April 2, 2013, by ajzeg
Falling outside of the biopolitical frame: horse-meat and austerity
From global panics over outbreaks of bird and swine ‘flu, to the recent European horse-meat scandal; or from on-going controversies about the role of animals in scientific research, to pressing debates about biodiversity and environmental conservation: we are within a cultural context where questions surrounding human-animal relations are politically vital. Despite this, discourses that should be asking questions about these (potentially dangerous) social relations – particularly animal rights – have been marginalised both politically and academically. Animal rights activism is not only framed as extremist but as a single-issue cause: divorced from broader projects of social change. Worryingly, more critical perspectives have also been margainalised from the academic field of animal studies that should be their natural home: as thinkers from critical animal studies have argued, the wider field has become systematically de-politicised.
A key problem is that (important) critiques of rights discourse for being anthropocentric (in suggesting animal life is only valuable if it is somehow similar to human life) and anthropomorphising (in projecting a set of human[ist] values onto animals), has stultified potential for political action. Moreover, the perception that animal rights discourses are necessarily clinging to this form of anthropocentric humanism, has led to them being stereotyped as regressive and marginalised from the field, without actually addressing their concerns (which range from criticism of the material conditions of animals, to structural critiques of posthumanist thought for perpetuating anthropocentric norms despite seeming to do the contrary).
Such a dismissal of critical perspectives, however, ignores the rich tradition of critique that derives from animal rights praxis itself. Radical pamphlets such as Beasts of Burden, or Veganism and Social Revolution, for instance, draw explicit links between capitalism and animal exploitation: pointing out – as have numerous other thinkers, such as Nicole Shukin or Cary Wolfe – that the Fordist factory system took its inspiration from slaughterhouses and that humans and animals are increasingly implicated in the project of deriving surplus value from life itself: from affective labour within the service industries to the production of new streams of revenue from biological matter within the biotech industries.
Excitingly, Wolfe’s recent text Before the Law (2012) develops a much-needed critique of the way in which human and animal exploitation is interlinked: illustrating how animal ethics is decisively a question of biopolitics that implicates human as well as non-human actors. In doing so, his work paves the way for the wider critique of biocapitalism that the aforementioned radical pamphlets lay the ground-work for. The value of Wolfe’s short text is evident upon using it to analyse the recent horse meat controversy.
In February the revelation that horse-meat (possibly contaminated with veterinary drug bute) had entered the food chain in Europe, highlighted a series of dangerous intersections between human and animal exploitation; inadequate regulatory frameworks; and unaccountable supermarket supply chains. Particularly telling was how the issue was framed – both within the mass media and by legislative actors implicated in the scandal – in terms of who was positioned as ‘to blame’ for the crisis and which actors were framed as worthy of ethical consideration.
Wolfe’s own concept of framing (which lies at the heart of Before the Law) puts these processes into sharper focus, as he describes the specific biopolitical mechanisms (or in Derrida’s terms dispotifs) that work to maintain the current industrial-agricultural complex: by positioning certain actors as legitimately exploitable. This occurs whenever certain cultural norms or categories (the concept of ‘meat’ being an obvious one!) allow certain groups of actors to be killed without ethical reflection. Drawing on Esposito, Wolfe emphasises the significance of what he terms the ‘immunitary’ mechanism through which certain forms of identity or community are secured; immunization, used in this sense, is the process of distinguishing oneself from one’s environment: usually for the purpose of self-preservation. This immunitary process therefore works through exclusion, specifically the exclusion of certain actors from a community with mutual obligations to one another. Who (or what) is excluded from ethical consideration is precisely what is at stake in Wolfe’s focus on framing: or the process by which boundaries are inscribed around particular ethical communities; boundaries that can only be installed (and maintained) through biopolitics. Furthermore, he foregrounds how boundaries can be strategically shifted to position certain groups as inside (or outside) the ethical frame, for the purpose of preserving certain interests: which is precisely what occurred during the horse-meat scandal.
Although he does not use the term himself, the context of Wolfe’s work is biocapitalism (or the intensification of processes by which life itself becomes the source of surplus value: processes that implicate both human and animal bodies, see Lewis, 2010; Shukin, 2009; Giraud 2013). What was preserved throughout the horse-meat scandal was the biocapitalist logic that allowed certain actors to be ‘legitimately’ exploited, as long as this served the interests of the system; with the biopolitical mechanisms that secured this logic being conspicuously left intact within official discourse around the scandal.
To put it crudely, social actors falling outside of the ethical frame included:
• Poorer segments of the population: blamed for their ‘desire’ to eat cheap food – ‘what do you expect when meat’s that cheap’ being a common refrain – or even positioned (notably by Germany’s development minister) as a social group who should be eating substandard food!
• The European Union: blamed for their audacity in preventing ‘desinewed meat (DSM)’ being labelled meat, with an ex-member of the UK Food Standards Agency suggesting it was ‘inevitable’ supermarkets would go elsewhere for cheap beef.
• Animals who were used as food: clearly falling outside of the biopolitical frame, as their structural position as ‘killable’ (to coin Donna Haraway’s term!) did not come under scrutiny; with few questions about the agricultural-industrial complex in itself, just the illicit introduction of horse into this complex.
• Criminals who allegedly introduced the meat to the supply chain: providing the ideal scapegoat to avoid asking more profound questions about food production chains more broadly.
These framings deflected ethical attention from actors who sustained the biocapitalist system (supermarkets, food manufacturers), who may have received flak for their role but were ultimately not held financially accountable (and instead positioned as being duped by criminals, or put in an untenable position by EU regulation). In other words, this framing prevented profound questions being asked about the system producing exploitation, due to the actors exploited being presented as legitimately exploitable.
Much as I’d like to delve into more of Wolfe’s arguments here (particularly how the ‘consumer-subject’ is framed in a way that secures these relations), I intended this to be a short blog post and have rambled on enough already! I also wanted to end on a slightly more hopeful note, and emphasise that what is so productive about Wolfe’s work is that he refuses to use the term ‘biopower’ to describe these framings, due to the term not reflecting the contestation that is evoked by ‘biopolitics’. Just as other (governmental or corporate) actors might frame certain groups as unworthy of ethical consideration, Wolfe emphasises that this framing can be contested through an ‘affirmative biopolitics’ that might have to pragmatically draw ethical boundaries but should always be reflexive, open to re-scripting, and to the possibility that ‘in the future, we will have been wrong’ (2012: 104). This notion of contestation, and the possibility of re-scripting, is at least evident in the ambivalent positioning of one actor in the horse-meat scandal: the horses themselves, who provide a point of tension in the otherwise neat process of inclusion and exclusion that frames the debate. What was notable about the scandal was how cultural horror at eating horse generated reflection about why and how cultural boundaries are drawn between different types of animals: providing an opening for affirmative biopolitics, despite wider attempts to diffuse ethical questions raised by the crisis.
Finally, I just wanted to explain the significance of the featured image that – I hope – sets a hopeful tone. For me, it represents affirmative biopolitics in action: one of Nottingham Vegan Campaign’s food protests, which aimed to actively disrupt the mechanisms of biocapitalism through contesting the unproblematic framing of certain groups as ‘legitimately’ exploitable (for more images see here, and further explanation is here and here).
Thought provoking. I wonder too, what the relationship is, if there is one, between the horse meat scandal (the horror of eating horse) And the “legitimate” exploitation of horses through cultural phenomena like the grand national (a location in which the horse falls out or is at the border of the biopolitical) for example. Of course these are different ethical frames perhaps but they operate together in the same culture. Just wondering if you had any thoughts on this? I don’t know it might be a silly question….
Ooh, that’s a good point. I’ve been quite interested in how classed a lot of discourse around horses is actually (showjumping v horseracing for instance) and, as you say, different frames do work together in the same culture. I think one of the points Wolfe makes (or at least what I get from him) is that framing can be strategically reinscribed to suit whatever serves the system in a particular context and/or at a particular moment in time. I suppose this inevitably leads to cultural contradictions. In general framings of animals are fairly contradictory (i.e. ‘animal’ is used broadly to make something killable, but the idea of killing domestic animals would be abhorrant to a lot of people). I think horseracing is an example of one of those contradictions, partly though because of a blindspot regarding what happens to racehorses, I geniunely think there’s a lot of denial about how many die (same with greyhounds).