Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

93: Carol J. Adams part III:
From the Belly of Zeus; Bearing the Vegetarian Word

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In the objectification of consumption though language it is truth that is hidden through symbolic thinking. There are several characteristics of English that are used to contribute to the dominant cultural oppression of animals. 1) English is male centric: “he” refers to all people and specifically men. 2) Human centric: “it” refers to objects including most animals. 3) Reality distorting similes: sly as a fox. (Q1)

         Additionally our Judao-Christian and scientific traditions have often emphasized men’s dominion over women and animals based on God’s command (Eve and the serpent were the guilty parties to our fall) or our “higher” reasoning capabilities (with terms like hysterical women and dumb animals). The results are physical: zoos, lab, circuses, slaughterhouses, meat markets; and spiritual: a linguistic blindness that provides emotional protection and a personal distance that prevents us from a personal connection with animals at meal times. “Meat becomes a symbol for what is not seen but is always there – patriarchal control of animals and of language.” We also hide the truth through adjectives that soften the deed through false naming (humane slaughter). Hunters often give the pronoun “she” to the soon to be vanquished or killed animals – even with male animals. (Q2)

         One tool to counter this influence of language is to think literally. “Part of the battle of being heard as a vegetarian is being heard about literal matters in a society that favors symbolic thinking.” “The statement ‘meat is fragments of dead, butchered animals’,…speaks the literal truth and calls one away from symbolic thinking.” As an example, consider the reaction children when they learn that an animal they have known will be killed for food. Children often understand literally. Their reaction is indicative of the child’s inculcation into patriarchal culture. However it is still an uphill battle because the dominant culture mutes the voices of non-dominant culture. “Muted groups must mediate their beliefs through the allowable forms of dominant structures.” Some new mediations, or new namings starting from existing structures are: 1) “vegetarian” now renamed vegan to counter dominate intrusions. 2) The notion of “animalized protein” and “feminized protein” which re-insert the absent referent. 3) Recognizing a historical evolution of consumption: 1st stage: gathering, 2nd stage implemental use of tools for hunting, 3rd stage eating domesticated animals and 4th stage: the total separation of food production from consumption in the form of factory farms. (Q3)

         These new terms help but there are still a range of subtle barriers separating those that hear the vegetarian message and those who do not. These barriers are supported by political and cultural forces. Among these are the time and place that actions speak: the dinner table. Vegetarian arguments make meat eaters: feel like they will take away the fun of eating and feel defensive by for example equating plant and animal suffering.

         The most important force blinding non-vegetarians is the expected ‘story or meat’. Narratives and meals move forward towards an end. By the time the story ends we should have a resolution and meaning; by the time the meal ends we should be full and alive and the animal’s life has been given meaning that we literally feel good about. The story of meat gives meaning to the existence of animals in a way that literally gives their life for ours. “Meat eaters must assume the role of literary critic, attempting to impose a positive interpretation on what they know to be a tragedy (the tragedy of killing animals), but which they see as a necessary tragedy. They do so by manipulating language and meaning creating a story that subjugates animals’ lives to human needs….We accept meat eating as consumers because this role is continuous with our role of consumers of completed stories.” (Q4)

         Vegetarians and feminist challenge and destabilize the story of meat – a most unwelcomed and rude challenge in polite company. Vegetarians seek to show the agency of the consumer in the fate of animals; feminists show how traditional narratives are arbitrary patriarchal constructions to create a myth of the male hero and the quality of female passivity: women and meat are objects to be pursued, subdued and consumed.

         From the Belly of Zeus

         The myth of Zeus and Metis, in which Zeus pursues, subdues and consumes the Titaness Metis is a model for what often happens to women’s literary texts especially with regard to the meaning of vegetarianism in their novels. The author lists many texts written by women with a vegetarian element that has been total subverted. This subversion can happen in 4 ways: 1) by ignoring it, 2) by not giving it context, 3) by deeming it trivial or 4) by reinterpreting within the discourse of meat. (Q5) “Dismemberment of vegetarianism in literary criticism follows the objectification/fragmentation/consumption model….First, the text is objectified, held open to scrutiny, reduced to some essential aspects of itself. Then the text is fragmented from itself and its context; this is dismemberment. Once dismembered, the text can be consumed as though it is saying nothing new, nothing that undercuts the patriarchal model of consumption that has obliterated alternative meaning.” This process model’s outcome is common to both women’s texts and animals. Additionally, the feminist desire to preserve the whole text is the same desire of a vegetarian to whole animal: a challenge to patriarchal authority.

Q1 Does the grammatical structure of English really support or enhance oppression?

Q2 Is polite or symbolic language really a tool of oppression?

Q3 Is renaming or simply re-inserting the absent referent enough to change minds?

Q4 How does this notion of the ‘story of meat’ strike you?

Q5 Are you familiar with any stories that have a vegetarian character? Why is the character vegetarian? What is the sense and significance for the story of a vegetarian character?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren