The inedible animal
Perceptions of animals, food and the boundaries of the human among vegans in Denmark and Sweden
|Det uspiselige dyr: Opfattelser af dyr, mad og grænser for det menneskelige blandt veganere i Danmark og Sverige - [Abstract]||Bendtsen, Anna||DK||880
Based on ethnographic fieldwork among a network of vegans in Denmark and Sweden, the thesis explores the relationship between perceptions of animals and eating. Veganism is a form of strict vegetarianism. Vegans avoid not only meat and fish, but all animal products, including eggs, milk, leather, fur, honey, etc. The vegans I studied are young, below thirty, and all but one say that they chose a vegan diet because of their concern either for the natural environment or for the well-being of animals used in farming, industry and science. The latter motivation is the focus of this study, which explores two research questions: Firstly, what are the vegans' perceptions of animals? And secondly, how are these perceptions expressed in and formed by practices, narratives and dialogues concerned with food, the body and eating? In answering these questions I touch upon more general trends in both the perceptions of animals and the position of food and eating in modern societies.
My fieldwork lasted seven months and comprised eighteen qualitative interviews and participant observation, partly in Copenhagen, Denmark, partly on the Internet, where I monitored a Swedish homepage with a discussion board on animal rights and ethical vegetarianism.
The vegans' perceptions of animals are linked to more general trends in the development of Western sentiments toward animals, and their more specific ideas must be understood as a response to the ambiguous position of animals, as part subjects, part objects; part individuals with feelings, part natural automata. In modern society this ambiguity has been formed by our indiscriminate use of animals; by our growing physical and social distance from animals as a result of urbanisation; and by a new closeness - a similitude between humans and animals. This similitude arises from an inner, organic and sensory resemblance between all "living creatures." The similitude and difference between humans and animals defines the dual status of the modern human being, who is both part of the animal kingdom and apart from it.
These general attitudes and sentiments are expressed in the symbolism surrounding meat in the Western world, where ethical veganism in its present form has primarily developed. Meat symbolises life, power, masculinity and control, but also death and violence. The vegans focused on the latter meanings. They proposed that the animal's death evokes human mortality, because of the similitude between them and us. Thus, the illness, decay and ultimate death of the eater was made visible.
The vegans addressed questions about humanity's relation to the natural environment, and while questioning the boundaries that separate humans from animals they offered an understanding of the dual status of the human. They described animals by comparing them with humans, even when their definition of (ethically relevant) animals was very wide, including insects. They emphasized similitude, while the differences between humans and animals mostly remained implicit. Nevertheless, the ability to know, speak and act consciously was described as a specifically human attribute. While human-animal distinctions were downplayed in conversations, they played a large role in the vegans' daily practices, narratives and dialogues about food, eating and embodiment. By acting, and more specifically, by avoiding all animal products, the vegans defined what was, or ought to be, human. While the refusal to consume animal products was clearly a reaction to the perceived similitude between humans and animals, it could also be interpreted as a way of refusing consubstantiality, and, in effect, expressing physical and existential discontinuity between humans and animals.
Ethical veganism and vegetarianism illustrate the meaning of eating in societies such as Denmark and Sweden. In everyday life, we choose among a wide variety of menus, and eating is increasingly seen as an expression of the individualised self and its maintenance of distinct bodily boundaries. In my thesis, the existential emphasis on free choice leads to a conceptualisation of the vegans' choice of food as life politics. The term life politics describes the experienced connection between the individual and global problems, and it was precisely this connection the vegans expressed, when they related their daily meals to abstract notions of animal liberation.
The vegans' decision to avoid all animal products was negotiated intersubjectively. Meals were a prime example of this, highlighting the tension between the internal solidarity of the commensal group on the one hand, and individual eating practices on the other. By turning down offers of food containing animal ingredients, the vegans excluded themselves from the community around the table, especially in family contexts. This was at times felt as a loss, as was the choice not to eat foods associated with childhood or holidays, such as Christmas. On the other hand, the tension between social eating and embodied protest could be used positively: For the vegans, meals were a way to communicate their perceptions of animals and the pleasures of vegan food.
Analytically, the thesis demonstrates the inappropriateness of separating thoughts or ideology from practical, social life when seeking to understand how the vegans perceive animals. Their attempt to align ideology with everyday practice - to be consistent and pure - was for many a simultaneously moral and aesthetic project. Thoughts about animals were also embodied as feelings of repugnance, especially toward meat, which most vegans in this study considered inedible.
However, while on an analytical level "ideology" and "practice," "thought" and "feeling," were intertwined, empirically these notions were often held to be separate, and were a source of considerable discussion among the vegans. The study suggests a typology - of "extroverts" versus "pure vegans" - which highlights different attitudes toward the relationship between narratives about animals and everyday practice in what I call the practical utopia of the vegans. "The extroverts" emphasised the need to convince non-vegans. They accepted the fact that there is one paradox of human consumption that cannot be eliminated: Food is required for the continuation of life, but entails the death of the organisms consumed. "The extroverts" were less strict in their control of what crossed bodily boundaries than "the pure vegans," who hoped to eliminate the paradox by ensuring that nothing of animal origin became part of them through eating.