First, a disclaimer–this is neither well-thought out nor well written. Also, here is the NPR article that goes with this picture. Photo credit is Greg Zabilski/ABC. Now to the somewhat predictable spin-off rant:
The host of this show (human pictured above) apparently wants people to think about what they are eating. And to think about it as a good American consumer would: in terms of how much it costs. This is veiled in the guise of encouraging more healthy eating (does cheaper automatically equal less healthy?). I’m not criticizing his project as a whole, just pointing to a few implications it has, or, more accurately, the delicious implications of the image above. (I’m also not criticizing the NPR story, which is focused on different issues and is worth reading for itself, especially if you want to know more about the TV show that this image is from.)
I frequently (some might say obsessively) use bovines to explore a lot of cultural issues, and this image and its accompanying article smacks you in the face with a few of them: animals-as-food, commodification of life, and placing monetary value on the spoils of death, to name a few. This cow is being used as a powerful device to illustrate to people how much they are paying for which cuts of meat. It is powerful, for one reason, because the connection between the live animal and its edible products are normally not illustrated so graphically. Cash value has been physically inscribed on a live animal that will, ostensibly, be killed and eaten. This cow stands for the idea of nutritional value for one’s money, and stands for all the beef that Americans consume. (I do wonder if the show at all addresses how value is added to cattle and the various cuts of meat they become…and this reminds me that I should really re-read and do a book review of Shukin’s Animal Capital.)
Honestly, I just love how blatantly monetary value is inscribed on this animal–it becomes a thing, a commodity, right before our eyes, even as it continues to embody movements that might be construed as independent and life-like. But this animals isn’t given a subjectivity of its own. Rather, it is made an object of education; a symbol of itself as a heavily used commodity in the U.S., of American eating and spending habits, of many things, just in this one image. The human next to it uses the animal and makes it mean certain things for his audience; lays his hand on its shoulder as if its body were a blackboard–as, indeed, it has been visually manipulated to become. It is on a leash, and at any moment the man can pick up the other end and have this mobile blackboard tethered to him–the man is in control of this might-as-well-be-dinner educational tool. (Unrelated note: wtf is with the washing machine in the right-hand corner?) This animal is marked for consumption–both as a commodity and as an eventual collection of differentially priced food items.
I just find this all very interesting, is all, and when I come across images such as this one which so clearly capture America’s relationship with food animals and consumerism, I squeal a little inside and have to share it. Mmm…semiotics!