On our first date, I met you in a bar in Soho. You were ten minutes late because you’d just popped into Primark. You held the brown and blue paper bag rolled up in your hand as if you’d just been to the butchers. There were no sausages in there but a Chanel copy bracelet, dangling the first letter of your name and some socks with dogs on them.
We looked at the menu. I said I wanted a burger. Really wanted a burger.
You sipped your drink, your bag of sweat shop clothes sitting beside you and looked at me cooly. If you knew what had happened to that animal, you wouldn’t want a burger.
So, then you told me. You told me about the machines and the cows that don’t see the light and never touch grass, about young cattle being taken from their mothers and lowing all night. You told me about all that blood.
I meant the veggie burger, I said, which was obviously a lie.
It was awkward after that, and there was no second date, but your statement that if I knew I would want no more , continues to rattle round in me, like a bone in a jar.
Don’t look away
‘If you knew what had happened to that animal, you wouldn’t want to eat it,’ is a powerful and presumptive statement.
What it doesn’t say is the thing that is usually said about desire and consumption which is: if you knew what had happened – if you had all the information about this product - you might choose not to consume it. This is the argument behind fair-trade clothing and nutritional information. You still want those biscuits, that t-shirt, but knowing what you know, you might have one, not five (or five, not ten) biscuits. You might alter your choice. Unlike my date, you might choose to buy sweatshop free socks. The desire however, is still there. And it’s a legitimate desire, its okay to want clothes, or biscuits. This is different to meat. What my date was saying is that in regard to meat, if you get the information, your desire is firstly delegitimised and then it is erased. You won’t want to eat meat anymore.
My date scrolled through pictures on her phone. Don’t look away, she said. It took a lot to keep looking at the places where our food comes from, at what our meat looks like before it becomes meat and is still animal. It is not just her, either – vegetarian and vegan societies around the world attempt to delegitimise desire through humane education, for example through, exposing elements of the animal industry that have never been seen before, bringing hidden things into the light. This is why animal liberation groups have a reputation for producing teaching texts rich with pigs, chicken, cows, and ducks trapped in the most intense and violent examples of late capitalist production. There is a lot packed into ‘Meat is Murder;’ Meat is murder, how can you desire it? Meat is murder; know that and you won’t want it anymore.
It is worth mentioning here, that millions of dollars are spent by the meat industry every year to remove all traces of cruelty from the meat that we eat, thus enabling our desire for meat to go unchecked, to continue. Chickens are bred white because if a white feather is missed by the mechanised plucking process, it is less likely that the eater will spot that. Carolyn J Adam’s important, polarising text ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’ discusses the way that the naming of meat erases the animal. ‘Veal’ for example is not called ‘baby calf,’ which is actually what it is. So, materially and discursively, an essential part of transforming animals to meat is erasing the cruelty involved. It’s interesting that as someone who aspires to be vegetarian, I most desire meat that does not look like meat, things like burgers, sausages and bolognese, things with no bones, with less trace of the animal than say, a t-bone steak or anything bloody. I want no animal in my animal, because I have at least partially woken up to the cruelty.
Rivers of desire
I’m just not sure that facts, however shocking, are useful tools when it comes to changing desire. Sure, my date exposing the hideous truth behind my dinner made me stop wanting meat for that date, but then I had nightmares. I had three nights of abatoir dreams and then I started wanting meat again, particularly comfort food like spaghetti bolognese to combat the fitful nightmarish sleep. After some time I was not able to hold the hideous facts of meat production and my desire for meat in my head at the same time. Desire won out. So, I’m wondering about the staying power of shocking information and factual evidence to change desire in a lasting way. Desire is easily swayed. It waxes and wanes, it can be set off by things like smell, it is unpredictable, and it sneaks around what we know to be a bad idea, especially in matters of things like meat and sex, which sit closely together in this culture too.
Desire rushes like a river and facts, however shocking, are like rocks. Maybe then, we need to reconsider our meaty desire through things that resemble desire, intuitive, changing, opinionated, bleeding, hot headed things.
These days I date someone who is a vegetarian but likes to cook me sausages sometimes. One of those times we listened to the radio and drank a glass of red wine. My greasy sausage fingerprints were exposed, lit up by the streaming sun.
Carolee Schneeman was with us too, being interviewed on the radio about her work ‘Meat Joy,’ a live art piece first performed in 1964 where eight people roll around naked in blue paint, raw fish, chicken and sausages. In London, she said, a chicken got stuck in a sink causing a gush of bloody water to flow into the room and become part of the work. My fork clattered as I dropped it.
This for me, was what exposed the fleshiness of meat and crucially, the meatiness of humans. In Schneeman’s work, chicken and fish is smeared on human skin, sometimes everything is covered in paint, so it’s hard to tell what meat is what and what meat is human. This reanimated meat for me, not back into the animal it once was, but into something very fleshy, a world away from the vaccuum packed, sanitised meat on the shelf of the supermarket.
Schneeman’s work continues to resound in work made more recently, sometimes overtly, such as in the 2008 New York group show Meat after Meat Joy. In this show, Jana Sterbak’s 1987 Meat Dress for an Albino Anorectic was displayed, referenced by contemporary artist Zhang Huan, who strolled through New York in a meat suit. This embodiment of meat is echoed in Sarah Lucas’ work, where meat is anthropomorphised. With sinister humour, a kebab and a chicken represent vaginas and an enormous salami represents a penis. Lady Gaga, of course, wore that meat dress too. All this art made meat less desirable for me, because the works exposed the meatiness, the fleshiness of the human body. Usually meat is in the body, ingested into the interior, but in these works, meat is on the body and of the body. We are enveloped by dead animals and asked, how different really, is this flesh to our own?
Many of the works talk to and about the way that women are reduced to ‘meat’ by capitalist- patriarchy. But meat, here, is a metaphor. You can’t graft the experience of animals bred for slaughter onto the experience of women or vice-versa. Sometimes women are objectified in a lasting, damaging, commodifying way. Sometimes women are reduced to meat. Yes, but women are not reducible to the oppression we face. We continue to grow our selves in all our complexities and the works speak to that as well. The works are as joyous, puzzling, silly, serious, funny and smart, as the artists that made them. There is a gendered edge to these works, but it is rendered with a light touch, it flows as desire does, around the rocks of the material facts of women’s oppression.
It was art that took me to the end of my own Meat Joy, that made me think and crucially desire differently about meat. Facts serve a purpose, but I don’t think they erase desire in a lasting way. Art though, rushes as desire does and sticks around. Sometimes to the roof of your mouth, making meat more difficult to swallow.
Image: Robert Cous-Baker
Originally from Sydney, Rosa Campbell now lives in London. She writes for theatre and page. This year her work has featured in The Letters Page, Litro Magazine, Noted Festival, East End Literary Salon, London and Little Fiction Big Truths food anthology (forthcoming). She loves hot coffee, her new rucksack and artistic collaborations so do get in touch on twitter @rrrosavalerie