The Scholar between (The Limits of) Life and Politics

This year, I went vegan. This past week, the ethical and environmental consequences of my veganism became profoundly challenged. In what follows, I use my experience as a scholar invested in animal studies and animal rights to begin exploring the meaning and tensions involved in the cultivation of an orientation where scholarship and the politics of everyday life become intertwined. I do so neither to laud myself, nor to assert the necessary salience of my concerns per se. The ground I’m on is unstable, supported by monocrop farms, and made possible by the production of GMO plant foods. My interest here is in locating a nexus of potentiality and tension. I look to ask and get feedback on how to grapple with a set of social circumstances that constitute a horizon that delimits the desired results of the changes one wishes to contribute.

Increased work in areas of intersection between the history of art and methods of animal studies led me to a new ethical orientation. Artwork to which I’m drawn, by artists from Hogarth to Blake in the eighteenth century, to Matthew Barney in the twenty first, frequently thematize the position nonhuman species occupy as within a realm of moral rights. I realized that if I accepted such a thematic interplay as valid, I was therefore impelled to oppose the commodity status of other animals as machinic apparatuses of culture transmute them into objects of exchange-value (e.g. meat production) and use-value (e.g. dairy milk production). I had been a vegetarian for more than a decade. But the repetition of intellectual engagement with a view towards these issues crystallized my commitments to animal rights at a higher level of intensity. My life trajectory prior to the academic world drove this component of my research commitments; my research commitments came to deepen and transform the political aspects of my life commitments. A circuit was formed, whereby life, scholarship, and politics might form a mutually illuminating constellation of shared concerns and pursuits. I ultimately came to a conclusion. I could not continue to pursue scholarship that seeks to place human beings in an equitable relation to other animals, while at the same time continuing to occupy a privileged position in consuming animal products.

Yet, this space quickly appeared to me to be much more complex than I had anticipated, the way forward more convoluted. This was brought to an apex point for me during a recent meeting of the Chicago Animal Studies Workshop. There, Alice Kuzniar of the University of Waterloo led a wonderful meeting on writing she is doing on the Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 2005 film Our Daily Bread (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Still from Our Daily Bread (2005), dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter.×280-top-left.jpeg

The work completely cut across the very sense of self-accomplishment I experienced upon going vegan. What is deeply devastating about Geyrhalter’s film is that it so profoundly juxtaposes the means of techno-agriculture production relative to animal and plant life alike. Geyrhalter’s film alternates between settings that show animal and plant life being turned into commodities by like means of production. One scene shows dairy cows being forced onto a carousel that automatically moves them into position to be mechanically milked. The sounds of automation disturbingly define the sonic space. In another, the camera reveals a greenhouse where a nondescript crop is being grown under artificial light, with a machine moving under the lighting mechanism to water the plants. They won’t see actual sunlight until they depart to be sold. Similar sounds of robotics comprise the aural background of both scenes of the film. One is stunned into the realization that advanced industrial agriculture forms a horizon within which one is situated, irrespective of whether one consumes animal products like milk, or not.

And in this regard, I was astonished by the extent to which the filmmaker’s work stages what the romanticist Forest Pyle has recently identified as a radical aestheticism operative across romantic and post-romantic art. In this mode, the very ethical valences of the artwork become undone by its operations. Introducing the idea in Art’s Undoing, Pyle first observes that in “the broadest sense an aestheticism can be attributed to a text when the performance of its aesthetic reflection (which is necessarily a self-reflection) effectively severs the relationships (whether analogous, homologus, preparatory, supplementary, or complimentary) between art and knowledge by subsuming the latter into the former.” He goes on to assert that a text might “be understood as succumbing to a radical aestheticism the moment it finds itself and its representations of the aesthetic at its vacating radical.” The corresponding implication is that a “radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art (either those based on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds)” and becomes “a kind of black hole from which no illumination is possible” (4). The logic of aesthetics Pyle describes, indeed, deconstructs the very possibilities of ethical movement or imperatives to be derived from a work of art, like that of Geyrhalter. The work of art’s aesthetic performance of itself radically collapses conditions for positive formulations of knowledge.

Geyrhalter’s film instantiates precisely these conditions of collapse. In Our Daily Bread, the dispersion of productive modes across animal and plant food cultivation leaves the viewer with questions regarding the very efficacy of a dissenting position that would oppose the contemporary food industry. If one’s consumption of plant foods, to the exclusion of animal ones, leads to the increased utilization of artificial environments for the growing of genetically modified crops, is the situation for plants any less perverse and cruel than that of animals raised for slaughter, milk, and clothing? What is the way forward, when one can begin to become clear on some aspects of the system, but is interpellated in such a way that the path forward is seemingly obscured by a horizon of production that appears to have always already enfolded potential directions of opposition and critique?


Works cited

Pyle, Forest. 2013. Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism. New York: Fordham University Press.


3 thoughts on “The Scholar between (The Limits of) Life and Politics”

  1. This is a great post! It raises so many questions from personal choice to beliefs and belief systems. What chance does one have if you live in a city to truly know what processes have happened to foods that are delivered to you? And, as the population worldwide increases and human and animal suffering multiply, what ways might artificial environs actually be beneficial – or even desired? I’m imagining here something like a hospital for crops that are in danger of being lost to the world through the destruction of their habitats.

  2. Thanks Nicole! I appreciate your thoughts, as always. You really get at problems regarding the displacement and differal of suffering within the sort of food economy I’m grappling with (and if anyone knows of a Derridean reading of something like veganism, I’d really appreciate the ref!). With populations increasing globally (though not always in current economic centers), the ability to provide sustainable food production will be tantamount. But are there ways to negotiate and reshape the agricultural systems to provide for this, without (or with limited) recourse to mass-production and artificial means? Of course, the necessity of ever greater supplies of foodstuffs for ever rising populations is one primary argument for the fabrication of genetic modification of both plant- and animal-based foods in the first place. But with the dialectical increase of human and animal suffering you’re pointing to, I’m concerned that human suffering becomes necessarily differed to nonhuman worlds of animal and crop production to meet the needs of human society, ultimately to the detriment of all. Are there any ways in particular that you’ve found to be of value to imagine solutions to these problems?

    Also as I write this, I become concerned about the ethnocentric position I’m taking. The politics of the very discourse I’m relying is virtually unavailable to persons occupying marginal positions in the so-called developing world. So how am I to account for, and be sensitive to, this as I think through my positions on these things?

    So many ideas!

    1. I am so sorry that I just saw your response! Jacob, I was also aware of the ethnocentric positionality of the post, but I still find that it has merit for the audience it is mostly likely to reach. An awareness of multicultural and economical food sources is one hell of a topic to take on in this type of writing, and though I do appalud the goal as one to follow, I think it is reasonable to write from your location and viewpoint for the opening number. But it does imply that your decisions regarding what you choose to ingest may have ramifications for other humans — just like many of our other daily decisions.

      I have not read any good sources on projected human/animal suffering regarding our population growth and demand for future foods. From the perspective of someone interested in* geology (and thus, global climate change), I suspect these two areas should cross at some point into a very curious, if not catastrophic, projection for the state of the world in less than 100 years or so.

      *”intersted in” actually means obsessed with

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