Texas Tech University

From Agency to Suffering: Considering the Biopolitical and Ecocritical through Animal Slaughter

Luke Morgan

When I encountered an episode of the This American Life podcast in November of 2012 on the theme of "Animal Sacrifice" – "what animals sacrifice for us, and what we sacrifice for them" – I was particularly intrigued by one act, which told the story of a Portland institution that trains interested residents in the basics of animal slaughter, and the theft of a number of rabbits which were supposed to be slaughtered there. [1]

Camas Davis founded the Portland Meat Collective with the stated intent to allow "omnivores, carnivores, pescatarians, fruititarians, vegetarians, breathatarians, and vegans alike to have the chance to truly engage with their food... and then decide where they stood on the meat/no meat spectrum." [2] She emphasizes the profound level of self-reflection and change in lifestyle many of her students undergo having completed the course. This notion of changing the way individuals engage in the consumption of meat seems central to the Portland Meat Collective's purpose, but this also struck me as paradoxical. Much less time is spent in Davis' radio essay on the act of slaughtering animals than on the ideological and philosophical situation of the one holding the knife—their motivations, how they react to the slaughter, and what they do with the ambiguities of the consumption of meat. Davis situates herself in conclusion of her essay in the middle of this "messy middle," where no clear answers are to be had and dwelling requires a practice of constant questioning.

In this essay I also propose no neat answers to the biopolitical and ecocritical issue of caring for and then butchering animals for food. Still, as practices like those modeled by the Portland Meat Collective gain cultural currency, it seems clear that the interlocking practices of husbandry and animal harvesting can be examined as ecocritical and biopolitical processes. Thus, rather than seeking ready answers, it is my goal to build a related pair of posthumanist frames around the model of animal husbandry (the raising of animals who are not pets and are meant for consumption or other utility), slaughter, and consumption. I work to narrow the scope and specificity of theorizing to address the biological, social, and political implications of raising, butchering, and eating animals in an intentionally reflective way.

Human Agency in Ecocritical Context

This essay builds on Davis' instinct and focuses on the human response to animal sacrifice depicted in Cary Wolfe's Before the Law. Wolfe offers an interpretation of Sloterdijk's framing of a Nietzchean notion of "animal philosophy" in contrast to Heidegger's "insistence that man is not just 'an animal with a cultural or metaphysical addition.'" While this categorization informs my reading, the central issue under theoretical consideration here is that which Wolfe calls: the "selective manipulation of life at the most elementary level."[3] This discussion of the implications of manipulation of the non-human by the human continues, and Wolfe returns once again to Nietzche's perspective, concluding that the "cardinal biopoltical sin" of such manipulation (factory farms seem a central example) is less the suffering inflicted on the non-human being, and more the "diminishing of 'animality' itself."[4] Wolfe that both Nietsche and Sloterdijk rely upon the mode of animal slaughter to draw conclusions as to the philosophical and material condition of the human being. According to Wolfe, these writers suggest that in instances of animal slaughter for the purpose of consumption, we glimpse not only a reflection of ourselves in the nonhuman, but an image of the nonhuman in us and our dystopian future. [5]

The premise of this assumption takes account of the biopolitical implications of animal slaughter, but fails to address the larger implications of this practice as a consumptive act within an interdependent ecosystem. Thus, I begin with an ecocritical framework to situate the issue more readily in its context and by this situatedness, return to the biopolitical factor in order to trace continuities and relations between the two theoretical schools, with the issue of animal slaughter as the case study.

Considering animal slaughter in terms of an interdependent ecology shows an interdependent act, a material marker of the unseen and often downplayed relationships between the human and non-human that must take place in order for any sort of autopoesis to remain sustainable. In material terms, we refer to this interrelationship as food web: a system of consumers and producers that includes all variety of human and nonhuman animals as well as nonhuman elements such as plants and bacterium. In a wider sense, however, an ecology of consumption also situates the human in the midst of an array of dependencies, of which animal slaughter is just one. In our dependence on other species for sustenance we share common ground with them. We appear to fit Wolfe's categorization as "animalized humans" in our basic material dependence. [6]

The case for a divide between the animalized human (those animal attributes of an otherwise human being) and the humanized human (accurately classified by Wolfe as "wishful") seems to be a central consideration of Heidegger, and animal slaughter in both material and philosophic ways serves to institute divisions in an interdependent ecosystem. [7] However, such divisions in both the material and philosophic constitute an extension of a collective taking for granted of the "fundamental sacrifice of nonhuman animals" on which such divisions rely, on which not only the system of non-human sacrifice, the entire system of "marking human others as animal" are dependent. [8] Thus an ecosystem is perpetuated by interdependencies, linked to those material sacrifices of non-human elements of the environment. These analyses seem to operate also on an assumption of subject and object placement that may be problematic. Simply put, Heidegger and Nietschze's central claims as well as Wolfe's critique situate the human as a species subject operating outside of that space on which they act, in effect making the environment and everything in it the object to be acted upon or affected.

Ecocriticism suggests a more accurate placement of the human (for example, in William Cronon's "The Trouble with Wilderness") wherein a reorientation of the theoretical standing of "nature" suggests that the human must reinsert itself into a suitably broad concept of nature that does not discriminate between natural and unnatural spaces, but rather marks inhabitation as the act of a species in nature, reinforcing notions of "invisible networks" and encouraging a notion of "middle ground" in which the human and nonhuman coexist. [9] While the middle ground is obviously, as Cronon points out, where we "actually live," even a more introspective method of viewing the subjectivity of the human, recognizing first the agency of non-human beings, and then situating the human in interdependence, not dominance, of other non-human subjects and objects will not obviate the political implications of a system of consumption in which one subject acts on another in such a way as to reduce their agency and, in essence, objectify them. This is precisely the process of even reflective and self-critical animal slaughter. Thus while the situatedness of this event in a larger ecosystem is vital in order to avoid reinforcing divisions between human and nonhuman that may appear artificial, a strictly ecocritical and material reading of the act fails to address the decidedly political matter of how human agency and identity is formed through the transformation of a nonhuman subject to a consumable object. With the connections and continuities established through an ecocritical frame, we turn then to biopolitics, and ways in which it is exemplified in animal slaughter.

Beyond Agency in the Biopolitical

By considering the biopolitical implications of this specific sacrificial act we may draw some conclusions as to where the human identity and agency is situated by this act and how it reflects broader evidence of the biopolitical reality of the middle space in which we live. With the interrelationship within an ecosystem as a backdrop, we must first consider biopolitical aspects of the material act of animal slaughter.

Heidegger's consideration of technology as "a revealing" is helpful in considering the complicated and loaded drawing out this complicated transition between animal to slaughtered animal to food. [10] In the case of reflective animal slaughter, unlike those factory farms which Wolfe makes reference to, this process of "revealing" nutritional resources in the form of meat is embarked upon not just for the utility of the product gained, but for the opportunity for philosophical reflection and self-examination the process presents. The perpetuation of the act, however reflective, constitutes the sort of manipulation of nature Heidegger explores, an "expediting and exposing." [11]The material reality of slaughtering an animal for consumption mirrors an unlocking of energy from nature, which is then "transformed" and "stored up," so that it may be subsequently "distributed," and by means of consumption and digestion, "switched about ever anew." [12]

This act is biopolitical insofar as it is a demonstration of agency that makes nature an object, something seemingly "at our command." [13] Similarly, the act of raising an animal for the purpose of slaughtering and consuming the animal reflects a "revealing" of potential energy or utility both in the form of the meat to be gained as well as the future generations of animals to be raised and similarly utilized. Reflective animal slaughter has more in common with what Wolfe terms "resistance to this new norm [selective breeding for maximizing profit]," wherein a sort of resistance is paramount to the operation of an institution such as the Portland Meat Collective based on their philosophic and biopolitical mission. [14] Even within this resistance to norming pressures of capitalism and industrial food systems, however, the practice of animal slaughter cannot avoid the most basic material and philosophical reality of its being performed: the assertion of agency over life through sacrifice.

Animal slaughter in this respect exemplifies a central concern of the biopolitical, namely the shaping of human identity through interaction with the nonhuman. At this point I recognize that my analysis thus far has seemed to point to an affirmation of Heidegger's adamant sentiment that "the form of being of the human is different from all vegetable and animal beings, because man has a world and is in the world." That is, even the very act of self-reflection in slaughter would appear to affirm both of these assertions, the human differs him/herself from the nonhuman by objectifying and sacrificing the animal, and by the reflective nature of the act in some cases, affirms both a material being and a philosophical distance. [15] Indeed, the act of animal slaughter in any case does indeed reflect a problematic centrality of human preeminence in the biopolitical. In the case of a relationship between the nonhuman animal and the human, the very point of the matter is to better define what exactly constitutes the human, not what the act may do to objectify the nonhuman.

In response I offer a paradox: we seek to more readily identify with the nonhuman animal through the ritual of sacrifice (a sort of biopolitical role-play) in order to better identify ourselves as human. In terms of the case of reflective slaughter, while we allow that we should reflect critically on our practice and our role as "shepherds" of sorts (not the nurturing sort- at least not for long), we still utilize the very act of slaughter, the ending of another autonomous being's life, as an opportunity for self-identification. Davis hopes her students may rethink their consumption of meat, or at least continue the habit with responsible attention to both environmental and biopolitical repercussions, what Wolfe terms "the unnerving weight and gravity of our moral responsibility toward nonhuman animals," but we may read into this stated goal a larger self-reflective behavior, something beyond an opportunity for self-affirmation. Such a moment offers in addition to agency the opportunity to confront "unspeakability," both of the act of taking life to sustain life, and in the limits of confronting this reality. [16] Animal slaughter represents a biopolitics beyond human self-affirmation, though it admittedly still serves that aim, one that attempts to question as well as affirm.

I examine this moment because I believe it exemplifies a sort of interaction with the nonhuman that is distinct from acts of classification or self-affirmation by human agents. While this is undoubtedly occurring, the biopolitical resonates through the act of reflective sacrifice at a distinctly different pitch, creating a sort of vulnerability in both the subject and the objectified, an act designed not to "deflect" the confrontation with the nonhuman and our responsibility as well as our dependence on it, but rather to "suffer" alongside the nonhuman, even as we sustain ourselves by its sacrifice. [17] This more genuinely reflective (not merely affirmative) act represents a decentered biopolitic, not entirely devoid of the central concern of Nietzsche with which we started, nor of Heidegger's notion of an utterly differentiated human, but certainly a concept of the human more consciously in tension with relationship and interdependence with the nonhuman, even in situations of clearly delineated power. The result of that tension is not clear. Returning to Davis's account of her experience with slaughter, we are to conclude that the end result of such an engagement with the biopolitical is not clear-cut answers, but a world of increasingly pervasive and unanswerable questions.

The biopolitical may serve more as a heuristic than definitive answer in addressing questions of the human relationship to the nonhuman. Heidegger's notion of the human as an utterly differentiated being, akin to what Wolfe dismissively identifies as the "wishful... humanized human," ultimately proves insubstantial, particularly in the face of the reality of human being's confrontation with "being," not as an embodied force in the human alone, but as a shared trait with the nonhuman animal, the plant, the bacterium, and any other species of the broader ecosystem. [18] The frame of the ecosystem, a tenet of ecocritical thought, is not to be dismissed in consideration of the role of biopolitics in mediating or classifying the relationship between human and nonhuman. Situated in a biopolitical vacuum, the human acting on the nonhuman inevitably appears an act of asserting agency or claiming superiority, but placed in the context of an ecosystem in which the human, despite Heidegger's protests, is indeed another species of animal, the ecocritical and biopolitical implications of the act of animal slaughter become interdependent. Where ecocritical situation of the human in a newly broadened concept of the natural allows a way around assertions of human differentiation from the nonhuman, biopolitical concept best answers questions as to the implications of a slaughter of animals that is intentional, responsible, and reflective. The biopolitical need not be restricted to questions of human self-affirmation or definition, but rather may serve to further explore the implications of a life in the sort of intentional "suffering" and "constant state of asking" that Wolfe and Davis, respectively, suggest is at the heart of living with, slaughtering and consuming animals. [19]


[1] This was an audio presentation of the original essay, published in Oregon Humanities.

[2] Davis, "The Messy Middle."

[3] Wolfe, Before the Law,40.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wolfe, Subject to Sacrifice, 101.

[7] Wolfe, Subject to Sacrifice 101, Before the Law, 40.

[8] Wolfe, Subject to Sacrifice, 101.

[9] Cronon, "The Trouble with Wilderness," 81, 85-86. I would like also to credit Richard White.

[10] Heidegger, "Question Concerning Technology," 296.

[11] Ibid, 297.

[12] Ibid, 297-298.

[13] Ibid, 297.

[14] Wolfe, Before the Law, 36.

[15] Sloterdijk, "Rules for the Human Zoo," 18.

[16] Wolfe, What is Posthumanism, 69.

[17] Ibid, 71.

[18] Wolfe, Subject to Sacrifice, 101.

[19] Wolfe, What is Posthumanism 71; Davis, "Messy Middle".

Works Cited

Cronon, William, ed. "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the human place in nature. WW Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1996. 69-90.

Davis, Camas. "The Messy Middle." Oregon Humanities. Oregon Humanities Magazine. 15 November. 2013. Web. 10 March. 2014. Web.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology" in Basic writings: from Being and time (1927) to The task of thinking (1964).1977.

"Run Rabbit! No Really, Run." in "Animal Sacrifice." This American Life. NPR. WBEZ. 30 Nov. 2012. Radio.

Sloterdijk, Peter. "Rules for the Human Zoo: a response to the Letter on Humanism." Environment and Planning. 27.1. 2009.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism?. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2010.

-----. "Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis and the Dicourse of Species in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs." Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003.

-----. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012.