Morality issues maxims and prescriptions, but the ethical relation is a way of rethinking and remaking sociality itself.Judith Butler
The othering of animals marks a watershed in the invention of “the human” qua superior, entitled, and invested with absolute power over nonhumans. Human supremacy did not so much need to pit itself against trees, rivers, or mushrooms. Above all, it needed to define itself against the nonhumans who have faces and voices. It had to raise the human above the animal realm, which also required pushing animals down.
The extreme manifestation of othering is abjection. The abjected are those cast out, spurned, or despised—disenfranchised beyond mercy or hope. If othering were a bell curve, abjection is a few standard deviations away from the median.
Today’s factory farms are a Procrustean spin on the longstanding regime of human ascension. They are institutions that function within the reign of human domination and in step with consensual reality. Because they are particularly lurid, they cannot work by “merely” othering the resident chickens, pigs, dairy cows, feedlot cows, turkeys, and other food animals of the industrial system, but must perforce abject them. Factory farm animals are constituted as existentially and aesthetically repugnant—dirty, mindless, ugly. The repugnancy of factory farms themselves is thus transferred to the animals, releasing the animal gulags to perform as conventional features of society. The abjected animals are shunted into industrial dungeons, and the dungeons are rendered undungeon-like in the normality of reigning over bodies that don’t matter.
In Greek mythology, Procrustes was the villain who waylaid weary travelers, offering them a bed to rest for the night. He would guide them to his iron cot. If they were too small, he racked their limbs out of joint to make them fit. If they were too big, he amputated wherever needed hacking. Myth has it that no one was just right for his bed. Factory farming comes straight out of Procrustes’ playbook. The logic of economy and efficiency enacted on animal bodies is sound the way the logic of Procrustes’ bed is sound. Both do not only derange ethics, they derange logic thereby afflicting the perpetrators at the very bedrock of sanity.
The industrial system racks and hacks animal bodies at the levels of genetics, development, life cycles, reproductive cycles, behavioral repertoires, and end-of-life experience. The animals’ genetics have been manipulated through experimentation, with all the noxious overtones of that word (Moss 2015). Indeed, eugenics has had its heyday in the departments and research labs of “animal science.” Animal bodies have been used as trial-and-error breeding reactors to accelerate Making More: bigger breasts, more milk, more eggs, more piglets, more calves. Banished from their ancestral bodies, the animals are turned into mutants who often cannot stand or procreate, but can be productive meat, dairy, and egg machines. Mutated for “feeding the world.”
Procrustean procedures continue for whatever aspects experimental mutagenesis cannot fix. Castrations, debeakings, “thumpings,” macerations, cratings, brandings, horn mutilations, and dockings ensure that livestock operations remain smooth and profitable. The industrial turning of bodies into products—160 million animals are transported to a slaughterhouse every day—is virally spreading around the world (McAurthur and Wilson 2020). It is big money for the conventional meat-dairy-egg industry, the leather industry, the pet food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agrochemical industry, the industrial food system, and the retail supermarket system.
Abjected bodies do not count as bodies (Butler 2011). The genetically standardized factory farm animal epitomizes such discounting. The animals’ corpses and secretions are everywhere in abounding quantities, yet the animals are oddly absent. They live and perish receiving no thanks, kindness, or pity. In 2021, we can no longer reasonably call factory farms invisible. They have received much attention in books, essays, photojournalism, film footage, and documentaries. Images are all over the internet. Yet industrial animal agriculture chugs along as productive as it is muted. The whistleblowers seem so utterly sentimental, non-pragmatic, and extremist.
At first glance, it may strike us as odd that human food is made from the suffering and torture of animals. But it’s the fact that it is not odd that should command our attention. The animal gulags are grounded in the Great Ungrounding of the human from planetary hearth and Earth family. They perfectly reflect human supremacy—violent and crass—but in the prevailing trance consensus the system succeeds in projecting its vile visage onto the animals, who are stereotyped as vacuous and regarded as undeserving. Subsequently the abjected flesh and products are eaten, the capstone of the perversion of factory farming. Because, if you consume what you abject—what you tacitly picture as unworthy—what does that make you?
The animals of the industrial system are the wretched of the Earth. They have no contrastive alternative, no respite, no escape into the imagination, no hope for a different life. They are born into pain and suffering, confined, broken, and estranged from one another, other living beings, and their selves. They live briefly and die senselessly as nameless. Of course, they are not given individual names, but I mean something more. Their condition is nameless. They are expelled from being.
Jonathan Safran Foer writes that if factory farming were a movie the genre would be horror (2009). Infernal images circulate as strangely ordinary. Piled on top of one another, living in the fumes and footfalls of their excreta, squeezed into each other’s personal spaces, exposed to disease, separated from their babies, scalded alive “accidentally” (chickens), buried alive if they are infectious, thrown into macerators, gassed, or suffocated (male chicks), artificially inseminated around the clock, sexually forced to ejaculate their semen, made to experience their fellow beings as a terror or a nuisance, turned cannibals, and made despondent.
What is rendered abject is expelled. In the case of the animals, into grey industrial realms. The main modality of abjection is expulsion, which is trailed by repulsion (Kristeva 1982). Repulsion sometimes surfaces inside the industrial spaces themselves, so that reports of sadistic acts directed at the “repulsive” animals regularly leak out of the gulags. Gruesome tales from the factory farms. We’re deep in the horror genre at this point. The mainstream reception of sundry unspeakable acts promptly compartmentalizes them as deviant from the norm—and certainly nothing to do with what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is comforting to believe that acts of purposeful cruelty against industrial farm animals are extrinsic to the operations as such. Except that repulsion follows expulsion so that sadistic violence—whether sporadic or routine—is built into the logic of the factory farm: not deviant from the norm, but one standard deviation away.
Human alienation from our animal sisters and brothers, and from Earth itself, comes with the heavy cost of human cognitive-somatic-sensory dissociation. Divorcing ourselves from the community of life echoes as psychic fragmentation and incoherence. Once, for example, I was chatting with a tattoo artist who told me he previously worked for the poultry industry in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was awful work, he said, so he had to leave. He recounted, as an illustration, that trucks would be driving out of the industrial plants, and sometimes chickens that had strayed or escaped would just be run over. He left poultry work behind and reinvented himself as a tattoo artist. Then his wife walked into the room and asked: “What do you want for lunch today? Chick-Fil-A?”
A number of years ago I invited an expert on the animal food system to lecture in my class at Virginia Tech. She was renowned for reforming the worst abuses of the system. For example, she helped smooth out the assembly-line progression of cattle to slaughter, so that the serial pointblank executions would not be flubbed resulting in animals hung alive on hooks. In the course of her lecture, my visitor expressed antipathy toward the term “factory farm.” It had a propaganda-like ring in her ears, especially as it missed the bigger picture. “What will the maids eat?” she asked, looking at us defiantly. We stared back silently since the answer was obvious. Let the maids eat McDonalds.
In her parable-story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula Le Guin describes a well-ordered society whose citizens’ carefree lives depend upon a 10-year old girl kept locked in a broom-closet basement room, subsisting in her own filth, feebleminded, whimpering unintelligibly. The wellbeing of Omelas hinges on this child-scapegoat shut away in wretched isolation. The girl is hidden from view, but her existence is not a secret. The people of Omelas have the choice to come and see the tradeoff of their comfortable lives. Some come and look, others choose not to. Some who come, “Keep walking… They go on. They leave Omelas and they do not come back.”
Le Guin’s story is a fitting parable for animal-product eating consumerlands whose factory farms are the hideous underbelly of much cheap and copious eating. Le Guin’s story is also an apt reference for factory farming because of the resonant parallels between children and animals. Children and animals are the most innocent and most vulnerable of all beings. Crimes against them wreak an acrid stench. Le Guin’s parable, however, fails in an important way. The broom-closet of Omelas does not “bleed” out—its evil is confined within its walls. But beyond afflicting the animals and the people who work there, the evil of factory farms bleeds into atmosphere, climate, grasslands, rainforests, oceans, rivers, and clogged human arteries, solid tumors, and zoonosis.
“Why are all animals part of my family, just like humans?” asked author Emile Zola. “Why are all beasts of creation my relations, why is it that the mere thought of them fills me with mercy, tolerance, and tenderness?” (Zola 1896). To honor this intuition of our intimacy with other animals is not to push down the plant world, as has been charged. It is to recognize the vulnerability to pain, the capacity to bear witness to others’ terror, the fear of death, and the joys of life we share with animals. When we legitimate or shield ourselves from the suffering of animals, we choose make-believe over what’s real. Author Barbara Kingsolver reminds us that slavery (like industrial animal agriculture) was once justified with economic arguments. Until those arguments became impossible to bear, and, she writes, “the daughters and sons of a new wisdom declared: We don’t care. You have to find another way. Enough of this shame” (Kingsolver 2010, emphasis added).
The bedrock constitution of “the human” as a distinctive lifeform requires othering “the animal.” Human supremacy foundationally succeeds by conditioning people, from a tender age, on the unbridgeable gap between human and animal. By the same token, superseding human-supremacist violence and dissociation hinges on returning to our animal relations/selves with all our affection and presence. To return in this way is to rethink and remake sociality itself. This is a revolution of the heart, so it is something very near to us, a heartbeat away.
Read ‘Shutter the factory farms’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blogTweet
Butler J 2011. Bodies that Matter. Routledge.
Butler J (with Athena Athanasiou) 2013. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Polity.
Foer JS 2009 Eating Animals. Little, Brown and Company.
Le Guin U 1973. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” https://asiasociety.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Le-Guin-Ursula-The-Ones-Who-Walk-Away-From-Omelas.pdf
McArthur J and Wilson K 2020. Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene. We Animals Media.
Moss M 2015. “US Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.” New York Times 19 January. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html
Kingslover B 2010. “How to Be Hopeful.” In Moral Ground: Ethical Action foe a Planet in Peril. K. D. Moore and M.P. Nelson eds., San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 452-457.
Zola E 1896. “L’Amour des bêtes.” Le Figaro March 24.