“Arnold Schwarznegger was factory farmed. We’re free range.” – Paul F. Maul Artists’ Group worker F. Markatos Dixon, on the subject of an art/terrorism intervention he performed at a bodybuilding gym
Perhaps you wonder sometimes if we’re getting carried away with our criticism of modern day life, if all the talk about the evil system and our sick society is just youthful rebelliousness and exaggeration. It certainly is hard to tell from here inside the human race, with all our dissembling and projecting and pretense, whether what we’re doing really makes sense or not . . . so who knows, maybe things aren’t so fucked up, right? If you want some perspective on whether the brave new world order really is as bad for us as some people say, just have a look at how it affects the others who must live in it - the animals.
If you’re middle class, the animals you know best (besides the ones in animated movies and commercials) are probably the ones who occupy the corresponding tier of the non-human hierarchy: the household pets, the zoo inmates and circus performers, the sports mascots and show horses. Just like the bourgeoisie, they seem to have it easy: sitting around all day, eating and sleeping, playing with their masters - but this is not the life these animals have been prepared for over the last million years of evolution. Dogs have four legs so they can run through fields and canyons and chase down prey, not play frisbee for an hour a week. Parrots have wings so they can fly over jungles and across wild landscapes, not just sit, wings cut away, in little cages, with nothing to do to maintain their spirits but sing to themselves and learn meaningless fragments of less musical languages. Cats have claws so they can fight and hunt and sharpen them anywhere they choose, they have testicles and ovaries so they can mark territory and go into heat and make love and raise kittens; cut all these off and keep them locked inside, and they get grouchy, pathetic, fat for lack of anything to do but eat standard-issue canned food they can’t even hunt. Domestic animals are expected to be the court jesters and courtesans of the modern household, to provide entertainment and surrogate community, and their lives and even bodies are adjusted accordingly. Their role is not to be animals, in all the wondrous complexity that entails, but simply to be toys.
A quick look back at middle class humans reveals how similar our situation is. We too live in isolation from our fellows in small, climate- controlled boxes, little fishtanks complete with simulated foliage, called apartments. We too are fed on standardized, mass-produced food that appears as if out of nowhere, vastly different from the food our ancestors ate. We too have no outlet for our wild, spontaneous urges, sterilized and declawed by the necessities of living in cramped cities and suburbs under cramping legal and social and cultural conventions. We too cannot wander far from our kennels, leashed as we are by 9-to-5 jobs, apartment leases, fences and property lines and national borders. And just like our pets, we learn to behave, to be housebroken and spirit-broken - to adapt ourselves to this nightmare, becoming fat, grouchy, songless.
Far less fortunate than us castrated prisoners, animal and human alike, are the animals that form the non-human proletariat: the chickens trapped living in their own shit in egg-factories with their beaks removed so they won’t peck out each others’ eyes, the rabbits that have their eyes systematically burned out to test the safety of shampoo, the veal calves that spend their entire miserable existences in tiny wooden boxes. The roles these animals play correspond to those of factory workers, temporary dishwashers and secretaries, minimum-waged movie theater popcorn servers - and however individual bosses might see things, you can bet the market views them all with the same calculating disinterest. The same profit-hungry heartlessness that makes it possible for the meat industry to regard the yearly holocaust of millions of animals as fine and just keeps them doing their best to fight off demands for better working conditions and higher wages. And just as cows and chickens have been carefully bred, even genetically engineered, to such an extent that they are unable to survive outside their cages, the modern worker no longer has any concept of what life outside the working world of plastic and concrete might be, or how to apply his energies except under a whip. Where would he go, anyway, were he to escape? Are there habitable lands as yet unclaimed, to which he could flee? And wouldn’t he destroy these lands, too, bringing to them the values of domination with which he has been poisoned by his bosses? In the end, unless advised by a total rejection of industrial capitalism, his flight would be just another advance in the tide of concrete that is sweeping across the globe.
Finally, there are the wild animals which still survive in environments polluted with oil slicks, discarded plastic soda bottles, and air pollution, to say nothing of highways and hunters. As urbanization and suburbanization march pitilessly forward, destroying the resources of their natural habitats, they learn to live off human waste instead, or perish. Pigeons build nests out of cigarette butts instead of twigs, rats learn to live in sewers and adapt accordingly, cockroaches proliferate as the vultures of the new era. These urban wild animals occupy the same tier of society as the homeless do, scrounging through the refuse for the bare essentials of life, although they certainly fare better than their human counterparts. The suburban ones - the wily raccoons, possums, squirrels who survive in the forgotten corners of conquered lands, living off what’s left of the natural, not to mention the extras and excesses of the bourgeoisie - can be compared to squatters, organic farmers, punks, the metropolitan hunter-gatherers of the underground resistance. The remaining species of truly wild animals, like dolphins, caribou, and penguins, are analogous to the very, very few existing indigenous peoples of the world who have not yet lost all their culture or been placed in zoos. For all of them, the future looks bleak, as the iron wind of standardization blows across this planet.
All this is not to say that we’ve deviated from some great plan set out for us by “Mother Nature,” or that the measure of happiness and health should be our conformity to the “natural.” Whenever human beings try to describe what “Nature” is, they invariably project onto it the laws their own society abides by, or ascribe to it everything they think their civilization lacks; and besides, nature itself is something that changes constantly: at this point, the natural habitat of a poodle really is a leash and a kennel. If we have destroyed the natural world with our “civilization,” then in the final analysis this must too have been a part of our “natural” destiny (for what is there that does not proceed ultimately from nature? Is humanity somehow blessed or cursed with powers that are ...supernatural?). The question is not how to get back into submission to the Natural, but rather how to reintegrate ourselves into the world around us in a way that works. Can we make a world in which humans and animals can live in harmony with each other, with no divisions between them, no distinction between the natural and the civilized, between the familiar and the foreign? Can we escape from the forests of steel into the lush, green ones that linger, atavistic, in our fantasies?
“You [white folks] have not only altered and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. You have changed men into chairmen of boards, into office workers, into time-clock punchers. You have changed your women into housewives, truly fearful creatures. I was once invited to the house of one.
“‘Watch the ashes, don’t smoke, you’ll stain the curtains. Watch the goldfish bowl, don’t lean your head against the wallpaper; your hair may be greasy. Don’t spill liquor on that table: it has a delicate finish. You should have wiped your boots; the floor was just varnished. Don’t don’t don’t...’ That is crazy... You live in prisons you have built for yourselves, calling them ‘homes, offices, factories.’”
John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions