Jean Kazez has mentioned “suicide food” before, and the fascinating blog that is a repository for images of this bizarre, yet common, phenomenon. The “Bite the Burger” image you see here is a photo I took in Victoria, on the outside wall of an establishment called “The Cultured Cow”, which has since been replaced by a Starbucks. The photo has been published in Carol J. Adams’ The Pornography of Meat and in my own Animals and Ethics – unfortunately, in both cases, in black-and-white. (Black-and-white just doesn’t do justice to the MURDER comment.) So here’s the full In Living Color version.
What’s with these suicide-food images?
In Aboriginal cultures, hunted animals have commonly been understood to be voluntarily giving themselves to hunters who demonstrate proper respect, or to be engaging in a form of mutually beneficial voluntary exchange. (See "The Myth of Consent", the first chapter of Jean's book Animalkind.) Are suicide-food images a modern form of this ancient view of the relationship with animals used as food? The most obvious difference is that suicide food is presented as a kind of joke, a joke so common as probably to escape attention much of the time. Aboriginal peoples did not think of the voluntary-sacrifice account as a joke: it was understood as literally true.
I suggest that the joking aspect of suicide food reveals unease about what is being done to these creatures. It is an unease that is partly buried or unconscious, but nonetheless present and persistent. Aboriginal myths of voluntary sacrifice may have served to some extent to repress feelings of guilt, but given the necessity of using animals for food, clothing, and tool-making, these myths were a credible and integral element in a harmonious way of life. By contrast, in modern industrial society it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain notions of happy animals willingly offering up their lives in exchange for a bucolic existence. The result is a significant tension between people’s desire to devour animals and their knowledge of how their degraded victims live and die. Joking is a mechanism that at once acknowledges and deflects the truth. We laugh because otherwise we’d have to cry. And if we cried, we might have to give up our meat.
Or perhaps a joke is just a joke?