restricted access Eating Animals (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 341 pp.

When it comes to animal ethics, it generally seems unnecessary and thus tedious to narrate facts. Everyone appears to know all there is to know about the wretched quality of animal lives (first problem: cross a certain threshold of commodification, and the term lives seems misleading). Accordingly, the "debate" (second problem: how to turn a debate back to the realization that initiated it) generally begins with one abstraction, "animal suffering," being weighed against another, "human interest" (third problem: how to reawaken the sense that eliminating another's suffering is itself one's interest). Stanley Cavell has confidently asserted that "the extreme variation in human responses to [the mass production of animals for food] is not a function of any difference in our access to information; no one knows, or can literally see, essentially anything here that the others fail to know or can see" (fourth problem: how to enable seeing what one already seems to see).

Eating Animals is likely to effect a rethinking of this assurance. What makes this book important is Foer's admirable research working in tandem with his ability to transform dry data into digestible claims. Those claims are asserted as the upshot of arguments, but they are also claims on us, on our imagination, on our cooperation, and on our capacity to dis-identify with polite, ingrained norms and habits. He says, for example, that the double page you are looking at now is roughly the size of the typical cage confining a laying hen during her entire life. He asks us, for example, to imagine every man, woman, and child in California and Texas defecating and urinating in a huge open-air pit for a year, so that we can obtain a sense of the overwhelming waste problem created annually by a single hog facility.

So digestible are these articulations that, for some readers, they may succeed in eliciting the indigestion that Foer wants to cause. Providing new—for me—information regarding issues such as the environmental costs of producing affordable meat or marine factory farming, Eating Animals offers an important synthesis of data on the current state of animal husbandry and its hidden costs. Such data will update readers such as I, whose familiarity with these issues is rooted in the founding texts of animal ethics, written a few decades ago. But the book is also a candid personal odyssey into the relationship between identity and consumption. It is the delicate interplay between the most immediate form of consumption—eating—and Foer's new moral responsibilities on becoming a father that endow his book with a unique personal depth. These features add a dimension of unpredictable ambivalence and uncertainty that, surprisingly, strengthens rather than diminishes Foer's call. I am thinking, for example, of his struggles in breaking from treasured family traditions that his vegetarianism prescribes to his son. [End Page 370]

Like all other meditations on animal ethics, however, the challenge for this book is to find its way into the hands of those who are not already convinced.

Tzachi Zamir

Tzachi Zamir, senior lecturer in English and comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Ethics and the Beast and Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. His articles "Puppets" and "How Reliable Is Moral Sensitivity?" appeared in the Spring 2010 issues of Critical Inquiry and Common Knowledge, respectively.