The Utility of Categories

An instructor’s first post. Inspired by Camilla and Alex

The intensity of the group’s responses to HHH gave me pause – mostly of the good kind. Although we rejected many of Bulliet’s claims, it’s clear that the conceptual categories of “pre-domestic, domestic, post-domestic” got us thinking about our contemporary sensibilities in new and provocative ways.  So, from my perspective, this was a good day!

I was especially struck by Camilla’s ruminations on how her own practices and beliefs support and confound certain aspects of the postdomestic paradigm.  While I’m loathe to engage blogging as a kind of confessional, after reading her reflection on the Utility of Categories  I’m offering the following in further support and recognition of the sweet spots and contradictions of Bulliet’s categories:

I am a native of Western Kansas. My father’s family homesteaded in Smith County, a vast mesa of prairie earth at the geographic center of the continental US.  My childhood revolved around summers spent on the family farm (then in Southern Missouri), where I helped slop hogs, feed chickens, and tend calves, and spent endless hours fussing over the horses and pony that drew me away from the air-conditioned comfort of suburbia to the sweltering humidity of the fields. I ate meat.  Lots of meat.  Most of it came from animals raised on the farm. I thought it was perfectly normal to have a freezer in the garage full of beef and pork. Mine was a “domestic” upbringing, even if I’m too young to have experienced the full-blown era of domesticity Bulliet describes.  I loved animals.  I had pets from wood, field and stream as well as dogs and cats.  And I ate animals.  Lots of animals.

I did have qualms, though.  My grandfather gave me a calf every summer and I always chose a heifer, partly so my herd would expand and partly because I knew cows were more likely to remain in the pasture for several years than steers were.  When I went to college in California, my grandfather sold my herd off to help pay my room and board.  I tried not to think about where my cows ended up — I had raised them and watched over them for many years.  At the same time I encountered what passed for meat in a college dining hall.  I was not impressed.  So I quit eating it and discovered that all of the non-meat food that had never been part of our hamburger / pork chop cuisine was really tasty!  I didn’t really miss meat, but when I went home for Christmas, my mouth watered at the prospect of a good steak dinner.

I couldn’t finish the steak.  It tasted greasy and heavy and made my intestines very unhappy.  I waited a couple days and tried a hamburger.  Same problem.  I was bummed.  And then it occurred to me that this wasn’t a bad thing.  Like most people, I ate meat because I liked it.  Once I no longer liked it, and eating it made me feel sick, an array of rationales for the new normal appeared.  The main one was the unnecessary killing – sacrificing creatures, some of whom I knew as individuals, just because I wanted to eat them seemed senseless and selfish.  I wasn’t much worried about the “factory farm” issue at that point.  The livestock I knew ranged freely, ate well, raised their young themselves, and did not fear predators. I just realized that I found living animals more attractive than dead ones.  I was also impressed with the work of Francis Moore Lappe, and welcomed the prospect of helping people and the environment by eating lower on the food chain.  I was also powerfully impressed by how terribly my gut hurt when I ate that steak.  How could meat be good for you if it made you feel so awful?  And so, more than thirty years ago, I slipped into vegetarianism; not, as Bulliet would have it, out of a “post-domestic” revulsion over imagined animal suffering and death, and estrangement from actual livestock.(cf. pp. 15-18).  No, the shift for me was facilitated by an entirely unintended consequence of foregoing something previously tasty long enough to (accidentally) lose the taste for it. With the desire to eat meat gone, it was easy to reject nearly all of the philosophical moves and practical ploys that put it on my plate in the first place.

There’s more to my “domestic” evolution in the era of “post-domesticity,” but it will have to wait for another evening.




3 Replies to “The Utility of Categories”

  1. As I dive into the readings this week and after read this post, utilizing Bulliet’s categories for understanding our individual and collective relationships to animals is becoming a particularly interesting understanding with ever-growing flaws. The unintentional decisions and following logical ethical deductions that led to the adoption of your vegetarian diet (both with support for and against Bulliet’s post-domestic paradigm of influence by guilt) are different from my ethical reasons to discontinue eating (most…) industrially processed meat.

    Our relative decisions of how often, what kind, and for what reasons meat is or is not individually consumed can gain some validly from Bulliet’s categories, as we essentially agreed upon in class. What is maybe a more useful framework in our meat-eating habits, however, comes perhaps from understanding these environmental relations, as described in “From trust to domination” as manifestations not only of human relationships to animals but also in those relationships that position individuals in society. Bulliet discussed cultural paradigms for understanding human-animal relationships but fails to acknowledge the apparent importance of our social relationships and experiences that contribute to individual transformation of environmental-relations. Or in this case – the rationale for a reduction or increase in personal meat consumption.

    For the moment let’s not consider important reactions to the changing human-animal relationships as indicators of our behavior to meat eating. Instead let’s think about the influence of social relationships. Do our meat eating habits reinforce our personal spiritual and moral standings? Or are our habits based more on collective social norms? Or if it is from the duel influence of both ideas (and also human-animal relationships) what factors play the most important role in determining our meat eating habits today and for humans throughout time?

    From what I have read of this week’s readings the way we eat is dependent on how we relate to our environment and that relation is, for the sake of space, contingent on many cultural and individual beliefs that have and will continue to change throughout time.

  2. This post is interesting to me, not only because it describes your life story, but also because a similar thing happened to me and to my mother. I stopped eating meat, as I said in my previous post, when I was about 12. At that time I was a vegetarian entirely for ethical reasons. However, since that time, I have lost my taste for meat entirely and really do not miss eating it. My mother became a vegetarian because my family ate less meat when I became a vegetarian and she, too, gradually lost her taste for meat.

    It is very interesting to me that we, as evolutionary omnivores, can lose out taste for it so completely and and function so easily and so well without meat. I wonder if our species is evolving onto a one that can eat a less omnivorous diet.

  3. This is an interesting question. My sense is that because meat eating is so central to American culture we exaggerate its importance in human diets globally. There are societies that are even more dependent on meat protein than we are (the Penan in Borneo and various reindeer herding groups come to mind), but in many other cuisines meat makes an occasional appearance and is rarely featured as a main course. I know people who feel they need to eat meat to stay healthy (and there’s a whole debate about the paleo diet and old blood types that supports this perspective), but there’s lots of research to suggest that people live longer and are generally more healthy if they follow Michael Collin’s advice to eat a wide variety of whole foods, mostly plants.
    The whole issue of omnivory is intriguing as well — I’m thinking about the research from a couple of weeks ago that links the ability to digest cereal grains to the domestication of the dog — and remembering that most domesticated species are herbivores. Wolves, of course, are predators, and cats are also obligate carnivores….

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