Category Archives: social movements

In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Things I want to research at UCSD

I just got back from visiting UCSD’s political science PhD program open house, and it looks like I’ll be going – we’re excited about the prospect of moving back home! And I’m looking forward to sitting on the other side of the desk for a little while. I had lots of interesting discussions with current profs, current students, and prospective students. Here are some things I’d like to work on, eventually.

Product-process distinctions and full-cost labeling in national and international trade policy. This ‘how the iPhone is and is not like a Chipotle burrito’ thread provides a good example of why more work is needed here: they missed what for me is the most obvious difference, that Foxconn is very different from the likes of Niman Ranch. And maybe if shrimp contained carbon (for farmed, via mangrove destruction) or bycatch (for wild-caught) labels, people would eat less destructively.

Social norms, social movements, network theory, food, and animals…lots of this work would actually fit better in the sociology department, which is right upstairs and has a few crossover profs.

Collaborations with local food justice, education, and conservation organizations. One of the theory profs. has lots of good connections to local food policy NGOs, and I plan to start volunteering again at Pazzaz again – and maybe more.

And hopefully I can build on my Fletcher and Center for Animals theses at the International Relations and Pacific Studies’ (IR/PS) Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.

More tangential research I would love to do, although I’m not entirely sure who would collaborate on any of this, either within the political science department or beyond it: speculative fiction and political theory; and games, gamification and nonhuman animals.

My long-term goal is to help move political science beyond the purely anthropocentric, whether through a trans-species rational choice theory (RCT) analysis or by building on the likes of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s recent Zoopolis. In addition to all this, I’ll no doubt get a thorough drubbing in quantitative political analysis, which is what the program is best known for. Bring it.

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.

The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.

“Foodies”

I have mixed feelings about this Onion clip. On the one hand, yes, many foodie pursuits are hedonic at best and elitist/wasteful/violent to animals and nature at worst. On the other, I know a lot of foodies for whom these issues are not effete bullshit, but are, to varying degrees, central to their pursuit of satisfaction in the world. To dismiss all gustatory preferences as ‘merely hedonic and therefore morally insignificant’, as I’ve known a lot of people–especially animal advocate friends of mine–to do, is to misconstrue the complex relationship people have with food. (As an aside, I also wonder whether many of the people who make these claims have less developed palates, for any of a number of reasons?)

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t judge or evaluate the ethics of food choices–of course we can, should, and must. It’s just problematic when we dismiss certain pursuits as morally irrelevant relative to others…this can take is in some unsavory directions.

 

Labels and diet

(No, not that kind of food labels…) Next week’s human-animal relations class will be on diet and food choices, and I’m interested to see how my students engage with the topic. As a semi-vegetarian (on mostly utilitarian grounds) who has thought about the issue of food choices more thoroughly, it appears, than Andrew Sullivan (above), I still feel there’s always room for discussion. To borrow from Levi-Strauss: food, like animals, is ‘good to think’.

There have been some interesting discussions on food ethics in the blogs I follow recently. A post on the ethical distinctions between eating dogs and pigs in Talking Philosophy (engaging, but not really attuned, in my reading, to some of the moral arguments at play). A piece in the Smithsonian “food and think” blog on the interstitial relationship between vegetarianism and social activism (most recently at OWS). A ridiculous clump of caricatures about vegetarianism in the Guardian.

But what most caught my attention is a story that lit up the vegan blogosphere on how the Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon “left” veganism after being repeatedly badgered by the ‘vegan police‘, who accused her of not really being a vegan. Some sympathetic vegan bloggers chimed in.

My initial response is no diet can be cruelty free, and that the best any of us can hope for is to be cruelty as-light-as-possible. Theoretically, someone living completely off the grid using only veganic methods of agricultural production could satisfy their caloric and nutritional needs with minimal harm to sentient animal life. But the moment you start eating crops produced from anything resembling an intensive system of agricultural production, animals are going to die, sometimes in quite large numbers, and sometimes quite brutally (being ground up in a thresher does not sound pleasant).

This is emphatically not to reject the ethical force of veganism. I think it’s a powerful statement that, on balance, is trophic-and-ecological-levels of magnitude better than the world-consuming Western diet. But the social politics of in-group identification–and the accompanying dangers of groupthink and comfirmation bias–are some of the main reasons I’m reluctant to label myself.

Material girl

So apparently the Humane Society International (HSI) has appointed Ke$ha as its first global ambassador. One blogger writes that “her music is seen to have an underlying message of acceptance of all living creatures” – funny, I must have missed that part.

I’ve thought a lot about whether the identification of animal protection as a ‘hollywood issue’ is a net benefit or liability. On the one hand, we live in a culture of celebrity fetishization – when in Rome, and all that. On the other hand, this allows almost everyone else to dismiss animal advocacy as frivolous moral fluff.

This isn’t to say that a lot of celebrities don’t do very helpful work protecting animals. I just don’t know why capitalist-marketing-behemoth-engineered-sex-and-drug-youth-brainnumbing-blathering-machine Ke$ha’s advocacy would do more good than Pam Anderson’s boobs in reducing the commodification and objectification of sentient living beings.

(I was going to write about Contagion, regulatory policy, and the reach of the state – but I didn’t.)

Elitism and food

I’m late to this party, but I’ve been on vacation for a few days. Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen are in a tiff, and the NYT’s former food critic Frank Bruni weighs in. Basically, Bourdain says Deen is destroying our health, and Deen says the expensive-ass foie gras eating foodie elitist isn’t one to talk.

I agree with Jane Black that Bourdain is really not one to talk, although he is of course free to do so. (I also agree that “values, priorities, and taste” may dictate more than “access and affordability” when it comes to our food habits) The CSM also has a reasonably balanced take here. Feministe, aggressive and race/class/gender-y as usual, makes some important points. And as usual, Nestle’s analysis about social movement and elitism-speak is spot on.

But the essence of this piece is that people can’t afford to spend more on healthy food, and in most cases I think think that’s just wrong. But it’s still used as a argument killing catch-all, and it will be until we address the shameful rates of food insecurity in this country.

The foodie-elitist conflation goes way back, and there’s been a lot of interesting pieces on politics and elitism recently. But what really bothers me is the unapologetic know-nothingness of a lot of these claims. They’re usually from the right, and they’re often openly anti-science. But the important point is that these kinds of arguments never get much beyond the base of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. (below)

This is no surprise, really. These tactics function as discussion stoppers — essentially the rhetorical equivalent of just telling somebody to shut up. I show this graph to my students every semester, in an effort to get them to argue higher up this curve. If it’s easier said than done in my college classroom, I can see we’re going to have trouble parsing Palin’s “real America” in the 24/7 soundbite culture.

Yes, cost matters. And yes, culture matters. But Nestle, quoting Schlosser, is right: “social movements have to begin somewhere and several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised—the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, for example.” Addressing these issues will require all manner of solutions, from all manner of perspectives. Branching AmeriCorps off into a FoodCorps, for example, is one small and recent step. But it’s a start.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.