Factory Farming and the Forgotten ‘Animal’

            During the past two centuries and with great acceleration in the past two to three decades, there has been a significant transformation in the relation between people and what we call ‘the animal’ (Derrida 393). While practically all farms were family farms only two generations ago, these traditional forms of agriculture have been turned upside down by the development of biological, zoological, ethological, and genetic forms of knowledge and intervention that culminated in the rise of the factory farm (394). The agricultural system now operates at a demographic level that was unheard of in the past and is able to do so because of genetic manipulation, artificial insemination and industrialization of the ‘meat production’ (394). However, the ‘success’ of this unprecedented production is only possible because of a similarly unprecedented subjection of ‘the animal’. The aim of this essay is to shed a light on the way this subjection is maintained by creating distance between the human and the non- human animal, both literally and through language.
            The subjection of the ‘animal’ can be called “violence in the most morally neutral sense of the term” (Derrida 394). Almost all non-human animals, often thousands per farm, live their short lives in confinement, do not see any natural light, get fed unnatural food, often suffer from multiple bodily defects due to genetic manipulation and ultimately die a violent death (Mitchell 38). Moreover, everyone knows that this is what ‘animal production’ has become. Contemporary industrial societies tolerate factory farms even though they go against commonly held cultural values such as the extension of basic rights to social categories, concern for the environment and a demand for decent treatment of ‘animals’ (Novek 140). When it comes to individual people, although factory farming does arouse some moral uneasiness and conflicted feelings, the majority of the human population explicitly or implicitly gives their consent to the system by continuing to buy and consume its products (Novek 130; Stibbe, “Language” 3).
            Any account of how this incongruity might be explained is likely going to be complex, with contributing factors such as tradition, culture and commerce (Mitchell 39). It is clear however, that behaving indifferently towards the fate of non-human animals in factory farms involves a monumental effort to forget. Jacques Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am (Following), stated that we cannot deny that people do all they can to hide the cruelty in factory farming from themselves in order to “organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence” (394). It is not only a forgetting of the fact that the non- human animal died, but a forgetting of the entire system (Foer 115) and I would like to argue that this is mostly accomplished by creating distance, both literally and through language.
            One of the most significant changes in agriculture is that the production has moved out of pastures and barnyards and into “specially designed differentiated and segregated units” (Novek 127). This means that the treatment of the farmed non-humans does not take place transparently but “at distance”, behind closed doors and in locations shielded from the public eye (124). Pigs for example used to be raised in pastures or feedlots with access to shelter, and only sows in the farrowing process were confined indoors. However, raising pigs outside meant that piglets could only be farrowed during the warmer months, which proved a significant obstacle to large scale farming (125). Indoor ‘pig production’ was promoted as a solution, but to be able to do so the industry had to overcome nature: it had to concoct non-pasture food with enough nutrition (125). For this and other problems (such as ‘overlaying’ and high labour costs) the industry found solutions by means of technology, industrialization and confinement (125), which resulted in economic success but also in the disappearance of farmed non-humans from both our landscapes and our vision.
            Moreover, distance is not only created because animals are moved into closed structures, the entire ‘operation’ is moved further and further away from the main centres of human habitation (Mitchell 48). Factory farming is a potent industry that continues to expand, but citizens object to the odour, the noise, and the environmental pollution that come with the buildings and therefore do not want to live in close proximity to them (137). A solution that is often supported by both provincial and municipal authorities consists of laws that require certain separation distances between factory farms and population centres. While this temporarily resolves conflicts over land, it also works to weaken the moral connection to the non-human animals that are housed in these “distant enclosures” (138). At this point the majority of the human population has little to no contact with living farmed non-humans anymore (Mitchell 48). Their relationship has become one of distance: the only contact humans have with ‘livestock’ is on their dinner plate (Stibbe, “Discursive Relationship” 376).
            The lack of exposure to farmed non-humans makes it much easier to forget about how our actions could influence their treatment (Foer 53). The problem posed by the factory farm has been made abstract: there are no individual animals, “no singular looks of joy or suffering, no wagging tails, and no screams” (53). This deindividuation is apparent within the factory farms themselves, where the ‘animals’ are not named but treated as stock, units or replacements
(Mitchell 51), but perhaps even more so in supermarkets where you only find uniform, processed and portion-controlled products that appear disembodied and isolated from any real place or agricultural context (Novek 136). These packaged parts bear practically no relationship to any identifiable non-human animal.
            In the supermarket everything that reminds us of the non-human animals as living beings has disappeared, and this tendency to efface and forget them - their form, their singular life and their killing - is also pervasive in our language. The discourse of factory farming uses linguistic practices that consistently represent non-human animals as objects and resources instead of unique individuals, while simultaneously making us forget the violence that is hidden behind these words (Croney and Reynnells 387; Foer 40, 96). According to Wendy Doniger there is no practice so adapt at making ‘the animal’ vanish as the categories and words we have “herded them into”, and she might be right given that language does not just represent the world, but signifies, constitutes and constructs it in meaning (348; Fairclough 64). This construction of meaning establishes orders of truth and of what becomes accepted as normal in a given society (Glenn 64). When it comes to non-human animals then, language is not responsible for violence per se, but it does help maintain their oppression in large scale ‘animal production’ (Smith- Harris 12).
            The violence towards non-human animals inherent to the language we use starts with the very word ‘animal’, which is something Jacques Derrida has given a lot of thought to. According to him, whenever someone says: “the animal”, one has already started enclosing him or her in a cage (402). It is a confinement of all living things that humans do not recognize as their fellows in a general singular, completely forgoing the heterogeneous multiplicity that is on the other side of the implied human/animal divide (416). When speaking of ‘the animal’, all diversity is effaced, even sexuality is left undifferentiated or neutralized (408). Interestingly, even though not all philosophers agree on the definition of the limit separating the human from ‘the animal’, apart from Derrida they have all agreed that there is a limit with on the one side humans and on the other an immense group: “a single and fundamentally homogeneous set that one has the right [...] to mark as opposite, that of the Animal in general” (415), which applies to the entire ‘animal realm’.
            Furthermore, ‘animal’ is a word and appellation that humans have given themselves the authority to give while at the same time also reserving this right to themselves because language is the very thing that ‘the animals’ in question are deprived of, rendering them seemingly unable to respond (Derrida 392, 400). This wrong has serious consequences and was committed a long time ago. Derrida recalls that in the very beginning, namely in Genesis (the second narrative),
            God blessed Adam and told him to “have authority over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens, over every living thing that moves on the earth” (The Bible, Gen. 1:26-28). And then, even though Adam came into the world after ‘the animals’, God lets him see, call and name them, while the ‘animals’ themselves were not able to do any of those things. This is quite significant, as it shows that there is a prehistory or a-priori knowledge that humans use to conceptualize the non-human animal as other. It is a long-standing history that goes back to what Derrida calls depuis le temps: the beginning of time (370). This to him is symptomatic of a certain state, whose traits still appear in every (Western) discourse concerning the non-human animal in which they are named, deindividualized and ultimately forgotten (413).
            The semantic classification of ‘the animal’ contributes to oppression by producing an “outgroup social psychology” (Shapiro 671). As Lawrence puts it: “If there are no differences among members of a group, their value and importance are greatly diminished, making it easier to justify their exploitation and destruction” (Lawrence 180). This distances and prevents us from seeing animal suffering just as much as increasing the literal space between factory farms and population centres does. These same forces are at work in the way humans speak about farmed non-human deaths: while animals are slaughtered, humans are murdered (Croney and Reynnells 389; Stibbe, “Language” 7) and while deceased humans are translated into ‘bodies’ or ‘persons’, farmed non-humans are translated into pounds or tons of meat (Despret 82). There are numbers upon numbers calculated with the utmost meticulousness. Each month, statisticians calculate the death toll of non-human animals in factory farms broken down by month, state and weight in order to study, project and celebrate them (Foer 72). In the end, “the production of data takes the place of thought” (Jocelyne Porcher qtd. in Despret 85): speaking about animals in this way prevents thinking and promotes forgetting (85).
            What is at work here is not only a desingularization that haunts ‘the animal’ in both life and death, but also a deanimalization: the transformation of the dead non-human animal into something that no longer recalls its origin (Despret 83). One of the most striking examples of this is the usage of euphemisms such as ‘beef’, ‘pork’, ‘veal’ and ‘poultry’ to designate flesh from cows, pigs, calves and different types of birds (Glenn 69). It is an obvious discursive move that eliminates the “beingness” and subjectivity of non-human animals and replaces it with a word that changes a subject into an object for consumption (69). Other common euphemisms are ‘processing’, ‘harvesting’ and ‘euthanasia’ to replace more explicit words for killing or slaughter (Croney and Reynnells 389; Dunayer 137). Similarly, ‘slaughterhouse’ is often exchanged for ‘meat plant’ (Mitchell 50) and ‘livestock industry’ for ‘animal agriculture’ (Glenn 68).
            Moreover, many scholars conclude that using deindividualizing and deanimalizing language is a deliberate technique to manipulate public perceptions (Croney and Reynnells 389). Besides euphemisms, that are a wide variety of other techniques that are commonly used within the industry’s discursive practices and they are often herded under the umbrella term ‘doublespeak’: intentionally misleading language that is ambiguous or disingenuous (389). Doublespeak within this particular industry includes, but is not limited to: the selective usage of pronouns (the common way of referring to animals as ‘it’ rather than ‘him’ or ‘her’) (Stibbe, “Language” 9); technical jargon (15); metonymy (portraying animals in terms of what they will be used for, such as ‘dairy calf’, ‘broiler chicken’ and ‘wool sheep’) (Mitchell 51); abstraction; metaphors (Glenn 68); idioms (Smith-Harris 12); discourse of resources (referring to non- human animals as ‘product’, ‘batch’ and ‘livestock’) (Stibbe, “Language” 14); and even punctuation (12). Whether or not the ‘animal industries’ always deliberately use these techniques to obfuscate certain aspects of the ‘production’, it is clear that referring the non- human animals as ‘it’ and using words like ‘veal’ helps us forget that we are talking about living, breathing, sentient beings.
            Considering both the literal and linguistic distancing that is apparent in our practices concerning farmed non-humans, it might not be an exaggeration to acknowledge that our practices are practices of forgetting (Doniger 84). Reducing this created distance might have dramatic effects on people’s engagement with non-humans in factory farms. One powerful example is the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in which a little over two thousand ‘farm animals’ were recorded as sick, but more than six million were eventually killed to prevent the disease from spreading (Mitchell 49). During the ‘cull’ there was continuous news coverage that confronted people with the events and their gruesome details. As a result, almost half a million of the non-humans that were killed have been buried at a memorial site in Cumbria (49). While these ‘visible’ non-human animals were given a plaque of remembrance, no such thing was awarded to the more than twenty-six million sheep, pigs and cows that died in factory farms at the same time (49). In a similar vein, one of the calves that miraculously survived the ‘cull’ and therefore got wide-spread media attention was given a name (Phoenix) and ultimately also permission to live (52), while many deindividualized nameless calves died in the food-chain.
            To be able to see a non-human animal as an individual, as something other than “an object enframed by human desires” is quite powerful (Broglios 243) and this also pertains to language. Becoming aware of and careful with metaphors, euphemisms and other linguistic practices that help forget ‘the animal’ is a simple yet important step towards making oppression visible and not partaking in the symbolic justification of that oppression (Smith-Harris 15). We might for example try to relanguage the objectified non-human animals as subjects and rephrase sterile-sounding practices related to our treatment of them (Glenn 76). Several ways to do so are by speaking about dead non-humans as ‘deceased’ instead of slaughtered (Despret 86), by using pronouns and by changing ‘non-human animals that’ to ‘non-human animals who’ to resist the tendency to objectify (Glenn 77). Another step is to resist terms that only point to the purpose of the non-human animal for humans such as ‘veal’, ‘beef’ or ‘broiler’ and to be mindful of idioms, syntax and punctuation, because language at all levels can contribute to oppression (Stibbe, “Language” 17).
            Finally, we might even try to move beyond the human/animal binary. One relatively simple way to do so is to start using ‘non-human animal’ instead of ‘animal’ (Glenn 77), however Derrida has taken it one step further by forging an entirely new, chimerical word: l’animot (409). L’animot is the resourceful combination of the French word for ‘animal’ and the French word for ‘words’ and sounds like the plural of ‘animals’ (animaux) (409). This new invention does not signify a species, gender or individual but rather an “irreducible living multiplicity of living things” that cannot be homogenized, except by enclosing ‘it’ within the category of ‘the animal’ (409). It is not about ignoring or effacing the differences between humans and non-human animals, but about reminding us that non-human animals are many and varied (415). Moreover, the suffix mot indicates that we cannot escape the fact that our knowledge and perspectives are based in the human experience which is largely depended on language (416). Thus, although language and naming have done violence in the past, it also has to be the way to stop forgetting the non-human animals.
            L’animot or the animot connects ‘the animal’ with the human and this - not necessarily this word, but certainly this practice of reducing the distance - is a powerful way to stop forgetting and start seeing the non-human animal again. It might not be easy: there is a certain calmness to never being confronted with farmed non-humans and speaking about them in desingularizing and deanimalizing terms. When we truly make an effort to ‘see’ the non-human animals in factory farms it might feel like “an apocalypse” as Derrida has put it (381). Nevertheless, it is a very necessary apocalypse, an opportunity to rectify a wrong that has been prevalent for a long time, maybe even since the beginning of time, and that has accelerated over the past two to three decades. When we literally and/or linguistically turn our backs on non- human animals as we have been doing, we risk forgetting them and I believe it is about time to start remembering.

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