The Politics of Sight: Observing Farm Animals, Then and Now
March 29, 2012 8 Comments
Farmers in pre-industrial America were intense observers of animal behavior. They had to be. At a time when farm animals were integral to material life, agriculturalists couldn’t afford to neglect their economic livelihood. Some historians estimate that early American farmers may have spent the vast majority of their days–all of their days–tending to the seemingly endless wants and needs of their animals. I believe it. Spend time with the records of any early American colony and you will find yourself enmeshed in world of cows, pigs, and fowl.
The result of this persistent, inevitable observation was a deeply intuitive sense of the intrinsic value of farm animals. There is, of course, no denying that farmers ultimately exploited their stock to serve human needs–that goes without saying. Less appreciated, however, is the fact that dominion over animals was, as far as my research is revealing, as gentle as it was customary. Farmers paid consistent attention to the most subtle behaviors of the animals under their care, even going so far as to note what kind of sounds animals liked to hear. Abuse of animals could quickly lead to social ostracization.
Industrialization of animal agriculture undermined this habit of observation. Destroyed it, actually. Most consumers today have no idea that meat, milk, and dairy necessarily requires the ruthless exploitation of sentient beings. It never crosses their minds. Producers, too, have little incentive to observe animals, much less understand their inherent value as animals. A highly rationalized factory system obviates that need, deadens our powers of observation, and sets us on the distant periphery of immense abuse. I know this may all be painfully obvious, but I think the demise of observation as the essential bond between humans and animals in agriculture is one of the most important, and destructive, developments in human history.
The resurgence of small-scale animal farming claims, in some respect, to recapture this lost bond. I’m dubious of such a claim. I can only speak anecdotally on this issue, but most small scale animal farmers I know outsource much their labor, are by no means as dependent on their animals as their pre-industrial forbears were, often work other jobs, and, frankly, seem to spend more time blogging than farming. I think it’s safe to say that very few small scale animal farmers today spend the vast majority of their day, every day, with their pigs, cows, chickens, and goats. They might fashion themselves as pre-industrial farmers nurturing the same bonds as those forged by their agrarian ancestors, but the world is no longer pre-industrial. They’re a band of hobbyists whose work is as close to pre-industrial farming as a Renaissance festival is to the medieval era.
All of which leaves us with a paradox–or at least a weird situation. At a time when farmers truly appreciated the “animalness” of their animals–an appreciation borne of intense observation–they were, due to the vagaries of a settlement society, directly dependent on those animals for their livelihood. Today, however when plant-based agriculture has advanced to the point that it produces enough plants to feed 7 billion people, a cadre of environmentally concerned opponents of factory farming are seeking to bring us back to the old days by waxing rhetorically about recovering the lost human-animal bond. What they miss, I think, is that their purported power of observation is compromised by an unavoidable fact: we don’t need the animals under their observation. The result is that “humane” farmers do not get the “animalness” of their animals. To the contrary, to raise an animal to kill when it is not necessary to do so means that the animal is not an animal, but an object, a commodity.