It has been a while since I posted anything on here but this evening I had an experience that pushed me to a desire to write and so I’m going with it. I have been in North Carolina for nearly a year, and this post will have nothing to do with Malawi – or at least not overtly.
Tonight, I am going to talk about shit, and death, and meat… and how these things are vital to a humble understanding of our existence. In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sabine tells Tomas that she likes him because he is the opposite of Kitsch. When pushed, she explains that kitsch is the absence of shit, or a world in which the existence of shit is denied. The talks about communist parades filled with shiny smiling little girls and flags waving, confetti and unbearably cheerful music; a world that is falsely clean, a world that denies the existence of desire, pain, or death. She is horrified by kitsch, and her idea of hell would be to live in a world filled with cheerful propaganda music and parades forever.
I was reminded of this passage of by a discussion I witnessed tonight on animal slaughter and responsible meat consumption. This evening some of my fellow soil science grad students and I went to a discussion group at the neighboring university on food systems. The topic being presented was on Feminism and Meat. We were fairly unaware of the topic before arriving, but mostly we were treated to a great dose of culture shock, as five scientists walked into a room of philosophers, theorists, theologians and folklorists. The topic was presented by a feminist who strongly believed that meat can be part of a feminist, wholistic, world as long as the animals in question were treated with respect, given a humane life and humane death. The difficulty she was having was that the small local farmers she was buying meat from were having a hard time finding slaughter houses that were capable of granting to these animals the graceful painless death they would wish. This brief polemic was followed up by a long discussion on the ability for animals to feel anxiety, whether humans ought to use animals for our own gain, a mention of “veganic” farming – in which animals are excluded from the model in terms of manure requirements (save for some passing wildlife), and the spiritual aspects of meat or non-meat consumption, as well as a not-insignificant discussion on what to feed one’s (carnivorous) pets. There was one comment that seemed to come far from left field in which a theologian talked about a painting she had seen of the holy family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, walking down the road, but the point of view of the artist was from inside a butcher shop, thus framing the trio in depictions of animal carcases. And while the discussion passed by fairly quickly after this, I really would like to return to this idea of the animal carcase and the holy family… and kitsch.
So often our memories weave together the past as pure, clean and beautiful. We forget that it was filled with dead animals and shit. That if Jesus was born in a “manger”, he was born into shit. That our eating requires other organisms to die – be they plant, animal or fungus, in order for us to live. Before that delicious steak was cut, it was part of a dead animal, and after I eat it, it will become shit. Affluent western society, and the (urban/suburban) US especially, has embraced a food system of kitsch, in which “meat” is somehow different from a dead animal, and shit is nowhere to be seen. I am purposely avoiding euphemisms such as “manure” “effluent” “waste” and “litter” because I am surrounded by them in soil science constantly. So much of soil science is the study of shit. We are left with the task of dealing with the shit, that has been divorced from our food. Lagoons of hog urine and waste, barns of dairy manure and chicken litter, all must be dealt with on a regular basis. Our food stinks. It always has and it always will. (Unless PETA succeeds in creating fake meat in a lab – then the kitschy people win!!) It is not a bad thing. We stink. The problem becomes that want it both ways, we want the steak to be separate from animals, from death, from shit. But it can’t be. We are animals, we will become dead animals.
So, getting back to the philosophical, theological feminist discussion about meat consumption, I propose two logical options, neither of which are the mainstream option. One can either embrace the kitsch, or embrace the shit. If one has no stomach for the death, and the shit, it makes sense to be vegan. I however, try to embrace the shit; to consume meat in full awareness of the living, breathing, shitting, dying animal that was, that I am, that I commune with upon consuming, to understand the debt of my life. And live in an attempt to fulfill it.