Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Identity Politics of Breasts: Male Lactation and the Political Economy of Wo/Man (part 3)

PART II: Milk and the Nature of Things: Gender, Race, Class, Species
“The concealment of breastfeeding rests equally, if not more, on squeamishness relating to bodily function: the fact that food comes out of our bodies is an unsettling thought in a culture that rarely remembers food growing on trees”
--Fiona Giles Fresh Milk [*]

“Separate lexicons suggest opposite behaviors and attributes. We eat, but other animals feed. A woman is pregnant or nurses her babies; a nonhuman mammal gestates or lactates. A dead human is a corpse, a dead nonhuman a carcass or meat”
--Carol Adams “Foreword” to Animal Equality[*]

"[W]ithin Linnaeus terminology [Homo sapien], a female characteristic (the lactating mamma) ties humans to brutes, while a traditionally male characteristic (reason) marks our separation”
--Londa Shiebinger "Why Mammals are Called Mammals"[*]


Just as breasts (generally) come in pairs, so do their culturally conscripted “natures.” Londa Shiebinger writes:

the female breast ha[s] been a powerful icon within Western cultures, representing both the sublime and bestial in human nature. The grotesque, withered breasts on witches and devils represented temptations of wanton lust, sin of the flesh, and humanity fallen from paradise. The firm spherical breasts of Aphrodite, the Greek ideal, represented an overworldly beauty and virginity.[51d]
As we saw in parts one and two, female breasts may represent all that which is most beautiful and divine to humans (i.e. the virgin mother of God) while any digression from their use to titillate males (i.e. lesbian sensuality) or nurture the young (i.e. sexual feelings while nursing) may represent all that is wrong with the world.

I will argue here in section two that the function of the human breast acts as a particularly sensitive subject because it is a site that may not only contest gender identities but that which may also contest modern “white” men’s proximity to “the animal.” Just as gynecomastia, male breast cancer, and male lactation challenge presuppositions about male identity, so does the very biological function of human breasts. As Shiebinger notes, "that breasts have "long been considered less than human, yet simultaneously "more than human."[51f]

5. Interspecies suckling
Humans have been suckling other species (mostly dogs) thousands of years before they began drinking the milk of other species. Though interspecies suckling is fairly rare today, its presence in cultures around the world is much more common than many people would expect.

Women have been recorded breastfeeding animal others on every human inhabited continent throughout the ages. Most notably, Awa Guaja women (South America) have been known to kidnap baby animals from their mothers and nurse them as their own pets/children; Bishnoi women (India) suckle orphaned gazelles; certain Australian aboriginal women (Australia) suckle their dogs with equal amore as their own children; Guinean women (Papua New Guinea) suckle pigs and raise them as their own children until their husbands kidnap them for a reconciliatory slaughter; Ainu women (Japan) breastfed baby bears who were to become gods at their own slaughter; and wet nurses from the ancient and early modern Europe (France) and Middle East (Turkey)kept their milk flowing on long sea voyagers by suckling puppies.[46]


Despite the cross-cultural, transhistorical phenomenon, knowledge of interspecies suckling continue to shock, awe, and disgust people of the West. Stories of interspecies suckling have become “exotic,” sensationalizing the practices of “weird” and “odd” cultures. At Oddity Central, Spooky writes

I have no problems looking at pictures depicting animal moms breastfeeding and literally taking in babies of different species, I even find them very sweet. But for some reason, looking at these photos of women breastfeeding various animals makes me very nauseous, it’s just not natural, no matter what continent your from. [47]
While interspecies suckling among non-human animals is “sweet,” human females breastfeeding “animals” is nauseating. This is because, like male lactation, interspecies suckling between women and “animals” transgresses “natural” categories. Though Spooky may acknowledge that humans are animals, the historical construction of humans as other-than or more-than “animal” marks these relationships as monsterous, and hence disgusting—-eventhough it is unlikely Spooky considers the cheese and milk he consumes from cows “unnatural.”

So disgusting and dehumanizing, some bloggers conclude that these women only suckle the young of other species because they are "forced" to by their fragile financial situation.[47] Yet, there is much anthropological and journalistic evidence that many women enjoy and even choose to suckle the young of animals, even in societies (i.e. New Zealand) which are baffled by such practices.[46] SAM, unlike Spooky, does not have a problem with women suckling animal others in and of itself. Like DR. ROB, SAM understands the utility and perhaps sweetness of women saving the lives of animal others through nursing them; however, he, like Spooky, is very disturbed by women nursing animal other who do not need their milk for survival. For instance, he accuses a Japanese woman suckling an adult cat as “just doing it for what ever sick perversion shes got in her head.”[47]

Similarly, Charles Muede at Slog finds the practice of interspecies suckling wrong, not because of the act itself, but the sexually perverted intentionality. He writes:

The problem is not the milk but the sucking itself: We suspect that the women are getting some sort of sexual pleasure out of this seemingly innocuous (and very public) sucking and licking. Why else would they do it?… Their form of pleasure translates into our form of disgust.[48]
Charles fails to see any biological, economic, or religious reason for this interspecies relationship. For him, it is purely psychological: if it didn’t feel good, they wouldn’t do it, and if it does feel good, it must be in a sexually inappropriate way (because what other pleasure can come from female breasts?).

The sentiment of SAM and Charles was expressed most transparently in a letter to the editor of the Utne Reader after a photo of a Peruvian woman nursing a lamb was published in the magazine.

The photo mimics the innocent gesture of the mother/child images of our traditions yet it presents the perverted usage of a woman’s body to feed the appetites of an animal.[49]
Unlike some other readers, this woman interpreted the photo as a perverted parody of the sacred mother-child relationship between humans. Human mothers transmit more than just nutrients and antibodies to their children (to fulfill their appetites), they also pass on love and language (to fulfill their souls). Brian Luke further notes that others saw this human-animal bond a form of bestiality (because of the sexual nature of the breasts?), and “[o]ne lawyer who represents rape and murder victims had to tear out picture to look at magazine she was so repulsed.” Luke concludes that the “comments indicate moral evaluation, not the judgment that nursing between species cannot happen but it shouldn’t happen.”[49]

Returning to the point made in the last two posts, breasts are regarded as either for the sexual pleasure of men or the nurturing function of raising men’s children. Interspecies suckling is so baffling and disgusting because women’s breasts are not performing in either way to benefit Mankind. Interestingly, this is one case where women’s breasts are discussed as for ourselves, but this for ourselves can only be sodomistic in nature. Because of the heterosexist patriarchal discourse on breastfeeding, the nurturing of not just other human parents’ children, but of other species’ children is the ultimate promiscuity (and perhaps disloyalty). This type of nursing squanders valuable and divine resources on those who ought not be heirs to human prosperity.

Interspecies suckling is, however, more threatening than male lactation not only because it challenges both patriarchy and human supremacy, but also because it mocks the border which divides the human from the animals. According to those known as Terror Management Theorists [TMT], reminders of humans' creaturliness, their fragile mortal existence, prompt negative and conservative backlash. In one paper, “Mother’s Milk: An Existential Perspective on Negative Reactions to Breast-feeding”, Cox et al. found that after priming mortality salience in their subjects, those who were then reminded of human-animal similarities had increased hostility toward an image of a woman breastfeeding her child. In the context of hundreds of other studies that gave similar results, the authors conclude that

breast-feeding women serve as reminders of the physical, animal nature of humanity and that such recognition is threatening in the face of one's unalterable mortality.[50]
Concious of the impossibility to elide our own deaths, to control our own fate, many of us refuse to accept the humbling reality of our own animality and insignificance.

6. Farmed Animals and Femininity (dehumanization)
In light of modern Western humans' will to knowledge, power, and meaning, it is not so surprising Carol Linneaus chose to highlight humans' capacity to reason (sapien) as that which separates the men from the animals. Though reason is what makes humans an exceptioanl animal, Linneaus deliberately chose the breast as a marker of human beings' continuity with the animal kingdom. Shiebinger notes that "Linneaus created the term Mammalia in response to the question of humans’ place in nature" so that while "a female characteristic (the lactating mamma) ties humans to brutes... a traditionally male characteristic (reason) marks our separation."[51e]

Breasts, as organs of the body that function to nurse children, have been historically marked as part of a person’s Species being, a matter of her facticity, or determined nature. As popularly expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking book The Second Sex (1949), “giving birth and suckling are not activities, they are natural functions; no project is involved” (94*). Unlike transcendental projects willed by individual human consciousnesses, breasts are more often associated with the immanence of the body because of their relationship to reproduction and the perpetuation of the collective species to which women are forced into servitude. The situation of the (feminine) body even constitutes a detriment to those human projects. “Nursing is also an exhausting obligation,” she writes, as “the nursing mother feeds the newborn at the expense of her own strength” (95*).

In contrast to a male’s freedom and expression which increase with the complexity of their species, a female animal “feels her enslavement more and more keenly, the conflict between her own interests and the reproductive forces is heightened… woman is of all mammalian females at once the one who is most profoundly alienated” (26, 33). As mother, woman is “like a phase of a species… her individual and separate existence merges into universal life. Her individuality is derisively contested by generality” (184). Women, in other words, lose their autonomy and individuality when their bodies conform to their biological function, becoming subsumed into the general species. Though, many feminists may no longer share Beauvoir’s attitude toward the female body today, her attitude generally reflects the metaphysical and material prejudices of modern Western culture.

Perhaps more than people realize, the Species being of women and the construction of femininity are intricately wrapped up in cultural constructions—both material and conceptual—of farmed animals. Just as women have been subsumed by the Species within patriarchy, so have farmed animals within specieisism.

Carol Adams highlights that species is gendered, animals are feminized, and women are animalized.[52] Particularly, all members of species exploited for their feminine bodies (i.e. eggs, milk) “carry the attribute of the female of the species... unless specifically identified as male.”[53] As Beauvoir stated before her, Adams writes “[t]he generic, unlike mankind, is female… Man transcends species; woman bears it. So do the other animals.” Joan Dunayer likewise notes that

“Whereas other species’ names appear as plurals (‘palm cockatoos’) or follow the (‘the palm cockatoo’), man does not. Frequent capitalization literally elevates Man above other animals. Functioning like a proper name, Man personifies our species as an adult male (13*)
Linguistically, the privilege accorded to “Man” is a site in which sexism and speciesism intersect. While “Man” is proper and particular, women and animals live mere generalized existences. “Man” is unified in his dignified individuality, while women and animals are interchangeable units in a collective.

Although de Beauvoir writes that “The term ‘female’ is derogatory not because it emphasizes woman’s animality, but because it imprisons her in her sex,” she later goes on to describe anthropomorphic vices men have used to describe various female animals—sluggish, eager, artful, stupid, callous, lustful, ferocious, abased—all of which men project unto women (3). Indeed, Dunayer in “Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots” (as well as many other feminist thinkers) have analyzed the intersections between misogynistic and speciesist rhetoric. Terms like catty, shrew, dumb bunny, cow, bitch, old crow, queen bee, and sow are intended, at least originally, to denigrate women, mostly through their analogy to constructions of farmed animals. Women and their lifestyles are also trivialized in the way in which the lives of animals are trivialized. For instance young women are often called chicks while more mature women are said to be old hens who are cooped unless they attend hen parties with their brood.[54]

The distinction between women’s animality and her imprisonment within her sex is very fine since our understanding of female sexuality is partially influenced by human reproductive management and regimes for female farmed animals. In her essay “Thinking like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection,” Karen Dawn notes that while many people valorize and sympathize with the plight of “wild” animals, there has been a “culturally-conditioned indifference” toward “domestic” animals. Keystone environmental thinkers have privileged those animals that are “natural, wild, and free” over farmed animals which have supposedly been “bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency.” Though many men have

traditionally admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds of animals, even as they set out to subjugate and destroy them… they have not traditionally admired or sought to emulate women [or farmed animals]… men essentially give to themselves a new lease to run with the predators, not the prey, and to identify with the "wild" and not the "tame."[55]
Women and farmed animals, both who have been domesticated and valued for their feminine docility, are too boring and slavish to admire and emulate; they lack all that is most valued in modern patriarchy: freedom, power, and intelligence.

Ultimately reduced to edible commodities, farmed animals—even more so than “wild” animals—are also dispossessed of agency and particularity. In being reduced to “meat,” farmed animals lose their particularity, “someone has becomes something, an object with no distinctiveness, no uniqueness, no individuality” [56]. As Carol Adams observes, “When you add five pounds of hamburger to a plate of hamburger, it is more of the same thing” [56b]. Further, farmed animals lose their agency through the story of meat and milk eating in which “we reposition the animal from subject to object by making ourselves the subject of meat-eating" [57]. Similarly, because of the stories we tell about dairy cows, the embodied subjectivity of cows is elided: “Milking is done to her rather than by her” [54]. No wonder the minds behind Barnyard chose a male gender for its udder-ed protagonist: “the people producing this film didn't think it was possible to have actual female cows being humorous or wild”, after all, cows are dull and boring.[58]

Through the values and prejudices of patriarchy, women have been marked with animality and thus face a similar negative treatment as animals do. At least metaphorically, women too become exchangeable objects whose agency is evicerated through the objectifying, fragmenting, and consuming male gaze. Adams explains that through the metaphor of being “treated like meat,”

[f]eminists have used violence against animals as metaphor, literalizing and feminizing the metaphor…Whereas women may feel like pieces of meat, and be treated like pieces of meat—emotionally butchered and physically battered—animals actually are made into pieces of meat… [this metaphor often results in an] occlusion, negation, and omission in which the literal fate of the animal is elided [57b]
While many people feel that the objectifying and exploitative treatment of animals (i.e. being “treated like meat’) is unjust when applied to human animals, they uncriticaly accept that it is “natural” and right to treat “animals” as such. By doing so, these people do not challenge discrinimation, objectification, and exploitation themselves, but only that these actsnot be performed against a certain class of privileged subjects.

Beauvoir and the majority of more contemporary femininsts cannot simply elide the risks of dehumanization (a speciesist word) by supporting their defense on the metaphysical foundation of liberal humanism in which humans are either other-than or more-than “animals, but never “mere” animals because they possess self-consciousness. By creating a negative zone of exclusion, the animal body, of which humans transcend, biologist Lynda Birke warns that

we are inevitably going to face problems [because] analogies are drawn between human society and that of other species… if animals are ‘mere’ biology, puppets of their genes, then there will inevitably be inferences made about the mere biology at the heart of human nature.(11*)
The animal body which modern Western people have abjected to form the sanctity of its subjectivity will continually beseeche them, as the abject ceaselessly threatens to collapse the demarcation between it and the demarcating subject.[59] As long as human subjectivity relies upon the abjection and occlusion of “animal” and corporeal subjectivity, those who are marked as closer to animality and corporeality will likely face abject treatment.

As we shall see in the final part of this series, the bodies of both women and cows have been exploited and excluded from the political sphere in the creation of the modern, capitalist Nation. Within the political economy of nursing, the structural parallels and intersections of the exploitation of proletariat women, female slaves, and cows becomes evident. Sadly, while times have changes, oppressive structures have not. Within our capitalist state, human slavery may be outlawed but working class and black women still face temendous obstacles breast-feeding their children and cows have become the primary wetnurses of our society.

2 comments:

Emily said...

Wow! I am enjoying this series so much! Thank you for sharing all this; it's very enlightening.

AmericanWarlock said...

I know this comment is late in coming, but I can't help but think about the domestication of dogs and the Sacred Bitch. Is it possible (I think it probable) that ancient humanity, specifically women, breast fed the occasional abandoned pup and during that critical period of infancy, thus bonding the pup to the woman, setting early canids upon the path of domestication. I feel that this has been encoded mythologically in the hunt and Minerva, a deity which has a far greater antiquity than what the standard mythologies seem to imply.