Subject, Object, Abject
The essential thing about killing an animal is that a subject becomes an object. Kind of sounds as if I’m getting ready to embark on a grammar lesson here. Which in a way I am: the grammar of death. Because the way we frame and discuss death, I think, structures the inner emotional reaction we have to it. This phenomenon holds true for the death of humans and non-humans alike. Dying requires a syntax that limns the subject/object divide.
The difference is that, generally speaking, when a human dies, other humans—especially those who were close to that now dead human—project a subject status back upon the object that is now a lifeless corpse. (I’m sorry this is so dark). This can be a literal and quite immediate experience. Just last night I was reading an article in The New Yorker in which a father glimpsed his son’s corpse on a gurney and thought “he’s looking right at me.” It can also be a historical process. Much of history is about telling stories that restore life to decaying bags of bones.
By contrast, when an animal dies, we quickly confirm that animal’s objectification (in a million ways) and project that object status back upon the animal, a handy-dandy way if there ever was one to justify our choice to eat that once-subject-now-corpse for lunch and say “yum.” This process is immediate, even fooling the slaughterhouse workers, and historical in the sense that the animals we ate for dinner, like most subjects in the history of the world, are forgotten forever. As if they never existed.
Much of this process is dictated by forces of which we remain passively unaware. You see a mound of literally disjointed chicken parts at the meat counter. It is hard to find even the ghost of subject status in a pile of wings, legs, thighs, and breasts. What you see, what commerce places before us, are instead objects as inert and meaningless as Nerf balls. This dismemberment, we sense, is by design. Dis-member, as in: you are no longer a member of the chicken clan. As in, you, object, chicken, have been dissed from your membership. For consumers who never spend time with living and breathing chickens, not only is it hard to reconstruct the parts and recall the subject membership that the pile of parts once, well, embodied. But it never crosses our little noodles to even undertake such a task. We forget the animal’s existence in order to consume the animal’s parts. Kind of strange if you ask me, and perhaps the reason I find writing about the history of weeds more exciting than the history of kings.
The comparative ease of objectification with animals, not to mention the forgetting, not only makes dinner taste less guilty, it makes it easier to imagine (should you choose to try) the once alive chicken as an objectified subject. I mean, if something can be legitimately hacked into pieces and placed under a display case to be exchanged for money how could “it” have ever been anything but an object, a plaything for our pleasure, a living being in the minds of crazy animal rights nuts alone? This backward projection, as well as the total erasure of subject status, sort of helps explain why psychopaths who murder humans will sometimes cut them up into parts or, in some cases, run their corpses through a wood chipper.
Anyway, happy Sunday.
tomorrow: got artificially sweetened milk?