Food Awakening: How Leaving The Farm May Have Led To The Rise Of Gore And Pornography
Richard W. Bulliet
For a scholar, Richard Bulliet has the sensibilities of a movie producer. If you want to grab your audience, throw in sex and violence, so goes the Hollywood adage. And Bulliet—who is leading readers into an otherwise serious and somewhat esoteric history of animal domestication, about as far from Hollywood as you can get—not only includes sex and violence but opens with it. More scholars should write like him.
The smut and blood at the beginning of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is not merely a hook, but an introduction to a compelling central theme of Bulliet’s book. If you want to understand why society is addicted to graphic pornography or why people flock to the goriest slasher flicks, you need to see that people have largely gotten off the farm and away from animals.
Bulliet, in the grand tradition of scholarly “post-” words, calls the phenomenon “postdomesticity.” In postdomestic society, people still rely on the products of animals—such as meat and leather—yet they have no contact with animals themselves. (Sorry, but your cat, dog, or parakeet doesn’t count.)
This fact has brought about an unusual sort of mind-set among modern people, Bulliet argues. Because we no longer grow up watching animals being slaughtered for food, we satisfy a curiosity about gore through Hollywood fantasies. Because we don’t learn about sex by watching farm animals couple—or by having sex with them ourselves (sorry, gentle reader, but bestiality does indeed happen in farming societies)—we get a graphic education in sex from porn, which rarely leaves anything to the imagination.
And that’s not all that’s different about the modern, postdomestic psyche. Animal-rights movements are unthinkable in societies that rely on animals for farm work or food, where animals are seen as assets and not emotional beings, yet such movements flourish in postdomestic societies. Vegetarianism might be a religious tradition in places such as India, where animals are still a part of everyday human lives, but in modern societies it is often a conscious choice, with political motivations. Environmentalism, a prominent movement in postdomestic societies, is a respect and concern for animal habitats that most self-described environmentalists will never see—habitats that are often being destroyed through the insatiable consumption of postdomestic people themselves.
Bulliet, who makes frequent reference to pop culture in his book, at one point illustrates this idea by recounting a scene from The Silence of the Lambs: Postdomestic audiences were unnerved when Jodie Foster’s Clarice recalled in whispered horror the animal screams at the slaughter of the spring lambs, which she witnessed as a child. But, Bulliet says, the screenwriters forgot that children from cultures that frequently work with animals would come to see slaughter as commonplace: “A remnant of what this bygone life was like survives in the annual Miss Navajo Nation competition, where every lovely and well-educated contestant must demonstrate an ability to slaughter and skin a sheep.”
Discussions of postdomesticity dominate the beginning and end of the book, while Bulliet fills the middle with a history of human-animal relationships—a guide to how we got here. He approaches his history more or less conventionally, but not without throwing in twists and compelling asides. Who knew that the word “dildo” might have been derived in part from the name of the prophet Muhammad’s sacred mule, Duldul? That tidbit appears in a chapter titled “Early Domesticity: My Ass and Yours,” in which Bulliet tracks the donkey’s history as a potent sexual symbol, deity, and divine beast of burden—the references to asses in Greek literature, the Egyptian donkey-god Set, and the humble transporter of the prophets and the Messiah.
The point of so much information about the donkey is to “illustrate the survival of the imaginative and spiritual uses of animals into the era of domesticity, and their eventual decline as the moment of domestication recedes even further into the past.” Bulliet points out that animals were once godlike to men—that in prehistoric times they were a source of fascination, as evidenced by the cave paintings that feature bulls, rhinos, and bears.
What’s missing from Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is more perspective on what happens both to animals and people in the decline of their relationships. There is little discussion of, for example, the evolution of the modern slaughterhouse—a mechanized killing system that could exist only in a postdomestic society. How do people in postdomestic societies encourage the construction of feedlots and slaughterhouses, as they distance themselves from the process of raising animals and killing them for products? Apparently, it’s a topic for another book.
And how are people locked within this system affected? The average City Paper reader might never work in a slaughterhouse, but there is a whole underclass of people—many of them immigrants—who spend their days on the slaughterhouse line, cutting up chickens, turkeys, and cows. As we have separated ourselves from animals, we have stripped both them and members of our own species of some dignity. Bulliet hints at this, but a chapter-length treatment is needed and missing. Perhaps the topic is too political for an academic history.
But Bulliet has succeeded in capturing a facet of modern life that few others would. Disconnection—from the food we eat, the products we buy, the places we live, the cultures we came from, and the faiths of our ancestors—is a fact of life now, and a source of anxiety for many. Turning once again to pop culture near the end of the book, Bulliet discusses the relationships between animals and humans in eco-fantasies such as Princess Mononoke, in which animals are regarded as gods. Artists are rediscovering the divine in human-animal relationships, but doing so in the real world will be difficult. Someday, he says, a “true genius” may lead the way to rediscovering a long-lost era “when animals communed with the gods, half-animal beings commanded respect, and killing inspired awe and incurred guilt.”