Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Eating Animals

I read Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals over a year ago--shortly after it was first released--but have been thinking about it since then, on and off, and was reminded of it again recently. It wasn't anything specific that reminded me, but I was thinking about the ways in which an argument becomes compelling, and I was reminded of Foer. Foer does not advocate for veganism, but what he does do is open a conversation (or a mindset or a framework) in which veganism becomes a meaningful stance to a greater number of people. He examines the kinds of relationships that people have with food--with meat, specifically--and he traces those relationships to their origins, both in terms of conceptualization and production. Foer exposes the kinds of activities that make meat production possible on the level demanded by the population of the United States. He is not the first to do this, as many are quick to point out; in fact, he does not discuss anything that is beyond the scope of such authors as Gary Francione or Michael Pollan (I know that these two are rather different in their perspectives, but they are useful in this illustration specifically because of their differences). As I was reading Eating Animals, I kept trying to pinpoint the exact factor that made the book different from others I'd read on the same topic--I thought that it was somehow more compelling, more convincing, and more capable of inciting people to re-write their own outdated and harmful relationships with food. I could see how the book could encourage people to either refuse to eat meat altogether or consider more seriously the origins of meat and the ramifications of continuing to consume it.

The looming question, nonetheless, was always "why is Foer so compelling?" As a vegan, I find Gary Francione's books and opinions to be clear, straightforward, and quite convincing. I like Francione's insistence on vegan education and consistency (of beliefs and practices) as major ways of enacting change; Foer, on the other hand, presents himself as someone who often wavered in the ethics of food choices, and oscillated between being an omnivore and being a vegetarian. However, when speaking to others about veganism, I am more likely to mention Foer, not Francione, despite the fact that I disagree with several of his points.

This week, as I was reading through Carl Dennis' Poetry as Persuasion--the section on political poetry, specifically--I realized exactly what it is that makes Foer's voice more effective--it is not only Foer's willingness to speak more for himself than for the overall cause, but also his recognition of the limits of his position. Dennis maintains that this is an element necessary for effective political poetry, lest is become propaganda. Foer does not impose limitations, but opens possibilities for dialogue, as I mentioned earlier. Carl Dennis also argues for "a greater openness to the world" rather than a "subjective agenda." Foer, in his empathy with the great variety of people--from animal rights activists to "livestock" farmers, does this, too. I certainly do agree with Francione in my own personal beliefs in practices--that veganism is the moral baseline; but people have to first stop to consider food at all before stopping to consider the ethical implications thereof. Thankfully, based on the recently-passed Dietary Guidelines, people are starting to reconsider food. And this is a step in the right direction, indeed.


Nicole said...

oh man, I just wrote the longest comment ever and blogger deleted it.

I was saying that I really love this post and will be checking out Foer's book as a result of it.

And that it reminded me a bit of a story I heard on NPR several months ago (the details of which are fuzzy now, so excuse my lack of exactitude) about how some paper, I think the Washington Post, was being accused of being overly subjective. The editor was vehemently denying this, saying that it was the most objective paper around. Then they had on another commentator, a British journalist (wish I could remember who) who was really amused and said that he believed that was a uniquely (North?) American notion, that news can't be subjective and usefully factual. That subjectivity doesn't necessarily negate credibility as long as it is, as you mention, encouraging a dialogue and understanding of human limits of perception.

I don't comment much but I really love your blog!
xo N

zemmely said...

Oh no! I hate when blogger deletes comments, or when our school's webmail deletes emails that I'm writing... You're more patient than I in that you actually still commented!

I try to teach my students about the value of subjectivity all the time! And I try to point out that many times when they think they're being objective, it's actually far from it.

Thank you for commenting--sometimes I think that not many people read the blog, but it's been my goal to post at least 8 times every month, just to keep track of what's going on, to keep in the practice of writing, and to connect with people.