Thursday, June 30, 2011

ASLE, Animals, Contextual Moral Vegetarianism, and Me

Part 2: Things go Dark and Creepy

Now that I’ve ruminated about all the productive and positive things that happened at ASLE, here’s a bit about what I presented: an essay on the role of contextual moral vegetarianism in Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. To be clear (again), ASLE is about literature and representations of the environment in literature, but, perhaps, because I have had limited experience in the real world, literature functions for me as a way of accessing the real world, and this is one of the main themes that I incorporate in my teaching: that nothing one reads in a fictional work of literature is any less true than what one reads about and learns in a history class.  As Nobel Prize winning South African author Nadine Gordimer states in “Living in the Interregnum,” her 1981 James Lecture presented at the Institute for the Humanities, “nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction.”

In Life of Pi, the title character is an ethical vegetarian…until he’s stranded for 227 days on a lifeboat, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, his sole companion a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In terms of my essay, it’s largely based on a bit of theoretical shifting that is a part of the realization that being vegan/vegetarian makes no sense in certain contextual situations (duh, right?).  What is one to do, for example, on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean?  Such a scenario is the extreme case, but Pi’s ability to contextualize his diet, to partake of sea creatures (and possibly even to partake of the flesh of another human) situates vegetarianism and veganism as dietary choices that can only be made in certain (privileged) circumstances.
Here’s the start of the essay:
Perhaps nowhere is the conflicting nature of the Western rhetoric of species preservation more apparent than in much of the current debate surrounding vegetarianism.  In conjunction with the twentieth and twenty-first century Holocene extinction spasm has occurred the rise and commercialization of a vegetarian diet as an ethical imperative and as a presumed reaction to and proposed remedy for environmental destruction – including species decimation.  Arguments in favor of such an ideology often cite, among other factors, the environmental damage done by factory farms and the depletion of arable land as a result of overgrazing.  Despite Anthony Bourdain’s limited claim that "vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans ... are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,” arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet focus on a politics of compassionate consumption, the health benefits of eschewing meat, and the positive environmental impact to which such a diet contributes.  Bruce Friedrich offers one such argument: the amount of land used to satisfy the food requirements of a vegan for one year is 1/16 acre; for a meat eater, the figure is 20 times as high.  Similarly, “it requires 300 gallons of water to feed a vegan for a day.  It requires about four times as much to feed a vegetarian, and 14 times as much to feed a meat eater.”

OK, all well and good.  But despite such statistics, vegetarians are the “enemy” and vegans are “Hezbollah.” (by the way, that’s the worst analogy ever in the history of faulty analogies.  Seriously: hez·bol·lah [Arab. khes-bah-lah]–noun a radical Shiʿite Muslim organization in Lebanon engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israel. veg·an [vej-uhn; especially Brit. vee-guhn]–noun a vegetarian who omits all animal products from the diet).  So, if this is the general perception (and I kinda think that it is), how do we crazy animal rights people convince the rest of the world that being veg matters or is helpful (or is healthful or that being compassionate to animals – the ones that aren’t pets – is necessary)?
Intermission.  Consider Scott Adam’s assessment in Dilbert for more on the crazy:

Oh, and by the way, a big fat fuck off to Anthony Bourdain, who capitalizes on being a vegan hater.  Anyone can cook with meat; it takes talent to cook without it.

The Ramones tee-shirt notwithstanding, he’s still a dillweed. 

Here’s Deane Curtin on the subject of contextual moral vegetarianism – and Deane Curtin is a major source for my thinking in this essay: In Environmental Ethics for a Postcolonial World, Curtin has claimed that he can imagine saying “to a dominant white culture, which has perfected the global food market and excelled at industrial farming, that we have an obligation to be vegetarian,” but he notes that
as a ‘contextual moral vegetarian,’ I cannot refer to an absolute moral rule that prohibits meat eating under all circumstances. There may be some contexts in which another response is appropriate. Though I am committed to moral vegetarianism, I cannot say that I would never kill an animal for food.

Mostly, I tend to agree with Curtin’s statement that in the West, we white folks have a moral obligation to be veg – and I also recognize the racial implications of such an assertion.  I’d argue a bit differently, that perhaps race may be a part of the contextual picture, but socio-economic status is probably a bigger factor.  Carol Adams deals that the contention that veganism/vegetarianism is a particular form of racism – an argument often posited in order to support the cultural significance of a subordinate (read as “nonwhite”) population’s ancestral and familial connections to a meat eating – by linking the oppression of nonwhite groups to the oppression of animals.  And that’s an argument I get as well – and I’ve written about that idea all over the non-blog world, so I won’t rehash my sentiments here. 

In terms of who should be and who has a contextual right not to be veg, I prefer not to make pronouncements beyond the fact that I’ve never understood the reasons offered by people who have given me (almost always uninvited) their opinions as to why not.

But I also understand the contextual argument, particularly given all kinds of racial, socio-economic, and global circumstances that do not support vegetarianism or, on the more extreme end, veganism.  For example, Curtin goes further to discuss the Makah nation of Washington State; the Nation asserts that it has a right to hunt gray whales, a species that was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994 (Curtin 137).  For the Makah people, whaling’s cultural significance has become a key aspect of their cultural renaissance.  Despite the United States government’s allocation of 20 gray whales to the Makah over a four-year period, however, animal rights and environmental activists have protested Makah whaling and denounced the practice.

OK: so back to ASLE.  Here’s me trying to discuss this contextual vegetarian ethos, and then there’s this bumper sticker displaying a precise example of such an ethos:

I can’t find any information that links this organization, the Fur Harvesters of North Bay, Ontario, to native peoples, even though the image on the sticker is of a stylized image of a native person, a trapper, disenfranchised by the whites who invaded North America (there are links on Fur Harvesters’ web page for such things as “ and “Origin Assured," which, while arguing for the green and sustainable nature of fur, convince me of absolutely nothing).  

The image, for whatever it’s worth, capitalizes not only on the concept of context, of native people’s cultural history of hunting and trapping but also on the (false) belief that hunting and trapping is a way of protecting women from harm.  By such logic, if one hunts and kills animals, one is less likely to hunt and prey upon and kill women (little old ladies in this case).  The sexual politics of fur.  What a problematic phrase, in oh so many ways.

But there is much evidence to support a counter-argument, that there are connections between the killing/abuse/hunting of animals and the killing/abuse/hunting of humans – predominantly women and children.  So let’s start with Ed Gein a hunter, who gutted his female victims like deer. 

I get that Gein was batshit cuh-raaz-ee, so perhaps his example is not exactly representative. 

But here’s an article in Newsweek on the subject of the links between animal cruelty and the murder of humans and another from PETA on the connections between animal abuse and domestic violence.  Lastly, CBS News has this 2009 story of a deer hunter who shot and killed six other hunters – one of whom was female. 

Canadian author Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing makes clear the connections between hunting and trapping animals for fur in Canada and the objectification of women and nonwhite minorities: “‘Do you realize,’ David says, ‘that this country is founded on the bodies of dead animals?  Dead fish, dead seals, and historically dead beavers, the beaver is to this country what the black man is to the United States’” (46).  And later, when the unnamed narrator doesn’t understand David’s joke that “a split beaver” (141) should emblazon Canada’s flag instead of the maple leaf, he responds, “where’ve you been living?  It’s slang for cunt” (141). The narrative that kids who hunt animals grow up not to hurt women or other members of society, well, that’s specious logic at best, no matter what the context.

I’ve written too much and still managed not to say anything about Lauren Spierer, who’s still missing.  And then there’s Crystal Grubb, who isn’t missing anymore. Yep, context – here as well as in matters of vegetarianism/veganism – matters. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

ASLE, Animals, Contextual Moral Vegetarianism, and Me

Part 1:

On Saturday, I flew back from Bloomington, Indiana, where I had presented a paper at the ASLE convention – the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.  On the plane beside me sat a Bosnian guy who looked exactly like Morrissey circa 1987; he talked to me about living in the U.S., about his brother who’s still in Bosnia and likes to hunt.  He’d never heard of Morrissey. 

He didn't look like this version of Morrissey, but I freaking love this photo.

But I digress…

ASLE: the focus this year was “Species, Space, and the Imagination of the Global.”

I presented a paper called “The Politics of Eating Postcolonial Animals: Contextual Moral Vegetarianism and Life of Pi,” which is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Safari, Zoo, and Dog Pound: The Place of Animals in the Postcolonial Environment” in my book

Yes, I know.  Shameless.  But, hey, buy my book.

OK, so before I go into further details about that presentation, there are things about the conference in general and about my inability to successfully or appropriately participate in an academic conference that need explication.  And, perhaps, I can come to terms with certain aspects of my personality that make me a bad academic, at least in this aspect of my professional life.  First, a bit about ASLE.  This organization has been in existence since the mid-1990s, and is the preeminent scholarly organization for folks who explore environmental issues in literature and, more often than not, in life.  The conference strives to make as small a footprint as possible, implementing such measures as “creating a vegetarian banquet with several interesting menu choices featuring local and/or organic foods as much as possible, including local beers and wines,” and “minimizing décor for the banquet and using artificial, reusable planters, linens, and other reusable décor items.” (This info courtesy of the conference website) 

This year’s conference actually featured two panels about veganism, called “The Vegan Challenge to Posthumanism” (parts 1 and 2), and animal studies in general was a primary focus of much of the work that was presented.  However, despite the seemingly obvious fact that the conference theme indicated a more global focus – and, indeed, there were panels, like mine, that examined the environment from a postcolonial perspective – the “global” was not really a major part of the agenda.  The overarching and traditional discourse of ecocriticism as a theoretical perspective – and ASLE is the entity that codified that discourse into scholarly legitimacy – has been and remains entrenched in American literature written by white (often male) authors, and such was certainly the case this year in Bloomington.

The big names in the field were all there, and, by and large, the big names focus on Western writing.  American literary scholar and godfather of ecocriticism Lawrence Buell was honored for his foundational work (and my friends and co-presenters Colin Christopher and Ali Brox got to eat lunch with him -- and he is, by all accounts, a seriously nice dude), but South African author Zakes Mda was a plenary speaker, as was Helen Tiffin, a prominent postcolonial scholar whose most recent work is Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment.  And Cheryll Glotfelty, who co-edited the foundational Ecocriticism Reader with Harold Fromm (remember him from an earlier entry?  He’s the guy who, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, trashed vegans) shook my hand: her book was sitting right beside mine on the University of Georgia Press table.  So the paradigm is shifting, albeit slowly.  At the author’s reception, I was situated in a corner near the back of the room (Colin said, “nobody puts Baby in a corner…”), and there was much joking about my marginalization.  But it’s all ok.  It’s fine. 

And good things happened for me, so I’ll toot my own horn for a bit: Byron Caminero-Santangelo, who moderated my panel, introduced me as “the preeminent Coetzee scholar working in the U.S.,” which made me feel really good – even if I’m not sure his assessment is 100% accurate.  Still, it made my day.  People bought my book and asked me to sign it; the University of Georgia Press representative told me that she sold out of it, which may or may not be impressive, as I think she only brought about five copies with her.  But, hey, selling any academic books counts as a success.  And I met people like Dan Wylie and the aforementioned Cheryll Glotfelty as well as a bunch of really cool folks from the University of Kansas and elsewhere.  And a woman approached me after my presentation to tell me that Carol J. Adams had included my video in her famous Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow.

I really liked Bloomington; it’s such a real college town, with all kinds of neat little shops and an overwhelming number of places where a vegan can eat.  I ate at Roots on the Square twice and at a Vietnamese fusion place called Basil Leaf Bistro.  After my presentation, a group of us went to a place called Scotty’s Brewhouse, a sports bar with a menu the size of a short novel, in which there appeared such items as burgers with peanut butter, deep fried pickle chips, and lots and lots of items buried beneath cheese and bacon.  But, of course, there was a veggie burger, so that’s what I had, as did the one other vegan in the bunch.  He and I had been betting on what our options would be, noting that in the case of such places, it’s either a veggie burger or some sort of Portobello concoction. And with the check at the end of the meal, we got little boxes of Red Hots, which, sadly, aren't vegan.  They contain beeswax.  Who knew?

But I am bad at conferences.  And all the good things that happened at this one don't really counter that fact.

I get nervous and weird, afraid to mix and mingle, intimidated by all sorts of things.  And I’ve presented, at this point in my career, at zillions of the damn things.  More often than not, my strategy is to attend my panel and maybe one other and then to hide out in my hotel room the rest of the time.  ASLE was particularly tough on me: this is a conference that started off small but has exploded over the past several years, so in terms of sheer numbers, it’s scary for someone like me who much prefers smaller venues – like the postcolonial studies conference that I attend nearly every year in Savannah, Georgia. 

Despite the fact that I don’t really feel overly intimidated by the academic rock stars that attend and present at these venues, the sheer number of those foundational figures present at this conference gave me pause.  Oh, and the fact that Greg Garrard has groupies – and that I think I might be one – is also problematic.  

Greg Garrard. I know, right?

The concept of “academic rock star” has always seemed both impossible and hilarious to me – we are all English professors or graduate students – but in my limited world, the way that certain of us achieve the role of public intellectual feels very powerful, and it’s both a heady and intimidating experience to encounter such beings.  And we all aspire to be like them.

But perhaps what was more difficult was – and always is for me – the tension that I feel between a lived ethic or a lived activism and a theoretical presentation about how environmental or vegetarian or vegan issues are presented in works of fiction.  And that tension seems to be even more pronounced at a conference like ASLE, which is, at least in theory, all about the environment but which, in reality, is all about talking about fictional representations of the environment. And, more often than not, such talk is of a very specific environment at that, one that is accessible to those of us able to participate in the fiction that what is meant by “environment” is a pristine and untouched wilderness available to us as an object for privileged consumption.

OK, perhaps I’m not being entirely fair.  I’ll say more in part two, about my paper, about contextual moral vegetarianism/veganism, and about Lauren Spierer, a young Indiana University student who has been missing for over three weeks and whose image, on posters, billboards, and fliers was absolutely everywhere in Bloomington.  And I’ll say more about this bumper sticker, seen in a movie theater parking lot:

Yeah, after presenting my paper, I went to see Bad Teacher.  Like I said, I'm bad at conferences. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Plant and Dracula

Well, I've been away from this blog long enough to have forgotten how to sign in...  The end of the semester nearly killed me (it often does), and I'm just now surfacing from beneath it.  It was the year of service for me: I directed the Graduate Program in English, served on the Liberal Studies task force, the International Studies advisory committee, both the college and university Program Prioritization committees, and was the Secretary of the Faculty, which means that I was also de facto on a bunch of other committees...  And I directed two fabulous MA theses and have been a reader for several more.

I won't be secretary of the faculty next year, so that's a huge obligation lifted.  I hope to be able to start researching and writing again, as I've pretty much taken the whole year off (wrote one book review during 2010-11).  So far, this summer I've written an article on Margaret Atwood's Surfacing -- a piece for which I'm getting paid (!) -- and that's it.  The vegan body project is my next priority, though, and I've just finished reading an article called "Love at First Beet: Vegetarian Critical Theory Meats Dracula," which was written in 1996 by J. E. D. Stavick.  If I'm going to write about our contemporary vampires' less bloody diets, it seemed wise to start with Dracula, the bloodiest progenitor of all his touchy feely descendants.

Stavick's essay is the only scholarly thing out there that looks at Bram Stoker's Dracula from the perspective of vegetarian critical theory, and this piece is also heavy (if not particularly adept) in its use of postcolonial theory.  Take the following statement, which pretty much sums up the argument: "the threat to English consumption is the threat of reverse colonization, which in this text is manifested in the vampire invasion of England by the powerful consumer 'Other,' Count Dracula, who threatens England with his violation of the meat hierarchy" (26).  That hierarchy, as defined by Stavick and others, is dependent on the privileging of "bloody meat, especially beef, over all other foods" (24).  It's an interesting and, for the time, original analysis.


So I promise to write more.

But in the meantime: Plant!  And by Plant, I mean Jason's restaurant, which is coming along nicely.  Here's the latest from the Mountain Xpress:

Planting a Different Seed
It didn't take long for the building at 165 Merrimon Ave. recently vacated by Beans and Berries to get snatched up. Longtime Laughing Seed chef Jason Sellers is joining former Rosebud Video owners Alan Berger and Leslie Armstrong to open a completely vegan restaurant there that they’ve decided to call "Plant."
Why Plant? "Because 'plant' is food to us," Sellers says. "It's the most rudimentary expression of what food is. It's sustenance and the core of our expression. Everything here will be plant-based."
To the partners, Plant expresses a philosophy of animal-product-free living and a celebration of good food.
"We're thrilled," Armstrong says. "It's so exciting to be able to take all of the things that are important to us and create this new entity. And, to be able to partner up with Jason ... how much better could you get?"
"We will serve flavor-sophisticated, multiculturally influenced food, using techniques that we like the best to intensify flavors based on what's available to us at the best time," [Sellers] says. "The emphasis is food from the ground up. It's exciting for us to be unique among restaurants in Asheville, as well as unique among vegetarian restaurants in Asheville."
If you're having a hard time envisioning what all of that really means, you may not be alone. That's because the chef, trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, tightly intertwines his culinary creations and his life philosophies. Fortunately, Sellers is not all talk.
I. Can't. Wait.  :)