I don’t know what to eat.

When I was bartending during undergrad, I was also taking a class on Eastern Philosophy, which dealt mostly with Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc). I came across Buddhism a couple of years earlier through Alan Watts, who was recommended to me by a friend. The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts changed my life and was the reason for me taking the Eastern philosophy class. However, taking the class was conflicting with my work. Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. I was having a problem with the Eight fold path: http://www.zenguide.com/principles/eight_fold_path.cfm. The fourth precept states “right action” which means that one should refrain from actions that harm others and to respect others’ rights. The fifth precept states “right livelihood” which states that one should avoid jobs that harm animals or others. As a bartender, I was feeding people the flesh of slaughtered animals along with “intoxicants”, so I began to worry about my karma. I struggled with this dilemma the entire time I worked in the restaurant business. It was also during this time, because of this class, that I tried to be a vegetarian (which lasted about three weeks). This week’s readings bring me back to those moments in my life. These simple Buddhist precepts are still applicable, and when coupled with Singer’s pragmatic approach, all this leads to the ethical conclusion that I must stop eating animals.

Peter Singer elucidates the problem I have with eating animals, which is the question of suffering. The problem is not that the animal dies; as Singer, in another essay, points out: “in what way is painless, unanticipated killing wrong in itself” (88). The problem is that the animal does suffer. Safran Foer’s book is filled with examples of chickens with breast so big they can’t stand, cows that scream as their calves are taken away, and turkeys and pigs that can no longer survive in the wild nor reproduce naturally because of how much science has manipulated their genes. These genetic cruelties along with the unnecessarily cruel killing methods of these animals leave me with a very real ethical problem. Singer’s question is one of the driving forces of my problem: it is not the killing that bothers me, it is the suffering (Singer 28). For instance, a study in 1996 found that slaughterhouses:
were unable to regularly render cattle unconscious with a single blow. The USDA, the federal agency charged with enforcing humane slaughter, responded to these numbers not by stepping up enforcement, but by changing the policy to cease tracking the number of humane slaughter violations and removing any mention of humane slaughter from its list of rotating task for inspectors (Foer 230).

Knowing this happens—that the USDA doesn’t care about treating our food humanely nor sanitarily—exacerbates my problems with continuing to eat meat. I would like to know that the animals I eat are, at least, killed quickly and painlessly, but that is certainly not the case.

Furthermore, I can no longer deny the ethical call of the face of the (animal) other. Emmanuel Levinas posits that ethics is first philosophy, so all philosophical thinking must begin in ethics. Levinas states that I exist in a world among alien entities that are “other than” me. In this world, “I take precedence over the various objects I find around me…. I learn to manipulate and control them to my advantage, either as the member of a group which I identify with myself or simply as myself alone” (Lingis 12). Therefore, as a member of the human race, I control and take advantage of animal others in order to satisfy my palette. Other philosophers, from Hegel to Sartre, have dealt with the other, but Levinas argues that these philosophical systems either reduce the other to a version of myself (make him the same as me), or I categorize the other and justify my power over him (totalize the other). However, Levinas’s philosophy is one of “transendence,” in which when I encounter the face of the other, I am obliged to respond to the other. When I meet a person, Levinas asserts, I can either try to make the other into the same (into me, assimilate the other) and stay within my group that I identify with, or I can transcend by trying to speak to the other—encounter the other in the other’s infinite transcendence. However, humans feel that because of rationale, logic, language, or some other thing that humans have that animals don’t, that humans get to use and treat animals however they see fit. But why not extend this Levinasian ethic towards the animal?

Because I do not face the (animal) other directly and see its suffering, I continue to eat meat. However, because of the suffering that animals go through, outlined so vividly in Foer and Singer, and because of the rational calls to vegetarianism by Foer and Singer, I can no loner in good conscious eat meat, which is not to say that I can easily just cut out meat completely from my diet. This point is something Singer explores well. It reminds me of so many friends who begin to workout so intensely the first week that by the time the second week starts, they are so sore and discouraged they quit altogether. Singer, rather, rationalizes that this big life change is something that needs to be handled in stages. Whether it is because of karma or the ethical call of the face of the other or the very real ecological problems of eating meat, I know that I can no longer partake in it. Ethics is never easy. Levinas teaches that even when faced with seemingly easy ethical questions we must always be anxious that we are doing right—a lesson outlined by Garret Hardin and explored deeper by Avital Ronell.

I am always anxious that I am not doing enough for the other, and that other should include animals.

Works Cited
Coetzee, J. M., and Peter Singer. “Reflections: Peter Singer.” The Lives of Animals. Ed. Amy
Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. 85-91. Print.

Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Avital Ronell. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. Youtube.com.
Zeitgeistfilms.com. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

Levinas, Emanuel. Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.
Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
-James Joyce, Ulysses

Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of fowls. Maybe he should have used relish to mask the taste.

Burnt sand.

Maybe he should have battered and fried it, but the liver tastes like burnt sand. The texture is crunchy and plastic and not awful but not good.

He wondered if he ruled out the possibility of pleasure because it put up a wall in front of his openness to the experience. How can he describe the taste, which must be subjective since people eat this all the time and like it? This meat brings no pleasure to his palate, and if Taste comes to provide the chief analogy by which the apprehension of the beautiful and of fine artistic qualities and even social style is explicated, then this taste in his mouth can be used to describe the ugly.

Shit.

Not literally shit, but what he imagines the word “shit” taste like. Not actual shit, which can be guessed by the general smell and look. No, liver tastes like what the word “shit” might taste like or the word “yuck.” As the piece of organ hits his tongue there is not the initial taste he expected, which was a taste of blood and urine. (Maybe because Bloom describes his kidney as tasting of urine). He has to chew and chew because the texture is plastic. He chews quickly so the experience can be over. This is the opposite of mindfulness.

His mind thinks of the other choices he contemplated. Cover your heart, Indy.

He is glad he passed on the chicken hearts. It was more from the ignorance of how to cook them than from aversion to them although he does have an aversion to them. Disgust wasn’t the right word, but it was the first word that came to mind.

“What food grosses you out?” he asked the tall blond sitting across the table from him.
They were in a fancy burger joint; the kind of place with buffalo burgers, turkey burgers, tuna burgers, and a choice between angus or prime meat.

James Joyce’s Ulysses played in his head because he kept noticing just how much food comes up in the novel. Also, he had to write about a food he dislikes. He mistook the instructions of eating one food he hated and amplified those instructions to eating a food that he finds gross. Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He preferred the outer body and fat of beast and fowl—maybe an occasional rib or wing of beast or fowl.
“Crickets,” she said without hesitation.

“Ya, I think eating any bug would be gross, but that seems too obvious. So why crickets?” he asked as he took a bite from a pulled pork eggroll. She made a face and began to explain: “Because… they have all those legs and those weird eyes. It is grossing me out just thinking about it.” She took a slow bite from her eggroll after looking at it to make sure it was pulled pork and not cricket.

“It’s interesting what we think of as gross. If you think about it, bugs eat leaves and stuff, so they’re pretty clean.”
“Maybe if it didn’t look like a cricket, I could eat it. But I couldn’t do it if I was putting all those legs in my mouth” she repeating the ritual of looking at her food before eating it. Jose thought about how the food we eat doesn’t look like the animal it comes from. The only time he has ever seen the actual animal he is eating is when his family cooks a whole pig for the holidays or a big event.

They sipped some beer and made small talk about life. Jose thought about what he could eat that he finds gross. And maybe a part of him wanted to rationalize how eating an insect would be too obvious. He was too grossed out at the thought of trying to eat with relish an insect. Where would he even find a cooked insect? He thought if he could find a chocolate covered worm, then maybe he would be brave enough to stuff that down his gullet.

“I think I am going to recreate the Ulysses episode where Bloom buys, cooks, and eats a kidney, and I’ll accompany it with some gizzard” he thought aloud.

“You think this pork is cooked all the way through?” she said.

The next day Jose checked what he had written down for the assignment:
Response Paper:

Eat 2 foods
One that appeals to you
Never tasted
One food you hate

He wondered how accurate his notes were. If all he had to do was eat a food he hates, he would go down to the butcher, as Bloom does, and ask the guy for some mutton kidney.
But the butcher didn’t have mutton kidney—or any kidneys.

“What about liver?” Jose asked since liver is an inner organ of fowl.
“We got some chicken liver over there” the butcher said pointing Jose in the direction of his breakfast for the morning. Jose looked forward to the second part of the assignment.

It taste like good poetry. Silky and smooth like violets or roses. It taste like the word “sin.”

“Are you a fan of desserts?” He asked the Ulysees reading brunette sitting across from him at the coffee shop.

“Oh ya, I like desserts better than I like food; I just don’t have them often.”
He couldn’t think of a food that appeals to him that he hadn’t tasted. If something appeals to him, he is going to try to eat it. However, living so close to Bern’s steakhouse, he thought that indulging in a dessert he had never eaten would qualify as something that appeals to him he has never tasted:

Dulce de Leche Liquid Center Cake 11.00
A rich dark chocolate cake filled with dulce de leche, and served with vanilla bean ice cream and dark chocolate sauce.

The first bite was just chocolate cake accompanied by cold, creamy ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. He thought creamy is the word ice cream taste like. And sticky sweet is the word for chocolate sauce. He thought “heaven” does not apply to desserts, which are too sinful and decadent to be associated with a savior begotten from a virgin.

The next bite was perfect: a combination of the smooth, sticky texture of sweet dulce de leche, surrounded by a moist chocolate cake with a side of cool ice cream and sauce—the texture changed from sticky to moist to the hard cold of ice cream until all the textures and tastes mixed together to form a perfect utopia in my mouth. With more room to describe this experience, he would describe the private booths with their private music, he would describe the brunettes face as she closes her eyes in that thing we all do when we taste something so good we try to deny ourselves all our other senses to concentrate on just taste and smell. If he had more room to describe things, he would relate these private booths for eating this decadent food as an extension of Glenn Kuehn’s essay about sinful food.

But it’s time for lunch…

Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee: The Lives of Animals

Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals is a philosophical meditation on death. The novel is not necessarily of human death, but it does focus much attention to the matter of death and suffering. The frame narrative of the story sets up this death theme by informing the reader that John Bernard “does not want to hear his mother talking about death; Furthermore, he has a strong sense that her [Costello’s] audience—which consist, after all, mainly of young people—wants death-talk even less” (Coetzee 19). However, death talk is, as death is in life, inevitable. The entire argument of animal rights comes down to death, and this idea is what Peter Singer aptly explores in his narrative in response to Coetzee’s narrative.

I argue that the narrative presented here and that the argument of animal rights comes down to death because all the other questions asked about the animal—does it have langue, is it conscious, does it understand, does it suffer, does it have a soul, etc.—comes down to the answers that try to justify the death of an animal. As Singer points out, “Pain is pain, no matter what the species of the being that feels it” (87). Singer goes on to make some very valid arguments and does a fine job (possibly much better than Coetzee does) in showing the two sides of animal rights; however, his best point comes in pointing out that “The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence that there is to bat existence” (90). This idea recalls a Heideggerian concept of existence; Dasein is a human beings special way of being. Daseins are future directed, always thrown ahead of themselves in their possibilities in a way that an animal is not. While I would like to say that the loss of a human being is worse than the loss of an animal, I wonder if I think that because of the horizon from which I have the rational thought to make such a judgment.

Because of this impossibility of steeping outside of rational thought (a topic much explored in Costello’s dialogue), there must be another mode of questioning the death of the animal. Even though rational thought must be put aside, Costello’s argument about human’s capacity for empathy is too weak, and Singer points out some obvious weaknesses to this argument; I would like to add that empathy is not that strong. Again, this goes back to Heidegger’s conception of death. Heidegger states that we can empathize with someone who is dying, and on some level we can experience that other person’s death, but we can never know it. Dasein can get a sense of death—a sense of someone else’s life—an idea of what it must be like to die, but we can never experience death until it happens. It is this very real sense of not being able to share death that Heidegger makes the argument for Dasein having a “mineness.” Even each individual Dasein is uniquely mine in this sense and only this sense because everything else about how one experiences the world is bound up with that very world.

Because one can never really imagine what it is like to be a bat—just like one can never imagine what it is like to be another person, not really—the question of animal rights goes back to Benthem’s question: does the animal suffer? I am in agreement with Singer when he discuss an ideal world where a pig lives a long and happy life and is killed with no pain and with no foreknowledge of its death, but the problem is that the world Singer abstractly explores does not exist.

I want to come back to these thoughts– there is more here that is important to explore.


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” (http://nosubject.com/Disavowal). 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.

I haven’t posted anything in a while because I have been so busy. It makes me feel bad because my students suffer when I am too busy; although, I got to say, I have been pretty good, I think, about “teaching.” I went over paragraphing with them using a really interesting technique I learned in my practicum class.

I had students come up to the board and list their favorite sandwiches, and then explained to them how they wouldn’t mix ingredients in the sandwich, so they shouldn’t mix their paragraphs. I think the students had a good time, and I think they might have just learned something.

After this, we went over thesis in more details and desperation writing: We looked at a particularly bad piece of writing and mined it for good content; then we went over and compared that good content and discussed some possible thesis that could be written.

This all ended with looking back at the bad piece of writing (and now with a strong thesis), we created a reverse outline and began to re-write the essay with better focus. Tuesday they have their peer reviews, so we’ll see if any of this stuff about writing sunk in or not.

In other news, I went to the RMMLA and presented my paper on “Sonny’s Blues”–I posted a rough draft of this paper here— It went well, and New Mexico seems like a cool town. I did love the food; it had been so long since I got to eat some real, authentic, fresh Mexican food.

Back to reality again, I am broke, and I need to get some stuff done. My teacher cancelled class on Tuesday to let us work on our project, so I hope to be done with this thing by Wednesday morning. This is all I have the energy to share today. With things kicking back up tomorrow, this week should be blog and reflection filled.