New food documentary: animals, identification, and the citizen consumer.
This is a cognitive process and a matter of knowledge, for we must identify their facts and recognize their meaning. In this we are positioned by the documentary's discourse of reality, identifying as the subject addressed, as one who knows and comes to know, which involves both seeing for oneself the truth of reality and identifying with the seen and the objects of knowledge and of the camera's observation--other people and other subjects. (88)
This passage indicates an approach to identification that resonates with Metz's notion of the fantasy of the all-perceiving spectator. Yet documentary invites the spectator to understand themselves as the subject of knowledge, one who desires or comes to take the place of the other of knowledge (the one who knows), in response to the codes and conventions through which the genre "asserts itself as real" (86). Cowie brings this discussion of the desire for the certainty of the knowable to an understanding of the identities on screen: "documentary informs us of the world, offering us identities in the images and stories of other lives that it presents that become fixed as known and knowable through its account and explanation of the world it shows" (88). Documentary identification, in this respect, reinforces approaches to fiction film that pose humans as the subject and object of vision and affect. In this essay I wish to identify a new cluster of documentary film that both refuses easy alignment with established methods of investigation into identification and gestures to the continued relevance of this concept.
The last decade or so has seen the resurgent popularity of feature length documentary, and a cluster of films about food production, often posed in relation to a crisis of industrialization, has emerged as part of this documentary renaissance. Frequently, animals, animal slaughter, and meat feature in these films in ways that endow the animals with a special status in imagery and arguments concerning food related issues. In what follows, I explore how the relationship between meat and animals is organized in the films, producing particular sites of identification. The cluster of films I am concerned with depicts animals in agriculture, fishing, and/or industry and includes productions such as Maharajah Burger (1997), A Cow at My Table (1998), Beef Inc. (1999), Bacon. The Film (2002), Animals (2003), Darwin ,'v Nightmare (2004), We Feed the World (2005), Our Daily Bread (2005), End of the Line (2007), King Corn (2007), Milk In The Land: Ballad of An American Drink (2007), Meat the Truth (2008), Food. Inc. (2008), Pig Business (2009), Fresh (2009), Farmageddon: The Truth About the Food and Dairy Industry (2012), The Moo Man (2012), The Last Ocean (2012), Leviathan (2013), Raw Herring (2013), American Meat (2013) and The Animal Condition (2014). (2) Many of these films identify problems with large-scale fishing or agricultural practices and "agribusiness," critiquing the interests of commerce, the activities of the state, and/or the effects on the consumer (and often, albeit to a lesser extent, on the environment). (3) Some are explicit in their persuasive mission while others are more expressive, opening multiple pathways for viewer interpretation.
Noting the special status of meat and the slaughter of livestock in contemporary food documentary, Michael Newbury observes the importance of animal slaughter in his discussion of Food, Inc. and Supersize Me (2004), arguing that these films are part of a wider popular narrative of crisis and imminent industrial food apocalypse. He locates the treatment and slaughter of livestock at the center of these narratives of panic as they most intensely represent the "the horrors of agribusiness" (93) and the "horror of modern eating" (112). Newbury identifies the metaphorical potential of slaughter and its product, meat, observing its associations with death, crisis, and corruption. These associations are often referenced in the contemporary food documentary. Indeed, all the films articulate the problem of food, which functions as the primary cohering feature of the group. The problem is not singular, but rather encompasses both the troubling source of food and the negative impact of food on the physicality of the consumer.
Sites of crisis or difficulty in the food system rather than particular concrete aesthetic or narrative consistencies organize the address to the viewer across these divergent examples. Identification necessitates that viewers recognize themselves in the address of the text. At the level of the social, documentaries that seek to have impact on the public sphere address a specific demographic that can be understood as a subject-citizen. For Bill Nichols, documentary encourages recognition in the viewer that "something is at stake. Namely, our very subjectivity within the social arena" (194). Documentary, when working for a political concern, inevitably addresses the subject of politics, the citizen, in ways that recognize civic, political, and social rights and responsibilities. Employing the discourses of science and education, food documentaries provide modes of visible evidence to inform a constituency of viewers about the process of food production. This evokes not simply a citizen, but the "food citizen" described by Jennifer Wilkins:
In relation to our food choices, we have certain rights associated with living in a particular place--the right to safe unadulterated food or truthful product information, for example, but that there are also responsibilities that go along with this kind of citizenship ... people can "eat responsibly" to help stem the decline of American farming and rural life. (269)
This notion of a consumer citizen points to a potential tension between the individualism of consumerism and the shared values of citizenship. As Clive Barnett et al. identify, the two have been framed historically in political and popular discourse as mutually exclusive (33). However, along with the rise of consumer activism over the last two decades, advocates have responded to this opposition by harnessing the narratives of individualism and responsibility and fostering or normalizing a common ground between these two modes of selfhood. Matthew Hilton historicizes the marriage of morality and consumerism by charting the (often negative) moralizing impulses that informed consumption and consumers from Victorian times through to the mid-twentieth century. He describes a number of contemporary examples that constitute "a discernible trend to remoralize the market through issues of ethical consumerism and globalization" (119). The relationship between food, civic responsibility, and consumer agency provides a background for understanding how the public sphere informs many of these films and their arguments concerning food and animals.
I wish to emphasize the dual implication of the term "consumer" as one who engages in modes of capitalist exchange to acquire food commodities and also, in a more sensory register, who must participate in the intimate process of eating. Food and eating are tied powerfully to affective and social meaning. This is especially the case where the eating of animals is concerned. With the phrase "citizen food consumer," I reference this paradigm of social and affective selfhood that describes the putative subject viewer for these documentaries.
If the citizen food consumer is the intended viewer for these films, the embodied and social dimensions of this subjectivity allow for a consideration of the sensory meaning that can be facilitated by documentary. Documentary does not plainly or necessarily isolate semantic and epistemological concerns from the somatic and the experiential. As documentary scholars have observed, the assertion of "the real" often encourages an embodied connection to the world represented. For Jane Gaines, documentary film is a mimetic technology that has the power to "reproduce the world before us as well as to reproduce its intensities onscreen, and to reproduce them most strategically in the bodies and hearts and minds of viewers" (40). Similarly, Nichols writes that, "the affective engagement of the viewer with social tensions and pleasures, conflicts and values--move the viewer away from the status of observer to that of participant" (194).
More than a narrowly conceived notion of epistephilia (a desire for knowledge based simply in observation), the work of these scholars points to the genre's capacity to foreground sensorial meaning as a way of accessing the world.
Food documentary requires an approach to documentary identification that accounts not only for the affective social participation encouraged by documentary, but also the embodied appeal to the consumer. Thomas Csordas refers to "paradigms of embodiment" to discuss the interrelationship between knowledge and embodied experience, opening space for the possibility of a cultural phenomenology. Through this phrase it is possible to elaborate on how documentary might initiate ways of knowing in conjunction with "somatic modes of attention" (151). Vivian Sobchack focuses on the somatic in her call for recognition of the "carnal foundations of cinematic intelligibility":
we might wish to think again about processes of identification in the film experience, relating them not to our secondary engagement with and recognition of either "subject positions" or characters but rather to our primary engagement (and the film's) with the sense and sensibility of materiality itself. We, ourselves, are subjective matter: our lived bodies sensually relate to "things" that "matter" on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and localized. (65)
Sobchack's call for a rethinking of cinematic intelligibility, while largely posed in relation to narrative fiction cinema, is well suited to a consideration of food documentary. This is due to the way it reflects upon the relationship between identification with human subjectivity (and potentially the documentary viewer as both the subject of knowledge and the consumer) and identification with materiality and matter, which invokes food and the activity of eating. The two are figured together and with recourse to established notions of secondary and primary identification.
Locating the citizen food consumer as the privileged subject of knowledge presents an opportunity to explore how documentary might engage sensual registers in ways that might add more specificity to the social affective participation described by Nichols and Gaines. Moreover, the emphasis on the problem of food and its ties to meat and animals in these films facilitates investigation into how food documentaries might either reiterate or revise established understandings of the human on screen as privileged sites of cinematic identification. My aim is to explore both of these contingencies, and I do so here by attending to particularly potent moments of spectatorial engagement. In so doing, I am informed by Adrian Ivakhiv's notion that "condensed 'hyper-singaletic' or 'resonant moments'--moments in which spectacle, narrative and meaning are brought together, compactly synthesized in sound/image bits"--are those that are "retained most powerfully in viewers' affective memories" (64-65). Not only do particular moments stay with us as a residue after viewing, they can create sites for heightened identification due to the way they condense and sharpen meaning within the broader address of the film. In the sections below I outline three sites of identification, exploring how the viewer is asked to engage with the intimate sensory process by which "things" become edible or inedible; empathize with the human body of the consumer; and identify anthropomorphically with animals. I draw on a handful of prominent documentary examples that offer particularly useful ways of investigating this dimension of documentary poetics: Food, Inc., King Corn, Darwin's Nightmare, Our Daily Bread, and The Moo Man.
Transformation, Animals, and Meat: Edible and Inedible Food
Many food documentaries present images of poultry, beef, fish, or pork in different stages of life and death in factories, abattoirs, and farms. Films frequently utilize stock footage of factory production lines or footage filmed during slaughter and processing, with or without the consent of factory or farm owners. Whole chicken carcasses moving through factory lines constitute a reoccurring motif. Films concerned with fishing, such as Leviathan and Raw Herring, provide a different interpretation of this theme by showing workers harvesting and filleting fish on an industrial scale on board ship. The first examples I consider demonstrate a direct aesthetic manifestation of the material relation between meat and animals. This aspect of the food documentary dwells on and frequently disrupts the epistemological and visual process by which animals attain the status of food by depicting the animals as, in some way, unfit for consumption.
The scenes in question draw attention to the context, primarily the industrial context, in which animals are subjected to breeding, rearing, and slaughter regimes in order to call into question some aspect of instrumentalist rationality in food production. That is to say, this emphasis on visual corporeality offers a way to question and destabilize assumptions about the merit of unfettered corporate efficiency in the different locales the films present. Most powerfully, the sensory process by which "things" become food in these contexts is disrupted by images of inedible meat or fish. However, also relevant here are the images and stories that present sickly animals (on factory farms particularly) rendered in ways that diverge greatly from the pastoral ideal of healthy livestock. Resonant sites of identification address the citizen food consumer by amplifying the boundary between animal and meat and meat and the human consumer.
Hubert Sauper's Darwin ,'v Nightmare, a film that focuses only in part on industrial food production, offers one of the most sustained examples of the way food is deemed inedible through visual means. While the Nile perch is ostensibly the focus of the film, it soon becomes clear that the fish is made to embody and signify a complex network of human interaction and exploitation. The huge fish carcass is centered in the frame throughout the film as the viewer learns about how the growth in commerce around the fish, which is harvested from Lake Victoria and transported for sale in Europe, has triggered ecological and social catastrophe at a local level. (4) The fish is not only shown in the sanitized processing plant, but the remains that are discarded by the plant are retrieved by local people and hung out on racks to dry for consumption in the impoverished local community. Sequences that depict this activity in the documentary show fish carcasses strewn in heaps on the ground and covered by maggots in racks. The fish remains offer a visual metaphor for the unfolding horror of the situation in the local community. The slippage this metaphor creates seeks sensory and ideological responses of repulsion from the viewer.
The documentary clearly disrupts the process by which the fish becomes recognized as edible for the citizen food consumer. Its images play to the particular intimacy involved in eating, especially eating meat. There is a strong visual component to the process by which we come to recognize objects as food, and good food especially. Ocular and other sensory processes can facilitate acceptance or rejection, often in the form of disgust. Emma Roe poses an account of the process by which things become food. She examines "how a thing (an animal or plant) passes through a set of human practices and material processes that do the translating from food production to food consumption" (109). Consumers accept and trust that the process that the "thing" (animal and animal flesh) has undergone constitutes it as edible. This is a pervasively corporeal set of connections in the respect that it invites the consumer to acknowledge his/her embodiment and the potential encounter with nonhuman foodstuffs that might be ingested. Darwin's Nightmare explicitly frames the fish in ways that accentuate its status as food, but it is also repeatedly presented aesthetically as unclean, abject, and therefore inedible food. The film seeks to persuade the viewer, as I have noted, that such abjection is due to the unethical priorities and commercial efficiencies of industry.
Establishing disruptions somewhat differently, Food, Inc., King Corn, A Cow at My Table, and Maharajah Burger (a film that takes a cross cultural perspective on the food industry) feature livestock that are ailing in some way. Their depictions include cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), chickens given hormones to artificially accelerate their growth, and cows with stomach problems as a consequence of being grain fed. Presented in images and through the narration, these ailing animals serve to support the proposition that the industrial food system is in crisis and that, because of this, these animals cannot attain the status of edible food.
In her discussion of Food, Inc. Jennifer Barker specifically addresses the question of disgust. For Barker, while Food, Inc. may not explicitly depict disgusting images, it "performs the very attitude it seeks in its viewers, comporting itself in ways that reflect 'disgust' and encouraging viewers to empathize with its bodily movements" (73). Barker focuses in particular on the chicken houses in Food, Inc. that, managed by Perdue Farms and run by fanners financially beholden to the company, are overcrowded, dark, and under-ventilated. Chickens are often unable to walk because their bones and internal organs cannot keep pace with the rapid growth dictated by the company. The full impact of this scene is relayed in the narration as the camera (and viewer) is denied access to the houses. For Barker the film encourages disgust responses through narrative strategies of delay and absence. While narration is important, I argue that the meanings pertaining to animals, both the explicit and the inferred, are most powerfully rendered by what is seen, how identification is aligned with the animal as object of vision, and how the film orchestrates such alignment.
The film presents images that specifically discourage association with edible food. One disgruntled farmer does allow the camera access, and the resulting images depict chickens at close range, dwelling on the corporeality of their bodies. One scene focuses on a chicken breathing heavily, unable to stand and struggling to get up because its skeletal frame cannot support its weight. Another scene uses a night vision camera to show dead chickens thrown into trucks. The depiction of animal sickness and animal corpses outside the sanitized conditions of processing plants unhinges any link between the living chicken and the chicken as food.
Our Daily Bread, by director and cinematographer Nikolaus Geyrhalter, experiments with the visual as factual knowledge. (5) It accentuates the work of framing and editing by eschewing any music, dialogue, or voiceover. Recording different sites of high-tech food production in Europe, the camera lingers on its object, frequently offering a tableau of factory or farm, including workers and animals in the frame. In each sequence there is a sense that the camera has caught an extended moment that continues before and after the recorded scene, thus implying continuity and repetition. Many present scenes of conversion or metamorphosis in the food system, from a worker eating lunch in a tearoom (consuming and ingesting food is a form of conversion), to a cow being inseminated or a series of chicks being de-beaked. Notably, the film includes chickens, cows, fish, and pigs in various stages of transformation from living animal to packaged meat product (including slaughter).
The documentary deploys rhythm and image in a way that opens a space of interpretation for the viewer to draw conclusions about contemporary European agribusiness and the alienating relations of mass food production. Pick identifies a particular poetry of the mechanical in the film. She writes that the film's "aestheticism is the effect of rational excess, the point at which reason no longer pertains to or addresses the world" (140). Animals transform into food through a banal process that is enacted by humans and machines, and both are equivalent in the frame.
The aesthetic of gestures and movement the film depicts is characterized, in particular, by repetition. A female worker trims turkey carcasses with a knife as they move past, suspended on a seemingly endless production line. Slaughter is shown most decisively in the film when a cow that is held in a rolling metal frame is shot through the head with an automated bolt, killing the animal only shortly before the camera moves on to observe another scene. Not only the visible and visceral transition from living animal to foodstuff, but also the scale of mass repetition and automation unsettles the status of meat as edible food in this case. In Our Daily Bread, animal flesh becomes bland organic matter associated with the hard tones and surfaces of machines and automated processes. To this extent, the documentary visually evacuates any meaningful relationship between the production of meat, as it is shown in the film, and edible food.
The scenes I have attended to in Our Daily Bread, Food, Inc., and Darwin's Nightmare emphasize the importance of visual evidence in informing the citizen consumer's perceptions of the source and composition of meat. They contribute to an argument about the food system not by building meaning through testimony and other cultural artifacts, but rather through an evacuation of representational meaning. As the camera offers visual access to the world and the details of places and objects, it juxtaposes machine and animal, dirt ground and fish carcass, and human and animal in ways that produce abjection or alienation. The moments I have described in these films draw attention to the viewer's own corporeality and the boundary confusion that can result from eating animals. For Cowie, identity arises, in part, in relation to an imaginative, cognitive, and sensory "recognition of the self as entity, a bodily differentiation between what is me and what is not me, and thus other" (88). This recognition of identity is discouraged for the spectator, and he/she is confronted with intercorporeality as the (inedible) animal other potentially becomes part of the self.
Identification, in one sense, is located in an epistemological awareness of the food system. However, in another sense, the film experience is composed most powerfully through a phenomenological register as the status of food within this industrial system is conveyed in ways that demand somatic attention to the materiality of animals, or, in Sobchack's words, "the sense and sensibility of materiality itself' (65). This dimension of identification is a sensible recognition of embodiment as intercorporeality and is testament to Gail Weiss's notion that "the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always mediated by our continual interactions with other human and nonhuman bodies" (5). More than a psychoanalytic fracturing of the self, these films work to institute a mode of recognition that is specific to the relation between the human food consumer and the nonhuman animal other. The chickens, fish, and other animals and meat become abject as a breakdown of meaning characterizes the process that is needed for them to be perceived as food. The documentaries, in different ways, address the citizen food consumer's right to know about the origins of food on supermarket shelves but do so by employing indexical images and the realist style of documentary to depict the actuality of animals in ways that unsettle the boundaries of the self.
The Embodied Consumer
At pivotal moments, the documentaries ask the viewer to recognize and empathize with his/her mirror image, the food (specifically meat) consumer. Food, Inc. and King Corn both focus on the body of the consumer in ways that refer to food production and its potential consequences. These scenes again offer a lens through which to understand the broader rhetorical position of the film as it seeks to call into question commercial interests in the food system. In this case there is a clear critique of the impact of the industrial process on the food consumer. The feature of the food documentary that I explore in this section forgoes the visible evidence that ties animal and meat, instead evoking the animal through a focus on the human consumer.
The focus on the consumer's face and voice references a history of social documentary in which the speaking (human) subject conveys the "political." John Comer identifies speech and visual material as fundamental in the portrayal of the political in documentary. As Comer notes, "more than most other topics, the political requires specific identifications to be made, articulations of relationships to be offered and arguments to be put" (119). The interview, testimony, spoken interactions, and narration are crucial to the way the political is articulated, given Comer's formulation. There are key moments in Food' Inc. and King Corn in which the image and voice of the human subject provide a powerful conduit for arguments about the status of the animal as food. In these instances identification is with the body of the consumer.
King Corn is directed by Aaron Woolf and features the first-person narratives of Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis as they grow and farm an acre of com after moving from Boston to Iowa. Their activity offers a vehicle to examine the intensification of com production in the United States and the incidence of com in processed foodstuffs, tying both to commercial interests. The embodied address of the two narrators as they tell their story provides the locus of identification Corner refers to. King Corn begins with Cheney and Ellis visiting a scientist at the University of Virginia, Steve Macko, whom they recruit to test a sample of their hair based on the understanding that hair is a "recorder" of diet. Following scenes in a laboratory and images of Macko logging their samples on a computer, Macko informs the pair that the carbon in their bodies largely "originates from com." This revelation functions as the trigger for the film's investigation into the prevalence of com in the food system. Com is posed as a problem for grain fed livestock, principally cows, but also chickens and pigs, which are made to consume com for commercial expediency. The film not only describes how a com diet has detrimental effects on cows' digestive systems, it also leads to health problems for human consumers of beef.
Animals here are visualized variously through archival footage of processing plants or feedlots. Beef is depicted in the film in ways that encourage the connection to human consumption: one scene features Cheney and Ellis at a hamburger restaurant as the camera lingers on the frying meat and the visceral images of the pair eating burgers dripping with condiments. The voiceover discusses the high percentage of fat in corn-fed beef. The diet of the featured animals is linked throughout the film to the diets and bodies of humans, specifically Cheney and Curtis. In this respect, King Corn resembles another important food documentary (albeit one less concerned with animals), Supersize Me. This earlier documentary places an even greater emphasis on the body of the consumer as Morgan Spurlock, the filmmaker and on-screen narrator, undertakes to eat nothing but McDonalds food for a month, testing the health claims of the corporation. In both films, the bodies of the narrators are not only central to the on-screen events, they also reflect the body of the viewer, particularly the American viewer, who is exposed to the same food system and foodstuffs.
In King Corn the opening scenes are crucial in mobilizing the legitimizing discourse of biomedical science to herald an address to the viewer that invokes an empathy with the human body on screen. This is a form of empathy that aligns the viewer ideologically with the filmmakers' opposition to the food industry. The decisive evidence in this argument is not the meat or the animal, but rather the human body. In her discussion of Supersize Me, Lynn Eliggins argues that the body offers the most affecting evidence in the film:
Despite all the medical and scientific evidence displayed, however, the primary document deployed in Supersize Me is the director's body. Nothing is more real than the body: its vomit, its flab, its impotence, its shortness of breath, its blood, with the quantifiable information it contains ... He has put himself "in harm's way," as they say, in a war against consumer culture. He thus literally "embodies" both personal and social excess, and his voluntary physical disintegration constitutes a kind of spectacularized martyrdom. (30)
It is telling that the opening scene of King Corn also presents the body as conclusive evidence in the form of hair samples. This later documentary does not, however, visualize the disintegration of the bodies of the narrators. It remains concerned with scientific evidence and the narrator's voicing his concerns about his long-term health as appears in the opening scenes.
In contrast, Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner, forgoes an on-screen narrator and yet produces more emotionally charged moments for the viewer than King Corn. Food, Inc. has become one of the most visible and commercially successful documentaries to critique the economic interests of the food industry. (6) The film is composed of a number of "chapters," each of which advances a broader case against intensified commercial interests in the food system in the United States. Formally, the film is composed of a collage that includes stock images, animated sequences, footage of food and food production sites, and interviews, many with farmers on their land. Within this collage, animals, principally cows, pigs, and chickens, are presented as both livestock and meat. The most compelling speaking subject the viewer is asked to identify with is a mother whose child died of contaminated meat product.
Barbara Kowalcyk became a food safety advocate after her son, Kevin, died of E. coli poisoning from eating hamburger meat. In this episode in the documentary, regulatory government agencies are held responsible for the reduction of slaughterhouses in the United States to a mere thirteen, resulting in a high number of cattle from different locations being consolidated into hamburger meat provided to the consumer. This contraction increases the odds that animals that carry pathogens will contaminate a large volume of meat and affects the efficacy of food safety regulation. Despite the many images of animals and meat in the film, the moral (or emotive) center of Food, Inc. is constituted by Kowalcyk's face, voice, and perspective as she details the event of her son's death. Kevin died only days after being admitted to the hospital. The images cut between Kowalcyk's face and footage of a family holiday that, in subdued, almost black and white tones, shows Kevin playing on a lakeside. The sequence is framed by Kowalcyk's visit, with her own mother, to Washington to advocate on the issue. The risk that the production of poultry and meat poses to the consumer is personified, and Kowalcyk's grief, apparent in her retelling of Kevin's death, is a potent site of identification. Moreover, her advocacy work presents a participatory mode of citizenship, offering a surrogate for the viewer's potential self-recognition as a citizen. The rhetorical function of the human body here differs from that in King Corn or Supersize Me. Rather than the immediacy of the (contaminated) body of the filmmaker/narrator in the frame, this section of Food, Inc. offers the grieving face and historical footage, seemingly mediated by a home movie camera, of a healthy boy. While Kevin is posed as a site of loss that the viewer perceives through his mother's perspective, he is also tied to the contaminating potential of dead animals. As with King Corn, the body of the animal is abstracted into arguments about human vulnerability.
In the filmic moments I have described in this section the problem of food is figured as an issue of contamination from meat as a bio-object, produced by unchecked commercial interests. The human face and body are visualized in the frame or referenced in the narrative, while the body of the animal is cast as a reference point beyond the frame, unfocused and abstracted in the human imagination. In this respect the documentaries all situate the speaking subject and the body of the consumer at the heart of their arguments about food. Identification is with the likeness of the spectator and the place occupied by the consumer on screen--and thus the sequences reiterate the established codes for representing the political in documentary. However, while Food, Inc. and King Corn elevate the thinking, speaking subject in these sequences, this subject becomes inseparable from embodied knowledge--the corporeal effects of consuming meat and, in the case of Food, Inc., grief and loss. Significantly, intercorporeality is again central to this mode of identification, yet the contaminating potential of the animal is present only through a focus on the body of the consumer in the frame.
Nonhuman Charisma: Living with Herds
Greater attention is given to the life worlds of animals in the final mode of identification 1 wish to focus on. This dimension of animal ontology is less frequently explored in food documentaries, which tend to forego close attention to animals and focus more substantively on questionable farming or processing practices and the negative consequences of these. There are a handful of films, however, that concentrate on alternative agrarian practices, including The Moo Man, American Meat, and Animals. Andy Heathcote's The Moo Man lingers on the environment of livestock and the relationship between farmer and animal, throwing the objectifying impetus of the previous examples, with their focus on an industrial imaginary, into stark relief. While the documentary does reference the negative impact of corporate control over the food system, it does so by focusing on the alternative of traditional and small-scale farming. The Moo Man is populated throughout with bovine animals, including cows, heifers, calves, and steers, and it invites the consumer to encounter the "creatureliness" of animals existing in a cruelty-free environment in ways that encourage affirmative responses to drinking the milk and eating the beef produced on the farm.
The Moo Man is a feature length documentary, largely shot on a small family dairy farm in East Sussex in England. Central to the film is the principal farmer, Steve Hook. The farm is run as a boutique business with Hook selling organic, unpasteurized milk via farmers' markets, online orders, and doorstep deliveries instead of through supermarkets. As Hook notes in the film, the low retail price of milk in Britain means that farmers are only paid 27 pence per pint (a pint costs 34p to produce), pushing smaller farms out of business. Larger operations prosper through generous tax credits. This is noted briefly in the film and explains the scenes in which Hook is shown at markets speaking to customers and personally delivering milk. Hook's own family members feature only briefly and are not introduced to the viewer.
The style of the film is strongly observational, and the camera follows Hook as he works on the farm, attending to cows in an enduring routine as they are herded through different paddocks, give birth, become sick and must be nursed and fed by hand, and occasionally die. Images dwell on the paddocks at different times of the day and year. In one scene the cows are let into a fresh pasture after the winter and play, jumping with vigor and animation in the misty light. The film is composed of long takes, reflecting the measured pace of life on the farm. The camera dwells on events, producing extended sequences, whether a cow experiencing a difficult birth with Hook leveraging the calf out with a rope or Hook coaxing a sick cow to stand up or drink water. Hook's prize cow, or "queen of the herd," is 12 year old Ida. In one scene, she is taken to the beach at Eastbourne to be photographed for promotional material. Ida is clearly Hook's favorite, demonstrated by the manner in which he relays her idiosyncratic behavior to the viewer. In this section I focus not on select scenes from different films, but on the broader address of The Moo Man and how it builds a picture of shared ecology based on Hook's descriptions of his cows and many interactions with the herd. The film encourages an identification with animals through the focus on the human-animal relationship between cow and farmer.
Although there is a strong observational dimension to the film, The Moo Man is structured by Hook's address to the camera and his voice on the soundtrack. It is a character driven documentary, foregrounding Hook's compelling personality and his expressive relationship with his cows. The documentary exists in dialogue with traditions of ethnographic filmmaking, with Judith and David MacDougall's To Live with Herds (1972) offering a particularly resonant historical reference point. Moreover, The Moo Man shares much with the movement Anna Grimshaw characterizes as "sensuous, existential, or phenomenological anthropology" (256). Such an anthropology is expansive, allowing for a multispecies relationality:
Eschewing conventional dualities of mind and body, culture and nature, human and animal, there is instead a commitment to the notion of the "lifeworld," understood to be a dense and expansive web of relationships that is made and remade through the ongoing, active engagement between diverse species and their environments. (256)
The Moo Man is integrally concerned with the relationship between cow and farmer, bringing a consideration of the web of relationships Grimshaw describes to the problem of food and animals in the food production system.
As the camera captures Hook's movements around the farm the soundtrack is filled with overheard speech as the farmer talks to the cows, asking them questions and giving directions or encouragement. They are his wards, and his tone suggests care and respect. This discourse is married with the pragmatism of farm life in that the female cows, as milk producers, meet their full life expectancy while the male calves are killed after three years for beef. At a number of points Hook articulates the importance of the animals' quality of life during the time they are alive. For example, when one heifer is unable to walk due to a paralyzed leg and must be euthanized, Hook laments that it is "not a nice way for a cow to finish its time on the farm." Hook's philosophy is key to the ethical address of the film and structures the representation of the farm environment.
The cows in The Moo Man are afforded a certain elevated status as the viewer is asked to perceive them through the eyes of Hook, the farmer. They exceed any simple objectification as meat or undifferentiated livestock. Jamie Lorimer's notion of nonhuman charisma provides an apt lens through which to read this characterization. Concerned with how the "ecological and affective dimensions to human-nonhuman interaction and environmental governance can help refine a 'more-than-human' understanding of agency" (914), Lorimer develops a notion of non-human agency that recognizes the singularity of animal species. This approach also privileges human sensitivity to and interpretation of non-human charisma, which can be "defined as the distinguishing properties of a non-human entity or process that determine its perception by humans and its subsequent evaluation" (915). It offers an understanding of animal qualities that are relational and contextual. In the case of The Moo Man, Hook's descriptions of and on-screen interactions with the cows supply a lens through which to perceive the charismatic qualities of his animals. This charisma is constructed relationally, in the context of the environment of his farm, which is rendered as a social, stressfree and cruelty-free, environment for the cows.
The fact that the relationship between the cows and human food is largely articulated in the film by way of milk production distinguishes The Moo Man from other films I have discussed, which are more concerned with animal meat. There are scenes, however, early in the film that visualize the animal as meat for consumption, and, despite their ironic framing, they sit awkwardly in the film. In one of these, the viewer is informed that the Hook family eat beef from the farm as Steve Hook is seen in the farmhouse kitchen preparing and eating a plate of what seems to be spaghetti bolognaise. In another, an animal that was sent off the farm for slaughter returns in the back of Hook's car as rolls of meat. The next images show the farmer cutting up the rolls into portions in the kitchen. As he does so, he relates his personal history with the animal, the animal's foot infection as a calf and its personality traits, stating "he was never 'friendly friendly' like some of the others, some of the others you'd go up to and pat, but he was always a bit wary, I don't know why. He was castrated, so that normally quietens them down." While the viewer might perceive such a scene as a departure from the respectful, nurturing ethos of the human/animal relation (and too explicit a visualization of the cow becoming food), the overarching trajectory of the observational address locates it as further affirming the ethical use of animals within human endeavor, promoting self-aware consumption of beef. This notion is reinforced when Hook concludes, he "had a pretty brilliant life for a dairy bull calf born on a farm."
The film assures the viewer that there is an ethical alternative to factory farming in which the consumer citizen's responsibilities and right to healthy food can be realized in ways that do not perpetuate animal suffering. Its address is orchestrated through the prevalence of images of agrarian harmony, an aesthetic that affirms viewers' choices to consume beef and dairy from sources similar to the Hook farm. In the two previous sections, animal meat is presented as a site of difficulty--it is either a threat to the body of the consumer (with the body as the locus of sensory meaning) or the process by which animals and animal meat becomes food is disturbed (either through abjection or abstraction) to such a degree that meaning breaks down and confronts the viewer, vacating the link between animal and food. The Moo Man, however, encourages intimacy, presenting an encounter in which non-human animals trigger "emotions, affections and motivations," and perhaps even "a moment of awe-full or enchanting proximity to another animal" (Lorimer 918). The Moo Man requires identification with the human as the subject of knowledge and offers Hook as the central conduit for this identification. However, more than simply encouraging a recognition of the human other, his/her desires and lifeworlds, the film also engages the viewer, through Hook's point of view, in the sensuous and sensible proximity with animals. Cows dominate the frame throughout the film. Their bodies and sounds multiply across the landscape of the farm. In this respect, the film seeks a somatic engagement with the viewer, foregrounding the sensible qualities of animal bodies and visually rendering the tactile experience of being in the presence of animals--and healthy animals in particular. In The Moo Man, ways of knowing about the farming practices that are at the heart of the argument are conveyed through identification with the experience of intimate proximity with the charismatic non-human other.
Intercorporeality, Embodiment, and Consumer Moralities
All the documentaries I have discussed share an address to the citizen food consumer and invite identification with the possibility of coming to know about the facts or horrors behind the problem of food. There is a vital interaction between the social status of the consumer (as an avenue of self identification), the address of the documentary, and the shared experiential and embodied practice of eating (and eating meat specifically). At times, the documentaries lead the viewer through a clear argumentative imperative--indeed, the releases of some of the films I have discussed have been followed by public or governmental action. (7) And some of the films offer little narrative direction to the audience, placing greater emphasis on the film experience, such as Leviathan or Our Daily Bread, extending the focus on sensory perception that is present in all the films.
As Cowie's work demonstrates, documentary studies has considered how the discourses of reality encourage identification, including through affective and desiring relations, in ways that center on human identity. And Nichols and Gaines point to the genre's capacity to evoke a mode of viewing that is affectively engaged with the events on screen. Yet recent food documentary disturbs the straightforward application of these theories and necessitates a new approach, one that accounts for the viewer as consumer and the embodied and social knowledge of food that such subjectivity emphasizes. To use Csordas' words, food documentaries invite "somatic modes of attention" (151). The scenes and films 1 have described foreground materiality, inviting modes of identification that play to the equally material status of the viewer as "subjective matter" (Sobchack 65). If documentary addresses us, and thus asks us to identify as "the one who knows," this knowledge is both embodied and localized to particular social arguments. I have furthered and added specificity to Sobchack's understanding of primary and secondary identification noted above by describing how the social and the somatic are mutually constituted in processes of identification.
Steven Shaviro, whose work informs Sobchack's analysis, usefully extends identification to foreground the body. He argues against the opposition of body and thought, preferring a theory, informed by a Deleuzian approach, that "posits a parallelism between them: it affirms the powers of the body, and it sees the very opacity and insubordination of the flesh as a stimulus to thought and as its necessary condition" (257). The examples I have explored demonstrate that it is not only embodied knowledge, but more crucially, the power of the body that is key to understanding identification in food documentaries. The body is pivotal to the experience offered by the films--not only the human body, but also animal body as well.
Food documentaries harness the power and meaning of animal bodies to institute an intercorporeal sensibility that is mediated through the film and the process of viewing--through ways of being and knowing that emerge through particular documentary encounters with the corporeality of animals, their vitalism, their flesh as matter, and the unsettling intersection of both life force and materiality. Providing a way of understanding this intercorporeality in terms of cinematic reproduction, Shaviro theorizes how the cinematic apparatus itself is a form of embodiment. His approach is formulated in ways that enable a contemplation of non-human bodies. He describes the experience of cinema as
a continuity between the physiological and affective responses of my own body and the appearances and disappearances, the mutations and perdurances, of the bodies and images on screen ... Film theory should be less theory of fantasy (psychoanalytic or otherwise) than a theory of the affects and transfonnations of bodies. (255-257)
The food films posit the viewer's relation with animal others as bodily and tangible. This is the case whether they confront the boundaries of the self with the inedible materiality of animal bodies, present the body of the consumer or the surrogate of the viewer in ways that signify the contaminating potential of animal bodies, or offer the sensual material experience of corporeal proximity of charismatic animals.
Moreover, to understand citizen consumers through intercorporeal or embodied modes of identification also suggests the social import of understanding spectatorial processes. The informing social narrative for contemporary food documentaries is, as noted above, a new morality, or remoralization, of consumption in recent years through notions of consumer activism or ethical consumption more broadly. The narratives and ideals that accompany this remoralization offer weight to the citizen food consumer as a legitimate subject for popular and political concern. As Barnett et al. describe, ethical consumption reconciles a privatized and individualistic form of action with public and collective modes of participation (84). Food is the first frontier and most quotidian dimension of individualized consumption; many food documentaries address viewers in a manner that assumes they are already aware of the popular rhetoric and potential power of consumer activism. In all cases, the formulation of the relationship of the body of the animal and the body of the human constitute key instances of identification and embodied ways of knowing and accessing the world. These documentaries contribute a distinctive visual imaginary and aesthetic to the new morality of ethical consumption, with animals as the sensory and somatic center of this contribution.
Barker, Jennifer M. "Chew On This: Disgust, Delay, and the Documentary Image in Food' Inc." Film-Philosophy 15.2 (2011): 70-89. Print.
Barnett, Clive, Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke and Alice Malpass. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. West Sussex: Wiley Backwell, 2011. Print.
Branigan, Edward. Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984. Print.
Comer, John. "Documenting the Political." Studies in Documentary Film 3.2 (2009): 113-129. Print.
Cowie, Elizabeth. Recording Reality, Desiring the Real. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.
Csordas, Thomas. "Embodiment and Cultural Phenomenology." Perspectives on Embodiment: The Intersections of Nature and Culture. Eds. Gail Weiss and Honi Fern Haber. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1999. 143-62. Print.
Gaines, Jane. "The Production of Outrage": The Iraq War and the Radical Documentary Tradition." Framework 48.2 (2007): JOSS. Print.
Grimshaw, Anna. "The Bellweather Ewe": Recent Developments in Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Anthropological Enquiry." Cultural Anthropology 26.2 (2011): 247-262. Print.
Helen Hughes, "Scrutiny and Documentary": Hubert Sauper's Darwin s Nightmare." Screen 53.3 (2012): 246-265. Print.
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Hilton, Matthew. "The Legacy of Luxury": Moralities of Consumption Since the 18th Century." Journal of Consumer Culture 4 (2004): 101-123. Print.
Ivakhiv, Adrian J. Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. Print.
Lorimer, Jamie. "Nonhuman Charisma": Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (2007): 911-932. Print.
Metz, Christian. "The Imaginary Signifier." Screen 16.2 (1975): 14-76. Print.
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Newbury, Michael. "Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie": Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse." American Literary History 24.1 (2012): 87-114. Print.
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(1) In theories of film narratology, this term references point of view and the mechanisms through which the story is conveyed as the narrative unfolds (e.g. in Branigan). In psychoanalytic approaches this concept becomes theorized through the terms of primary and secondary identification. There are a number of interpretations of identification that draw on psychoanalytic theory through the work of Freud and Lacan. For Christian Metz, simply put, primary cinematic identification involves the spectator identifying with him or herself, "as a pure act of perception" (48-9). Identifications with characters are secondary. While not identical with common sense notions of "empathy," identification is, particularly through point of view and secondary identification, frequently bound up with identification in the sense of perceiving from another's subject position ("I see as you see").
(2) The films 1 am referring to intersect with Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann's classification of "eco-food films," yet I focus only on those examples that include an interest in livestock and meat production.
(3) While thematically this is a diverse body of films, antecedents exist in longer traditions of non-fiction representation. Although aspects of the contemporary films share something with the ideological impetus of animal rights films and education films, they resonate most powerfully with precursors that present observational representations of animal slaughter. Decisive examples in this tradition include Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) by Thomas Edison, Georges Franju's Le Sang des betes (1949) and Fredric Wiseman's Meat (1976). Documentaries that present a relationship between human labor and animals are also significant given the focus on industrial processes in many recent examples. Key examples that might offer points of comparison include Barbara Kopple's American Dream (1990) and John Grierson's silent film Drifters (1929). This lineage attests to an ongoing relationship between the nonfiction form, animals and food, especially food production.
(4) Notably, the release of Darwin s Nightmare was accompanied by a storm of controversy that focused on the truth claims of the film. Helen Hughes summarizes and evaluates the different perspectives on the film.
(5) This film owes a debt to cinema verite and filmmakers such as Fredric Wiseman (his film Meat, and even Primate, in particular). Yet Our Daily Bread offers a coldly lyrical perspective on the avant garde observational tradition, even eschewing the humanism of overheard speech that observational film usually features on the sound track. The film resembles Wiseman's work in its critique of social institutions and systems that organize social existence.
(6) Food, Inc. was released in cinemas and achieved more than four and a half million US dollars at the box office, placing it among the most commercial successful documentaries of recent years. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009 but lost to The Cove (2009), another film concerned with, in part, food and issues of consumption.
(7) For example, French audiences mobilized for boycotts of Nile Perch in the wake of the release of Darwin's Nightmare. A version of the law Barbara Kowalcyk was working to have passed as shown in Food, Inc., known Kevin's Law, was passed by US congress as the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. In a different example of activity following the release of a film, the directors of The Moo Man initiated a successful Kickstarter campaign, making it the first British to be released theatrically via crowdfunding. Moreover, the websites of most food documentaries detail specific organizations, issues and links that facilitate engagement in food activism.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
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