In a period where political volatility has been extreme, from the near collapse of whole economies, to debate over crucial climate change strategies, to refugee policy, to the meaning of pornography and the prevalence of sexual violence, the Four Corners controversy over the treatment of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs stands out for the strength and near universality of the public outcry and the more or less immediate governmental response. Images of docile Brahmin beasts being beaten, falling on slippery concrete floors, repeatedly banging their heads in metal cages and having their throats cut with primitive instruments galvanised a public response in ways that few, if any, issues do. These distressing images allowed a response uncontaminated by the sorts of implicit questions that typically cut across immediate sympathetic response to traumatised refugees, sexually violated women, or other marginal identities harmed or mistreated in our culture. Perhaps the sexual abuse of children is the exception here.
It is testament to the power of photography and film, or what the culture has come to see as an immediate window onto reality, that there was such a response. The capacity of the camera to bring us confronting photo-journalistic images that marshal feelings of horror is well recognised; their importance cannot be underestimated (and on this basis one wonders why we don’t see more images of the true horrors of our war in Afghanistan and Pakistan or of life inside Australia’s concentration camps). But of course there was more going on here than the simple transmission of images. ‘Reality’ touched a particular nerve and had a broad significance, if not also an unconscious register. At one level we might suspect to be at work here a deep-going reaction formation to a core problem for human culture in general: killing for meat. At another, the Four Corners controversy and the practical reaction it has generated is redolent with all the elements of a distinctly late-modern politics of nature and our redefinition of just where we, especially the West, stand in relation to her.
One cannot discount the possibility that humans harbour species guilt over the destruction of animal life for our own life-giving purposes. Certainly we know that dead animals must be turned into ‘meat’ and then again into meals; from the raw to the cooked, and integrated into restrictive systems of meaning and psychologically acceptable forms: any potential horror involved in the production of meat, even in cultures where animals are likened to human kin, can be corralled or sequestered and explained culturally. Killing for life may be the original disavowal; perhaps more acute still in settled civilisations based on the growing of crops and killing for food of domesticated animals―those animal others we come to know closely. As with many unpalatable choices laid out by nature, humans have had to make their often conflicted actions palatable, even ethical, in order to answer to the higher gods and social ‘goods’ to which human natures also aspire.
In modernity, the need to sequester bloody reality has a whole anthropology and sociology of its own―from the generalisation of civilised behaviour from the European courts of kings and queens to
ordinary people, and Enlightened views of subjects and bodies leading to a distaste for public displays of blood or torture; to modern diversified societies’ divisions of labour around blood and bodies in trades and professions such as butchery and surgery; to today’s techno-mediated and mega-industrialised production of food for consumer consumption, globalised on the one hand, as in our export of live cattle, and fully sanitised, as in the meat we buy in supermarkets. Blood and guts have almost entirely disappeared from ordinary life (just like our wars, fought secretly or carried out at a distance by high-tech means), and certainly from shop windows, with the demise of butcher shops and with meat even touched up cosmetically on supermarket shelves.
So, hidden from view in our lives in general, animal death―or more particularly our confrontation with the fate of meekness and innocence at our own hands―is very hard to bear, and with the once relatively confident justifications for it beginning to slip away, the rawness of animal death itself tends to come into focus. In other words, the immediate sense of animal innocence and human cruelty is in play, but it is an opening to an enduring wound at the heart of culture.
I think it was something to be relatively proud of that the reaction from animal advocates and the cattle industry, as in Bob Katter’s statements and those of cattlemen and women themselves, was not one of racial accusation against Indonesians. There was no attempt to divert responsibility away from Australia even if Indonesia has latterly found racism in the government’s banning of exports to it alone. In fact, overall there seemed to be considerable sensitivity, albeit with very large commercial interests hovering in the background, to Muslim Indonesia’s halal requirements and the problems of poverty and unequal resources. The closeness of Australia’s north to Australia’s northern neighbour, geographically and in the kind of cross-cultural understanding that may be built via trade itself, was worth noting. And yet for all the attempts by mainstream animal advocates, cattle industry representative, independent MPs and the government, the debate has remained deeply unsettling. The language of animal ‘cruelty’ and its corollary in the ‘humane abattoir’, used by just about all the political players (though not some diehards who accuse the Australian middle class of denying poor Indonesians food), may be an attempt to bridge the nature–culture gap and to act decently, but whether that kind of distinctly ‘modern’ cultural solution will work today is a moot point.
Almost immediately there appeared in the debate the oxymoronic, weirdly redundant notion of cruelty in the slaughterhouse. Certainly there is a distinction to be made: animal death, on the one hand, cruelty through mismanagement, on the other. But it wasn’t merely that kind of cruelty that was exposed to us, and the notion of a humane abattoir sounds to postmodern people, and especially the young, just like Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the humane penitentiary, home to unspeakable cruelty―cruelty built into the notion itself. That modern institution, which like the insane asylum stood at the margins of society, was intensively involved in shaping modern people. The humane abattoir speaks similarly to the question of how animals figure as others to us, and what their autonomous natures and claims to life might be.
The independent MPs, the government and industry representatives believe that stun guns, the redesign of cages and modernisation of abattoirs in general are the solution. Animal suffering would indeed be lessened and many who have rectified the nature–culture faultline in their own lives as committed meat eaters will be content. But this will not settle calls for an end to the live cattle trade from other quarters. Again, much of the argument put against the transport of live animals for meat to other countries has revolved around cruelty. Animal suffering is the focus; conditions on ships and in slaughterhouses remote from Australia the target. But the sources of suffering in this context are both broader and more specific. While regional trade with our populous northern neighbour must be a (reciprocal) given, the vision of wealthy Australia’s mega-ships, huge animals and giant logistical operations that span the globe speak to many of the hubris and anti-nature attitude of growth-addicted global capitalism.
Many young animal activists have taken up Peter Singer’s notion of animal rights. But a much more telling, and historically apt, approach may rest in the critique of contemporary life symbolised in what has been called ‘self-kill vegetarianism’. This idea, that unless the individual is involved in the killing of their meat they will not eat it, does not discount animal killing as such. But it does indicate precisely the distance between the table and ‘meat production’ in our time. It is not likely that this is a practical politics for the mass of people, but it speaks of a hoped-for relationship that honours animals, brings the issue of food and nature close to home, and makes human responsibility an ethical confrontation, not merely a technical solution.