Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer vs. Bourdain part III: Descartes laughs last

This post was meant to be written at least a couple of months ago. However, I got busy. And once my blogging routine gets sufficiently messed up, it takes me a bit of work to get back on track. This post is only loosely connected to the debate between JSF and Bourdain, mostly it follows up on the previous posts in this series (see here and here).

Descartes somewhat famously declared that animals were machines. Nowadays, people either spend their time rolling their eyes at that pronouncement, or contending that he meant something a little less fanciful by his arguments. At the same time that philosophically and culturally there seems to be little success in Descartes' arguments about animals as machines, there has increasingly been a movement toward treating animals exactly as if they were machines. If you look at this brief article about a debate between a Cornell food science professor and a member of the HSUS (h/t Not only does it continue to highlight the absurd anti-rationalism of speciesists, but it also shows the way that a certain logic of animal as machine has continued to today. And it shouldn't come as a surprise to see a Cornell food science prof be so absurd.* Regenstein (the food science prof) argued that:

“His [Balk’s] argument is very well put together, but violated rational thinking, as the Humane Society is a vegetarian organization committed to eliminating animal agriculture,” Regenstein said.

He added that he believed the HSUS only references studies that support its own agenda.

In other words, rather than actually refuting the studies made by Balk, he argues implicit bias and automatically assumes anyone working toward eliminating animal agriculture violates rational thinking. Talk about putting the cart in front of the horse (or the slaughterhouse in front of the cow). However, the real problem emerges with this exchange:

“Each hen laying eggs for Cornell is given less space than a single piece of paper to live for her entire life,” Balk said. “These birds are crammed so tightly in small wire cages that they cannot even spread their wings.”

To this, Regenstein responded that Balk was appealing to anthropomorphic expectations.

“Birds don’t think like us; birds don’t function like us. They react to different things. If there is a thunderstorm, egg production decreases. If you wear red and walk around the hens, egg production decreases. When you put hens in cages, production increases,” Regenstein said.

Now, maybe you are thinking we aren't all that different from chickens anyway, after all if you change the thickness of which you are reviewing an application on, it seems to change how you feel about the application. Or any other weird insight into the ways humans process the world around us (or conversly, any of the weird ways that the world around us process us. We are all benommen [captive] to the world, Heidegger has this wrong. But there is something even more profound that I want to point out.

Regenstein believes that the best way to point out that chickens are different from humans is to go immediately to the questions of production, rather than ethics. That is, the best way to handle this question to shift the focus from ethical questions of the boundary line between humans and other animals, and the ways we should treat each other, to questions about how to think of the animal as a series of inputs that can be manipulated to change outputs. In other words, animal science has doubled down on Cartesianism, they are firmly committed to the idea of animals as machines. Anyone who has spent time reading the trade magazines and academic journals of animal sciences and animal businesses knows this truth. If you want to skip that step, may I refer you to Jim Mason's and Peter Singer's book, Animal Factories. Animals are transformed from living, individual creatures into black boxes whose importance is as a converting machine. How do we convert feed into eggs, into milk, into flesh? (The feed question is also important. One of the historical shifts of America into a factory farming system from a more classical European system of farming animals came from a need to extract value from the overproduction of corn by converting that corn into animal flesh for selling and shipping). Here is another quotation (taken from Animal Factories):

Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatments like you would lubrication. Breeding season like the first step in an assembly line. And marketing like the delivery of finished goods. - J. Byrnes, "Raising Pigs by the Calendar at Maplewood Farm," Hog Farm Management, September 1976, p. 30.

In this sense, even a mild proposal of switching to cage free eggs is treated as the height of irrationality, because it opposes the pure economic rationality of production that dominates animal sciences. Even the most mild of criticisms of the ways that animals are treated are responded to with extreme denunciations. This is because while Descartes' view that animals are machines has become an absurdity to most of us, it is also the practical reality with the way humans treat the vast majority of animals under our 'care'.

* Weird note about Cornell and their food science. My fiance use to be a student at Cornell, and I spent a lot of time on their campus. It just so happens that one of the best vegan burritos I have ever had were made in the cafe in the lobby of the Mann Library, their agriculture and food library. Well, that means and I would go and eat these awesome vegan burritos, and then go work in the library. When I was bored or blocked, I would walk around and look at the journals, the books, etc. This is actually what shifted my dissertation from a purely theoretical and history of philosophy dissertation into one that gets into the practical genealogy of our relationship to the animals we raise, kill, and consume. It also led to a goldmine of archival work. Cornell agriculture and animal/food sciences is crazy. They have this cow they have created a hole in her body so that you can look inside the living cow and see inside it. They are all into hardcore all the factory farming and genetically engineering of animals. They also, as animal sciences in this country generally, have a long-ago strong connection to the American eugenics movement. The stuff you learn because of awesome vegan burritos. Never pass up the opportunity to eat awesome vegan burritos.