This article1 argues that we consume symbolism (involving murders). Red meats symbolize violence and male domination of the world, white meats are less prestigious, etc.
The French are eating less red meat
Over the last few decades, people have become increasingly sensitive towards animals in general. Slowly but surely, many behaviours are beginning to change, particularly with regard to meat consumption. But as we will see, this unfortunately hasn’t translated into any kind of improvement for the vast majority of animals2.
In French society, meat has always been considered the finest of foods; it keeps us strong and healthy and no decent meal could possibly do without it (even the French word for meat, viande, comes from the Latin vivanda, meaning all food, literally “that which makes us live”). And real meat – the proper, masculine sort – has always been, symbolically at least, red meat and red meat only.
Yet over the past decade, red meat consumption has stopped rising and in some cases, fallen: “Steak consumption in decline: consumption of meat and in particular, beef, has been stagnating for the past three years.”3 So much so that those in the beef sector, which has launched massive, all-out advertising campaigns in France, are worried. In the early 1990s, the CIV (a French organisation made up of professionals representing the meat industry) distributed little leaflets for children, featuring a Popeye comic strip and puzzles, etc., proclaiming that “more iron means more muscle”, as well as flyers entitled “High-quality European beef: our heritage provides strong foundations for life”. These publicity materials were widely distributed in French trains, doctors’ surgeries, etc. Other advertising campaigns created by the CIV (“Meat: a natural source of iron”) appeared in TV Mag, Science & Vie and probably many other journals and newspapers. All of them, no matter what segment of the population they targeted, highlighted the nutritional benefits of eating meat.
Why red meat?
Traditionally, our society has separated animal flesh into four categories: game, red meat, white meat and fish. The flesh of certain animals – pigs, snails, frogs and crustaceans, etc. – have a different status and therefore escape this classification system but I will not go into more detail about that here.
Those that are included in the four categories occupy different positions in a hierarchy and each is symbolic of something different, just like each of the animals that unwillingly provide the goods.
Game comes from certain types of wild animals (in particular, wild boar) and is said to be very “strong” with a potent, “wild” taste. These are very virile connotations4.
Red meat is essentially any flesh from a large, land-based mammal, whether domesticated (cattle, horses) or wild. These animals generally symbolise strength (as indicated by French advertisements from the 1990s such as “What punch beef packs!”) as well as nobility and masculinity. In almost all civilisations, men are the ones that rear these animals and kill them.
Red meat and game (both blood-coloured) are the types of animal flesh that generate the strongest feeling of domination. This is firstly because of their colour, which reminds us of the violence required to obtain them, and secondly because the animals that pay the price are precisely those that humans (and in particular, men) most easily identify with: animals that are wild and free or large and imposing. Whenever consumers are disgusted by the feeling of domination or the violence evoked by meat, their focus turns straight to game and red meat – particularly the latter, given that consumption of game tends to be negligible.
White meat (which includes poultry, rabbit and veal – though veal is not naturally this colour) is the flesh of small or young animals, which are generally associated with women. In fact, poultry is one of the main metaphors for anything female5. In Ancient Greece and other civilisations (including our own, in many ways), rearing and eating the flesh of any animals other than poultry, rabbits and occasionally goats were not traditionally considered to be practices for women6. These white meats are less symbolic of domination, not only because their colour does not make us think of blood, but also because the animals they come from, which are smaller, cheaper (and therefore more common) and pose less of a threat to humans when taken to slaughter, are considered to have a lesser value.
The flesh that comes from fish is barely associated with violence at all, and does little to reinforce a sense of domination/validation for those who eat it, except – and even then to a lesser extent – in the case of carnivorous fish. These include predators such as pike, salmon (with its pink flesh), trout, shark and swordfish. This applies to such an extent that often, people who have stopped eating other types of meat continue to eat fish, as if these creatures did not have to experience the same oppression, suffering and death as warm-blooded land animals.
A side note on fish
I would like to digress somewhat here to talk about the separate status given to fish, which also provides a better insight into the feelings associated with domination. I believe that we are making progress in our understanding by acknowledging that we don’t know anything about fish, their lives and their environment. We rarely get to see them in their natural habitat, we never hear them scream, we have no way of communicating with them (as far as we can tell) and therefore cannot accord them the status of subject or interlocutor (even if only in our imaginations). Fish are always objects in terms of our representations of them and the feelings we have towards them. They are utterly different from us. They “have no resemblance to us, no society; they are completely foreign to us and cannot serve us or be useful in any way during their lives. No sooner are they out of the water than they die all by themselves… if we take what remains of their lives they do not scream… and the little blood they shed is not enough to make us pity them.”7
Therefore, symbolically, fish are not slaughtered but merely harvested (“their death itself is passive and requires very little intervention on the part of humans, stripping away any notion of a sacrificial act”)8. In the human imagination, fish are too foreign for murdering them to provide any real sense of domination. This is because domination implies a sense of proximity, a relationship and a common destiny, all necessary prerequisites for the difference created by the act of domination: the other is made inferior, devalued by the act of violence, while the individual that kills/eats becomes more superior, different, distinguished and valued. This is certainly what happens when we kill warm-blooded land animals, which – unlike fish – are capable of trying to escape, showing fear, putting up a fight.
Fish, therefore, can hardly be classified as a noble food. At one time, Lent was not a positive experience, to say the least. The disappointment of eating only fish was a popular theme, as evidenced by “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”, for example9. And this is not only because procuring food was more problematic in those days than it is now. On non-fasting days, fish, which was sold pickled or smoked at the market, was food for poor people. On fasting days, the rich and powerful bought live fish (for the freshness or so that they could kill the fish themselves?) or tried to dodge religious prohibitions by eating “aquatic animals”, including water birds (ducks), frogs, turtles, and even beavers(!)10. All in all, very little fish was eaten outside of Lent and fasting days11.
Even in Ancient Greece, fish, while very popular, was not considered to be meat. This appears to have remained the case throughout antiquity and: “it was only really once Christianity became established that fishing began to develop as an industry. Where the profession had once been considered worthless, left in the hands of slaves, the need to meet demand on fasting days made it a necessary occupation.”12
Necessary perhaps, but not particularly prestigious. Unlike hunting, fishing towards the end of the Middle Ages “was considered to be more of an activity to generate income more than anything else (net fishing in rivers and periodic emptying of ponds) which, if practised by the landowners who had the monopoly over fish supplies, would have constituted a degradation of status13.” Hunting, on the other hand, was something the same landowners expressly wanted to keep for themselves. They believed it elevated their status, set them apart; it was seen as a symbol of domination over other animals, one’s land and other humans.
This short history and my own brief analysis illustrate a point that might not otherwise appear to make any sense: those who stop eating or choose not to eat meat usually reject red meat first and foremost, followed in some cases by white meat, then finally (but not always), fish. This is especially the case when their refusal is founded on disgust (i.e. based on something that is both unspoken and unconscious, which in our current social environment, we often prefer to keep that way)14.
The feelings evoked by violence (and in particular by the sight of blood) and the feelings evoked by domination are very closely linked. They are not, however, the same thing and it is not clear whether, when our peers stop eating red meat, they are actually reacting against the domination imposed upon other animals. But I think it is highly likely that they are reacting against the spectacle of violence, which they see as unacceptable in itself. It is therefore a concern for their own emotional wellbeing – rather than the interests of non-humans – that motivates them.
How to avoid the spectacle of violence and death…
Nowadays, cruelty, the pleasure that comes from the annihilation and the suffering of others, and the sense of satisfaction that our physical superiority gives us, are all subject to strict social control and anchored in the organisation of the modern state. All of these forms of pleasure, which exist in our age to offset the threat of unhappiness, are only externalised in roundabout or refined ways – which are essentially the same thing… Life in medieval society led people to adopt the opposite attitude: pillage, conflict, animal hunts and manhunts were all necessary for survival and were embedded in the very structures of society. And it was not uncommon for the strong and the powerful to count these among life’s pleasures.15
One of the characteristics of social relationships under capitalism is a tendency to replace former relationships of dependence between people (master/slave, lord/serf, husband/wife, parents/children) with more abstract ones, mediated by money, between individuals. We can no longer control others directly at whim. The power we have over them is now more circuitous, determined by how much money we have and therefore, ultimately, by our position in the social system in general.
As such, physical violence between individuals, largely stemming from relationships of personal dependence, is tending to disappear. Since the 16th century however, it has gradually been replaced by an increasing sensitivity to the bodily destruction of others: a tendency to refuse violence between individuals, whether physical or psychological.16
In fact, with the spread of capitalism and the humanist ideology/feeling associated with it, our relationship to the body as a whole (whether one’s own or another individual’s) has radically changed as part of an evolution spanning over four centuries that continues to this day. Consider the gradual disappearance of corporal punishment, torture and the death penalty in France, as well as the new attitudes that considered the body to be something private (“animal instincts”, “nature’s call”, bodily secretions, etc. are now dealt with in the private sphere). Anything in relation to the human body that could “compromise human dignity” by appearing “degrading”, “animalistic” (instinctual, for example) has ended up being rejected. This rejection is a refusal to physically attack a human, and a refusal on the part of humans to reveal their “animalistic nature”. This evolution has also had significant consequences on our sensitivity towards the bodies of other animals. In particular:
… the presentation of meat has evolved significantly from the Middle Ages to the modern era. We can learn a lot from the way in which this change has taken place: in the upper echelons of medieval society, whole animals or huge chunks of meat were served at the table. This was the most common way of serving fish, birds (sometimes with their feathers still intact), hare, lamb and veal. Large game animals, pigs and cows were spit-roasted. The animal was then cut up on the table… But over time, watching an animal being carved up began to feel painful. It was impossible to eliminate the carving process itself because animals needed to be cut up somehow if people were to eat them. But anything that offends people’s sensitivities is pushed out of sight, far from the social sphere. Specialists now take care of such tasks in their shops or kitchens… The direction this evolution has taken leaves no shadow of a doubt: while people initially considered seeing dead animals and the butchering process at the table as a positive (or at least not unpleasant) thing, humans have evolved towards a new norm dictating that we should forget, to the greatest extent possible, that a meat dish is in any way associated with a dead animal. Many of the meat dishes we eat are prepared and cut up in such a way that when we eat them, we can scarcely identify what kind of animal the meat has come from.17
… without questioning domination
Today, there is clearly a strong tendency to neutralise meat so that it does not remind us too much of the animal itself, of how it looked when it was still alive and how its body looked before being butchered. As such, we are essentially attempting to mask reality: abattoirs have been disappearing from cities over the course of the last century or so, meat looks less and less like the animal it came from, we avoid looking at photos taken at factory farms, etc.
And yet those selling meat – butchers or supermarkets – rarely miss an opportunity to remind us what meat is: photos of animals for slaughter, illustrations of animals that smile at us as we pass by, inviting us to eat them, advertising that clearly states what is being sold, and so on. The violence may be masked and the concrete nature of life and death obscured (no smells, no specific shapes, bones increasingly being removed from the meat), but these elements are always repackaged for the consumer with purely positive emotional associations, lest the consumer forget that what they are eating is no lowly vegetable but an animal! An animal that has lived (out in the open air, if we are to believe the adverts, just like a real animal!) and has been killed specially for us.
This tendency to neutralise meat has not appeared overnight, and is not without its contradictions. Even today most butchers and supermarkets do not hesitate to show off the blood-red colour of their products. The first attempts at neutralising meat, due in part to how distribution evolved to meet the demands of the market economy, proved difficult. When supermarkets first started selling meat as a self-service product (without a butcher on hand) in conditions that trivialised it and made it just like any other commodity, it was initially a failure: hang on, we’re not buying meat from a farmer in the countryside (or even a butcher) anymore, but in a neutral place where it’s just like all the other foods?
In the 1950s, the development of new films and plastics, whose characteristics made it possible to delay the decomposition of meat that was pre-cut into consumer units, represented an important step towards a new form of sale: self-service. From 1952, experiments carried out in Paris by a company called Prisunic, using meat supplied by an industrial abattoir in central France, were a failure. These experiments were replicated with a few modifications in 1956/57 and ever since, the concept has spread to [large and medium-sized shops]… As we have seen, until the end of the 19th century, meat was sold in a largely unprocessed form, often with bones intact and usually without any trimmings… At first, consumers were quite reluctant to try this [new] sales system because they felt they were being sold a “different” meat. These two different systems for selling meat still exist today: one so-called traditional system involving a vendor and a second self-service system that leaves the choice up to the consumer.18
I believe that it is, among other things, the “gratuitous” (i.e. psychologically completely superfluous) nature of the massacre that takes place to produce meat that secretly makes it so attractive. Nowhere else is the gulf between “man” and “beast” so clearly asserted, or the animal’s inferiority so clear. Because this gulf is asserted here by the difference between the consideration given to certain individuals compared to others – and the concrete difference between how each group is treated as a consequence.
We respect humans, and above all, their lives, which are deemed sacred. If, “incidentally”, we kill or mistreat them, this can only be for a “significant” reason (war, inheritance, theft, jealousy, etc.)19. If a human kills another human for pleasure or for any other reason deemed insufficient, this will be described as a “pathological case”. In this context, any “insufficient reason”, and in particular, the desire to kill for pleasure or to cause suffering, is no longer considered a reason, but madness. The murderer is then banished from society (like Bokassa, Hitler or Issei Sagawa, they are branded monstrous, inhumane) for having reduced their victim – and consequently, all humans – to the level of an animal, treating them not only like an animal, but as if they were an animal.
Because for humans, animals only exist for human use or pleasure. And meat, given that it is completely unnecessary for us20, is in itself a way of asserting this idea in practice. Not only does eating meat involve using an animal, it involves using it for our pleasure only (which is to say, “gratuitously”).
As for killing the animal, that’s another story altogether. After all, enjoyment resulting from the act of killing itself could very well develop into an enjoyment of killing humans. It could also very well lead to the murder of a human, which was once a means to an end, becoming an end in itself (sadism, cruelty). But a notion that is unique to human beings is that they may only be killed out of social or moral duty, necessity (and there are degrees of necessity) or passion (which is why premeditated murder is treated so seriously). Murder becoming a “gratuitous act” is out of the question. There’s a reason why in our society, the church and moralists have constantly exhorted their followers to refrain from cruelty towards animals. Humans must be respected; they have dignity – and benevolent paternalism is there to maintain it.
This means the enjoyment of killing animals needs to exist without creating an enjoyment of killing in general – without the act of killing becoming the source of pleasure in itself, regardless of whom we are killing. And this feeling of pleasure, which in itself is sadistic, will increasingly be rejected: murder will continue to exist, of course, but it will have to be carried out in an increasingly mechanical way, with minimal emotion.
Up until the 19th century, animals were killed in the street, at the centre of a crowd of onlookers, and the blood flowed along the pavements while everyone enjoyed the screams of agony. It was Napoleon who began to centralise these murders by creating abattoirs, then moving them to the outskirts of cities. He began this process in Paris, before introducing it everywhere else (with the exception of places in the countryside, where creating this kind of distance is impossible), on the pretext of medical –but also moral – hygiene. With the rise of humanism and the industrialisation of society in general, murder acquired a professional (and thanks to the division of labour, neutral) status, with industry professionals finding themselves isolated from the rest of the population, far from the city centres. If humans do continue to take pleasure in the murder of animals, it is only symbolically, in a more abstract way, by continuing to eat them without having to do the killing themselves.
This is what speciesist sociologist Paul Yonnet refers to when he talks about the modern sensitivities that have been a driving force for animal welfare associations:
Of the people (and there are many) who wish a thousand deaths upon bullfighters, are any vegetarian? Of course not. They all eat beef . . . The most important thing for these hypocritical carnivores is to not witness the act of killing, to take away the murder scene that displays the ecological relationship of nature, which dictates that some are dependent on others; some eat and others are eaten. Animal lovers want to have their cake and eat it too: urbanisation and division of labour mean that city-dwellers don’t actually have to breed or kill the animals they eat. Animal lovers have internalised their physical distance from the murder of animals for food, and by framing this social constraint of urban life as a voluntary conquest of human consciousness, are now demanding that it be extended to the arenas where the symbolic display of what unites us to and separates us from animals continues to subsist. . . . At the end of the day, the process animal lovers go through does not succeed in converting a single person to vegetarianism. Because it’s not about that; it’s about taking animal deaths – which have already largely been marginalised – and making them disappear completely.21
It is telling, but ultimately not particularly surprising, to see a sociologist refer to “the ecological relationship of nature” and predation in order to legitimise phenomena that are, in actual fact, very social: the appropriation and brutal domination of animals. That said, the rest of his analysis seems fair. The institution of carnage is without a doubt the central symbolic practice that demonstrates our superiority over other animals. What is it that “unites us” to animals? The fact that they can feel, that they have interests, that they are mortal. What is it that “separates us” from them? The fact that “we” (humans) eat them, that we “exercise control over them”.
Modern sensitivities challenge sadism and what it evokes (violence) more than they challenge the necessity of domination. Our contemporaries like to continue to think of themselves in a positive light.
Factory farming: when domination becomes too abstract, it has to be made tangible again
The massive scale of the killing in itself makes it a violent act. Even if farm workers abstain from any brutality, animals are still being made indiscriminate objects of a utilitarian transformation. Unlike in the sacrifices of Ancient Greece (Détienne/Vernant, 1979), factory farming does not make a show of asking each animal’s consent, which would grant it some form of social existence, taking its blood as the proof of a contract. In mass slaughter, animals are already as good as dead, their very lives eradicated by their numbers. This means that the absence of any actual violence, given that they are treated like things – “without anger and without hatred, like a butcher”, in the words of Baudelaire – seems like violence in itself. The fact that this violence is less visible only serves to make it more formidable. It is undoubtedly also for this reason that the blood spilt in abattoirs is more strongly associated with death than, for example, the blood of a pig or lamb killed for a household’s consumption. There is a huge gulf between “killing the pig” and butchering pigs one after the other. These two types of killing are not in any way the same.22
According to Noëlie Viallès, it is precisely because the “symbolic contract with the animal” is broken by mass slaughter that vain attempts are being made to salvage the contract by making murder humane23.
It is true that we are living in an age in which people prefer animals to be killed “humanely”. For a few decades now, people have also believed that meat from an animal that has been treated well will taste better: this evolution is remarkable, bearing in mind that throughout the history of our civilisation (and almost certainly others, such as those in China and Japan), the opposite has always been true: the more an animal suffered, the longer it took for it to die, the better its flesh was said to taste24. Today, animal activists place a lot of emphasis on the “toxins” a stressed, suffering, distressed or terrified animal produces, which will end up in its flesh – an argument that, incidentally, seems particularly obscene coming from people who are supposed to care about animal welfare. CEMAGREF (now IRSTEA), a French research institute for land management issues25, once noted for example that “all these observations should be taken into account to reduce the pain inflicted on animals and its consequences on the quality of meat.”
But let’s go back to that “symbolic contract with the animal”, whose disappearance has given meat-eating humans a bad conscience. It is very much a symbolic – i.e. purely formal – contract, designed solely for the conscience of the dominators. The violence being committed against animals can no longer be considered violence between individuals; “responsibility” is no longer being taken by those who have become mere consumers, distant sponsors who are ordering the killing from a distance. The relationship between murderer and victim has become frighteningly abstract (for speciesist humans but not in any way for the animals concerned).
And yet it was not so long ago that animals, which were appropriated to just as great an extent as they are today, were appropriated in a much more concrete way, on a more individual basis. Each person was responsible for slitting their own pig’s throat or ripping out the eye of their own hen and hanging it from one foot to drain its blood. Certain animals were also used for their strength as working animals, in the same way people used the bodies of other humans or their own. The proximity between humans and animals, which people now seem to be so upset about losing, was certainly greater.
This proximity gave substance and a clear symbolic significance to murder and forced people to have actual feelings about it. Today, the conditions of this murder and its upstream counterpart, “production”, make these feelings seem contradictory; the meaning of the act itself does not hit as close to home. Because battery animals now barely resemble humans at all – or, for that matter, animals. When animals are treated as mere objects, they become mere objects in our imaginations. What once gave them their appeal and value, namely their resemblance both to humans and at the same time their non-human character, has suddenly vanished – so much so that the pleasure of chewing meat is reduced to the point of disappearing. When an animal is killed under factory farming conditions, an animal that has not experienced anything that, in our imaginations, makes it a “real” animal, we no longer feel as though an animal is being killed at all; its flesh no longer has much meaning to us. If the great appeal of murder is the display of “what unites us with and separates us from” animals, the display of their devaluation by means of killing, then the modern conditions of meat production threaten to take away this motive. At the same time, these conditions make people susceptible to developing a guilty conscience, which is exacerbated by the fact that what the animals have to endure now is even worse than before.
While the pious spirits of today revolt against factory farms – without giving up their consumption of the products produced there, let alone calling speciesism into question – I believe that often, all they are doing is revolting against the loss of enjoyment they could once gain from meat and the fact that it has lost the symbolic substance it once had. And once the symbolic enjoyment has disappeared, all that remains is discomfort.
But a guilty conscience alone seldom leads people to the real question, which is that of domination. If anything, it pushes people to rediscover a sense of domination without the guilt or discomfort. This, I believe, is what is being expressed by calls for people to breed and kill animals themselves, “looking them in the eyes”. These calls – which are on people’s lips everywhere – hark back to a golden age of the past. They only aspire to restore proximity, to make domination something more tangible once again. As recently as the 1990s, at a social engineering conference on trends in food tastes among the French, one researcher declared (speaking in particular about castration methods used on roosters in Brest) that it was necessary to reconnect with tradition and barbarism (her words!) in order to win back consumer favour. The idea here is to recreate, by means of pure fantasy – for example using farming certifications – a real animal, made of blood, flesh and life, that has lived a life that corresponds to what we imagine to be traditional, a “natural” life, “harmoniously” integrated into the “natural order of things”, which the dominant members of society hold so dear.
Who, nowadays, is not against factory farming? Who would not want to return to farming on a human scale? To domination with a “human face”? The vehement (but purely verbal) opposition to concentration-camp factory farming hardly reflects any real concern for the fate of the pigs or chickens concerned. It is more a revolt against the “plundering of nature” (which these types of operations are said to represent) and against the lack of enjoyment it generates.
An evolution in sensitivity masquerading as nutrition advice
Thus the beginning of the modern era saw the emergence of a sentiment that would make it increasingly difficult for people to accept the pitiless methods that had established their status as the dominant species. On the one hand, they saw an incalculable increase in the comfort, physical well-being and welfare of human beings; on the other, they realised that other forms of life were being mercilessly exploited. This is how a gulf increasingly formed between new sensitivities and the material foundations of human society. A mix of compromise and dissimulation has made it possible up to now for humans to carry on without entirely resolving this conflict. But we will not be able to avoid it forever; there is no doubt that the question will come up again. This issue represents one of the contradictions on which, it would be fair to say, modern society rests.26
For a good decade, a major shift in food preferences has been taking place. As we have seen, for the first time in Western history, the meats that were once most valued are losing popularity (and value), with people now eating less red meat but more white meat and fish. I believe that this evolution is linked to the shift in our sensitivity to violence and our relationship to animals and domination. Yet the evolution is not explicitly expressed as such. People are not aware of this new sensitivity, justifying the shift instead with medical and dietary arguments.
… reduce your consumption of animal fats, both visible (lard, butter, cream) and hidden (fried foods, sauces, cakes, cheese and cold cuts). Replace whole milk with skimmed, fatty meats (beef) with lean meats (poultry)… Eat fish once or twice a week and fruit, vegetables and grains every day… 27
The arguments here are purely nutritional but the extent to which they follow the symbolic order of meats is striking. The fact is that for the past two centuries, medical and health arguments have taken precedence over moral, political and social arguments when it comes to justifying various evolutions in society: just as masturbation was once said to generate physical and mental pathologies, abattoirs and cemeteries were removed from the city for hygiene reasons, and so on28.
The future of meat: the “health strategy”?
The meat industry has had to rethink its strategy in light of all these new health arguments, in a bid to maintain its business if not increase it:
Of all the different aspects of meat that might have been taken into consideration, nutritional characteristics were largely neglected until quite late on. These characteristics represent a scientific domain that remains underexplored, economically underexploited and for some, offers only limited advantages.
This is a shame because the nutritional profile of meat and the problems associated with it are likely to be increasingly important in the future…
Meat… contains significant amounts of very important nutrients… Its general nutritional profile… puts it among health products. It is completely justifiable to include meats from various species in the hypocalorific products food group, as long as they are completely trimmed of fat.29
This is the kind of argument that professionals in the meat industry are working with. But if, as I suspect, the evolution of our sensitivity to violence is the hidden driving force behind these health arguments, we can assume that, at the end of the day, this propaganda will only have limited success.
What’s more, the agri-food industry is pinning all its hopes on a new, even more emotionally neutral type of meat.
We are now looking to modify the way in which meat is presented by selling consumers products created by restructuring meat (that has already been destructured) to give it a new texture and generally presenting it in a way that better fits the needs of modern consumers.30
… And so a new meat – which we might refer to as meat “of the third kind” – was recently launched onto the market. This meat is made up of pieces produced using a special technique to reconstitute destructured muscles. The aim of the destructuring process is to produce a sort of meat “ore”, i.e. a raw material that can be presented in various ways.31
Stripped of anything that might still remind us of the animal (bones, nerves, etc.), these meats are shaped into “homogeneous (i.e. unidentifiable) portions”32. We might logically conclude that these “new products”, which retain almost nothing of the meat itself other than its origin, will accentuate the contradictions in consumers’ minds even more: their “disembodied” nature, so to speak, will undoubtedly assuage feelings of disgust at first, but will also increase discomfort about meat products in general.
The results are in: there is now more death and suffering than before
The meat product industry has been experiencing a difficult period for some time now because meat no longer has quite the same image it had even in the recent past. Nevertheless, there are certain signs that this evolution is reversible, including the emergence of quality assurance processes undertaken by various parties in the sector, attempts to make meat seem less ordinary, the increase in marketing campaigns and a renewed interest in authenticity and tradition.33
The lesson we can learn from this is that the strategies currently being developed in the laboratories of the meat industry will diversify extensively to address this discomfort in different ways. Some will continue to exploit the domination strategy, with advertisements in the same vein as “What punch beef packs!”. The Swiss interprofessional association for meat, Viande Suisse, once displayed large signs featuring a piece of meat along with a caption that roughly translates as: “Don’t be a sheep. Eat one instead.” But there are other strategies that aim to create distance from the symbolic associations meat has, highlighting instead its less emotionally charged dietary characteristics. Other types of meat are also being developed that make it impossible to recognise the animal – meat that shows no trace of blood or resemblance to the body it came from. Restructured animal protein retains none of the substance that often motivates people to reject meat except, alas, the suffering and death of the individual to whom the flesh once belonged.
It is therefore possible that the number of people who turn their backs on meat, acting in the interest of their health or upon the sensitivity that dares not say its name and focuses only on symbols of violence and domination, will soon stop growing. On the one hand, this symbolism will soon become more subtle and more ethereal, less identifiable and discernible (by means of analysis or feeling) than it is today. On the other hand, my guess is that the discomfort that stems from eating meat will continue to grow and that people will become increasingly aware of it.
This should strengthen our determination to concentrate all our efforts on the ethical arguments and a general, coherent, political criticism of speciesist domination. Aside from the fact that it is the only argument that we (antispeciesists) accept34, soon it may also be the only one capable of persuading people, given that other arguments have never yielded real positive results for non-human animals.
Because let there be no mistake: from a quantitative perspective, the current situation for non-humans is getting worse – a paradoxical consequence of the unease people are now experiencing with regard to speciesist violence. “Global meat production (in tonnes) increased 71 % between 1970 and 1990. The number of animals killed rose even more significantly given that the strongest growth in demand is for small species (137 % increase in the tonnage of poultry produced).”35
People’s reactions remain centred around themselves, on their own feelings as humans – the dominant species – regardless of the reality experienced by the individuals they dominate. As red meat consumption decreases, white meat and fish consumption increases; as symbols of violence fade, violence rises. The meat from one cow can feed a human for a year, while the meat from one chicken only lasts for two days. But what consumers really care about is their own self-image: red meat seems more violent. Current developments – which for the time being are still based more on symbolism than taking into account the interests of non-human animals and the conscious rejection of domination and exploitation – are ultimately leading to an increase in the number of victims.
Yet it is probably no coincidence that the animal liberation movement emerged and began to grow (to a certain extent) when it did. The movement is the result of the contradictions with regard to other animals that have been at work for some decades and a desire to overcome these – and the discomfort that they have generated – by means of a radical examination of the situation. But this strategy of breaking with the established order is still only actively chosen by a minority. Antispeciesism has to develop modes of action that thwart our own spontaneous awareness of things, which is the awareness of the dominators: for as long as we do not break away from the framework of mental images associated with domination, for as long as we do not tackle these at their root, we run the risk of getting stuck in pathways that have nothing to do with the actual interests of animals.
I therefore believe it is important to focus on the fate of the animals that our sensitivities and imaginations have forgotten: poultry and fish. This dividing line in our collective sensitivities undoubtedly makes quick success difficult, but can enable us to highlight the contradictions at play in our society and, I hope, precipitate an increase in awareness.
Yves Bonnardel has remained an anti-speciesist activist since the early 1990s. He is also an activist for youth rights, against adult domination, and for ending the idea of nature. He is also an activist against France’s neo-colonial policy in Africa, but also against the penal system, against discrimination based on nationality, etc. He is committed to the equal consideration of the interests of all, and the reduction of suffering on this planet.
- This article by Yves Bonnardel appeared in December 1995 in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 13, under the title “La consommation de viande en France : contradictions actuelles”. It was translated into English by Holly James (proofreading: Elisabeth Lyman). It was also translated into Portuguese from Brazil by Nicolau Kouzmin-Korovaeff and published under the title “O consumo de carne na França: contradições atuais”.
- See, for example, Estiva Reus, “Vie, mort et transfiguration de la bête à viande” in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 13, December 1995.
- Marc Traverson, “La Fibre verte”, Le Point, 25 April 1992. The fact that the journalist has used steak to represent meat in general speaks volumes. Incidentally, the article is not particularly brilliant.
- Bertrand Hell, “Le sauvage consommé”, in Terrain no. 10, April 1988, pp. 74-85.
- Marina Yaguello, “La Langue du mépris” in Les mots et les femmes, Paris: Payot, 1987.
- See George Duby & Michelle Perrot (eds.), “From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints” in A History of Women in the West, Cambridge: Belknapp Press, 1994-1996, vol. 1. Women of the 18th century who were susceptible to “the vapours” were advised to drink herbal tea or chicken broth. (Philippe Perrot, Le corps féminin, XVIIIe-XIXe siècle, Seuil, 1984, p. 84). However, it was a well-known fact that men of the 19th century wanting to boost their virility or restore their health should drink cow’s blood – if possible, straight from the abattoir. We learned in the 19th century, however, that “from birth, girls do not receive the same welcome [as boys]; whether consciously or not, we neglect them. A persistent prejudice, echoed by Michelet, removes meats – especially red meats – from their diets.” (Yvonne Kniebiehler, “Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War” in History of Women in the West).
- Delamare, Traité de la police, Paris: Michel Brunet, 1719, vol. 3, cited in Laurence Bérard (see below).
- Laurence Bérard, “La consommation de poisson en France : des prescriptions alimentaires à la prépondérance de la carpe”, in Anthropozoologica, second special edition published in 1988: “L’animal dans l’alimentation humaine : les critères de choix”, proceedings of the international conference L’animal dans l’alimentation humaine : les critères de choix, Liège, 26-29 November 1986.
- A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
- “The hind legs of a beaver are webbed and some authors say its tail is covered with scales like a fish… unable to settle the debate regarding its nature [land-based or aquatic], we have cut it in half. Though the front of this animal remains meat in the eyes of the church, the hind legs and tail are considered to be similar to fish, making these parts a highly sought-after delicacy during Lent… Once again, the ruses used in practice have prevailed over the rigour of doctrine.” Bruno Laurioux, “Manger l’impur, animaux et interdits alimentaires durant le Haut Moyen-Age”, in Histoire et animal, ed. by A. Couret/F. Oge, Toulouse, 1986, pp. 79 and 87.
- Louis Stauff, Ravitaillement et alimentation en Provence aux XIVe et XVe siècles, Paris: Mouton, 1970.
- Noël de la Marinière, Histoire générale des pêches anciennes et modernes, Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1815, cited in Laurence Bérard, op. cit.
- Philippe Salvadori, “La chasse, une passion française”, in L’Histoire, no. 152, February 1992, p. 53.
- See David Olivier, “C’est horrible”, Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 6, March 1993.
- Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process, Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1982 . Translated by Edmund Jephcott. The author gives many examples of people finding joy in massacre and this being perfectly acceptable at the time.
- However, the violence of the social system itself is kept under wraps. It is an implication that is not spoken, not even felt. It applies to everyone and is impersonal. It is the violence of a situation to which we cannot assign individual responsibility or blame. It is as though the finger of blame no longer has an outlet, either psychologically (there is no longer any bad guy and therefore no longer the option to hate or get revenge) or in practical terms (no longer an option to intervene on an individual level).
- Elias, op. cit., pp. 168, 169, 173, 171 and 172.
- Jean Billault, École Supérieure des Métiers de la Viande, “L’Évolution du métier de boucher”, in L’Homme et la viande, bulletin no. 48 from La Société d’Ethnozootechnie, 1992, pp. 60, 61 and 65.
- A significant interest is a socially recognised interest. In a society based on private property, a significant interest is often related to a property claim.
- Many people know humans who do not eat meat, yet still say that it is “vital”. Maybe they think they really believe it? This is probably the result of an unacknowledged guilty conscience.
- Paul Yonnet, “La voix de son chien”, L’Express, January 19-25, 1990.
- Noëlie Viallès, Le Sang et la chair. Les abattoirs des pays de l’Adour, Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Ethnologie de France collection, 1987, p. 83.
- Viallès, op. cit., pp. 129-135.
- David Olivier, “Le goût et le meurtre”, Cahiers antispécistes no. 9, January 1994. The translation can be read on this website: “Taste and murder”
- Centre national du Machinisme Agricole, du Génie rural, des Eaux et Forêts, division Technologie de la viande, groupement de Clermont-Ferrand, bulletin no. 9, 1982, p. 99, cited in Viallès, op. cit., p. 74.
- Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, London: Penguin, 1985.
- M.-L. Moinet, “Paradoxe : nos amies les graisses”, Science et Vie, no. 932, May 1995, p. 75.
- See Norbert Elias, op. cit., and Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A history of insanity in the age of reason (New York: Random House 1965), or his voluminous History of Sexuality. Also of interest: Michel Vovelle, Mourir autrefois, Attitudes collectives devant la mort aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Paris: Gallimard/Julliard, 1974.
- Bernard Louis Dumont, of the INRA meat research laboratory, “La Gestion de la valeur nutritionnelle des viandes”, in L’Homme et la viande, bulletin no. 48 of La Société d’Ethnozootechnie, 1992, pp. 1, 6, 8 and 9.
- Bernard Louis Dumont, “Relations entre la découpe bouchère et la structure de la musculature”, in Anthropozoologica, special edition published in 1987 : “La découpe et le partage du corps à travers le temps et l’espace”, pp. 9-17.
- Billault, op cit., p. 66.
- Traditionally, horse meat has been presented in a very specific way. “No other meat has as few bones and ‘nerves’ (aponeurosis) or allusions to the body from which it derives.” Viallès, “Le jeu des découpes”, Bulletin d’Ethnozootechnie no. 48, 1992, pp. 52-53. See also, in particular, François Poplin, “Le cheval, viande honteuse” from the same bulletin, pp. 23 and 34.
- Billault, op cit., p. 65.
- Notwithstanding the argument concerning world hunger, an ethical argument we agree with. If we do not emphasise this indirect consequence of mass meat consumption in the dominant countries, this is because it’s considered off-topic.
- Reus, op cit.