and 12, 2017.
“A Grain of Brain”: Women and Farm
Animals in Collections by Ariana Reines
and Selima Hill
Rachael Allen
The figure of the animal as a symbol is deeply rooted in the history of
poetry. Tigers, albatrosses, moose, and pike; all have served their time as
emblematic devices used to conjure meaning extrinsic to their material existences. John Berger’s seminal essay “Why Look at Animals” analyses the
origins of animal usage in society and art, tracing representation to its first
recorded instances: “The first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood. Prior to that, it is not unreasonable
to suppose that the first metaphor was animal”.1 Berger’s analysis touches
on the relationship between the animal as a symbol and the format used
to host said symbol: historically, the animal’s own bodily matter. Berger is
relaying a relationship literally embedded into the history of written literature; animal stories and fables told in books were printed upon or within
vellum for centuries.
R. Allen (B)
University of Hull, Hull, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
In Animal Capital, Nicole Shukin uncovers a similarly ubiquitous contemporary example of animal bodies utilized for their own depiction. Explicating the meaning behind the word “film” for a cinematic picture, she
traces the word’s history as a reference to a gelatine emulsion developed to
coat celluloid reels in the late nineteenth century, allowing light to bond
to a base material so that images may form. This gelatine emulsion is used
in cinematic production to this day, meaning that the industry not only has
roots in the use of animal flesh, but also that it wouldn’t exist without it.
Shukin exposes the ethical contradictions in an art form that capitalizes on
emotional responses to heart-warming stories of animals while watching
them on a celluloid reel coated with their matter, deeming this “a wildly
disjunctive discourse on animal life”.2 The etymology of the word “film” is
little known, evidencing the violence that exists behind functional words in
our lexicon: violence that is written into the word invisibly, like programming code written into a system. Shukin proves that symbolic ideas of the
animal have overtaken, yet still depend on, and potentially perpetuate the
subjugation of their material existences. In Creaturely Poetics, Anat Pick
similarly identifies the contemporary state of the animal as a “spectral state
of an active disappearance”,3 a comment on how animals are subjected to
forms of violence that are hidden from society, but where the products of
this violence exist in plain sight. I will look at these violences as documented
and critiqued in certain contemporary poetry collections by women.
Selima Hill’s third collection of poetry, A Little Book of Meat (1993),
and Ariana Reines’s first, The Cow (2006), take their dramatic impetus
from farming practices, interrogating modes of consumption specific to
late twentieth- and early twenty-first- century meat-eating. Both books
foreground the materiality of animal bodies, eliding this with a more culturally palatable material (and edible) depiction of the animal. The combination of corporeal and symbolic in both books enacts a textual creation
that rejects a one-dimensional metaphoric usage of the animal. This elision
is presented through an inhabitation of the ubiquitous woman-as-animal
trope, a trope evidenced by the insidiousness of animal names for a female
human: cow, bitch, and crow, a place where a complicated combination
of symbol and material resides unharmoniously inside and outside of language. Both Hill and Reines use the consequences of this metaphor—a
damaging and enforced marginalization through language—to refer to the
material consequences of such a marginalization. In Hill’s A Little Book
of Meat , the female human narrator refers to herself as “a squeal-battered
piglet at Heathrow” (21),4 she wakes up “heavy with desire / like sacks of
meat” (6–7), and thinks of herself “alternately chewing and drooling, like
the cow” (6). In Reines’ The Cow, this is written explicitly, as in “ITEM”:
A cow is a name for a heavy woman or a woman with sloe eyes. Cow is a
common epithet for a slow woman or clumsy woman; a woman with a foul
smell. A thick-lipped woman, an unintelligent woman.5 (5–7)
Elsewhere, and with an assumption that the reader will recognize the
woman-as-cow trope, Reines balances the bodies of cow and woman
around lines that blur the material specifics of who is being referred to.
In “BLOWHOLE”, sexual violence against women is connoted alongside
the bolt-gun violence exerted on a cow before she is killed for slaughter:
“Liquid shoot into her skull and leak out her eye hole. […] Moistest mouth
is cow’s mouth sorrow face normal” (9–11), and again, in “ITEM”, where
she asks “What do you call the meat around a cunt” (12), dehumanizing
the body of a woman while dismembering the body of a cow.
Human and animal body are merged not only to complicate the poetic
intentions outlined—to make visible otherwise invisible violences by underscoring the material implications and assumptions of metaphor—but also
to complicate who is being subjected to violence, and who should take
precedence as a “victim”. By aligning the body of the female human and
the body of the animal for these reasons, a level of identification is enacted
between them and their treatment. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol
J. Adams critiques the metaphoric stand-in of animals for female human
bodies (specifically, female human bodies subjected to violence) with her
theory of the absent referent. The theory of the absent referent is primarily
used in critiques of societal consumption of animal products, where the
absent referent names “the literal being who disappears in the eating of
dead bodies”.6 However, the concept is also relevant in critiques of the
use of metaphor, specifically metaphors of women subjected to domestic
violence wherein a woman is described as an animal, and this animal then
becomes “the absent referent in images of women butchered, fragmented,
or consumable”.7 The trope could be detrimental to both writers’ poetic
intention if seen as a reinforcement of a linguistic structure that subjugates both the animal—by her being used as a metaphor for a figure who
exists above her in society’s speciesist hierarchy—and the human, by erasing
instances of violence specific to women.
Yet against the agricultural landscape of these poems, the coupling of
woman and cow becomes integral to their poetic project. I argue that by
actively inhabiting this problematic trope they are then able to critique it.
Chelsea Grimmer notes that Reines “borrows the metaphor of womanas-cow”,8 yet Reines’s intention is to effectively prove how the successful
function of the animal as a symbolic referent has overtaken its material,
worldly body, so that we might see the problems inherent in its very materiality, as Shukin does when she unpeels layers to reveal the violence written into a word like film. By evidencing the worth of this trope, both poets
prove the speciesist violence inherent in the common stand-in of animal for
woman, so that they may undermine and critique both this language and
the poetic structures that easily house this language. In effect, this reverses
Adams’s critique by reinstating the animal’s presence within the language
structure; it is presented as reflexive evidence of itself, the trope’s material
origins emphasized in the somatic consequences that both Hill and Reines
insist upon: these poems bulge with shit, guts, blood, glands, semen, tallow, carcasses, worms, piss, and milk. This merging of material reality with
linguistic function then enacts a critique and exploration of the aforementioned “disjunctive discourse”.9 Readers are forced then to confront the
existence of bodies in poetry who, because of metaphoric relegation, are
now formed in and emerging out of the “spectral state”.10
“The Poisoned Nuance that Started Everything. It
was from Eating Ourselves”: Ariana Reines’s Mad
The Cow has been noted for its linguistic innovations, relying on, in Chelsea
Grimmer’s words, “decentered grammar’s rhetorical power to construct a
female human experience resistant to dominant modes of more linear and
hierarchical ideologies”.11 Reines’s incorporation of “found” texts and the
appropriation of pre-existing material feeds into this, a practice that Marjorie Perloff says “works precisely to deconstruct the possibility of the formation of a coherent or consistent lyrical voice, a transcendental ego”12 —a
philosophical concept historically implicated in the marginalization of animals. Taking the definition of the lyric poem as outlined in The Princeton
Encyclopaedia of Poetics, that, “in modernity, the term is used for a kind
of poetry that expresses personal feeling (G.W.F. Hegel) […] indirectly
addressed to a private reader”,13 then it is not that Reines rejects this private
address, more that she works to just deconstruct a singular and consistent
lyric voice to create a poetry that is multifaceted. It is in the latter part of
the The Cow where Reines frames text from the report Carcass Disposal: A
Comprehensive Review, where large chunks of appropriated text intersect
with more lyrical assertions:
A grain of brain. The day’s bowels emptied out into the window white
light. I was no one and I was not going to be. They let me out today but I
have to go back tomorrow and I will. I don’t want them to hurt me more
than I already know how to handle. (1–14)
The experimentations with voice within these more intuitive, “poetic” parts
gesture aesthetically to the sound and feel of the sections of collaged text
via their syntactic disruption. Reines’s intention, perhaps, is to disrupt the
locus of subjective experience, to oppose a normative linearity and create
an alternative experience outside logical modes of representation that feed
into the animal-consuming status quo. The fourth poem, “BLOWHOLE”,
is an early example:
Because of remembering where or what you ovum gasp and burst. First he
spit on my asshole and then start in middle finger and then the cock slid in
no sound come out, only gaping, grind hard into ground. (1–3)
These lines we might read with a corrective, or grammatically-sound foreknowledge, looking for a misplaced word after “you”, or an indication of
ownership tacked on to the pronouns, yet this fractured syntax is intended
to both destabilize representational sense and indicate a layered materiality.
Grimmer reads these textual disruptions, where logical syntax glitches and
is tampered with, as creating “a poetics that focuses on bodily experiences of
the world as opposed to what is perceived as traditionally logical, thoughtoriented experiences […] embodiment at the syntactic level—a ‘creaturely’
poetics rooted in the physical performance of language”.14 Reines then,
with her self-reflexive mat of creaturely materiality, is both gesturing to
a corporeality and writing it. Playing on the history of animal flesh as a
platform to represent itself, the body parts she talks about—ovum, cock,
and finger—are both laid out on the page for consumption, and, via their
linguistic dislocation, mingle with the page as though intrinsic to it, evidencing the unavoidable fact that the history of bookmaking is inseparable
from the expropriation of animal flesh. Within these idiosyncrasies, Reines
engages in more typical poetic devices that gesture to their own materiality—like rhyme—complicating her experimentations with representation
further. “Grain” and “brain” are words that signify actual substances, and
by their being aligned in visual and aural rhyme, create an aural and textual substance external to representational meaning; here, the ain sounds
become tangible, deepening the bodily-ness of the text. Reines choice of the
measurement “grain” also holds material histories within it. Gesturing to
the industrialisation of food stuffs and human-made measurements, Reines
offers us a gory repurposing of the Blakean invocation “To see a World in
a Grain of Sand” (1) in ‘Auguries of Innocence’, urging the reader to see
how the infinitesimal is compounded in larger systems, yet lacking the plea
for Christian enlightenment that would have been Blake’s impetus.15
Reines’s textual slippages mean that semantics become corrupted, separating the word from what it may otherwise attempt to signify. Her refusal
of representational denotation means that the text often feels as though it
is undergoing a linguistic dissection, emphasizing the many sections that
thematically anatomize bodies, as in “BILLET”, where a cow’s stomach
appears independently from any mention of a body: “Cannot have a ‘the
world’ but can have millions of guts through which the / maize and antibiotics of ‘a world’ are forced to pass” (6–7). Revisiting “BLOWHOLE”,
body parts are unhoused from both their signified body, and the logic of
the textual body that is signifying them: the singular ovum; “the” cock,
not his or her cock; finger; asshole; millions of guts, all become disembodied objects, gender, and species side-lined. This assembly of dismembered
body parts is a key aspect in Reines’s building of a new creature purposefully formed in the spectral state: the consequence of a corrupted symbolic
and material being. In this she calls to mind Carol J. Adams’s theory of
the absent referent. The animal is the invisible but underlying component
to contemporary flesh eating, and Reines lays the textual groundwork for
one of the primary symbolic manifestations of the animal in contemporary culture—as meat—to be attached to its material reality—which is also
meat—in order that she might begin to create a new referent. Meat in
the supermarket is as untethered to a symbol of the animal as much as the
body parts floating around in Reines’s poem: “Through butchering, animals become absent referents. Animals in name and body are made absent
as animals for meat to exist”.16 Reines shows the process of how the absent
referent is made; sliding from a symbolic being to dismembered, consumable parts. Meat within her poems figures both as a symbolic representation
of the animal that separates us from the real animal, and a material aspect of
an animal. Meat is something akin to the poetry she is making—a material
product that contains ideas of the animal as symbol, which is, by its very
nature, consumable.
The collusion of identities that Reines builds is often a tangible oscillation between the brutalized body of the animal and the body of the
female human subjected to violence, relying on the pervasiveness of the
woman-as-cow trope. Grimmer outlines this, arguing that Reines’s mode:
“insists upon a species hierarchy that inscribes the cow’s status as the new
absent referent, remaining tied to the very forms of violence that she critiques”.17 And Reines explicitly chronicles the metaphor’s significance, in
“ITEM”: “The signifier of the cow is / much more popular than, for
example, the signifier of the bull, despite / the Spanish, the Minoans,
Georges Bataille, Picasso, etc., at least in / terms of the production of cheap
goods” (116–119). Yet it is in her textual experimentations and reflexivity that she works variously against metaphoric subjugation. In “ITEM”
again, a woman called Edna is profiled for her various Holstein cow themed
ephemeras, part of the “huge market for tchotchkes of the cow persuasion”:
“cow bunny slippers, cow tableware and underthings, cow telephones, cow
clocks”. She is described as “sweet Edna”, who lived “in mortal terror
of Earl”, who would take himself on binge drinking sessions, and during this time “would piss and shit in a / corner” (126–127), after which
Edna would have “cleaned up after him” (128). With the context of Edna,
the comparison between human women and cows has explicitly failed—a
framework that perpetuates the subjugation of both, with implications of
violence against them. Is it the “tchotchkes of the cow persuasion” (113)
making Edna feel she is worth nothing more than to clean Earl’s piss and
shit, in a house where, we are told obliquely “The walls were full of /
holes” (130–131)—aligning her with, and thus subjugating alongside, the
position of the animal? Or is it instead the very nature of the comparison
that enacts itself upon her—the metaphoric construct itself, as opposed to
what it signifies, that is subjugating Edna, through the damage and violence inherent in a subjugating language structure (as in the word film)?
The active visibility of this trope in a poetics that otherwise aims to dismantle hierarchies in language is critiqued by the nature of its framework:
a disintegration of sense, a disentangling of meaning from symbol. Reines
highlights the damage of this metaphoric subjugation by framing it with
a critique of the representational sense that would usually surround it. In
this, she makes the absent referent present, which “disables consumption
and disables the power of metaphor” in Adams’s words.18
Representational modes are critiqued alongside physical states of the
animal. The creature she enacts has not evolved “naturally” into its current
state; it is a representation of human influence on animal biology via genetic
modification and drug use. A lifeform or a kind of living that Timothy Morton’s claims exists “between a variation and a monstrosity”.19 This visible
yet corrupted referent is dependent on the processes and consequences
that both caused and resulted in its being. What Reines creates is a figure
that accepts and works from a damaged materiality; it is a textual fleshing
out of the “active spectral state”20 of Pick’s Creaturely Poetics. In Reines’s
focus on Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or “mad cow” disease—“the brain-wasting /
disease associated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy that fills the
/ brain with holes” (133–135)—we see how she enacts the consequences
of a material body’s enforced invisibility. In “ITEM” again, Reines aligns
herself with the largely accepted theory that Creutzfeldt-Jakob is caused
by an “unnatural” cannibalism, originating with industrial cattle feed that
consists of the body parts of other cows:
Mad cow disease was discovered in the United States for the first time in a
Holstein cow that was too sick to walk but was nonetheless slaughtered and
sold for meat. The mad Holstein’s brain and spinal column were sent to a
rendering plant somewhere, possibly to be turned into dog or chicken food;
possibly to have its blood rendered before being fed to young calves as a milk
supplement. (146–151)
The corrupted and cannibalized carcass of a cow forming the basis for
the body of another cow is perhaps the most disturbing and plainly written manifestation of the animal as material for its own existence. Here
lies the focal point of Reines’s hybrid figure, bringing with it the material
implications of being made invisible, via symbolic relegation: a now visible, interspecies sickness. I return to her generative phrase “grain of brain”
as an early indicator of these cannibalisms. An industrially raised cow eats
grain; she also eats brains, bodily matter which is then digested and utilized to help the cow function—fueling and becoming their own, living,
eating brains, which are in turn, then eaten again, becoming brains, etc.
This Möbius strip of an image creates a micro-cosmos of reality for both
cows and human—eat brains, become brains, eat brains. Not just another
way that Reines indicates bodily poetics (though here a self is literally eaten
so that it may become matter, both poetic and material), this line indicates
the literal and unsustainable substance on which Reines’s referent feeds—
its own self: “The poisoned nuance that started everything. It was from
eating ourselves” (13). Contamination emerges through a constant consumption of self. The corrupt being that is born is a manifestation of the
consequences of material for its own representation in a society where violence towards animals is all at once invisible, but also massive, mechanized
and industrial.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob is a way for Reines to centralize the otherness bound
up in how beings are treated as invisible sources of material. She shows the
repercussions of violently forcing a physical entity—entities that produce
scat, disease, and corpses—out of sight. When she writes, “If there is shit
on the outside of the animal, this is shit’s / chance to make contact with the
inside of the animal. Therefore, disease. / Disease is not the only derivative
of her” (83–85), there is an appeal to see the animal on her own terms,
not through a capacity to make a visible population sick. For it is only
when epizootics like Creutzfeldt-Jakob seep out into the normative, nonmarginalised populations that animals, and the violences they are subjected
to, become briefly and temporarily visible. For Reines, language is not a
means to represent, but an object of representation, as reinforced by Perloff:
“Again, to build one’s discourse on citation is to regard language less as
a means of representation than as the very object of representation”.21 In
Reines’s poems, language structures are shown to be complicit in violence,
oppressions, and marginalisations. Reines rejects a poetry that operates
around the currency of symbol, a rejection of the “transcendental ego” that
enable hierarchical power structures detrimental to the animal and human,
to be perpetuated: “This is real poetry because it’s a vat of signification.
What is made to pass through. / It’s language, it looks and sounds like
language. Dissolve me” (24–25). Her initial statement here, that what she
is talking about is “real poetry” is instantly undercut by her command to
“dissolve me”. She wants to eradicate any authorial or hierarchical structure
present in the writing.
---Casserole It?”: Selima Hill’s Gendered Slaughter
On the acknowledgments page for Selima Hill’s A Little Book of Meat ,
she thanks her grandmother’s cow Bluebell, and her “faithful dog” Birdie,
“both currently uneaten”.22 Although this sentiment in prose stands apart
from the verse that follows, this drawing together of two species that hold
divergent significance to humans is a gesture towards the thematic concerns
to come, concerns on the position of the symbolic and material figure of
the animal. The poems are linked by a narrative framework, most poems
speak from an “I” that is followed throughout, and in early poems, the
environment of the speaker is a nurturing, peaceful, “gingerbread-mixing,
/ geranium nursing, / fancy-breed-raising” (11–13) utopia. The book’s
second poem, “Little Sisters”, inducts us into this organized, rural matriarchy. Here, “girls growing up into women” (2) are “Up to their angelic
necks in steers and guinea fowl […] their dresses smelling of church” (1V6).
Whereas The Cow emerges from an landscape of industrial farming practices, with no acknowledgment of an Edenic precursor to the wasteland
it engenders, the small-scale animal husbandry of A Little Book of Meat
invokes associations of ancient agriculture practices, or more contemporaneously, encouraged actions against the industrial complex—arguments
for “sustainability” (what Morton critiques as “Infrastructural Maintenance”,23 evoking such paradoxes such as “humane slaughter”).
This landscape changes with the arrival of a disruptive “stranger”, who
we are told from the blurb is a travelling slaughterman, who enters the
narrative in the third poem “Auction Day”. While the speaker of the poem
is “quietly doing nothing” (1), she describes “something irresistible” (5)
(at this point, ungendered, but identified as male in the ninth poem “How
Many Men”) lurching into her life, “something unknown, from nowhere,
with eyes like Alaska” (7). We are told in the second poem that the only
“males” the sisters know “are bulls and cobs”, and the stranger’s arrival
causes such confusion that the speaker asks, “So what am I supposed to
do, Our Lady / — casserole it?” (13–14) While Hill and the reader are
versed in the subjugation of both women and animals in a patriarchal society, this community is not. Gender roles appear only in theatrical appropriations of them (the poem starts with the speaker manicuring Guernsey
cows for “Registered-Guernsey-Cow Auction-Day” [4]). Here, eating animals is imagined as a peaceful and communal activity, neither gendered
nor violent. There exists no difference between casseroling a pig, cow,
or human—male or female—and as such, the speaker’s question dissolves
contemporary patriarchal and speciesist notions as we know them, and an
alternative structure is indicated.
Derrida claims that the dominant schema in regards to consuming animals is inherently patriarchal and speciesist: “Authority and autonomy […]
attributed to the man (homo and vir) rather than to the woman, and to
the woman than to the animal”.24 Hill, then, is adapting the criteria which
demands that “in order to be recognized as a full subject one must be a
meat eater, a man, and an authoritative, speaking self”.25 Here, it is the
body of the woman who becomes the full subject, not only by way of
her eating meat, but through her suggestion to eat a man, now relegated
to the state of the marginalized animal or woman, displacing Derrida’s
concept of carnophallogocentrism. With Hill’s final indeterminable pronoun—“it”—the casseroled man complicates who or what is allowed to
be a subject, and “it” rises out of the dish, a combination of embedded
symbolic representations of an animal—corrupted now, as if looking at a
glitching photograph—alongside an insistence of its materiality (casserole).
We receive this inversion of the absent referent as a surreality—Hill is often
cited for her surrealism26 —a surrealism that could be borne from these
tactics of inversion. Human material becomes entwined with animal flesh
in this biotic casserole, and Hill uses societal associations of cannibalism to
make plain an inherent violence in carnism. With a realization of how Hill
reaches her absurd lyricism (subverting a hegemonic order), the parallels
to The Cow are clear: the concept of the absent referent is proven by its
inversion, and as such, inhabited, complicated, and critiqued.
Hill’s surrealist tendencies on a thematic level are clear. Yet she is also
working to embed surrealism syntactically. In “A Small Hotel”, we see this
practice in what initially looks like a randomization of images:
My nipples tick
like little bombs of blood
someone is walking
in the yard outside
I don’t know why
Our lord was crucified
A really good fuck
makes me feel like custard. (1–8)
As opposed to Reines, who breaks sense via grammatical and narrative ruptures, Hill shifts complete, “logically”-sound sentences across the surface
of almost random images as though scanning a landscape through a peephole. This engenders a manipulation of representational sense as she resists
the inbuilt “logic” that may be delivered via a complete sentence. Instead,
these accumulated images build an alternative logic, a poetry that then
sits, as with Reines’s, outside of usual symbolic uses of the animal. In Los
Cocodrilos de Méjico, she claims “Of course I know that I’m not a curledup shrimp / lost in a world of nothing but snow and ice” (1–2), and in
“What do I Really Want”, she talks about her “one-legged, mown-down
peacock” (1). The animals in the collection are wrenched from symbolic
meaning by a surreal framework; animals are not there to communicate or
denote feeling to a human reader, they are actively scrambling and shifting
the associative connotations of themselves.
Although A Little Book of Meat begins with pastoral visions of farm
life, with “daughters who think they understand everything, / who practice fudge- and crystallized-violet-giving” (18–19), and “mashed-up meal
and scrambled egg” (12), the arrival of this stranger enacts a Biblical fall.
The introduction of female desire (the desire of the speaker towards the
stranger) initiates a subjugating force, a force which destabilizes the organic
rural homestead and moves into visions familiar to us from The Cow, of
industrialized and automated animal slaughter:
I think about you all the time. I think:
that you live in a world of meals cooked by cooks;
that someone like me’s quite wrong for someone like you;
that I owe my energy to the squashed pituitary glands
of thousands of little pigs butchered daily
at the Armour Packing Plant in Chicago, Illinois.
And in my dreams you’re giving me Chicago.
And in my dreams I’m resurrecting pigs. (1–8)
The difference between the speaker and the stranger is marked clearly by
a comparison between those who have an intimate relationship with the
animals they consume (in that they rear it, harvest it, slaughter it themselves)—no cooks—and those who don’t—with cooks. In what we can see
as an inversion, or perhaps a reclamation, of masculine associations with
meat and being “a full subject”27 in A Little Book of Meat , peace comes
from the existence of a shared communion between female humans and
animals with an acceptance that the animals will be eaten, something that
directly correlates to what Berger believes has been lost through the “existential dualism” of our relationship to animals. Once, they were “subjected
and worshipped, bred and sacrificed”, and now
the vestiges of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and
depend upon, animals. A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is so glad to
salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger
to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by
an and and not by a but.28
We can directly align the “Little Sisters” of Hill’s poem with the “peasant” in Berger. And as with Berger’s conclusion, that “every tradition
which has previously mediated between man and nature” is now broken,
by “twentieth-century corporate capitalism”,29 so the “fall” or separation
we experience in Hill’s poetry is introduced alongside an example of this
influence: brand named pharmaceuticals. We are told that the speaker owes
her energy to pigs squashed in the Armour Packing Plant, historically, one
of the most successful meat packing plants in America.30 We can assume
that she is referring to the brand name supplement Armour Thyroid, a supplement derived from the thyroid gland of a pig used in the treatment of
hyperthyroidism. Armour Thyroid’s name derives from its origins as a byproduct of early intensive meat production at the Armour Packing plant.31
For the speaker, and for Hill, the masculine figure has introduced aspects
of industrialization and automation, away from the communal matriarchal
living of the previous structure, and this omission implicates the speaker in
an industrialized meat industry. The line between animal and female, from
this point forward, is blurred. She oscillates between aligning her experience with the cows: “I live in a world of cows insane with longing. / Mother
has made us a pond we can lie down in” (21–22), and merging bodily with
them: “I think of me / alternately chewing and drooling, like the cow”
(5–6). Hill evidences a speciesist chain of agency (a reinforcement of the
Derridean concept of the speaker wherein authority is ascribed to the man
over the woman, and the woman over the animal), to reflexively prove it.
Her primary Edenic and matriarchal environment was perhaps only ever
there so she could critique an inevitable industrialization.
We then see in A Little Book of Meat the impact of patriarchal capitalism—and all that engenders; corporate influence, intensive animal agriculture and violence, and finally, as in The Cow, sickness—in real time,
as she re-establishes Derrida’s and Adams’s ideas of the normative, meateating, patriarchal status quo. The thousands of pig glands required for the
speaker’s energy reinforces a speciesist hierarchy, which introduces guilt
and shame, as the speaker attempts to resurrect the slaughtered pigs in
her dreams. The fall from grace enacted at the hands of female desire
is Biblical in its association. Early on in the collection, a figure who we
can assume is the male stranger is initially hinted at as a Christ figure,
there to “redeem” them (26), and culminates in an inherent and inherited
female shame. Sickness becomes inextricably bound up with these feelings of shame and desire; in “Desire’s a Desire”, the speaker says “My
skin is white. / I neither eat nor sleep. / My only desire’s a desire /
to be free from desire” (27–28); in “Me”, a girl (“me”, the speaker) is
described with skin “yellow and blotched, / and something wrong with
her legs” (5–6); and in “I Want to Run Away”, her face is “disfigured”
(4). Although this is not as tangible a sickness as in The Cow (which is
interspecies, named, and propagated by a corrupted food chain), the significance of the Armour Thyroid supplement here represents interspecies
sickness: an unnatural relationship existing between speaker and pigs (taking supplements derived from their anonymous bodies), which has allowed
the introduction of corporate external influences, like in The Cow, which is
populated with brand names: “WR2 TISSUE DIGESTER SYSTEM” (6)
Both Reines and Hill, through their varying poetics, ensure that the
material consequences of an animal-made-symbol are foregrounded, for
the figure of both the animal and the woman. Their poetries act as both an
exploration and a critique of the address towards the animal in poetry, as
Reines explicates: “To address a carcass is to liquefy it. This is real poetry”
(10). The differences between the two books and their approach towards
a certain metaphoric gaze can perhaps be attributed to their publication
dates. Grimmer notes that The Cow “reveals and problematizes the biopolitics of gendered life in a post 9/11 landscape”,32 while A Little Book of
Meat was published three years after the publication of Carol J. Adams
seminal The Sexual Politics of Meat. Both texts reflect dialogues happening around the idea of patriarchy and carnism specific to the time, and in
both collections, it is the concept of sickness that comes to represent to
the reader a contemporary and disordered relationship to animals. These
sicknesses stem from amalgamations of an animal-female hybrid, a figure
formed in the spectral state of an oppressive language structure, formed
from undermined representations of themselves, a body made out of the
processes that have been used to exclude them. These figures in both The
Cow and A Little Book of Meat, if not empowered, are at least existing on
their own terms, through the lens of their own broken gaze.
Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” 16.
Shukin, Animal Capital, 111.
Pick, Creaturely Poetics, 108.
Hill, A Little Book of Meat .
Reines, The Cow.
Interview with Carol J. Adams.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, xxv.
Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent,” 67.
Shukin, Animal Capital, 111.
Pick, Creaturely Poetics, 108.
Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent,” 67.
Perloff, “Can(n)on to the Right of Us,” 463.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition, 826.
Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent,” 75–76.
Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 506.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 20–21.
Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent,” 79.
Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 79.
Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People (London: Verso, 2017), 43.
Pick, Creaturely Poetics, 108.
Perloff, “Can(n)on to the Right of Us,” 463.
Hill, “Acknowledgements,” 5.
Morton, Humankind, 37.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 280–281.
Calarco quoted in Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, 6.
This surrealism is noted extensively in criticism on Hill, and on her Poetry
Archive page, “Selima Hill is perhaps best known for her surrealism,”, accessed 22 April 2019.
Adams talks at length about the associations between patriarchal societies
and meat eating in The Sexual Politics of Meat: “Meat eating societies gain
male identification by their choice of food […] vegetables and other nonmeat
foods are viewed as women’s food,” 4–5.
Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” 16.
29. Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” 12.
30. Pierce, A History of Chicago, 117–131.
31. “Armour Thyroid” has kept its name through a number of sales
between different corporations, meaning, as with the word “film”,
the origins of the name have been obfuscated. As reported in
The New York Times on 6 July 1977, Revlon Inc. bought the
Armour Pharmaceutical Company from Armour and Company, which
at that time was a subsidiary of the Greyhound Corporation, having acquired the company from Armour in 1970 (New York Times, 6
July 1987,, accessed 2 April 2019). Revlon’s drug programme was then sold to the Rorer Group, as reported in 1985 (New
York Times, 30 November 1985,
30/business/rorer-buys-drug-unit-of-revlon.html, accessed 2 April 2019),
who then sold the rights to three drugs, Armour Thyroid, Thyrolar and
Levothroid, to Forest Laboratories, who presently hold the rights to the
drug (New York Times, 3 January 1991,
01/03/business/company-news-rhone-sells-rights.html, accessed 2 April
32. Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent,” 67.
Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Berger, John. Why Look at Animals? London: Penguin, 2009.
Blake, William. The Complete Poems. London: Penguin, 2004.
Bessie Louise, Pierce. A History of Chicago, Volume III: The Rise of a Modern City
1871–1893, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Cruedele, John. “Rorer Buys Drugs Unit of Revlon.” New York Times,
30 November 1985. Accessed 2 April 2019.
Derrida, Jacques. “‘Eating Well’, or the Calculation of the Subject.” In Points …
Interviews, 1974–1994, Jacques Derrida, edited by Elisabeth Weber, translated
by Peggy Kamuf et al. California: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Earthling Liberation Kollective. “Carol J. Adams—‘Politics and the absent referent
in 2014’—Neither Man Nor Beast.”
continue=155&v=sjkhmJ5FQaA. Accessed 2 April 2019.
Grimmer, Chelsea Rebekah. “Reading Against the Absent Referent: Bare Life, Gender and The Cow.” Pacific Coast Philology 51, no. 1 (2016).
Hill, Selima. A Little Book of Meat. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 1993.
Morton, Timothy. Humankind: Solidarity with Non-human People. London: Verso,
Perloff, Marjorie. “Can(n)on to the Right of Us, Can(n)on to the Left of Us: A
Plea for Difference.” In The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology, edited
by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, 460–476, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins
University Press, 2014.
Pick, Anat. Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
The Poetry Archive. “Selima Hill.” The Poetry Archive. https://www. Accessed 2 April 2019.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition. Oxfordshire:
Princeton University Press, 2012.
Reines, Ariana. The Cow. Albany: Fence Books, 2006.
Reuters. “Company News; Rhone Sells Rights.” New York Times, 3
January 1991. Accessed 2 April 2019.
“Revlon Set to Buy Armour Druz Units.” New York Times, 6 July 1987. http://
Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. London:
University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Narrative Possibilities in Ruth Ozeki’s My
Year of Meats
Sarika Chandra
The question of how, why, and with what consequences meat is produced
and consumed, has moved into the mainstream of popular culture. In this
trend, especially notable since the 1990s in the form of television talk shows
that offer cooking lessons to news reports, meat has become central to conversations about weight loss, the ills of the beef industry, environmental
crisis, and general concerns about health and longevity. To understand this
phenomenon and to address the urgent political questions at stake in meat
production and consumption, we must also think, about the current narrative possibilities of meat as such. Meat narratives, it appears, have become
a way to narrate and convey the urgency of the crisis of global capitalism
itself. Many of the “meat narratives” since the 1990s have taken the form of
documentary and journalistic exposés.1 These tend to focus on the ills that
plague the agribusiness factory-farm system and especially those of the beef
industry, whether it is the use of antibiotics in beef production, the U.S.
government’s trade disputes with other nations over hormonally treated
S. Chandra (B)
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
beef, or—topping the list of course—bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), better known as mad-cow disease. This surge in social and cultural
prominence of meat in documentary form has been coeval with novels
in which meat production and consumption is central to its storytelling,
for example, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello, Jonathan Safran
Foer’s Eating Animals, and the object of my analysis, Ruth Ozeki’s 1998
novel My Year of Meats .
As a contemporary novel, My Year of Meats conveys a different sensibility than did older novels that took up this theme. For example, Upton
Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle furnishes an indelible image of the horrors
of the meatpacking industry. The novel’s central narrative depicts, through
the literal slaughter of animals, a figurative (if also sometimes literal) slaughter of the workers. The storytelling in both novels traverses geographical
spaces, sutured by the networks of capitalist production and circulation,
intersecting through and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. Sinclair maps out the turn-of-the-twentieth-century interconnections between
global land expropriation, the resulting emigration from Europe, along
with the oppressive conditions in the meatpacking work on both humans
and animals. Though The Jungle spurred the reformulation of the Food and
Drug Administration into a consumer protection agency, the consumption
of meat itself—apart from the obvious sanitary considerations when sausage
was as likely to contain factory-floor refuse and human remains as it was to
contain the flesh of animals—did not yet, for Sinclair, enter into the larger
picture of industrial-capitalist pathologies. Published over ninety years later,
Ozeki’s novel moves beyond the slaughtering and packing concerns to the
horrors of capitalist cattle raising itself and the disastrous consequences of
consuming meat. The characters in My Year of Meats navigate a world in
which labour and other commodities including media images must circulate
in a global network when national boundaries have become newly reconfigured within a contemporary transnational frame. Critics such as Emily
Cheng and David Palumbo-Liu, in their analysis of the novel, emphasize
the importance of reading the novel in relationship to the 1990s extended
U.S. trade-networks especially with the Asia-Pacific region. Palumbo-Liu
draws out the implications of the story told against the imperialist circulation of U.S. produced food commodities. And Cheng underscores how
the novel explores the reassertion of cultural and ideological dominance
of United States “against an imagined looming decline of the U.S. economy”.2 This imagined decline, as Cheng argues, expresses itself as a waning
of U.S. culture with the rise of Asian economies and the tenuous incorporation of Asian Americans within national narratives of inclusion across
axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality”.3 The novel attempts to map
notions of race, gender, and sexuality in relationship to not only the crisis
of industrial production—as measured by their impact on labour—but also
to the planetary crisis of the environment unfolding as part of the capitalist world trade system in which meat producers/packers/consumers, and
meat itself—in its living and non-living form—takes centre stage. Emerging from and conversant with the structures of the reproduction of late
twentieth-century capital, My Year of Meats attempts to direct our attention to the contemporary conditions that continually reproduce meat as a
My argument focuses, more specifically, on the questions the novel raises
about the narrative form that the crisis of meat assumes. What makes My
Year of Meats particularly illuminating for a discussion of the narrative possibilities of meat is that it itself, in effect, functions as an exposé in the form
of a novel. My Year of Meats gives narrative form to the contradictions at
the heart of the capitalist organization of society via a story woven through
the processes of beef production and consumption. However, the book
eventually retreats into imagining alternative ways of living within existing
structures, and at the same time, reducing the questions it raises about
gender, sexuality, and race to one of better consumer choices premised on
multicultural politics centring non-normative subjects and practices. The
novel’s plot envisions and dramatizes solutions to the problems related to
beef production by developing characters that adopt alternative lifestyles to
industrial meat consumption based on their “diverse” backgrounds. And
significantly, it champions the idea that the broader knowledge about the
meat crisis is best produced and disseminated via a documentary exposé
about its ill effects.
An engrossing and highly informed account of the global beef industry,
My Year of Meats weaves a complex tale that connects multiple locations
as far apart as New York and Tokyo. Living in New York, the protagonist, Jane finds herself out of work as a documentarian and takes a job
as a production coordinator with a Japanese television show called “My
American Wife” (“MAW”). The show is sponsored by the U.S. BEEF-EX
company, represented by Joichi “John” Ueno in Japan,5 and is designed as a
venue for marketing American beef—with its own domestic market already
saturated—in beef-wary Japan. Jane helps to conceptualize and film the
episodes in the U.S. before they are sent over to the Japanese editing team.
Each episode of the show features a white American housewife cooking
meat—preferably beef. But the essential idea behind the show becomes
the promotion of “normative American values” as an indirect ideological vehicle for selling American beef in Japan.6 In the novel, it is Ueno’s
wife Akiko who represents the Japanese wife, stereotypically submissive and
abused by her husband for being unable to conceive. Believing that eating beef will cure her of her infertility, Ueno commands Akiko to watch
every episode of “My American Wife” and to reproduce all the recipes in
her own kitchen. Meanwhile, unhappy with the way that the shows are
focusing exclusively on white American families, Jane negotiates to plan
and direct episodes herself. She manages to direct a few episodes focusing
on more “diverse” families and, in the process, begins to uncover the horrific and deadly side of the meat that BEEF-EX has hired her to promote.
In the end, she breaks ranks and films her own documentary exposé on
the subject, exposing both the fraudulence of “My American Wife” and
the sinister reality of BEEF-EX and the meat industry itself that ends up
cancelling the television show altogether. The novel, as such, stages a struggle between Jane’s multicultural narrative of the US and Ueno’s normative
vision; it resolves this struggle by Jane’s move to produce the documentary
exposing the beef industry. Some scholars writing on My Year of Meats have
understood Jane’s non-normative episodes of the “My American Wife” as
Ozeki’s attempt to critique a neoliberal multicultural politics.7 And significantly, they (with the exception of Palumbo-Liu) read Jane’s documentary
exposé as a site of resistance to the narratives that uphold global capitalism.
Shameem Black, for instance, suggests that the documentary is grounded
in a feminism that is “local” and “embodied” as opposed to the feminism
of the “mediated circuits”.8 Along similar lines, Cheng understands the
exposé as radically different from a “project of multiculturalism in the late
1980s and 1990s or a civilizing project of saving women of colour and
non-Western women, as was Jane’s work with MAW!” The documentary,
she writes, “is instead a critique of the ruthlessness of capitalism that is
spurred by a feminist framework and might be read as an alternative feminist project that contends with the embeddedness of race, gender, and the
body in structures of capitalism”.9 As opposed to “My American Wife”,
what makes the exposé a more radical project of political change, according
to the critics, is its departure from multiculturalism. Even for Palumbo-Liu
who does not read the documentary as necessarily a vehicle of progressive
politics, he is in agreement with other critics that the exposé marginalizes
the multiculturalist narrative of the novel.10 In contrast to the idea that the
documentary offers a feminist critique of global capitalism or multiculturalism, I argue that it is through this advocacy of the exposé form that the
novel stages a retreat from its own poignant questions, inadvertently calling
into question the limits of the exposé form. Although, the exposé narrative does not explicitly rely on multicultural ideals, it becomes the ground
for the novel’s retreat from the connections it has been making between
various spheres of social life leading it back precisely into a consolidation
of alternative multicultural lifestyles.
From the outset, Ozeki’s “meat narrative” is a story of how meat itself,
in order to circulate as a global commodity, must continuously transform
itself into a narrative. If we are to understand how it is that Ozeki’s novel
has the potential to narrate the contradictions in the broader system of production, it becomes necessary to analyse the different modes of narration
present within its own structure. The action of My Year of Meats is conveyed
by means of what appears to be the elementary device of a double-frame:
(1) The outer, diegetic or off-camera frame and (2) the intra-diegetic camera frame. The off-camera frame of the novel contains the three different
camera frames within the novel as follows: (2A) the first set of “My American Wife” episodes, most closely aligned with the BEEF-EX ideology, on
which Jane works as a mere production coordinator (I will refer to this as the
BEEF-EX narrative); (2B) the somewhat heterodox, dissident “My American Wife” episodes directed by Jane; and (2C) that of Jane’s documentary
exposé itself. It is through the off-camera frame that contains but is not
formally isomorphic with the camera frame of Jane’s fictionalized exposé,
that the reader replicates Jane’s own increasing awareness of the unfolding
meat catastrophe. As a result, she gains—in principle—the perspective from
which it is possible to place meat production and consumption within the
framework of its social relations. But despite the apparent simplicity, even
conventionality of this device, these differently framed narratives come to
relate to each other in a manner that is simultaneously overlapping and
The BEEF-EX narrative through the camera frames of the “My American Wife”, outwardly at least, acts as a kind of foil, the object of the novel’s
considerable will to satire and dramatic irony. In the format of a heavily doctored TV show, “My American Wife”, according to Ueno, must
focus on “the meat (not the Mrs.)” (8). The “Wife of the Week’s” only
importance is that she be “attractive, appetizing, and all American” (8).
Through the American housewife, “the Japanese housewife will feel the
hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional
family values symbolized by the red meat in rural America” (8). Here, as
previously noted, meat, in itself, serves a narrative function, with the wife
now reduced to playing a supporting role: it is the meat that is narrating the
wife, “America” and its “family values”. From Jane’s (and, to a large extent,
the reader’s) point of view, this narrative is pure kitsch, transparent for its
lack of imagination and un-reality, serving up a beef-eating, rural America
as the repository of what is itself a seemingly edible menu of wholesome
family values.
The second camera frame (2B), made up of the episodes of “My American Wife” directed by Jane, appears to shift its standpoint into closer proximity to that of the off-camera frame (at this point presumably congruent
with Jane’s and the reader’s standpoint as well). These new episodes of “My
American Wife”, shot by Jane, are presented as if self-evidently opposed
to and more progressive than the original BEEF-EX showcases. Jane purposely chooses to film the meat-eating stories of families that are apparently
antithetical to the BEEF-EX image in order to expose the farcical, if not
toxic nature of the beef industry’s idea of American family wholesomeness.
Among them is a family of Mexican immigrants, a family with a daughter in
a wheelchair, and even a mixed-race, vegetarian, same-sex couple with two
children—material that Jane, already embarked on a course that will lead
her to subvert the reality TV meat narrative, considers to be an “amazing
opportunity for a documentarian” (27). I will return to these episodes in
more detail below.
However, it is the third camera-narrative (2C) that of Jane’s documentary exposé itself, towards which her guerrilla-TV tactics will ultimately
lead her. For, according to the novel, this is the medium that will purportedly allow for framing the “reality” that remains hidden in the BEEF-EX,
reality-TV-as-infomercial format. Jane gets her opportunity to make such
an exposé when, under pressure from her BEEF-EX higher-ups to focus
on a “normal” family after her foray into the (non) meat-eating habits of
“diversity”, she seeks out the Dunn family, owners of a cattle farm in Colorado. The family consists of father John, his wife Bunny, and their five
year-old daughter, Rose. Gale, John’s son from a previous marriage, takes
care of their farm. While Jane is there to shoot the footage of wife Bunny
preparing a standard menu of American beef, she comes to learn about the
ills plaguing the farm. In this last shoot that Jane will direct as an employee
of BEEF-EX, her gradually amassing knowledge of the far-reaching U.S.
beef tragedy culminates as she discovers that Gale feeds his cattle everything from “recycled cardboard, newspaper” as well as “by-products from
potato chips, breweries, liquor distilleries, sawdust and woodchips”, up to
and including offal from the slaughterhouses themselves and the illegal
hormone DES, used to accelerate the process of fattening up the livestock
(258). Jane, seeing her chance to expose BEEF-EX once and for all, proceeds to document how close proximity to such hormonal agents has in fact
resulted in Rose’s horribly premature puberty: she has grown breasts and
has started menstruating. The novel ends as the covert documentary filmed
at the Dunn ranch is sent to various new media, becomes a sensationalized
news item, gets aired internationally, and leads to the cancellation of “My
American Wife”. With this, Jane’s reputation in the world of journalistic
reportage is finally established. The truth about meat production and meateating in America has seemingly triumphed over the commercialized hype
and falsehoods of “My American Wife”.
It is the double-frame device that clearly enables My Year of Meats to
realize some of its narrative and critical possibilities by setting what amounts
to an exposé within the dramatic (and here necessarily fictionalized context)
of its production. The unexpected reality of what Jane and her crew discover
at the Dunn family cattle farm, although it eventually finds its way into
Jane’s career-making exposé, is initially discovered off-camera. This is what
makes it possible, formally speaking, for such realities to step outside of what
would have become their localized and exceptional form within the generic
frame of the exposé proper, connecting them to the larger system of capitalist
production and consumption and its underlying social contradiction. The
various camera frames, on the other hand, are clearly shown to retreat from
and undermine this connection.
In the scandalous story of the Dunn family the deadly ironies of this
contradiction, in a kind of fictionalized re-discovery of mad-cow disease
on the level of its underlying social conditions of possibility, are on full display.11 Jane and her crew arrive at the Dunn ranch to film Bunny cooking
up a meal of BEEF-EX’s prime commodity. But the Dunns eat their own
beef, fed on Gale’s recipes of refuse, offal, and DES, and, as the off-camera
narrative reveals, Rose’s precocious sexual maturation is the result. Moreover, when Jane and her crew object to Gale’s illegal practices he does not
miss this opportunity to object that such methods are common practice.
He even chronicles “scientific developments in feed technology” that have
come up with “plastic hay” (259). “Profit’s so small these days”, he tells
them, “you gotta deal in volume, and without the drugs we’d be finished”
(263). Besides, Gale has heard it all before, from none other than his own
father John, who admonishes him for his naïveté: “Used to be you waited
till the animal was sick or needed it before you pumped ’um full of drugs.
Them scientist of yers, they git their paychecks from the pharmacooticals
and they’re all in cahoots with the government” (263). But while John
seems to have a better understanding than his son does of the politics of
meat production, the consequences of eating meat produced in this way
never occur to him.
None of these interactions are filmed, either for the BEEF-EX episode or
for the subsequent documentary exposé. But the novel shows that the total
separation between consumption and production is not simply a matter of
the physical separation of consumers and producers but of the theoretical
and critical connections that need to be made between the various practices
engaged in and the choices made by even just a single individual. Poignant
in this regard is the fact that Gale, while being portrayed as an unscrupulous zealot when it comes to turning a profit, is also shown to be unaware
of the consequences of administering drugs like DES on his own body: he
has developed “enlarged breasts” and DES has “elevated his vocal [cords]”
(278). Meanwhile it is appropriate that during her work on the Dunn family ranch Jane makes the connection between her own struggle to conceive
and carry a child to term (ending in a miscarriage) and the fact that she has
a “deformed uterus” resulting from DES given as a miscarriage prevention
drug to her mother when she was pregnant with Jane (274). An already
sinister image of the American heartland is further accentuated by the narrative of Jane’s increasing knowledge both about her own vulnerability
to factory farming and its environmental degradations, including severe
topsoil erosion and other, extreme forms of pollution caused by the meat
industry. Formally speaking, the novel shifts the question of meat from the
merely fact-gathering, journalistic plane of the exposé to a broader, and at
the same time a more concrete plane of social reality, a plane on which the
social connection between relations of production and consumption can,
in principle at least, be made. In My Year of Meats not only are its ill effects
on animals themselves shown but also the realities of how meat-farming is
feeding into our very inability to reproduce ourselves. As such the novel is,
at the very least, able to raise the question of what should be done about
the widespread problems it uncovers. However, it shifts the focus onto a
version of popular American multiculturalist, alternative life-stylism. In the
process, the outer, off-camera frame, within which My Year of Meats as a
meat narrative promises to transcend the limits of the meat exposé genre,
recedes back onto and finally merges with one of its inner, camera frames,
the frame of the exposé itself.
How is it that this reversal comes about? The answer, I propose, lies
in the novel’s ironic faith that the line between off and on-camera reality
is a temporary, provisional one. Despite her growing distrust of BEEFEX and commercialized reality TV—a process dramatized and conveyed
to the reader via the double-frame device—Jane nevertheless considers the
camera lens itself to be, in principle, ideologically neutral. Nothing in My
Year of Meats questions or ironizes that belief, and the novel comes close
to suggesting that the camera itself has truth-telling abilities. Here again,
the climactic episode unfolding on the Dunn family cattle ranch requires
analysis. Consider for example the way that Jane and her crew are alerted
to Rose’s premature sexual development. One day, after filming at various
locations around the farm, Jane and her crew are reviewing the day’s footage
when they notice something sinister in the scene showing Gale playing with
his half-sister. “Gale had wrapped his thick arm around her. His forearm
supported her back and his hand held her in place tight around the stomach,
partially hidden in the folds of her dress…” (269). Zooming in on this
frame, the crew realizes that “resting on the callused edge of her halfbrother’s hand was a pronounced swelling which had looked like bunched
fabric at first but now, up close, had the weight and heft of a woman’s
breast” (270). In horror, Jane and her crew realize for the first time how
the hormones Gale feeds his cattle are affecting life on the ranch itself,
including Rose. Production has become consumption. But, although the
setting for this moment of recognition is, in a scene allusively recalling
the film Blow-Up, the photographic darkroom, the novel does not exhibit
Antonioni’s caution towards the belief in the literality of representation.
Not just for the inner but for the outer-frame of MYM as well, the camera
lens here acts as a neutral probe used to discover the real rather than to
shape a particular reality in the very process of its detection. The novel takes
this as a moment of unadulterated truth before the latter has a chance to
be manipulated by BEEF-EX and reality TV. The exposé, in this way, is
re-positioned as the best possible medium for imagining and executing
change. And this is precisely, as I have noted above, how critics have read
this aspect of the novel. But, ironically, it is precisely the re-framing of
Jane’s exposé that then leads the novel to retreat from its critical standpoint
towards structural problems into notions of alternatives within the existing
This too is disclosed by the Rose/“blow up” episode. The exposé Jane
decides to make after her discoveries at the Dunn ranch does not focus
so much on connecting Rose’s story to the meat industrial practices, but,
cloaking itself in the language of shock, on the more immediate scandal of
the little girl with breasts. After the discovery in the editing room, Bunny
decides to help Jane by letting the crew film Rose while she and the rest
of the family are asleep. As the camera rolls, Bunny pulls up the Rose’s
T-shirt to reveal “two shockingly full and beautiful breasts” and her “pubic
bone, where suddenly, like grotesque graffiti, her skin was defaced by a
wiry tangle of hair” (276). In addition to this storyline, the documentary
also exposes Gale’s role in the cattle farm scandal.
While the novel moves towards connecting the question of sexual abuse
to the broader question of meat production, Jane’s exposé focuses on
the exceptionality of the scandal itself and localizes a structural problem.
Although it contains information about the use of illegal and toxic drugs in
cattle farms and slaughterhouses, the focus is entirely diverted to the criminal personalities of people like Gale, leaving the inevitable impression that
something that is in fact widespread is, again, an exception. After the documentary is aired, Bunny informs Jane that Gale “fessed up to everything”
at the USDA office including his confession to “injecting the cattle with
[DES]” (357). It seems that, even after portraying this larger structure in
the lead-up to what is effectively the climax of the camera framed narrative,
the novel only implies an objection to Gale’s methods insofar as they are
illegal and extreme. Politics framed within the juridical legal/illegal opposition has been subject to sharp critiques from scholars of environmental
and animal theory. Critiquing the liberal rights-based conception that governs animal lives, Dinesh Wadiwel, for example, argues that the human and
animal distinction rests upon an ongoing war on animals through a variety
of means that are not necessarily recognized as war. Juridical animals rights
such as freedom from “unnecessary suffering” both ensures and renders
exceptional the routine violence and domination of animals upon which
the human animal relationship is built. Understood through this framework, My Year of Meat ’s focus on the illegality and exceptionality of Gale’s
practices is a departure from transformative politics that might link the varied oppressions. Instead, here the question of systemic crisis is shoehorned
back into ideals of individual retribution and redress.12
The novel certainly runs into the possibility of understanding how sexual
assault is connected to the structures of capitalist reproduction, and mapping the interrelated forces of misogyny, environmental crisis, and the violence against animals and humans. However, it is significant that none of the
problems of environmental degradation that emerge in off-camera frame
episodes such as the above-cited conflict between Gale and John over politics, the pharmaceutical industry, research, etc., make it into the frame of
the fictionalized exposé—and that this glaring contradiction is not subject
to the least bit of ironization in the novel. And though the novel’s initial
dramatic framing of Jane’s documentary gestures towards the systemic connection between production for profit and consumption for the sake of that
production, it undercuts this because some of these explanations are voiced
through the character of Gale himself. This limitation of Jane’s documentary only addressing the symptoms is exacerbated by the fact that the novel,
in its authorial, outer, off-camera frame, considers the documentary exposé
to be immune to the kinds of doctoring and manipulation caricatured in
the “My American Wife” shows. The novel’s end with Jane’s documentary
being leaked to the news media, resulting in both the cancellation of “My
American Wife” and Gale’s confession, serves as closure to not only the
novel but also to the broader social questions raised throughout the novel.
The episodes of “My American Wife” directed by Jane before her documentary transformation already suggest as much. As mentioned earlier,
back in Tokyo, Akiko reproduces the meat dishes from “My American
Wife” episodes for her husband “John” Ueno, and it is through the eyes
of her character, off-camera, that the novel conveys the actions within the
on-camera frames of “My American Wife” programs. But, as we shall see,
notwithstanding the increasingly critical and exposé-like content of “My
American Wife” as Jane uncovers the real pathologies of “Beefland” USA,
Akiko interprets the “human-interest” pathos of Jane’s TV narrative as one
more reason to embrace the American culture of meat. That is, for Akiko,
along with Jane, the novel’s on- and off-camera frames effectively merge.
The first of “My American Wife” episodes that Jane directs features
Mexican migrant workers Alberto and Catalina Martinez. Seven years earlier, they had immigrated to Texas, where their son Bobby is later born
and where, through farm and factory labour, they scrape enough money
together to buy a small farmhouse. This is a poignant choice of family here
since it is, after all, largely migrant workers from Mexico like the Martínezes
who work the “disassembly lines” in the slaughterhouses that put the beef
on the dinner tables. But for Akiko, the story of the Martínezes is evocative of the same “freedom and opportunity” narrative that, when it is not
brute necessity itself, lures migrant labour into the slaughterhouses. This
narrative, eventually, in its liberal version, lures her to the U.S. too. The
alternatives to beef-eating (and beef-producing) hinted at by the still cautious and aspiring radical documentarist Jane, bound by her Faustian bargain with BEEF-EX and “My American Wife”, become, for Akiko, merely
alternative ways of eating beef seasoned with multiculturalism, here in the
form of “Texas-style beef burritos”. The images of little Bobby Martínez
standing “in the middle of a waving field of wheat, smiling shyly up at
her and offering her an enormous pig” (63) fill her with emotion, and she
rapidly takes down the Martínez family recipe for Texas beef-burritos.
It is Jane’s final episode (never aired, but seen by Akiko) with Lara and
Dyann, a racially mixed, vegetarian couple in same-sex relationship that
proves decisive—Jane gets fired and Akiko is moved to leave her husband
after becoming pregnant through forced sex. During the filming, unaware
that “My American Wife” is sponsored by BEEF-EX, the couple explains
off-camera their decision to stop eating meat: “we’re vegetarians by default,
I mean we like meat, like the taste of it, but we would just never eat it the
way it’s produced here in America. It’s unhealthy. Not to mention corrupt,
inhumane, and out of control, you know?” (177). Lara and Dyann are
presented as savvy consumers, educated in the politics of meat, choosing to
provide their families with the seemingly better option of vegetables. There
is no mention here, of course, on or off-camera, of how the production of
vegetables has also turned into something deadly. While another novel by
Ozeki, All Over Creation, addresses the issue of the genetic modification of
plant-based foods, MYM does not appear to have space for such thinking.
Here the novel comes close to asking the question: why eat meat at all?
But the answer is to eat vegetables that are grown in accordance with
the dictates of the same globalized capitalist production process that has
turned meat into a toxin. In the edited version of the Lara and Dyann
episode, vegetarianism becomes another version of a cultural alternative to
the BEEF-EX message.
What Akiko sees in the episode are two women, choosing to live a life
that skews the same heterosexist, racist, meat-eating family values that she is
forced by her abusive husband to uphold. She watches the women declare
their love for each other and their children on-camera (181). Dyann, the
“black woman”, says that she “never wanted a man, never wanted to get
married to a man”. But then she met Lara, and, she says, fighting back her
tears, “I got it all” (181). Akiko watches as the “white woman” reaches over
and touches Dyann’s cheek. The two little girls throw their arms around
Dyann. Akiko gives in to it all and starts to laugh. The “My American
Wife” theme song swells, confirming the couple’s domestic joy with televised closure. Cut to a BEEF-EX commercial showing sizzling steaks, the
“vast American landscape” and declaring it all to be another inspiring story
of “Beefland!” But the ironic juxtaposing of the meat commercial with
the Lara and Dyann episode is more ironic than the novel itself seems to
realize, as it is this episode that clinches Akiko’s desire for an America that
is “Beefland” for her as well. Finding herself crying and rocking back and
forth after watching the censored episode, she assumes it is out of fear of
her husband’s mood when he returns from work, sensing that “it might be
wise to throw away the recipe for Pasta Primavera right away and perhaps
serve a Beefy Burrito instead” (ibid.). However, “it was not just fear of his
[John’s] anger or even of getting hit. As she watched the sun set on the
vast American landscape—‘Beefland!’ the logo proclaimed—she realized
that her tears had nothing whatsoever to do with John. These were tears
of admiration for the strong women so determined to have their family
against all odds” (ibid.). Formally, the novel associates Akiko’s thoughts
about her abusive husband with “Beefland”. However, the episode itself is
associated with almost mythic qualities of freedom for Akiko.
Because of its critical, alternative and exposé-like edge, Jane’s TV meat
narrative has convinced Akiko that her future lies in the less repressive
atmosphere of the U.S. She flies to New York to meet Jane, who, along
with Lara and Dyann, promises to help her cope with her imminent singlemotherhood. The Lara and Dyann episode, bringing to a close Akiko’s life
of abuse, implies that a multicultural alternative lifestyle is the only real
weapon in the battle against “Beefland”. As Akiko travels around the U.S.
by train to visit some of the families featured on My American Wife, we get
the following narrative:
Leaving Louisiana, the train headed back up north, into Mississippi, Alabama,
Georgia, the Carolinas. As she stared out the window, she whispered the
names of the Deep South to herself, matching their syllables to the rhythms
of the train. No wonder people sang songs about these places: deep-blue
swamplands, cloaked in tattered mists; enormous fields of tobacco and cotton
and wheat, forming horizons, bigger and more American than anything.
But isn’t this just a “Beefland” commercial without the cut to the raw, red
steak sizzling as it hits the frying-pan? The “Beefland” once associated with
John has now, it seems, been converted into an ideal. It reiterates the image
of America as a place of hope that immigrants carry to the US. The “family
values” image of rural America that BEEF-EX exploits to sell meat now
becomes a place in which to escape from these very same values. However,
people working tobacco, cotton and wheat fields also suffer under extreme
exploitative conditions. Embedded in this contradiction is the irony that
a novel whose action spans a global network positions a domestic version
of multicultural values to sell the “real” values of “Beefland” to a Japan
embodied in the figure of Akiko. In a roundabout way, seemingly unsuspected by the novel itself, meat, in the end, narrates not only the wife, but
her liberation and self-discovery as well. “America” doubles as “Beefland”
and as the shimmering land of “opportunity” and “freedom” to Akiko.
For My Year of Meats meat truly is the message, that is, even when its
“alternatives” are extolled, since the “alternatives” themselves are America,
and America is…meat. Akiko cannot read the pathologies except as pathos
and sees no contradiction here. This is the irony that eludes My Year of
Meats, despite its own relative ironic distance from such narratives. By this
point in the unravelling of the official, corporate scripting of “My American Wife”, Jane attempts to incorporate the “human interest” realities she
uncovers directly into the televised narrative itself, of turning “reality TV”
into exposé. What the reader of the off-camera frame in My Year of Meats
sees is more than what the (fictional) spectator who tunes in the show sees:
namely, Jane’s and her crew’s horrified discovery of Rose’s DES-spawned
catastrophe when they stumble across it in the editing room. The clear
sense of the novel here is that, even when it is looking for a reality “behind
the scenes”, the documentary/exposé as a genre of critique misses something. The exceptional character of the exposé leaves it, and My Year of
Meats , unprepared to discover that, were the cameras rolling all the time
and everywhere, they would reveal a world in which such exceptions had
become the norm. The flipside of this breach in the ideology of the exposé is
the previously mentioned irony, also thrown into brilliant relief by Ozeki’s
novel, of the elder Dunn’s uneasiness about farming with pharmaceutical toxins even as he continues to consume them at his own dinner table.
My Year of Meats , however, is not, finally, the narrative immanent in that
contradiction and appears to have found its way into these breaches in the
exposé form inadvertently, and, in the end, cannot help but fall back into
the alternative vision of “Beefland” that seduces Akiko.
But the narrative of meat comes back to spoil its own show. What remains
is a question of how a mode of production, that makes consumption a mere
appendage of a production carried on for the sole purpose of valorizing
capital, makes us eat and what it makes us eat. That is a question difficult
to answer, but a question to which My Year of Meats significantly charts
a path. But it answers it, finally, with a new recipe combining the same
social ingredients, and with a kind of nervous look over its shoulder at the
1. See, for example, Jennifer Abbott, A Cow at My Table (Flying Eye Productions, 1998), Shaun Monson Earthlings (Nation Earth, 2005), and Graham
Meriwether American Meat (Leave It Better, 2013).
2. Cheng, “Meat and the Millennium,” 191.
3. Cheng, “Meat and the Millennium,” 191.
4. Consider, as perhaps the classic example of meat crisis, the appearance, beginning in the late 1980s, of mad-cow disease, or BSE. The outbreak of BSE
was traced to the practice of feeding the otherwise unmarketable remains
of slaughtered cows, pigs and chickens to cattle being raised for their own
eventual slaughter. The European, and particularly British beef industry had
turned to offal as the protein source for its cattle feed because of Europe’s relative inability to produce soybeans, the main source of protein in cattle feed
in the world, in quantities sufficient to make the price of European beef competitive on the world market. That same world market became, in turn, the
destination of the infected commodities, making BSE, virtually overnight,
a world phenomenon. These reified conditions of meat production take
shape in a broader crisis of commodity relations. Over-production and the
subsequent sharpening of capitalist competition drive the global system of
production to ever increasing degrees of rationalization and globalization,
reaching a point at which the spheres of production and consumption themselves appear to exist on entirely separate planes. The deadly implications of
a globalized crisis of over-production that, in its drive to capture world markets, creates not only a glut of all kinds of commodities themselves but also
a glut of their waste products, makes it only a matter of time before a way is
sought to market that waste as well, or to recycle it according to the dictates
of capitalist rationalization.
5. This is an obvious reference to John Wayne and the kind of frontier cowboy
version of Americanism depicted in his films.
6. Emily Cheng argues that the construction of American womanhood in My
Year of Meats, presented as a model for Japanese women, firms up American notions of family against the historical backdrop of narratives of U.S.
economic decline and the rise of Asian economies in the 1990s.
7. In addition to critical work by Cheng and Palumbo-Liu, see writings by
Leah Milne, Shameem Black, and Winona Landis.
8. Black, “Fertile Cosmofeminism,” 243.
9. Cheng, “Meat and the Millennium,” 212.
10. Palumbo-Liu argues that the novel retains its critical edge through Ozeki’s
awareness of the limitations that Jane’s episodic television shows as well as
the documentary represent as vehicles of change.
11. Further instances of such off-camera “moments of truth” can also be cited.
For instance, early on in the novel, Mr. Oda, the director of “My American
Wife” before Jane takes over, is thrown into an anaphylactic shock while
eating veal at a restaurant. At the hospital, when Jane expresses surprises that
a veal chop could produce such a reaction, the local doctor explains to her
that due to the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms, people are developing
an increasing tolerance for them and “we’re headed back in time, towards a
pre-antibiotic age” (58). Jane, as a “city girl,” he says, would not associate
the use of antibiotics with feedlots. Jane as “city girl” comes, at this moment,
to stand in for the average consumer who is far removed from the realities
of the cattle farming. But this is a moment of connection that occurs only
within the off-camera frame of the novel. Meanwhile the television crew
simply captures a housewife cooking meat in her home.
12. David Pellow advocates a form of critique modeled on a “total liberation
framework” in which a variety of radical earth and animal centered social
movements have the potential to challenge interconnected forms of oppression including patriarchy, racism and imperialism. See Total Liberation: Power
and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement (2014).
Works Cited
A Cow at My Table. 1998. Directed by Jennifer Abbott. USA: Flying Eye Productions. DVD.
American Meat. 2013. Directed by Graham Meriwether. USA: Leave It Better,
2013. DVD.
Black, Shameem. “Fertile Cosmofeminism: Ruth L. Ozeki and Transnational
Reproduction.” Meridians 5, no. 1 (January, 2004): 226–256.
Cheng, Emily. “Meat and the Millennium: Transnational Politics of Race and Gender in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.” Journal of Asian American Studies 12,
no. 2 (2009): 191–220.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
———. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
Cornyetz, Nina. “The Meat Manifesto: Ruth Ozeki’s Performative Poetics.”
Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 12, no. 1 (January, 2001):
Earthlings. 2005. Directed by Monson, Shaun. USA: Nation Earth, DVD.
Foley, Barbara. Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Kilborn, Richard, and John Izod. Confronting Reality: An Introduction to Television
Documentary. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Landis, Winona. “Feeling Good and Eating Well: Race, Gender, and Affect in Ruth
Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.” In Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by Melissa A.
Goldthwaite, Chapter 10. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.
Miller, Toby. Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Milne, Leah. “‘Hybrid vigor’: The Pillow Book and Collaborative Authorship in
Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats.” College Literature 42, no 3 (Summer, 2015):
Ozeki, Ruth L. My Year of Meats. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
———. My Year of Meats. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Palumbo-Liu, David. The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global
Age. Duke University Press, 2012.
Pellow, David Naguib. Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights
and the Radical Earth Movement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Penguin. 1906. Reissue edition, 1985.
Wadiwel, Dinesh Joseph. The War Against Animals. Leiden and Boston:
Brill/Rodopi, 2015.
Crossing the Barriers of Taste:
The Alimentary Materialism of Jim Crace’s
The Devil’s Larder
Sarah Bezan
Food, as portrayed in Jim Crace’s fiction and in the annals of his memoirs, is
endowed with its own material agency. In “Have You Seen Our Chicken?”,
a quasi-Dickensian parable of a missing chicken dinner for a 2007 issue of
the Independent on Sunday, Crace recounts the disappearance of “North
London’s quietest cockerel” during Christmas Lunch, 1952.1 The anecdote begins with a tribute by Crace: “I knew that chicken personally. It was
Ferdinand…He had been pecking around the wire cold-frame in our shared
garden for two years, growing fat and complacent on our leftovers”. Due
in part to his neighbourly disposition and reputation as an “uncomplaining
bird”, Ferdinand had been granted a stay of execution at Christmas 1951,
and had spent another year “living it up on mom’s best food”, a menu that
included kitchen scraps and experimental offerings of sliced tongue and
rations of corned beef.
S. Bezan (B)
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
By December 1952, however, Crace’s father had “plucked up the
courage” to take Ferdinand to the local butcher, where he was trussed,
gibleted, and left to sit “cross-legged in the fridge”. Come Christmas lunch,
the family returns from their annual Christmas morning drink at the Bancrofts. “I can remember it exactly”, Crace relates: “the Cannon cooker
leaking smoke, my mother opening the mottled blue enamel door in her
new oven gloves (my uninspired gift), her cry of baffled disbelief when she
discovered that Ferdinand had disappeared—and that he’d taken all the
spuds, the stuffing and the roasting tin along with him”.
While the family muses that a desperately poor “throng of street urchins”
has eaten their dinner, they soon discover that Crace’s mother had, in fact,
absent-mindedly placed the roasting dish in the fridge rather than in the
oven. We learn at the close of this tale that Ferdinand was almost certainly
eaten at the family Christmas dinner table later that evening, but that the
eating itself had been entirely forgotten: “Dad must have finally taken a
knife to Ferdinand and filled our plates. My brother says he can’t ‘recall
the eating’. Nor can I”. Apart from the family’s own reluctant acknowledgment of Ferdinand’s material transfiguration (from domestic pet to dinner),
the sub-text of this meal is that seemingly inert comestibles are, in Crace’s
imagination, far from impassive. The autobiographical account of the missing roast chicken exemplifies Crace’s aptitude for good storytelling, but it
also imparts a sense of his attitude towards, and creative consideration of,
the autonomous agencies of the things we do (and do not) eat.
Much like the parable of the missing chicken, Crace’s seventh novel,
The Devil’s Larder (2001),2 ruminates on the charisma of edible matter—
or what I explore in this essay as Crace’s “alimentary materialism”. The
narrative of The Devil’s Larder proceeds as a collection of sixty-four short
stories on the subject of food, some of which in form resemble an amusebouche, a substantial entrée, or—as in the final story, which simply reads
“oh honey”—a decadent dessert. Crace calls his book a “cumulative novel”,3 while critic Ian Sansom describes it as a book of “smorgasbits: bitesize parables, folk tales, visions, whimsies, prose-poems, jokes and good
advice, wrapped up in pastry parcels”.4 Like most of Crace’s other novels,
The Devil’s Larder contains an inventive range of flora, fauna and foodstuffs that unsettle his readers by making the familiar somewhat unfamiliar.
These “fictional facts” include, as Pauline Masurel writes in her review of
the book, “the humour-inducing euphrosyne, ardour-eliminating manac
beans, shoals of tad and the love-leaf tree” (unpag.). Along with a buffet
of other oddities like angel-kissed bread dough (story 59) and garnishes
of cremated cat (story 62), these food fabulations are consigned to the
service of Crace’s teasing humour, which works to continuously keep his
readers guessing. “Trust nothing I say”, Crace advises his readers in an
interview, “but place yourself in an imaginary and testing environment
where unusual events are likely to occur and then be responsible to any
idea that offers itself”.5 Crace’s prescription for reading his fiction extends
fully to The Devil’s Larder, which, much like the novel’s opening tableau
(a short meditation on a canned good that has lost its label), evades easy
In addition to its formal innovations, The Devil’s Larder uniquely portrays food objects as materially agential forces. As a magical-realist manual
for interpreting the interventions and agencies of food and flesh (described
throughout the chapter as “edible matter”), the novel is guided by a principle of digestive upset: in each of its courses, the appearance of strange
meals produces effects (illness, death, transfers of energy and biomass) and
affects (empathy, curiosity and especially disgust) that lead to the collapse
of the natural order of things—particularly of the hierarchical relationship
between predator and prey, eater and eaten. I offer a posthumanist critique
of these unusual effects and affects, arguing that Crace’s alimentary materialism endows edible matter with characteristics of mutability and agentiality
that further become the basis for challenging the narrative of homo culinaris (the idea, held by cultural anthropologists, that “to cook is to be
human”). In crossing the barriers of taste, Crace’s sensuous book utilizes
disgust as an affective mode to rethink nonhuman and edible objects and
For instance, readers of The Devil’s Larder will note from the outset
that Crace’s gustatory tableaus convey an abject set of aesthetic values. We
must be prepared for outlandish accounts of eating, including stories of an
omelette that becomes pregnant after being mixed with ejaculate; a soup
stone that is imbued with the vegetable and animal broths of bygone meals,
becoming a molecular archive of taste; woody polyps that grow in a patient’s
bowel and become food for his doctor; and a trio of aromatic melons that
sprout from seeds deposited in a septic tank. Tracing the material forces
of these abject foods, I organize the sixty-four short stories of the novel
into categories that showcase three particular foods and elements: eggs,
salt/stone, and plants. It is through his surrealist tableaus with these peculiar
elements that Crace deconstructs the literary field of food, which has often
historically privileged the human as a superior entity in tasting others, rather
than in being tasted.
My analysis of these foods and elements is guided, in part, by Jane Bennett’s article on “Edible Matter”, which provides a new materialist and
de-anthropocentric analysis of food by illuminating its active and agential
capacities. Arguing against thinkers like Leon Kass, whose book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, posits that humanity
finds its rightful place at the top of the hierarchy of being through its “native omnivorousness” (xv), Bennett deems this view a “conquest model of
consumption” that “disregards the effectivity of not only animal bodies,
but also the ‘bodies’ of vegetables, minerals, and pharmaceutical, bacterial, or viral agents” (133). Defining edible materiality as “an agent inside
and alongside” the human that is “an active inducer-producer of salient,
public effects, rather than a passive resource at the disposal of consumers”
(134), Bennett draws on Latour’s actor network theory to make a case for
the mutability and digestibility of matter, and its relationship to a range of
other human and nonhuman bodies. I couple Bennett’s insights on edible materiality with a critique of homo culinaris and the epistemologies of
taste, suggesting that these nonhuman food agents—eggs, salt/stone, and
plants —instate an alternative set of affective responses that challenge the
appetitive order.
As a contribution to a volume that takes up the meanings of meat in literature of the past century, this chapter utilizes this lens of edible materiality
to illuminate how the animal, vegetable and mineral “meatiness” of the
novel challenges human exceptionalism. By conferring power upon food
objects to breech culturally-accepted classifications of palatability, The Devil’s Larder exposes the speciesism that undergirds what critical food studies
scholar Jennifer Fleissner describes as the intersecting concerns of “aesthetic and gustatory taste” in the genre of culinary fiction.6 The peculiar
portrayal of animal, vegetable and mineral flesh in the novel calls attention
to the multifaceted and historically-contingent usage of the word “meat”—
a label often conventionally adhered to nonhuman animals (mainly those
classified as livestock animals or as wild game, at least in Western contexts), but which also signals, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,
the “fleshy senses”, the constitution of mortal being, and the fleshiness of
non-animal food objects, including “the flesh of a fruit, nut, egg, etc.”.7
Following Nick Fiddes’s etymological analysis of the term, which determines that meat is “simply that which people regard as meat ” (3, my emphasis), I analyse how the malleability of the concept of “meat” has been used
to bolster the ontological status of the human by figuratively transforming raw flesh (coded as abject, inedible and disgusting) into fodder for the
anthropological machine.8 Drawing on the connotative pliability of the
term, The Devil’s Larder presents meat as a constellation of human, animal, vegetable and mineral forms, and plays with the affective structures
that comprise their meanings.
As such, my posthumanist critique of Crace’s alimentary materialism is
freighted with a critical engagement with taste as an apparatus of knowledge. A number of research questions guide my analysis, namely: What
does it mean to cross the barriers of taste? What is “edibility”, and how
does our categorization of things edible and inedible reify structures of
power and domination over nonhuman animals? How does taste subvert
or maintain a hierarchical knowledge of other bodies and beings as “meat”?
Does taste make us human, as Western Enlightenment philosophers attest?
By contextualizing these questions in the cultural history and philosophy of
taste, I hope to show that Crace’s turn to the abject edibility of matter tests
the limits of existing ontological categories of gastronomy and humanity.
In short, I argue that Crace’s alimentary materialism in The Devil’s Larder
advances a cross-elemental and inter-species paradigm of eating.
Patterns of Eating in Crace’s Fiction
While often obliquely political in their treatment of the body politic, Crace’s
novels gesture towards the commercialization of food, its ubiquitous presence in everyday life, and its relationship to class tensions. Crace’s earliest
novel, Continent (1986), for example, features a story in which Scandinavian villagers purchase the “magic” milk of freemartin cows (cattle exhibiting both biologically male and female reproductive systems), while Signals
of Distress (1994) narrates the aftermath of a shipwreck in which drowned
cows float “ready-salted” by the waves of sea water, like fish. All That Follows
(2010) tells of Leonard Lessing, whose loosely vegetarian diet is juxtaposed
with the “chewing politics” of anarchist vigilantism that take place (in a
notable scene) at Gruber’s Old Time BBQ in Austin, Texas: a “hot-meat
abattoir” (150) laden with “sides and carcasses, the slabs of brisket, [and]
bubbling sausages” (147). Less overtly political, Arcadia (1992) offers a
critique of the stratifications of class that shape the economics of food at
a six-hundred-year-old “Soap Market” where the protagonist, who got his
start as the suckling infant of a market panhandler begging for coins and
the “discarded fangs of rhubarb stems” (91), later dines on coddled fish
dishes and uses his wealth to rebuild the market, thereby rousing a strike by
the so-called “Soapies”, greengrocers, and market traders. In Crace’s most
recent novel, The Melody (2018), the widower Alfred Busi has his larder
raided by a homeless child and is drawn into a world of food waste and
freeganism, thereby illustrating how the practice of scavenging dehumanizes homeless populations. The Melody furthermore describes a Palaeolithic
humanity “that must scavenge on its naked haunches for roots and berries,
nuts and leaves, roaches, maggots, frogs and carrion, stolen eggs and honey” (262), and concludes with a strange and solacing scene in which Busi
inters his wife’s ashes into the soil, along with a luxury picnic of pâté, caviar,
olives, foie-gras, pastries, cakes, and dainty sandwiches.
In these novels, food and flesh intersect with expressions of desire, grief,
and survival, and explore ideas of biological sex and reproduction, capitalist consumption (and its attending economic precarities/prosperities),
counter-cultural or resistant political practices, and evolutionary conceptions of human civilization based on the striations of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Crace’s past journalistic work likely shapes his consideration
of these subjects,9 and The Devil’s Larder certainly aligns with the wider
thematic concerns of his oeuvre, yet its unique shift in scope (towards the
aesthetics of disgust) means that the conception of taste becomes a literary
strategy to probe into the entanglements of eating customs and conceptions
of the human.
Homo Culinaris and the Epistemologies of Taste
This entanglement has its antecedent roots in a deeply anthropocentric idea
of an appetitive order that was forged in the minds of classical and Enlightenment thinkers, and which continues to shape our cultural understanding
of appetite, edibility and the structures of power (mainly in eating animal
flesh) that have constituted the meaning of taste. By interrupting the operations of human exceptionalism at work within the aesthetic and gustatory
meanings of taste, Crace’s novel upsets the appetitive order, and with it
the idea that humans are singularly defined by their gastronomical aptitude
and subjugation of animal bodies as meat. This critique, then, begins with
retracing the cultural history and aesthetic philosophy of taste, which is
responsible for associating the “higher” and “lower” senses with “higher”
and “lower” animals in the hierarchy of being.
For thinkers on the aesthetics of taste (from Aristotle to Kant), the idea
that to taste is to know, and that to be human is to taste, has been a central
tenet of Western aesthetic philosophy. Giorgio Agamben’s seminal essay
on the origin of aesthetics, for instance, outlines the semantic root of homo
sapiens, which is itself etymologically derived, he writes, from the Latin
noun “sapor” (or “taste”) (4). Agamben goes on to suggest that taste has
always been slated as the lowest of human senses, posing an epistemological problem that philosophers have been persuaded to solve (3). Carolyn
Korsmeyer’s extensive work on the philosophy of taste has similarly shown
that food and eating are seemingly too base a subject for most philosophers:
she notes in her introduction to the Taste Culture Reader that Aristotle
once argued that “brutes care more about swallowing than tasting; and
only humans can reflect upon and savour their food” (2), while for Plato
“appetite is a powerful, relentless force that must be kept chained like a
wild animal lest it overtake the whole being” (Making Sense of Taste, 14).
In the cultural history and philosophy of taste, including Hegel’s lectures
on aesthetics, Burke’s treatise on the beautiful and the sublime, Schiller’s
Aesthetic Education of Man, and Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,
taste became a primary characteristic of the development of aesthetics as
a science of sensation or feeling; a cultivated sense of “taste” that would
further set apart “civilized man” from his nonhuman counterparts.
The speciesism at the heart of these philosophical ideas on the aesthetics
of taste can still be palpably felt in the history of gastronomy and evolutionary anthropology. Famed French gastronomist Jean-Anthelme BrillatSavarin declares in The Physiology of Taste that “animals feed themselves;
Men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating”.10 In anthropological
studies, eating has figured into a study of the evolutionary advantages of
cooking (and cooking meat in particular) as the reigning purview of Homo
sapiens. We are all perhaps familiar with images of hominid species gnawing
away at a roasted limb before a glowing fire in a comic strip, or with the
dusty diorama of a Neanderthal sitting astride a felled antelope in a natural
history museum. As a case in point, the front cover of noted British primatologist Richard Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us
Human, bears the image of a primate wearing a pleated chef’s hat, serving
as a visual representation of Wrangham’s claim that humans emerged in
evolutionary history as “the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame” (14).
Echoing this assertion in a publication for National Geographic News,
neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel insists that “much more than harnessing fire, what truly allowed us to become human was using fire for
cooking” (unpag.). According to Herculano-Houzel, eating cooked food
enabled homo sapiens to develop larger brains, and therefore, more sophisticated cognitive faculties. However, there is a key aspect of this study that
some anthropologists sidestep: that the cooking of food often involved
the cooking of animal flesh. We learn from Nick Fiddes’s book, Meat, that
anthropological studies of homo culinaris avoid this key aspect of consumption in the evolution of cooking. In Fiddes’s review of the work of LéviStrauss, he argues that this ethnological work “purports to demonstrate,
among other things, how fire universally transforms food from a natural
state to a cultural state demarcating, he argues, the emergence of humanity…[But] the point missed is that Lévi-Strauss largely fails to acknowledge
that in most cases he is not discussing the cooking just of food, but particularly the cooking of animals” (15). Understanding Fiddes’s argument as a
rejoinder to the anthropocentrism of the majority of anthropological work
in the past century, it is clear that homo culinaris is interminably inscribed
into the meaning of food and the epistemologies of taste.
In this history of cultural anthropology, the term “meat” is instrumental to the evolutionary narrative of homo culinaris : it can be regarded as
a rhetorical remnant of the anthropological machine that relies on these
significations (that is, of the early hominid becoming human in the act of
killing animals and cooking meat) as evidence of human exceptionalism.
Understood this way, the application of the word “meat” to nonhuman
animals has only served the purpose of reinforcing the human’s supposed
mastery over nature as food, and furthermore distances the human from
any associations with edibility, animality, and mortality. If it is the case, as
I have argued elsewhere, that eating meat poses an abject threat to human
self-subjectivity by crossing bodily borders (from outside to inside),11 then
it is worth considering how animal flesh, which Fiddes argues is one of
“the likeliest potential foods to nauseate us…the gristle, the blood vessels, the organs, the eyes” (17–18), can be classified as “meat” and thereby
transformed from that which is “disgusting” into that which is “edible”.
Obfuscating the mortal finitude of the human (who is similarly composed
of guts and gristle), the apparatus of taste is one that attributes privilege
into the evolutionary history of homo sapiens, often at the expense of mainly
nonhuman animal bodies that have been relegated to the lower echelons
of the appetitive order of nature.
The rhetorical repurposing of animal flesh as “meat” in the evolutionary narrative of homo sapiens finds its foundation in the human’s mastery
of nature; a mastery wielded by a relationship between humans and food
that is moderated by the operations of taste. This relationship is tethered
to digestive practices of eating others (i.e. those marked as “meat”) that
are thought to be the distinguishing characteristic of homo sapiens, but
are a part of a larger philosophical project of consuming animals, as Kelly
Oliver articulates in Animal Lessons: “animals appear in these [philosophical] texts as either ideal or abject ancestors and, as such, are corralled into
a past belonging to man…Ultimately, on the conceptual level the animal
is sacrificed for man, and on the literal level, animals are sacrificed for the
sake of men. Animals metaphorically and literally fortify and sustain man”
(2). In the cultural history of taste, the human is defined by its mastery
over that which it deems edible, resulting in the literal and metaphorical
fortification of the human.
To cross the barriers of taste, then, is to upset the appetitive order and
to muddle the lines that structure the inside and outside of bodies and
the spaces between species and elements. In The Devil’s Larder, disgust
becomes an affective vehicle for breaking down the fortification of the
human. Much like the sublime, an affect associated with experiences of
terror, pain or awe inspired by landscapes or natural phenomena, disgust
moderates the relationship between the human beholder (or eater) and the
environment. But unlike the Kantian sublime, which serves as an extensive
component of the rational mind, disgust unsettles, rather than merely discerns, the qualities of a beholden object in its relationship to the human.
More than simply the dialectically-conjoined twin of desire (as Sianne Ngai
argues),12 or a primal tool for the eater’s recoil from abject nature, where
“man strays on the territories of animal ” (as Julia Kristeva proposes),13
disgust produces an aesthetic value that challenges our judgment of taste,
often through the breakdown and edification of life and its animal, vegetable and human forms. Following Korsmeyer, who writes that disgust
“can be the occasion for reflection, for it provides insight about its objects
in a manner peculiar to itself” (Savoring Disgust, 3), I propose that the
treatment of food in The Devil’s Larder self-reflexively draws attention to
the very structures that bind and bend the categories of edible and inedible matter, inspiring a renewed fascination with the things that have been
deemed to be absolutely other or inferior to the human.
Digestive Upsets: Eggs, Salt/Stone, and Plants
The Devil’s Larder is a table set with beguiling dishes: with each successive
course, the reader is presented with a fabulist cornucopia of food objects
that apply material force on those who dine upon them. Fruit grown in the
summer heat transfers its “buried heat” through the “laws of physics” (story
22) and an offering of flour on a stone rises and bakes in the sun (story
59), while a mini-pastry of “country-canned asparagus” poisons a boatman,
throwing his corpse overboard into the sea (story 39). But despite the
disparate and shifting index of foods that appear in each story, the novel’s
postmodernist and magical-realist elements result in effects and affects that
station edible matter as an actant capable of upsetting the appetitive order.
Story 3 of The Devil’s Larder sets the scene for Crace’s alimentary materialism, illustrating how ideas of flesh and edibility can be attributed unexpectedly to seemingly in/edible and nonhuman food objects, and to the
human itself. In this story, readers are confronted with a strange scenario:
“united by a single appetite” for bush meats (5), five men are presented
with hors d’oeuvres of “soft-bodied spiders, swag beetles, forest roaches”,
and the “curried cuissardes of frog” (6), yet insist that “we are seeking
something more extreme than frog, something prehistoric, hard-core, dangerous, something disallowed where we come from. We mean, at last, to
cross the barriers of taste” (7, my emphasis). After their dinner, the men
stumble back to the forest pathway from whence they came, aware that it is
now they who have become “fair game” for predators that lurk in the dark,
including dogs, snakes, flies, wasps and even cadavers that they imagine will
“rise up from the undergrowth and seize us by the legs” (8). Portraying
the slippage between the eater and the eaten, story 3 acclimates readers
to the possibility that ostensibly impassive food objects or animals deemed
“prey” will challenge the constitution of the human. As the novel unfolds,
Crace’s alimentary materialism invites us to consider the creative transfers
of biomass and energy that do not issue from the human as the pinnacle of a
quaternary structure of predation but as one of the many edible organisms
that are enfolded in the web of life.
Pointedly conveying this notion of life is the egg: a slimy, pregnable,
and muculent substance (a tripartite form of hardened shell, firm yolk and
slippery albumen) that serves as a binding agent for baked goods and as a
foodstuff for both highbrow and lowbrow eaters. Story 12 describes eggs as
the central backdrop of a meal that is scraped together “in these hard times,
in these slow months between the winter and the rain” (34), imparting an
embodied empathy into its human diners. The poverty of the eaters runs
in parallel with the egg-laying hens. While the diners “dream of work and
cash and ranging free”, they also buy sanctioned eggs from free-range hens,
with labels printed on their cartons guaranteeing that:
These eggs have been produced by hens that are
Protected from extremes of heat and cold;
Free from hunger and thirst;
Free to range and forage on green pasture from dawn to dusk;
Free from pain, injury and disease;
Free from fear and distress;
Free from discomfort;
Free to express themselves. (34)
The playful and poetic label that is adhered to the carton demonstrates an
odd parallel between the affective temperament of the hens and the eaters
of eggs who, by close of the short story, “stay at home and contemplate
the life of hens” (35). Seemingly moved by the effect of eating eggs, the
eaters of story 12 are affectively transformed into a mode of contemplation.
Operating at the periphery of this short story is the gendered labour of the
hens themselves (or what Susan Squire calls the products of “liminal livestock” in our “gendered agricultural imaginary”),14 which, true to Crace’s
oblique political standing, never fully come to the fore. But as an ovum of
new life, the egg figuratively germinates seeds of insight into other forms
of fleshy being, conveying a sense in which the effect of eating eggs creates
the affect of empathy in the eaters themselves.
The affective register of eggs is heightened later in the novel (in story
41), this time invoking surprise and disgust in its readers. In a brief story of
five lines, we read that “spitting in the omelette is a fine revenge…But take
care not to masturbate into the mix” (126). As the mixture is heated, it
becomes “quick and lumpy, until they could outwit [the man]…by leaping
from the pan with their half-wings and running down the lane like boys”
(126). Like the last story, part of the sub-text of this story is gendered,
relating (at least in magical-realist terms) how a mixture of eggs with a
man’s ejaculate results in a kind of half-human, half-hen hybrid in Crace’s
perturbing tale. Yet this story serves once again as an admonition to his
readers of the similitude of these material substances: as a binding agent,
the egg has the absurd effect of creating a disgusting conglomerate of male
ejaculate and the fertile product of hens, begging the question: What kinds
of outcomes, besides being eaten, is edible matter capable of creating?
Similarly multifaceted in a form (between liquid and solid), salt and
stone appears in Crace’s novel in order to represent the edibility of the
human and the embodied memory of stone. Stories 17, 27, 56, and 59
toys with the idea of salt and waste, along with the memory and aftertaste
of stone as a mineral agent that ascends from the sea to become edible
matter. Story 17, for instance, offers an aperitif in the form of dinner party
icebreaker: “Imagine it. You’re on a raft, the two of you, three days from
any land…What do you drink to save your lives? Sea water, or your own
urine? Will you take pass or brine? Decide. You’re caught between the devil
and the salt blue sea” (52). While the wife will choose her own urine, the
husband will drink sea water. Lips white with salt, he will fill a can with
urine for his wife, but “so long as he drinks sea, preferring universe to self,
she will survive unscathed” (53). The story reveals the affinity that bodies share with one another and their environments: as salt is passed from
one element to another, imbibed from one body to another, the human
becomes edible. Likewise, story 27 represents salt as both a tool of the
kitchen and a constitutive component of the human body. This story features a team of girls who utilize salt, spices and eventually their own urine,
for “prick-teasing” razor clams. At the end of the story, the girls’s teacher
demonstrates the process, as observed (through binoculars) by their boss:
“I’d caught her squatting on the flats, her skirts held up, her underpants
pulled clear, the urine sinking at her feet. The clams for that night’s customers were springing up between her legs” (85). In tasting the bounty of
clams, the teacher claims that she could taste the spices and other kitchen
spoils used to collect them, such as jam, cinnamon, pop, curry powder and
pickles (85). Sexual euphemisms aside, the razor clams serve as an archive of
taste, collecting and retaining flavours that are “smuggled…into the flesh”
(84). This idea extends to the soup stone of story 56 and the flour stone
of story 59, which produce magical effects by storing “memory and aftertaste” (170) that are transferred to other bodies. The narrator of story 59
declares that the flour stone has seeped into the forest itself: “I fancy I can
smell a bakery…There’s yeast in rotting fruit. There’s dough in mulching
leaves. Tree bark and fungi stink of bread” (182). Similarly, another scene
featuring salt and stones outlines the nutritive qualities of those elements
for a couple buried under a collapsed roof. In this precarious position,
the man and woman lay beneath the boulder clay, sucking on stones and
becoming enfleshed with their histories. We read that “the old man and
his wife stayed strong with stones. Their bodies grew as gelid as the earth
and they could feel their stomachs filling, the slow transfusion into them
of rain and sun and harvest crops” (146). What will at one time be their
final resting place, the cold clay is for the couple a protective capsule that
fills them with heat and nutrients, emphasizing the relationship between
human and humus; dirt and flesh. In these stories, the intersection of the
“fleshiness” of environments and of elements establishes a cross-elemental
and inter-species paradigm of eating through the embodied memory of salt
and stone.
A bounty of plants also appear in Crace’s collection of stories, from
manac beans that swell genitals (story 10) to a crabapple tree that tastes of
an embittered romance between lovers of opposing villages (story 5) and a
love-leaf tree that boasts of a 7-year maturation period before being used
as an aphrodisiac (story 50). While these stories evoke curiosity or desire
and produce a range of effects, stories 33 and 57 rely on scatological tropes
to portray the edibility and mortality of human flesh. Story 33 features the
beachside garden of the late Mrs Schunn, whose toilet waste has “produced
three verdant, aromatic melons and a healthy patch of tomatoes” (101).
The now-deceased Mrs Schunn continues to germinate new life in her
garden through her remaining waste, yet in a strange reversal, one of the
melons (which is given to the narrator as a gift) is figuratively transformed
into a mouldering corpse. We read that “the melon darkens, softens, ages
on my window shelf. The raised embroidery that nets the skin is losing its
rigidity. There is a bluish mould around the puncture of the stem scar. The
sap is leaking from a split. Already I can trace the brackish odour of decay”
(102). There is a tender analogy created in this decay that brings the body
of the dead Mrs Schunn into the circle of life, figuratively representing
the fleshy (de)composition of human and vegetable life. This disgusting
analogy is recreated in story 57, where an eighty-three-year-old man sees
his doctor about tuberous growths in his gut. Doctor Gregor removes
the tough and starchy polyps that resemble a kind of tuber or Jerusalem
artichoke, and eventually eats the planted offshoots au gratin with bacon
curls or as the featured vegetable of his Monday soup (176). We soon learn
that when the man dies, laying “on his back in shallow water” from the
running garden hose, he smells “damp and earthy”, like vegetation (173).
These characters embody a kind of “meaty” edibility (in the broadest sense
outlined by the OED) in their figurative ties to vegetation and earth, much
like the eggy and salty assemblages created in the other tableaus. The taboos
of cannibalism and coprophagia elicit disgust, but the use of edible matter
(animal, vegetable and mineral) in these scenes serves as a metaphor for
the human, which is no longer the taster but the tasted. As the motor of
Crace’s alimentary materialism, these sulphuric, slippery and scatological
symbols present a rebuttal to the idea that a cultivated sense of taste with
regard to food will elevate the human in the hierarchy of being.
Conclusion: Gastronomical Animals, Vegetables
and Minerals
If Cora Diamond is correct in her assertion that “we learn what a human
being is in—among other ways—sitting at a table where we eat them”
(324), then Crace’s novel illustrates how a cross-elemental and inter-species
paradigm of eating can turn the tables on human exceptionalism. In its
bizarrerie, The Devil’s Larder surprises and disgusts readers, but it also
shows us a surrealistic slant on the world where the appetitive order is
burst apart, oozing like the pulp and sap of Mrs Schunn’s rotting melon.
It could perhaps be said that in exploring the full range of the definition of
“meat”, Crace effectively undermines the ethical structure that gives individual lives and species meaning (in turn rendering flesh indistinguishable
and forgettable, as with the parable of the missing chicken).15 However, the
play on meat as edible materiality in the novel (from eggs to salt/stone and
plants ) also reveals how nonhuman and material ontologies might upset
the digestive order altogether through the affective experience of disgust.
It is by crossing the threshold of taste that Crace’s novel persuades us
to re-consider the meaning of meat. While Crace also manages to inspire
empathy, curiosity and desire, his novel’s lingering interest in disgust rivets
our attention, drawing our attention to the fleshly frailty of the human body
in particular, which has often been rendered as an impenetrable force as a
predator and meat-eater in the appetitive order. Crace’s alimentary materialism issues us into that “imaginative and testing environment” that makes
us responsible readers—responsible to the real and fictional worlds that
exceed human ends and interests. The sub-text of these digestive upsets is
that food can produce a different kind of knowledge, one that sees edible
materiality as a constituent force in the real and fictional worlds that displace homo culinaris and announce the advent of a bioegalitarian order of
gastronomic animals, vegetables and minerals.
1. The full story can be found in the Independent on Sunday archives.
2. Crace has authored 11 novels in total, spanning from 1986 to 2018 (when
he officially retired).
3. See “Synopsis” under The Devil’s Larder on the author’s website, http://
4. Ian Sansom, “Interview with Jim Crace.”
5. See Penguin, “Author of the Month,” Interview.
6. The introduction to Amy L. Tigner and Allison Carruth’s Literature and
Food Studies highlights Fleissner’s scholarship on aesthetics and culinary fiction, which extends to readings of ethnic, racial, and diasporic food fictions,
feminist culinary writing, and historical treatments of food habits and cultures (see Fleissner qtd. in Tigner and Carruth, 6).
7. The OED’s entry for meat lists several meanings, including descriptions of
meat as a set of “senses relating to food generally,” and as “an article of food,
a dish.” In addition to the broad scope of meaning outlined by the OED,
recent scientific research (as reported by philosophical thinkers like Michael
Marder in Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life and Jeffrey Jerome
Cohen in Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman) has revealed how vegetables
and minerals in particular might experience sentience and self-awareness,
qualities often associated with food animals.
8. This idea of the “anthropological machine” comes from Giorgio Agamben’s
examination of the species divide in The Open: Man and Animal.
9. Crace worked as a freelance journalist in the 1970s and 1980s. Selected
journalistic writings are available on his website.
10. Quoted in Korsmeyer’s Taste Studies Reader, 2.
11. See “From the Mortician’s Scalpel to the Coroner’s Knife: Towards an Animal Thanatology,” 126.
12. Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 333.
13. Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 12.
14. From Susan Squier’s essay, page 478.
15. In other words, it is possible that there is an ethical value lost in Crace’s
alimentary materialism, given that the affective qualities of sentience and the
capacity to suffer (key principles that govern animal advocacy and liberation
paradigms for the majority of vegan and vegetarian eaters) are absent in
Crace’s fictional treatment of food. However, what we gain in reading the
novel’s engagement with the affective mode of disgust is a more palpable
sense of how the species divide intersects with meanings of taste.
Works Cited
Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford
University Press, 2002.
———. Taste. Trans. Cooper Francis. London: Seagull Books, 2017.
Bennett, Jane. “Edible Matter.” New Left Review 45 (2007): 133–145, https://
Bezan, Sarah. “From the Mortician’s Scalpel to the Butcher’s Knife: Towards an
Animal Thanatology.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 10, no. 1 (2012),
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Crace, Jim. Continent. London: Picador, 1986.
———. Arcadia. London: Picador, 1992.
———. Signals of Distress. London: Picador, 1994.
———. The Devil’s Larder. London: Picador, 2001.
———. All That Follows. London: Picador, 2001.
———. “Have You Seen Our Chicken?” Independent on Sunday, Sunday
23 December 2007.
Accessed 9 May 2018.
———. The Melody. London: Picador, 2018.
Diamond, Cora. The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.
Fiddes, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
Kass, Leon. The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
———. “Introduction.” In The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink,
edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer. Oxford: Berg, 2005.
———. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2011.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York, NY: Columbia
University Press, 1982.
Marder, Michael. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY:
Columbia University Press, 2013.
Masurel, Pauline. “The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace.” The Short Review, 2002.
“meat, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018. http://www.oed.
com/view/Entry/115517. Accessed 9 May 2018.
Mott, Nicholas. “What Makes Us Human? Cooking, Study Says.” National
Geographic News, 26 October 2012. https://news.nationalgeographic.
com/news/2012/10/121026-human-cooking-evolution-raw-food-healthscience/. Accessed 9 May 2018.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Dawsonera Online.
Accessed 9 May 2018.
Oliver, Kelly. Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human. New York, NY:
Columbia University Press, 2009.
Sansom, Ian. “The Devil’s Larder.” London Review of Books 23, no. 22
(15 November 2011): 13–14.
smorgasbits. Accessed 9 May 2018.
Squier, Susan. “Liminal Livestock.” Signs 35, no. 2 (2010): 477–502.
Tigner, Amy L., and Allison Carruth. “Introduction.” In Literature and Food Studies. London: Routledge, 2018, 1–16.
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books, 2009.
Belonging to This World: On Living Like
an Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin
Matthew Calarco
… ™κ γÁς γὰρ τάδε πάντα, καὶ ε„ς γÁν πάντα τελευτ
[… for all things are from earth, and all things end in earth.]
—Xenophanes of Colophon1
Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin might appear at first glance to follow
the familiar contours of a Bildungsroman, in this instance tracking the transformation of a young woman as she undergoes a crisis in her self-identity
and drifts slowly but in a determined manner towards another way of life.
The young woman here would be the novel’s protagonist, Isserley, whose
job involves participating in the capture and production of flesh for human
consumption. As the novel unfolds, Isserley eventually comes to reject this
M. Calarco (B)
California State University, Fullerton, CA, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
practice and the industry and market imperatives that render it operative.
Where the novel takes an unanticipated and disturbing twist, however, is
in regard to the precise source and nature of the flesh being captured, produced, and consumed. The product at the heart of Isserley’s occupation
is what, in her language, is called “vodsel” meat or “voddissin”, a delicacy
that is produced for wealthy human consumers by workers like Isserley
who themselves cannot afford it. For readers of the novel, it gradually
becomes evident that vodsels are in fact what we would call human beings
and, conversely, that the beings who call themselves human are, from our
perspective, aliens. Furthermore, even though Isserley eventually comes to
question her role in the capture and production of vodsel flesh, none of
the capacities for which we vodsels often pride ourselves (for example, our
refined capacity for language, self-consciousness, culture, and so on) appear
to play any role in this conversion. Attending to these rather unusual and
disconcerting aspects of Isserley’s disposition and eventual transformation
allows us to think about our own participation in and rejection of meat
production in a very different light. I shall suggest in what follows that
Isserley’s drift away from the voddissin industry and towards a reconsideration of her place in the world provide us with important elements of an
ethics of belonging , and that such an ethics can help us recast the work that
is currently being done in nonanthropocentric theory and politics.
Living like an Animal
We should begin by sketching in the basic frame of the novel. As just noted,
Isserley refers to herself and her “race” as human beings, but these human
beings appear from our perspective to be somewhat fox-like: four-legged
creatures, with prehensile tails, “spearhead ears” and “vulpine snout[s]”
(117). They wear no clothing and have fur that covers their entire bodies and faces. They are also highly intelligent—so intelligent, in fact, that
they have devised a scheme whereby they can inhabit a portion of Scotland, capture vodsels, and produce them for human consumption, all while
remaining undetected. Of course, remaining unidentified among vodsels is
far from simple for fur-covered, four-legged aliens; consequently, Isserley’s
race—or, more precisely, Vess Incorporated, which controls the voddissin
industry—has formulated a plan to surgically modify some human beings
so that they might pass as vodsels. Isserley is one of the select humans
(along with her male co-worker Esswis) to undergo this painful procedure.
She chooses a disfigured life in Scotland out of desperation and in lieu of
remaining back home, where beings of her low economic class are all but
destined to live and work in the “New Estates” under unthinkable conditions. The most essential surgical augment that Isserley receives are large
breast implants, a bodily modification that the human executives at Vess
Incorporated have rightly divined to be of high value in contemporary vodsel culture, especially among many of its male members. It is exceedingly
important, the reader learns, for Isserley to be able to command and sustain
a male vodsel’s attention, as her job is to pick up male hitchhikers—muscular, beefy men, since “puny specimens” are of “no use to her” (1)—and
keep them occupied in conversation during the course of a brief car ride
in order to determine whether they would be suitable vodsels to be turned
into voddissin.
As daunting as it might seem for an alien being to assume this role and
become a competent actor in something as complex as vodsel society, Isserley notes that she is in fact able to pick up vodsel language, gestures, and
habits with relative rapidity and ease—primarily through watching television. From Isserley’s perspective, vodsels (male vodsels, in particular)
are hopelessly simple and unsophisticated creatures who, despite generally favorable conditions on earth, appear unable to attain happiness or
awaken to their own condition. Thus, although Isserley has to undergo a
kind of cultural training to do her job, for a human being like herself the
cognitive and social aspects of the work are fairly straightforward. As just
noted, her task is to converse with male hitchhikers for long enough to
figure out if they fit the desired description for becoming voddissin. It is
not enough that her specimens simply be “beefy”; they must also be the
kind of individuals who can be “disappeared” from vodsel society without
alerting friends, family, or the authorities. Thus, Isserley is targeting individuals who occupy a rather unique subject position: male vodsels, who
hold a certain privilege within their culture, but who have come partially
to lose their hold on that privilege in a fundamental way. In other words,
Isserley is on the lookout for male vodsels who no longer matter, whose
lives are of little value to other vodsels. Such mattering (or lack thereof) can
only be determined, it seems, through Isserley conversing with the vodsels
and inquiring about their relations. Once she is able to determine with
sufficient certainty that a given vodsel is a low-risk specimen, she stuns him
with a drug (“icpathua”) and then brings him back to her base at Ablach
Farm, where Esswis and other human male co-workers begin the process
of preparing the body for fattening and eventual slaughter.2
The opening scenes of the novel present a portrait of Isserley as
quintessentially “inhuman”: stunningly cold, calculating, and without compassion. She appears to be driven entirely by a logic of vocational utility and
knows no other “economy”. And yet, for all of Isserley’s apparent inhumanity, the details of her sojourn in Scotland and ongoing subjective transformation undercut any reductionist reading of her character. Indeed, the
reader’s very first encounter with Isserley finds her out driving her car in
the “prehistoric stillness” of early dawn, distracted from her work by “the
allure of beauty” she encounters in the natural world (2). Such encounters
with the “miracles” of existence multiply throughout the novel, indicating
that Isserley is, in fact, already attuned to other registers of reality and other
possibilities for living beyond those linked to her work. Further, Isserley
is never entirely “at home” in her job.3 Throughout the novel, she seems
to struggle with the question of whether her difficult existence and labour
is worth it, and she seeks to fence off from her awareness certain of the
more disturbing aspects of voddissin production. Isserley is also clearly and
profoundly bothered by certain human visitors to her place of work who
raise what we might call “ethical” challenges to what she is doing. In order
to get at these factors that accelerate and deepen Isserley’s disenchantment
with and departure from Vess Incorporated, it will be helpful to examine
the details of her occupation more closely.
In general, Isserley’s work life is a solitary one. She keeps her interactions
with her fellow human employees (all of whom, besides Esswis, have not
been surgically transformed) to a minimum, often eating by herself and
avoiding going into certain sectors of the underground factory. As such,
Isserley’s coworkers figure only minimally in her subjective constitution.
But one of her fellow humans, Amlis Vess, the son of the owner of Vess
Incorporated, plays a particularly disruptive role in her life and figures as
one of the key forces in her drift away from her job and towards another
way of life. Amlis Vess comes to the voddissin factory not in order to inherit
and maintain his father’s corporation but rather to undermine it. He visits
the factory in order to learn the full details of the production process, and
then use that information to convince his fellow human beings back home
to cease supporting the voddissin industry. Amlis’s upper-class economic
status is reflected both in his lack of a job (he has no need of one) and in
his superior physique and appearance. While Isserley loathes Amlis’s class
privilege she is simultaneously deeply attracted to him and longs—both
wittingly and unwittingly—to develop an intimate relationship with him.
What makes such a relationship untenable, though, is not simply the class
differences between Amlis and Isserley but also Amlis’s complete rejection
of Isserley’s vocation and her attitude towards vodsels. Amlis staunchly
resists the institutionalized killing of vodsels and maintains that they are,
for all intents and purposes, the same as him and his fellow human beings.
He tells Isserley that the vodsels who are being transformed into meat once
“lived and breathed” just like human beings, and that human beings and
vodsels are fundamentally the same “under the skin” (175–176).
Amlis’s perspective on the mistreatment of vodsels is uncannily similar
to the approach taken by mainstream animal rights activists towards animal
suffering and killing in our own context.4 Animals are to be given rights
and full legal standing, it is argued by such activists, because they are fundamentally the same as human beings—that is, human beings and animals,
despite superficial differences at the level of species membership, are all the
same “under the skin”. Although it is tempting to read Faber’s novel as an
extended allegory demonstrating the force of this argument, it is not at all
clear that Isserley is actually moved by Amlis’s arguments about humanvodsel identity. Rather, Isserley seems more inclined to be influenced by
Amlis based on their shared passion for the miracles of earthly existence.
In some of the most moving scenes of the novel, Isserley takes Amlis out
(at his insistence) to see the countryside and ocean near the factory and
to get a feel for life on earth. Like Isserley, Amlis appears to have a deeply
spiritual disposition, a taste and desire for the miraculous nature of earthly
existence. Amlis is utterly astonished by the simplest things: the rain, the
air, the land, the sheep, and other living creatures that populate the planet.
Life on earth contrasts sharply with life back home, which is dark, desolate,
and apparently lacking in clean air, water, and the like. In fact, upon seeing
the earth’s abundance, Amlis wonders why Isserley doesn’t just quit her
work altogether and try to carve out an existence within her earthly environs. After all, as Amlis notes, Isserley lives extraordinarily simply, and it
seems that the earth could more than support most of her minimal needs.
Isserley, though, has difficulty imagining a life beyond utility. In response
to Amlis’s suggestion that she should quit work and find a new place on
earth to call home, Isserley responds defiantly: “Are you suggesting I live
like an animal?” (255). Isserley’s language here is worth pausing over. For
the (vodsel) reader, it is almost impossible to read this sentence and avoid
thinking that Isserley is referring to what we might call nonhuman animals.
To live a life beyond work, beyond utility, outside the economic coordinates
of the dominant order would, for us (vodsels), amount to living “like an
animal”, in an abject space among those who are permanently cast out of
the social order. For Isserley, though, living like an animal means living like
vodsels, like us—which is to say (and from her perspective), in a subhuman
world deprived of genuine meaning, purpose, or aim. It is ultimately this
shift towards living like an animal that she finds most distressing. Isserley
is able largely to dismiss Amlis’s strained claims to human-vodsel (animal)
identity because the differences in language, cognition, and sociality are so
stark between the two groups. What Isserley fears most, however, is that
the human-vodsel boundary is being broached along other registers—not
in the mode of vodsels becoming like humans but in she herself becomingvodsel.5 Her surgical modifications have already placed her in a liminal
state in this regard, and her daily interactions with vodsels have brought
her ever closer to their world. Indeed, when Amlis visits the factory, this
possibility of being (mis)recognized as a vodsel lurks as Isserley’s deepest
fear. What she is most anxious about is that moment when the “sickening
opposite of recognition” would occur, that moment when Amlis would
be “expecting to see a human being, and he would see a hideous animal
instead” (79). Thus, when Amlis suggests she ought to leave work and find
another home in the world, Isserley fears she is sliding permanently into a
zone of abjection. In short, Isserley cannot initially affirm that she belongs
entirely to the earth—to do so would be to confirm that she is, in some
deeper sense, “like an animal”. She insists on seeing herself as being tied
to another world within the world, to the meaningful world within which
she and her fellow human beings properly belong.
Back to Earth
Amlis’s visit initiates something akin to a conversion for Isserley, though
not (as we have noted) for reasons having to do with the purported identity of human beings and vodsels. Rather, Amlis’s concern for the vodsels
seems to get under Isserley’s skin in an indirect way, leading her to want
to learn more about the various steps of the process that transforms vodsels into voddissin. In the scenes where Isserley is initially introduced to
the workings of the underground factory, she doesn’t seem to discern any
common traits with the caged vodsels who have been fattened and prepared for slaughter; instead, she sees only a number of indistinct bodies.
The “monthling” vodsels are described as “a mound of fast-panting flesh.
… Their fat little heads … [were] identical, swaying in a cluster like polyps
of an anemone, blinking stupidly in the sudden light” (181). At this point,
when Isserley and Amlis are looking at the monthlings in one of their
cramped and dirty holding pens, one of the vodsels scrawls “MERCY” on
the ground.6 Amlis is keen to decode the writing, and asks Isserley for help
in interpreting the marks. Isserley, however, refuses to accord the vodsel
writing any significance. Even though she is not entirely competent with
the semantic range of the word (which implies that one can, like Isserley,
become a competent member of contemporary vodsel culture with almost
no exposure to the word or the correlative action), Isserley would prefer
that the vodsel world remain entirely separate from her, and that her liminal subject position, training, and surgical transformation not be taken to
imply that she has any deep link with vodsel nature or communicative practices. When Amlis presses her repeatedly for a translation of the scrawling,
assuming that she has some special insight into vodsel language and psychology, Isserley breaks down in tears: “I don’t know what you expect of
me. … I’m a human being, not a vodsel” (185).
Despite her disavowal of understanding the vodsel’s scrawling, what
Isserley does seem to recognize here—and what brings her closer to the
vodsels than she is prepared to acknowledge at this point—is the vodsels’
utter vulnerability. Deprived of articulate speech (vodsels are limited to
expressing “Ng! Ng! Ng!” because of their severed tongues) and mobility
(the fattening process makes for limited and lumbering movement), the
vodsels she sees in the holding pens are completely exposed and entirely
defenseless. Indeed, when the vodsels try to escape (with the assistance
of Amlis), they are easily recaptured or gunned down by human workers.
Isserley has throughout the course of the novel already shown how sensitive she is to the fragility and vulnerability of embodied life, both in the
recurrent bodily pain she suffers after her surgical operations as well as in
the close calls she has with high-speed automobile accidents. However,
it is not until Isserley experiences an attempted rape by a hitchhiker that
she seems fully to grasp the deeper, more profound identity and condition
she shares with vodsels: she, too, like vodsels can potentially be reduced to
total defenselessness and vulnerability. In her efforts to stop the rapist, who
wields a knife and threatens her life if she fails to comply with his sexual
demands, Isserley begs him for “murky”, mispronouncing the word but
demonstrating that she grasps at least its basic significance both for herself
and for the tongue-less vodsel who scrawled it in the dirt in front of her
and Amlis. Thus, it is not simply that Isserley and the vodsels are more or
less alike based on having shared traits and capacities like language or consciousness. The identity runs much deeper, and is much more threatening:
there is some fundamental aspect of Isserley’s existence that ties her to that
“mound” of flesh, to those identical “fat little heads” that “blink stupidly”
in the light. Ultimately, Isserley is discovering that she belongs to and with
the vodsels—that she is, in fact, “like an animal” and belongs entirely to
the earth.
In a defiant response to this possible disruption of her human identity
and vocation, Isserley makes a determined effort to reestablish her habits
and routine. In Chapter 10, the opening scene of the novel is restaged
(in part) but with Isserley more resolute than ever not to be distracted by
the wonders of the natural world and to remain squarely focused on her
work. She picks up another hitcher, a male vodsel who is unable to find
the right point of entry to start up a conversation with her. Internally, the
hitcher finds himself marvelling over the world in the same way that Isserley
often does, but Isserley has no sense of the hitcher’s attunement, nor he
of hers. With this hitcher pickup, Isserley finds herself even less at home
in her role and comes increasingly to feel the weight of her work as work.
She knows that a decision must now be made about how to live her life
and whether the path she has chosen is ultimately a worthwhile one. The
nausea concomitant with this realization brings the uncommunicative and
utterly alien qualities of the hitcher squarely into Isserley’s consciousness.
A deep hatred rises up in her for this particular vodsel—and perhaps for the
vodsel condition more generally. She stuns him with icpathua and readies
him to be taken back to the farm for processing and fattening.
However, during these preparations in the car, tears unexpectedly fall
from Isserley’s eyes, giving her further pause about her work and her relation to vodsels. It is this moment of rupture in her world that leads Isserley
finally to confront her claustrophobia and fear of underground spaces—
reminders of a life she avoided in the Estates—and to learn the full details
of what happens to the stunned vodsels after she deposits them with the
workers on the farm. Although Isserley is manifestly disturbed by what
she sees and learns (the workers have to remove her forcibly from the
underground factory during her tour), she still believes she has little choice
concerning her life direction but to return to work.
Back at work on the road, she picks up a final hitcher, a male vodsel who
reeks of dog and essentially lives in his van. This hitcher’s sole task is to ruin
drivers’ days by making them confront head-on the horrors of existence.
He wants them to feel as deeply as he does that existence isn’t worth it, and
he tries to find just the right timing and manner of delivering this message
so that drivers will be devastated by it. Sensing he has found this moment
with Isserley during his drive with her, the hitcher turns and says to her:
“Life is shit, you know that?”
“I don’t know”, sighed Isserley. “This world is very beautiful”.
He grunted disdainfully.
“Leave it to the animals, I reckon. Leave the whole fucking lot to the animals”. (289)
After this exchange, the hitcher requests to be let out of the car; Isserley
instead flips her icpathua toggle and stuns him. Staring at his unconscious
face and body, Isserley whispers “I’m sorry” and begins her trip back to
the farm.
These moments of compassion in her final two vodsel stunnings indicate
that Isserley’s life is already beginning to be redirected onto another path.
Following the encounters, her conscience is disrupted in surprising ways
and her compassion is extended further to non-vodsel animals who, while
perhaps visually similar to her, have rudimentary cognitive abilities.7 After
the final hitcher is deposited at the farm for processing, Isserley finds herself unexpectedly concerned about the fate of the last hitcher’s dog, who
is trapped in the hitcher’s van and will starve to death unless released. It
has not escaped Isserley’s notice up to this point how little these and other
non-vodsel animals matter in vodsel culture. Throughout the novel, we
are told of the roads she drives on being littered with roadkill; further, the
land near the roads is populated with agricultural animals undergoing feeding/fattening processes prior to slaughter similar to those that she and her
fellow human beings make vodsels undergo. Why should these sacrificeable animals get under her skin, affect her dreams, disturb her conscience?
Despite the dual reinforcement of such beings not mattering much either
to human beings or vodsels, Isserley returns to the van and risks being
caught in order to release the trapped dog. Upon arriving at the van, she
lets the dog go, telling the spaniel: “You’re on your own now, doggy”
(295). In essence, though, these words could just as well apply to Isserley
herself (and Isserley does, in fact, note that the language she uses is not
shared by the dog), for at this point she has decided to leave her job and
has already passed up a hitcher on her way to release the dog. In leaving
behind the farm and her occupation, Isserley is effectively on her own, just
like the dog—though, she is not truly on her own any more than the dog
is. Indeed, both she and the dog now belong to the world in a profound
sense.8 In leaving behind the limited worlds of utility (Isserley) and pethood and domestication (the dog), Isserley and the spaniel enter into a new
set of possibilities and potentials with countless other beings and relations.
The question that faces Isserley and the released dog is: What else might
we become now?
We learn nothing more about the dog’s fate and decision, but the novel
does allow us to track Isserley’s continued transformation towards another
way of life. With £375 in her pocket (taken from the wallet of the last
hitcher she stunned), Isserley leaves Ablach Farm for good. Underscoring
her deep belonging and fundamental indiscernibility from the world around
her, she considers places to hide in the surroundings, wondering whether
she might “disappear into the trees like a pheasant” (299). Ultimately,
Isserley decides on taking shelter in a bower in the forest, which effectively
allows her in the short term to live undetected (especially by the police, who
are looking for her after the disappearance of one of her hitchers is being
investigated). What finally brings Isserley back into vodsel society is her
hunger. In anticipation of re-entering society, she must once again undergo
her shower and shaving ritual to return her body to a form that passes
for a vodsel, this time wondering compassionately whether the chemicals
in the shampoo she uses are negatively affecting the wildlife in the loch
where she bathes. Although able to procure vodsel food upon her return,
Isserley has generally poor luck with digesting it; she is confident, however,
that between the food available in the fields and trees as well as other
foods available on earth, she will be able to sustain herself. Her faith in the
abundance and fecundity of the earth remains unwavering: “It was all out
there somewhere, she was sure” (303).
Isserley’s attempt to carve out a life on the outskirts of vodsel society
is interrupted by a desperate vodsel hitchhiker who forces Isserley to stop
her car and give him a ride to the hospital, where his wife is having a baby.
Paralleling Isserley’s marginal social status back home, the hitcher’s baby
is not considered a full member of vodsel society. The hitcher tells Isserley:
“The Wee Free Church says mah bebby’s gonny be a bastard … because me
and mah girril’s nae married. Whit’s that all aboot? Fuckin’ prehistoaric,
y’ken?” (305). Isserley is unsure how to decode the hitcher’s accent when
he says these words to her; sensing this, the hitcher asks her more straightforwardly which religion she observes. Isserley replies carefully: “Where I
come from … religion is … dead” (306). Here we are confronted with what
is perhaps the most difficult question of the novel. If traditional religion
devalues existence (as it does with the hitcher’s “illegitimate” baby, and in
a way that is similar to the previous hitcher’s attitude of life in this world
being “shit”), and the mere death of such religion does nothing to revalue
existence (as seems to be the case for most of Isserley’s post-religious fellow
human beings), with what resources might one re-build a meaningful and
worthwhile life?
At one point in the novel, Isserley notes that her coworkers on the
farm lack a “spiritual side” (63), hence her fundamental discontent with
life there and with the human “world” she inhabits in Scotland. Indeed,
the only interhuman interactions that seem to provide Isserley with any
genuine joy are the moments she spends with Amlis marveling over the
earth’s multitude of wonders. Is it not this shared spiritual passion, this
syn-theoria, that ultimately gives Isserley the push she needs to leave her
unfulfilling life on the farm and to experiment with a more meaningful way
of life? And is it not this same spiritual disposition that helps Isserley see the
horrors she is involved in with her work and that encourages her to twist free
of those particular entanglements? Ultimately, Isserley’s spiritual sensitivity
functions throughout the novel to allow her to see that if she hopes to do
justice to her own life and to the miracle of earthy life, she will have to be
a participant in the construction of a new way of life beyond Ablach Farm.
Perhaps it is this alternative spirituality, this more-than-human fidelity to
the earth and its other (possible) meanings, that points the way towards a
worthwhile life beyond traditional religion and its death.
Isserley never gets the opportunity to build another way of life, however,
because she and the new father she has picked up end up sliding off the
road, slamming into a tree, and getting badly injured. Passersby stop to
help Isserley and the hitcher (who has been thrown from the car); they
let her know that “The Mercy Hospital” is close by and that help will be
arriving soon. Isserley, of course, cannot risk being detected by vodsels and
knows that she will have to use the special detonation device that has been
installed in her Toyota “to blow her car, herself, and a generous scoop of
earth into the smallest conceivable particles” (310). The novel closes with
a profoundly touching narrative of what Isserley tells herself will happen
once she presses the button and her body is dispersed:
The atoms that had been herself would mingle with the oxygen and nitrogen
in the air. Instead of ending up buried in the ground, she would become
part of the sky: that was the way to look at it. Her invisible remains would
combine, over time, with all the wonders under the sun. When it snowed,
she would be part of it, falling softly to earth, rising up again with the snow’s
evaporation. When it rained, she would be there in the spectral arch that
spanned from firth to ground. She would help to wreathe the fields in mists,
and yet would always be transparent to the stars. She would live forever. All it
took was the courage to press one button, and the faith that the connection
had not been broken.
She reached forward a trembling hand.
“Here I come”, she said. (310–311)
Here Isserley has attained what is perhaps the most important perspective
one can attain while on earth: recognition that one belongs entirely to the
earth and its wondrous systems and processes, that “all things are from
earth, and all things end in earth”. Such recognition amounts, to borrow
Faber’s dedicatory words at the beginning of the novel, to being brought
“back to earth”, where a worthwhile life can be sought anew.9
Isserley’s life and death provide us with the beginnings of what we might
call an ethics of belonging. I have suggested here that her conversion towards
another way of life stems less from seeing vodsels as being essentially like
her—sharing her basic capacities and abilities, her dignity and distinction—
and more from a gradual and deepening recognition of her own belonging
to this world with and alongside vodsels and other planetary creatures and
elements. Such belonging refuses all gestures of transcendence and efforts
to establish a fundamental distinction or break from this world; it constitutes, instead, a full and lucid acknowledgement that one belongs to a
realm that has hitherto been considered abject. An ethics of belonging thus
names a way of entering into a thought and life of radical immanence.
Isserley catches glimpses of the beatitude inherent in this ethic throughout the novel: in her drives in the “prehistoric stillness” of the very early
morning (2); in eating the “heavenly” snow that accumulates on her windshield (140); in the beauty she sees in the bushes and trees that grow entirely
on their own and serve “no agricultural purpose” (250). But she is not able
to gain a fuller sense of belonging to the world until she leaves behind her
work and enters into a mode of existence beyond utility. Much as capitalism and its emphasis on utility narrows our vision, rendering us stupid (to
borrow Karl Marx’s term) and one-dimensional (to borrow Herbert Marcuse’s), Isserley’s occupation has formed her to view vodsels and much of
her existence on earth through constricted, market-based, economic lenses.
Moreover, given the economic precariousness of her life back home, she
has little choice but to find another (economic) way of life on earth—if, in
fact, she wants to live any semblance of a life worth living (by dominant
human standards). It is not until she experiments with living “like an animal”—that is, with leaving behind her work and its concomitant economic
“world”—that those scales start to fall from her eyes, thereby allowing her
to enter more fully into another register of life and relations.
With her growing recognition of the richness of life beyond work, Isserley begins to see everything —vodsels, the earth, her own life and death—
differently. To be sure, that which is within her purview remains precisely
the same “stuff” it was before, but Isserley’s post-work existence offers a
hint of what the world and life might become if it were engaged beyond
utility. It would be an existence very much like the one Georges Bataille
describes under the rubric of sovereignty. Once work and utility are set
aside, it becomes possible, Bataille suggests, to enter into a relation with the
miraculous. Just as Isserley and Amlis marvel over the miracle of earthly life
outside of the constraints of voddissin production, so does Bataille remind
us of how the worker who drinks her wine towards no end, towards no
utility, entirely outside of work “enters a miraculous element of savour,
which is precisely the essence of sovereignty”.10 Such moments arise unexpectedly, by grace, when we look up from our work or are released from its
demands—for example, when we catch sight of “the brilliance of the sun,
which on a spring morning transfigures a desolate street. (Something that
the poorest individual, hardened by necessity, sometimes feels.)”11
An ethic of belonging, then, goes beyond extending mercy or pity to
all sentient beings—although one is no doubt awakened in some part to
the violence and murderousness of everyday existence through such ethical acts. Belonging speaks, more profoundly, to an animating desire, to a
passion for re-constitution and re-subjectification, to a taste for the miracle
of existence and the joy that derives from recognizing one’s embeddedness
within and alongside others in that miracle. This perspective and disposition—which Isserley, despite her post-religious mindset, does not hesitate
to call “spiritual”—is perhaps what is needed if we are to accomplish a
genuine transformation in our relations with beings we (who call ourselves
“human”) have traditionally characterized as sub- and non-human. In line
with this approach, those who struggle with and on behalf of animals might
come to see themselves as engaged not simply in a struggle for recognition
of formal legal rights for animals, but more basically and more importantly,
for recognition of the miraculous lives of animals and for a sense of the
larger wonder of planetary kinship. To fight with and on behalf of animals
would, from this perspective, be better understood as a way of affirming
our deep belonging to this world—that is, as an affirmation of our indiscernibility from the rich variety of beings that inhabit it and the potentials
that become possible in this shared condition. Following Isserley’s lead
and seeking to put her newly gained insights into practice, we might suggest that the task of nonanthropocentric animal studies today lies less in
shoring up what binds human beings and animals into a single set, or even
in determining a more complicated concept of the differences between the
two sets, and more in building “faith” in the “connection” that ties human
beings and animals to all other life-death on earth and in the cosmos.
1. This fragment has been transmitted via Theodeoretus. See Scholten,
Theodoret, IV.5, 316; translation mine.
2. In comments on a draft of this essay, Seán McCorry helpfully notes that
“ablach” is Scots for “an insignificant person” and that it derives from Scottish Gaelic for “a mangled carcass”—a fitting name for the manner in which
the vodsels are seen and handled by the human workers.
3. For further reflection on the theme of alienation in both Faber’s novel and
Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Under the Skin, see Sherryl Vint’s helpful essay, “Skin Deep”.
4. See Kristy Dunn’s excellent article, “‘Do You Know Where the Light Is?’”
for more on this topic.
5. Sarah Dillon offers a thorough analysis of this thread within Faber’s novel
in her essay “‘It Is a Question of Words, Therefore’”.
6. As we shall see, the notion of mercy returns later in the novel. For teasing
out the full implications of this concept of mercy, I have benefitted greatly
from Robert McKay’s forthcoming piece, “The Murkiness of Mercy: Michel
Faber’s Under the Skin”.
7. Isserley has a special passion for sheep, which seem almost human to her. In
observing a specific individual sheep, she notes: “It was so hard to believe
the creature couldn’t speak. It looked so much as if it should be able to.
Despite its bizarre features, there was something deceptively human about
it, which tempted her, not for the first time, to reach across the species divide
and communicate” (66). Later in the novel, when Amlis wonders whether
they have tried to use sheep for meat on the farm, Isserley is horrified at the
prospect, employing a logic of identity in response: “They’re … they’re on
all fours, Amlis, can’t you see that? They’ve got fur–tails–facial features not
that different from ours” (253).
8. It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that Cynic motifs loom large
in Faber’s novel. In exiting the meaningful life attached to human nomos,
Isserley enters into the realm of physis, into a world shared with dogs (to recall
the root meaning of Cynic as kynos, doglike, contemptuous, etc.), nonhuman
animals, and earthly and cosmic others of all sorts. Her “Cynical” life beyond
utility thus renders her a “cosmopolitan” in the sense that Diogenes the
Cynic grants to the term. Diogenes is described as “a homeless exile [apolis,
aoikos ], to his country dead”; and in response to an inquiry concerning
his country of origin, Diogenes famously responded: “I am a citizen of
the world [kosmopolites ]” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers,
6.38, 6.61). For a thoughtful reading of the more-than-human dimensions
of Diogenes’ (and other Cynics’) cosmopolitanism, see William Desmond,
Cynics, 199–207.
9. Faber’s dedication to Under the Skin thanks his wife Eva for “for bringing
[him] back to earth.”
10. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 199.
11. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 199–200.
Works Cited
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Vol. 3
(Sovereignty). Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
Desmond, William. Cynics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Dillon, Sarah. “‘It Is a Question of Words, Therefore’: Becoming-Animal in Michel
Faber’s Under the Skin.” Science Fiction Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): 134–154.
Dunn, Kristy. “‘Do You Know Where the Light Is?’ Factory Farming and Industrial
Slaughter in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin.” In Meat Culture, edited by Annie
Potts, 149–162. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Faber, Michel. Under the Skin. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2 vols. Translated by R. D. Hicks.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
Scholten, Clemens. Theodoret: De Graecarum affectionum curatione. Leiden: Brill,
Vint, Sherryl. “Skin Deep: Alienation in Under the Skin.” Extrapolation 56, no. 1
(2015): 1–14.
Dance with Nothing but Heart (2001):
Death, the ‘Animal’ and the Queer ‘Taste’ of
the Other
Ruth Lipschitz
Dance with Nothing but Heart (2001) is a collaborative performance work
by South African artist Steven Cohen and his “life-partner in love and
‘outlaw’ dance”, Elu, a classically trained dancer.1 Created for the 2001
Johannesburg Dance Umbrella, the piece, as Cohen describes it, strips away
music, lighting, costume, and choreography. The work begins with a brief
audio track and a darkened stage. The audio was a “last-minute” addition
and plays an excerpt of an abusive message that was left on the artists’ answer
machine (after the work’s technical rehearsal) by Dance Umbrella’s director.2 After this ends, the audio changes to short, solemn Buddhist chant.
The rest of the dance is in silence (save for the sounds created through
movement and the audience) and begins when house lights come up and
reveal Elu, poised and naked, at the edge of the stage, holding an ox’s
R. Lipschitz (B)
Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture,
University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
heart. He dances with the heart he cradles and carries, caresses and kisses,
and eventually rips open, and leaves the stage to move through the theatre
aisles, and among the audience. Returning to the stage, he hangs the heart
on a hook that is suspended by a wire and resumes dancing. His improvised
choreography includes what Cohen describes as a mixture of yoga poses,
bare-toe en-pointe ballet, and “Martha Graham movements” that combine
a sense of emotional intensity and tense physicality. He falls and rises from
the floor, extends his body into poses that are seemingly held to the point
of discomfort and punctures these with balletic leaps. His body’s halting,
agonised tension finds relief in movement in a way that recalls Graham’s
“contraction and release”, purportedly a stylised representation of breathing.3 The dance ends when Elu, after the last of these falls, sits on the floor
cross-legged, takes his foot in hand and begins to suck it, at first gently and
then with increased urgency until, Cohen writes, “he is fucking himself in
the face with his foot”.4
I attended the second performance of Dance with Nothing but Heart.5
It was accompanied by Dance Umbrella’s warnings of the works “offensive
content”, which presumably meant Elu’s nakedness and the seemingly sexualised ending. Cohen’s programme notes, however, describe the nakedness of Dance with Nothing but Heart as “full frontal poverty” rather than
as erotic.6 In a now-archived webpage on Q-online, Cohen writes that he
suggested Elu perform a dance to “show them your lack and your love”.7
This statement is typically understood, as a catalogue entry for this work
states, that “Dance With Nothing But Heart is a commentary on Cohen
and Elu’s personal lack of funds as well as on the general lack of funding
for contemporary dance in South Africa”.8
However, while creativity in the face of “lack of funds” might be the
acknowledged meaning of Dance with Nothing but Heart, it seems to
impoverish the work’s affect. To think the “With” in such restricted terms,
or to think of the heart simply as the work’s “only prop”,9 as Cohen calls
it, does not consider the way in which the performance’s intrinsic violence
is both heightened and disturbed by the tenderness with which Elu cradles
the heart. Rather, in this impoverished sense, the ox’s heart functions as a
modifier to the “with nothing” of the title: the heart is simply no-thing,
and the intersection of sex/gender and species in relation to Elu’s living
body, the absented ox, and the meaty materiality of the disembodied heart
is rendered meaningless. So too, are the registers of ingestion that link the
edible body of the animal to Elu’s sexualised foot-in-mouth action, as well
as any conceptualisation of Elu’s performance in terms of, to use Cohen’s
word, “outlaw” dance.
In contrast, I want to argue that the “With” of the title speaks to a
more complex figuration of loss and negation that inhabits and vexes what
Jacques Derrida describes as the problematic of the (human) subject, and
does so through the interaction of sex/gender and species. As I have argued
elsewhere in relation to the speciesist, sexual, and racial politics of animalisation, the construction of the ‘human’ cannot be thought without the
question, and questioning, of the ‘animal’.10 My aim here is to continue
this line of thought and explore ways in which Dance with Nothing but
Heart can be read as a queer figuration of the subject, one that is always
already in relation to an alterity that exceeds it.11 If Dance with Nothing
but Heart is a work about “lack and love”, then it is about how ‘we’ carry,
taste, and indeed, ‘eat’ the dead: or more to the point, it is about, to borrow
from Derrida, rendering “limitrophic” the limit between human and animal—nourishing and thickening it—so as to subject its hetero-patriarchal
privileges to differánce.12 As my analysis will show, this work turns choreographic improvisations into an ethico-politics in which the relation between
self, animal, and death is subject to, in Derrida’s words, an “infinite hospitality” that passes by way of the heart (and the mouth).
My reading of Dance with Nothing but Heart draws on Judith Butler’s iterative politics of performativity, which she sets out in Bodies that
Matter.13 The latter takes up the foundational ambiguity that Julia Kristeva diagnoses at the core of abjection, and deploys its liminal identity
formations in socio-political terms.14 While Kristeva develops this ambiguity as the psycho-social threat of the return of an animality that is all
too proximate, an animality she names the maternal, Butler uses the abject
to define a psycho-social structure of “inclusive” exclusion.15 In Bodies
that Matter, Butler’s identification of those subjects expelled from the
category ‘human’—“the less human, the inhuman, the humanly unthinkable”—locates abjection’s ambiguity as the “constitutive outside” of “humanness”.16 The ontological limit of “humanness” is always and already,
she argues, “haunted” by a border whose “outside” is also “inside” as the
limit of its social and subjective coherence. For both Kristeva and Butler,
this limit needs to be repeatedly re-enforced. While for Kristeva this repetition signals abjection’s unfinished and processual “subject-in-process/on
trial”, for Butler, its marks performativity’s potential for disruptive and
queer “re-articulation”.17 Butler’s work on vulnerability and violence in
Precarious Life extends the question of the human into the frames of liveable life and “grievable death”, for as she notes, who mourns and who is
“mournable” imbricates the ethical in the political. Yet, as authors such
as James Stanescu and Richard Iveson note, her formation of ethics as
recognition, rooted as it is in the Levinasian tradition, paradoxically cannot
recognise the vulnerability of the nonhuman animal, and her analysis of the
politics of grievability is caught within a definition of the ‘who’ who counts
as human.18
It is precisely this calculability of the subject that Derrida deconstructs
in his interview with Jean-Luc Nancy, “‘Eating Well’ or the Calculation
of the subject”. Metonymically expanding ingestion to the psychoanalytic
and ethico-political ways in which we ‘consume’ the other, he co-implicates
literal and figurative eating.19 In this expanded sense of “taking in the
other” as “eat-speak-interiorize”, he argues, the question of what he calls
the “conception-appropriation-assimilation” of the other is not ‘who’ or
‘what’ do I eat, but ‘how’.20 Since ‘I’ must ‘eat’, and since I can neither
regulate who nor what I ‘eat’, nor how much of the other I internalise,
Derrida asserts, what is at stake is determining the most generous and
hospitable way “to eat and let oneself be eaten”.21 In this “metonymy
of ‘eating well’”, there is no longer a single and absolute line between
edible and inedible bodies, between the living and the dead, nor can there
be an “indissociable limit” between the human and nonhuman. In other
words, the calculability of the subject can no longer rely on animal alterity
as its abjected determining foundation, and thus, the ethico-political and
psychoanalytic regulation of “bodies that matter” is profoundly opened to
a corporeal excess it cannot contain.
In the sections that follow, I track this corporeal excess along two interrelated lines of thought. I first set out the normative death-bearing structure
of animalisation that not only produces the Western humanist subject as
phallic and meat-eating, or to use Derrida’s neologism, “carnophallogocentric”, but finds its narrativised justification in the formation of the Law,
or in Lacan’s terms, the Name of the Father.22 Since, this fantasy of selfcreation is built on the sacrifice of animality and the negation of animal
life, I analyse the ways in which Dance with Nothing but Heart appears
to instal this carnophallogocentric scene and play to the iterative power
of its violence. However, precisely because this formation of the subject
requires the sacrifice of the animal other, I argue that the trope of phallic
mastery is performatively cited not to secure its politics of animalisation
and disavowal, but rather, to interrupt and disarticulate its co-ordinates.
For, as David Wood points out, carnophallogocentrism is not a formation
of violence against which no form of resistance or accountability is possible; rather, it is, he writes, “a mutually reinforcing network of powers,
schemata of domination, and investments that has to reproduce itself to
stay in existence”.23
The second line of argument pursues not the disruptive queering of
the heteronormative subject, but the work’s refiguring of mourning and
explores the traces of death in the performance. It stays with the disavowal
of animal death and the constitutive negation of animal life that produces
the humanist subject, and considers the effects of this erasure on violence
and the ethico-politics of, as Butler might put it, ‘mournability’. If the
separation of edible and killable bodies from “bodies that matter” is the
basis for heteronormative humanist subjectivity, then Dance with Nothing
but Heart performs grieving as a recognition of a shared corporeal vulnerability that is not only not species-specific but refuses the prescriptive
heterosexuality attached to the regulatory discourse of the human. As a
queer performance of life-death, however, Dance with Nothing but Heart
cannot step outside of the violence that institutes animal death. Despite
Cohen’s description of Elu as “ever the honest vegetarian”,24 Dance with
Nothing but Heart is not a plea for vegetarianism. For, in the registers of
incorporation and introjection that metonymically accrue to “eating well”,
as Derrida makes clear, there is no exteriority to the constitutive violence
of “taking in the other”, no programmatic ethics to secure absolution from
carnivorous violence.25 Rather, read through, the “infinite hospitality” of
“eating well”, Dance with Nothing but Heart, I will show, opens onto an
unfinished loss that both seeks its security in a death-bearing, meat-eating
subject, and risks an ethics without calculation—one lodged, perversely and
precariously, at its heart.
Carnophallogocetric Calculations
Dance with Nothing but Heart is not only a work about violence, it is a
work born of violence. The sundered heart in question once belonged to
a living being whose edible body overwrote its corporeal vulnerability to
produce its death as legalised killing. Cohen bought two ox hearts from a
local butcher in preparation for the performance. The hearts were cut open,
drained of blood and then re-sewn. One was frozen for intended use in the
performance, and the other set aside for use in the technical rehearsal.
The relation between eating, ‘legitimate’ killing, species difference, and
death that the rerouting of the heart from butchery to stage suggests, is
at the core of the calculability of the subject, and the sacrifice of animality
that it demands, that Derrida sets out in “Eating Well”. In this interview,
Derrida’s philosophical-psychoanalytic deconstruction of the subject proposes that, as it is framed in the Western humanist philosophical tradition,
the question of the ‘who’ is predefined along a singular human/animal
axis. Thus, humanisms as diverse as Emmanuel Levinas’ and Martin Heidegger’s are organised by a “sacrificial structure” that does not “sacrifice
sacrifice”.26 In other words, the humanist identification of the human is a
“matter of discerning… a place left open …for a non-criminal putting to
death of the other”.27 Thus the dictum “Thou shalt not kill”, in both the
ethico-juridical calculation and the Judeo-Christian tradition on which it
is based, does not signify a prohibition on killing in general, only on the
taking of human life.28 As such, it registers the limit of the human through
a sacrificial politics that designates that which is called ‘animal’ as killable,
and animality, as Kristeva argues, as abject. The absolute nullification of
animal life through the “noncriminal” nature of its death, makes species
difference available for the production of the animalised of any species, and
becomes the conceptual lever for the West’s speciesist, racist and phallocentric politics of animalisation.29 In this logic of sacrifice, Derrida suggests, the animal is at once deprived of life and the marker for deprivation,
and the subject is so named for his distance from animality. Thus, Derrida writes, “the attribution ‘human’ is given to the man (homo and vir)
rather than to the woman, and to the woman rather than to the animal”.30
The taken-for-granted appropriative consumption of the death of the other
named animal produces a virile, “meat-eating, sacrifice-accepting” subject
that Derrida calls “carnophallogocentric”.31
Defined by his carnivorous virility, the carnophallogocentric subject is
only because the animal is not. That is, in order to guarantee his “sovereign
majesty”,32 he appropriates the non-being of the animal (produced even
before death) to enact an auto-affective movement that returns without
limit, and must do so in order to secure the carnophallogocentric relations
of power that sustain it and naturalise it. The iterative nature of this violence
constructs the ‘human’ through a network of power relations whose racial,
sexual, and species vectors intersect, and, as Butler writes, are animated only
through their interoperative articulation.33 Although the subject gains his
vocabulary of exclusion, domination, and submission through the interlocking discourses of species, race, and sex, the human is, as Richard Iveson notes, more than a “phantasmatic” effect of this articulation. Instead,
Iveson argues, it is the regulatory norm (what Derrida calls the “schema”)
of the subject itself (white, masculine, and heterosexual) through which all
others must pass.34 It underlies, for example, carnophallogocentrism’s “primal scene” in Freud’s origin story of the autogenic “birth” of the human
and of human sociality, Totem and Taboo (1913).
Sacrificing Animality
Briefly, Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) presents human civilisation as a
product of a transition from “primitive” maternal-led society to a patriarchy
defined by its oedipal resolution. For Freud, this transition begins at the
“primal feast” during which a band of brothers, driven by lust and jealous
of their (primal) father’s sexual access to their mother and sisters, kill and
eat him.35 Consumed by regret and guilt, the brother’s internalise the
prohibitions the primal father represented (as Jacques Lacan, puts it the
“Law of the Father”) and resolve the Oedipal family saga through the
establishment of the taboos of incest and patricide. And if one cannot have
sex with one’s kin, nor eat one’s kind, then the taboos of cannibalism and
bestiality also hold.36 At the onset of patriarchy, Freud sets the ‘animal’
outside the Law and prior to the prohibitions that shape the institution of
the human itself. Animality, Freud suggests, is humanity’s “pre-condition”
such that in the institution of the Law, the ‘animal’, as Kalpana SeshadriCrooks notes, is both hyper-visible and erased.37 In the substitutional logic
of the Symbolic, the animal body, Seshadri-Crooks writes, functions as “an
iterative device deployed by the law for self-authorization”.38
Consigned to human pre-history, to be animal in the carnophallogocentric schema is to be both pre- and sub-human. As the racist and sexist
iterations of an animalised ‘primitive’ show, to be positioned as pre- and
sub-human is to be unable to transcend an atavistic and deviant corporeality—the stain of animality itself. Hence, Kristeva writes, the necessity of
abjection for the creation and maintenance of the “clean and proper body”
of both the ‘human’ and his ‘civilisation’.39 But as Kristeva argues, abjection
is an ambiguous process and its threshold, an unfinished site of struggle.
Thus, as the iterative foundation of the human, the animal (a site of both
“lack” and “excess”) produces the subject of the Symbolic as a negotiation
with an animality that both institutes and threatens the Law.40 In the language of exclusion, abjection defends the subject against the return of an
originary animality, as well as against the drive-ridden chaos of cannibalism,
bestiality and non-heterosexual ‘deviance’. It anxiously separates “man”
from what is not “proper” to his self. However, since the animal abject is,
in the language of Kristevan abjection and Butler’s “constitutive outside”,
both a part of the self and on the inside edge of the “outside”, it cannot
ever be finally expelled. Since this separation between self and other is never
complete, the abjection of the animal must be re-enacted and re-performed
at both a psychic and social level. As Kelly Oliver points out in her analysis
of the animal question in Kristevan abjection, to preserve the oedipality of
the Symbolic, the always tenuous distinction between human and animal
is stabilised across the dead bodies of animals. And so the humanist subject
who cannot “sacrifice sacrifice” gives up ‘eating’ the mother in order to
eat the other, and thus, Oliver writes, turns cannibalism into carnivorism,
breast milk into animal meat.41 With animal death appropriated solely to
nourish the carnivorous virility of the human, the subject not only “eats
selfishly”, as Derrida might put it, but in expelling animality, devours death
without relation, and refuses animal kinship.42
Dance with Death
At its most straightforward, Dance with Nothing but Heart performs the
carnophallogocentric subject and makes visible its abjected others in the
disembodied heart that binds Elu to the ox. The interactions between Elu
and the ox’s heart, between Elu and the audience, and between Elu’s mouth
and his foot, depend on a self-other relation in which sovereignty is signed
by the death-infected remainder of the killable other. In the moment when
Elu tears the heart open (along its pre-sewn tear) and spreads it against his
chest to reveal its darkened, meaty flesh and its muscled interior, the naked
violence of this speciesist economy is laid bare. Yet even without this sign
of the abject no-thing-ness of the animal, the politics of death that is acted
out as Elu dances, heart in hand, turn his every gesture into a confirmation
that the right of movement, and by extension, of life, belongs to the human
animal and no other; his every gesture becomes an affirmation of presence
that is written through the blood of the animal other. It is precisely this
mode of self-nourishment that is seemingly confirmed in the performance’s
unexpected ending. If ever there was a visual metaphor for the ‘taste’ of
auto-affection (and by extension, the masturbatory performance of beingpresent to oneself), Elu’s autophagic, and apparently self-fulfilling, autocompletion would suffice.
Yet this completion, and its power to perform the self’s presence to itself,
is illusory.43 The expletive-ridden telephone call that plays at the start, the
warnings of “explicit content” posted by Dance Umbrella, the audience
walkouts, Elu’s movement through the audience, the torn-open heart, and
the foot-in-mouth action—all these signal the performance of something
other. Strangely unanticipated, odd, and off-kilter, this otherness is also
queer in both senses of the word. If Dance with Nothing but Heart’ s abject
physicality and autophagy is considered ‘obscene’ (ob-scena as off-stage,
not fit for public view) and ‘unnatural’, it is not because of its homoeroticism.44 Rather, it is because the work enacts a kind of queer ‘perversity’
that corrupts the heteronormative sociality of carnophallogocentrism.45
While Kristeva argues that the abject has no object, the contrast of Elu’s
full-blooded heart and the ox’s bloodless one, and their co-implication
in a transgressive orality, refuse the separation of the human subject from
material (animal) substrate. If, for Kristeva, the abject is “not-I” but also
not “no-thing”, and if its structure of affect is created prior to the division
between subject and object, it sets up a frontier that is as porous as it is
anxious and ambiguous.46 It is a double-edged border that initiates the
self and endangers it, or as Kristeva puts it, the cause and the crisis of narcissism in the liminal zone where the ‘I’ is confronted by its own deathly
becoming.47 As Kristeva writes, abjection is a frayed edge over which the
self “strays”, neither human nor animal but both, and persists in the Symbolic as boundary-disturbing bodily waste: blood, excrement, filth, decay,
the corpse.48
Although in the sacrificial economy of the subject nothing says mastery
quite like the death of the animalised animal, for Kristeva, nothing is more
abject, more ambiguous, and hence more dangerous to the autonomous
self, than the corpse. Bound to Elu’s agonised movement and subject both
to his tender embrace and violence, the heart becomes instead a somatic
symptom of the shared finality of death itself. As with the maternal body
to which it is related, the corpse, for Kristeva, presents an unsacrificable
and non-transcendent dependence on materiality.49 It is this return of the
dead animal body and the embodied contagion of brute matter—in short,
the threat of the becoming-corpse of the subject—that the torn-open heart
summons and affirms. More so since the heart in question is not ‘fresh’:
even though two hearts were procured for the rehearsal and performance,
one heart had not defrosted in time and Elu, Cohen recounts, refused to
dance with a frozen heart.50 The heart that was used for the performances
was the same one that had been used for rehearsal. Retrieved from the bin,
the heart was sewn together again and reblooded with blood that Cohen
saved in case of “oxheart emergencies”.51 Marked initially as waste, and
malodorous by the second performance, the heart is less a spoil of human
privilege over the death of the animal other than a transgressive return of
an animality that stalks the ‘origin’ of the human, and corrupts the regulative purity of its heteronormative humanist subject. Rather than secure the
speciesist narrative of the Law through which Man calls himself Human,
Dance with Nothing but Heart ’s queer reiteration of ‘eating the animal
other’ produces an ‘outlaw’ subject that refuses the carnophallogocentric
transformation of animal life into consumable death, and thus, cannibalism into carnivorism. Instead, Elu’s “foot-sucking/foot-fucking” next to
a dead heart suspended from a hook exposes the viewer to an excess that
phallic mastery’s compulsory heterosexuality cannot shore up. In this queer
eating lies not the confirmation of sovereign presence, but its othering. In
“taking in” the self as other, the oral and edible boundaries between ‘self’
and ‘other’ are limitrophically crossed to produce an orificial relationality that is both porous and ambiguous. “Eating” metonymically, in other
words, not only puts the carnophallogocentric division between human
and animal, and edible and inedible bodies, at risk, it confounds, rather
than affirms, the easily digestible limit between carnivorous and cannibalistic eating, and therefore, between ‘eating’ the living and the dead.52 To eat
the death of the animal other queerly is thus also to recognise the disavowed
animal body as ‘mournable’.
Grievable Corporeographies
If the animal in the sacrificial economy of the subject is without life, so too
is it without death. As Butler’s work on violence, vulnerability, and mourning demonstrates, the ethico-politics of “liveable” and “grievable’ lives are
negotiated across the threshold of “who counts as human”.53 Human(ist)
“liveability”, in other words, depends not on the dreamed “desubstantialisation” of the abject human animal body,54 but on its recognition as
vulnerable to the threat of corporeal violence. As Stanescu shows, drawing
on Butler but writing against her avowed anthropocentrism, the “who”
who calls himself “human” and calls the other “animal”, produces animal
life as unliveable, and thus, ungrievable.55 Spread across an axis of species
difference, to be made animal is to be made “unmournable”. However, it
is not only the ungrievable nature of animal death that is at stake.
In the carnophallogocentric logic of the subject, the animal is nothing
but the negated pre-condition of the human; it follows then that animal
death is not only unmournable, but disavowed, for the animal has no life
as such. As Butler might put it, animal life is “de-realised”, and having
suffered the “violence of derealization”, can neither be vulnerable, lost or
mourned. “From the perspective of violence”, she writes, violence done
to the unreal can neither injure nor signify as violence, since those lives
were “already negated”.56 Nonetheless, Butler argues, negated lives remain
“strangely animated” and “seem to live on, stubbornly, in this state of
deadness… neither alive nor dead, but interminably spectral”.57 Faced with
the “inexhaustibility of its object”, violence, Butler observes, requires its
performative foundation: in the spectral traces of death in life, the negated
require negation, again and again.58
Rather than reproduce this erasure of suffering and the unmournable
animal body, the heart that Elu cradles is a fragile residue of what Derrida calls the “the anguish of vulnerability and the vulnerability of this
anguish”.59 The image of Elu pressing the torn-open ox’s heart against
his heart, as if an open wound, re-members a life in death and the violent inevitability of death-in-life that is provoked by finitude we share with
the living of whatever species. The relation between Elu and the heart is
thus not one in which human presence is secured through animal absence.
Instead, in their shared corporeality, the life-death it stages refuses to recuperate animal death to shore up human precarity. Bound to a corporeography that turns gesture into the testamentary certainty of erasure itself,
what Butler calls the “foundational sociality of embodied life” is shown to
be constitutively exposed to death in a way that it can neither de-realise nor
instrumentalise as human privilege. It is the fleshy irreducibility of meat and
muscle shared across bodies alive and no longer that makes it possible not
only to touch and mourn the other as other, but also to carry the other that
is the self. Such an interiorisation of the other as other recognises that “in
grief”, as Butler writes, “one is beside oneself, not at one with oneself”.60
Tarrying with Grief
Dance with Nothing but Heart is a difficult performance to watch, and
it is impossible to remain passive or look away. It is performance about
death, but since death, as Derrida suggests, is always the death of other, it
is also about the unknowability of death, and the ontological, ethical, and
political disorientations of grief. In Butler’s terms, “grief posits the ‘I’ in
the mode of unknowingness”,61 precisely because it remains, as Derrida
writes, “non-subjectivable in the experience of mourning”.62 The death
of the other, in other words, contra the carnophallogocentric subject of
sacrifice, can never be ‘for’ me. Despite appearances, the performance of
the abject in this piece acts not to consolidate the sacrifice of animality
in the name of the human subject who tastes himself through the death
of the other and ‘eats’ only to nourish himself. Instead, Elu’s kissing and
caressing and tearing of the heart can be thought of as a kind of politicopoetic reminder that “taking in” the other, and the other within the self,
occurs across a threshold infinitely open to an alterity that is in me “outside
of me”.63 Without this opening and its exposure to both tenderness and
violence, there can be no address to the other as other, nor indeed, to the
other as mortal.64
If the logic of carnophallogocentrism erects the subject through the
death of the animal, and if animal death is unmournable, Elu’s relation
to the dead animal heart he carries articulates a commitment to an alterity he cannot, must not, appropriate. As Derrida observes, since “eating”
involves the metonymic digestion of the other, the question of how to “eat
well” recognises not only a non-speciesist mutuality in the finitude of the
living, but a queered non-anthropocentric subjectivity that sticks in the
throat of the self that “eats selfishly”, only for himself, and only through
the death of the animal other. To “take in” the other who one “eats” is
to carry them, to bear their weight as part of the thickened relationality
unconditionally open to “learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-theother-to-eat” that characterises “eating well”.65 The ethical obligation that
ties Dance with Nothing but Heart to mourning, to an orificial “metonymy
of ‘eating well’”, resides, however, in more than the visual act of carrying.
If ‘I’ must carry ‘you’, then the word ‘carry’ must give up its egological
sense of to “include in oneself” and bear the incalculable alterity of the
other that announces and inscribes itself there, any other, even the abject
animal other who is the self.66 If eating metonymically means, for Derrida, “carrying the other in me”, then the limitrophic deconstruction of
the who/what I “eat” means that liveable lives and grievable deaths are
no longer secured by species difference but are open to the “infinite inappropriability of the other”.67 Rather than self-authorise in the death of the
animal other, the ‘taste’ of the ‘I’, in other words, can only start from the
queer, dislocated and dislocating position of the other in me: thus, as Derrida suggests,“[b]efore I am, I carry”.68 It is a carrying, moreover, that is
without end or condition. Tarrying in the resistance of grief, it carries itself
outside of the Law and queers a death-bearing, meat-eating sovereignty
into question, “not only for the dead, but for the living, too”.69 Herein
lies Dance with Nothing but Heart ’s naked transgression, and, its “heart”.
Elu Kieser died in July 2016 and is mourned and memorialised by Cohen
in a performance titled put your heart under your feet …and walk!/à Elu
(2017).70 While it is beyond the scope of this chapter, this performance is
in many ways a companion piece to Dance with Nothing but Heart. The
work combines live performance with a video edit that makes all too real
the performativity of violence in the distribution of animal death. Cohen
references traditional Jewish rituals of sanctioned and sanctified death as
he plays the bloody corporeality of assembly-line kosher animal slaughter
(Kashrut) against saying Kaddish (prayers for the dead) over Elu’s dematerialised body. Filmed in a kosher slaughterhouse, Cohen dances under
the dripping carcasses of freshly-killed cattle and immerses himself in the
blood that pools as they drain. Blood, soil, and Elu’s ashes place the question of how one ‘eats’ and carries the dead centre stage, all the more so
since Cohen, after lighting the Sabbath candles and saying the Hebrew
prayers for light, bread, and wine, confounds literal and figurative eating,
carnivorism and cannibalism, heresy and sacrament, by taking a spoon of
Elu’s ashes and swallowing it with kosher wine. Outlaw mourning indeed.71
Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
The director is unnamed in Cohen’s account of this work.
Bannerman, “An Overview,” 9–46.
Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
Dance Umbrella 2001 ran over two nights at the Wits Theatre, Johannesburg. I found the critical response to this performance deeply disturbing
because of its apparent disavowal of the animals whose deaths occasion this
performance. There seems to be a similar silence surrounding animal death
in Cohen’s recent performance mourning and memorialising Elu, which I
discuss in this chapter’s Coda.
6. Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
Hodgkiss, “Dance with Nothing but Heart,” 69.
Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
Lipschitz, “Skin/ned Politics,” 546–566; Lipschitz and de Robillard, “Race
and ‘the Animal’,” 73–93.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 29.
Butler, Bodies That Matter, 2.
Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 29–35.
For my interpretation of Butler’s relation to Kristevan abjection, see Lipschitz, “Abjection,” 13–29.
Butler, Bodies That Matter xi; Butler, Precarious Lives; Butler “Violence,
Mourning, Politics,” 9–37.
For a definition of Kristeva’s “Subject-in-Process/on Trial,” see McAfee,
Julia Kristeva, 54.
Stanescu, “Species Trouble,” 567–582; Iveson, “Domestic Scenes and
Species Trouble,” 20–40.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 283.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 278.
Wood, “Comment ne pas manger,” 33.
Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 283. As he writes, “[v]egetarians, too, partake of
animals, even of men. They practice a different mode of denegation.”
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 278; Wolfe, Animal Rites, 6. For Levinas, the other
is always human, although he does not deny possibility of the recognition of
an animal “face”. Dasein in Heidegger’s understanding of ‘being-towardsdeath’ is exclusively human, since only humans possess ‘world.’ Animals exist
in the poverty of ‘world’ and inanimate objects simply have none. See, for
example, Calarco, Zoographies, 15–77.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 278.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 279.
Wolfe, Animal Rites, 10.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 281.
Derrida, “Eating Well,” 278.
Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 110.
Butler, Bodies That Matter, 18.
Iveson, “Domestic Scenes and Species Trouble,” 21.
Freud, Totem and Taboo, 120–123. Also Oliver, Animal Lessons, 247–248.
Seshadri-Crooks, “Being Human,” 101.
Seshadri-Crooks, “Being Human,” 104; also, Iveson, “Domestic Scenes and
Species Trouble,” 31.
38. Seshadri-Crooks, “Being Human,” 99.
39. Sarah Baartman’s experience as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ is paradigmatic here.
See Abrahams, “Images of Sara Bartman,” 220–236. I discuss the racist politics of this animalisation in both “Skin/ned Politics” and, with De Robillard,
in “Race and the ‘Animal’”.
40. Oliver, Animal Lessons, 290–295
41. Oliver, Animal Lessons, 292. See Lipschitz, “Animality and Alterity,” 68–76.
42. Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
43. On the foundational interruption of self-presence, see, for example, the “infinitesimal difference” between the self and the other within me in Derrida,
Of Grammatology, 234, and part 2, chapter 2 “…That Dangerous Supplement…,” 141–157.
44. Although the etymology of ‘obscene’ is contested, I follow J. M. Coetzee’s
fictional scholar Elizabeth Costello’s derivation of the word from the Greek,
ob-skene, Latin obscaena, see Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 159. Also, McKay,
“Murder Ob/Scene,” 79–93.
45. This sense of ‘perverse’ is from Latin pervertere “overthrow, overturn”. Online Etymology Dictionary s.v “Pervert,” accessed 20 March,
46. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 1–2.
47. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 13–14.
48. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4, 13–14.
49. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4.
50. Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
51. Cohen, “Dance with Nothing but Heart”.
52. Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
53. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 10.
54. Wolfe, Animal Rites, 109.
55. Stanescu, “Species Trouble,” 567–569.
56. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 22.
57. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 22.
58. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 22.
59. Derrida, The Animal, 28.
60. Butler, “Mourning, Violence, Politics,” 10.
61. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 19.
62. Derrida, “Eating Well,” 271.
63. Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 166.
64. Derrida, Specters of Marx, 32.
65. Derrida, “Eating Well,” 282.
66. Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 161.
67. Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 161.
68. Derrida, Sovereignties in Question, 162.
69. Corey, “A Queer Divine,” 142.
70. Cohen, Put Your Heart Under Your Feet. This catalogue was published as
part of the exhibition Put Your Heart Under Your Feet …and Walk! at
Stevenson, Johannesburg 21 October–17 November 2017. I saw this performance at Dance Umbrella, 9 March 2018 at the Wits Theatre, Johannesburg.
71. Cohen, Put Your Heart Under Your Feet, 7. Cohen writes: “Elu’s final wish
expressed to me on his deathbed was ‘I want to be with you forever.’ And
so it shall be. ‘I will always love you Elu, you are buried in me, I am your
grave. And forever is much shorter than we thought!”
Works Cited
Abrahams, Yvette. “Images of Sara Bartman: Sexuality, Race and Gender in Early
Nineteenth-Century Britain.” In Nation, Empire, Colony: Historizing Gender
and Race, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudri, 220–236.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Bannerman, Henrietta. “An Overview of the Development of Martha Graham’s
Movement System (1926–1991).” Dance Research: The Journal of the Society
for Dance Research 17, no. 2 (1999): 9–46.
1290837. Accessed 30 January 2013.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. London:
Routledge 1993.
———. Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso,
———. “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4, no. 1
(2003): 9–37. Accessed 18
December 2018.
Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to
Derrida. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Cohen, Steven. “Dance with Nothing but Heart.” Q-Online, Johannesburg. Last
modified 8 March 2001.
http:/ Accessed 14 September
———. Put Your Heart Under Your Feet …and Walk! Cape Town: Stevenson,
Coetzee, J. M. Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons. Milsons Point: Knopf.
Corey, Frederick C. “A Queer Divine Dissatisfaction.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ
Worldmaking 1, no. 3 (2014): 142–145.
14321/qed.1.3.0142. Accessed 21 March 2019.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
———. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New
International, translated by Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.
———. “Eating Well, or the Calculation of the Subject (Interview with Jean-Luc
Nancy).” In Jacques Derrida, Points …Interviews, 1974–1994, translated
by Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, edited by Elizabeth Weber, 255–287.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
———. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, edited by Thomas
Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
———. The Animal That Therefore I Am, translated by David Wills, edited by
Marie-Louise Mallet. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Correspondences on the Mental life of Savages and Neurotics, translated by A. A. Brill. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998.
Hodgkiss, John. “Dance with Nothing but Heart.” In Steven Cohen, edited by
Bettina Schultz. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing, 2003.
Iveson, Richard. “Domestic Scenes and Species Trouble: On Judith Butler and
other Animals.” Journal of Critical Animal Studies 10, no. 4 (2012): 20–40. Accessed 20
March 2019.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S.
Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lipschitz, Ruth. “Skin/ned Politics: Species Discourse and the Limits of ‘the
Human’ in Nandipha Mntambo’s Art.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist
Philosophy 27, no. 3 (2012): 546–566.
———. “Animality and Alterity: Species Discourse and the Limits of the ‘Human’
in Contemporary South African Art.” PhD Diss., Goldsmiths, University of
London, 2015. Goldsmiths Research Online GRO (11759)
———. “Abjection.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies, edited
by Lynn Turner, Ron Broglio, and Undine Sellbach, 13–29. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2018.
Lipschitz, Ruth, and Benita de Robillard, “Race and ‘the Animal’ in the PostApartheid ‘National Symbolic’.” Image and Text 30 (2017):73–93. https://
McAfee, Noëlle. Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 2004.
McKay, Carolyn. “Murder Ob/Scene: The Seen, the Unseen, and the Ob/Scene
in Murder Trials.” Law Text Culture 14 (2010): 79–93.
au/ltc/vol14/iss1/6. Accessed 21 April 2018.
Oliver, Kelly. Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2009.
Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. “Being Human: Bestiality, Anthropophagy, and Law.”
Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious, no. 1 (2003): 97–114.
Stanescu, James. “Species Trouble: Judith Butler, Mourning, and the Precarious
Lives of Animals.” Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy 27, no. 3 (2012):
Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and
Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Wood, David. “Comment ne pas manger—Deconstruction and Humanism.” In
Animal others: On Ethics, Ontology and Animal Life, edited by H. Peter Steeves,
15–36. New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Meanings of Meat in Videogames
Tom Tyler
In the multiplayer strategy game DomiNations (Big Huge Games/Nexon,
2015–), players must advance their chosen nation through successive historical periods, from the dawn of civilization to the stone, bronze and iron
ages, and beyond. The game’s economy comprises two core resources, gold
and food, which provide the means to improve your city and an incentive
to raid those of other players (a third resource, oil, is discovered in the
Enlightenment). Gold is generated in the first instance by mines, caravans
and your road network, and by the pelts procured from rabbits, foxes and
bears, and its accumulation is indicated by a running total at the top of
the screen. Food, meanwhile, is amassed by hunting, gathering and farming: your citizens track down deer and boar, and pick fruit, and your farms
produce crops and livestock, all depicted in the game’s colourful, isometric
animations. Having been collected, this varied fare is added to the city’s
stockpile of food, listed, like gold, as a simple numeric quantity, and represented by an icon depicting a huge leg of meat, three red apples and a sprig
of some unspecified garnish, all arranged atop a gleaming white platter.
T. Tyler (B)
School of Media and Communication,
University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
© The Author(s) 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
In its treatment of food, DomiNations illustrates well three key meanings of the term meat, as we find them delineated in the Oxford English
Dictionary. When hunted, those game animals are speared by the nation’s
industrious citizens and fall dead to the ground, the graphic changing from
a lively creature trotting nonchalantly around the perimeter of the city to an
inert carcass: the animal becomes flesh to be eaten.1 But that generic cache
of different kinds of food to which the animal is added, comprising not just
flesh, but fruit, vegetables and grain too, can equally be called “meat” in
the oldest sense of the word, employed since Anglo-Saxon times to refer to
any kind of solid food.2 Finally, the icon used to represent this undifferentiated mass of foodstuffs evokes a third meaning of “meat” which derives
figuratively from the first: that which is important or of substance, or alternatively the main part or gist of some matter. The “meat” of an argument,
for example, would be its most significant ideas, whilst a substantial role in
a performance might be described as “meaty”.3 That gargantuan hunk of
meat, dominating the meagre fruit and vegetable matter beneath, leaves us
in no doubt as to the principal part of this meal.
These dictionary definitions record only the barest, most literal meanings
of the word “meat”, however. The term unavoidably connotes far more.
Asked about a “deeper meaning” behind the name of his group, Meat Beat
Manifesto, frontman Jack Dangers once replied:
No, it’s just a bunch of words strung together to form a name, much like the
Butthole Surfers. What does that mean? Does that mean they surf on butt
holes? After a while, the name doesn’t really say anything. It’s a moniker.
Throbbing Gristle. It’s good to have a memorable name. Tortoise, what
does that mean? Where did you get your name from? “Well, I have a pet
tortoise”. Who knows?4
It is indeed absurd, as Dangers says, to imagine rather literally that Butthole
Surfers are so-called because the members of the band surf on (their) butt
holes, but nonetheless the name itself is not without meaning. It conjures,
at the very least, something of the irreverent humour for which the band are
known, just as Throbbing Gristle carries associations of some kind of meaty
pulse, and Tortoise, perhaps, an easy, ambling pace. Dangers’ protestations
aside, the rhyming, alliterative words strung together to make up “Meat
Beat Manifesto” evoke a determined, forward-looking declaration, a statement of principle and call for change which is at once rhythmic, poetic and
In fact, as the cultural anthropologist Nick Fiddes has observed, “meat
is a medium particularly rich in social meaning”.5 Around the world,
for instance, “animal flesh has long and widely been seen as embodying
strength and vigour more than any other food” (178). Meat seems to contain a particular power,6 as if consuming an animal allows us, literally, to
incorporate their might.7 Writing on steak, the quintessence of meat, the
cultural critic Roland Barthes observes that “whoever partakes of it assimilates a bull-like strength”.8 As such, meat is frequently the most highly
regarded kind of food. It has an unrivalled status, representing prestige
and primacy, which far exceeds its nutritional value.9 Writing on traditional
British culture, the sociologist Julia Twigg draws up a perceived “hierarchy
of foods”, which meat dominates at the top, red above white, followed by
fish, after which come other animal products such as eggs and then cheese,
followed, finally, by fruit, vegetables and cereals, the lowliest of victuals.10
Meat, then, is king over the vegetable vassals,11 and always takes the starring role at meals.12 In fact, meat’s traditional image is not just as the best
kind of food, but as “essential, vital nutrition”13 : no meal can really be
complete without its meat. It is commonly considered indispensable and
irreplaceable, synonymous, even, with food.14 “Meat is the most highly
prized of food. It is the centre around which a meal is arranged. It stands
in a sense for the very idea of food itself… our meat and drink”.15
These meanings amount to the suggestion “that meat alone can endow
us with its unique vitality”.16 Indeed, meat connotes what is vital in two
complementary senses of the word: that which is absolutely essential, and
that which is life-giving. This faith in the vitality of meat frequently manifests in the representation and operation of food within videogames. Food
plays a variety of roles across different games and genres. In Far Cry 4
(Ubisoft Montreal, 2014), for instance, it can be used as bait, to lure wild
animals, either for the purpose of hunting or to distract and disrupt enemies. In the Farming Simulator series (Giants Software, 2008–) many different types of crop and livestock can be carefully grown and harvested
for sale. Cooking Mama (Office Create, 2006) requires players to prepare
and present different meals, whilst Diner Dash (Gamelab, 2004) sets them
the task of waiting tables and delivering dishes to demanding customers.
Finally, Bubble Bobble (Taito, 1986) has players collect a huge range of
different food types which are converted into points towards their score.
Animal flesh can be produced, distributed or exchanged as an element of
play in each of these games, as it can in many others, but it is when food
is consumed by a player’s avatar or agents that we encounter in its most
conspicuous form meat’s enduring meaning as the most vital of foods.
We can identify, for this purpose, four different functions of food within
In a relatively small number of games, food provides bare sustenance,
serving simply to stave off hunger. Such is the case, for instance, in the
life simulation series The Sims (EA Maxis, 2000–), in which a wide range
of ingredients, snacks and full meals can be obtained with relative ease; in
the wilderness survival game Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013), in
which food is scarce and must be scavenged and hoarded; and in the enormously popular sandbox building game Minecraft (Mojang, 2011). Whilst
exploring, gathering resources and battling monsters, players of Minecraft
must keep an eye on their avatar’s hunger. This is represented in the head-up
display by a “food bar”, which takes the form of ten stylized “drumsticks”,
i.e. birds’ legs. These markers deplete as time goes by, especially if the player
engages in strenuous activity, and after a certain point penalties ensue. The
food bar can be replenished by eating any of the game’s thirty-six varieties of food, of which more than half comprise some kind of animal flesh.
Supernatural foods aside, the most nourishing items, alongside salmon, are
all cooked red meats: mutton, pork chop and of course steak. Most of the
vegetables appear on the tier below, whilst fruit sits yet further down the
hierarchy, alongside raw meats and just one step up from cakes and cookies, raw fish and rotten flesh.17 Iconographically, then, in Minecraft meat
represents the very idea of food itself, whilst the game’s mechanics cast
animal flesh as the most significant form of food, both quantitatively and
More common than its use as a means merely of sustaining individuals,
food is employed in many games as a restorative. A character’s health is often
represented as a numeric value indicating a quantity of “health points” or
“hit points”. Starting initially on full health, hit points will be lost when
the character is injured, typically during combat. Points can be restored
or regenerated, up to the character’s maximum, by means of medicine,
potions, and, very often, food. Croissants, bean croquettes and beef jerky,
along with a wide range of other comestibles, have this effect in the roleplaying game EarthBound (Ape Inc., HAL Laboratory, 1994), as does the
simpler combination of bread and salami in the first-person shooter Return
to Castle Wolfenstein (Gray Matter Interactive, 2001). The same mechanic
is at work in the text-based role-playing game A Dark Room (Doublespeak
Games, 2013). Here, players can build up a village, employing those who
move in as trappers, hunters, miners, and in other roles. The simple textbutton combat system allows you simultaneously to “stab”, “swing” and
“slash” at opponents with different weapons, and to scoff provisions to
restore lost hit points. In fact, cured meat, prepared by your charcutiers
or scavenged on your excursions outside the village, is the only source of
food in the game, and thus indispensable to your survival. The original
browser version of A Dark Room permitted players simply to “eat meat”
during combat, whereas the ports to mobile devices changed the button to
indicate instead, alongside the number of hit points that would be restored,
the quantity of “food” remaining, implicitly marking the synonymity of
meat and food within the game.
Beyond restoration, food is used in a number of games as a means
of enhancement. Rather than simply replenish points that have been lost,
“power ups” and “stat buffs” can temporarily increase maximum values
for health and other attributes, improve proficiency with skills and abilities, and otherwise heighten a character’s capabilities. Using a mushroom
in the Mario Kart series (Nintendo et al., 1992–), for instance, provides a
speed boost, whilst quaffing Colovian Brandy in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
(Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) makes bartering more successful. In this
context, the role-playing game Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (Capcom Production Studio 1, 2011) might appropriately be described, after Pope, as
carnivoracious.18 Your first task in the game is to kill an Aptonoth, a placid
herbivore described as a “vegan brute”, and cut chunks of raw meat from
the carcass. These, you soon learn, can be spit-roasted in a mini-game to
create steaks, which, when eaten, raise your maximum stamina for a time.
A little later in the game you can visit a Canteen, where meals are prepared to order. Each category of food provides a different enhancement:
any kind of meat will make your attacks more successful; grains help with
defence; fish extend the time you can swim underwater; and so on. Meat is
here the most potent of the available foods, enhancing prowess in combat
and always bestowing its benefits first, overriding those that might have
been gained from lesser ingredients in the meal. Meat in Monster Hunter
3 Ultimate, then, embodies strength and vigour, and tops the hierarchy of
Finally, most lasting of all the advantages that food affords, it functions
in certain games as a resource. When expended, food here provides not just
a temporary enhancement, but permanent improvements and upgrades.
In the real-time strategy series Age of Empires (Ensemble Studios, 1997–),
food is used to produce citizens and soldiers, and to research the new
technologies that advance your empire, whilst in the roguelike Dungeon of
the Endless (Amplitude Studios, 2014) it is the means by which your four
heroes level up, increasing their effectiveness in combat and conferring new
skills. As we saw earlier, food is one of the key resources in DomiNations .
It is used to train troops and acquire tactics for use in battle, to research
military and economic advances in the library and university, to improve
caravans and your town’s road network, to construct and develop buildings
such as markets and barracks, and even to erect Wonders like the Hanging
Gardens, Pyramids and Colosseum, which benefit your nation in a variety
of different ways. In effect, food operates as a kind of currency, alongside
gold, to be spent on obtaining and upgrading the very elements of play. This
power-enhancing food, it will be remembered, is represented throughout
the game by that bullishly carnocentric icon dominated by a gigantic leg
of meat. Visually, at least, when it comes to the food in DomiNations meat
takes the starring role, is the centre around which the meal is arranged, and
is king over the vegetable vassals.
Thus, we can identify four functions of food when it is consumed within
videogames: as a means of sustenance to keep characters alive, as a restorative to replenish fading health, as a means of temporarily enhancing an
avatar’s capabilities, and as a resource which can be spent on permanently
improving the game’s units. And, as we saw, across all four functions, meat
frequently bestows strength and vigour, operates as the very best kind of
food, and even stands for the idea of food itself. It is routinely life-giving
and essential. Meat, in short, connotes vitality. There is another, contrasting meaning to meat, however, which is worth exploring.
Discussing the paintings of Francis Bacon, the philosopher Gilles
Deleuze reflects on the techniques of rubbing and brushing and local scrubbing in the bleak triptychs and raw, fleshy portraits. These asignifying traits
(traits asignifiants ) can take on a particular meaning: they become, Deleuze
suggests, marks or traits of animality (traits d’animalité).19 A human head
is replaced by a spiralling black bird; a dog appears as the shadow of her
master; a man’s shadow assumes an autonomous if indeterminate animal
existence. These traits evoke, Deleuze says, a commonality that is not a matter simply of resemblance between man and beast but of deep identity (21,
25). Deleuze locates this “common fact of man and animal”, this “zone of
indiscernibility” in the body in so far as the body is flesh or meat (21–22). As
Bacon himself put it: “Of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.
If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t
there instead of the animal”.20 And so, “Pity the meat!” Deleuze declares.
“Meat”, he claims, “is undoubtedly the chief object of Bacon’s pity”, manifesting “such convulsive pain and vulnerability”. It is, he says, the common
zone of man and beast, a state where the painter identifies with the objects
of his horror and his compassion (23). Thus, Bacon’s paintings, and particularly Deleuze’s examination of them, underscore a further meaning of
meat beside the usual connotations of strength and vitality, which is to say
the profound weakness and vulnerability of exposed flesh.21
The philosopher Matthew Calarco suggests that Deleuze’s account of
Bacon’s work constitutes an attempt to consider a radical indistinction, in
which the traditional, supposedly insuperable differences between human
and animal are levelled.22 Thought and practice which operates within such
a space of indistinction, Calarco argues, sets out to displace humanity from
its customary, exalted position far above the nonhuman world by reducing
it downward to an essentially inhuman zone. Confronting Bacon’s uncompromising paintings, the viewer is required to appreciate their own exposed,
fragile, vulnerable embodiment, the brute fact of their existence as flesh,
and hence their potential existence as no more than a carcass. The paintings
allow us a glimpse of the reality that human bodies, too, in common with
those of other animals, are “fundamentally and essentially meat”.23 “By
placing viewers within a zone of indistinction”, Calarco argues, “Bacon
encourages us to learn to see human bodies as edible”, and, simultaneously, “to catch a glimpse of the existence of those animal…bodies that
have been relegated by the established order to the status of being nothing more than edible, nothing more than mere meat”.24 But, at the same
time, recognition of this indistinction between human and animal prompts
an awareness, Calarco suggests, that although we are all mere meat, we are
also more than mere meat: flesh is or was part of an entire body caught
up in passions, desires and relations that far exceed its existence as food for
another.25 Starting from a consideration of indistinction thus opens up new
possibilities for thought and action,26 and reorients us to alternative modes
of living, relating and being with others.27 Managing to acknowledge and
accept this displacement of humanity from its time-honoured exceptional
status is, however, “no doubt one of the most difficult facts for thought to
bear and sustain”.28
Meat, then, can connote not just power and vitality, but also exposure and vulnerability. This latter meaning of meat is exemplified by the
game Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010), in which the avatar does not
consume meat, but is made of meat. Players control the blood-red, cubeshaped Meat Boy (Fig. 14.1), whose love, Bandage Girl, has been kid-
Fig. 14.1 Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) (Copyright Nycrama LLC DBA
Team Meat, 2008–2017)
napped by the nefarious Dr Foetus. Meat Boy must run and jump his way
through dozens of levels, navigating past buzz saws, crumbling blocks,
homing missiles, rotating razor blades, spinning fans, roaming adversaries,
bosses, lava, lasers, syringes, spikes, salt and other hazards, to reach Bandage Girl. The game, described by its developers, Edmund McMillen and
Tommy Refenes, as “tough as nails”,29 is notoriously difficult, requiring
split-second timing and the patience to keep replaying complex sequences
of jumps. There are no hit points here to be whittled down by successive
injuries and restored with conveniently-placed food items: a single mistake results in instant death and a return to the beginning of the level. As
Meat Boy, you are unprotected and completely exposed to the dangers and
threats you encounter. Even as you run and slide across floors and walls,
you leave a bloody residue on every surface you touch. As McMillen has
So Meat Boy is a boy made of meat. But when designing him it wasn’t a
thought of “he’s made of steak or whatever else”. It was more: “He doesn’t
have skin”. He’s a boy without skin. So that’s why they call him Meat Boy.
So he’s exposed to the elements. Maybe he’s always in pain, but he just deals
with it. But he has to be very careful with everything because anything could
kill him. Like the smallest little thing, like salt, or whatever could totally
destroy him.30
The meat of Super Meat Boy, then, in the form of this boy without skin,
signifies not vitality but profound vulnerability. As such, Meat Boy is the
embodiment Calarco’s notion of indistinction. McMillen is keen to emphasize that Meat Boy is not made of animal flesh, “steak or whatever else”,
but that nonetheless, as a boy who does not have skin, he is made of meat.
Meat Boy’s exposed, fragile, vulnerable flesh is of a kind with the exposed,
fragile, vulnerable flesh of other animals. Furthermore, the game’s unremitting dangers, its brutal difficulty, and the repeated, gory deaths that result,
bring home to players the ease with which one’s fleshy body can quickly
become a carcass. This remains the case despite the fact that the game’s
protagonist is caught up in diverse passions, desires and relations, which
is to say that Meat Boy is, of course, far more than mere meat. Calarco
suggested, however, that thinking in terms of indistinction and an equation of human and animal at the level of embodied flesh, and in particular
accepting the displacement of humanity from its customary, exalted position above the nonhuman world, is one of the most difficult thoughts to
sustain. Such proved to be the case regarding the radical challenge to conventional understandings of meat that Super Meat Boy represents.
The provocative animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) responded within months of the release of Super
Meat Boy by producing a game of their own. Always keen to capitalize on
trends in contemporary culture, and to court publicity-rich controversy,
PETA have produced many games over the years, including the parodies
Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals (This Is Pop, 2008), in which you
enact the gruesome preparation of a “thanksgiving feast”; Super Tanooki
Skin 2D (This Is Pop, 2011) in which, as a flayed raccoon dog, you must
“save your skin” which has been stolen by Mario; and Pokemon Black &
Blue (This Is Pop, 2012) in which you help Pikachu and friends escape their
abusive trainers.31 In Super Tofu Boy (MCM Net, 2010), having realized
that animal flesh was not for her, Bandage Girl has forsaken Meat Boy for
sexy, badass Tofu Boy. Now you must steer Tofu Boy through a series of
levels set in a slaughter house, the Golden Arches, and a bacon factory, to
rescue Bandage Girl from a jealous, vengeful Meat Boy. Like the macho
backstory, the gameplay is similar to Super Meat Boy, with hazards including more spinning blades, as well as gas burners and meat pounders. The
levels are interspersed with helpful “tips” such as “cows are pumped full
of drugs to make them grow abnormally large” and “red meat can lead to
impotence, obesity, and loss of girlfriend”. At game’s end, Meat Boy meets
Fig. 14.2 Super Tofu Boy (MCM Net, 2010)
a final, bloody death, and Tofu Boy and Bandage Girl are reunited once
and for all (Fig. 14.2).
Team Meat provided in turn a two-pronged rejoinder. In a post on
the developers’ site, McMillen claimed that PETA had played right into
his hands. “I actually repeatedly made fake user names in PETA’s forum
pushing the game at them in hopes something like this would happen”, he
wrote. Describing Super Tofu Boy as a major personal high point, he thanked
PETA for the flattering, helpful parody, and for making themselves look
foolish in the process: “see (as mentioned in countless interviews) Meat
Boy isn’t made of animal meat, he’s simply a boy without skin whose name
is Meat Boy”.32 At the same time, Team Meat added Tofu Boy as a playable
character to the Steam release of Super Meat Boy. (A Tofu Boy had, in fact,
already featured in a promotional comic, before the game’s release).33 This
Tofu Boy is no badass, though. According to McMillen, he has an “inflated
ego”, and is “not actually as effective as he thinks he is”. Tofu Boy is the
slowest of the game’s playable characters, and his ability to jump is so poor
that it is actually impossible to complete most of the game’s levels using
him. “Patch is now live on Steam. Play as Tofu Boy by typing in ‘petaphile’
at the character select screen. ENJOY YOUR IRON DEFICIENCY!!!!”,
Team Meat announced on Twitter.34
Despite the core premise and radical promise of a character who is
defined by his pain and vulnerability, Super Meat Boy ultimately returns,
then, to a very traditional meaning of meat, as that which represents and
endows vigour and vitality. Meat Boy may, as McMillen says, have to be
careful navigating his environment, but nonetheless he can run much faster
and jump much farther than his feeble vegetable-based counterpart. Further, with their tweet making reference to “iron deficiency”, Team Meat
characterize tofu as an inadequate, substitute food: only animal flesh, it is
implied, is necessary and life-giving. Meat reigns supreme once more, and
any sense of a shared vulnerability is cut short. Super Meat Boy thus exemplifies both the indistinction between human and animal flesh depicted by
Bacon and discussed by Deleuze and Calarco, and the difficulty of holding
fast to the thought of this disquieting equation, which poses such a threat to
humanity’s time-honoured exceptional status. Additionally, however, the
game and the disputatious publicity surrounding it also demonstrate the
difficulty of sustaining a distinction between human and animal meat.
During the creation and promotion of Super Meat Boy, the developers
were in fact equivocal regarding Meat Boy’s composition. Despite their
repeated assertion that he is simply a boy without skin, they also frequently
suggested or implied otherwise. McMillen’s tactical trolling of PETA was
clearly intended to persuade forum readers that Meat Boy is made of animal flesh, and in many blog posts and interviews published during the
development process, McMillen or Refenes made reference to meat in different ways: they joked about being covered in meat,35 about wearing
blood stained aprons,36 and that Meat Boy is “like SpongeBob for carnivorous sadists”.37 When asked “Why meat?”, McMillen explained that
he always thought it would be cool to have a character that left a trail,
and added “Also, we choose meat because we aren’t communists”.38 In
the announcement video for the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita versions of the
game, Refenes flings handfuls of meat, including ground beef and cuts of
steak, at a makeshift target.39 Team Meat ran a competition for followers
of the development blog to create “an image of yourself with something
Fig. 14.3 First Super Meat Boy advertisement (McMillen, “New Meat Boy Ad!”;
Copyright Nycrama LLC DBA Team Meat, 2008–2017)
meat related”,40 stated in the comic that you play as “an animated cube
of meat”,41 and explained in an interview that Meat Boy is “made of raw
meat”.42 In the comic, Meat Boy appears alongside Bacon Boy, Burger
Boy, Pork Chop Boy, KFC Boy, Veal Boy and several other boys made out
of animal meat.43 In the game’s first advertisement, the iconic silhouette
of a cow is broken up with dotted lines indicating traditional cuts of beef:
brisket, rib, sirloin, rump, et al. Close to the rear, outlined in red, we see
a more-or-less square cut labelled “Meat Boy” (Fig. 14.3).44 And similarly, in a doctored version of a vintage advertisement from the American
Meat Institute, which proclaims emphatically “Nourishing Meat …a complete protein food”, Meat Boy can be seen, bounded by lines of fat, as an
integral part of a huge slab of meat.45
So what is Meat Boy made of? Is this squat oddity simply a human boy
with his skin removed? Or is he a compressed cube of raw ground beef, a
select cut of steak, or some other kind of animal flesh? Is Meat Boy made
of the kind of meat we could eat? Is Meat Boy edible? Are his strength and
vigour, his vitality, something we could consume? Were we to partake of
him, might we assimilate Meat Boy’s bull-like iron reserves? (Tofu, in fact,
contains at least as much iron as steak and often more,46 though, were we
to eat Tofu Boy, a glass of vitamin C-rich orange juice would help with
its absorption.47 ) Ultimately, it remains unclear what kind of meat Meat
Boy is made of: human or another kind of animal. But, as Calarco argues,
we need to concede that, either way, Meat Boy is edible. Recognizing the
indistinction between human and animal is, in part, a matter of learning to
appreciate that the flesh of a human youth, with or without skin, or that of
a Calarco or a Deleuze or a Bacon, just like that of a cow, a pig, a rabbit,
a sheep, a turkey, a boar, a deer, a dog, a raccoon dog, a fox, a bear, a
black bird, a tortoise or even a vegan brute like an Aptonoth, is, as a matter
of fact, edible.48 But it is also a matter of learning to see that, although
we are all mere meat, a nourishing, complete protein food for others, we
are also more than mere meat. Meat Boy, like the other creatures with
whom he shares a carnate, embodied existence, is caught up in all manner
of passions, desires and relations which go far beyond his bare existence as
meat and throbbing gristle. Meat Boy, as the ambiguous embodiment of
indistinction, helps to remind us that the vital body and the vulnerable body
are one and the same, opens up new possibilities for thought and action,
and, with his companion Tofu Boy, reorients us to alternative modes of
living, relating and being with others.
Acknowledgements Thanks: Matthew Calarco, Philip Farnham, Robert McKay,
Ginny Messina, and Anat Pick.
“Meat, N.,” II.4.a.
“Meat, N.,” I.1.a.
“Meat, N.,” III.11; “Meaty, Adj.,” 2.
Dangers, Interview.
Fiddes, Meat, 5.
Twigg, “Vegetarianism,” 22.
Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat, 56; Fiddes, Meat, 67.
Barthes, “Steak and Chips,” 62.
Fiddes, Meat, 15–16, 45.
Twigg, “The Vegetarian Movement,” ch. 3; Twigg, “Vegetarianism,” 21.
Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat, 55–57.
Fiddes, Meat, 15.
Fiddes, Meat, 232.
Fiddes, Meat, 14–15.
Twigg, “Vegetarianism,” 21–22.
Fiddes, Meat, 67.
Pope, Works, 18 April 1730.
Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 21; see also 5.
Bacon, Brutality of Fact, 46, quoted in Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 24.
See Pick, “Vulnerability.”
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction.”
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction,” 57; Calarco, Thinking
Through Animals, 58–59.
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction,” 57.
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction,” 57; Calarco, “Being Toward
Meat,” 427–428; Calarco, Thinking Through Animals, 59, 61.
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction”, 58–59; Calarco, “Being
Toward Meat”, 426–428; Calarco, Thinking Through Animals, 56–57.
Calarco, “Identity, Difference, Indistinction,” 54, 58–59; Calarco, Thinking
Through Animals, 67–69.
Calarco, “Being Toward Meat,” 425.
Ashcraft, “Review.”
Edmund McMillen in Swirsky and Pajot, Indie Game: The Movie, 00:45:55.
Bartlett, Interview with PETA; Evans-Thirlwell, “How PETA Invaded the
Games Industry”.
Dutton, “Team Meat Skewers PETA Spoof.”
McMillen and Refenes, Super Meat Boy; Crecente, “Super Meat Boy.”
Team Meat, “Patch Is Now Live on Steam.”
McMillen, “The Meat Man Cometh.”
McMillen, “I Sleep to the Sounds of Squrils Making Love to Buzz Saws.”
Meer, “Super Meat Boy—First Look.”
Graft and Remo, “Road to the IGF.”
Tommunism, “Super Meat Boy PS4/Vita Announce.”
McMillen, “Free Comic Friday!”
McMillen and Refenes, Super Meat Boy; Crecente, “Super Meat Boy.”
Hatfield, “Super Meat Boy Interview.”
McMillen and Refenes, Super Meat Boy; Crecente, “Super Meat Boy.”
McMillen, “New Meat Boy Ad!”
McMillen and Refenes, Super Meat Boy; Crecente, “Super Meat Boy.”
USDA, “Basic Report: 16427”; USDA, “Basic Report: 23227.”
Norris and Messina, Vegan for Life, 61–67.
See Fudge, “Why It’s Easy Being a Vegetarian,” 156–60.
Work Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,
20th Anniversary Edition. Revised edition. New York and London: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2010.
Ashcraft, Brian. “Review: Super Meat Boy.” Kotaku, 28 October 2010. http://
Bacon, Francis. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.
Barthes, Roland. “Steak and Chips.” In Mythologies, translated by Lavers Annette,
62–64. London: Vintage, 1993.
Calarco, Matthew. “Being Toward Meat: Anthropocentrism, Indistinction, and
Veganism.” Dialectical Anthropology 38, no. 4 (2014): 415–429.
———. “Identity, Difference, Indistinction.” New Centennial Review 11, no. 2
(2012): 41–60.
———. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction. Stanford
and California: Stanford Briefs, Stanford University Press, 2015.
Crecente, Brian. “Super Meat Boy: The Comic! The Activity Book!!” Kotaku, 06
Dangers, Jack. Interview: Meat Beat Manifesto (Jack Dangers). Interview by
Todd E. Jones, November 2005.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W.
Smith. London: Continuum, 2003.
Dutton, Fred. “Team Meat Skewers PETA Spoof.” Eurogamer (Blog), 2 December
Evans-Thirlwell, Edwin. “How PETA Invaded the Games Industry.” PC
Gamer, 14 May 2015.
Fiddes, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
“Food”. Minecraft Wiki. Accessed 17
July 2017.
Fudge, Erica. “Why It’s Easy Being a Vegetarian.” Textual Practice 1, no. 24
(2010): 149–166.
Graft, Kris, and Chris Remo. “Road to the IGF: Team Meat’s Super Meat
Boy.” Gamasutra, 21 January 2010.
Hatfield, Daemon. “Super Meat Boy Interview.” IGN, 27 May 2009. http://www.
Joel Bartlett. An Interview with PETA: Game Developer. Interview by
AVB, 21 October 2013.
McMillen, Edmund. “Free Comic Friday!” Super Meat Boy Development Blog
(Blog), 18 December 2009.
———. “I Sleep to the Sounds of Squirrels Making Love to Buzz Saws”. Super Meat
Boy Development Blog (Blog), 5 April 2009. http://supermeatboy.blogspot.
———. “New Meat Boy Ad!” Super Meat Boy Development Blog (Blog), 11 April
———. “The Meat Man Cometh”. Super Meat Boy Development Blog (Blog),
14 March 2009.
McMillen, Edmund, and Tommy Refenes. Super Meat Boy. Vol. 1, 2009.
“Meat, N.” In OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. http://0-www.
“Meaty, Adj.” In OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017.
Meer, Alec. “Super Meat Boy—First Look.” GamesRadar+, 21 November 2009.
Norris, Jack, and Virginia Messina. Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to
Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong
Books, 2011.
Pick, Anat. “Vulnerability.” In Critical Terms for Animal Studies, edited by Lori
Gruen, 410–423, forthcoming. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2019.
Pope, Alexander. The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. Edited by William Roscoe. Vol.
10. 10 vols. London: C. and J. Rivington et al., 1824.
Swirsky, James, and Lisanne Pajot. Indie Game: The Movie. Documentary.
BlinkWorks Media, 2012.
Team Meat. “Patch Is Now Live on Steam.” Tweet. @supermeatboy
(Blog), 3 December 2010.
Tommunism. “Super Meat Boy PS4/Vita Announce.” YouTube, 8 June 2015.
Twigg, Julia. “The Vegetarian Movement in England, 1847–1981: A Study in the
Structure of Its Ideology.” London School of Economics, 1981. https://ivu.
———. “Vegetarianism and the Meanings of Meat.” In The Sociology of Food and
Eating, edited by Anne Murcott, 18–30. Aldershot: Gower, 1983.
USDA. “Basic Report: 16427, Tofu, Raw, Regular, Prepared with Calcium Sulfate.” National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28, May 2016.
———. “Basic Report: 23227, Beef, Rib Eye Steak, Boneless, Lip off, Separable
Lean and Fat, Trimmed to 0” Fat, All Grades, Cooked, Grilled”. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28, May 2016. https://ndb.nal.
abjection, 43, 202, 215, 219–221, 226
absent referent, the, 104, 145, 148,
149, 153, 157, 158
Adams, Carol J., 3, 13, 15, 56, 57, 64,
65, 67, 68, 72, 74, 85–87, 104,
107, 145, 146, 148, 149, 157,
Adorno, Theodor, 11, 13, 46–48,
50–52, 126, 128, 129, 133,
aesthetics, 2, 3, 6, 20, 27, 31, 44, 47,
51, 75, 126, 181, 184, 185, 187,
Agamben, Georgio, 87, 184, 185, 193
Age of Empires (videogame), 235
Alaimo, Stacy, 136
alimentary materialism, 14, 179–181,
183, 188, 191–193
Alt, Christina, 56, 59, 67
alterity, 215, 216, 224, 227
ambulance drivers of the First World
War, 10, 19, 20
American Meat Institute. See meat
animacy, 28, 30
animal death, 217, 220, 223–225
animality, 31, 39, 45, 186, 215, 216,
218–220, 222, 224, 227, 236
animal rights activism, 8, 201
Anthropocene, the, 7, 127, 138
anthropocentrism, 7, 121, 137, 186,
appetitive order, 182, 184, 186–188,
Aristotle, 30, 184, 185
Armstrong, Philip, 9, 15
Asimov, Isaac, 97
Atwood, Margaret, 96, 98, 108
Auden, W.H.
and Christopher Isherwood, 80
“Easily, my dear, you move, easily
your head”, 76, 87
“Letter to Lord Byron”, 73, 83
and Louis MacNeice, 82
“Spain”, 71, 72
authority, 39–41, 45, 51, 97, 152, 155
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive
license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
S. McCorry and J. Miller (eds.), Literature and Meat Since 1900,
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature,
auto-affection, 221
bacon, 22, 78, 191, 239
Bacon, Francis, 4, 15, 49, 50, 52, 236,
237, 241–244
Barthes, Roland, 233, 243
Bashford, Alison, 116, 122
Bataille, Georges, 10, 23, 24, 28, 31,
32, 149, 209, 211
Bauman, Zygmunt, 4, 15
bear, 5, 21, 71, 76, 97, 101, 134, 185,
224, 231, 237, 243
Beckett, Samuel, 47, 48, 50
becoming-meat, 28, 45, 49
beef, 13, 21, 23, 63, 64, 78, 85, 95,
103, 119, 120, 161–164, 166,
167, 171, 172, 175, 179, 234,
241, 242
Belasco, Warren, 94, 96, 107
belonging, 198, 209
Bennett, Jane, 16, 30, 32, 182
Berger, John, 143, 155, 157, 158
biopolitics, 12, 46, 87, 117, 118, 121,
black bird, 236, 243
Black, Shameem, 164, 175
boar, 231, 243
body modification, 199
body, wounded body, 19, 20, 27
Bois, Yve-Alain, 24, 26, 31
Borden, Mary, 10, 23–25, 27–32
Forbidden Zone, The (1929), 10, 24,
27, 31, 32
bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), 150, 162, 175
Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme, 185
Brittain, Vera, 10, 25–27, 30, 32
Testament of Youth (1933), 10, 25,
Bubble Bobble (videogame), 233
Buck-Morss, Susan, 128, 138
bull, 149
burger, 242
Burke, Edmund, 185
Butler, Judith, 215, 217, 218, 220,
222–224, 226, 227
Butthole Surfers (band), 232
Calarco, Matthew, 14, 15, 56, 66, 67,
72, 86, 101, 108, 121, 122, 157,
226, 237, 239, 241, 243, 244
cannibalism, 22, 27, 44, 111–113,
118, 121, 150, 153, 191, 219,
220, 222, 225
capitalism, 8, 12, 84, 94, 96, 101–103,
105, 106, 113, 114, 116,
120–122, 155, 161, 164, 165,
and advertising, 105
and biotechnology, 105
captivity, 37
Caputo, John D., 25, 32
carnism, 2, 153, 156
carnivore, 44, 65, 114, 119, 120, 217,
218, 222, 241
carnivory, meat eating, 21, 72, 101,
220, 225
Catts, Oron, 93, 99, 107, 108
charcutier, 235
cheese, 78, 233
Cheng, Anne Anlin, 27
Cheng, Emily, 162, 175
Chen, Mel Y., 10, 30, 32
The Chicken of Tomorrow, 97, 98, 108
Clarke, Arthur C., 95, 101
Coetzee, J.M., 6, 15, 162, 227
Cohen, Steven, 14, 213, 214
Cold War, 115, 116, 122
colonialism, 112
communism, 72
Cooking Mama (videogame), 233
Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals
(videogame), 239
Cooper, Melinda, 105, 108
corporeality, 119, 122, 147, 219, 223,
cow, 13, 64, 107, 122, 144–146,
148–152, 155, 175, 183, 239,
242, 243
Cowspiracy (film), 1, 15
Crace, Jim, 14, 179–181, 183, 184,
188, 189, 191–193
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, 150, 151
Dacey, Austen, 92, 107
Dance Umbrella, 213, 214, 221, 225,
Dangers, Jack, 232, 238, 239, 243
Dark Room, A (videogame), 234, 235
Dart, Raymond A., 119, 122
Das, Santanu, 20, 29, 31, 32
deer, 64, 231, 243
Dekoven, Marianne, 61, 67
Deleuze, Gilles, 11, 49, 50, 52, 236,
237, 241, 243, 244
Derrida, Jacques
carnophallogocentrism, 11, 54–57,
60, 65, 72, 153, 216, 218, 219,
eating well, 54, 60, 157, 216–218,
224, 226, 227
sacrificial structures, 11, 54, 58, 65,
Devore, Irven, 119, 122
Dienst, Richard, 106, 108
Diner Dash (videogame), 233
discipline, 21, 30, 39, 40
dog, 9, 37, 80, 150, 188, 204–206,
210, 236, 243
DomiNations (videogame), 231, 232,
Donaldson, Sue, 75, 87
Don’t Starve (videogame), 234
Dungeon of the Endless (videogame),
Earle, Sylvia A., 136, 139
earth, 14, 23, 26, 94, 95, 102, 104,
106, 113, 115, 122, 127, 176,
190, 191, 199, 201, 202, 204,
EarthBound (videogame), 234
Eat-Less-Meat Book, The (1918), 22
Eat Less Meat campaign, 21
edible, edibility, 9, 12, 14, 20, 27, 28,
30, 31, 100, 101, 118, 144, 166,
181–184, 186–192, 214, 216,
217, 222, 237, 243
egg, 97, 154, 182, 188, 189
Ehrlich, Paul R., 112, 116, 117, 122
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The
(videogame), 235
Elu Kieser, 14, 213, 214, 217,
220–225, 228
embodiment, 24, 74, 100, 117, 147,
237, 239, 243
England, Great Britain, 19, 21, 22, 72,
73, 75, 77, 81, 136
Faber, Michel, 14, 73, 121, 197, 201,
208, 210, 211
Under the Skin, 14, 15, 197, 201
Far Cry 4 (videogame), 233
farming, 5, 144, 152, 168, 174, 176,
Farming Simulator (videogame), 233
fascism, 11, 46, 73–75, 79, 81–83, 85
feminism, 86, 164
Fiddes, Nick, 2, 15, 54, 64, 66, 182,
186, 233, 243, 244
First World War, 4, 24, 75
fish, 13, 84, 126, 127, 131–136, 183,
Fisher, M.F.K., 22, 31
Fleissner, Jennifer, 182, 193
flesh, 4, 6–8, 12–14, 19, 20, 23–31,
39, 44, 45, 53, 55, 56, 58, 64,
72–74, 84, 92–96, 98–106, 112,
114, 120, 122, 144, 147, 148,
153, 162, 181, 182, 184, 186,
188, 190–192, 197, 198, 202,
204, 220, 223, 232–234, 236,
237, 239, 241–243. See also meat
Fleuron, Svend, 82, 87
food, 1, 14, 21, 22, 27, 28, 30,
31, 54, 56, 63, 78, 79, 84, 85,
92–99, 102, 106, 107, 113–117,
119, 120, 122, 132, 136, 148,
156, 157, 162, 172, 179–188,
191–193, 206, 231–238, 241–243
function within videogames, 15, 234
hierarchy of foods, 233, 235
rationing of food, 21, 113
shortages, 21
Foucault, Michel, 87, 117, 122, 133,
fox, 231, 243
Fox, Laurel R., 112, 113, 121
France, 21, 24
French Red Cross, 23
Freud, Sigmund, 76, 87, 219, 226
Fuchs, Anne, 127, 138
Fudge, Erica, 9, 16, 244
game, 231, 234–236, 238–242. See
also videogame
game animal, 232
gastronomy, 5, 27, 92, 183, 185
Geier, Ted, 4, 9–11, 35
gelatine, 144
Germany, 21, 31, 138
Ghosh, Amitav, 7, 16
Gilman, Sander, 48, 52
Good Food Institute, 92
Graham, Martha, 175, 214
Grandin, Temple, 11, 35, 36, 51
“Great structure”, 48
Green Revolution, 116
Grimmer, Chelsea Rebekah, 146, 147,
149, 156–158
Groves, Jason, 127, 138
Guattari, 49
Hallett, Christine E., 32
Harrison, Harry, 113, 119
Harrison, Ruth, 5
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 146,
Heidegger, Martin, 4, 5, 15, 218, 226
Helmreich, Stefan, 136, 139
Herculano-Houzel, Suzana, 185
herring, 84, 126, 127, 130–137
herring fishing, 126, 127, 132, 133,
Heston, Charlton, 113–115, 122
Hill, Selima, 13, 144, 146, 151–153,
A Little Book of Meat , 144, 151, 152,
154, 156, 157
homo culinaris , 181, 182, 184, 186,
Hopkins, Patrick. D., 92, 107
hospital, 10, 20, 22, 24–26, 28, 29,
130, 176, 206
Hughes, Rowland, 120, 122
Hulse, Michael, 128, 133
humanism, 8, 13, 79, 81, 83, 84, 87,
113, 117, 122, 218
human exceptionalism, 12, 101,
113, 114, 118, 120, 182, 184,
186, 192
Humble, Nicola, 61, 67
Hutchinson, Ben, 129, 138
Huxley, Elspeth, 5
Huxley, T.H., 100, 108
Hynes, Samuel, 76, 87
Iceland, 82
indistinction, 15, 101, 237, 239, 241,
243, 244
in vitro meat (IVM), 6, 12, 92–96,
101, 106–108
Iveson, Richard, 216, 219, 226
Japan, 13, 163, 164, 174
Johannesburg, South Africa, 213, 214,
225, 228
justice, 35, 37, 38, 46, 116, 207
Kafka, Franz
Amerika, 42, 48
“Before the Law”, 37, 44, 51
“The Bridge”, 38, 51
“The Burrow”, 39, 51
The Castle, 41, 42, 51
“A Country Doctor”, 50
“A Hunger Artist”, 39, 44, 45
“In The Penal Colony”, 36, 38–40,
44, 46, 48, 50, 51
“Investigations of a Dog”, 41
The Metamorphosis , 39
“Prometheus”, 37
The Trial , 10, 36–39, 41, 46, 51
“The Vulture”, 37
Kant, Immanuel, 184, 185
Kaplan, Laurie, 20, 31
Kass, Leon, 182
Kennedy, Roseanne, 127, 138
Kilgour, Maggie, 111, 112, 121
Kim, Claire Jean, 86, 87
kinship, 92, 209, 220
Kornbluth, Cyril, 12, 93, 94, 97–100
Korsmeyer, Carolyn, 185, 187, 193
Krauss, Rosalind E., 24, 26, 31
Kristeva, Julia, 10, 23, 31, 187, 193,
215, 218, 219, 221, 226, 227
Kymlicka, Will, 75, 87
Lacan, Jacques, 216, 219
Lane, Mary Bradley, 12, 94, 95, 104,
Larsen, Neil, 46, 47, 51, 52
Lasswitz, Kurd, 95, 96, 107
Latour, Bruno, 182
law, 37, 39, 40, 46, 49, 129, 216, 219,
222, 225
Lee, Richard B., 119, 122
Lestel, Dominique, 101, 108
Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 186
The Limits to Growth, 12, 112, 114,
Long, J.J., 128, 131, 137–139
Marcus, Jane, 23, 32
Mario Kart (videogame), 235
Masson, Jeffrey, 16
Masurel, Pauline, 180
McHugh, Susan, 9, 16, 98, 108, 122
McMillen, Edmund, 238–242, 244
meat, 1–15, 21–23, 27–30, 35, 36,
38–49, 51, 53–58, 60–64, 66,
72, 74, 78, 79, 81, 84, 85, 87,
91–95, 98, 101, 103–105, 107,
113, 114, 119–121, 125, 137,
145, 148, 150, 153, 155, 157,
161–176, 182–184, 186, 188,
192, 193, 198, 201, 210, 214,
223, 231–239, 241, 243
American Meat Institute, 242
common to human and animal, 49,
145, 170, 237, 239, 241, 243
cured, 28, 235
definition of, 192, 232
human body as meat, 10, 19, 20, 31
as luxury commodity, 15, 120
and nostalgia, 5, 108, 120, 122
signifying vulnerability, 15, 27,
101, 237, 239, 241. See also
Meat Beat Manifesto (band), 232
Meat Boy. See Super Meat Boy
Memphis Meat, 92, 107
milk, 78, 146, 150, 183, 220
Milner, Andrew, 97, 108
Minecraft (videogame), 234
modernism, 46, 47, 51, 61, 67
modernity, 3–7, 47, 48, 50, 51,
111–114, 121, 125, 127–129,
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
(videogame), 235
Morton, Timothy, 150, 152, 157
mourning, 14, 120, 217, 222, 223,
multicultural politics, 163, 164
Natural history, 126–129, 131–135,
137, 138, 185
Nazism, 82, 83
New Harvest, 91–93, 107
Niven, Larry, 95, 101
North Sea, the, 13, 126, 127, 130–137
Öhlschläger, Claudia, 135, 139
Oliver, Kelly, 61, 63, 64, 187, 220,
226, 227
The Omega Man, 115
omnivore, omnivory, 27
ontology, 27, 98, 101
O’Riordan, Kate, 92, 101
Orwell, George, 11, 12, 71–82, 84–87
“British Cookery”, 85
The Road to Wigan Pier, 11, 72, 73
Owen, Wilfred, 32
Ozeki, Ruth, 13, 162, 164, 165, 172,
174, 176
My Year of Meats , 13, 162, 164, 165,
Pacyga, Dominic A., 3, 15
Palumbo-Liu, David, 162, 164, 175,
Parry, Jovian, 5, 15, 108, 120, 122
Parsons, Deborah, 59, 67
Pearce, David, 92, 107
Peel, Dorothy (Mrs, C.S.), 22, 31
People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), 239–241, 244
performativity, 215, 225
Perloff, Marjorie, 146, 151, 157
Pick, Anat, 101, 108, 144, 157, 244
pig, 7, 46, 48, 63, 64, 66, 84, 152,
155, 156, 175, 243
Piper, H. Beam, 95
Planet of the Apes, 115
Plato, 74, 185
Pohl, Frederik, 12, 93, 94, 97–105,
108, 122
The Merchants’ War, 100
Pohl, Frederik and Kornbluth, Cyril
The Space Merchants , 12, 91, 93, 94,
97, 100–106, 108, 122
Pokemon Black & Blue (videogame),
Politics. See capitalism, communism,
neoliberalism, 106, 132
racial politics, 215
sexual politics, 15, 67, 68, 74, 87,
157, 243
Pope, Alexander, 235, 244
population, 12, 94, 99, 106, 112–118,
120, 121, 132, 136, 151, 184
Malthusianism, 12, 114, 116
population ecology, 12, 114
pork, 64, 85, 155, 234, 242
posthumanism, 66, 127
Potts, Annie, 2, 15
Pratt, Mary Louise, 133, 139
Price, Evadne (Helen Zenna Smith),
Probyn, Elspeth, 136, 139
processing, 36, 40–43, 45, 48–50, 98,
204, 205
punishment, 10, 37–40, 45, 46, 48, 50
Quinn, Emelia, 10, 16
rabbit, 231, 243
raccoon dog, 239, 243
Rathbone, Irene, 10, 21, 28–32
We That Were Young (1932), 10, 21,
Reeve, N.H., 61, 67, 68
Refenes, Tommy, 238, 241, 244
Regan, Tom, 16
Reines, Ariana, 13, 144–151, 153,
154, 156, 157
The Cow, 144–146, 156, 157
resource scarcity, 113, 114, 121
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
(videogame), 234
Rivers, W.H.R., 20, 23, 31
Instinct and the Unconscious (1920),
Roberts, Calum, 126, 136
Roberts, Mark S., 74, 87
Rodden, John, 77, 87
Rohman, Carrie, 54, 66
Rose, Gillian, 128, 129, 138, 166, 167,
169, 170, 174
Rossi, John, 77, 87
Ryan, Derek, 56, 66, 67
Safran Foer, Jonathan, 136, 139
salami, 234
Santner, Eric, 137
Savage, Robert, 97, 108
Schiller, Friedrich, 185
Schütte, Uwe, 138
Sebald, W.G., 13, 125–139
After Nature, 127, 128
Austerlitz, 125, 126, 137, 138
The Rings of Saturn, 126, 130, 138,
Second World War, 4, 61, 75, 96, 129
semi-living, 93, 98–100, 108
Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana, 219, 226,
Shapiro, Paul, 92, 107
sheep, 9, 201, 210, 243
Shelley, Mary, 38
Frankenstein, 38
shell shock, 20
Sianne, Ngai, 187
Simak, Clifford D., 95
Sims, The (videogame), 234
Sinclair, Upton, 4, 9, 10, 36, 42, 45,
48, 52, 162
The Jungle, 4, 9, 10, 42, 48, 52, 162
slaughter, 1, 3, 4, 10, 11, 16, 29, 35,
36, 41, 46, 49, 51, 55, 56, 145,
152, 154, 162, 175, 199, 202,
205, 225, 239
Smith, Frederick Edward, 95
Smith, Helen Zenna, 21, 23
Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War
(1930), 21
socialism, 11, 72, 73, 79
soldiers, 10, 20, 21, 23–27, 29, 30,
Soylent Green, 6, 12, 112–116,
speciesism, 84, 86, 182, 185
Spencer, Colin, 31, 87
spirituality, 207
Stanescu, James, 216, 222, 226, 227
steak, 5, 173, 233–235, 241–243
Stephens, Neil, 92, 93, 107
Stoker, Bram, 50
Dracula, 50
subjectivity, 12, 23, 30, 46, 60, 86,
114, 119, 186, 217, 224
submissiveness, 45
Suffolk, 130
Super Meat Boy (videogame), 15, 237,
239–241, 244
Super Tanooki Skin 2D (videogame),
Super Tofu Boy (videogame), 239, 240
surgery, operating room, 24, 27
sustainability, 106, 116, 118, 152
Taylor, Elizabeth, 11, 54, 61–68
At Mrs. Lippincote’s , 11, 54, 61, 62,
Critical neglect, 61
Woolf’s influence, 11, 54, 61, 66
Thompson, Mark Christian, 44, 51
Throbbing Gristle (band), 232, 243
Tofu Boy. See Super Tofu Boy
tortoise, 243
Tortoise (band), 232
turkey, 243
Twigg, Julia, 233, 243, 244
United Nations, 1, 116
United States of America (USA), 6, 13,
113, 116, 162, 171
Varley, John, 95
veal, 176, 242
veganism, 6, 9, 10, 92
vegetarianism, 10, 11, 22, 44, 67, 68,
72, 74, 75, 84–87, 172, 217, 243,
videogame, 15, 233, 236. See also game
Vint, Sheryll, 97, 108, 210
vitality, 15, 25, 30, 233, 236, 237,
239, 241, 243
Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses,
nursing, 21
vulnerability, 15, 25, 30, 168, 203,
215–217, 222, 223, 241, 244
Wadiwel, Dinesh, 118, 122, 170
Weber, Max, 121
welfare, 36, 49
Western Front, 23
Westwood, Benjamin, 10, 16
Wolfe, Cary, 55, 66, 226, 227
Wolff, Lynn L., 127
Wood, David, 217
Woolf, Virginia, 11, 53, 56–63, 65–67
Flush, 56
Jacob’s Room, 57
Three Guineas , 56, 67
To the Lighthouse, 11, 53, 54, 56, 57,
66, 67
work, 2–4, 8–10, 13, 14, 19, 20, 24,
26, 30, 35–39, 41–49, 51, 56, 61,
62, 65, 66, 73, 75–77, 80, 85, 87,
96, 97, 99, 100, 106, 108, 112,
113, 118, 120–122, 125–127,
129, 135, 136, 146, 148–150,
162–165, 168, 171, 173, 175,
181, 184–186, 188, 198–202,
204, 207–209, 213–215, 217,
221, 222, 225, 234, 237
Wrangham, Richard, 185
Wright, Laura, 9, 10, 16
zone of indiscernibility, 236
Zurr, Ionat, 93, 99, 107, 108