Climate Change

When’s the Beef? | Public Books

In Terry Bisson’s 1991 sci-fi story, “They’re Made Out of Meat,” two characters discuss alien life-forms that have been attempting to make contact with their species. The conversation returns again and again to the baffling paradox that these life-forms are sentient and intelligent—“relatable” in most ways—yet ineffably alien, because “they’re made out of meat.” If some stories make your skin crawl, this one makes it sizzle, for the life-forms in question seems to be human.

Bisson combines the politicized discomfort of a Brecht play with a bourgeois horror of playing with food. The effect is an unsettling humor, fraught with unspoken questions about the ways in which the things we call “meat” sustain us, and the ways in which they might kill us. Such issues are central to Meat Planet, Benjamin Wurgaft’s new book about the controversial prospect of growing animal tissue in laboratories for human consumption.

Rather than speculating about when this “cultured meat” will hit shelves (and whether it will save us from ecological catastrophe), Wurgaft reflects on the assumptions, fears, and desires people project onto this fantasy food. Surprisingly, the vital questions he raises—about how we recognize and relate to meat—also animate Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s novel Animalia, which follows a family-owned pig farm from the 1890s to the 1980s.

Wurgaft’s Meat Planet looks to the future of meat, exploring the notion that cultured meat could represent our salvation. Del Amo’s Animalia looks to meat’s past, in which the industrialization of a single pig farm culminates in total ecological collapse. Both authors unpack a misleadingly simple question: What are we saying when we talk about meat?


Del Amo’s naturalist novel begins by immersing readers in the everyday life of a small family of tenant farmers, circa 1898.

In mute obedience to an ancient division of labor, the family members perform customary tasks, they rest in familiar places, they sicken and die in conventional ways. Readers inhabit, moment after moment, the lived worlds of people whose sense of passing time is mediated by the cyclical rhythms of habit, tradition, and bodily change.

In their silence, the farmers seem to share something with their animals, something that is, by its nature, easier to show than it is to describe. Del Amo stages this communion in an early scene that features two cows sticking their heads through a wall of the farmhouse. They stand at once inside the room, chewing cud, and outside it, eyes opaquely reflecting the rituals of family and of home. Under the gaze of the cows, the family proceeds with a cow-like eating of their own meal:

[The father] says grace in a voice made deeper by his cough and finally they eat, with no sound but their mastication, the grating of cutlery against the bottom of their plates and the buzzing of the flies they no longer shoo from the corners of their lips, the genetrix swallowing hard to choke down the stone lodged against her glottis, the irritation caused by the slavering grunts and grinding of molars that escape the husband’s lips.

The sounds of grunting, swallowing, mastication, and flies bring to mind a conversation that has been gnawed down to bits and pieces of sound. Choking down their food, the farmers mirror the cows in the corner of the room. The scene invites us to imagine a shared prehistory, a time when people didn’t eat meat or use language.

This primordial world, shared by animals and humans alike, persists in the modes of phenomenal experience that open up in the absence of human speech. The narrator is hyperattentive to sound, smell, and texture. Del Amo reminds us that, to a receptive individual, the elements of nonverbal experience are dense with information. And were we to perceive everything clearly, it would be possible for the sounds of grinding molars, or certain mingled scents and vivid colors, to provide the rudiments of a nonlinguistic mode of communication.

This isn’t to say that Del Amo idealizes this family of farmers, but only to point out that their manner of living doesn’t involve much speech, which is significant given that language, like cooking, is one of the technologies people most often use to define the exceptional status of humans within Kingdom Animalia. In this dinner scene, and throughout the novel, Del Amo’s attention dwells at a level that is phenomenally accessible, in different ways, to people, cows, pigs, and snakes. Here, his descriptions invite us to feel these creatures’ full presence in a shared world, and to consider the ethical implications of that presence.

You might object, fairly, that no novel gives readers access to experience unmediated by human language. This is true, and yet Del Amo’s attention to sound and texture can bring a reader to appreciate the uniquely tactile qualities of the prose itself. Wynne’s translation recreates long, winding, ruminative sentences. Reading them, one’s sense of the referential meanings of words fades in inverse correlation to their newly sharpened sense of sound and mouthfeel.

The line separating those inside the human family from those outside of it may not always be a definitive one.

But Animalia is concerned, above all, with how we lose access to shared experience. Del Amo is a keen observer of the ways in which history affects the sensitivities of our bodies. Sweeping up Éléonore, the young girl at the dinner table, and her teenage cousin Marcel, the Great War triggers major historical changes in people’s lived relationships to animals and to themselves. The novel adeptly brings these changes to life, most of all in the scene of Marcel’s return from battle. Éléonore struggles to accept the change in her beloved cousin’s appearance, for his face is profoundly disfigured: “How does she recognize him?” Del Amo asks us, “How does she put a name on those ravaged features, this primitive, barbarous mask?”

Here, what’s difficult isn’t identifying Marcel, which Éléonore does instantly, but readmitting him to the ranks of the living. This requires Éléonore to revise her image of a unique loved one, an image that she has held on to for years. And at some still deeper level, it requires her to transform the composite image she has made of what a recognizable human looks like, of all the different kinds of bodies that it’s possible, and necessary, to love. As she comes to terms with Marcel’s appearance, his face seems to merge with her own: “The corners of his mouth twist as a cry comes from Éléonore, a guttural wail, a howl ripped from the depths of a mute grief.”

This bestial howl might remind the reader that it isn’t his wife, Penelope, but a dog, Argos, that first recognizes Odysseus when he comes home from war. In a novel concerned with the symmetries of human and animal experience, Del Amo’s decision to put this animal utterance in the mouth of a human points toward a deeper truth: the line separating those inside the human family from those outside of it may not always be a definitive one, as Éléonore recognizes, and as we may too. Again, we see how humans share more with animals than they might care to believe.

In the second half of the novel, set nearly a century later, in 1981, the narrator trains an attentive eye on less “natural” phenomena. Once occupied with the movement of sap through the tree, the narrator turns to a modern analogue: growth hormones and chemicals passing through animal digestive tracts, seeping into the ground, transforming ecosystems.

Urban consumers don’t often witness the brutality of industrial meat production, separated as they are from farms by long supply chains and slick packaging. Here, there’s no escaping what’s done to satisfy our appetites for meat. In telling the story of Marcel and Éléonore’s offspring, Del Amo uses these new farmers’ dual position, as both workers and consumers, to draw out all that is contradictory about the “freedoms” people won when capitalism expanded the availability of cheap meat. The farmers’ unhealthy eating habits and their routinely brutal behavior suggest how this cheap meat revolution devastated the people, ecosystems, and animals burdened with satisfying the free market’s new appetites.

Like so many earlier naturalist writers, Del Amo makes his novel a vehicle for sociological arguments. These arguments are most explicit when he criticizes the patriarchal ideology that justifies the violent behavior of the male farmers.

His focus makes sense, for the work of these pig farmers is to rationalize biological reproduction in service of the market. Yet I found myself questioning his tendency to rely on grotesque images of reproductive organs as a kind of shorthand for the dangerous and undesirable practices required to reproduce livestock, human labor power, and capital.

Del Amo’s target is the harnessing of reproduction to the profit motive. But this is lost when he leans on morally charged bodily symbolism. Feminist theory reminds us that a focus on such symbols as “dripping” vaginas and “gaping vulva(s)” is at best distracting. At worst, it threatens to redirect men’s efforts to secure a better future away from critiques of capitalism. A line of critical thought that seemed like it was leading us to a politics of resource redistribution takes us instead to a politics aimed at normalizing biological reproduction and controlling population growth.

A similar criticism holds for the novel’s morally charged representations of incest, disease, contamination, and deformity. When the ostensibly deformed bodies of modernity’s underclasses are used to critique modernity, we’re left to wonder how such oppressed individuals—women, animals, “primitive” peoples, and the terminally ill—would fare in a society that founded its progressive politics on a sense of revulsion at our weird modern flesh. The answer is, almost certainly, not well.

Ultimately, Animalia offers its best political guidance when Del Amo trains a reader’s awareness in new ways: on the sap flowing through a tree, on a dead human body heaving with microbial life, or on an indefinable presence behind the eyes of a farm animal. In such passages, one begins to sense an unfolding investigation, a search for the perceptual conditions that would allow for a peaceful meeting of worlds.


At the end of Bisson’s story, the two characters decide not to make contact with the species they perceive as alien; the idea of communicating with “sentient meat” repulses them. But part of the story’s irony lies in the fact that the perceived “alienness,” the apparent difference separating these two sentient species, might simply be an effect of the category that mediates the encounter: meat.

Over many repetitions, the phrase “they’re made out of meat” defamiliarizes and cheapens all human life and culture, to the point that even the word “meat” itself assumes a hilarious and frightening semantic emptiness. Reading Bisson’s story, we shake with a laughter that draws all oxygen from the lungs, for “meat” is everything and nothing in particular. It’s the object of daydreams and nightmares. Put simply, it’s living flesh whose claims to a life go unrecognized.

Animalia shows us how crucial of a role the nonrecognition of animal life plays in enabling the reproduction of capitalism. Yet it’s a novel with two conflicting tendencies and two divergent endings: the first of these is a paean to morality, to cleanliness, to habitual ways of seeing; the second one, which I prefer, takes a dialectical leap from naturalism into science fiction. For a few brief pages we escape the alienated consciousness of a farmer and inhabit the body of the biggest, most grotesquely imagined pig on the farm.

With beef, as with fiction, arguments for what’s real or natural tend to veil the actual terms of debate.

In this movement between the natural and the artificial, the historical and the speculative, Animalia sets the stage for Meat Planet, in which Benjamin Wurgaft analyzes the ways in which our attachment to certain definitions of meat, which are rooted in habit, continue to shape our most daring fantasies about the future.

Erudite, eloquent, and funny, Wurgaft makes an excellent guide. He leads the reader through focus groups, art installations, panel discussions, and even the odd laboratory. Wurgaft embarks on fascinating explorations of the powerful hold that notions of the “real” and the “natural” have on the cultured meat movement. Many of the publicists, venture capitalists, and scientists thinking about cultured meat have become fixated on inventing a process that will yield a cultured meat product indistinguishable from the plastic-wrapped, hormone-infused muscle tissue we buy at grocery stores. They believe that consumers will only buy recognizably “real” forms of cultured meat.

With beef, as with fiction, arguments for what’s real or natural tend to veil the actual terms of debate. A wonderful chapter restages a debate between so-called “neo-agrarians,” who argue for a return to the natural order of small farming, and those we might call “meat modernists,” who argue for a doubling down on cultured meat.

Wurgaft has little patience for people who believe uncritically in the sanctity of the natural. What the neo-agrarians want, he points out, can no longer exist, except as a parasitic appendage to the cheap meat industry we already have.

He’s likewise skeptical of the cultured meat movement’s ambitions to simulate today’s animal products (rather, that is, than simply making new forms of animal protein, to be cooked and eaten in new and exciting ways). Both the suffering of farm animals and the ecological damage caused by industrial farms are symptomatic effects of human social relations. The popular overinvestment in the idea of making a recognizable burger suggests a desire to change as little as possible about the structural conditions that gave rise to industrial agriculture.

As Wurgaft shows us, the apparently pragmatic goal of making realistically cow-like hamburgers and steaks may veil a romantic attachment to ways of life that we can no longer afford to sustain. More importantly, it may distract from the urgent work of inventing the food of the future: that is, any food, no matter how “alien,” that will keep Earth habitable for humans.

Once or twice, Wurgaft asks wistfully what it says about human moral agency that we haven’t just decided, en masse, to shift to a vegetarian diet. Considering the unlikeliness of such a shift— and indeed the surprise of Wurgaft’s own confession that he continues to eat meat—the question struck me as self-consciously naive. Elsewhere, he seems aware that, for most, eating meat feels no more voluntary than showing up to work every morning. It isn’t worth mourning our lost moral agency as we eat ourselves to death, because I suspect that it’s a small minority of people, worldwide, who might consider buying meat to be a choice against vegetarianism.

Late in the book, Wurgaft reckons with the more genuine loss implicit in our devotion to the texture of “real” meat. This devotion speaks to an impoverished ability to imagine something better than the sensory reality of cheap meat, or what amounts to the same thing: social relations more desirable than those we have now.

Put another way: Is the best way we can imagine inhabiting a future Earth simply to eat cultured meat hamburgers? It would be sad indeed if the mouthfeel of yesterday’s hamburger became the only association we could yoke to aspirational words like “impossible” and “beyond.” That would be a sure sign that capitalism—the force driving the growth of Del Amo’s 20th-century pig farm—had stripped us of the ability to envision a life that offers pleasures any different from the ones we know.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image: Pink Pig (detail) (2016). Photograph by Matthias Zomer / Pexels

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