Are Categories Useful?

Or Camilla Tells the Story of Her Life, Disguised as a Blog Post


Oh man. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is so highly relevant to my interests. This blog post isn’t going to be brief, nor is it going to be unbiased. I am an animal science major and I am a vegetarian. I have many opinions on the ideas discussed in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.I guess I will begin by telling about my background (how I reached the opinions I have) and then I will discuss my reactions to the first four chapters of Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers.

I was brought up in Blacksburg. I’ve never lived on a farm, but when I was 8 I started riding horses, and after that time, spent huge amounts of my time on two farms. when I was 11, I raised a bunch of chickens and kept a few as laying hens and pets. Around that time, I also became a vegetarian–I didn’t want to eat my pet chickens (they were my friends), so why would I eat other chickens? I have always (even when I was a child) tried to be consistent and logical, so I decided that I also shouldn’t eat mammal species, because they are more highly intelligent than birds, in general. At that time, I read a lot about the animal right movement, and to me, as a soft-hearted 12-year-old, it seemed reasonable. I was a child who formed strong bonds with animals and didn’t see how they were so tremendously different than humans that they should be killed and eaten or used for production of eggs, milk, or wool. Fast forward about 6 years–I was 18 and had seen enough animal blood and suffering that I became much more hard-hearted. However, I argued that the animal production industry in this country was corrupt and I shouldn’t support it by eating meat. Then I became an animal science major and was truly exposed to farm animals, livestock production, and the realities of generating the food we eat.There isn’t anything evil about it.We have evolved to eat animals for 1000s of years. We raise animals, we treat them well, and we kill and eat them. (Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t anything wrong with the meat industry. There is a lot wrong with it. But this isn’t the place and time for that discussion. Generally, at its heart, there isn’t a thing wrong with killing and eating animals and that is my point.) However, I still do not eat meat. Richard Bulliet would call me an elective vegetarian and a product of post-domestic society and, actually, I would agree very strongly. In fact, I would say that my choices are, perhaps, more of a product of post-domestic society than most people’s choices are.

In post-domestic society, we are far removed from animals. We are not in contact with their excrement or their copulation. We do not see their suffering, their blood, and their death, but neither do we see their natural behaviors and contentment in life. Meat is no different than any other product that we buy at the store–we don’t know where it came from and we don’t really care. Ethically, should we be eating something that we know nothing about? If you eat a steak, you have had a part in death. If you don’t want to think about that death, should you be eating that steak?

Bulliet discuss the animal rights movement at length. However, he doesn’t really discuss the other side of the movement–the animal welfare advocates in animal agriculture. The animal welfare movement is made up of people who, by and large, still live a domestic lifestyle, rather than a post-domestic one, and who farm and produce the meat we eat. They state that we eat animals because we naturally are omnivores, and that food animals wouldn’t produce good food if they were suffering. However, I believe that I was slightly inaccurate when I said, earlier in this paragraph, that those who believe in animal welfare, rather than animal rights, are a movement. They are farmers. They are hardworking. they feed our country. They aren’t a movement in the same way that the animal rights movement is a movement, because they don’t really have time to be.

Based on my observations of the world and the general knowledge I have, I would postulate that many of the people involved in mainstream agriculture never left domestic culture. They grew up on farms and then decided to become farmers. However, a more interesting phenomenon is that of those who grew up in decidedly post-domestic culture–towns and cities–returning to small-scale, organic farming. Although I do not know whether this phenomenon has been documented, I have observed it in people I know, on several occasions.They want to return to the earth and raise their own food. They want to know where their food comes from. Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of her family (including her two daughters) returning to domestic culture (although she doesn’t call it that) in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Of course, Bulliet doesn’t (or hasn’t) made the distinction that post-domestic and domestic can be applied to individual lifestyles. He is making broader societal distinctions. However, I think that the difference that he describes can be as easily applied to individuals as to entire societies.

Central to Bulliet’s thesis is the idea that post-domestic society is more sensitive to sex and blood than domestic society was. I think that while his reasoning is sound, this idea really isn’t that surprising. If you are exposed to blood and sex, blood and sex aren’t shocking anymore. However, is it preferable to be shocked by blood and sex? is it better to exist in a world where those things are seen as taboo or in a world where those (very natural and normal) things are seen as normal and natural?

I think that humans have been becoming increasingly sensitive to discussion of human sex for a much longer time than we have lived in a post-domestic world. Our society is fascinated by sex and unwilling to talk about it, but that has been true of many societies throughout history. However, I do agree that never seeing animal sex makes us more fascinated by sex (I, personally, saw quite a bit of horse reproduction when I was 10-14 and was never quite as impressed by the idea of human sex as my same age peers were).

An interesting idea and one I would like to hear Bulliet discuss at more length is the idea that conservation efforts are a product of post-domestic society. Do we have to have some sort of distance from animals to decide that they are worth preserving?

Bulliet’s discussion of separation and per-domestic society is interesting, but not partticulatly earth-shattering. Of course pre-humans had to realize that they are different in some way from animals, and of course humans were hunter-gatherers before they domesticated animals. However, I suppose that  in order to have the later classifications, the earlier ones were necessary.

This blog post hasn’t moved in one direction. It has no thesis statement and is basically a reflection. However, if I have one main idea that I derived from the readings, it is that I don’t know whether categories (like domestic, post-domestic, and pre-domestic) are that useful. I think that it is useful to look at the effects of animals on human society, but with every label or category comes many exceptions to that label.

8 thoughts on “Are Categories Useful?

  1. Camilla, I absolutely agree with you, and also find the need to return to a domestic lifestyle interesting. There’s plenty to be said for what’s in our food that we don’t know about. Some say the preservatives are what causes autism, but that’s neither here nor there. All I know is that Taco Bell is delicious.

    As for your comment about conservation efforts, I think that totally ties in to what we were talking about last week with endangered species. I think that we do need to be able to step back and see things in terms of populations, to recognize our own impact on those populations, and decide whether or not we should intervene. In the case of the tiger (Tigers and silkworms, I don’t know what it is about them that I like so much), the cause for the decline in their population is decidedly human intervention. Only a postdomestic society would be able to see the morality in that and make the call to conserve.

    • I don’t know if I agree that post-domestic society is the only society that is moral enough to engage in conservation. I see our conservation efforts more as a byproduct of the destruction we have wrought upon nature than as a direct result of our separation from animals. It’s an interesting relationship to think about, though.

  2. I like how as an animal science major you explain, “There isn’t anything evil about it,” (the meat production industry). I do believe there are many problems in the ways in which we produce meat for a globalized system. However, from the industry’s prospective the way meat is produced is the most rational and logical way for our subsistence (and our respective GNPs).

    My justification for being a meat eater may be because I’m not afraid to understand realities of the industry… even if my choices are very selective. This brings up another important question you considered: What about small organic family farms and their role in creating a domestic/post-domestic future?

    The practical implications of the categories Bulliet presents are of understanding how we individually and collectively fit into them, and that, at least, is worth discussion.

    • I absolutely understand the realities of the industry–possibly better than most people do. that is part of why I am a vegetarian. I support small-scale and organic farmers and if I ever return to eating meat I will only eat meat that was locally and sustainably produced.

  3. I hope you find imitation the best form of flattery, Camilla, because you’ve inspired me to start my own blog and use the title of this post for my first entry. It will include some nouns and concepts that map onto your life experience (hope this isn’t a spoiler alert…): family farm, childhood, homesteaders, calves, college, wheat, chickens, slaughter, vegetarian,Germany, veterinarian, Russia, historian, vegan, pescetarian.

  4. I’d really like to hear more of your thoughts on Bulliet’s initial assertion of animal sex (including with humans) and slaughter being commonplace. I understand your experience may be radically different than those of his referenced subjects, but I suspect you have a better understanding and viewpoint than most of us.

    • I honestly do not know whether beastiality was commonplace. I think it would be reasonable to believe that it was, although questions appear in my head as to whether the actual logistics would be possible.

      Animal slaughter is just another kind of killing and it’s one that you are either used to or you aren’t.

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