Elephants Wouldn’t Lie Awake Wondering; or, Cognitive Dissonance and the Carnivore
A part of our visual education and ontological understanding that is no more or less important than seeing a child being born
A film conversation between Gregory Giles and Teresa K. Miller
In a 60-page essay I wrote on the nature of a “morbid curiosity,” I struggled not only with the ethics of viewing actualities of death found on shock sites—usually, the premature deaths of non-white victims of car crashes, industrial accidents, drug cartel violence, etc.—but also the important distinctions between the legendary snuff film of the 1970s (which likely doesn’t exist) and what is now readily available online; the unsettling connections inevitably drawn between pornography and death; the history of morbidity and documentary film; and the evolving legality of transgressive film in an era of instant uploads, jet-streamed web access, and net neutrality. Not least of which to justify my own morbid curiosity, I had hoped the essay would “suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look at such material—that, in fact, to risk being disturbed by the sight of what can happen to a person’s body is an enriching experience, a part of our visual education and ontological understanding that is no more or less important than seeing a child being born.” Finally believing that this piece would give me nothing but trouble, I decided not to share it with you or anyone else.
Viewing these actualities may violate an individual’s right to privacy, assuming this is what is at stake when people protest viewers’ ghoulish fascination with a dying man’s involuntary performance. Worse than that, however, is the viewers’ possibly unwitting encouragement of porn-aggregating advertisers who exploit sex workers and sexually abused women and men, given that transgression and death, unfortunately, always dance with misogyny, racism, and justifiably illegal forms of pornography. I would love to believe that those who watch this kind of footage are innocently curious and not like pigeons pecking for retinal food pellets, but when it comes to audiences of body trauma, even your average viewer of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1970) is probably not an avant-garde, experimental-film enthusiast but rather a gorehound who is addicted to the rousing sight of his own species’ anatomy ripped apart. Compulsions to watch and witness, therefore, are the economic edge of a shock site; the impulse has very little to do with the circumspect memento mori of Yorick’s skull, regardless of how I feel personally. Consequently, the explosive shadow industry of criminal porn online—enabling the commodification of its underage performers, trafficked humans, de facto sex slaves from developing nations, and runaways or prostitutes humiliated and cheated by videographer pimps—finds a laundered presence through advertising on some shock sites.
What does this have to do with the meat industry? According to animal rights activists, chickens, dogs, dolphins, and silkworms are people, too, with all the inalienable rights that—in a perfect world we don’t inhabit—are afforded human beings. (In full disclosure, I am a carnivore, while you have been a vegetarian for most of your life.) And while I am illogically squeamish about seeing the slaughter of animals I eat on a regular basis, I have discovered I can more easily watch human beings visited by all manner of violence. I cannot tolerate the sight of a fox catching a rabbit on a nature program, and, as you remind me constantly, I only wept on our wedding day when I saw a news story about a dog who fell off a cliff and broke its leg.
What is wrong with me? I don’t know, but I suspect my irrational attitude is not terribly uncommon, if only because so many people perceive animals as embodying radical innocence, while humans slaughter other animals, commit acts of self-destructive genocide, and lay waste to the planet. It is the easiest thing in the world to observe human history and immediately become an abject, misanthropic, self-loathing troll. I support worldwide social, economic, and political justice, but to be honest, it is too frequently an alignment detached from any emotional conviction. This is an untenable feeling to have unless I have decided to join the voluntary human extinction movement.
I quietly and unapologetically live in this destructive chaos of cognitive dissonance.
So we finally come to the gory mayhem—the genuine animal snuff—of Georges Franju’s unprecedented Le sang des bêtes (1949), a short film that produces unsparing images of the slaughterhouses in suburban Paris. Horses are dispatched with pneumatic bolts, their forelegs tucking back instantly and neatly with each shot to the forehead, like collapsing spring-loaded folding chairs. Decapitated veal calves twitch upon biers designed for bleeding out efficiently. Skinned lambs are hung by the gaps between tendon and bone along their cannons, affording an industrial purchase upon meat hooks, as if their anatomies were designed for this purpose. The enormous globular sac of a cow’s stomach is slit open on the wet floor, releasing a shocking eruption of half-digested slurry. If gore—the spectacular viscera of death—were the sole impetus for my morbid curiosity, then why am I repulsed and fundamentally bummed out by these images of animal suffering and mutilation?
Someone fouled up your tamale order once, and you found yourself tasting “dirt” in it, only to discover that the flavor was in fact grilled chicken. Meat has become dirt on your palate after two decades of a strictly vegetarian diet. I smell grilled chicken, and I begin to salivate, while I become livid at the sight of animal mistreatment. Human beings have the gift of a perspicacious intellect that can also entertain contradictory desires without creating inordinate distress: in my case, the desire to devour animal flesh and the desire to comfort those same animals. I quietly and unapologetically live in this destructive chaos of cognitive dissonance.
Affording an industrial purchase upon meat hooks, as if their anatomies were designed for this purpose
“Le sang des bêtes”—“the blood of beasts”—has been a clarion call in Europe, summoning forces against animal cruelty and meat-processing industries, but Franju was remarkably indifferent to the politics that inevitably adhere to his short film. The abattoir, for him, becomes a depoliticized setting, so much so that Franju refused to film it in color, because that would be, as he said in a filmed interview, “repulsive. Period. The sensation people would get would be a physical one. But since it’s not in color—I chose black and white for this film—the emotion people get—at least I hope—is an aesthetic one.”* Franju has no interest in the revulsion someone might experience watching this—and even less, the values a person might overlay in viewing the practices at the Vaugirard and La Villette slaughterhouses. He is simply invested in, as he puts it, “the truth,” but the truth does not preclude artificiality; his truth requires “displacing the object, situating it in another context”—in this case, the Ourcq Canal and the vacant lots of Porte de Vanves. The abattoirs are simply sets with the potential for striking images and disjunctive editing—surrounded as they are by a bucolic suburb—creating a surreal effect achieved through incongruous juxtaposition.
But the truth does not preclude artificiality; Franju’s truth requires “displacing the object, situating it in another context.”
Teresa K. Miller
Franju, in other words, would have no interest in my experience of his work, the backstory to this conversation being that when you proposed the films—Le sang des bêtes, Meat Love (1989), Killer of Sheep (1978), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—knowing, I might add, not only that I’m a committed vegetarian but also that I hate horror films and gore (oh, husband of mine), I told you that I was game, but my responses might end up being all about how I watched only snippets of the films through parted fingers. In fact, Le sang and Texas Chainsaw inspired such distress—and then rage—in me that we both ended the night feeling like shit, and you scoured Netflix for a stand-up routine to redeem our shared screen time (John Mulaney, totes recommend).
This process has been, all told, upsetting—but also comforting insofar as I’ve achieved some insight into why you enjoy a genre that I find gratuitously destructive, not to mention tiring and disturbing in its persistent theme of imminent sexual violence toward women. As we hashed out our reactions in the immediate aftermath of watching these films, you described the feeling horror inspires as akin to BASE jumping—a means of exploring the extreme limits of our interior emotional landscape, not because we want others to experience pain but because imagining that pain breaks through whatever numb depressive apathy keeps us at a remove from the reality of our and others’ mortal existence. In that regard, film exploring death is a form of Tantra—in the philosophical rather than pop-culture sexual sense—which admonishes us first to grasp fully and completely that we are going to die and that the time until the end is fleetingly short; this process, in turn, inspires compassion toward our fellow travelers.
Knowing, I might add, not only that I’m a committed vegetarian but also that I hate horror films and gore (oh, husband of mine)
I haven’t wavered in my conviction not to eat meat—much to my food-is-love mother’s chagrin—but even when I was a strict vegan in my late teens, I didn’t have compelling personal reasons for veganism other than that it seemed like the logical end point of letting animals, as the precocious YouTube child says, stand up and be happy. So I went back to eating eggs and cheese, and my vegetarianism has been a set-it-and-forget-it political choice.
Of late, though, I edit a plethora of animal rights publications with an emphasis on veganism, and now I’m overflowing with compelling reasons not to eat dairy foods and commercially produced eggs. On some lunch breaks, I have put cream cheese on crackers, knowing full well that milk often contains both pus and feces sucked up through the mechanical milking cups, that cows are forcibly impregnated to maintain milk production and promptly separated from their babies, that their male offspring are slaughtered for veal, that they may get negligible veterinary care and be trapped inside dark stalls or have the horns gouged out of their heads—even if the label says “organic” and “humane.”
But, you protest, cheese tastes so good! And if I were just, in Alan Watts’s conception, a flesh tube—consuming through one end and excreting out the other, responding only to instant-gratification stimulus of my taste buds—that might be true. Instead, as a sentient intersection of mind and body, I notice myself suppressing a gag reflex when I think too carefully about what I’m eating. To tune out the truth seems to squander the potential we hold as conscious animals who are capable of understanding our effect on each other and the world. Maybe this predicament (in the Global North land of excess) begs for an ecofeminist analogy to female orgasm, another sometimes fraught intersection of thought and sensory input that hints at a different plane of consciousness. And perhaps that’s apt, because I think ecofeminism will save us if anything will.
Lured by the Judas goats up a chute to slaughter
In Killer of Sheep, the protagonist, Stan, suffers from insomnia, staying up all night—counting sheep, his friend says—and then going to the slaughterhouse in the early morning. He says he needs to find a job, despite having one, and a great triumph of the film is its lack of explanation. Clearly poverty wages play a part: Though he says, “I gave to Goodwill—you don’t do that if you’re poor,” he can’t make ends meet and takes on side projects, like buying an old engine block to rebuild, only to have it fall off the truck bed before he can pull away from the curb. The slaughterhouse exploits him, and he helps exploit the sheep, who are lured by the Judas goats up a chute to slaughter, Stan driving them from behind, skinning them, hosing their blood off the floor. His friends approach him to murder another resident of Watts, but his wife intervenes and asks, “Why you always wanna hurt somebody?”—to which they reply, “That’s the way nature is.” Stan, meanwhile, spends all but the last minutes of the film in a state of resignation and dissociation from his physical existence, marveling that the warmth of a coffee cup reminds him of making love but repeatedly rebuffing his wife’s advances.
Though he says, “I gave to Goodwill—you don’t do that if you’re poor,” he can’t make ends meet.
We’re awash in casual cruelty every day, unnecessary carnage, and I think it inures us to needless death (as horror films probably do to many as well)—or alters our choices, in Stan’s case about survival and family, but in less dire ways, too: Having barely made it through high school biology because of my intense revulsion to dissection at a school with no alternatives, I switched my college major in Environmental Science to a minor to avoid repeating the experience. How many young climate warriors are similarly dissuaded? Given the overlap between vegetarians and environmentalists, not least of all because of animal agriculture’s massive carbon footprint (which is greater than that of transportation), I suspect I’m not the only one.
Of course, some would argue that it’s misguided or even, as you hint, sociopathic to worry about animals when Boko Haram massacres young girls, refugees are refused from Syria or deported back to Central America, there are tent cities in the wealthiest nation on Earth, and one and a half million American households subsist on incomes of less than $2 a day. There’s an impulse toward hierarchy of atrocity, questioning whether it’s OK to draw analogies between animal and human suffering or even among human tragedies. This impulse assumes superiority of species followed by superiority of number, differentiating between, for instance, the Holocaust and any other genocide, genocide and terrorism, terrorism and spree killing, spree killing and isolated murder, killing humans and killing animals. I understand these arguments. I also know that the victims of 9/11—even though I lived on Manhattan at the time, and even though they are so much greater in number—feel distant and theoretical compared to my father’s singular death by vehicular homicide. It seems to me that from one angle, a mass killing like 9/11 is fundamentally the sum total of individual grief, however politicized those deaths become.
There’s an impulse toward hierarchy of atrocity, questioning whether it’s OK to draw analogies between animal and human suffering.
Is the death of one species or one individual worse than another? Martin Luther King compared to Gandhi? The parent of young children compared to my father when I was 23? My father compared to the last panda or Siberian tiger? I don’t know—a true answer requires omniscience. There are advocates who would compel me to say yes (human rights) and no (animal rights), but on an essential level, I don’t know. To those who valued them, the dead are irreplaceable, however many more of the species remain. I don’t want to choose which is worse. Faced with the unlikelihood of ending any class of violence in our lifetimes, we start somewhere, working on many strands simultaneously.
The only generically situated horror film on our viewing slate is in fact the least gory film, yet it summons the terror of slaughterhouses more efficiently through synesthetic sensations of heat, fatigue, nausea, dementia, and irritability. One of the first films to feature Carol Clover’s “final girl,” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre puts Sally Hardesty through a redneck inferno without an attendant Virgil of circumspection, her nerves rawly exposed to waves of fraternal insanity (most weirdly and authentically displayed by the Cook, whose avuncular sympathy and gleeful sadism ebb and flow like molten, liquid shimmers sinking and lifting from a dissolved horizon). The extreme close-ups of her eyes as she witnesses the mad dinner party in the farmhouse speak to the unmediated reception of limit images; the eyes are simply receptacles, absorbing without the deflective power of intellectual assimilation.
When animal rights organizations work at our nausea—“Pus in your milk!”—I believe such horror film tactics can undermine the moral philosophy critical to their cause. We should not abandon dairy products simply because they induce self-preserving disgust; we must acknowledge the pain suffered by these animals as a bond we share, a bond that makes the animal a “person.” Physical pain is personhood, because that pain immediately denotes identity apart from a group, a sudden concentration on the individual body as a hermetic vessel radically distinct. Physical pain also allegorizes the terror of being unsealed bodily, having that distinction annihilated.
The unmediated reception of limit images
The spectacle of gore, either directly seen or imagined, is something aside from this. I, for one, am not bothered by the idea of consuming pus that has slipped into the milk that makes my cheese, because I have long reconciled myself to farming practices and food processing that cannot prevent a few rat turds from mixing in my jar of peanut butter. I only assume that we have all unwittingly eaten our share of insect parts and fecal matter, let alone pus. Self-interested repulsion will not stop me from flicking away the worm nesting in my organic ear of corn and forging ahead with my meal. Every so often my gorge will rise a bit at the sight of some surprising, unprecedented nastiness, but more typically, and as long as it doesn’t threaten my physical health, my own exposure to potential objects of horror will elicit fascination and thoughtfulness rather than disgust or rage.
A redneck inferno without an attendant Virgil of circumspection
The muddle between caring that animals suffer and feeling repulsed by gore is a fundamental problem faced by animals rights organizations, because anyone’s mileage may vary when it comes to disgust, whereas moral opposition relies on the clear delineation of values and the absence of ambiguous nuance. Upton Sinclair skeeved out his readers with The Jungle in 1906, producing a public response that worried less about workers’ rights—the author’s immediate concern—and more about eating tainted beef. Both Killer of Sheep and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre regard the slaughterhouse and meatpacking industries as potent symbols for the degradation of workers’ lives, the adverse effects presumed by the nature of their work. Does either film care that much about animals aside from the slaughter’s effect on humans?
The latter film goes so far as to suggest that cannibalism is the inevitable endpoint of the slaughterhouse industry, showing/not showing Leatherface dismembering and freezing his kills and doting on the image of Grandpa gleefully suckling Sally’s cut finger (a rare moment in which blood is actually spilled on film). There is one fleeting, albeit disturbing, glimpse of a cow hanging its head in exhaustion, its tongue lolling, a nearly subliminal shot intruding on Franklin’s unrequested disquisition on mechanization in the slaughterhouse. Later, the half-witted hitchhiking brother contends that the pneumatic bolt is “no good!” compared to the manual application of force brought with a hammer. His objection revolves more around a sadist’s loss of pleasure in agency when he wields a device reliant on forces apart from his own strength, and not as much around his professed concern with the loss of jobs through mechanization, although the shared misgiving cruelly satirizes the Luddite tendencies of a manual workforce. Franklin, relying on the mechanized ingenuity of his wheelchair for locomotion (which nonetheless fails him on several occasions, not least of which the moment of his death), disagrees on this point; the pneumatic bolt’s superhuman ferocity excites him to the point that he enthusiastically mimes the action. His sister Sally responds, “Franklin, I like meat; can we please change the subject?”
Relying on the mechanized ingenuity of his wheelchair for locomotion (which nonetheless fails him on several occasions)
It is difficult to say whether subjective revulsion and universal identity are equally at play in these examples, because through identification, the animal risks being the Other put in your place for the purposes of analogy that only directly depends on your experience of a specifically human pain. Animal rights activists do not want animal pain to be a representative pain, a literary device that emblematically degrades humans, as in, “The guards treated the prisoners like animals!” This simile works on the assumption that humans should be treated better than other animals.
Before their traumatic side trip, Sally and the other van occupants collectively shrink from the invisible reek of the overcrowded stockyards rushing through the vents, exhibiting disgust toward a heat-baked stench that should excite their capacities for sympathy, as it indicates the concentrated layer of cattle excrement that the animals must stand in shortly before they are killed. But it takes some mental effort to reach the animals’ suffering, their hooves rotting in filth; self-interested disgust toward the threat of contamination is more immediate.
Self-interested disgust toward the threat of contamination is more immediate.
I see what you’re saying about the varied thresholds for disgust on our own behalf versus empathy for animals who are exploited—something akin to the difference between much-decried SF transplant Justin Keller’s tone-deaf assertion that he as a “wealthy working” person “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people”—and a community organizer’s empathy-driven work to remedy the structural inequities that leave people with nowhere to turn.
But must all disgust rooted within the self be selfish? When I lose my appetite for cream cheese, it’s partly “Agh, pus in my milk!”—but more grappling with the cognitive dissonance that started this conversation. If I believe that we should not prevent animals from living their own natural lives nor inflict suffering on them, and if I could never personally gouge or burn the horns out of a cow’s head or keep her trapped indoors in a pool of feces to get milk, how can I justify economically supporting someone else to commit those cruel acts for me? “Selfishly,” I don’t want the internal torment of living out of step with my values, a torment partly triggered by picturing the gory details; the cow’s treatment inspires revulsion toward my own behavior, not just an impulse to withdraw from the horror.
The cow’s treatment inspires revulsion toward my own behavior, not just an impulse to withdraw from the horror.
Isn’t this process ultimately the foundation of any kind of nonviolent civil disobedience, whether for climate justice, enfranchisement of the 99 percent, civil rights—or even animal rights? By acknowledging the humanity of their adversaries and appealing to the conscience of those adversaries rather than stooping to violence, transformative figures have reshaped societies and empires. Gandhian nonviolence fundamentally hinges on the internal and social struggle of the oppressor wrought by exposing the moral implications of dehumanizing and Othering whole groups of people.
And I don’t see these causes as discrete entities isolated from one another. In this case, the shame over our denial of “personhood”—of the qualities that distinguish living beings from plants or rocks—to animals might lead to other transformations as well. Rather than continuing misanthropic indifference to the pain members of our species inflict on one another, couldn’t recognizing our responsibility to “radically innocent” animals foster a greater empathy for our flawed fellow humans? I don’t believe, for example, it’s a coincidence that I’m both a vegetarian and totally wrecked by horror films, or that in my experience, there’s a disproportionate number of vegetarians in the queer community and among social justice activists.
Of course, this intersectionality is not always perfect and smooth. Leather is cruel to animals and an environmental and human rights disaster, using large quantities of carcinogenic preservatives—including chromium—to prevent the dead skin from rotting, and these chemicals end up in the water supply and ruin workers’ health, many of whom are young children. But any environmentalist who knows the first thing about petroleum-derived plastic, which photodegrades into smaller and more insidious pieces but does not biodegrade because no organism has evolved to digest it—or who has seen what torture our collective plastic detritus wreaks on albatross chicks and others—cannot advocate choosing synthetics, either (leaving only organic natural fibers). And though some descendants of slaves have drawn parallels between human slavery and animal exploitation—and some Jewish thinkers have similarly compared the Holocaust to humans’ slaughter of billions of animals every year—these explicit human-animal analogies remain controversial and deeply offensive to many people with similar backgrounds. (Is it appropriate to compare animal exploitation to historical human slavery when humans are still enslaved and trafficked today? Is compassion something that must be directed hierarchically, or in its truest form is it boundless?)
Exposing the moral implications of dehumanizing and Othering whole classes of people
On a tactical level, it doesn’t really matter whether you stop contributing to cruelty because it grosses you out or because you find it unconscionable to hold a fellow mammal captive, so long as animals are free from harm: Elephants allowed to roam their natural habitat without threat from poachers would not lie awake at night wondering whether we saw them as equals. And environmentally, it doesn’t matter whether people stop eating meat because of animal rights or because they can’t justify directing 40 percent of American water consumption to produce meat and dairy foods—either way, stopping has positive planetary benefits. For those who wish to fight against hunger and for food sovereignty, the endgame is ensuring that crops are fed to humans instead of livestock; again, the linchpin is people’s giving up meat, not their coming to that decision for a particular ideological reason.
Horror films have long bothered me because they seem to take human flaws and exaggerate them for entertainment, glorifying the actions of their villains through sheer screen time. But maybe that’s not quite accurate; maybe it’s more that they pick the outliers of murder and sadism—and normalize them. In 2007, Robert William Pickton, a Canadian pig farmer, was convicted of the serial killing of six women, whose partial remains were found on his farm. Having targeted mostly members of Indigenous tribes, he is suspected of killing as many as 49 women and feeding their bodies to his pigs to destroy the evidence—with rumors that he even mixed their flesh in with the meat he distributed. Except for the added racist perpetuation of colonial damage, this true story is not far from the plot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Maybe it’s more that they pick the outliers of murder and sadism—and normalize them.
Though Canada’s systemic failure to protect the rights and lives of First Nations women is undeniable, Pickton’s particular extreme case is the exception, not the rule, of human conduct. Still, his acts are too lurid not to cover, and I wonder how the real-life news cycle and proliferation of horror films distort our perception not only of how common such atrocities are but also of how acceptable. Plain repetition inevitably leads to misperception, even when we’re aware of it. But then who is to say what is a true representation, when greater prevalence is not a prerequisite for truth?
Finally, Killer’s Stan—grappling with the realization of his status as both a sheep and a killer of sheep—reconnects with his wife. Later, she gets together with her friends, and they celebrate that one of them is pregnant, knowing that this new life will face the same poverty and institutional racism that we have witnessed throughout the film. Life, in other words, goes on, struggles, perseveres—but director Charles Burnett leaves us to wonder: To what end? The pregnant friend smiles and mimes tracing the outline of her future belly; cut to sheep being stunned, being strung up alive by the hind leg, and bleeding out from slit throats. Stan, brought back to the corporeal pleasures of existence, is no longer a hollow-eyed insomniac husk of himself. A smile flickers across his face as he dodges a hanging carcass and drives the live animals toward slaughter. Following the herd, they clamber to get through the gate.
They clamber to get through the gate.
*Cinéma, de notre temps interview with Georges Franju. Bonus feature on Eyes without a Face. DVD. Criterion, 2004.
Screenshots—taken from Le sang des bêtes (1949), Killer of Sheep (1978), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary. This conversation is the fourth in an occasional series on films with environmental and food justice themes. Previous installments have tackled dams, gleaning, and the globalized food system.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller met Gregory Giles in the Mills College graduate English department. He told her that an NPR segment on ulcers made him think of her. (He got a do-over a couple of years later.) She’s the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky), as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building (Food First Books, 2015). He’s singer/songwriter/founder of the Bay Area freak-pop band 20 Minute Loop, which will release an album titled Songs Praising the Mutant Race later this year. They live together with a beloved four-legged tuxedo person near Portland, Oregon.