Eating Animals

I read excerpts that were available online of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and ordered it for my Ethics class that’s running this intercession. I also talked to Mark Woods, USD’s resident animal ethicist (and much more), who also adapted it for his intercession course on animal ethics. It is, in sum, an astoundingly good book on the topic. I’ll leave it to Scu and others who research this area to say something more cogently about it, but for an undergrad ethics class, I’m glad I ordered it. First, J.S.F. (as I’ll call him) culls together not just the well known stats and typical events in factory farms, he also is just simply a good writer (I’ve read his previous books and he is practicing an interesting venture in what will likely be a new form of journalism). His Everything is Illuminated is on the whole a good work of “literature,” but I found that work weirdly conventional (those who have read it will known what I mean, despite the non-conventional story). He frames the book, with the double meaning of the title, within the question of the stories that we tell ourselves about what is ethically important. Whatever one critiques about the post-Heideggerian linguistic turn, Ricoeur and others are right to point out to the centrality, recognized long ago by Aristotle, or narration to life as it is lived. In any event, outside of the persuasive case built over a web of interrelated stories, J.S.F. provides what I wanted for this course: a book that takes up an ethical issue by an author just asking basic questions about an important area of his life. After studying various forms of ethics, I want my students to do just that. In the coming days, I’ll try to cite from passages that I think are just good writing (beyond the topic of the book). No doubt, at the end of the day, I agree that his case is unassailable, after all, I’m not a meat eater. But the way he poses the questions, the way that he opens his work at various points to voices not his own, builds one of the best books on this topic—and I’ve read many.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to talk to Mark Woods this week about the book, since he’s starting his class with it. I’m wondering how the students take it. I like it, since he seems to cut off discussions from meat eaters that would treat the whole discourse as “holier than thou.” But maybe they will find it that way.

As an aside, J.S.F also quotes from Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am and I must admit I’m still amazed at the influence of that work. As readers of this blog know, I am much more of a fan of Derrida’s earlier texts and I assigned this later work last year on a bit of a lark—but it was a popular choice for the students, but more important was extremely good pedagogically in terms of his point, in a work that doesn’t end with a conclusion, that the auto-deconstruction of any philosophical system can be pinned down almost always at where a given philosopher posits the human/animal distinction. That’s far better for readers than earlier points about the philosophy of presence. And returning to the work recently, I’ll join with my students in saying I think it is indeed one of his better works, not least because of its essayistic quality—it’s a philosophical effort at questioning that doesn’t end up in a larger work that he planned.

Derrida’s TATTIA is good in returning to basic questions—how does the animal regard me, in the double sense—and J.S.F’s is equally good in this way. We’ll see.

One comment

  1. I have been trying to put together a review of this book for the blog, but it keeps getting too long and disjointed. In short, I really liked the book as well. I wish it had been around back when I was teaching my class on The Animal & The Ethical. I was frankly shocked to see some of the arguments I am making in the dissertation project (based around the shame of our animality) made in a best-selling work. Never saw that one coming. Though I do believe that JSF has a degree in philosophy.

    Anyway, keep us (or at least me) informed of how the students react to this work.

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