Friday, March 20, 2015

The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror

Just got the proof of the book cover.  The book will be published by the University of Georgia Press in the fall.  Here's the first blurb:

"Combining personal narratives and gender studies with eco-feminism and pop culture, The Vegan Studies Project offers a brilliant analysis of the status of vegans and veganism on America’s cultural landscape. Laura Wright’s argument for a new field of vegan studies rings true, and this book will be the foundational text." -- Hal Herzog, author of Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat: Why it's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals

And once it's out, maybe I'll get the chance to blog again.  :)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Response to Anonymous's comment that "Maybe if you ate an occasional burger you wouldn't be such an 'absolutely' anal retentive fucking moron."

Dear Anonymous,
I'm writing to thank you for your astute deconstruction of the rhetorical failings of my "Open Letter to the Alumni of the University of Virginia."  Just so others have context for this entry, I'll post your full comment here.  First you quote me:

"I could say, rather, that she alleges that she was gang raped, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that what she claims happened to her really did happen to her."

And then you comment:

"Maybe if you ate an occasional burger you wouldn't be such an 'absolutely' anal retentive fucking moron."

So some backstory: on November 19, Rolling Stone published Sabrina Ruben Erdely's story "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA," which provided graphic details about the brutal gang rape of "Jackie" at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party in 2012.  The story pointed out the ways that UVA has systematically failed students who are victims of sexual assault, the existence of a Greek system that normalizes and perpetuates violent misogyny, and the power of tradition in the face of changing campus culture.

The outrage was immediate and national; UVA scrambled to respond, suspending the Greek system for the rest of the semester.  Students at UVA protested, calling for an end to sexual violence on campus; they vandalized the Phi Kappa Psi house.  And I wrote a righteously indignant blog, based on several things:

1. False rape accusations are rare.  But they do occur.  I have long trusted women when they say that they were sexually assaulted.

2. Fraternity men rape 300% more than college men who are not in fraternities.

3. I was in a sorority.  And then I wasn't.

4. This.  And this.  And this.  Annnnnd this.  I could go on.

5.  A credible reporter.  A national publication.

Now Rolling Stone is recanting -- or something -- the story, stating that there now appear to be discrepancies in the story, and there are issues with regard to "Jackie's" credibility.  Rolling Stone apologizes to everyone affected by the story.  Despite the extreme vagueness of the Rolling Stone statement, The New York Times sheds some more light on the issue.  The frat in question has issued a statement denying the claims made in the article.  Believe it if you will.

MSNBC notes -- and I agree -- that in scapegoating the supposed victim, Rolling Stone has made matters much worse for everyone.


When I read the original article, I was devastated.  It took me hours to get through it; it told me things that I know to be true, even as I now find out that the details of this particular incident may not be.  And I wrote about it, calling out alumni, particularly Greek alumni, not to donate another cent to UVA until redress was made.  I wandered around for a couple of weeks feeling like I'd made the wrong decision by not becoming a journalist, so powerful could the pen be.  So motivational and transformative in the service of justice.

Then Rolling Stone did a 180, and all I could do was look at my computer screen and think, "what the fuck?"

Whatever is or isn't true, whatever did or didn't happen, Rolling Stone's irresponsibility, its shoddy fact checking, and its current cowardice in the face of these things will do unconscionable harm to any woman who comes forward hereafter as a victim of sexual assault.  She would have been doubted before; now, I fear, there's no way she will be believed.  And instead of galvanizing our nation's colleges and universities to act in ways that can prevent the very real sexual assaults that take place on their campuses, I imagine that the focus will shift to further discrediting victims, and, in the case of UVA, to vindicating itself of any wrong doing.


Anonymous, I want to get back to your comment: "Maybe if you ate an occasional burger you wouldn't be such an 'absolutely' anal retentive fucking moron."

First, mad props for the repetition of my "absolutely." Second, I'm not sure where in my original post  there is any indication of a propensity towards anal retention.  You'll need to provide concrete examples if I'm to buy that one.  Try harder.

Third, given red meat's linkage to both colorectal cancer and constipation, eating a burger is unlikely to help in the anal retentive department, but thanks for making sure to link my veganism to your ad hominem indictment of me.

Finally, I do feel like a fucking moron, and I'm supposing that everyone who trusted Rolling Stone and Erdely's story feels likewise.  I feel duped and betrayed, and I've opened myself up to attacks like yours, Anonymous, based on the fact that I was willing to trust a woman's story about a brutal sexual assault.  I don't know what is true and what isn't at this point, but my certainty has been undermined, and women's credibility -- my own included -- has been compromised.

The fact that I feel like a fucking moron and the fact that you feel entitled to call me a fucking moron demonstrate the nature of this particular beast, the way that Rolling Stone's irresponsibility ensures that calls for campus-based action (like my call in my previous post) will fall on deaf ears.

Finally, I may be a fucking moron, Anonymous.  But at least I'm not an asshole.  And at least you're not really Anonymous anyway.

Asshole. "Absolutely."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An Open Letter to the Alumni of the University of Virginia

An Open Letter to UVA Alums:

Rape, rape, rape.  Famous comedian and beloved spokesperson for Jello Pudding is a serial rapist.  Woman after woman after woman continues to come forth, to detail how Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them, nearly all of them while they were teenagers.  The count is now up to 16.  

Cosby’s lawyer calls all of these claims “unsubstantiated” and “fantastical.”

And then more rape, gang rape, violent and unconscionable assaults all over the place at the University of Virginia, narrated in excruciating detail in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s November 19 RollingStone article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justiceat UVA.”  As I’m sure you already know, the article chronicles the story of Jackie who, as a first year student in 2012, was gang raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party.  I could say, rather, that she alleges that she was gang raped, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that what she claims happened to her really did happen to her. She was tricked into a dark room, beaten, and raped by multiple men, one of whom used a beer bottle:

"Shut up," she heard a man's voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn't some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they'd return to the party.

"Grab its motherfucking leg," she heard a voice say. And that's when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.

He referred to her as an “it,” a thing, a consumable object. 

And the article also details the ways in which UVA has a long history of violent misogyny that is part and parcel of its Greek system, and it considers the way serial rapists hide within plain sight within that system:

Frats are often the sole option for an underage drinker looking to party, since bars are off-limits, sororities are dry and first-year students don't get many invites to apartment soirees. Instead, the kids crowd the walkways of the big, anonymous frat houses, vying for entry. "Hot girls who are drunk always get in – it's a good idea to act drunker than you really are," says third-year Alexandria Pinkleton, expertly clad in the UVA-after-dark uniform of a midriff-baring sleeveless top and shorts. "Also? You have to seem very innocent and vulnerable. That's why they love first-year girls."
But against that backdrop, as psychologist David Lisak discovered, lurk undetected predators. Lisak's 2002 groundbreaking study of more than 1,800 college men found that roughly nine out of 10 rapes are committed by serial offenders, who are responsible for an astonishing average of six rapes each. None of the offenders in Lisak's study had ever been reported. Lisak's findings upended general presumptions about campus sexual assault: It implied that most incidents are not bumbling, he-said-she-said miscommunications, but rather deliberate crimes by serial sex offenders.

It details the ways that the administration has failed students who have been victims of violent crimes:

Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. "If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don't want to be part of, frankly, we'd be concerned that we would get fewer reports," says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.

And it paints a clear picture of a university culture that normalizes sexual violence and silences women who come forward asking for help: "One of my roommates said, 'Do you want to be responsible for something that's gonna paint UVA in a bad light?' " says Jackie, poking at a vegan burger at a restaurant on the Corner, UVA's popular retail strip.”

Your alma mater has a serious problem – even as it’s not alone; UVA is one of the 86 schools now under federal investigation. However, according to Erdely, “it is one of only 12 schools under a sweeping investigation known as ‘compliance review’: a proactive probe launched by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights itself, triggered by concerns about deep-rooted issues.”

I won’t lie; I’ve long been a huge Greek detractor, having written about my short-lived experience in that system.  I am sick to death of reading about deaths by hazing, stories of rape, instances of homophobic and racist behavior that constantly flow out of the Greek system.  But I have alternately said that it’s not the individuals within fraternities who are necessarily bad people – although I think it should be clear that there are some very, very bad people in fraternities.  Rather, it’s the Greek system that allows horrific behavior to flourish.  My undying belief is that the entire Greek system in the United States should be abolished, but I’m also aware of how unlikely such action is to occur.  And there are good people within the Greek system, people who might be able to do something to change what looks to me like a terrifying trajectory.

Your alma mater maintains a Greek system that perpetuates horrific acts of violence, whose members seemingly regularly commit felonies for which they are never brought to justice.  They ruin young women’s lives. They attend class and graduate, going out in the world to secure lucrative jobs, all the while existing as living testaments to the fact that it’s fine to rape, to maim, to brutalize their fellow human beings.  If the story about Jesse Matthew’s abduction and murder of UVA student Hannah Graham had you up in arms earlier this year, remember that Matthew was a serial rapist whose actions went unpunished.  If you don’t condone his actions, you can’t condone those of the “upstanding” young men who regularly and systematically target, drug, and brutalize their peers in the name of Rugby Row.

This is an image of the vandalized Phi Psi house (it says "suspend us," and "UVA Center for Rape Studies")

President Teresa A. Sullivan, in response to the Rolling Stone article has suspended frats for a whopping 48 days (nearly all of which will occur during winter break) while the circumstances detailed in the article are investigated. Such an action is laughable.

There are several things that you can do to change UVA’s culture, because you have the one thing that has allowed UVA – and every other university in the same position – to turn a blind eye to it thus far: money. Particularly if you are a member of the Greek system and you’re a donor, call – very publically – for the suspension of the Greek system at UVA until the rapists within its ranks are identified and charged, until the Charlottesville police promise to patrol underage drinking at fraternity parties – and to arrest anyone serving booze to minors.  Demand that the institution stop standing in the way of the law, that it support victims of violence, and that it become completely and totally intolerant of the absolute horrors detailed in Erdely’s article. 

And let the administration, the UVA community, and most importantly your Greek brothers and sisters know that you will not donate another dollar to UVA until its fraternity men cease to treat UVA’s female student population like pieces of meat, like disposable garbage, like things.  And if it can’t do that, then let the Greek system go the way of all other arcane and vestigial institutions. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Vegan Heart Attack

Plush heart cell given to me by a friend. Complete with heart beat sound.

Exactly five months ago, I suffered a massive heart attack and almost died.  It happened at the beginning of a run, before I'd taken more than 20 steps, and what caused it still remains largely mysterious, a source of debate among the various cardiologists I've seen since then, the subject of a paper delivered at a convention by one of them.  The facts are these: I am a 43-year-old woman, a long-time long-distance runner, a long-time vegan.  I am a combination of things that constitute exactly the kind of person who never has a heart attack, who, at least ostensibly, has no risk factors whatsoever.

The kind of person who should be a poster child for all the things that one should do to avoid having a heart attack.

I had a clot.  It was huge.  An MRI and ultrasounds of my legs and heart revealed it to be the singular clot in my entire body.  I have a paten foramen ovale, a very common birth defect that enables blood to flow between the left and right atria.  It's something I discovered after the heart attack when the doctor pumped fizzy water into a vein in my arm and we watched on the ECG screen as the bubbles cross from one side to the other.

A hole in my heart.

This is my heart attack

One specialist tells me to fix it; another says not to.  I know that I need a third opinion, but so far, I haven't gotten around to getting one -- and this is in large part due to the fact that I don't believe that anyone else will know anything further.  I have grown to believe that none of us, no matter how well trained, knows much about what makes us work and what makes us break, particularly when things  break in the wrong people at the wrong time.  All is so speculative and unclear as to drive one into a complete existential mid-life crisis, which is exactly where I find myself.  I'm an English professor.  I study language and metaphor. The fact that I have a hole in my heart seems entirely right to me.  It's the space that I've never been able to fill; it's the endless tangible ache that I feel for everything nonhuman (and human) that suffers.

The surgeon went in through the femoral artery in my right leg.  I was awake the whole time, having been airlifted from the regional hospital in Western North Carolina near the university where I work, which is where I was when I had the heart attack.  I begged the doctor not to make me ride in the helicopter, so terrified I am of flying; he said I wouldn't make it if I went in an ambulance.  He gave me an Atavan to help ease my nerves. In the hospital in Asheville, the surgeon shaved my pubic hair; I was embarrassed because he was incredibly cute.  He talked to me throughout the surgery, and a screen displayed what was happening.  I had to turn my head to the left to watch the movie of the angioplasty.  At one point, the doctor laughed at something I said.  I have no idea what it was.

After, I hemorrhaged and nearly bled out through the hole in my leg.  I nearly died a second time, and the next day, the people -- nurses and doctors -- who must have met me before, during, and after the surgery, came by to tell me that they couldn't believe I'd survived.  This is a memory I have returned to often since October 25: that no one believed that I hadn't died, that I should have died.  That my life after October 25 constitutes a complete surprise.

Flowers from friends and family (notice stealthy cat foot just behind the yellow ones)

The first nightmare that I had happened about two weeks after I got out of the hospital.  I was on a gurney, heading into a dark tunnel. It's not a very inventive metaphor, I'm afraid, but it must be a universal one.  I knew that if I closed my eyes, I would be dead and that there would be nothing more.  I fought and fought to stay awake in the dream.  And then I woke up.  I'm suffering from PTSD, an apparent after effect of so much trauma, and one that's only now being linked to heart attack survivors.

Over the course of my life, my body has undergone serious trauma, most (but not all) of it at my own hands. I had an eating disorder for over a decade, and I have consistently ingested into my body (often in large quantities) things that have sped up or slowed down my heart, damaged as it already was by the fact that I existed in a nearly starved state for years and years. I feel a responsibility to my heart now, but I refuse to feel at fault for what happened. I feel sad for my heart, the small animal that I've seen on the ECG screen several times since the heart attack, part of it frozen and immobile, likely forever, from the lack of blood it received between the attack and the time that the clot was dissolved. Valves opening and closing, moving like the legs of some bear cub running and running towards some unreachable embrace.

Carol Adams came to WCU a week and a half after I had the heart attack.  I'd invited her, had arranged for her visit, and I showed up, my heart PVC-ing like crazy, to introduce her prior to her talk on her book The Sexual Politics of MeatI wasn't supposed to go back to work until after Thanksgiving.  After I introduced her, I thought I might have another heart attack.  No one knows this.  My heart attack has been a study in its own sexual politics, all the literature given to me in the hospital clearly aimed at men in mid-life or older; the first meal I was offered when I awoke the next morning was a bowl of beef broth.  The disconnect between who I am, the food I eat (and don't), and the reality that beef and foods made from animals are more likely to cause heart attacks than anything I've ever done all have constituted the grim irony with which I continue to view my circumstances.

I worry that I've somehow betrayed veganism, that people will read this and think that it's because I am vegan that this happened.  And maybe they'd be right.

But I doubt it.

So often, when I wake up from the nightmares that are now becoming less and less frequent, I want to hold my heart in my hands and comfort it the way I would any other abused or harmed or suffering animal.  And this is the way I'll be able to make sense of what's happened to me, even if the surgeons can't, to care for the creature that keeps running towards me, wounded and vulnerable.

Detail from a portrait I painted of my heart

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Moral Monday Politics of Meat

Every Monday since April 29, groups of protesters, led by the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, have descended upon the North Carolina legislature in Raleigh to protest any number of Republican legislative initiatives.  Led by Barber's charge of "forward together, not one step back," thousands of people have taken up residence on Halifax Mall outside the Legislative Building to challenge a raft of legislation that will (among other things) decimate public education, limit women's access to reproductive healthcare, restrict voting rights, and devastate the environment.  Hundreds of people have been arrested in a carefully staged performance of civil disobedience -- the rules for which you can read about here.

Barber and two protesters

North Carolina's decline from what the editorial board of the New York Times refers to as "a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness" to something unrecognizable to those of us who live here -- particularly those of us, like myself, whose families have been here for generations -- has been swift and putative.  I attended last week's protest, spurred, finally, by the House's swift and sneaky passage of HB 695, a bill that contains provisions that will (again, among other things) effectively shut down all but one abortion clinic in the entire state.  The presentation of this bill, which is ostensibly about protecting North Carolina citizens from Sharia law, was so underhanded that even our Republican governor Pat McCrory decried the covert nature of its passage.

From Asheville, where I live, Raleigh is about a four hour drive.  Along with about 100 other people, including three other faculty members at Western Carolina University, I rode to the rally on one of two buses chartered by Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell.  Some of my fellow travelers had done this before; some, like the 79-year-old man who shared his story, had been arrested and were wearing their "I was arrested with Rev. Barber" pins in solidarity.  Many told their stories of entering the Legislative Building, of their meetings with various members of NC's general assembly, including Tim Moffitt, who represents Buncombe County, and of their expectations for this particular rally.  


We brought our own lunches and ate at a rest area about two hours out, and we arrived in Raleigh at about 3.30 with enough time to wander the halls of the legislature prior to gathering on the mall.  One of my colleagues tracked down Moffitt and spent about an hour in his office.  Later, when we outside, my colleague told me several things about this meeting.  Two seem important to me.  First, Moffitt said that he was "troubled" that state employees would be in attendance at these events.  The implication, as far as I can tell, is that as a state employee, one is not in a position to challenge the state.  And I think that there is some real fear on the part of state employees that they could get in trouble for attending such a protest.  Indeed, Art Pope's Civitas Institute maintains a database of information about Moral Monday protesters, including, when the institute can get it -- which it can in the case of state employees -- information about protesters' jobs and their salaries (so when you click the link for "protester salaries," you see lots of college professors.  I'm not up there, by the way; the database only seems to contain folks who got arrested, which I didn't).  

The second thing that Moffitt said to my colleague was this: "you are not those people," meaning the people protesting on the mall.  OK, so let me back up for a second.  To address the issue of what it means to be protesting as a state employee, none of my colleagues were there to protest as representatives of the state institution for which we work; we were there as individual citizens with individual interests.  In terms of not being "those people," my guess is that the reason Moffitt said this to my colleague is that my colleague, like Moffitt, is a young, affluent, white man (Moffitt also asked my colleague how much money he made, and my colleague told him, even as he said that he wasn't attending this rally to protest his pay).  "Those people" are, effectively, the NAACP (therefore, black people), women, the poor, and the elderly.  At least this is Moffitt's estimation of who "those people" are.

A little protester photographed by another of my colleagues

What's scary -- and very telling -- to me about Moffitt's claim is the very clear indication that Moffitt is dividing his constituents into two categories: people who are "like him," and "those people" who aren't.    Such a reality points to a lack of any sort of empathetic imagination that might allow for someone like Moffitt, or for that matter any number of his colleagues in the general assembly, I would venture, to imagine their existences as linked to the existences of the people that they supposedly represent.  It's terrifying to know that the North Carolina legislature is a space wherein my district's elected representative can proclaim such blatant racism, sexism, and classism even as the state's citizenry stand outside his window and try to shine a light on that very reality.

When my colleague told me about his exchange with Moffitt, I bristled, and I offered (as I always do as an ecofeminist) that oppressions are linked, intersectional, and co-dependently reinforcing.   To see oppressions as discrete entities and to view oppression of one group as somehow independent of the oppression of others is to misunderstand the mechanism of oppression; to claim that those who are being oppressed are not the same people as those who are elected to represent them is to misunderstand the concept of democracy.


I imagine (and even know after conversations with many folks on the mall) that the people protesting get it, know that what affects one of us affects us all.  That's why they were out there holding posters, pumping fists, chanting, and clapping.  

On the way back to Asheville, we stopped to get something to eat.  It was 9 p.m., and everyone was starved.  We pulled into Burlington and stopped in a shopping center where the options were Wendy's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Subway.  We were told to get off the bus, grab some food to bring with us, so that we could get back to Asheville.  When everyone piled back on, they brought with them burgers and pepperoni pizza, turkey subs and chicken filet sandwiches.

The recognition of the interconnectedness of oppressions often breaks down when it comes to animals, even among people who see and recognize such intersectionality as profoundly significant and even as immoral (hence the notion of "Moral" Mondays) when to comes to legislation that affects their fellow human beings.  The question that I'm always left with in such instances, when empathy and moral consideration don't extend beyond our non-human framework, is whether or not any liberation movement will ever amount to much when the most liberated and liberal among us fail to recognize as foundational the linkages between animal and human oppressions.  

Human beings have justified the oppression of other human beings by rhetorically constructing them as animals.  Racism and sexism are predicated on a foundational lack of recognition of "others" as human; consider, as I've noted before, that the Nazis killed the Jews with rat poison, that women are treated "like pieces of meat," that African slaves were sold at auction as chattle.   

Oh, and here's an Obama sock monkey.

Don't get me wrong, here: I am behind the Moral Monday movement.  I am glad to see the swell of this tide of discontent, the coming together of disparate groups, and the disenfranchasing of the notion that, in issues that pertain to our moral health, there are no "those people" and "these people."  But if this movement is about unity and the uniting of what might otherwise be disparate elements of society, then I want for the protesters to consider one more moral issue, and let's have a Meatless Moral Monday.  I know you're laughing, but it couldn't hurt, after all.  And it might make even more manifest the false dualisms that underscore someone like Moffitt's ability to turn away from all of those voices on the mall.  "Forward together."  All of us this time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Brad Pitt's World War Z sucks, and why no one is saying so

After watching Brad Pitt's World War Z, one of my former students posted this comment on Facebook: "So, you guys know how World War Z the book [by Max Brooks] is a thoroughly researched, well thought-out, nuanced exploration of how the various institutions of the globe might respond to a pandemic such as that of the actual zombie apocalypse? The movie is literally none of those things."  So far, this is the truest and smartest statement I've seen made about the lackluster, not scary, not politically savvy or interesting, not smart, nonsensical and extremely boring film version of Brook's very cool, polyphonic, fake oral history of the zombie war.  

First let me just say that I'm an unashamedly huge fan of the zombie apocalypse genre.  I love both the horrific concept of someone you knew in life potentially eating your face off after death; I love the metaphorical content afforded by the concept of the zombie, the way that the walking dead show us so much about the mindlessness consumption of the living in late capitalism, the soulless nature of the modern condition, the fear of various "others," and the certainty that we may encounter in the not-too-distant future a virus, man-made war, or natural disaster that releases our inherently -- or Kantian -- evil nature.  

When the genre works, it works, which is why I love Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, an utterly terrifying vision of England post-zombie apocalypse, a world where the evil done by human beings in the aftermath is more horrific than anything done by those fast as hell zombies.  It's a premise that AMC's The Walking Dead tried to plagiarize in this last season, possibly because it's such a terribly misogynistic train wreck of a show that it was willing to try this route.  It's why I love the sequence in Edgar Wright's zombie apocalypse parody Sean of the Dead in which Sean wanders out into the post-apocalyptic world and doesn't notice that anything's different, because in many ways, nothing is.

 Sean (Simon Pegg) the day after the end of the world

It's why Ramero's classic socially aware zombie trilogy is so terrifying, provocative, and, yes, funny, particularly, in my opinion, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a suburban shopping mall.  And even though the concept and representation of the zombie as mindless consumer and as animated, soulless corpse has evolved over the years -- from seemingly aimless, slow moving masses that, despite their lack of speed, kill you anyway, to fast and even super-fast swarms, social creatures who warrant occasional sympathy (as is the case in the first season of The Walking Dead, for example, or, even more outrageously in Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies) -- I have to call foul when the rules established by the historical lineage of the genre are completely disregarded.

This is the problem I'm having with what's happened to vampires of late.  Vampires that don't drink human blood?  Not vampires.  Vampires that go out during the day?  Still not vampires.  

 Ah, Edward.

And this is part of the problem with World War Z: its zombies are having an identity crisis.  First of all, are they zombies or aren't they?  The film never really takes a clear stance on that one, and, as a result, the audience has no clear sense of what is happening or why it has happened.  There are swarms of really fast dead looking people ready to ruin your day -- and succeeding with great skill.  These things are seriously lethal: once bitten, victims change in a matter of seconds (no time for introspection or reflection), and once they change, they're pretty much going to change everyone else around them.  This zombie apocalypse could be a fabulous metaphor for what a global pandemic might look like.  But unfortunately, it isn't, because this movie just isn't that smart. 

There's no real development of the pandemic narrative; hell, there's no development of any character or any narrative whatsoever, nor any explanation of what the fuck makes Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane the go-to guy for saving humanity.  But -- and here's the other reason why this movie sucks -- there doesn't need to be: World War Z assumes that we'll just buy Pitt as the sole source of salvation because the beautiful white man always saves humanity in mainstream American films.  And just look at Pitt in all of his Robert Redfordesque Christ-like glory (see the picture below), traipsing off to -- you guessed it -- Jerusalem just in the nick of time to save a few people as the zombie mass comes spilling over the protective wall (drawn, as this mass seems to be, by the singing of silly young women who don't know that these zombie things are "activated" by sound).  How could he not save the world?

The scarf about drove me crazy.  Why bother to accessorize at the end of the world?

So spoiler alert: Pitt's character saves the day, arriving always at just the right moment, in just the right place, with just the right sense of ineffable insight, and just the right sense of fashion.  He figures out that dosing himself with a deadly but curable disease will allow him to walk past zombies without being eaten, and he passes on this knowledge so that a vaccine can be created to immunize non-zombies from the virus (or whatever it is).  That he has no real credentials to do any of these things (he's a former UN investigator) is not important, because Hollywood has a serious hard-on for its white Messiah myth, and it recycles that myth ad nauseam.  As David Brooks notes, "It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen."

But barring my displeasure with its white Messiah complex -- and, really, haven't we seen enough of this story at this point? -- the film is just plain bad.  It's badly written, and for a film that contains such fast zombies, it drags and shuffles along, moaning and making scary noises without ever doing much of anything.  At one point, I was so bored that I took a restroom break, visited the concession stand, and chatted with the kid behind the counter.  When I returned about 10 minutes later, absolutely nothing had happened.

So why, then, is this movie getting pretty good reviews?  And why am I, a person to whom my film studies colleague attributes "no taste whatsoever" (she's right, really; I love anything with Danny McBride in it), one of the only people saying that it sucks?  Because -- and solely because --  Brad Pitt, particularly at this moment in time, is above critical reproach.  On an airplane last month, I read a Vanity Fair article about World War Z's ridiculous production history debacle.  My sense after reading this article was that the movie was going to be an epic disaster but that Brad Pitt is, to borrow an oft used phrase, simply too big to fail.  And in the realm of Hollywood celebrity, he's also too good: he does all sorts of charitable things and has adopted a zillion children from all over the planet.

Then, just weeks prior to the opening of Pitt's must-be-successful film, his partner Angelina Jolie announced via a New York Times editorial that, due to genetic testing that indicated that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer -- the disease that killed her mother -- she had had a double mastectomy.  How does one say something bad about the work of the partner of such a courageous woman, particularly when he stood by her side throughout her surgery and recovery?  In making this connection, I in no way mean to undermine Jolie's decision to extract her boobies; if I were in her shoes and had her money, I'd do exactly the same thing.  But her surgery also gives meaning and weight to Pitt's vacuous movie in ways that may very well have protected it from harsh criticism.

Jolie's narrative of her preemptive strike against cells that could rapidly mutate and quickly overtake and kill her gives Pitt's zombie narrative the metaphor it needs: even if there's nothing consciously explicit in our thinking about this film post-Jolie's mastectomy, there's enough unconscious provocation to consider that in that space, this film is about another preemptive strike against another rapidly spreading disease.  It's about the sacrifice of the part in the service of the whole; at one point, in order to keep her from dying (or becoming undead), Gerry lobs of the hand of a female Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz) after she's been bitten, and this strategy saves her.  And it's about a man working to get home to his wife and children.

But if reading the film through the narrative of Jolie's choice can give it a kind of meaning that might allow it to make sense, doing so still doesn't make World War Z a good movie.  There's much better zombie fare out there, and there are reasons not to forget the lineage that led to this moment, even if World War Z has forgotten.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Sexual Politics of Scholarship

On May 3, I gave a reading from my contribution to Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book, edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee and published by Lantern Books, that pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print ever since.  I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word.  At the end of the reading, people hugged me.  They bought the book and asked me to sign it.  In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.

On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that “in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, the scholar who wrote the article is told that her paper ‘relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression.’”  Further, the writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.

I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the realm of the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production.  I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.

Consider, for example, Eliza Haywood, who, during her life (1693?-1756) published over 70 works.  Have you heard of her?  No, you haven't, so don't try to act like you have.

Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country.  She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible.  She is a public intellectual of the first order, an “independent scholar” of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s. 

In the realm of animal studies and ecocriticism, there has some attempt to address the way that the recognized “legitimate” scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean.  For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an error he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself made him aware of his oversight.  In his emailed response, he apologized, noting he was, in his own words, “pretty new to the field” when he wrote the book in 2004. 

Garrard.  Still cute, though.

Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent.  She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in
ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources. (3)
And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, and notes that
In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with AnimalLiberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment. (89)

Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” in Critical Inquiry.  Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams.  What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its linkages with women’s studies.

Sacre bleu!  How can he not be foundational?  He's holding a cat forchrissakes.

So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as “non-academic,” and I don’t think that this omission is simply about the fact that she doesn’t work in the academy per se.  It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples.  It’s about our tendency to cast feminism as a series of “waves” (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete.  And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how it is appropriate to discuss oppression and patriarchy. 

If this piece feels that it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly.  Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, Governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett that our system offered courses that offer "no chances of getting people jobs."  He said, “If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job" (Frank). 

This is Pat McCrory (R), Governor of NC.  You've probably forgotten our last governor.  She was a woman and kinda liked education.

At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, Women’s Studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence.  I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies more elided with the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.

I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses.  I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence.  I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had on May 3, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then. 

My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J. M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media.  But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational.  Without Adams, there would likely be no ecofeminism, no real focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience. 

Adams sent me an email after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies.  She said “since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an email or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says ‘your book changed my life.’ So I prefer the interstitial!” 

In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus.  But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration.  And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission.  But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship.  And it’s high time we stopped doing that.

Works Cited

Adams, Carol.  The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.  New York: Continuum, 1990.  Print.

Fraiman, Susan.  “Pussy Panic and Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies.”  Critical Inquiry 39.1 (2012): 89-115.  Print.

Frank, John.  “McCrory wants to revamp higher ed funding -- takes aim at UNC-Chapel Hill.”  News and Observer 29 Jan. 2013.  Web. 18 May 2013.
Gaard, Greta.  New Directions for Ecofeminism: Toward a More Feminist Ecocriticism.”  Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 17.4 (2010): 1-23.  Print.

Garrard, Greg.  Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom.  New York: Routledge, 2004 and 2011.  Print.