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Animal Aesthetics

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Animal Aesthetics

By James McWilliams
July 2012

The depth of the roots we’ve committed our lives to unearthing are unreasonably deep. Unreasonably because, in part, they matured lifetimes ago, during eras devoid of prohibitions and characterized by unthinking acceptance.

The significance of this point might seem irrelevant to the fertile field of vegan ethics, but it cannot be downplayed: veganism, we must realize, challenges not only the centuries-old dietary traditions of these austere cultural traditions, it also challenges the animal-based aesthetic that’s integral to an identity that locals would quickly deem ageless, or at least older than the Reformation, if not God.

None of this is in any way to suggest that we should let up, become paralyzed with dispair, or stop worrying about the evils of isinglass. It’s just to remind ourselves that when we claim to pursue our Sisyphian brand of activism for selfless reasons, we sure as hell better mean it. Because the balm of real change is long off and the burn of reality shows no sign of abating.

One of the more quixotic notions that vegan activists harbor is the prospect that we’ll see genuine change before our own eyes. I completely understand the desire to witness, as a direct consequence of our too often thankless bouts of activism, tangible results. However, the stubborn fact remains (and I concede it’s one of the harder realities to accept) that the change we pine for will happen so slowly, so imperceptibly, that not only will we miss it, but so will the activists of future generations. Change will come–of this I simply cannot afford to doubt–but anyone expecting it to happen on a scale capable of evoking a sense of accomplishment is stretching optimism beyond the bounds of common sense.

I register this admittedly grim assessment after spending a spate of time blissfully lodged in the English and Irish countrysides, where the aesthetics of animal life are the ruling theme of existence. Interestingly, what left the strongest impression regarding the cultural place of animals in these rural enclaves wasn’t the entrenched and unquestioned role of animal products in the local diet, impressive though that was. Instead, it was the place of animals in the region’s complete aesthetic fabric, aesthetics that were deeply, even spiritually, meaningful to the ruddy-faced, rubber-booted residents of these beautiful hillside villages.

The significance of this point might seem irrelevant to the fertile field of vegan ethics, but it cannot be downplayed: veganism, we must realize, challenges not only the centuries-old dietary traditions of these austere cultural traditions, it also challenges the animal-based aesthetic that’s integral to an identity that locals would quickly deem ageless, or at least older than the Reformation, if not God.

It’s easy to ignore (or even belittle) such earthy pride in cultural and agricultural tradition. Indeed, it’s easy for those of us who are detached from these environments–urbanites especially–to conquer the high ground and state the unquestionable moral imperative that exploiting animals is wrong and that, rural identity notwithstanding, it must end. Of course, such a response, in the convenient realm of moral clarity, is absolutely the right one to make–and I expect dozens of you will make it. But the troubling realm of reality is where life happens to happen, and the troubling realm of reality, at least as I interpret it, is another deal altogether.

There one finds layers and layers of aesthetic (rather than moral) meaning lodged between what’s real and what’s right. These barriers are more than stubborn obstructions to achieving justice for animals. They are overwhelmingly perceived by those who passively build them not as barriers, but as positive aspects of a vernacular culture that you question, quite honestly, at your peril. The connection between rightness and reality, at this point in time, is virtually impossible for the people living in these cultures to conceptualize, much less make. Trying to convince a sheep farmer living on a family farm outside of Oxford to scrap his operation on moral grounds is as likely as the moon turning to cheese. Cheese! See, there’s no escaping this insidious lexicon of abuse. (For the record, I’m well aware that the argument I’m making here applies just as aptly to the United States, but I have a hypothesis–still incubating–as to why overcoming these barriers is more likely to happen stateside.)

The daunting gap between moral purity and agrarian reality also, I might add, makes all my own strained efforts (imperfect as they are) to minimize animal exploitation in the mini-logistics of my own life seem less relevant and, dare I say it, petty. They aren’t less relevant or petty, of course. Most certainly, they matter. But after absorbing the entrenched place of animals in these rural environments–that is, after spending a week looking beyond that comfort zone known as myself–I simply cannot see how my concern about, say, whether or not my beer was filtered through isinglass, is anything more than symbolic at best, and maybe even overwrought. It’s not, I know, I know. But you see what I’m saying. Perspective may not be everything, but it matters. We avert our eyes from it with grave consequences for the integrity of our mission.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by the aesthetics of identity. The English and Irish countryside is a landscape inseparable from the people who inhabit it. Lush, impossibly green rolling hills are tufted with sheep that will be turned into mince pies served in four-hundred year old taverns. Milk and beef cows lounge and roam pastures periodically separated by fields of clover and wheat. Geese and ducks populate ponds that mark the landscape like large black puddles. Gurgling brooks run parallel to hedgerows and one-lane country roads. Smells are as central to vernacular aesthetics as sights. Light winds carry the aromas of another era–sweet hay, damp compost, and the fragrance of flowers blooming on vines covering ancient stone walls–into the open windows of countryside estates. I ran up and down these old roads for miles and, I will admit, was charmed by the tranquility of the whole cute little package.

Naturally, looking closer, as it tends to do, breaks the spell. The sheep are daubed with spray paint to register, one supposes, a state of estrus. The cows’ ears are affixed with the yellow tags presaging their eventual fate as butcher-shop wall decor. The slaughterhouse is nowhere to be seen and the smells, when you stop romanticizing their topical earthiness, are recognized as emanating from neglected dung heaps. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of traditional identity are what they are: powerful, meaningful, defiantly positive, and as close to people as skin.

I’m seizing here on the depth of aesthetic sentiment–one directly related to exploitation–not to glorify it, but only to highlight as forthrightly as possible the inherent subversion of our mission. The depth of the roots we’ve committed our lives to unearthing are unreasonably deep. Unreasonably because, in part, they matured lifetimes ago, during eras devoid of prohibitions and characterized by unthinking acceptance. They plunged to the depths and humans, preoccupied with their next meal, deemed it imperatively good before the God of Genesis uttered such approval.

Today, as a result, we are crazy not be humbled by the enormity–the nerve!–of our mission. It’s not just what people eat, wear, and how they entertain themselves that we’re putting on the chopping block. Were it only that. It’s who we are as human beings living in distinct cultures of which we are damn proud. It’s identity. It’s everything that lends substance to history, landscape, and the rolling green pastures that make rural denizens beam with the pleasure and pride of place.

None of this is in any way to suggest that we should let up, become paralyzed with dispair, or stop worrying about the evils of isinglass. It’s just to remind ourselves that when we claim to pursue our Sisyphian brand of activism for selfless reasons, we sure as hell better mean it. Because the balm of real change is long off and the burn of reality shows no sign of abating.