“Christ among the cattle,” or, the line between absurd and radical

Frederic R. Marvin’s sermon, “Christ Among the Cattle,” is seemingly unremarkable. Beyond the evocative title, an odd digression about bird feathers, and an early discussion of baby Jesus in the manger, it is a standard nineteenth-century animal protection piece. Marvin talks a bit about animal cruelty encouraging broader wickedness, addresses the horrors of vivisection, and name-checks Christians who, like Marvin, loved animals. But just as I approached the end of the sermon, and I can only imagine as most of his audience was falling asleep, Marvin said something radical. He started talking about whether animals have souls. And in fact, he concludes they do.

Within Marvin’s context, taking the idea of an animal soul seriously would be quite radical. It might mean restructuring the emerging industrial food system around animal welfare and perhaps require a more intimate relationship between people and the animals they eat. Yet throughout his sermon, Marvin’s asides reflect concern that his claims might seem absurd or improperly sentimental. This got me thinking about what makes some ideas absurd and others radical. It has a lot to do with the power behind them.

The sermon opens with some discussion of biblical injunctions about stewardship of nature. This is all pretty standard stuff. Next, he addresses the cruelty of cattle transportation and then moves to the importance of teaching children to be kind to animals. The emperor Nero tortured birds as a youth and look how he ended up; “a childhood of cruel sports prepared Nero for a career of inexpressible infamy,” particularly towards christians. After addressing vivisection, Marvin makes a pivot by way of an orientalist analysis of the “Arab’s love for his horse,” to the idea that there is some kind of animal soul.

Marvin’s cautions throughout are telling. Before asserting that “Divine Providence” placed Christ in a manger to encourage love for all animals, he stresses that the view is “not absurd.” Later, he asserts that supporters of animal welfare “have not been weak, sentimental, and silly.” In celebrating the aforementioned relationship between “Arab” and horse, he notes that it might appear “absurd to western men.” Marvin knows his argument is not potentially scandalous or outrageous, but ridiculous.

But what made Marvin’s ideas potentially absurd? One factor is gender. Nineteenth-century men attacked animal welfare politics as feminine and therefore, not legitimate or serious. Marvin fights this logic with stories of “enlightened and thoughtful” male animal protectionists. It also explains a lengthy digression in which he mocks women’s fashion and its emphasis on feathers. Implicit is the idea that caring enough about one’s clothes that you’d kill an animal is a consequence of a feminine lack of reason. Marvin clearly shared the sexism of his critics, but disagreed with their characterization of the animal protection movement.

But there’s another factor behind the idea that animal protection is absurd: there’s nothing really at stake in many of Marvin’s contentions, at least for now. He has little power, so there’s no question of restructuring society in a way that inconveniences anyone. Marvin is just a guy with some unusual views.

What makes an idea radical is the possibility that it will actually threaten something in which people are invested. If Marvin’s ideas had more power, then they might be branded dangerous or revolutionary. An analogue today: animal rights skeptics might brand vegetarians and vegans ridiculous at the dinner table, but their tone might change if there was a political movement to forcibly restructure the meat industry. Further, the popularity of “Ag-gag” laws and the prosecution of revolutionary animal rights activists (the kind that break into facilities and release animals) under anti-terrorism laws indicate the difference between what makes a set of ideas absurd and what makes them dangerous. It’s also why people and institutions in power generally want solutions to anything important to focus on individual choice. This emphasis allows the powerful to choose not to care. Marvin does not actually discuss the implications of his ultimate contention, but one could imagine a very different reception depending on his views.

This ultimately makes me think differently about a decision I made in my book, Red Meat Republic. Other than a few isolated spots, I didn’t take nineteenth-century animal rights politics particularly seriously. I was less interested in animal protection ideas and arguments than the origins and power of industrial animal husbandry. Because Marvin was marginal, I didn’t think he was particularly important. But if many powerful ideas start out absurd, and my book is concerned with understanding the dynamics that empower (and perhaps undermine) today’s food system, perhaps I should’ve taken Marvin’s absurd ideas a bit more seriously.

Okja’s contribution to animal studies; or, how Fido makes it easier to eat a hamburger

In a key scene in the film Okja, we see a young girl named Mija walking with her genetically-engineered superpig friend, Okja, as tens of thousands of nameless beasts watch through a feedlot fence. Director Bong Joon-ho is asking viewers to reflect on what separates Okja from her fellow species and whether the distinction is significant. Okja is the tale of a relationship between a young girl and an animal, but it is also an exploration of capitalist food production, genetically modified organisms, and animal rights. The divide the film explores, between the animals with which we develop bonds of affection and those we butcher and eat has not always existed, and it both enables industrial animal husbandry, and constitutes one of its critical weaknesses.

People today largely categorize domesticated animals into two groups, those that are individuated and with personality, i.e. our pets, and those that only exist as part of an undifferentiated mass that we eat or turn into coats. This distinction is not merely about feelings. It has real world implications. Pets are protected by cruelty laws; livestock are not. Often, but not always, this line is divided by species: cats are pets, turkeys are food. The systems of modern animal husbandry are designed to police this boundary. Few consumers could have any direct familiarity with the animals that become their food even they wanted to and video-recording slaughterhouses is illegal in many places. Slaughterhouse workers—themselves thought of in similarly abstract and faceless terms—do the actual killing. These boundaries absolve us of responsibility for the treatment of the animals we eat. The fact that we love Fluffy makes it easier to draw a circle around animals with which we don’t develop affective relationships.

Though this divide largely promotes indifference to the well-being of livestock, Okja reveals how our love for individual animals can mobilize opposition to industrial animal husbandry. In the film, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) fights the attempt to popularize the superpig as the meat of the future. When they distribute undercover footage of the abuse of the superpigs in a secret laboratory, they rely on the affective connection people feel when confronted with the suffering of a fellow mammal. Though we are meant to sympathize with the ALF’s goals, the characters do not escape the director’s satire; one character is perpetually woozy from his reluctance to eat almost anything and Paul Dano plays a surprisingly violent animal defender.

On the whole, the movie plays on the sense of empathy and collective outrage people today feel when actually confronted with the workings of industrial husbandry on individual animal bodies. However, for both the film and the ALF characters in it, this approach put critics of animal husbandry in a bind. Connection with individual animals builds empathy and support for reform, but without requiring popular commitment to clear plans for change. It puts the focus on individuals and relationships, when the problems of animal husbandry are about the broader social and economic system—the forces that create the pen filled with thousands of nameless creatures.

Of course the idea that caring about an animal and eating it are necessarily at odds is not a universal assumption, but one borne of the increasing separation (physically and conceptually) between us and the production of our food. The movie hints at this reality through Mija’s grandfather, who cares for and about Okja, but also sends her off to be slaughtered. He soon reacts with surprise at the intensity of his grand-daughter’s outrage. Though we might similarly condemn his decision, his response suggests working with or even eating animals does not preclude caring about them. This tell us that there might be ways to promote animal husbandry reform without relying on the pet/livestock paradigm that dominates popular opinion today.

As Mija and Okja flee the feedlot to which Okja was sent, two animals from the doomed herd engineer the escape of a piglet—presumably their child. Our protagonists take it back home and it is later frolicking in a lush forest. In the end, the special bond between Mija and Okja survives, and they seem (mostly) untroubled by the fact that consumers worldwide are munching on superpig jerky. The film is not entirely clear whether this absolves us from, or implicates us in, the fate of the remaining animals to which we do not give names.

tl;dr review of the film: mostly only okay, the ending is pretty good. Punctuated with some quality superpig toilet humor, it’s one of those movies that, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, is good to stink with.