broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

My Two Cents on Two Twenty Five Cent Books

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The Superior Public Library hosted its annual book sale a few weeks ago.  Usually I pick up way too many books, but this year was pretty modest.  This is partially because the house I live in has over 2,000 books and there isn’t much space for more.  With that said, I picked up the following two books for 25 cents.  Here is my two cents on two twenty five cent books:

Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture by Jeremy Rifkin, 1994

I had some misgivings about the book because it was from 1994.  I thought that the book would be about factory farming and all the horrors of meat consumption.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, I thought that if it was about these things, it would be dated and inaccurate.  While this is one aspect of the book, the book is more of a multifaceted history of beef.  Therefore, I think that a meat eater and vegetarian could be both frustrated and pleased with the book.  The following are some of the ideas that I found the most interesting about the book:

Beef and Patriarchy:

A vegetarian or vegan feminist reader might enjoy the connections between beef and patriarchy in the book.  Basically, the book posits that beginning in about 4000 BC, nomadic herders from the Pontic Steppes conquered Europe.  Over three thousand years there were several waves of conquest, which introduced cattle culture to Europe.  This also introduced private property in the form of cattle and as such, more patriarchal social relations.  Prior to this, Europeans were more agrarian, female centered, and less warlike.  Essentially, this perspective is part of the Kurgan Hypothesis of where Indo-Europeans came from.

The author posits that beef as movable wealth was a form of proto-capitalism, but this isn’t elaborated upon in the two chapters on this topic.  I would have liked to see this argument developed and what the author meant by proto-capitalism.  Capitalism is based upon private property, but so is any deeply stratified society.  This does raise some interesting questions about the relationship between animals, property, and patriarchy.  Perhaps it is nice to think that at one time Europeans were more peaceful, collective, agrarian, and equal.  Then, suddenly invaders came on horses with herds of cattle…plundering, destroying, and introducing property/patriarchy.  Modern Europeans are descendants of those plunderers.

A knee jerk reaction to this is, “Aha, beef is terrible.  Beef is the food of patriarchy!” I certainly had this reaction.  But, many things could have and probably did serve as the basis of early private property: land and other kinds of animals for instance.  In this sense, an aversion to beef on the basis of its connection to private property can only be a kind of guilt by association.  And, the book points out that the relationship between humans and cows has changed over history.  For instance, the book argues that over time cows became sacred in Hinduism because of their value for fuel, housing material, fertilizer, and dairy, as well as depleted land resources, popular unrest against beef eating overlords, and Buddhist influences.  The book also notes that cows can be symbolic of fertility, bounty, and the feminine divine.  In this very materialistic perspective, the relationship between humans and animals is based upon economic relationships and necessities.

The book later discusses the relationship between gender and meat.  Like clothing, hair styles, emotional patterns, and career choices, food is gendered.  There are foods that are seen as masculine and foods that are viewed as feminine.  It is not because of an inherent characteristic in the food, but rather, because of such things as the function and value of the food in society.  Unsurprisingly, salads, diet food, and vegetable based foods are viewed as feminine.  Steaks as masculine.  The book spends a chapter or so discussing this.  Again, the chapter is short and this topic could be explored at greater length.  It made me wonder what should be done about this?  Meat is idealized because it is associated with masculinity, which is valued over femininity.  The nihilist in me does not want anyone to idealize anything.  We could unhappily eat gray mush and endlessly contemplate our meaningless existence.  The feminist in me recoils at anything that promotes a masculinity based upon conquest, subjugation, mastery of nature, and rugged individualism.  The socialist in me wants what is sustainable and equitable for the environment and society.  These three ideas run around in circles, like dogs chasing each other’s tails.  Conclusion: dismantle gender, don’t idealize foods, think about nature and the future of society.

 Beef and Ecological Imperialism:

Another interesting thread in the book was the association between beef and imperialism.  Basically, the book argues that one reason or at least benefit of slaughtering all of the bison was so that the West could be used as pastureland for the beef industry.  There were definitely some startling passages about the slaughter of bison and the subjugation of Native Americans.  It is no wonder why many Native Americans feel that their fate is connected to the fate of animals.  They have been.  The book included stories of tribes looking for the last buffalo so that they could perform certain ceremonies, but found none.  It is hard to imagine how such a dramatic and quick change in something that was taken for granted as plentiful and central to survival is suddenly entirely gone.  Can we imagine that?  It would be like the sudden end of electricity or automobiles.

Europeans introduced cattle to the Americas pretty early on, letting them go wild for future colonization efforts.  The cattle themselves introduced invasive grasses that are now taken for granted as having always been here.  So, we really changed the landscape.  Like aliens terraforming a new planet…we introduced our animals and plants at the expense of what…AND WHO… was there.  Again, in reading this there is a tendency to hate cattle as a symbol of conquest.  Really, the book did a good job introducing me to new ways of thinking about cattle.  However, this is again guilt by association.  Cattle didn’t ask to come here.  They have no adversarial relationship with bison.  The fault is with European conquest.  Of course, it isn’t always easy to separate a symbol from an action, event, or system.  Cattle did not ask to replace bison.  Red, white, and blue did not ask to be colors on our flag.  Bald eagles did not ask to be our national bird.  Cattle are not widely seen as a symbol of conquest.  Though, it seems reasonable that those who relate to this symbolism might have an aversion to beef in the same way a socialist probably doesn’t wear patriotic clothing and a Lutheran does not keep statues of Mary in their home.  These things can always be explained away, but if something has a symbolic meaning that a person doesn’t want to associate with…it is challenging to navigate the expression of the self (i.e. it’s just a nice statue) with the perceived meaning of the self (i.e. you worship Mary! Catholic!).

Other Ideas:
 Throughout the book, beef is associated with many things.  Beef, or meat in general, is discussed in its relationship to social classes.  For much of history and much of the world, meat was not eaten much my lower classes.  Women and children ate it even less.  Meat was also connected to race and warfare.  There were some interesting passages about how British people viewed their racial superiority as evidenced by their meat consumption.  In the refrigerator logic of Social Darwinism, superior people eat meat because they are higher on the food chain.  Thus, British people looked down upon their imperial subjects as lessers, partially because of their plant based diets. The British even attributed their military successes to their larger rations of meat.  There was even a weird quote from the head of Japan’s McDonalds, Den Fujita, that if Japanese people eat beef for 1,000 years, they will conquer the world and grow blond hair.  Thus, a common thread in the book is the long connection between cattle and conquest.

There are other ideas as well.  Attention is given to factory farming and the rise of McDonalds.  This itself is connected to Taylorism or quick, rational, efficient production.  Horrors of factory farms are given attention.  I am alienated from the production of meat, I can only shiver at the thought of rotten meat, pus, and feces mixed into sausages and hamburgers. Yikes!

The information on hamburgers was quite interesting.  The book observes that hamburgers are deconstructed meat.  This is true, as hamburgers really don’t resemble any particular part or aspect of a cow.  The burger itself could be made from many cows.  This very aspect of the hamburger has historically made them so palatable to me.  They are not a fatty, bony, cow part that advertises its existence as an animal.  It is like red and brown Play Doh.  But, interestingly, many people don’t want their meat to look like living animals.  For instance, people don’t want fish that have eyes and heads.  In contrast, in medieval times, animals were reconstructed.  Bird feathers were put back onto the bird carcass to create the illusion of a living animal.

Conclusion:
The book was a hodgepodge of ideas.  Each chapter was short and no topic was visited for very long, though there were themes.  The goal of the book was to make a case for giving up beef or meat, but the goal was not always overt.  Arguments were not followed to their logical end and ideas were not given enough depth to support some arguments.  So, perhaps the book tried to do too much with too many different ideas and histories.  I don’t think that anyone would read the book and give up beef.  Someone who is already against meat might have a few new ideas to think about.  The conclusion did not seem to flow from the rest of the book, as the conclusion was that more people would question beef eating and work towards a kinder, gentler, more sustainable world.  The flaw of this was that the book never made a convincing argument that beef was the problem.  There is a cart load of problems: Imperialism, conquest, capitalism, and corporate agriculture…but the cart is hardly ox driven.  Thus, the idea that giving up meat will solve these problems is odd.  It is also odd that people would magically reach this conclusion without a social movement or social upheaval.  Thus, while I like that the book covered a lot of economic and historical topics, I dislike that it does not question economic systems which meat is a part of.  In this way, it is materialist, but not Marxist.   Because the materialism is not given direction by any theories regarding social movements or social change, there is no gelatin to hold the ideas and history together.  That is my beef with  Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture  and far too many meat metaphors.

Book Review Two:  The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages

The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages- by Joyce Salisbury, 1994
Have you ever wondered what people in the Middle Ages thought about animals?  I hadn’t either until I saw this gem of a book.  Like Beyond Beef, this book was written in 1994.  It is also a book about meat, but this time, without a political agenda.  This book is much shorter and tighter than Beyond Beef.  The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals.  The book is pretty short and sticks to building this thesis, making it a tighter narrative than Beyond Beef.  
 
To begin, the book discusses how Europeans viewed animals in the Early Middle ages, which has some echoes to today.  Back then, animals were seen as separate and beneath humans.  They were created for humans or in the very least, humans were created above them.  In this understanding, animals had value inasmuch as they had use value.  Since they had tremendous use value as food, labor, and transportation, there were many laws to protect animals from theft or misuse.  But, they did not have value for their being living things with any independent value as a life form.  This view makes sense, in that it was a pretty agriculturally centered world so animals had value based upon their usage in this arena.  At the same time, religious views played an interesting role in shaping how people related to animals.  For instance, when there was a larger population in Europe and less land, there were more fasting days in the Catholic calendar.  It is also interesting how Monks ate fetal or just born rabbits as a way to circumvent fasting rules, as this was not considered meat.  Perhaps the criteria was life began with breath, so fetal or just born life could be taken.  Certain kinds of meats were viewed as corrupting forces.  As such, young men were told not to eat rabbit as this would make them promiscuous.  Oddly enough, people believed that hares grew an extra anus for every year they were alive as a sign of their promiscuous nature.  I feel that some of these old fashioned, silly ideas are still with us.  For example, when I wanted to become a vegetarian, my parents told me that God made animals for us to eat them.  This is a very Middle Ages idea!  Even the concept of you are what you eat, which isn’t taken too seriously today, has a Middle Age history.  Finally, the weird things that people give up for Lent, such as Pepsi and Facebook, probably result in no more suffering than baby bunny eating monks endured when they fasted.

It was also interesting to learn how breeds of animals and uses for animals changed over time.  For instance, the book said that Germanic tribes were very fond of pig meat and that in the early middle ages, pigs were allowed to wander and forage in forests.  With time and changes in property, pigs were enclosed in pens.  Also, sheep were mostly used for meat during the early Middle Ages, and only with the introduction of Mediterranean breeds of sheep with heavier wool did they begin to be used more for textiles.  The book also described the rituals surrounding hunts and how dogs were fed special animal parts from a fancy glove as a reward for the hunt or how hawks and dogs were trained to work together to take down larger prey, like cranes.  The breeding and value of horses was also discussed at length.  Like cars today, the coloration and unique markings of a horse became a status symbol.  This was all pretty fascinating.  Also interesting was the evolution of food taboos.  Christians wanted to differentiate themselves from Pagans, which is why they made it taboo to eat horses as this was viewed as a pagan practice.  Likewise, eating animals that gruesomely bled out was also taboo, perhaps a throwback from Jewish dietary laws. Eating raw meat was also viewed as taboo.

I didn’t care for the chapter about sexuality and animals.  It was mildly interesting to learn about laws and punishments for bestiality, but I thought that the book could do without this chapter.  It didn’t add much to the book or the narrative that over time, humans began to see themselves as more animal like and animals as more human.  The book became a bit more interesting again when it discussed myths and stories about animals.  These stories about animals were connected to social relationships.  For instance, animals were used in fables to teach lessons about a person’s place in society.  Fables were used in churches as part of the sermon, as they were popular and easy to understand.  Though, over time secular fables became more popular as well.  Also over time, the types of animals in the stories shifted, with a growing popularity of apes.  Salisbury believed that fables might have helped people to imagine themselves as more animal like and animals more human, though these characters.  There were also a few examples of Saints which according to legend preached to animals or showed exceptional kindness.  This also indicates a shift from a merely utilitarian view of animals.  There was also a growing interest in Bestiaries, or guidebooks which depicted some animal/human hybrids.

While the book maintains a tight and easy to follow thesis, it does not support this thesis adequately.  To support the thesis would require a systematic cultural analysis of 10 centuries and diverse regions.  The book mostly focuses on England, France, and Germany.  It is not clear which years or time periods are discussed throughout the book.  I would like much more social context.  Also, the approach to the supporting the thesis is pretty mixed.  Much of the book focuses on changing ideas, but I would like more political, religious, and economic context.  Why did these changes happen?  Why would viewing animals as more like humans benefit 14th century societies over 4th century societies?  The book is lacking a strong material grounding.  Instead, it flits around between ideas, finally settling on fables.  While a content analysis of fables is provided, it still leaves me wondering why the fables changed over time.  The stories that we tell have a social purpose.  They way that humans relate to animals has some social logic (or at least had some social logic at one time).  With that said, I am not entirely convinced by the thesis.

Still, the book is entertaining and fun.  It provides some interesting tidbits to consider.  If nothing else, it made me consider how we relate to animals today.  Modern relationships to animals are complex and contradictory.  Some farmers continue to have a utilitarian view of livestock.  There are imaginary lines between animals that can be eaten (cows) and those that cannot (dogs).  There are class, gender, and racial lines of how animals are related to.  Cats are seen as feminine.  Steak is masculine.  Girls love ponies.  African Americans do not have the same opportunities to experience wilderness and wild animals.  While science has taught us that humans are indeed animals, this is still hard for people to accept.  It is hard to accept that humans might not be as special and above the rest of nature.  Evolution is still controversial.  So, accepting our connection to animals is still an incomplete process.
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One thought on “My Two Cents on Two Twenty Five Cent Books

  1. Pingback: A Year of Books | broken walls and narratives

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