Nothing is so ironic and absurd as a stuffed animal. It simultaneously makes non-human animals the objects of our deepest affection and the objects of our deepest alienation. The mere existence of the stuffed animal suggests that animals are individual beings that should be loved and respected, but also beings whose bodies we can objectify, alienate, commodify, and consume.
In feminist scholar Carl J. Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat she talks about something called “the absent referent” – a concept she borrows from Margaret Homans’ Bearing the Word – as it pertains to the bodies of non-human animals and women. For the sake of my analysis, I will only focus on her description of how this concept relates to non-human animals:
“Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The ‘absent referent’ is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep the ‘moo’ or ‘cluck’ or ‘baa’ away from the meat, to keep something from being seen as having been someone (Adams 13).”
From this passage, we can see that the absent referent refers to something which used to exist, but which now no longer exists. It the end result of processes which effectively remove the body of the animal from the dinner plate, and thus, from our minds. To borrow a term from Ferdinand de Saussure, it is a “signifier” which points to something once “signified” whose signification – and thus, it’s meaning – has been lost through a long chain of linguistic, sociological, cultural, and economic alienation which objectifies and commodifies animal bodies in to create a product that is consumed by people.
For Adams, the product being produced is “meat” – i.e. a once-living being which has been rendered a non-being through a violent separation from its environment, it’s natural desires, it’s social relations, its status as an independent subject, and its very life. In a similar vein, I argue that the stuffed animal also replaces the absent referent (the real animal) in the same way meat does, but with a few distinct differences.
In the case of meat, for example, there is an obvious linguistic turning away from subject of the animal (flesh becomes “meat,” cows become “beef,” pigs become “pork,” etc.) where the term “stuffed animal” does not possess this characteristic. Secondly, the meat that replaces the referent of the animal is often processed and prepared – at least in the Western world – to look completely different from the animal itself, whereas the stuffed animal replaces the absent referent through an imitation or caricature of the real thing. Thirdly, stuffed animals are the objects of our affection whereas meat is the object of our desire for food. Although people will often say things like, “I love steak,” this is clearly different than saying, “I love stuffed tigers.”
However, beyond these distinct differences, it’s clear that both stuffed animals and meat are products whose existence depends on the same underlying processes of alienation, objectification, commodification which Marx describes as being essential to industrial capitalism.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argued that industrial capitalism exploited and alienated people in four major ways. The first form of alienation was the estrangement of the worker from their own labor – that is to say, the act of working appeared as something that didn’t belong to the people working, but something which made them suffer by expending their physical and cognitive powers in the dehumanizing processes of production (Marx 75).
Secondly, Marx argued that people were also alienated from the products that they produced, as they could not use them for their own benefit or take ownership of them. Rather, the products themselves effectively exercised power over the people that made them (75).
Thirdly, he claimed that industrial capitalism alienated people from their very nature as free, conscious, and creative beings, and fourthly, he argued that capitalism alienated people from their status as human subjects and instead allowed themselves to perceive their subjectivity through the act of alienated labor (77, 78), which was essentially to assume the status of objects that were exploited and commodified by industrial capitalism.
In the same way Marx’s analysis of estranged labor revealed an important contrast between human beings as they truly are – or rather as they should be – versus human beings under the artificial, slavish, objectifying, and dehumanizing forces of industrial capitalism, my analysis of the stuffed animal will aim to reveal an important important contrast between animals as they truly are – or as they should be – and animals as they are seen through the lens of our capitalist system which alienates, objectifies, and commodifies animals.
Returning to Carol J. Adams’ use of the absent referent to refer to the real animal whose bodies are destroyed, dismembered, and consumed, I also hope to show how the absent referent equally applies to the real images of animal bodies which are also destroyed, dismembered, and consumed.
To buy a steak is to assert one’s right to kill another sentient being and thus to alienate it from its life, and to buy an animal is to assert one’s right to control the life of another living being by alienating it from its freedom. Similarly, I argue that to buy a stuffed animal is to assert one’s right to control how animal bodies should be perceived – namely, as objects to be kept and used for our own purposes. Therefore, in the same way that Adams argues that meat is a substitute for the missing referent of the animals we kill and eat, I argue that the stuffed animal is a substitute for the missing referent of animals we enslave and exploit. While the former act destroys animal identity in a literal sense, the other destroys animal identity in a figurative sense.
Moreover, whether one is eating a steak or buying a stuffed tiger, in both cases one is acquiescing to and reinforcing an ideology. The former ideology, which psychologist Melanie Joy has popularized is known as “carnism”: the belief that eating meat is “natural,” “normal,” and “necessary.” The latter ideology has no name as of yet, so I will call it ocularism: the belief that non-human animals should be seen and depicted as objects to be used for human purposes. In the way that one can see how the anthropocentric worldview underlies the prejudice of speciesism, and in the way one can see how speciesism underlies the ideology of carnism, I argue that this same combination of anthropocentrism and speciesism underlies the ideology of ocularism.
Ocularism, like carnism, is also a belief which is constructed, disseminated, and reinforced by the matrix of power relations at work within society which includes media, special interest groups such as the meat and dairy industries, as well as pre-established socio-cultural norms, traditions, and prevailing beliefs and attitudes about animals.
The most common methods employed for the dissemination and dialectical social reaffirmation of this ideology are the processes of abstraction, dissociation, fragmentation, and anthropomorphization. By abstracting, dissociating, fragmenting, and anthropomorphizing images of animals’ bodies through media, culture, tradition, and economics, we collectively determine how animals are seen, thought about, and treated by people in larger society – namely, as objects to be used.
One example of the use of abstraction and dissociation regarding carnism that has already been mentioned is when we call animal corpses “meat” and engage in the act of eating animal bodies. If a person says they are eating meat, you will have an idea of what animal they could be eating, but meat itself is a general category which is only made possible by abstracting from – and thus obscuring – the animal itself.
Of course, one could go further and specify what type of meat they are eating, whether it is from a cow, a pig, or a rabbit, but this addition is still an abstraction which only tells us where the meat came from, not what the meat is – that is to say, flesh. Furthermore, in the process of this abstraction we are also engaging in an act of dissociation which puts distance between the body of the dead animal and what appears on our plate. This effectively allows us to avoid acknowledging the fact that an animal has been killed and that we are consuming its dead body.
Similarly, the ocularist corollary to carnistic abstraction and dissociation occur every time one buys and consumes media depicting animals in a way that objectifies them. Every time one buys book, watches a cartoon, or otherwise consumes media which depicts animals as things to be owned and used rather than subjects to be respected, one is necessarily dissociating oneself from the reality of animal bodies and opting into a fictionalized world of representation. Therefore, in the same way that carnism necessitates the dissociation between the animal that has died and the animal being eaten, ocularism necessitates the dissociation between the animal that exists and the image of the animal being seen.
With carnism, it’s also clear that the fragmentation of animal bodies takes place in a few different ways. The first two are most obvious, as they consist of the literal dismemberment of the animal and the digestion of individual body parts. However, the third form of fragmentation, though not a violent act, is perhaps the most powerful because it aids human beings in further abstracting and dissociating from the reality of animal bodies to make the act of consuming them possible.
This third form of fragmentation has to do with the way in which animal body parts are perceived in the mind – namely, as fragmented objects which are no longer traceable or thought of as traceable to the animal body from which they were taken. Although we might name the animal parts of a turkey on Thanksgiving by calling them “legs,” “wings,” and “thighs,” the images associated with these words are not the real legs, wings, and thighs of the animal, but are the parts of animals as they appear on our plates, fully cooked and prepared for our consumption.
With ocularism, fragmentation occurs whenever one buys clothing, shoes, cookware, decorations, or other products which depict animal faces, tails, eyes, or other body parts as something separate from the being to which they belong. Similarly, I argue that what allows for human beings to engage in the act of purchasing images of fragmented animal bodies has to do with the way individual animals are perceived in the mind – namely, and images no longer traceable or thought of as traceable to the animal from which they were taken. For example, when one buys clothing with distorted or exaggerated cartoon faces of cats, dogs, pigs, or cows, one is not associating these faces with the real animals, but with an imagined and fictitious version of animals purposely designed for our entertainment and consumption.
Lastly, is the tactic of anthropomorphization. This idea is evidenced in the carnistic sense by children’s media involving early childhood, in commercial advertisements, and adult media like Family Guy, Sausage Party, and Bojack Horseman. In the ocularist sense, it can be found in in myths, fables, children’s stories, and in movies like Homeward Bound, Babe, Air Bud, Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, and Zootopia, and in children’s TV shows like Curious George, and Peg + Cat. Admittedly, the tactic of athropomorphization seems counterintuitive because, like the stuffed animal, it seems to bring us closer to the subjectivity of animals by making them the objects of our affection.
However, I argue that these anthropomorphized versions of animals keep us from recognizing animals as they really are – namely, as conscious, free, and independent beings rooted in and belonging to their own environments and societies – because these representations of animals are made to speak, act, and think in ways we know are not accurate or true (i.e. to behave like humans).
Therefore, when the book, show, or movie has ended, one can easily stop thinking about animals as living subjects since one’s belief in the individual subjectivity of animals relies on the suspension of one’s disbelief rather than on challenging one’s established beliefs, and is based on the degree to which non-human animals can reliably demonstrate human abilities characteristics. Therefore, because the default view of most people is to see non-human animals as separate and unequal to humans, and because the media being consumed never directly challenges this hierarchy, the anthropomorphized versions of animals ironically help to reinforce the view that animal bodies are objects to be used for human purposes – namely, for the purposes of entertainment.
Given the violent and exploitative relationship with real animals embodied in the ironic absurdity of the stuffed animal, the real question becomes, how does one go about restoring the real images of animal bodies, and thus the subjectivity of real animals to our world? How does one fight against the abstraction, dissociation, fragmentation, and anthropomorphization embedded in media, discourse, and culture?
Perhaps a good place to start would be to allow for increased public access to animals in a way which doesn’t objectify them, caricature them, confine them, or exploit them. Given the proximity of human beings to pet animals, zoos, farms, and animal shelters, all of which depict animals in a state of human subservience, exploitation, and confinement, I admit that allowing for a healthy view of animals and animal bodies will be difficult but not impossible.
Nature shows, animal sanctuaries, and state and national parks, I would argue, could become vehicles not just for accurate and healthy ways to encounter animals and images of animal bodies, but for providing a biocentric framework and an anti-speciesist mode of discourse rather than using an anthropocentric framework and a speciesist discourse to talk about animals and animal bodies. In doing so, such places could provide opportunities to show animals as they are truly are and to teach others how animals should be seen: not as creatures beneath us, or as “wild animals,” but as free beings that inhabit the earth whose lives we have no right to take, and whose bodies we have no right to use for our own selfish purposes.
Calling an animal “wild,” after all, is a speciesist term which places human beings in a position of power over other animals and relegates non-human animals to the background and to the status of object. Like calling another human being “slave,” calling an animal “wild” denotes our desire to control and dominate another being and alienate it from its nature in order to make it “tame” – which is simply to force it to submit to our will. Therefore, we must realize that even in the language we use to name, designate, and categorize animals, we must seek only to understand them and respect them as equal beings in our world, not to treat them as abstractions or objects.
While it’s historically true that we human beings are often the victims of the circumstances of our own time and place, it’s also true that we are not slaves to those circumstances. Change is possible and change will come when more people realize what they are doing to themselves and to others. In the words of Anton Chekhov, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”