Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Veganism, Love, and Forgiveness

Once upon a time in the summer of 2008, I interned at an animal sanctuary in upstate New York. It was by far one of the best experiences of my life, and certainly also one of the most transformative ones, but it was not without its growing pains. While living in the intern house for nearly four moths, a feeling grew within me that many people who dedicate them to animal issues are often in need of much healing, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. So many of the interns were on medication for emotional health or had serious self-esteem issues (including myself). It was a dramatic summer of people not only struggling against and with one another, but also with themselves. One intern left early due to the hard emotional and physical labor of caring for the animals, while others got in terrible feuds with their distant partners, or even fell into self-hatred and bewilderment.

I began to see some truth in animal studies literature that many people in western, industrial societies turn to animal others as emotional cruxes in a fragmented, disenchanted society. However, rather than thinking that animal others simply stood as surrogate humans, it seemed that perhaps there is something about animal others that gives us something more-than-human. It seems that we turn our attention to animal others when we cannot accept ourselves or other humans, or it is they (fellow humans) whom we feel have not accepted us. It’s no coincidence that animal therapy can be so powerful in prisons, with children, and in nursing homes. 
Animal others give us something few humans can give, even ourselves.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Queering the Breast and Cross-nursing Queer Kinships

I recently submitted this abstract to the "Sex Gender Species" Conference affiliated with the Summer 2011 issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy on "Animal Others." This is an adaptation from "The Identity Politics of Breasts" series I began researching approximately a year ago, posted last June and July, and updated and presented on June 27, 2010 at the "Animals and Animality" graduate conference at Queen's University. There is a lot being analysis being crunched into those fourth and fifth paragraphs, and quite a bit missing before the second. Hopefully, I won't have to cut out too much; but if I do,maybe it's for the better and will be material for a future paper.

The seeds for this research direction are numerous, but certainly the works of Karen Warren, Val Plumwood, and Carol Adams have been enormous early inspirations. Over the last four years, I am especially grateful to Tamara Ketabgian (Professor of English at Beloit College), Lauren Corman (Professor of Sociology at Brock University and co-host of Animal Voices), and Ida Hammer (of The Vegan Ideal) whose teachings have ruptured and transformed my ideas. I would love to hear any feedback on this. I can see several lines of criticism and would love to articulate a defense for my position /ideas just as much as I am open to a modification of them.

Queering the Breast and Cross-nursing Queer Kinships
The human breast is a cultural site at which dominant western discourses demarcate nature from culture, woman from man, human from animal, sacred parenthood from perverse sexuality, and generosity from self-interest (Schiebinger 2004). The objective of this paper it to queer sex, gender, and species identity in order to imagine different human-animal-food relations than those found in vegan literature today. Ultimately, I argue for the re-conceptualization of breasts as sites for queer productions that nourish cohabitation across difference and subvert cissexism, hetero-patriarchy, human supremacy, and the human-animal dichotomy.

Feminist scholars on breastfeeding have critiqued both the commodificaiton of breasts as objects of male desire as well as contemporary disciplinary state and medical discourses on breastfeeding (Yalom 1997). Iris Marion Young’s (1990) chapter, “Breasted Experience,” has played a significant role in challenging the meaning of women’s breasts being measured by and for others (i.e. hetero-men, infants, the state) in that it proposes that a woman’s breasts ought to be for that woman, as they are constitutive of her as a subject. Young ultimately rejects a breasted experience based in “a love that is all give and no take,” arguing that a female sexual pleasure need not be mutually exclusive with maternal care (87).

In a recent paper, “Queer Breasted Experience,” Kim Hall argues that “the possibility and meaning of queer breasted experience… has been overlooked in [cissexual] feminist accounts” of subjectivity (2007, 16). Young’s account, she argues, omits the subjectivities of trans men who, born female-bodied, experience breasts more ambivalently than cis women. Essentialist and monistic accounts of female subjectivity, in other words, have ironically, in an attempt to recognize sexual difference between women and men, have thus eliminated the recognition of sexual difference among female-bodied people who do not recognize themselves as women. Just as violence to queer subjectivities have been done in the name of a single limit between man and woman, so to has violence been done in the name of the animal to the vast heterogeneities of animal others (Derrida 1997). Rethinking sex and species difference both is critical for living- and eating-well with others (Derrida 1991).

In more ways than one, breasts offer an apt site at which to throw into question sex, gender, and species essentialism. First, breastfeeding is not a capacity exclusive to female-bodies; male-bodies, too, can produce milk and nurse children (Diamond 1998; Giles 2003). Second, breastfeeding need not be exclusively practiced between child and biological parent, but any parent who is lactating, even if of another species. Human-animal cross-species nursing has been practiced in cultures worldwide, including the West, perhaps since the domestication of dogs (Serpell 1986; Baumslag and Michels 2005; Olmert 2009). Third, food represents a new way of thinking subjectivity beyond sexual difference, in which we eat our way into new identities (Probyn 2000). Breasts thus offer a site at which sex, gender, and species identities can proliferate through creative, queer assemblages.

Condemning any and all human-animal-food relation as intrinsically exploitative assumes, or at least prescribes, species essentialism. For example, in her paper “Disturbing Images,” Maneesha Deckha welcomes a PETA video (in which young women lift up their shirts to reveal udders and ecstatically spray milk at men) because it subverts both the medicalized and hetero-normative discourses of the Madonna-and-child dyad as well as “the wholesome image of [cows’] milk” (2008, 63). Ironically, Deckha commits herself to the very hetero-normative discourse she opposes by asserting that cows’ milk is “meant for that mammal’s offspring,” repeating several times how “unnatural” it is for humans to drink it (64). Deckha’s privileging of the abjectness of the video makes it difficult to imagine more productive and transformative human-animal-food relations that do not reproduce the species barriers she wants to overcome. At least when human women are nursing animal others, audiences are most disturbed by what they interpret to be the woman’s perverse pleasure and disloyalty to her species (Luke 2007). In such instances, cross-species nursing subverts the human-animal dichotomy, but also human supremacy and hetero-patriarchy.

One need not fear that by appraising cross-species nursing they will have committed themselves to the evolutionary, postmodern accounts of naturecultures, which forfeit philosophical rigor for philosophical play (Haraway 2008). Instead, cross-species nursing offers vegan feminists a figure to redefine vegan human-animal-food relations as something other than privation and/or abstinence from consuming animals (and their products). Cross-species nursing disrupts the human-animal dichotomy, inverts the standard narrative applied to human-animal-food relations, and does not necessitate that either nurse or nursed be sacrificed for the nourishment of the other.