Art, Meat, and the Lives and Deaths of Animals
"Determining Whose Life is Grievable is an Act of Framing"
In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), Judith Butler writes that when one mourns they submit to the transformations that come about as an effect of loss. To mourn is to submit to the transformation of loss. Such a task requires one to admit that a loss has taken place. To lose is, in a way, to accept that the other was somehow tied to you, which is to say, I am composed of the ties I have with others. I am co-composed by others. So, when I lose an other I stray, become lost to myself. In this time of loss, I recognize that I exist, fundamentally, in a state of relationality. I am bound to others and torn away from myself; I am autonomous, distinct, delineated and recognizable as well as being unrecognizable to myself because I am tethered to, and dependent on, the lives and deaths of others.
Try to tell the story of a death, writes Butler, and you will discover that your being—your ability to speak—is called into question. Perhaps you will not be reduced to speechlessness, but your speech will, nonetheless, become littered with signs and symptoms of your undoing. Speech marked for death, by death, stutters and stammers as reports carry death from somewhere “over there” into my body, my mind and my mouth. “My narrative falters,” Butler concludes, “as it must.”
In 2006, the poet Eileen Myles assisted her companion Rosie, a pit bull, through the transition from life into death. On Myles’s website, there is a blurred picture of Rosie moments after she has been euthanized. Rosie’s body is a landscape of light and shadow. She is, Myles writes, lying “in state.” There are bright flowers placed beneath Rosie’s white chin, collected by the vet’s assistant just after Rosie had slipped away. The image is spectral, almost impossible to read. Like a ghost, Rosie’s body is both unseeable and undoubtedly there.
During Rosie’s year of decline, Myles became obsessed with her death. Not just with the fact of her dying, but with Rosie’s relationship to her own death. On Myles’s website, there is a photograph that shows Rosie, arthritic, standing on a patch of grass and staring out into a bar of light. Here, Myles sees Rosie pondering her own mortality and is called to consider the constellation of relations that make Rosie’s identity, the patterns of her days (their days together), and all the people and things from which Rosie is becoming dispossessed.
As she dies, her body is transformed. Her joints are sore-swollen. After Rosie’s death, Myles documents the transformation of her own body. Without the regular walks she would take with Rosie, Myles grew heavier around the waist and hips. She carried the weight of her “little dead dog” beneath her skin. Her body had turned into a kind of memorial.
Mourning was part of Eileen’s devotion to Rosie. She describes this practice as a “dog craft,” a ritual, a whole-body communication; a body listening and a series of embodied responses. There is a lot of cleaning up to do when someone dies at home, Myles writes. There are schedules to make, an endless need for towels. Myles describes the way she would wash Rosie when she peed on herself. “Washing her ass first. With a small silver bowl and warm water and special dog medicated shampoo so her belly and legs and ass won’t get red and sore.”
Guiding someone into death in such a way is to live, for a time, in a state of going gently and being yes. Being yes towards the life of the dying . . . What can this mean, to bear witness to or seek out testimony of the lives and deaths of others? Is it a practice where one, at the very least, refuses to turn away from reports that speak of how others die? Is it a refusal to allow any life being cast as unreal, unlived and therefore ungrievable?
In Frames of War (2009), Judith Butler writes that determining whose life is grievable is an act of framing—an act that determines how one sees the world. Framing is an operation of power, a kind of selectivity that aims “to delimit the sphere of appearance itself.” The framing of life shapes awareness of life. And, in turn, awareness of different kinds of life shapes how anyone might deal with thoughts and feelings about the ways a life can and should begin and end. The importance of Butler’s thinking is that it points out how anyone can come to be open to the deaths of some and closed to the deaths of others.
Recently, a friend of mine, who is a multispecies ethnographer living and studying in Israel, described to me what it was like to watch slaughterers at work in both westernized and kosher meat production facilities. She told me that, as the killing began, her heart locked down, her ears sealed over; her eyes, nose and brain tried to slam shut against the sounds, smells and sights of the slaughterhouse. She said that she felt a veil, a shadow or a darkened screen come down over her body, her senses. After one field trip, as she was driving home, she caught sight of her own face in the rear-view mirror. It was still lightly sprayed with blood. It was then that she started to process the intensity of what she had seen.
From what I understood of her story, the visual horizon of violence that takes place in the slaughterhouse buffered her between mind-numbing horror and a shame-filled collusion in the act of killing. After hours of watching cows have their necks cut, there came a time when she wanted it all to be over. She saw herself, as if in a waking nightmare, walking back out into the stockyard to count how many cows were left for the day. I could hear in her voice that such a thought was in itself traumatic; a wounding reality.
Like Myles, my friend went down into death with all those cows, despite her visceral discomfort. When she emerged, her body responded to the visions of slaughter in disturbing ways. She felt her ears quivering in the way she had seen the ears of freshly slaughtered cows quiver . . . The killing was ghosting her body.
In The Art of Cruelty (2011), Maggie Nelson considers artistic visions that grapple with the fact that all live flesh will one day become meat. Such a situation casts a shadow that “accompanies us throughout our lives.” The situation of meat, Nelson writes, is an act of bald and preventable cruelty; a way of behaving towards others, a certain kind of violence. Nelson’s work provokes me to think about the way our cultural imaginations are deeply involved in conceptual operations that often blur or save us from acknowledging—but might also facilitate a more nuanced capacity to think about—the lives of animals bred for slaughter. Rather than being disconnected, art is closely tethered to how one might view the lives and deaths of animals because art contributes powerfully to the ways in which we frame the world.
In Julia Ducournau’s recent horror film, Raw, veterinary students are put through gruesome hazing rituals during their first week at college. Beaten, sexually assaulted and splattered in animal blood, they emerge broken but enshrined in the spirit of solidarity to be the future leaders of animal health, care, and wellbeing. The film follows Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, who discovers an insatiable hunger for all kinds of meat (human included) after she is forced to eat a raw kidney as part of her initiation. The drama of the film escalates as Justine attempts to push against her cannibalistic urges while finding that they can, at times, in an environment of intense misogynistic violence, provide a bizarre form of self-defense.
The horror and intelligence of the film arrives in its demonstration of the way hazing rituals create atmospheres of sensorial and bodily intensity that produce a disoriented state of mind—to be hazed or hazy is to be blurry. Philosopher Michael J Cholbi writes that part of the success of hazing is the induction of “cognitive dissonance in its victims.” Initiates are coerced to alter their attitudes in ways that conflict with their own safety, and the safety of others, for the duration of the transaction.
Hazing involves spectacles that highlight material and ethical inequalities; they take advantage of inequalities to fetishise grossly unfair distributions of power. All of this produces a murky state of mind in the hazer. This murkiness is intensified by the use of humiliation, persecution, harassment and the completion of meaningless and difficult tasks. Some psychological precedents set by these rituals are the belief that blind obedience is a relevant and valid response to situations of increasing and intense violence; the assurance that good people can do bad things to others, for no reason at all; and that violence is a way of life.
In the situation of hazing, vulnerability becomes amplified and yet, seized in the intensity of it, mindfulness of the connection between vulnerability and killability might, on the part of the hazer, be cruelly ignored. Raw centres on a kind of hazing that reduces the initiates to what Maggie Nelson calls the situation of meat. Animalised and brutalised in body and mind, their individuality is killed and the college hierarchy is amplified as the film cruises back-and-forth between perceived human/meat, subject/object boundaries. Loaded with all manner of extreme sensory experiences (explosions of sound, visions of binge drinking, Dionysian raves and extended beatings) designed to push Justine beyond the limits of her volatile environment, I discovered that the film’s intensity blurred my ability—and, at times, willingness—to focus. Presented with visions of calculated and escalating threats of physical harm and humiliation, I tended to shut down, to hollow out. In other words, faced with the task of watching the deadlock of a slave psychology grow in force, it became easier not to think. At times, during the film, it was impossible to think.
Later, when I was able to reflect on my experience of Raw—its portrayal of hazing—I recalled tactics used by some vanguard artists, such as Hermann Nitsch, whose artistic experiments engage a mixture of destruction and intensity with the aim of bringing spectators into a heightened realm of sensorial alertness. In a 2011 interview with Scott Indrisek in Modern Painter, Nitsch argued for art as an arbiter with which we can “use and protect all of our senses.”
Nitsch’s recent ritual bloodbath 150.Action—a three-hour performance staged at the 2017 Dark Mofo festival in Tasmania—venerated cruelty, destruction and sacrifice to a place of creation, intimacy and virtue. Using five hundred litres of blood, the broke-down body of a slaughtered bull, the bull’s intestines and simulated crucifixions, this art piece enacted a spectacle of disfigurement and gore. In the words of one participant, performers were invited to initiate “an orgy of raw reality” by tearing the bull’s body apart and screaming.
In The Art of Cruelty, Nelson develops a suspicion for artworks that revere and utilise cruelty as “a sort of hazing, or threshold,” via which viewers are to be catapulted beyond civilised spaces wracked with hypocritical moralising, tired social contracts and fruitless ethical deliberations. One of the ideas behind art of this kind goes like this: when one is uprooted from the “normal” conditions of everyday life they might be released into a more ‘natural’, ‘animal’ or sensually heightened state of being. In Modern Painters Nitsch puts it this way: “There must be more intensity—that’s the best politics.” But what kind of politics does such intensity produce? What kind of world do such politics produce?
Nelson identifies Nitsch in a line-up of artists (including the Marquis de Sade, Nietzsche and Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty) who engage with the metaphysical concept that cruelty holds the world together. Such thinking understands cruelty as having the power to disrupt the “normal” functioning of the world and rearrange it. “It was,” Nelson writes, “of course, of little concern to Sade, or Nietzsche, or Artaud what kind of world, or what amount of suffering, the exaltation of such principles bring about.”
The intensity of 150.Action aims at communicating the process by which bodies become meat. It celebrates the idea that non-consenting animals are natural and inevitable sacrifices, their lives purpose-bred for violence. This is summed up in the performance tag line, the biblical verse Matthew 26:26, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In the Bible this line is attributed to Jesus at the scene of the last supper. In Nitsch’s context it is, presumably, given as a statement of consent spoken by none other than the bull’s body-turned-meat.
In the lead up to the performance of 150.Action, much was made of the kinds of mixed feelings, ethical ambivalences and contradictory ideas that define contemporary debates around animal slaughter. When asked by Scott Indrisek of his clashes with animal rights activists, Nitsch outlines his own “activist” pursuits, which amount to celebrating the death of animals, rather than recognizing their rights. “To use the carcass for my performances: Michelangelo and Rembrandt used human bodies for art. I think it’s a celebration of nature, and a celebration of the animal, to use them in my performances.” Following this logic, one enters an intricate hierarchy of concern that places the celebration of the idea of animal life over and above the practical pursuit of leaving animals to live or die for themselves. In the lead up to the performance, the prevailing logic that supported the work was elaborated along the following lines: if this bull is going to die anyway (as David Walsh wrote, “it will end up in burgers or cat food”) it may as well have one hell of a funeral and spark some debate over moral hypocrisies along the way. And this did happen, in part: there was an intensity of noise over the performance in its lead up. But where has that intensity left the situation of meat?
More like a hazing ritual than a body listening, 150.Action keeps the narrative frame of the bull’s life ethically narrow and ontologically unimaginative, while excluding outright the possibility that the bull might have had his own (different) ideas about life and death. I have a suspicion, too, that even if the meat ghost of the slaughtered bull had anything to say, it wouldn’t be heard over the racket of the show’s orchestra or the participants’ screaming.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 23.
 Judith Butler, Frames of War (New York: Verso, 2009), 1.
 Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 175.
 Michael J Cholbi, “On Hazing” Public Affairs Quarterly 23.2 (2009): 147.
 See Xiothica’s post-performance Youtube review ‘Being part of Hermann Nitsch’s 150.Action’: www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS3P9D6Z0-E.
 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 17.
 Scott Indrisek, “Intensity is the Best Politics,” Modern Painters (2015): 69.
 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 18.
 David Walsh, “Rising Tide,” posted to the MONA Blog, April 19, 2017. https://mona.net.au/blog/2017/04/rising-tide
This essay originally appears in The Lifted Brow #35.