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Fishing in Fiction: A Critical Animal Studies Analysis of Fishing in Two Examples of Popular Fishing Literature
Abstract: Fishing is a powerful social and psychological signifier in modern Western society. Fishing literature is a popular genre that often incorporates depictions of fish and fishing in association with explorations of the human condition, including ideas about religion, masculinity and nature as therapy. This paper explores the ways that such associations often neglect to acknowledge the fish as representative of embodied animals with the capacity to feel pain and suffer.
Keywords: Fly fishing, fishing literature, fish welfare, literary animal representations
Fishing is a powerful social and psychological signifier in modern Western society. Fish are associated with symbol and sanctity, motif and myth, food and festivity, pet and pastime. Depictions of fish and fishing also appear frequently in print, suffusing the genres of fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, instructional literature, and sports literature. Many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical texts about fishing share one important trait in addition to positioning fish and their capture as a key focus. They suggest, often in their titles, that fishing is linked with the search for the meaning of life. Examples include John Gierach’s Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing (1990), Jeremy Paxton’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life (1995), Dan Keating’s Angling Life: A Fisherman Reflects on Success, Failure and the Ultimate Catch (2011), and Fly-Fishing – The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice (2012), written by Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer and Reverend Michael Attas. These narratives, along with a number of fictional
texts that have emerged in the last few decades, belong to a subgenre of narrative fiction that
might be called “fishing literature.”
Certainly, fishing is a pastime that seems to offer more than just a way to gain a meal, or, as David James Duncan phrases it, to “feed not just the bodies but the souls of fly fishers” (302). For those who do not catch fish, fishing literature provides a way for the uninitiated to participate in the existential journey through others. However, fishing literature also highlights the complex set of cultural meanings that attach to fishing – the way this practice relates to ideas about humanity, animality, modernity, culture, and nature. Adrian Franklin explains that national discourses determine why fishing and hunting occur in different countries, though there are common themes (359-63). One such theme is fishing as an escape of modern life and a reconnection with nature; another theme involves the relationship between fishing and masculinity.
While fishing is a prolific endeavor worldwide that takes on various forms, my focus is fly fishing, that is, recreational fishing with a line, hook, and artificial lure in place of live bait.16 Fly fishing is a style of sport fishing in which the focus is on skill, pleasure, and recreation rather than hunting fish for the purpose of trade or subsistence.17 While the term “fishing literature” encompasses non-fiction and autobiographical works, I have chosen to analyze depictions of fishing in two acclaimed novels situated within the subgenre of fishing literature: Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It (1976) and David James Duncan’s The River Why (1983). It is important to study novels because they are a popular form of cultural narrative and thus are linked to history and culture. As Philip Armstrong states, “Literary texts testify to the shared emotions, moods and thoughts of people in specific historical moments and places, as they are influenced by – and as they influence – the surrounding socio-cultural forces and systems” (4). This means that depictions of animals in fiction have the power to impact the way that a society considers and treats animals in reality. Therefore, after outlining how these novels are based around themes relating to Christianity, nature therapy, escapism, atavism, fraternity, and masculinity, I adopt a Critical Animal Studies perspective to argue that the fish depicted in these narratives have become so imbued with meaning that we are obstructed from considering the animal beneath.
Fishing and Christianity
A River Runs Through It is a semi-autobiographical novella that follows the life of two brothers, Paul and Norman, who are raised in Montana, fishing the Blackfoot River. The majority of the story takes place around 1937 when Norman and Paul are in their thirties. Growing up, the boys are close and practice catechisms, fly fishing, and fist fighting together. As they mature they grow apart, and Paul leads a dual existence: he is a respected journalist, loving son, gifted fisherman, and Norman’s younger brother, but also a compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, and pugilist. Norman and his father use fishing as a way to connect with Paul and reunite the family through their shared devotion to fly fishing. When Paul is murdered in 1939, Norman reflects on their fishing trips. He is haunted by the inadequacy of his efforts to help Paul, yet finds comfort in the memories of fishing the Blackfoot River.
Maclean opens with the line: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (1). Sons of a Scottish minister, Norman and Paul spent a comparable number of hours learning about fishing as they did studying religion. The relationship between Christianity and fishing is strong in this novella, just as it is in Western culture. Indeed, fishing and Christianity have a history of being coupled (Kroupi 107). Significantly, the acrostic symbol associated with the ancient Greek word ichthys (fish) has long been used as a signifier for Jesus Christ. Biblical references to fishing lead Peter Hathaway Capstick to surmise, “It’s pretty clear that God held fishermen in quite high esteem; or maybe it was just their patience. In any case, an awful lot of Disciples fished full time” (144), and one cannot overlook the “fishbasher,” a gruesome weapon also known as a “priest,” in reference to Catholicism and the delivering of last rites.
The link between fishing and Christianity is also reinforced in The River Why when the protagonist, Gus Orviston, declares “moral condemnation of fish killing doesn’t get far before it runs smack up against Jesus himself, who fed fish to the multitudes” (Duncan 133). Set in Portland, Oregon, Duncan’s novel follows the life of Gus, the son of fishing-fanatical parents Henning Hale-Orviston and Carolina Carper Henley. Gus finds himself caught between the relentless competitive banter between his mother – a staunch bait fisher – and his father, who is a devout fly fisherman. Tired of the bickering, Gus leaves home to live in a cabin near a river he calls the “Tamanawis.” Here he spends his days in relative isolation, fishing while contemplating the meaning of life. Gus’s idyllic existence soon changes as he experiences insomnia and depression. When he discovers a corpse in the river he begins to question God and obsess over his own mortality. The many people Gus encounters while fishing the Tamanawis each teach him something about what it means to be human, but it is only when he finds love with Eddy, a gifted fisherwoman, that he feels genuinely fulfilled.
In addition to reinforcing the link between fishing and Christianity, these narratives allude to the influence of Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Walton’s 1653 treatise comprises instructional fishing passages, pastoral drama, verses, biblical proverbs, and social-political commentary, and is credited as being the most influential published work on fly fishing. Walton’s text was the first to present angling as “equally a philosophical as much as a physical pursuit,” which led to its being credited with “the historical development of angling” in England (MacGregor 308). Mark Browning states that Walton’s text was a “coded message to Anglicans, with Anglers serving as a not-too-subtle metaphor for his fellow-believers”; thus, just as “the early Christians used the sign of the… [fish] to camouflage their activities, so does Walton some fifteen centuries later use fish to camouflage his Anglican spirituality” (25, 26). This constructs Walton as a kind of piscatorial priest and his anglers as members of a covert priesthood. In Walton’s own words, “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than Angling,” and he privileges angling over other forms of hunting because “water is the eldest daughter of the Creation, the Element upon which the Spirit of God did first move” (262, 185). Allusions to Christianity and The Compleat Angler underpin the sentiment that recreational fishing is a means to heal the wounds and ease the stresses caused by modern life in these examples of fishing literature.
Fishing and Nature Worship
As well as Christianity, there is another form of worship present in Duncan’s novel. “Nature religion” is a loosely constructed covenant largely associated with the 19th century transcendental movement. The transcendental movement, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was largely responsible for the idealization of nature as a place where transcendental experiences were most likely to occur. The sacralization of nature saw the wilderness replace the church for many people, including American Transcendentalist writer, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, is one of the most celebrated literary nature treatises, and has been strongly associated with spiritual approaches to nature ever since. In Walden, Thoreau records his experience living for two years in a small cabin in the woods a mile from his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau presents his sojourn in nature as an experiment to illustrate that aspects of civilization are harmful to humanity, and show nature as the best place for humans to live an authentic life and experience transcendence. Similarly, in The River Why, Gus leaves home to live alone in a cabin by a river. He states that his aim is to escape his urban woes and seek answers to the meaning of life in nature (Duncan 55). Familiar with The Compleat Angler, he asks, “Who is this ‘God of Nature’” that Isaak Walton constructs in his treatise, and he wonders why in all his time fishing he has never encountered Him (Duncan 37). There are multiple allusions to Walden in The River Why; for example, Duncan borrows Thoreau’s chapter title, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” This indicates that Duncan is comparing Gus’s sabbatical to Thoreau’s nature experiment. Both Thoreau and Gus abandon urban environments to sojourn alone in nature, and this constructs immersion in nature as a mode of escapism.
The Transcendentalists believe nature is the place to experience transcendence, and Gus Orviston does indeed have a transcendental experience in nature. After some time fishing the Tamanawis alone, Gus encounters a fisherwoman named Eddy. The two enter into a romantic relationship, and when Eddy reveals that she must leave Gus for a brief trip to Portland, Gus feels dejected. On the day of her departure, Eddy and Gus are fishing and they hook a Chinook salmon. Eddy tells Gus to “play” the fish and then leaves him beside the river. Gus decides to fulfill Eddy’s parting wish and remembers that Eddy said to “play” the fish and did not say to “catch” it (Duncan 269). He keeps the fish hooked but not reeled in for many hours and is transported some distance down the Tamanawis. Through this extended connection with the Chinook via the fishing line, Gus feels reconnected to the power of nature, as if he and the fish are one entity. Gus enters the water and approaches the exhausted fish feeling “[m]oved and shamed by the animals’ [sic] trust” (Duncan 275). This is a significant passage in Duncan’s novel because it demonstrates how depictions of fishing are linked with Christian ideology. The location here is highly symbolic. Samuel Snyder explains:
Water is just such a physical structure, into which baptism not only offers opportunities for purification, but also a more embodied connection to the physical reality of the divine…[F]ly fishers elevate water as the most holy symbol next to the fish itself, equating wading into rivers to a form of self-induced baptism. (905)
Gus leans in to touch the fish and narrates, “My face entered the river; I felt my ears fill; the water poured in at the neck of my coat and ran freezing down my chest” (Duncan 277). Deeply moved by the encounter, Gus walks home through the mist along a deserted road. Having been “reborn,” Gus now experiences transcendence. He feels a sharp pain, which he likens to a hook being placed in his heart, and visualizes a thread connecting his body to the earth and sky. He falls to his knees as a hand rests “like sunlight” on his head (Duncan 278). Gus refers to a “nameless presence,” an “Ancient One,” and although it is unclear who or what this manifestation is, to Gus it is Divine. This passage demonstrates how fishing literature often suggests that escaping from civilization into nature and engaging in the act of recreational fishing can lead one to achieve spiritual and emotional rebirth.
Fishing as Therapy
Viewing nature as a remedy has long been considered a reaction to modernity. Bull writes that the “sense of escape from the hectic existence of life or modernity into the calmness sedateness, peacefulness of angling is an important facet of the angling experience” (456). Kimmel and Kaufman suggest that in response to the pressures of industrialized civilization “more and more men sought the tonic freshness of the outdoors to offset the daily routine of ‘brain work’” (13).18 Furthermore, Ortega y Gasset claims that hunting results in happiness because it brings a rare pleasure that daily chores and mundane tasks, which are an “annihilation of our real existence,” frequently steal away (36).
A River Runs Through It spans thirty years, during which time many significant events took place, such as the end of the First World War, the Prohibition era, the Great Depression, the rise of technology, and the industrial revolution. Consequently, the first half of the 20th century included periods of displacement, unemployment, and economic hardship for many working-class families. Norman considers the Blackfoot River as a refuge from civilization. He says, “I took my time walking down the trail, trying with each step to leave the world behind” (Maclean 37). In these narratives, the Blackfoot River and the Tamanawis are the antitheses of the modern industrialized world. Norman and Gus seek the peace and calmness afforded by nature, and view fishing on their rivers as a way to escape from the struggles associated with their complicated modern lives.
Angling as a way to heal psychological problems is a recurrent theme in A River Runs Through It. Norman states that his two default methods of helping someone are to offer them money or take them fishing (55). When discussing Norman’s brother-in-law Neal, Paul asks, “Do you think you should help him?” to which Norman replies that he is helping “By taking him fishing” (47). Norman invites Paul fishing in the hope that spending time together fishing the Blackfoot River will facilitate a discussion about Paul’s gambling and drinking problems, two subjects that Norman finds difficult to broach since Paul is evasive and defensive. Then, in a passage where Norman collects Paul from the police station after Paul is incarcerated for assaulting a publican, the sergeant warns Norman that his brother’s addiction to stud poker will land him in trouble. He tells Norman that he helps his own troubled brother by taking him fishing (24). Patrick Dooley observes that the poignancy of A River Runs Through It stems from the fact that “in a family that conflated sporting activities with spiritual ones, the family’s proscribed remedy for helping someone — ‘take them fishing’ — was tragically inept” (165). Despite the “remedial” fishing expeditions, Paul’s troubles escalate and his problems result in his murder.
Fishing and Masculinity
The relationship between hunting and masculinity is a well-researched aspect of culture and sociology. Jacob Bull identifies the importance of “success” as a common masculine theme associated with angling. He observes that in many angling stories, themes about “heroic duals with nature abound” (450). Certainly, heroics, crusades, and tales of triumph pervade the factual and fictional accounts of anglers. Epic battles between man and marine creatures appear in fishing literature spanning centuries. Consider Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby-Dick and Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 tale, The Old Man and the Sea. The modern battlefield in A River Runs Through It is the Blackfoot River and the fly fisher’s opponent is the Eastern Brook Trout. Big rivers are the best, and the mighty Blackfoot is certainly a formidable river. In the novel, Norman boasts that the Blackfoot “is the most powerful, and per pound, so are its fish” (Maclean 12). The river “roars” and is “no place for small fish or small fishermen” (15). The bigger the river, the bigger the fish, which facilitates the type of epic battle the heroic angler seeks in order to conquer nature and reinforce masculine identity. Conquering big fish as a way to reinforce masculine identity is an idea present in many examples of fishing literature. In A River Runs Through It, Norman and Reverend Maclean watch Paul casting out. Norman narrates, “Everything was going into one big cast for one last big fish” (97). Shortly thereafter, Paul hauls in a fish so enormous that had “Romans been watching they would have thought that what was dangling had a helmet on it” (99-100).
Size matters in The River Why. As Gus Orviston claims, “Statistics are a tool upon which anglers rely so heavily that a fish story lacking numbers is just that: a Fish Story” (Duncan 15). Indeed, fish are described according to their dimensions throughout Duncan’s novel. They are called “ten-pounder,” “seven pounds, eleven ounces,” “a beautiful 3½-pound cutthroat” and “seventeen-inch fish” (Duncan 17, 61, 84, 210). Maclean’s characters fixate on the dimensions of fish. This is evident in statements such as “nice-sized but not big – fourteen inches or so” (61). Bull explains that this is because “the angler is searching for a particular fish, a fish that success and masculinity can be measured against” (451). This is certainly the case in Hemingway’s tale, as Santiago fantasizes, “My big fish must be somewhere” (35), and in regard to Moby-Dick, one could hardly choose a larger opponent than an unusually large whale.
The significance of catching big fish in Maclean’s and Duncan’s novels seems related to ideas of primordial virility. Marti Kheel states that many hunters claim that “the primeval, animal-like aspect of hunting is experienced as an instinctive urge, which, like the sexual drive, cannot and should not be repressed” (“License to Kill” 89). Thus, it is perceived that man’s primal, intrinsic compulsion towards competition and aggression requires an outlet. Michael S. Kimmel and Michael Kaufman discuss the claim that hunting is natural and necessary so that masculine impulses can be exercised in a manner that is not harmful to humans or human society (5). The idea that channeling aggressive energy towards fish through fishing is a more preferable outlet for settling male grievances than by violence between men is reflected in A River Runs Through It when Paul, who is a masterful fisherman, draws on his talent at fly fishing rather than his boxing prowess to dominate other males. Whenever confronted or challenged by a rival, Paul’s standard response is “I’d like to get that bastard on the Blackfoot for a day, with a bet on the side” (6). Citing Paul Shepard, American environmentalist and author of The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973), Kheel explains how hunters often claim that hunting is in their biology; that they are, according to author Paul Shepard, “genetically programmed to pursue, attack and kill for food. To the extent that men do not do so they are not fully human” (Shepard, cited in Kheel, “License to Kill” 90). According to Spanish Philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, author of Meditations on Hunting (1972), the constitution of hunting has not only been constant but has barely changed over time: “The only difference is in the weapon, which then was the bow and arrow, while now it is the rifle” (58); or in regard to angling, it was once twine and a hook carved from bone, and now it is an “ultralight six-foot flyrod, tied on a barbless #28 Midge” (Duncan 73).
Critiquing these kinds of essentialist claims, Kheel explains that “sport hunting imaginatively recaptures a time when it is believed that men had to hunt for reasons of survival” (“The Killing Game” 33). It is a long-held stereotype that men must hunt to provide food for their family; thus, women are genetically wired to seek men who hunt well. Robin Shelton, whose book The Incomplete Angler explores his personal experiences as an angler, claims that once he embarks on a fishing expedition the integrity of his manhood no longer depends upon his car, cash balance, or sexual aptitude, but rather upon how many fish he catches (90). He measures his success as a male against the size of his catch when he states a “two-pound pollack wasn’t going to lure anyone back to my cave” (90). In A River Runs Through It, Norman also touches on this stereotype when he claims that “[t]o women who do not fish, men who come home without their limit are failures in life” (46). The Maclean boys look “with contempt upon the husbands of wives who have to say, ‘We like the little ones – they make the best eating’” (12). In The River Why, Henning Hale-Orviston, upon returning from a cancelled fishing trip empty-handed, feels emasculated by Carolina, who in three hours manages to haul home “55 pounds of prime meat” and slap a three pound slab of salmon on his dinner plate, which he is said to eye “like it was a turd” (Duncan 59). In each of these examples, success as a man is dependent upon the ability to catch fish, preferably big fish, as this is a measure of one’s masculinity.
Kimmel and Kaufman discuss some reasons why twentieth-century men might have used angling to reinforce masculine identity. The effects of the Industrial Revolution increased the time men spent working in urban environments, and this proved problematic because it was commonly thought that modern culture was feminizing them by “turning the heroic warrior into a desk-bound nerd” (Kimmel and Kaufman 12). Turning to nature in order to re-masculinize is also employed by adult males through the “mythopoetic men’s movement.” Bull states that this term denotes the increasing number of men who sought to create “a tribal scenario” in which urbane males sought to dominate nature and connect “to a timeless, animalistic order” (448). Masculine congregation in the wilderness, performing activities away from females and feminized spaces, facilitates the validation of masculine identity, which must necessarily occur outside of the home in the presence of other males because, as Kimmel and Kaufman state, men “must be validated by other men; women cannot validate manhood” (4-5).
Angling often involves not only groups of adult males but also fathers and sons. During the Industrial Revolution, young boys were supposedly at risk because while fathers were away working, sons were left dangerously exposed to the female-dominated, domestic domain. Kheel writes of the belief that boys, “in order to identify as male…must deny all that is female within themselves, as well as their involvement with allof the female world” (“License to Kill” 105). Thus, as Bull explains, in the masculine doctrine of angling, it is characteristic that the “adult male [takes] the boy away from the feminised space of the home to be immersed in nature and pass on masculine knowledges” (451). To counteract what Kimmel and Kaufman term “destructive effeminacy,” when men of the Industrial Revolution were at home, they felt the need to fortify their sons’ masculinity by taking them fishing (14).
In all these ways, then, the two novels under discussion here show angling functioning as a kind of fraternity, involving adult males as well as fathers and sons. Certainly, the idea of fishing as a fraternity was espoused by Isaak Walton, the creator of perhaps the best-known treatise on recreational fishing. Much like the fish in fishing literature, however, Walton’s treatise is infused with layers of meaning. In addition to being a book about fishing, Paula Loscocco explains, “the Angler not only entertained royalist readers living in internal exile during the Cromwellian 1650s, but also conveyed to those readers what it understood to be England’s religious and cultural traditions” (501). While The Compleat Angler is shot through with words and phrases possessing double meaning, those unaware of, or unconcerned with, the psalmic underpinnings, or who are not reading the treatise as a polemical text, might just read it as a book about the importance of fishing and fraternity to men’s physical and psychological wellbeing. When Walton has Piscator declare “I am (Sir) a brother of the Angle” (175), the brotherhood in the first instance is a reference to the Church of England (Loscocco 503). Nevertheless, Walton’s use of the term brotherhood also reinforces the idea of fraternity, which unites certain people with shared beliefs and excludes others. For example, Walton’s brotherhood is united in its hatred of otters, who steal fish who would otherwise be caught by the angler (175). Walton also identifies those who scoff at the art of angling as outsiders; such people Piscator says are “enemies to me, and to all that love vertue and Angling”: they are “an abomination to mankind” (176). In A River Runs Through It, the Maclean family fishing fraternity also has its members and its outcasts. Even the legendary Isaak Walton sits outside of the Maclean fishing fraternity, as Reverend Maclean declares him a farce, an “Episcopalian and a bait fisherman,” thus simultaneously a traitor to Christianity and fly fishing (5). When Neal arrives in town, Paul declares, “I won’t fish with him. He comes from the West Coast and he fishes with worms” (9). Neal exists outside of the fly fishing fraternity, and therefore, must necessarily be situated outside of the Maclean family fraternity because in this narrative, the two are inseparable. Since these traditional forms of fraternity – religious and hunting – are easily recognizable as domains where men typically bond over a shared interest, the aspects familiar to each one is readily interchangeable with aspects of the other.
Reading Fishing Literature from a Critical Animal Studies Perspective
As detailed above, there are numerous associations in fishing literature that connect recreational angling to the spiritual and psychological experience of being human. However, whether or not recreational fishing has significant therapeutic, spiritual, or social properties, as Harold F. Blaisdell states, “All the romance of trout fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish” (53). The narratives examined here demonstrate vividly some of the ways in which fish and fishing become imbued with social, cultural, and spiritual meanings through associations with religion and ideas about psychological remediation and reinforcement of gender identity. Beneath these meanings, however, is the reality of recreational fishing practices. While the fish in fictional narratives are not real living animals but are rather depictions of fish, these novels accurately represent an activity that is, in reality, no less brutal than other hunting methods, which employ rifles, shotguns, spears, knives, or crossbows. In fact, these other hunting weapons have the capacity to kill relatively quickly, so by comparison, fishing with a line and hook, which to a greater or lesser extent derives sport from the extended duration of “playing” the fish, is arguably more brutal. It is with this in mind that I now proceed to examine Maclean and Duncan’s narratives, adopting an animal-standpoint perspective.
Authors of fishing literature often allocate pages of text to descriptions of the pursuit of fish, while dealings with the killing of them are often brisk or omitted. This is because the death of the fish is secondary to the themes dependent upon the pursuit, anticipation, excitement, ritual, and skill involved in fishing, and because the killing is not essential to reinforcing how this blood sport supposedly facilitates the human-nature reconnection. There is little, if any, acknowledgment of how the hunt for fish concludes, perhaps because where realistic depictions do appear they are violent and unpleasant. In A River Runs Through It the deaths of fish are generally omitted; however, on one rare occasion, Norman places a captured fish on a sand bar. When it begins to thrash he perfunctorily explains, “I managed to open the large blade to my knife which several times slid off his skull before it went through his brain” (19). Often, the captured fish are not killed immediately and are instead put in the basket while still alive. This is evident by the mention of Norman’s basket “thumping on the rocks and falling on its side” (88). This narrative disregards the negative experience of fish through being hunted and treats the killing of fish superficially. There is no discernible moral tension in regard to the welfare of the fish being hunted for sport, therapy, or as a way to reinforce one’s male gender identity.
In The River Why, the activity of “playing” the fish, that is, the period of time from when the fish is hooked to when it is reeled in, is often described in poetical, humorous, or idealized ways. For example, Gus explains:
…a big blueback went flying across the rivertop in a noble but whimsical attempt to escape its plight by transforming itself into a bird: it entered the air over a dozen times, but each flight was shorter, the longed-for-wings remained fins, and at last I hauled it ashore. (Duncan 84)
Admittedly, Gus is an amusing character, but this example illustrates how the brutal nature of angling is often trivialized in fishing literature. By making the comparison to graceful bird flight, this passage becomes a dismissive rendering of an animal’s struggle for survival as the fish’s traumatic experience is belittled. In a similar example from A River Runs Through It, Maclean writes, “The fish made three such long runs before another act in the performance began. Although the act involved a big man and a big fish, it looked more like children playing” (98-9). Here, “playing” the fish is likened to theatre and a playground scene. Then there is the passage where Norman reminisces about the last time he went fishing with Paul: “This was the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch…we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman” (100). In this example, Norman remembers Paul’s final “catch” but not the fish or its undeniably traumatic experience and death. The fish is an aesthetic object – it is admired and treated as an object of art. It is merely a testament to Paul’s skill and mastery so that “the fish” as a fish disappears.
Although fish are not always considerately represented in The River Why, there is certainly more attention paid to their experiences than in A River Runs Through It. Gus often acknowledges the brutal nature of fishing, and there are multiple examples that reveal Gus feels guilt over fishing practices. The evening before he departs for the Tamanawis, Gus dines with his family. Carolina pesters him to tell the story about the time he caught a gigantic, record-breaking bass. He initially refuses, but relents, and explains that the fish was well known to locals, who had named him “Garbage Gut” because he was often seen picking over human garbage floating in the lake. When Garbage Gut gorges Gus’s hook, Gus observes how the fish seems to just give up: “like he couldn’t believe what I had done to him, like I’d betrayed him” (Duncan 64). Gus says, “I dragged him in like a toy boat on a rope. And I saw what a helpless little thing he was.” Then, Gus explains that “the bass started thrashing because the hook was tearing through his insides” (64). Once reeled in, Garbage Gut is killed by a third party who cusses him all the while taking his life. When the fish is publically gutted, a plethora of human rubbish is found in his stomach, a fact the gathering crowd finds hilarious. Gus states he was appalled by the way the people lampooned the fish, who had been assisting them by cleaning up the lake they had polluted. As they had all laughed, Gus had wanted to cry. When Henning suggests Garbage Gut’s death was a blessing because the fish was a disgrace to the “game” andthat Gus did everyone a favor by preventing his presence from fouling up the lake, Gus is furious. He calls his father a “fishing Fascist…a flyrod Nazi,” and says “every fish but trout or salmon and everybody but flyfishermen are niggers and Jews, and wetbacks to you!” (66). Gus’s story and his reaction to the deplorable way Garbage Gut was treated demonstrates that he is aware of the brutality of fishing practices, and also of the inherent value of the individual nonhuman animal’s life.
There are further instances in the novel where Gus expresses guilt over catching and killing fish. For example, when he catches a cutthroat he states, “Soon as I had it in my clutches I found myself pitying it…Despising myself, disobeying myself, I grabbed driftwood and killed it” (84). Moreover, when he accidently throws pellets in his aquarium with trout blood on his hands, “Alfred the Great,” a three-inch steelhead smolt whomGus took from the river and a natural prey species of the trout, makes a frenzied attempt to escape and in the process is so severely injured, he dies. This distresses Gus and he gets drunk. He says, “Then Alfred, Garbage-Gut, all the fish I’d ever killed began to haunt me” (86). Despite his remorse over Alfred’s death, Gus continues fishing, which is what he is doing when he discovers the body of a local man, named Abe, floating in the river. While dragging Abe’s corpse back to civilization, Gus remarks how the dead man’s face shared the “same astonished expression” that he had “seen on the faces of a million spent fish,” which disturbs him (95). Contemplating Abe’s death forces Gus to confront his own morals and mortality. He states, “Suddenly it hit me what a pathetic lot we fishermen were. We sneaked, pursued, teased, deceived, tormented and often murdered the objects of our obscure lust; we compounded our crimes by gloating over them” (109). Gus’s realization is quite remarkable, and he goes on to state something similar:
…let me remember myself down there fishing, maiming and murdering trout like enemies in wartime, ticking them off my Log by the thousand, robbing them of all dignity at death by stuffing them, still thrashing, into my creel, or tallying them like downed bowling pins before flinging them back into the water pierced and bleeding from my hooks, weakened by my clutching hands, stunned by the too-rare air. And never a thought about the suffering they endured for my amusement. (132)
Then, through what he deems “de-fished” eyes, Gus feels compelled to release the two-inch minnow he calls “Sigrid the Small,” also captured from the wild, for his aquarium. The story about Garbage Gut, Alfred the Great’s death, and the epiphany that ensues from discovering Abe, each illustrate Gus’s moral ambiguity over angling practices. However, the moral tension in The River Why is transient, as despite the many occasions leading us to believe that Gus comes to view recreational fishing as a morally reprehensible activity, he goes on to tutor children in fishing, to manufacture fly fishing equipment, and to marry a fisherwoman with whom he continues to hunt fish.
The way that this novel deals with Gus’s recognition of the brutality of angling practices is through a correlation being drawn between human and fish life cycles and the realities of life and death. Gus explains that life is a continuous ritualistic cycle: “…a human child at birth undergoes a ritual almost identical to that inflicted upon trophy trout at death…the fish is whacked on the head, thus putting it out of its misery; the infant is whacked on the behind, thus initiating it into its misery (15). Mortality is a major theme in this novel as Gus undergoes an epiphany that sees him cease dwelling on his own inevitable death and the deaths of those he loves, and instead, appreciate the wonders of life and accept his mortality. When Abe’s facial expression reminds Gus of all the fish he has killed, he is reminded how little control humans have over their mortality (112). Accepting this makes it easier for him to rationalize killing fish because all living things must die eventually, and whereas anglers may not control the circumstances of their own death, they do have power over whether fish live or die. To exercise this control, however, the angler cannot be sentimental. Gus admonishes himself for naming and caring for the fish in his aquarium (87). This rejection of sentimentality may explain the most disturbing passage in the novel, where Gus teaches six local children how to catch fish. Initially, the children are filled with innocent wonder and ask Gus what fish are. Then, when a boy aptly dubbed “Hemingway” hooks a fish, Gus explains that the fish must be “put out of its misery.”19 The children squabble over who gets to club the fish, and Gus says, “I found a priest myself, handed it to Hemingway, and he adroitly dispatched his prize then cradled and cuddled and cooed it like a babe in his arms” (206). The passing of the priest to the uninitiated male child illustrates the ritual of learning about life and death. As Kheel explains, “Hunting and killing animals is a standard rite of passage out of the world of women and nature into the masculine realm” (“License to Kill” 106). Certainly, the way that Hemingway nurtures the fish after violently killing that fish demonstrates his naivety and is a final glimpse of innocence before his initiation into “manhood” puts an end to any developing sentimentality.20
Fishing Literature and Critical Animal Studies
Fish do not attract as much attention as do birds and mammals when it comes to matters of animal welfare, and there are various explanations for this. To begin with, hunting fish is not typically called hunting; it is called “fishing” or “catching”; therefore, pursuing and killing fish is not often thought of as hunting, despite shared traits between angling and game-hunting practices. This means that anti-hunting sentiments do not always extend to include fish and fishing. Furthermore, fish are more difficult to anthropomorphize than are mammals owing to their “alien” appearance. Victoria Braithwaite, author of Do Fish Feel Pain? says that “being part of a subaquatic world that we can only temporarily visit makes it difficult for us to relate to fish” (137). Pet fish live in ponds, tanks, and bowls and this inhibits intimacy as fish cannot offer human beings the same degree of physical affection as can warm-blooded, terrestrial pet species. As Gus Orviston says, a fish is not “the kind of pet you can ride, take on walks, set on your lap, dress in a sweater, take pheasant hunting or cuddle; it is not likely to lick your face” (Duncan 74). Frans de Waal explains that it is identification and familiarity that enhances the empathic response in humans (213); thus, when humans find it difficult to identify with fish because they seem so unfamiliar, then empathetic responses towards fish are unlikely to occur.
On the other hand, empathizing with fish might seem problematic to many people who suggest that to do so constitutes anthropomorphism. James D. Rose argues that when humans do anthropomorphize fish, they confuse “unconscious nociception from conscious pain and unconscious emotions from conscious feelings” (152).21 In his opinion, fish are not conscious beings, and therefore they cannot experience pain; however, he does believe that they are vulnerable to “indices like physiological stress or disturbed reproduction or maladaptive behaviour” (Rose 152). Nevertheless, rather than rule out the possibility of fish pain altogether, he states that it is “unlikely that fishes could have consciousness or a capacity for pain or suffering meaningfully resembling what we know” (148, emphasis added). Despite their divergences, Rose and Braithwaite agree that we may never fully realize the degree unto which fish feel pain and suffer. However, I tend to agree with Braithwaite, who suggests that at this stage it is unwise to deny fish consideration simply because we cannot know what it feels like to be a fish, or because we can never directly experience what they experience (9).
Literary depictions of fish and fishing warrant close and ongoing study for the same reasons as many Critical Animal Studies scholars explore representations of other animal species in Western culture. Nik Taylor states that Critical Animal Studies scholars aim to “keep real, embodied animals at the forefront” and to do this “necessitates political action on their behalf” (158). Margo DeMello explains that a task of Animal Studies scholars is “to deconstruct [social] constructions: to unpack the various layers of meaning that we have imposed onto animal bodies and try to see the animal within” (16). Critical Animal Studies scholars have identified numerous examples in Western culture where certain groups of animals are bestowed with culturally constructed meanings that often hinder us from recognizing animal abuse. Carol J. Adams, for example, argues that animals called “livestock” are “absent referents” in slaughterhouse discourses (303-4). Lynda Birke discusses how laboratory rats and mice become invisible when cast as “potent symbols of scientific endeavour” in scientific discourses (211). Similarly, I maintain that fish become absent referents when depictions of recreational fishing serve to reinforce ideas about humans bonding with nature or present fishing as a means to ease the worries and stresses caused by modern life. The only real difference is that Adam’s “livestock” and Birke’s “laboratory mice” are actual animals, whereas the fish in fishing literature are depictions of real animals. Nevertheless, in each case, the nonhuman animal is effectively subsumed by the meaning imposed. Whether the situation involves slaughterhouse sheep, laboratory mice, or the depictions of fish caught for enjoyment in fishing literature, the animal is being used as a means to an anthropocentric end.
I convey my deepest gratitude to Associate Professor Philip Armstrong for his expertise, advice, and assistance with preparing this paper, and thank Annie Potts and Philip for their continuous support.
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“This Image Cannot be Displayed”: Critical Visual Pedagogy and Images from Factory Farms
Troy A. Martin0
Abstract: In the context of recently proposed “ag-gag” legislation, this paper treats images of farm animals in modern agriculture as contested sites of education. Images of factory farming are distributed in efforts to illuminate disturbing and violent practices behind the walls of farms, hatcheries and slaughter plants. These images are intended to evoke critical consciousness and questions of ethics among the food-consuming public. Scholarship in critical and visual pedagogies, difficult knowledge (Britzman), traumatic education (Felman), a “politics of sight” (Pachirat) and political aesthetics (Rancière) may help educators and activists develop critical reflection about how they use images of factory-farmed animals. By bringing these and other scholars into conversation about representations of factory-farmed animals, the author explores the political and educational limitations and possibilities of deploying such images. Pedagogies that address common responses to disturbing images -- such as avoidance, resistance, sympathy, uncertainty, and anxiety – provide theoretical foundations and insight for educators and activists who want to educate food consumers and change the practices of factory farming. Whereas fixed ideology diminishes ground for new meaning-making, ethical anxiety denotes instability and opens space for possibility, education and change.
Keywords: factory farms, visual pedagogy, critical pedagogy, difficult knowledge
Disturbing images of farm animals are distributed by organizations to lift the closed walls of the meat and dairy industries for public view. To document and expose animal cruelty in modern farming, organizations, filmmakers and activists capture and distribute images that may stir, shock, or repulse the consumer public. Classroom educators also take up these images as texts and invite critical analysis in courses as diverse as ethics, food politics, psychology, cultural studies and women’s studies. Factory farm images, typically filmed through undercover investigation, are intended to supply missing information about everyday practices in modern agriculture. They are shown to disclose a troubling reality, to rupture everyday food routines of production and consumption and to open the possibility of ethical revelation. In this paper I theorize images from factory farms as sites of education. As sites of education, images from factory farms should not only be understood politically but also aesthetically and pedagogically. A politics of sight and public opinion must reckon with resistance to difficult knowledge without lapsing into spectacle. Viewing images of farm animal suffering suggests a subjective confluence of learning and refusing to learn, anxiety, ideology and ethics. I connect a field of scholarship in visual pedagogy, which experienced a resurgence following the widely viewed images of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib jail, with educational foundations in critical pedagogy and “difficult knowledge” (Britzman 100). In this paper, I do not provide a semiotic analysis of images from factory farms. Indeed, semiotic analysis would add useful specificity to this theoretical and pedagogical study. Rather, I explore pedagogical possibilities and limitations within uses of disturbing visuals and ponder the ethical aesthetics of images that are routinely distributed by animal rights and welfare organizations. To conclude, I describe progressive aspects of difficult knowledge and visual pedagogy that may be useful to activists and educators who use disturbing images of factory-farmed animals.
Images from Factory Farms as Contested Sites of Education
Images from factory farms are sites of education, in part, because they disclose the material conditions and social relations of food production that are actively concealed from public view. They are sites of education because they call us to witness non-human others living in states of pain, torture, confinement and misery. As such, they challenge us to consider the standpoint of the non-human other. For both reasons, these images are contested sites of education. They are contested on the production side because the agricultural industry leverages its power to keep them hidden. They are contested as subjects of study because bringing down the walls of the factory farm is not the same as bringing down the walls and operations of speciesist ideology. It is also not the same as healing or reconnecting the sense of loss or anxiety that such images may evoke. Images from factory farms are contested sites of education, as well, because they challenge the “cultural hegemony of meat,” which encompasses an “ethos of commercial consumer culture that aggressively endorses meat eating” (Rowe 3).
“Ag-gag” Legislation, Visual Blackouts, and Information Outages
Just as the consumer public has come to expect direct access to information about food products, “ag-gag” legislation pushes a capitalist, police-state technique by attempting to criminalize activities that “threaten” to provide the information that the public expects. Through the model Animal Ecological Terrorism Act and subsequent state animal use protection statutes, collectively referred to as “ag-gag” legislation, legislatures weigh economic interests of agribusiness against public interests concerned with making informed decisions about purchases. In a consumerist democracy one’s purchase power has been elevated to the right of free expression, but that doesn’t stop corporate lobbyists. Anti-whistleblower laws have been written into state statutes in order to block public knowledge about routine cruelties in slaughterhouses, hatcheries and modern farms (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). In a review of state animal use protection statues, Girgen explains that they are designed to shield designated animal uses and industries (e.g. animal research and animal agriculture) from actions that target them. Under the Animal Ecological Terrorism Act criminal actions could include “the taking of photographs, documentary footage, or other media for the purpose of exposure” (Clark 333). Due to so-called defamation protections, these images could be prohibited regardless of content or manner of distribution (Clark).
The legal structure for ag-gag legislation is built upon the “property status” of animals. As chattel, farm animals are only seen in the eyes of the law in terms of relational injury to their human owners (Clark). As well, farm animals are not included in most state animal cruelty statutes. California’s 2012 ban on the sale of products derived from force fed birds is a promising exception and an outcome of increased public awareness about force-feeding practices in the production of foie gras. Currently, the ethical question of farm animal suffering has few legal avenues. Legal proceedings would, in the least, shed public light on the conditions that agribusiness imposes on animals. Those practices now remain relatively hidden (Clark).
As with other social-change movements, legal code tends to catch up to popular thought on civil issues after persistent struggle and mounting public outcry. Clark highlights powerful visual elements in the civil rights movement:
Without the capacity to publish these acts of violence against animals, the propensity for success through civil disobedience is critically undermined. … Had the black and white television sets of the 1960s America shown only marching civil rights activists in the thousands without the violent display their peaceable assembly was met with, people would not have recognized the need for change as quickly. (340-1)
Ag-gag legislation aims to impede that process. Pachirat explains, “… [A]n assumption of ‘power through transparency’ also motivates those who fight to keep the slaughterhouse and related repugnant practices quarantined and sequestered from sight” (247). Agribusiness defends more stringent “animal use protection statutes” by claiming that their entire industry has been targeted by “people who are opposed to using animals for food under any circumstance” (National Chicken Council). State Senator David Hinkins, who sponsored Utah’s ag-gag legislation, said it was aimed at the “vegetarian people who are trying to kill the animal industry” (Legal Monitor Worldwide). Public advocate and author Jim Hightower criticizes industry politicians for protecting food giants like Tyson Foods, Smithfield and Borden. He remarks, “Their abusive industrial system is so disgusting that America’s consumers would gag at the sight of it” (A17).
In 2013 increased efforts to prevent distribution of visual information about meat production occurred through the introduction of fifteen “ag-gag” bills in state legislative bodies; none passed (Barclay). Nonetheless, the majority of U.S. states have some form of animal use protection law to address “animal enterprise/industry/research interference” (Animal Legal and Historical Center; Girgen). While public discomfort over disturbing images is not new, efforts to criminalize the documentation and distribution of such images point us closer to capitalist totalitarianism in which corporate profit justifies legal enforcement of strategic information outages and visual blackouts.
As crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2002, the strategy behind the Animal Ecological Terrorism Act duplicates George W. Bush’s administration’s response to images of tortured Iraqi prisoners. Focusing on the damaging criticisms that these images brought to the war on terrorism and their “unpatriotic” (Sontag, 2004, para. 21) distribution, the administration tried to redirect the public’s attention away from possible meaning in these photos (ie. practices of torture and imperialistic U.S. foreign policy). As Susan Sontag observes, they approached it as if the problem “lay in the images, rather than what they depict” (para. 2). By way of comparison, the purposively named “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” attempts to criminalize the distribution of factory farm images as a breach of security, as a “terrorist threat.” It is only concerned with the intentions of the photographer (i.e. vegetarians who oppose using animals as food) and fails to address the photograph or the photographed.
Visual blackouts and information outages are ongoing and interlocking, meaning they are deployed from various, unrelated cultural institutions and bodies. For example, the “cultural hegemony of meat” (Rowe) is reproduced through different institutional bases of power. In North Carolina the Humane Society of the United States sued the Raleigh Transit Authority when ads depicting images of pigs in gestation crates were not allowed on city buses, because they were “too negative” (Campbell). This illustrates how the transportation authority lends its power in support of modern agriculture. Additionally, media industries have routinely refused to accept paid advertising that visually (or verbally) describes meat production on the grounds of not meeting “standards” (PETA, 2009).
“A Politics of Sight”
Seeing through the walls that conceal the operations of modern farming accesses a social reality for the consumer public, who is already sympathetic to concerns about animal welfare and treatment. While photography and video are no longer thought of as unquestionable representations of reality (due to increased understanding of the photographer’s perspectival choices and the possibilities of digital manipulation), they can initiate ethical anxiety and critical education.
In framing a “politics of sight,” Pachirat imagines a world that is “organized around the removal, rather than the creation, of physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distances” (240). He conjures a superpower – the ability to see through walls and view what has been concealed behind them. In discussing a “politics of sight,” he shares evidence that the routine concealment of disturbing content is actually a symbiotic part of a relationship that yields our shock and repugnance upon seeing that which had been withheld. Without concealment, he suggests, representations of suffering and pain lose their intensity and capacity to affect people through shock (253). For example, in response to viewing video testimony of the Holocaust22 in a graduate seminar at Yale, one student remarked, “Viewing the Holocaust testimony was not for me initially catastrophic – so much of the historical coverage of it functions to empty it from its horror” (Felman 55). In other words, the ethical reflex of sight diminishes with increased exposure. In an information-rich, consumer society the cultural saturation of images and mass consumption of the spectacular contribute to moving relations in a politics of sight.
Despite the “impulse to link sight” or illumination with political and ethical response, Pachirat describes a symbiotic relation between sight and concealment. He argues that the “frontiers of repugnance” and generation of pity (through shock and disgust) expand due to “the operations of distance and concealment that we have recognized as the primary mechanisms of the civilizing process” (251). From Pachirat’s perspective, dismantling the walls of factory farming by displaying disturbing images of farmed animals does not directly lead to learning or transformation. Nonetheless, after working in a slaughterhouse for five and a half months, Pachirat demonstrates the problem of continued distance and concealment. He concludes by suggesting “… a context-sensitive politics of sight that recognizes both the possibilities and pitfalls of organized, concerted attempts to make visible what is hidden and to breach, literally or figuratively, zones of confinement in order to bring about social and political transformation” (255). Pachirat acknowledges the complications of visual representation. While large-scale dissemination of factory farm video may elevate awareness of industry practice in public consciousness, there is no straight path between public awareness and social change. I believe that critical pedagogy, in both theory and practice, may help educators and activists navigate this quandary.
Among a growing number of academics and activists, critical pedagogies have been extended beyond human struggles to enkindle change in the lives and conditions of factory-farmed animals, who clearly suffer and have few legal protections. Sometimes taken up under “critical animal studies,” pedagogical questions include: How might visual information of animal suffering (e.g. video footage of animals in factory farms) be used effectively in a project of critical consciousness? How do both constructed separations (e.g. hierarchical distinctions of intelligence) and irreducible differences between humans and non-human animals reconfigure liberation pedagogies? In this paper, I focus on the former question and understand critical visual pedagogy as a tool for reflectively thinking through how images from factory farms are deployed as liberatory, educational strategies.
In the next section of this paper, I engage pedagogical and psychoanalytic insights on difficult knowledge, trauma and testimony to trace anxiety relations in the psychic dimensions of learning. I also explore embedded ideology in visual texts in light of Rancière’s writing on ethics, aesthetics and politics. In the final section, I describe progressive aspects of difficult knowledge and visual pedagogy that may be useful to activists and educators who use disturbing images of factory-farmed animals.
Difficult Knowledge, Ideology, and “Infinite Justice”
How do consumers of products from factory farms view and understand slaughterhouse images such as the ones that appear in disturbing films like Farm to Fridge (Mercy for Animals), Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home (Laveck & Stein) or Glass Walls (PETA, 2010)? After covering eyes and mouths with pained expressions, what happens next? Some have said that if hatcheries and slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian. This suggests that the brutality of a concealed practice, once revealed, induces individual ethical response. However, not all people who see disturbing representations from factory farming become vegetarian or vegan. Some, perhaps many, are aware of what takes place behind the closed walls and do not (or cannot) discuss it or deal with it in meaningful ways. How do we handle exposure to photo or video representations of a painful reality? How do ideological and psychic frameworks interact with the “difficult knowledge” of animals in modern agriculture?
Physical response to viewing slaughterhouse images may include covering one’s eyes or mouth, looking away, crying, feeling nauseous and other forms of embodied disgust. These responses may resonate with how some view photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison -- but not necessarily so. Contrary to being troubled or moved by brutal images of war and abuse, Heybach describes her students’ reactions as “immediate dismissal and hostility” (24). After visiting an art exhibit, Globalization and War: Its Aftermath, with works by Chicano artist Malaquias Montoya, her students questioned the artist’s legal status in the U.S. and suggested that he go back to where he came from (24). Rather than dealing with possible meaning in Montoya’s art, Heybach’s students reacted from an ideological register by attacking the artist. Discussing images of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib, Kear describes images as “fixed ideologically” in a “figuration of a resilient national identity” (115). He describes the “ideological instrumentalization” of the image in the context of a “theatrical economy” that privileges “the production of affect over the attribution of meaningfulness” (115).
The ideology of a visual text (e.g. photograph) can operate to shut down the possibility of learning through reductive self-validation of pre-existing attitudes and beliefs. Garoian and Gaudelius explain how images produce contradictory social effects. “As visual pronouncements, images are ideological; they teach us what and how to see and think” (24). Internalized as one-dimensional identity, ideology has strong mediating-effects on how one reads an image. I will offer a personal example that is directly related to the display of gruesome images. When I see images of mangled, unborn fetuses in advertising space (e.g. billboards, print magazines, the internet or public transportation), I am not open to consider these images for what they are, but, rather, I immediately figure them within an ideology and politics of groups like National Right to Life.23 In doing so, I am refusing that which is before me (the image) and only know it through an internalization of its ideopolitical landscape. As such, the fetus image evokes a prefigured response. Whether I resist or embrace the ideopolitics of the image does not matter, because the encounter has been vacated of potential for education and transformation.
Rancière’s framing of a contemporary ethical turn describes the overdevelopment of ideological constraints and the collapse of ethics. He says, “On the one hand, the instance of judgment, which evaluates and decides, finds itself humbled by the compelling power of the law” (110). In this case, the law supports the property status of animals and allows few protections for farm animals. Thus, the law supports an ideological norm of speciesism. Rancière continues, “On the other, the radicality of this law, which leaves no alternative, equates to the simple constraint of an order of things” (110). In effect, to approach ethical possibility within the visuals of farm animal images, the viewer must develop distinctions between fact and law. Critical visual pedagogy may deepen consciousness of distinctions between fact and law. “The growing indistinction between fact and law,” Rancière warns, “gives way to an unprecedented dramaturgy of infinite evil, justice and reparation” (110).
To draw Rancière and Kear together, politics tend to divide us by fixed ideology, while ethics dissolve into indistinction. So, the viewer’s viewing of a disturbing image is filtered and flattened through ideopolitical constructs. The viewing renders a response, which differs from a meaningful interpretation of what the image depicts and short-circuits possibilities for ethical meaning or revelation. I question if video footage of animals in factory farms has reached ideopolitical symbolism, like the unborn fetus has? Does the representation of suffering disappear once it saturates social space and becomes mere symbolism in a political agenda?
While the suffering of a non-human animal can register in our consciousness as concern, pain or outrage, it must work its way through speciesist hierarchies, which determine how we evaluate and draw distinctions in given situations. When canine or feline members of our families are shown to be suffering, our concern may register differently than when faced with confined chickens in a hatchery. As well, the wretched conditions of chicken production may concern us differently than seeing crickets farmed, roasted and ground into flour meal as a sustainable source of protein. In other words, hierarchical speciesist ideology provides a constant frame from which to distinguish and gauge response. The pinnacle of a hierarchical pyramid is an impossible place to have a mutual encounter with a non-human animal other.
Regardless of whether one believes that farmed animals are sentient beings deserving of lives free from confinement and misery or one believes that their lives only have value as raw material for human consumption, images have the capacity to disrupt belief and ideology. Organizations that seek to prevent cruelty to farmed animals want to disrupt the dominant speciesist ideology that supports passive acceptance of farm animal suffering. The primary tactic for doing so involves illuminating scenes of animals from inside the walls of factory farms and distributing those scenes to disturb the public. Barthes describes the photograph’s capacity to “prick” or “wound” the viewer (Fried 542), and Sontag (2003,103) adds that such pricking may supply an initial spark. To disrupt everyday ways of seeing that are fixed in ideology and to realize the pedagogical potential of disturbing slaughterhouse images beyond the spectacle, what must happen?
First, the actual images (not their ideopolitical symbolism) must enter the viewer’s consciousness. The capacity to disturb a viewer into sympathy, pity, anxiety or action only exists when everyday passivity is moved to conscious engagement. Preconscious avoidance that blocks the image isn’t an act of resistance or ideological dissonance. Rather, it’s a subconscious turning off and shutting down. Market researchers make a living by understanding approach/avoidance. They describe some images as causing a viewer to “lean in” and learn more. According to a market researcher with fifteen years of experience, Elma Winters24 (personal communication, March 27, 2014), these kinds of images (e.g. babies or baby animals) trigger a “hardwired” protective response. Other images (e.g. suffering animals) trigger an “avoid” response. While discussing recent advertisements from the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Winters remarked that viewers may not be able to engage the message through images of neglected animals. She said, “So, they watch it and somewhere in the process of watching it, they subconsciously stop listening to it because it’s overwhelming, and their subconscious is really going into that avoid mindset” (personal communication, March 27, 2014).
Market researchers and educators, alike, don’t want to prompt outright avoidance when providing subject matter for viewers. However, similarities between advertising and educating are tenuous at best. While paid advertising generally tries to influence consumer behavior in a specific way within a thirty to sixty second window, meaningful education involves a lengthy process of engaging subject matter (including oneself), holding uncertainty and integrating or rejecting new knowledge. The curtain of mass advertising reflects and obfuscates in deceptive ways. Education is directed at raising and unraveling deception, even when the process is painful.
Building scholarship on disturbing education, Deborah Britzman centers uncertainty within a pedagogical, psychoanalytic circuit. According to Britzman, “within the imaginary of learning … uncertainty is what education feels like” (98). With this in mind, it is clear that quick, precise answers deployed to resolve uncertainty and delivered through pleasing imagery have limited relation to education. Nonetheless, the neurology of avoiding disturbing images is worth noting for organizations that choose to use advertising practices, such as television commercials, for social messaging.
Treating slaughterhouse images as a site of education, as a disturbing visual pedagogy, is not a comfortable education. Britzman challenges the notion of knowledge as “experience without frustration: a thing waiting to be picked up or delivered” (104). To the contrary, she joins other scholars, like Shoshana Felman, and posits a relationship between crisis and education (109). Britzman and Felman’s focus on a psychoanalytic pedagogy of “difficult knowledge” helps us to understand how resistance and anxiety operate at the location of images of factory-farmed animals.
When looking at photographs of human pain or farm animal pain, we are asked to make meaning from the “ravages of human induced suffering” (Britzman 100). This is a form of witnessing. Britzman theorizes through a frame of rapprochement and alienation. Rapprochement involves our attempts to reconcile emotional uncertainties. We feel “both the fatigue of limit and the excitement of potential” (101). We feel the nausea of disgust as well as the pangs of awareness that call us to learn more. We’re horrified, and we cannot turn away. With hands covering our mouths, we stare at footage of pigs who are unable to stand or move within the tight confines of their crates. Perhaps, we, too, feel unable to move.
One possible outcome from rapprochement is that we settle uncertainty with sympathy or pity. Sympathy allows us to break down emotional uncertainty by situating ourselves as uninvolved bystanders. In her seminal text Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag states, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence …” (2003, 102). Innocent distance maintains the separation that Debord describes as essential to the spectacle. Hence, a sympathetic response to farm animal images may work to maintain separation between meat production and consumption. Sympathy and pity help settle emotional uncertainty; we eschew additional engagement with the subject matter; further action is not immanent; change is not realized.
I think of my mom – a person with deep love for animals, especially the dogs and cats who share her home. Growing up we always had a stray dog that my mom had invited home. She also received recognition as volunteer of the year at her local animal shelter. She regularly expresses sympathy for mistreated or neglected dogs. She often mentions that she could be a vegetarian. However, she says that she cannot deal with images of suffering animals and refuses to view them. After seeing the previously mentioned ASPCA ads, she sent the organization a donation with a note to express how upset she was with them for showing suffering animals on TV. She may align her sympathies with animals in factory farms but falls short of eliminating meat from her diet. She frequently orders chicken or fish, but not beef or pork, at restaurants. When meals arrive she sometimes remarks that my vegetarian dish looks and tastes better than hers. Is this performance for me? Do I remind her of her own rapprochement? My mother is neither wholly unaware of conditions in factory farms nor has she been fooled by the tidy appearances of packaged meat. Rather, I suspect she thinks about meat consumption from an emotional constellation of uncertainty.
Within an emotional constellation of uncertainty, Britzman explains that two variations of uncertainty compete: “uncertainty over the value and valence of receiving new ideas and uncertainty that signifies the anticipation of loss of love.” She describes the idea of love as “our passionate attachment to others, ideals and roles” (103). Feeling ill by new ideas and knowledge (e.g. a photo from within the walls of a factory farm) is, thus, psychically rooted in loss – the loss of our former selves, the loss of certain relations, the loss of meaning that routine and habit provides. Still thinking about my mother, I wonder how objects of love are symbolized and how slaughterhouse images threaten those symbols. My mom repeatedly remarks, “I could be a vegetarian if it weren’t for your father.” What does that mean? Perhaps her traditional role as wife, nurturer and maker-of-meals is threatened by the possibility of changing food and cooking habits. To work through various fragments – her love and concern for suffering animals, her role as wife, her awareness of factory farming, her decisions about food consumption – demands emotional work and a “revolt of affect” (104).
I recently retold the above description of my mom’s ambivalence towards eating animals at a conference. One audience member flatly responded, “Your mom is a murderer.” While taken aback by the statement at the time, I share it here to connect Rancière’s “dramaturgy of infinite evil, justice and reparation” (110) with the limitations of absolutism or fundamentalism in the context of educational purposes. “Infinite justice” takes “shape as the necessary violence required to exorcise trauma in order to maintain the order of the community” (113). “Infinite justice” fundamentally requires the counter-forces of injustice and uses violence to crush perceived wrongs. “Infinite justice” requires “infinite evil.” If the “evils” of modern agriculture are fought primarily with a contra-flow of violence (symbolic violence, secondary trauma and accusations of murder), then the window for ethics and education becomes impossibly narrow. Absolute certainty shutters all openings for learning. In contrast, uncertainty holds potential energy and the possibility of meaningful learning.
The Spectacle and Critical Visual Pedagogy
Images of war and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse flooded the media and circulated widely during post-9/11 U.S. military action. Since 2004 scholars of visual and media literacy have written extensively about the Abu Ghraib prisoner images as “public pedagogy” (Adelman; Heybach; Garoian & Gaudelius; Giroux; Sontag, 2004). The substance of this body of literature presses down on tensions between passive consumption of spectacle photography and educational possibilities of engaging viewers in meaningful, active and transformational ways.
Highlighting visual and media literacies, Garoian and Gaudelius attempt to reclaim space for “critical spectators” (25). They suggest that the spectacle pedagogy of visual culture can occur in two opposing ways:
… [F]irst, as ubiquitous form of representation, which constitutes the pedagogical objectives of mass mediated culture and corporate capitalism to manufacture our desires and determine our choices; and second, as a democratic form of practice that enables a critical examination of visual cultural codes and ideologies to resist social injustice. (24)
By protecting the visual representations of meat (clean, cut, packaged and often already prepared into cooked meals), agribusiness produces spectacle in the first way. They regulate images to maintain markets for meat consumption. I suggest that educators and activists develop critical visual pedagogies in the second way. Critical examination of a cultural hegemony of meat and speciesist ideology can occur visually without images of animals in factory farms. For example, on two pages within Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009), a 67 square inch rectangle has been printed within the margins of the book to illustrate the size of a “typical cage for egg-laying hens” (79). This provides a visual/spatial representation of hen confinement without an actual photograph.
If photo or film representations of meat production are chosen for educational purposes, the photographed, the photographer and the photos are subject to critical reflection and democratic practice. Without critical examination of photo images, we subjugate reality to an ocularcentric gaze. The singularity of the Other (e.g. the individual farm animal) is subsumed within blinding illumination. All farm animals are like this; all farm animals are supposed to be like this – caged and confined, grown and consumed. Critiquing modern ocularcentric ways of knowing, Nietzsche sought an “illuminating vision that flickers between presence and absence, concealment and disclosure” (Lalvani 2). The flicker of uncertainty moves within and between the photographed, the photographer and the photo. It traces relations and gaps, which seek ongoing attention. In the remainder of this paper, I describe progressive aspects of difficult knowledge and visual pedagogy that may be useful to activists and educators who use disturbing images of factory-farmed animals.
1. Separation in Mediated Relations
Social relations that are mediated through photography and video are always subject to spectatorship. Debord claims, “Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle” (13). U.S. citizens can view digital images from Abu Ghraib instantly, but the photographed and the viewer simultaneously exist in vast separation and distance. By comparison, images of animals in factory farms are deployed to bridge the gaps and distances between eating animals and producing meat. Debord notes, “The forces that were able to grow by separating from each other have not yet been reunited” (14). In a critical visual pedagogy of factory-farmed animals, the relationship between the photographed and the viewer, a secondary witness to trauma, demands attention. Distant relations are inconsequential; embodied, present, aesthetic relations matter.
Without pedagogical intention, the passivity and separation that characterize spectator-spectacle society has an anesthetic effect. Considering an environment filled with “spectacles of terror and horror,” Heybach describes an anesthetic effect where images “lull citizens to sleep with tragedy” and foster “a deep sense of powerlessness in the face of so much disorder” (23). Heybach positions “critical aesthetic pedagogy” against anesthetic spectacle and explores educational possibilities for transforming consciousness and democratic sensibilities (25). She refers to Marcuse’s work on imagination and Freire’s “conscientization”25 to assemble a foundation for critical aesthetic pedagogy. Visual imagery offers sense data, which according to Marcuse, can be transformed through imagination. Heybach explains, “ … [T]he promise of freedom exists in the human faculty of imagination rather than the ability to reason” (25). Thus, the complex phenomenon of viewing an image taps individual capacity for imagination in different ways than formal reasoning (e.g. animal rights philosophy). This affirms the place of imagination in critical pedagogies to facilitate the possibility of change.
2. Testimony from Disturbing Images
Referring to her experience with teaching a graduate level course on testimony and the Holocaust, Shoshana Felman argues that teaching is not an act of passively transmitting knowledge but, rather, teaching is making something happen through performative crisis. Just as the subject of psychoanalysis acts out crisis with an analyst, teaching for social justice often engages crisis to enable change. Felman writes, “Both this kind of teaching and psychoanalysis are interested not merely in new information, but, primarily, in the capacity of their recipients to transform themselves in function of the newness of that information” (53). She continues, “The question for the teacher is, then, on the one hand, how to access, how not to foreclose the crisis, and, on the other hand, how to contain it, how much crisis can the class sustain” (54). Similarly, when viewers watch factory-farmed animals through video footage, they are learners who are fully implicated in a crisis of witnessing. As Felman indicates, the teacher’s task is to “reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning” (54)
In her reflection of teaching through testimony and witness, Felman identifies three aspects of testimony:
1. Healing – Testimony is a way to heal from traumatic events.
2. Concealment – Testimony refers to something hidden with a political dimension of oppression.
3. Access to truth – Testimony is not a mode of “statement of,” but rather a “mode of access to.” (16)
If I am to bring Felman’s work on education and crisis into conversation with the experience of viewing images from factory farms, I must align Felman’s use of testimony and witness with testimony produced through a camera lens aimed at factory-farmed animals. Witnessed by viewers, what are these images a testament of? Pictures of factory farming function as testimony insofar as they reference the concealed operations of factory farms and establish access to common, disturbing practice. As to Felman’s first aspect of testimony, if representations of farm animals are providing testimony, how is healing involved? While the photographed may not experience healing and has no input in her own representation (by being filmed, distributed and viewed), the potential for healing might exist as a larger, incremental process of reunifying food production and food consumption. Reunification deters passive consumption and unwitting violence and supports cultural healing. The absence of such healing is noticeable and consequential.
3. Ethical Anxiety
We should expect that viewing disturbing slaughterhouse images will be countered with avoidance, negation and resistance. Self-protective strategies attempt to block new knowledge from breaking existing webs of meaning. The pleasure principle demands the gratification of immediate satisfaction while diminishing the pain and destruction of education (Britzman 109). In the sense that “all learning is destructive,” we will “criticize, raise questions about it and doubt it, and if the knowledge can survive this attack, it can be turned toward the self” (Britzman 204).
Britzman describes difficult knowledge as “the anxiety made from encountering broken meaning” (109). “Alienation,” then, involves the work of connecting and reassembling fragmenting things (112). Bringing disparate things into new relations of significance and working through them attends to the pleasure principle as “an area of desire and the imagination needed for thinking and experimenting with knowledge, experience and authority” (109). As noted earlier, imagination holds space for freedom and liberation. Britzman reminds us that the possibility of liberation follows anxiety and alienation.
Adrian Kear explores our anxieties about disturbing images. According to Kear, anxiety “… creates the opportunity for a disruptively ethical experience of responsibility to emerge in place of the sentiment of pity” (108). Kear’s discussion of the “ambivalence of anxiety” and Britzman’s attention to the “emotional constellation of uncertainty” describe the conditions under which a powerful crisis of education can occur. Within anxiety, we might expect an oscillation between illumination and concealment, looking and turning away (Parsons). Anxiety and uncertainty open possibilities for change and transformation. If this is true, the encounter with disturbing factory farm images does hold the potential to initiate ethical revelation and responsibility.
Describing Heidegger’s work on the “stimmung of anxiety,” Kear says, “it is the demonstration of a subjective ‘attunement’ to indeterminateness, a feeling of being ‘ill-at-ease’ [unheimlich] in the world as such” (111). For those who persistently work through resistance, negation and sympathy, “ill-at-ease” may best describe the haunting knowledge of 24/7 farm animal suffering. Separation has been reduced, at least for the conscious moment. The slaughterhouse image recurs in the continual present – it is now and now, again and again. The knowledge of ceaseless suffering, coupled with our habits and daily routines of food consumption, heightens our indeterminateness. It forces a crisis of our ethical responsibilities.
Drawing from Levinas, Kear concludes, “Ethical anxiety therefore acts as a reminder of responsibility: responsibility for the other – and the world – in their materiality” (113). It does this, however, against loss, disconnection and alienation, which often follow witnessing trauma (Felman). At this intersection of responsibility and loss, educators are responsible for attending to students with care and compassion. Because reintegration requires time and presence, educators and activists should be mindful of the importance of debriefing and processing responses to disturbing images. As well, due to a significant number of people who have personal experience with violence, students should be cautioned and given choices about viewing such images.
To conclude, I want to return to the scene of the factory farm. Do those who see inside the factory farm witness countless testimonies -- not through language, but through the contorted bodies of pigs in gestation crates or the pained faces of chickens undergoing debeaking? When we poke holes through the thick walls of the modern slaughterhouse and invite others to look inside, what kind of education are we inviting? The theorists and educators that I’ve included suggest that we’re inviting a difficult one -- a disturbing and traumatic education. Animal liberation education must consider pedagogy that anticipates multiple responses to difficult knowledge. We must expect responses that are complicated by the terrains of subjective psyches and fixed ideologies. As noted in this paper, these responses may include preconscious avoidance, aggressive resistance, passive sympathy, ideological fixation and ethical anxiety. Among these, anxiety holds possibility for ethical response and transformation. Ethical anxiety denotes instability, in contrast to fixed ideology and identity, and opens space for creative ethical possibilities. Critical visual pedagogy must maintain space where ethical anxieties can be held and extended. As pedagogy, images of factory-farmed animals must be configured and reconfigured in creative ways to hold the social reality of factory-farmed animals in public awareness and, ultimately, to encourage critical consciousness and action.
About Mercy for Animals. Mercy for Animals. (n.d.) Web. 11 June 2014.