This is Vegetarian Awareness Month, from World Vegetarian Day on October 1st to World Vegan Day on November 1st. Consequently my posts may have a slant towards such topics, and that includes this post, about the concept of ‘meat’. What is meat? What is meant in saying that one person sees another as ‘a piece of meat’ – literally or metaphorically? How does ‘meat’ relate to ‘the body’, if we suppose that the latter is an important object of philosophical attention?
Let’s put meat in a broader context: how do we respond to a body part that is separated from the body that it is a part of? It seems that our typical reaction is to be repelled, but this can be in two different ways, depending on the sort of body part involved.
On the one hand, things we might call ‘inessential’ body parts produce a disdainful repulsion. Stray hairs, nail clippings, scabs, pus, saliva, sweat, urine, or excrement – the kinds of things which are ‘in our bodies’ but are regularly lost – generate revulsion without any feeling that they are important, like dirt.
On the other hand, ‘essential’ body parts, those that can’t be lost and replaced, like a hand, a heart, a leg, an ear – these generate horrified revulsion, which is the opposite. As before, we want to stay away, to avoid touching them, but this is now because they have such an awful significance, a kind of aura of wrongness around them.
Why do we feel revulsion at all? Observe that none of these things is disturbing when it’s inside the body – as long as it’s ‘in the right place’. Saliva all over one’s face is a mess; the same saliva inside one’s mouth is not. Or consider that each day we swallow a pint of snot, just from it slipping down the back of our throats, without any unease.
So what’s important is the organisation of parts, the special order that defines the body. We may not understand all of this order, but our everyday lives are suffused with a sort of trusting awareness of it, a brute conviction that our body works to a sort of plan, in which ‘we’, sentient active beings, are an integral part.
So what makes the difference between the horrified revulsion at, say, a severed hand, and the disdainful revulsion at a glass of urine or snot? Obviously part of it is that a severed hand may indicate that some hideous crime has occurred. But even when the hand was removed for benign, already-understood purposes, such as a surgical amputation, something of that horror remains on it.
I’d suggest this: the ‘inessential’ body part is seen merely as something removed from order – therefore out of place, unwanted, to-be-washed-away. But the ‘essential’ body part is seen as still in some sense a part of it’s body – still belonging to that person. This enters into a much more intense conflict with the recognition that it is now removed from that person, and so generates much more anxiety. Seeing such a body part is, in a sense, like seeing a ghost: the person is there, present in the body part, and yet also not there.
Science and the Body Part as Tool
That’s two categories, neither of which includes meat. Here’s a third, that I’d roughly as a body part that retains its functionality distinct from the body, and thereby becomes a tool, something that could in principle be ‘used’ by a range of people. The examples here form a rather motley collection.
For instance, consider a sperm sample. In some sense it is seen as still ‘belonging to’ the man who produced it, at least until he signs the requisite forms. Yet it’s not really a body part, but an expressions of a power of his body, namely the power to fertilise. He has some responsibility (legal, financial, etc) for this power it can exercise.
Conversely, consider a prosthetic limb, especially the futuristic sort that’s popular in the Skywalker family. In some sense it can be experienced as a body part, but the possibility of its re-use, re-attachment to a range of bodies gives it a ‘sanitised’, ‘mechanical’ quality.
And, lying behind and creating these practical examples, there’s the theoretical example of biological science, which can focus in on a single body part in isolation and analyse it in great detail, illuminating the precise causal mechanisms that enable the part to function, to serve the rest of the body efficiently.
Insofar as the sort of revulsion mentioned above is absent here, it seems to be because even as we isolate the body part from the organisation of the body, we re-embed it in a different organisation – namely, instrumental organisation, the causal organisation of tools and means and what they can do. This organisation makes the body part no longer seem ‘out of place’, in the way that provoked our revulsion.
So, at last, to meat. Like the body-part-as-tool, meat doesn’t provoke revulsion, because it the body part is embedded in a new, public, external, organisation, but this time not as a tool, but as an object of desire.
And this is a big difference, because the body-part-as-tool, while it does dethrone the original body as the only subject able to use that tool, at least leaves as one among others. The functional organisation of the body part is still consistent with the lived, personal order of the body.
But the desire-based order into which we integrate ‘meat’ isn’t – it replaces the living body’s organisation, and is incompatible with it (no body could survive by eating itself). And observe this consequence – where the parts of a body that is not meat can inspire either disdainful revulsion, or horrified revulsion, those of a body that is meat can only inspire disdainful revulsion.
This is because the horror we feel as a human limb or organ – indeed, the horror that we feel as a human corpse – is based on a sense that it still belongs to, still ‘makes present’, the internal order of the body it comes from. But a body which is seen as meat has no such internal order, and so there is nothing to unnerve us. The entrails of a pig are not like the entrails of a human being – they are like the vomit or stray pubic hairs or stale sweat of a human being. They are a mess to be cleaned up.
This is why there’s a sense in which we don’t perceive eating meat as eating an animal, as eating something that used to be alive. To think of the active living animal – as is definitionally necessary for meat – is to bring to mind the evident fact that this being had an internal, meaningful, organisation, in which it as sentient and active was centrally embedded. Yet this is precisely what ‘meat’ obscures. So to minimise the tension, we separate them as sharply as we can, even at the cost of inconsistency (e.g. being appalled at eating cats and dogs, but not pigs and cows).
So that’s paradigmatic meat. What about saying that a person is seen as ‘a piece of meat’? I think the foregoing analysis provides an answer: to be seen as ‘meat’ is to be seen as organised around an external desire which displaces and obscures one’s internal organisation around oneself as sentient and active.
We might sketch four symptoms that would indictae such an attitude (all matters of degree):
Firstly, meat typically requires to be marked as meat – cut a particular way, with skin and blood removed, cooked, seasoned, to distinguish it from the body it used to be. The same would be expected in human bodies seen ‘as meat’: that extensive work would be required to alter their appearance and make it visibly announce its organisation around external desire;
Secondly, since meat was defined as a way for isolated body parts to not revolt us, we would expect a preference for seeing particular parts of ‘human meat’ presented in isolation from the rest of the body, arousing aesthetic pleasure without needing to be organised in relation to the whole person;
Thirdly, a preference for seeing the ‘human meat’ in passive poses which display the body rather than displaying what it can do, since deliberate action brings to the fore the body’s internal order;
Fourthly, a willingness to see the ‘human meat’ presented as a dead body, on TV shows or music videos for instance, since as long as it has fully satisfied the cosmetic requirements of the first symptom, the natural horror of a dead body can be subsumed into an aesthetic thrill.