Tag Archives: non-human animals

Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 

Quandary

Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
Submit your question by May 15 for a chance to win a free book!

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Filed under Animals, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Voicing the Voiceless

Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.

I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.

My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.

I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!

When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.

And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Power

As Seen on a Greeting Card

A lithographed drawing of a cow, with the text:

“You’re useful and delicious.”

And now for some analysis…

The Humor Angle

So one reason humor “happens” is when two usually unrelated things are presented right next to one another. In this case, the cow is being simultaneously given subjectivity by an unseen speaker (the card/speaker addresses the cow in the second person–you) and is immediately objectified (made an object by the card/speaker telling the cow how useful it is as food and whatnot). So the humor is in the unexpected collision of these two states of being that are bestowed upon the cow: it is given subjectivity only to have it taken away in the service of a human smile.

It is also funny because it combines admiration and brutal honesty. The narrator of the card is writing this ode of appreciation to the cow because it can be killed and used for food and clothing and other human needs. The narrator is defining what the cow is in human terms. It is appreciating it for its lack of agency–its lack of subjectivity–even as it ironically addresses it as if it is a subject, not an object.

Expanding the Analysis

Of course, the entire card objectifies the cow–an icon both standing for itself as an individual who can be addressed (although not easily interpellated*) as a singular subject, as well as a representative of an entire category of non-human animal. The cow is an object that conveys humor to the reader, the consumer of the card. Who is a human. Who identifies with the sentiments expressed on the card in the act of chuckling at their meaning. Haha, cows are delicious and useful! That cow doesn’t know what it’s in for…ha! The narrator could be interpreted as tricking the cow, first lulling it into a false sense of camaraderie (you implies that the speaker and the addressee are equal in the sense that they can communicate with one another as individuals), and then destroying those expectations built just moments before by putting the cow in the place of being a mere representative of a type. A class of animal that humans have categorically created to be the very things that the narrator is seemingly praising the individual cow for being: useful and delicious. See cow? You aren’t a person. You’re just an object. A thing with desired characteristics.

It’s quite an instance of animal cruelty, when you think about it. Albeit a funny one that only the humans are in on. Which is in turn exclusionary and therefore rather mean.
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*I use interpellation here in the Althusserian sense, although I’m also twisting it. For Althusser, the subject is always already existent, created by social processes. While I think the subject still has to interact with the social situation in order to become a subject of the interaction (uptake/use makes meaning!). Althusser contends that the social interaction itself creates subjects; that the structure makes subjects of what the structure hails. Maybe…I’m a bit fuzzy on this, actually. Grad school was a while ago.

ANYWAY, since I am of the nihilistic relativist opinion that there is no way to absolutely know whether or not you are communicating with another species–or even another human being who is ostensibly of “the same” culture–it would be very difficult indeed for the narrator of the card to claim that the cow it is addressing was interpellated with the narrator’s use of “you,” even if the cow chose at that moment to serendipitously look over at the narrator.

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Filed under Animals, Bovinity Infinity, Contemporary

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay

Sartorial Bovinity: Quick, What’s the Opposite of a Monkey Suit?

Hospital of Make Believe: Bear and Monkey Expected to Make Full Recovery

These stuffed toys grace the display area of a non-profit that deals in durable medical equipment. They demonstrate the friendly, benign nature of a standard hospital bed, serving to cheer up the often more grim realities associated with such equipment. The monkey, especially, adds a note of whimsy by being dressed up as a cow. There is a (small?) trend in the world of stuffed toys to dress one animal species in the “suit” of another. This is generally received to be “cute,” but one wonders what other meanings and implications such sartorial animality has.

Perhaps it is cute because it is odd…odd to see one type of the general category of “animal” pretending to be another type. When humans pretend to be other animals, there is a different reaction, although perhaps I should compare this with humanoid dolls in animal “clothing.” In which case, it is seen to be cute, as well. My point was going to be that humans in Western culture see themselves as set apart from the general category of “animal,” which lumps together all others. It is just difficult to trace out the various categorical intersections, interstices, and radical separations without delving into extreme fieldwork that involves thousands of participants. So I will leave it at this:

What do you think of the monkey above, of animals pretending to be other animals, and of representations of animals (especially those used in play) being dressed up as other animals? And finally, is the other animal necessarily also Other?

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Filed under Animals, Bovinity Infinity, Contemporary