Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer vs. Bourdain part II: The magical natural community of animal flesh eaters

This post follows up, in a very different way, from the earlier post on the debate between Jonathan Safran Foer and Anthony Bourdain. Both posts are ways of thinking community in the midst of a debate about eating animals.
One of Bourdain's major arguments against JSF is that eating animals is a special and unique bond, a special and unique production of community. JSF wonders if we can produce community only through eating other animals, and Bourdain basicallys says no. The example he gives is the tea party, that they probably wouldn't agree on much expect how awesome barbecuing is. Which is odd, because if he decided to say that Obama was a secret Muslim socialist fascist, he'd be able to bond over that. That is to say, community can be produced through other ways, it just depends on what ways we want to produce community, what ways we feel are ethically justifiable. Though of course, maybe Bourdain is right about the uniqueness of flesh eating in producing community.
One doesn't have to be a sacred sociologist in the tradition of Durkheim, Mauss, and Bataille (though it helps) to realize how important sacrifice is to producing community. Remember, sacred life is an ambiguous life: it is both protected and at the same time absolutely killable. It is through the sacred life that we sacrifice that we are able to produce inside and outside, us and them, lives to be protected and lives to be killed or let die. In other words, community (there is of course an entire intellectual tradition that tries to think community outside of foundational violence and separation. See Bataille, Blanchot, Nancy, Agamben, Derrida, and Esposito for some of the more important examples). How else can we possibly understand Bourdain's many incoherent arguments? Rather than trying to respond with rational arguments to JSF, Bourdain treats us to transcedentalism as why we must kill and eat animals. In one of the weirdest moments of the debate Bourdain is going on and on about magic, and about how roasting the flesh of other animals is completely magical and produces community and communion. At this point the moderator steps in and asks Bourdain if he means that it is natural, to which Bourdain readily agrees. Magic=nature=roasting and eating animals. Of course, the structure of sacrifice also equates magic with nature, both a practice of giving to the gods while at the same time producing natural divisions. This is also the way to understand Bourdain's bizarre insistence that the Christmas turkey is an everyday example of dead animals producing culture. As JSF responds, that isn't an everyday example, but rather a one day a year example. [sidenote: This always JSF's maneuver in these discussions: simply refuse to argue about the marginal cases, and insist that we give up eating animal flesh in all the instances everyone agrees that meat eating is indefensible.] This is again the logic of sacrifice, that the exceptional moment of the sacred structures the everyday as well.
Okay, on some level I am being silly here. On some level Bourdain is just speaking gibberish. But I am interested why this gibberish is instead sense to Bourdain and for many other people. I am interested in why the moderator hears one of his guests talking about magic and immediately thinks the natural. By abstaining from our cultural sacrificial rituals, I have also (to some degree) abstained from our sacrificial ritual. And I want to underline this last point, the abstaining from the ritual preceded the abstaining from the logic. This makes such a debate between JSF and Bourdain so interesting and so impossible. The ability to communicate is based in many ways upon a shared sacrificial language and logic, upon a shared community and culture. Bourdain can talk about magic and have the moderator hear the word natural, even though those words are antonyms, because they share a similar logic and language. And in that logic and language sacrificing animals is both at once supernatural and natural. What is gibberish for me living in my different culture is obvious to those within this other, border community.
What I am saying is that in a very real way, Bourdain is right, the sacrifice of animals produces an unique culture. What we have to figure out is if that is a culture we wish to be members of. Think about it this way, for any of you who have lived in the South or had discussions with certain Southerners, many people contend that the Civil War was not about slavery, but instead about conflicting culture, about trying preserve a way of life. And without a doubt, that is true. But it was a way of life, a culture, that necessitated the sacrifice of the black body through rape, murder, and enslavement. The connection between sacrifice and culture explains why Derrida included "Heidegger's Ear" -- an essay on sacrifice, friendship, and animals-- as an appendix in the French publication of The Politics of Friendship, his work on rethinking community (even sacrificing community).
This is one of the main reasons that so many people in the vegan movement have had such reaction against 'localvorism' [.pdf], or at least the pro-meat eating version of localvorism. While in many ways opposing factory farming should make us allies, and in some cases it does, when you read Michal Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, you realize that both of them are desperately worried that factory farming is destroying the sacred rituals of slaughtering other animals. In other words, the vegan movement wishes to exist from this particular logic of sacrifice, of which the factory farm system is the fullest expression of, meanwhile these particular localvores which to oppose factory farming because they feel it is destroying the sacredness of killing animals. Those of us who oppose the killing of other animals have the particular problem of working from outside the material-semiotic realities of the community that engages in sacrificing animals. These debates almost always replicate the cultural chasm between those eat animal flesh and those that don't.