Sunday, February 18, 2007

mere visibility's limits

A nice, probing survey of recently renewed debates over vegetarianism, by Nikil Saval:
A history of modern Western vegetarianism, originally published in England, has just arrived on this shore. The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to the Present is better served by its British subtitle—Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India, since the book tells its story largely through the biographies of its major exponents (Sir Francis Bacon; Percy Shelley; Gandhi, among others), most of whom “discovered”—usually through direct experience or travel accounts—the vegetarian philosophies and communities of India, and in turn, attempted to refashion the meat-eating West. In a fascinating account of the roundabout process of this discovery, Stuart explains how Gandhi, who was by education and acculturation a Western man, discovered the vegetarianism of India through a reading of Thoreau (who had immersed himself in Indian philosophy nearly a century before).

The book has quickly become a leaping-off point for forces of seemingly enlightened reaction questioning the moral and ecological coherence of ethical vegetarianism—strikingly, in magazines (The Nation, Salon, and The New Yorker) more or less sympathetic to leftist politics [...] The idea is that, given a keen and full vision of such a place, sheer mass revulsion would either make us all vegetarians, or would cause us to rise in unified revolt against our own murderous industries. Similar arguments have been made regarding other mass-produced items: clothes, illicit drugs, pornographic films.

But is full disclosure of the means of production ever a sufficient incitement for such a “bloodless” revolution? Though slaughterhouses still do not have glass walls, we have more information now than ever before, which is to say, a generous measure of transparency has already been achieved. Yet many people who have never passed through an abattoir are vegetarian, and many more who have are not. (A Harris poll in 2003 found that 4 to 10 percent of the American population calls itself “vegetarian”; 2.8 percent specify that they never eat red meat, poultry, or fish/seafood, up from 2.3 percent in 2000.) In the face of cruelty, human animals are known to forget what they see. We depend on this forgetfulness. The information gathered about the word- and speech-defying cruelty of the factory farms becomes voluminous, and the number of vegetarians apparently increases, but, statistically, so does the amount of global total meat consumption. Urbanization stimulates both vegetarianism and more meat-eating. Which is to say, the renunciation of meat is not always the result of the availability of facts, or our nearness to the process. [...]

What The Bloodless Revolution makes clear is that vegetarianism has often been spurred by the appearance of an alternative society, which produced the imaginative capability necessary for people to work to transform their own societies. In this sense, ethical vegetarianism has trouble succeeding as a material argument; it works better as an imaginative answer to an irrational system. [...]

The transparency as inspiration argument, on the other hand, derives much of its character from nineteenth-century literary realism, the technique of supplying information in the form of fictional narrative to expose what daily life conceals. In France, for example, writers like Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers pioneered a style of flinging facts at the supposedly contented bourgeoisie, clueing them in to what really goes on. Their primary imagery was gastrointestinal in content. “I would not like to die before having emptied a few more buckets of shit on my fellow men,” wrote Flaubert. [...] But realism is merely a bundle of varied techniques for representation, and when aimed at reform, the result is never automatic or predictable. With The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wanted socialism. What he and the country got were public health reforms in response to unhealthy meat-packing conditions.

Sinclair had little interest in ethical vegetarianism (he gave up meat for a time to cure nervous dyspepsia). But I know of vegetarians who turned away from meat-eating after reading The Jungle. This has less to do with the transparency of the meat production process and more with how the promiscuous means of novels and other arts, regardless of the goals of any individual work, can give us the knowledge we need: in this case, a sense of what animals are and their place. My own turn to vegetarianism came not from reading reports or watching slaughterhouse cameras, but from the distinctly different, but no less unsettling experience of reading J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. It contains no slaughterhouse scenes, and Coetzee makes no arguments for vegetarianism in the book. Rather, for part of the book, his character Elizabeth Costello lectures on the cruelty of our food system, within the fictional scenario of an academic conference. Some of her arguments about the lives of animals are interesting; many of them are unoriginal, even poor. Her comparison of factory farms to the Nazi concentration camps has struck readers as hysterical and unfair (so much so that many writers, including Michael Pollan, have quoted Costello’s words as mirroring the beliefs of Coetzee, largely to discredit him).

But it is the shakiness of Costello’s position, buffered by a heavy reliance on allegorical storytelling (as in Coetzee’s previous novels), that remind one how vegetarianism is less a solidly consistent ethics than a capability. As with the vegetarians in The Bloodless Revolution, Costello makes clear that vegetarianism has come to her through her attribution of an allegorical story to creatures that withhold evidence of it, and from her ability to know about the cruelty done to these creatures without needing to see it happen. This is a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with visibility.

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