05 July 2010
A favorite (and least favorite) moment from the )((ECO(LANG)(UAGE(READER))
Brenda: "'As we talked of freedom and justice one day for all, we sat down to steaks. I am eating misery I thought, as I took the first bite. And spit it out.' From am I blue? by Alice Walker. How do you respond to this provocative, powerful statement?"
Tyrone: "I won't pretend to be familiar with the current arguments around the "problem" of sentience vis-a-vis animals and artificial intelligence (or its analogue in debates over abortion and the "beginning" of life), but Walker's statement only reinforces what I wrote above: anthropomorphism is inescapable the moment one believes one is communicating with an other (human or animal). Hence the controversy over issues concerning "freedom" (see Adorno's Messages in a Bottle, for one critique), "justice" etc. Put another way, Walker's ability—and, why not, her privilege, our privilege—to eat "misery" must be respected no less—but no more—than the impoverished Rwandan, for example, who may never get to eat misery, much less "spit it out" in a gesture as ethical as it is narcissistic. I'm more convinced by ecological arguments—reducing the consumption of meat as a contribution to improving the environment for all animal and plant life—than the ascription of moral and ethical foundations—really, just mirrors and lamps—to others."
My least favorite moment is from Marcella Durand's "Spatial Interpretations: Ways of Reading Ecological Poetry," in which she dubs animal rights activists "an oblique and certainly more prickly branch of the ecological activist family" who are "often inarticulate and sentimental, or even misanthropic and violent," and whose behavior is complicated (according to Durand) by their desire to "speak for animals" (see part III, "Reading Tina Darragh," pp. 205-207). I immediately bristled at this claim, not so much because of the years I've spent working next to my wife who made a hard-earned living in animal welfare (in my opinion, one of the toughest and dirtiest and thank-less jobs around) of which I am very proud, but because it is a blanket statement meant to speak for the thousands of people who care for animals everyday (and in an urban area like Oakland, that means experiencing a level of cruelty towards animals that I didn't think was possible). There are certainly individual examples in the animal welfare community to give Durand's claims credence, but hanging from any branch of the "ecological activist family tree" one is bound to find the prickly, the inarticulate, the sentimental, the misanthropic, the violent (and this could be true if we take the long view to include many other forms of activism, and maybe all forms of labor!). While there are certainly some high profile cases of extreme militancy in the animal welfare world, it would be a huge mistake to summarily dismiss the folks who are responding to, say, the unthinkable violence of dog fighting rings, puppy mills, etc. etc. I'm reminded here, for instance, of Scalapino's reference to Lewis MacAdams chaining himself "to a rock in the bottom of the canyon that would be filled (with water)" (76) in order to stop a damn from being built in southern California. That seems pretty "prickly" to me...