Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Good Death (Obligations and Animals)

[illustration: breakfast table, this morning. Katherine's comfort toy, Buster, now wears Scooby's collar]
by J J Cohen

Animals have been on my mind lately.

The interrelation of human and animal has always fascinated me, so much so that every book I've published has at least a chapter on the subject.* But medieval studies has taken an animal turn, with journal issues, strands at conferences, and numerous books dedicated to the topic. Karl has posted repeatedly on animals on this blog (see here, here, and here for some of his many posts directly related to what I am about to say; the comments are worth your time as well). Last December I was an evaluator for a big monograph on the animal/human (non)division, and thereby locked myself in a cognitive menagerie for a month. You'll hear more about that project in the days ahead, I am certain, but let me state right now that the book is by far the most thoughtful, thought-provoking medievalist contribution to critical animal studies we've seen. 

Recently I've been reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. The book was an impulse purchase, made on one of the many snow days we've "enjoyed" here in DC. The kids and I had walked to our nearest bookstore to purchase some tomes to keep us occupied. Katherine and Alex are old enough where sitting in a café with a hot beverage and a book seems the ultimate grown-up experience. So as Alex read a novel about undead armies and Katherine enjoyed the adventures of a puppy named Biscuit, I began Eating Animals.

Foer provides one of the few pop culture citations I've seen of Jacques Derrida's magnificent lecture series The Animal That Therefore I Am (an English title that gives only a hint of the punning French original, L’Animal que donc je suis). Foer's argument isn't nearly so complicated -- or sophisticated -- as Derrida's, though. Whereas Derrida writes as much about autobiography and human identity as animal identities, Foer assumes that animal is a distinct and natural category: animal edibility might be a cultural effect, but animality itself isn't really interrogated. With a useful emphasis on story telling and table fellowship, Foer explores what is at stake in consuming meat. He points out (for example) that in the United States we do not eat dogs, therefore depriving ourselves of a tasty form of sustenance: why draw the line here, especially because we are enthusiastic devourers of pork, and pigs are at least as intelligent as canines? In a kind of updated version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, he writes passionately about the lives of the animals we do devour, for few reasons other than self-indulgence, tradition, and sentimentality.

Until recently meat was precious, expensive, valued. Foer doesn't specifically mention the Middle Ages. All of the past is for him a time that was cruel to animals, but also careful with them: a living-together of species inculcated more of an ethic of care within human domination. Modern meat is a fairly inexpensive food (its price has not risen in decades), at least until its environmental toll is accounted for. Foer points out that animals raised as food spend their lives in factory "farms" under intolerably cruel conditions. They do not live well; they do not die well; the factory animal system poisons land, water and air, enriching corporations at the expense of communities. Consumers get cheap meat, but at an extraordinary price in suffering (human, animal, ecological). Unlike Michael Pollan, Foer is deeply skeptical that "true" farm-raised meat and eggs are any challenge to this system, or even a humane substitute: they might offer a less cruel alternative to some people who can afford them, but Foer isn't persuaded that less cruel is more acceptable. 

Foer argues that religious and civil laws about butchering (e.g. kashrut) are intended to minimize suffering and envalue the food on the plate: meaning that, to know that an animal lost its life for your meal is to pause over the significance of sacrifice before eating. That seems a bit romantic to me. But what did resonate was his insistence upon the human responsibility to allow animals a good death: one as free from agony and fear as possible. That might seem obvious, but read Foer's description of farm factories -- or the series on these factories and their toll on workers and animals in the Washington Post and New York Times or anywhere else that has looked at these places where almost all meat consumed in the US originates -- and you'll see that most animals do not die well. I suppose one could say, that's nature for you, red in tooth and claw. I'm not sure how to be satisfied with such an aphorism but I do see that it works for many people. Foer goes further, comparing inhumane treatment of food animals to slavery and genocide (he's not typically hyperbolic, but he does make those comparisons).

Why read the book if you're a medievalist? It's not exactly on topic for our time period, but it will certainly spur some thinking about culture, the species line, and ethics. You might disagree with its thesis, but if you want to see what a pop culture version of animal studies looks like, or are interested in food history and the shifting category of edibility, you'll find some thoughts here that will travel back to the Middle Ages.

More personally, Foer's emphasis on a good death resonated for me because our family dog, Scooby Oolong Cohen, has been in failing health. For several months Scooby has shown signs of cancer. She hasn't been in noticeable pain, and at age 15 has had an excellent life. Never a major health issue. A mutt made of beagle and dachshund, Scooby has lived with Wendy and me longer than our kids. The four of us knew that we didn't want Scooby's last days to be filled with suffering. We hoped she could leave this world with the same feeling of being cared for and loved that she has experienced during her years with us. So yesterday afternoon when she could no longer walk, we took her to the vet, suspecting it was her last visit. The choice not to treat her insulin deficiency was easy: to give her another week or so during which she would have felt pain, just because we wanted her with us longer, would have been selfish. The choice to end Scooby's life yesterday to avoid a death full of suffering was also not hard, but it did hurt.

Katherine is too young to have been with us at that final moment; she stayed with a friend. Alex was brave enough to remain in the doctor's office until the moment of euthanasia. He fed Scooby one last treat, and was grateful that a dog who had eaten nothing for a day took the biscuit from him. He left, with tears, for the waiting room. The vet administered anesthesia, enough to numb her, and then to stop her heart. It's easy to get sentimental about this, to cry, but Scooby lived with us for fifteen years. It was important that, if we could, we give her a good end. As painful as it was to hold her as her breathing ceased, we knew we were making the right choice, one we had contemplated for months.

You might think this last story has nothing to do with what precedes: a sad domestic vignette that has little to do with eating animals, or with history.** I disagree; for me (and I don't think I can say anything beyond that for me), it has everything to do with why -- flawed as it may be -- Foer's work sticks with me, why I have been fascinated with the lives of animals, with their intimacy to my own.

It's fair to say that without Scooby, my last three books would have each been missing a chapter. And now, she's missing: her bed is gone, her bowl removed, the ritual of the morning walk forever suspended. Scooby was and is an important part of my autobiography, personal and professional. I miss her terribly.

*If you're interested, that'd be the Gowther chapter in Of Giants; "Chevalerie" in Medieval Identity Machines; "Between Belongings" in Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity. I also wrote a piece on "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages" for this book.
**It is interesting to me how often pet stories -- personal stories -- get disallowed in speaking about animals critically. Perhaps, as Cary Wolfe writes in Animal Rites, "the logic of the pet" is that of the "individual who is exempted from the slaughter with exquisite bad faith in order to vindicate a sacrificial structure" (104); theorists like Jaques Derrida and Donna Haraway offer more affirmative possibilities.


Christopher Roman said...

I am sorry for your loss, Jeffrey. Living with an animal makes you rethink ethics and rights (something my classes have been dealing with as we discuss social contracts). I found Foer's book moving as well. I have been a vegetarian now for two years, but have yet to depart from cheese (and the occasional egg). His book made me rethink that decision.

Will said...

As a faithful reader of this blog, I want to say that I am sorry for your loss, Jeffrey. Few experiences testify to the weakness of species boundaries like the death of a “pet.”

For reasons I won’t fully get into, I am not the biggest fan of Foer’s book. For all its welcome skepticism towards the "happy meat" movement, it seems to rest on the assumption (which, as I recall, it occasionally critiques) that the more animals are “like us,” the more worthy they are of ethical consideration. Most animals will simply lose this contest for similarity, and the others (dolphins, dogs, pigs, apes, etc) will find that the criteria for similarity keep shifting. One benefit of the growing conversation about “the animal,” in medieval studies and elsewhere, has certainly been the exposure of these shifting and differing criteria, even if the “practical” implications of this exposure for our daily lives with animals -- those we count as members of our “family” and those we barbeque – often go conspicuously unexplored.

I do hesitate (to put it mildly) over the notion of a “good death,” at least as applied to animals in the food, clothing, entertainment, and experimentation industries. I think we owe pets a good death when not killing them only prolongs their suffering, but what can a “good death” mean when the death itself is unnecessary and avoidable? Surely we would not speak of a murder victim (a human, of course – only humans have the ability to be “murdered”) as having received a “good death." We would object to the taking of the life, regardless as to how the life was taken. To eat or wear only animals that/who have “died well” is to assume that animals, unlike (most) humans, don’t have an interest in the continuation of their own lives – an assumption that animals’ defense mechanisms, especially their experience of pain and fear, argue against.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Christopher, and Will. I know a lot of what I wrote about a good death is problematic. Many humans want such a thing, and don't get it (physician-assisted suicide is not typically legal, which is an outrage); many humans don't want such a thing, and are given it (the death penalty is via lethal injection, which some say is a humane way for humans to die; I believe that the death penalty is wrong, and its supposed painlessness is beside the point).

As to a painless death being the precondition to wearing or eating animals: I agree, it does nothing to justify either. That is why I try to avoid consuming and wearing animals.

Tess Malone said...

This is the first time I have ever commented on this blog, however I have been a reader for quite some time (couldn't help but click on the link on the English blog & have enjoyed it every since.)

I am sorry you lost your dog yesterday. My 13 year old shar-pei died on the first day of school this year. Being 1000+ miles way from home, my grief was mildly detached. Although we now have a new puppy, Gatsby (named by the family nerd, me) I occasionally find old dog hair on my coats. It is bittersweet, sad that he had to go, but knowing that he had a good life full of lots of table scraps when with us.

I am half way through Foer's book. I picked it up mostly because I love his fiction and was itching to read something new. I am not a vegetarian and do not plan on becoming one even after this book (my father works in the meat industry, I believe I would be disowned if I gave up meat haha), however it does make some interesting arguments. I appreciate Foer's skepticism. I am aware that the animals I eat are probably not treated well and I have never assumed "free range" means anything of importance. To me, ethics and animals do not really go together, unless you completely abstain from eating them. I am not prepared to do that, but my meat consumption has lowered since I started college. That is the best I can do for now, but I will see if my opinion shifts once I finish this book.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that comment, Tess: it is good to "see" you here! I don't think the book gets more sophisticated or more convincing as it unfolds: you get the gist in the second chapter, and all is is just more detail. The first and last chapters were my favorites, with its emphasis on story telling, traditions, table community, and the necessity of forgetting.

It'd be interesting to think about how this book expands on themes from his two novels ...