Carol J. Adams – Politics and the absent referent in 2014

carol j

Full video with closed captioning available here

First I want to thank michael for all the work getting us online together and I think this is remarkable and revolutionary in its
own way that we are able to be connected all around the world. So good morning, good evening, wherever you are. I also want to thank Sarah for her very sensitive reminder about the land and for reminding us about the issues of boundaries and respect. I am looking forward to the fact that because this is being recorded, people will be able to access this and use
the ideas and conversations that will happen today. So thank you everybody who has been a part of this. And everybody who is joined in and is participating.

I am also honored that it was called “Neither Man Nor Beast” and that’s one of my less well known books. I have a particular love for it because I feel it captures radical ideas that I wasn’t
able to put in “Sexual Politics of Meat”. I’ve got some slides, so I am going to make that full-screen.

So I wanted to talk about the absent referent and the politics of reproductive justice in 2014. The absent referent is a term I politicized in the “Sexual Politics of Meat”. The absent referent is the literal being who disappears in the eating of dead bodies. There are three ways I see the absent referent functioning. Literally, an animal killed to become food or “meat”. Physically, the animal is dismembered – cut up, generally – sold off as body parts. So the reminder that the animal was a full being, living a life, disappears. Then the third way is metaphorically. Their oppression, someone else’s oppression, becomes a metaphor for another group’s oppression. Where being treated “like a piece of meat” is, would be an example of the metaphor of the absent referent.

Today my concern is the aspect of patriarchal ethics that keeps living beings as absent referents. The female beings who are kept in reproductive slavery to produce eggs and milk for human beings. Ovranofsky famously talked about how for animals, their bodies are the means of production. And for female animals, their bodies are the means for production and reproduction.

In the “Sexual Politics of Meat”, I coined the term feminized protein. I coined this term to highlight the role of female animals in producing milk and eggs. Their bodies transform vegetable protein into feminized protein. We all know that the majority of cows live sad lives of only up to 4 years, though they could live to 20. And that chickens are kept in heinous situations to produce eggs. What I’m interested in is the social construction of animals who are in reproductive slavery. I’m interested in the way this female reproductivity is framed. And I’m grateful to animal activists who send me examples like this one:

[Reading caption] “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?”
(Image: Cow, with a dead quail in her mouth, standing behind a posing male hunter)

This dismissive opinion of her life as having no meaning, in and of itself, is of course one of the first things we notice. But the second thing is the concept that pregnancy is the way that she is fulfilled, as it were. And if she weren’t fulfilled that way, then she would have to be a subordinate in another way, i.e., as a dog, fetching for a hunter. There are so many patriarchal cues in this ad. They are all over the place, between the phallic gun and man – the hunter – standing over the dead pheasants. So the answer is: if she weren’t pregnant, she would  participate in your carnivorous activities, to still be subordinate to you.

Here’s another one from the same campaign:
[Reading caption] “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?”
(Image: Cow looking out the window of a fire truck)

This one is interesting because it’s trying to create a juxtaposition that’s funny. Well, she would become a firefighter. The subtle thing here that I think is going on is that firefighting is still a profession often associated with men. So it could be said that if she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do? Well, she might be taking your job.

Here is another form of reproductive slavery: Producing babies for meat eaters. So this is LISA, this is an advertisement at the annual pork convention in the United States. And LISA, which is the drug being sold, but also the animal here, wants it. This is what it’s telling us, she wants it, she wants to be pregnant. She wants to give you another sow per year. All the cues of feminized sexuality are here. Of course, in real life, this is how a sow would be living. This image was sent to me by Nathan Runkle, from a Mercy for Animals undercover operation in Iowa. In reality, LISA is called a “fat, selfish bitch”. If you can see that in the upper left-hand corner, this sow was labelled “fat selfish bitch”. So, I see a constellation of things going on here, with patriarchal ethics in this specific way functioning in the use of female bodies. You get culturally high-valued protein that ignores suffering; the caring ethic is unvalued or dismissed; reproductive slavery; and the argument that the ends justifies the means.

So the absent referent, is the fact and reality of oppression that disappears when someone’s life become someone else’s pleasure or convenience. And it is reduced simply to being labeled with a language of sexism. Because resistance to this means you have become a “fat selfish bitch.”

What I found operating and I talk about in the “Sexual Politics of Meat” and all my work after that, is overlapping and intersecting absent referents. With LISA, the sow who “wants” to be pregnant with one more piglet a year, we can see that “woman” – the socially constructed notion of feminized sexual cues – is the absent referent in that ad. Non-dominant people often become absent referents as well, and in that intersection, we find how oppressions are connected.

This image from Amherst College, a couple of years ago, is interesting because generally barbecues show a sexualized pig, a LISA-like pig, and has all the cues that it’s female that she is female, buxom and all of that. But this T-shirt has woman as woman. The pig being roasted has disappeared, which frees up the pig stereotype to be applied to men. But I see this as a sign of hate speech about women and women’s bodies. Last year, the Memphis in May barbecue, which is a yearly thing, used this as their image. This is a competition that is competing over how well you cook a dead body. And yet the message here is that it is a female dead body.

This is the retro poster that it was taken from. So here is the Memphis in May, a sexualized pig, and there’s the original. And it was while looking at this and being interviewed by a Memphis paper that I realized that all of this really is hate speech. This is saying it is okay to do these things to women’s bodies.

Here’s an example of not just women’s bodies commodified, but bondage, on a bus. And what I found interesting here was that the New York Times when they carried this in the 1990s used it as an example not of hate speech or misogyny but to show us the new wraparound ads that were coming to buses.

Meanwhile, last year in Texas to show how good his decals were, on the trucks that many Texans drive, he showed — he put a captive woman on a decal. This is a decal, and then he drove around town. Gathering lots of comments. Again, I see this as a hate speech that is so normalized that an individual entrepreneur or a watch company can see posing women like this as a way to sell something else.

This too is the commodification of women’s bodies. Restaurants as they are called, not restaurants, but “breastaurants”, full of commodified… food – dead animals – and hire waitresses to be commodified as well. There is a kind of war going on between Twin Peaks and Hooters and they are both based here in Dallas. So I find it very interesting and sad.

My point is that female bodies are depicted and used as available and controllable, and with that as the cultural context it gives a lot of freedom for there to be more and more attacks on abortion. I believe the attitudes we have seen and the practices of producing animals for food create a climate in which women’s control of our own bodies is not seen as a legitimate right. “What would we be doing if we weren’t pregnant?” is often the underlying question, almost.

So for instance, in Ireland last summer, a lawmaker pulled a female MP onto his lap during an abortion debate. The bodies of nonhuman domesticated females  whose bodies are always available for manipulation and use, seem to be the unspoken cultural background for something like this.

Now in the United States, there’s a lot of attacks on abortions. And last summer, the Democrats did this ad:
[Reading caption] “What do you call female who is not allowed to control her own reproduction? Livestock.” Here the animals are absent referents. The Democrats organizing for America weren’t really concerned about cows and their offspring. Weren’t concerned about reproductive slavery of nonhuman animals. They weren’t protesting the treatment of animals. They did not get it at all. So the animals are absent referent but when I posted this many people thought that’s what it was literally saying. Thinking it was protesting factory farms and the abuse of female animals.

What work like mine and of many other eco-feminists is trying to do is to substitute this use of bodies for a feminist ethic of care. And I know Lori is next and will be talking about entangled empathy, but very briefly, a feminist ethic of care asks: what you going through? What are you going through, if you have an unwanted pregnancy? What are you going through, cow, whose calf has been taken away? We ask that question and we listen for an answer believing that we are responding to someone, not something. We don’t believe the ends of pleasure and eating — consumption – justify the means. Identity isn’t constructed through anxiety, superiority and dominance. Basically, we’re working for reproductive justice, for all.
Thank you.

So “The Pornography of Meat” has some of this material, regarding species and reproductive justice. Online I try to post some resources on a blogspot, but I’m not always inspired and sometimes I find these examples so depressing it takes me a while to actually respond to them. I generally brought them into the slide show, and bring them out when I am showing the slide show. Pretty soon the National Museum of Animals and Society will be making a video copy of the slide show available, and then people could hear or see the entire slide show, which is looking at construction of gender binaries and the way ads reinforce that. I know we will be talking about that later today as well.

I think in terms of resources to challenge this, we’ll also be learning more about that, but anything that helps to challenge social construction of role stereotypes, anything that challenges the structure of the absent referent and examples like this conference that bring us together and help us work to make connections. I think always, always, always saying abortion is a right for women. I was radicalized by a book 20 years ago that said it is not enough to say we want reproductive choice, or that if we don’t have abortion as right, women’s bodies are not safe, and so I feel that the language we choose to talk about reproductive justice is very important.

And legalizing prostitution, I think this is a very, very complex issue and I know you’re asking it from Canada, where the situation is different than in the US. When I was in Australia and this was happening, there was a huge concern that by legalizing prostitution, one of the things that happens is that women have to have health checks, and when they turn out to not pass a health check, they then end up in the non-legal prostitution business, where they’re less safe, and more abused. So there’s a practical issue about how it impacts the people, the women, in prostitution. I’m thinking about women in prostitution, I know that other people are prostituted as well.

The second larger issue is how many women in prostitution were sexually abused as youth and the whole analysis of whether sexual abuse of children, of young girls, is grooming behavior towards prostitution. And how many people who have exited prostitution were sexually abused and talked about how that influenced everything.

The third issue is that as long as prostitution provides for many women a higher income than other jobs, we’ve ended up creating a world of inequality.

Finally I think that the whole point of the feminist movement to me, or one of the points, is that equality is sexy, not inequality. And I think in a patriarchal world, inequality has been made sexy. And I want a world where equality is sexy, and where nonviolence is tasty.

I’m on Twitter @_CarolJAdams. I’m on Facebook and you
can always reach me by email via my website.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Carol J. Adams is a feminist-vegan advocate, activist, and independent scholar whose work explores the cultural construction of intersectional oppressions. Her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory is now in a 20th anniversary edition from Bloomsbury and has been translated into several languages. She is also the author of Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (1994), The Pornography of Meat (2003) and the co-editor of Animals and Women (1995),  The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (2007) (both edited with Josephine Donovan), and the forthcoming Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth, (edited with Lori Gruen). She pioneered work discussing and addressing domestic violence and harm to animals. She is working on a theoretical autobiography.


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