Monday, February 04, 2013

On Animal Use and Disassociation

I was minutes away from going to bed last night when a few quick scans of Google News brought me to an article in a publication called VICE (which is apparently available in various cities and particularly in US clothing store chain American Apparel's). "Nicola Jayne Hebson: Vegan Taxidermist Extraordinaire" is a grotesquely illustrated interview with a self-described vegan who basically carves up the bodies of dead animals and who either dresses them up in "cute" outfits to pose them or turns them into fashion accessories for public consumption or entertainment. Have a look yourselves.

I cannot help but speculate whether Hebson's interviewer was seeking to generate the sort of controversy akin to that generated whenever members of the mainstream media profile opportunists who self-identify as either former or current vegans who have decided to involved themselves in some sort of hands-on animal exploitation. Over the last few years, articles have popped up periodically about these "vegans" (i.e. whether past or present) who have become hunters or butchers, or who have opted to start up small animal-rearing farms, and who in most cases insist quite adamantly that the animals whose lives they take--whose bodies they cut up--have lived the happiest and most fulfilling of lives. You have no doubt seen at least a few of these articles.

What differs about this article about Hebson is that she (at least as far as she admits) plays no role whatsoever in what happens to those animals while they are alive and before their bodies end up in her possession.
"I would never kill or harm another animal for the purpose of my art. My only intentions are to preserve the beauty of animals that would otherwise be discarded and labeled as waste."
Their bodies are found by her or found by others who forward them to her. They are other animals whose lives have mostly ended in forests and along country roads, whether from old age, disease, predation or thanks to human encroachment. "I’m basically just recycling," says Hebson. I always carry plastic bags and a little knife with me everywhere I go just in case I stumble upon something interesting."

This attitude is one that comes up often with self-described vegans who sometimes attempt to justify engaging in freeganism and in consuming animal products they find. Why let it go to waste? There are a few possible response to this question, the first of which I think requires that we ask ourselves whether the animal product in question would in fact "go to waste".  In the case of dumpster-diving or otherwise sourcing discarded foodstuff, how could an individual be certain that a non-vegan trailing behind him or her would not eagerly claim and consume the animal product in question? Where the bodies of other animals retrieved from nature are concerned, what about the carnivorous or omnivorous animals (from mammals to insects) who rely on these bodies to nourish themselves or their families and extended communities? Or the nutrients from these decomposing or decaying bodies that leach into the soil to nourish trees and plants that provide shelter or food for those other animals?

Hebson's opportunistic "recycling", however, differs somewhat from the animal use shrugged off by freegans. In both cases, attempts are made to justify animal use by disassociating oneself morally from how the animal was treated while living and by pointing out that one was not complicit in the taking of that other animal's life. If you think about it a little, this sounds eerily similar to the sort of mindset cultivated by vegetarians who justify their continued consumption of eggs and dairy by insisting that they source them from the "good-hearted farmer down the road who just lurvs his animals as if they were his own children" and who insist that consuming an animal's secretions somehow differs morally from consuming her flesh, since she she needs to be slaughtered for the latter. (Of course, you and I know that animals lives are indeed taken in the egg industry with millions of male chicks sometimes ground alive to be disposed of at hatcheries, and with spent hens sent off to the slaughterhouse to have every last cent squeezed out of them by turning them into frozen pot pies or pet food). We know that cows are repeatedly impregnated in the dairy industry and that their calves--those who are not plugged back into the cycle by being forced to follow in their mothers' paths--are sent off to become "veal", boots and wallets.)

The thing is that with freegans, gobbling down the food in question (whether vegan or otherwise) is usually the end of it--unless the freegan walks around self-identifying loudly as "vegan" and basically communicates to all of the non-vegans around him or her that vegans sometimes consume easily-avoidable animal products deliberately, and that this is morally excusable and perhaps even acceptable. However, there is nothing vegan about choosing to consume easily-avoidable animal products, regardless of whether one was complicit in the taking of the lives of those animals from whom those products are derived. Using "avoiding waste" as an excuse is bunk, whether or not a non-vegan is in fact waiting in line to snap up the animal product for herself. To label it "waste" if it is not consumed by a human seems to imply that the product's worth or value continues to be measured in terms of its use for humans. If we as vegans claim to believe that other animals aren't things for us to use, it it not strange to weigh products derived from them in this manner?

Hebson claims that she uses the found bodies of other sentient creatures in her "art" so that these bodies not be deemed "waste" by others. What she is doing, though, is seeking to profit from animal use. She mutilates their bodies to transform them into odd and sometimes shocking commonplace or dresses them up to construct what I guess is expected to amount to an amusing or entertaining presentation. She says in the interview:
I think society at large has a schizophrenic and often hypocritical relationship with our fellow creatures here on earth; I often reference these issues in my work. I think if my work creates debate, if it stimulates critical thought, and questions the so-called “norms” of society then I can only see that as being a good thing.
She is certainly correct in suggesting that society has a schizophrenic and often hypocritical relationship with the other sentient beings on our planet. She may indeed get people--like me, for instance--thinking and talking about this schizophrenic and often hypocritical relationship. What Hebson has me thinking, though, is that she's quite confused to call herself vegan while treating other animals as things whose sole ultimate purpose (lest they be deemed waste) is to have existed dead or alive for human pleasure. Yet she mutilates animals and sells these parts for the pleasure of others; if you read the article closely, her language also belies the great pleasure she derives from both her finds and what she ends up doing to them.

As a vegan, I would certainly never buy the animal parts she sells at her Etsy shop, "Dead Good". Vegans don't just not eat animal products. We do not consume or otherwise use animal products because we reject, on moral or ethical grounds, participating in others' exploitation. Whether she consumes or sells animal products, Hebson is indeed participating in animal exploitation and is far from vegan. Her misrepresentation as a vegan in this article either represents a deliberate attempt to rile up controversy, or it represents--no thanks to many large animal welfare organizations--the pathetic culmination of overlapping layers of misunderstanding spreading out in the media about what veganism actually is about and about what it stands for. I'm hoping for the former, but am resigning myself to the latter.


Katie said...

It's nice that people can have different beliefs and opinions about things, isn't it? :)

M said...

For people who want to profit at the expense of others, maybe, but not necessarily for those others.

I mean, some people think that women should be forced to stay at home unless accompanied by an adult male to supervise them in public. Some believe that it's alright to force a 13-year-old girl into marriage with a man 4-5 times her age who will rape her. Would you throw a passive-aggressive "it's nice that people can have different beliefs and opinions about things, isn't it" in response to something like that.

It's a sorry society whose members care only about their own well-being, even if that well-being comes at the expense of others. People can hold whichever beliefs and opinions they choose, but it doesn't make those beliefs and opinions right. It doesn't make the behaviours they justify because of those beliefs and opinions moral.

frostylock said...

Veganism (/ˈviːgənɪzəm/) is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, as well as an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of sentient animals. A follower of veganism is known as a vegan.

Distinctions are sometimes made between different categories of veganism. Dietary vegans (or strict vegetarians) refrain from consuming animal products, not only meat and fish but, in contrast to ovo-lacto vegetarians, also eggs, dairy products and other animal-derived substances. The term ethical vegan is often applied to those who not only follow a vegan diet, but extend the vegan philosophy into other areas of their lives, and oppose the use of animals or animal products for any purpose. [1] Another term used is environmental veganism, which refers to the rejection of animal products on the premise that the harvesting or industrial farming of animals is environmentally damaging and unsustainable. [2]

M said...

Frostylock, there are no "categories" of veganism. Veganism is not a diet and as it was originally defined and intended, it is about the rejection of animal exploitation and entails refraining from participating in (or providing demand for) animal exploitation.

Cassie K said...

Well said!

FoodandLoathing said...

I read this article when it came out as well, and I wasn't very sure how I felt about it. I almost (almost!) like the idea of creating art from the found bodies of animals, if that art is purposefully grotesque and demonstrates the schizophrenia people have about their treatment of animals. But her making these little bags and wallets or whatever out of them? Excuse me while I vomit into my vinyl purse. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if MANY people, vegan or not, would be disgusted by her bags with animal heads on them, and that, it could be said, demonstrates how absurd it is to not be equally as disgusted by a wallet made from cow or calf skin.

I try not to get very upset about how people label themselves (although, granted, I often rail against "vegetarians" who eat fish), and the fact that this woman eats vegan is great. I don't think she's worthy of too much scorn. A little scorn, but not a lot. She's got a macabre idea of art, but she not really hurting anyone -- only, possibly, disrespecting them. One could argue that this is respectful in her view, and she'd like to do it to humans as well. But if her doing this started some kind of a trend, I'd be extremely upset.

So, like I said, feeling mixed.

Daniel Wilson said...

This reminds me of that doctor who cuts open bodies of deceased people - with their permission beforehand - and displays them to the public. Nobody is harmed, but I think it's sick. My two cents...

Micha said...

You are missing the point, Katie. The discussion is not about some foggy category of "things". It is about the immorality of using non-human corpses for human (here: financial)goals. It is absurd to call this art and vegan. And it is neither an opinion nor a belief. It is simply a big disgrace and violation of the one basic right not to be treated as a thing. And we don't turn into things when we're dead, don't we?! The same applies to non-humans.