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here is a photo I took in Victoria, on the outside wall of an establishment called “The Cultured Cow”, which has since been replaced by a Starbucks.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?
People are incredibly insensitive about the suffering of animals. I doubt if they're defending themselves against crying when they joke. The other day I was at a party when someone made a joke about killing a pig for a barbecue. I remarked that I was a vegetarian, and I glanced at a young woman, who I thought was a vegetarian too. Oh, she said, I got bored with being a vegetarian. What can you say to someone for whom the suffering of animals is a question of boredom?
What can you say to someone for whom life is a question of entertaining oneself?
Frankly, while I think there is some interest in the history that Jean sketches of the myth of consent (though I think there is some problem with thinking of the issue in terms of "consent" at all, given that I doubt that animals are capable of consent in the sense the humans typically use it), I think generally the imagery associated with "suicide food" is probably not going to yield much beyond speculative interpretation. Human beings anthropomorphize everything. Animals that want to be eaten, vegetables that want to be eaten, cars that want to be filled with gas, germs that run from disinfectant. There might be something extra special going on in the case of "animals wanting to be eaten," but I'm just not sure it's much more than human beings endlessly projecting.
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