Pollan: Alienated from Animality?

Puritans

Recently I received some omnivore-centric e-mails from two student groups on campus (Eco-Action and Unconventional Eaters) about a showing tomorrow night of the documentary Food, Inc. I have not seen it yet, but from everything I have heard, it not only promotes omnivorism, but resembles an infomercial for Stonyfield Farms. (I will be watching the film later in this Spring and may have more to say then.) Anyway, in the Eco-Action e-mail, “animal rights” were invoked and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was mentioned. Thank you, Craig at Theoria, for pointing out but one egregious problem with the logic of Pollan. Of Pollan, Craig quotes,

A deep Puritan streak pervades animal rights activists, an abiding discomfort not only with our animality, but with animal’s animality too… Granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal world of predation, but it will entail the sacrifice of part of our identity–our own animality.

What I would like to know is how animal rights activists are more “Puritan” about animality than anyone else in this country (I won’t even get into the animality- Foucaultian sexuality connection here). You could call gay rights activists “Puritan” for being “alienated”/”discomforted” from heterosexuality and at times getting pissed off about anti-gay people if you bloody-well want, and that’s about how sophisticated Pollan’s argument is. This isn’t about vegans having some “abiding discomfort” with our animality (though we may), but rather with a proscribed animality as defined by meat-eating; in other words, it is about meat-eating, not animality (and yes, I have an abiding discomfort with the idea of eating meat animals).

I was a lot less comfortable with animality when I ate meat than I am now, and if in fact animal rights activists were so uncomfortable with our own, Pollan is going to have to tell me what happened to the supposed comfort I had for the 18 years or so I ate animals without a second thought. In reality, meat-eaters in general come from the same industrial culture which has a profound sense of alienation from animality; in fact, this alienation arises from a Cartesian dualism, that somehow humans are inherently “superior” to and/or utterly separate from other animals species. Certainly Pollan intends to reinforce this dualism by implicitly suggesting that herbivorous humans are somehow at odds with “animality.” Consider the etymology of the word “animal”: why do we say “animals” to refer to other species, but rarely to ourselves? I hear vegans refer to themselves as animals far more often than I hear it from anyone else.

As to the lack of awareness of our animality, a few weeks ago an omnivore who knew I was vegan asked me, “So you care more about animals than humans?”

I said, “Humans are animals.”

Eyebrows went up and the person asked, “In what way?”

Part of me was surprised to hear this question, but the significance is obvious. What other way could there be than this? When I said, “Humans are animals,” I felt the alternative meaning of such a statement, that somehow it could be an insult to humans to call them animals. Historically, of course, animal metaphors (in the sense of “animal” as not-human) are frequently used to degrade humans, while also simultaneously degrading other animal species – and, in their case, not metaphorically. When the person’s eyebrows went up, I knew that we both sensed this negative connotation between the two words.

Yet how strange the fear that someone who supposedly “cares more about animals than humans” would choose the word “animals” to insult humans. There is no logic there of course, but only the language we both shared – a language created long before the animal rights movement. A hint, therefore, that both “animal” and “animality” need to be deconstructed. I could stress Pollan’s use of the word “identity,” for animality however we define it is indeed a socially-constructed identity.

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~ by Louëlla on January 27, 2010.

3 Responses to “Pollan: Alienated from Animality?”

  1. I’ve found that, too. My neighbors are very religious, and my kids had a friendly argument with their son about whether we are animals or not – he asked his parents and they said no. That’s probably a matter of religious definition, but I think most people just want to distance themselves so they can keep on using.

    I like Michael Pollan… until he starts talking about (non-human) animals, at which point his usual logic and reason evaporate. Did you ever read the review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in The Atlantic? (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200709/omnivore)

  2. Such a fine bit of thinking! I hadn’t heard, nor have I read, an analysis of this particular passage of pollan’s book. Like you (vegan), I’m O.K. with nature.I’m not O.K. with the abuse of nature. Your writing states this case well. I Thank you.

  3. Hey Louella,

    I enjoy your posts very much, including this one!

    I guess that, in part, in my writing I focus on the deconstruction of human and nonhuman animality. Also, I aim for their recuperation which would enable us to see a fuller picture, not just animality-as-demonized to seem lowly and despicable, and to serve speciesist ideology.

    We are, in fact, embodied beings… all of us animals – human and nonhuman. Sometimes gracefull, sometimes we suffer. We even go to great lengths to deny our finitude, mortality and bodily nature AS the animals that we are! We invent mythologies and tales of heavenly realms and eternity precisely because we long for them as animal beings. And it is as human animals that we have to work out our relations with other animals and inanimate nature (not to mention each other), right?

    By the way, I touch on the talk about animality quite often in discussions with non-vegans. Sometimes I talk about it directly and sometimes I just talk like the animal that I am to another human animal. It only allows me to discover for myself how much work is to be done in terms of reorienting society towards a more positive, intellectually honest and complete account of our animality, and of animality in general.

    I do believe that a re-evaluation of animality is crucial to nonhuman emancipation: it is crucial to perceiving other animals as equal to humans, as basically situated on the same existential plane, as inhabiting and sharing equally valuable and rich worlds.

    be safe, Chris Forkasiewicz (http://radicallyreal.wordpress.com)

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