Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals is about the choices that humans, as eating animals (animal’s that eat) make about just what food it is they eat. The book’s frame is that food is stories, and “Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules” (12). Furthermore, stories, food, and narratives establish identity. These narratives, more than told by us, are whom we are. Foer tells the story of his grandmother’s survival during World War II. She ate anything she could get her hands on to survive, from rotting fruit to people’s trash, and yet, she never ate pork. As Foer describes:

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save” (17).

This anecdote informs a number of underlying ideas in Foer’s analysis of our food production practices. The main underlying idea is the psychological concept of disavowal. Freud defined the concept as “a specific mode of defence which consists in the subject’s refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception” ( Lacan discusses the term as well, and he claims that there is always acknowledgment accompanying disavowal. In Foer’s context, it is not simply that we are ignorant of factory farming; we know it is bad but deny it. Foer recognizes his reader’s attitude by stating “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case” (13). With this frame of stories as food, Foer wants to explore food production because he has recently had a child and is concerned about what healthy food he can feed his child. Foer, however, realizes his own Lacanian disavowal and sets out to explore the truth about animal agriculture.

Foer begins by breaking down the distinction American makes between domesticated animals and animals for consumption. By using his own dog, George as an example, Foer examines the relationship a family shares with a domesticated pet that is in the home. With such a close bond, Americans could never eat man’s best friend; however, Foer makes the strong case for the practicality of eating dogs and cats. Many of the dogs euthanasized are eventually fed to the animals we eat, pigs are smarter and more affectionate than dogs, with so many starving people in the world, why not use all these dead dogs as food, and furthermore, the taboo against eating dogs is exclusive to less places than where eating dogs is not a taboo. From this point, Foer ask about fish by using the example of Kafka, who at an aquarium, once said “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore” (Kafka qtd. in Max Brod qtd. in Foer 36). With Kafka’s example, Foer frames his study even more by bringing in Walter Benjamin’s idea of shame. Foer says “Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely—yet not entirely—forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification” (37). The eating of animals is in favor of our immediate gratification; it is a moment where we do not take into account the animal at all; therefore, it is shameful for us to eat animals, and Foer does an excellent job of making one feel ashamed of eating meat.

Foer does an excellent job of mixing in ethical concerns involved in eating (hurting) animals along with arguments of the ethical responsibility to the environment. This book is as much a book about ecology as it is about animal subjectivity. The book explores the problems with our major sources of foods, including fish, chicken, turkey, pig, and cows. The most discerning fact I learned form this book is that most of the animals we eat cannot survive in the wild. The animals have been so genetically engineered that they cannot deal with the elements and will die in the wild.

At times, Foer can get too preachy, but he has good reason to be so. After hearing some of the most horrific facts about our animal consumption, it is no wonder Foer feels that the only ethical thing to do is to quit eating animals. Some of the more compelling arguments have to do with shit. The pigs from Smithfield Foods farm produce as much shit as all the people in California and Texas combined, but unlike California and Texas, there is no sewage system to process all that shit. The feces is collected into huge lakes around the farms, and of course, the fumes from these putrid lakes cause all kinds of health problems for citizens living near by. Furthermore, the excrement runs off into lakes, rivers, and other water sources. On this point, Foer hints at the problem of what happens when food becomes commodity: Smithfield had seven thousand environmental violation and paid out 12.6 million in fines because of these violations, which is far cheaper than fixing the problem.

"Paying fines for polluting is cheaper than giving up the entire factory farm system, which is what it would take to finally end the devestation" (178).

The other problem Foer focuses on is one that is explored in Derrida and earlier in Bethem, which is that animals suffer, and we could hardly deny that animals suffer. However, we still eat animals. Foer makes a compelling argument by stating that we would never allow someone to swing a pick axe into the eye of our cat or dog, yet we eat fish that meet this fate all the time. I find this a weak argument when applied to tuna or cod, but it does become more compelling when Foer outlines the tortuous ways that the animals we eat are killed.

Foer hints at not eating animals because of factory farms but sounds as if he does not eat animals more out of an ethical problem with animals suffering for us to eat. After reading his book, I am eating much less meat and have implemented many more vegetarian meals into my diet. I do not have an ethical problem with eating animals. I believe that animals eating animals is seen in nature all the time, and it would be presumptuous of humans, I believe, to not eat animals because of some feigned ethical imperative. I believe that many vegans do not eat meat not because of some mystical connection to animals, but because it makes them feel good to say they don’t eat animals. My problem is not with eating animals; my problem is with the way those animals are killed, the way our government regulates the killing of the animals, and with the unsanitary way these factory farms “process” the animals we eat.