Ocelots were listed as endangered in 1982. Purchasing but not owning, an Ocelot fur coat is now illegal within the United States. As Adele Conover outlines in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1980, an Ocelot coat, requiring the hides of as many as 12 animals, sold for as much as $40,000” (Conover 2002). To obtain an Ocelot fur coat in 2020, one must either inherit the garment or purchase it illegally. This coat (Figure 1) came into my hands after the grandmother of a friend in common passed. The coat was passed along to her next of kin, who passed it along to a friend, who then passed the coat me. A chain of deathly passing. It is notable that, currently and to my knowledge, all of the people within this chain are white Americans who identify as queer, nonbinary, or cis-women.
Fig. 1 When you die will you become a sculpture? Inherited Ocelot Coat*, Custom Frame, 47 x 40 x 4 in
Photo credit: Meg T. Noe Disclaimer: Proceeds will directly benefit Ocelots at the Carolina Tiger Rescue
This Ocelot fur coat has stiffened through a fashioned lineage of intergenerational violence. Clearly the coat, which crackles and breaks upon touch, has not been cared for by a furrier or by extension, the coat's keepers. Discarding the garment as refuse would not respect the lives of the Ocelots who died during the coats making nor the humans who were abused through the process of production; all are rendered invisible.1 Putting the object back into circulation by donating the garment to a thrift store feels irresponsible because it would turn these undead beings back into commodities. It may also feel like passing along one’s unresolved trauma. Keeping the coat in one’s closet, however, is a heavy weight. The psychic resonance of ecologies of inherited violence that cling to this fur coat are palpable. This Ocelot fur coat rings baritone as it hangs on the rack.
To provide a sense of scale, the coat pictured uses the skin of around 12-25 dead Ocelots. Roughly 200,000 Ocelots were killed annually before they were protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in the 1980s. Today, Ocelots, “still range through much of South and Central America and up both coasts of Mexico” (Conniff 2016). Population tracking, habitat restoration, and traffic management are ongoing components in the revitalization of non-captive Ocelot populations in Texas.
The clearing of farm land with machines since the 1920s has caused massive destruction of Ocelot habitat. Canned hunting enterprises in Texas, in which non-human animals are raised to be shot within an enclosed environment, are more profitable than farming. Michael Tewes, the coordinator of the Feline Research Program at the Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University–Kingsville, notes,
Now less than one-half of one percent of Ocelot habitat remains…the [Ocelot] population in Texas is somewhere between 80 and 120. Perhaps 30 to 40 reside in and around Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR), while the rest are concentrated 40 miles to the north on several ranches that provide friendly refuge. (Conover 2002)
Ironically, the conversion of farmland to hunting land by ranchers who were struggling economically has helped to restore Ocelot habitats. It is important to be clear that this was not done for the benefit of Ocelots or any of the non-human animals used within these structures; hunting has not intentionally “saved” Ocelots. Conservation is a political tool used by hunters to justify the controls they put on non-human animals and land, in a performance of domination as “saving.”
Georges Bataille describes what he sees as early humans' relationship to non-human animals through the hunt in The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture. Through killing, Bataille proposes, early humans sought to absorb the power of non-human animals, namely large mammals, revered as godly. Domination was not thought of as a given, as Bataille writes: “In these animals that they hunted dangerously, they suspected, dreaded, the redoubtable forces, probably divine, of “spirits.” Whereas we see, at best, inferior brothers, they discerned mysterious forces” (Bataille 2009, 167). Bear, Deer, Bison and Bulls were formidable kin who humbled early humans because of their magical qualities. Through ritual preparations, they worked to “brazenly overcome the terror of death” (Bataille 2009, 170). The death of non-human animals was understood as immense, thus worthy of extensive aesthetic, spiritual, and ritual preparations. Bataille believes that death by the hunt was profound because, “by killing them [non-human animals], they made them divine” (Bataille 2009, 169). In the text, the author explains that rituals centered around the Montespan Bear, who would only appear if they were ready to die, partially entailed hunters asking for consent before killing the Bear and required that hunters prepared for atonement rituals after the Bears’ death (Bataille 2009, 132). In short, “they loved them and they wanted them. They loved them and they killed them” (Bataille 2009, 75). The classic interrelationship of love and death is a large part of being in relation within non-human animals.
Contemporary hunting and fashion, arguably operate through mechanized chains that incorporate acts of killing and thus a confrontation with death. The contemporary fashioning of domination is more closely related to fetish than the romanticized poetics of confronting the death of the animal (and self) that Batallie outlines when describing the practices near Lascaux. Tinges of animism linger across time when human-animals choose to wear the skin of another. Putting death and the power of human-animal killing on display, we take on the life force of the non-human animal slaughtered for their fur. An Ocelot fur coat is death refashioned: cut, shaped, and sculpted by human-animal hands.
Donning a fur coat is a domme move. The wearing of fur signifies the power of white cis-male systems of settler colonialist capitalism and extractive violence(s). An Ocelot fur coat speaks to the human-animal desire to be viewed as a powerful predator, often when one is viewed as prey. The trick is that one can also become prey, through unsolicited touching but also politically and economically, using such gestures of bodily domination.
In Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power, Valerie Steele explains the fetishistic relationship that is excited when fur is drapped over the body of a femme person. Steele writes, “[Sacher-Masoch]…begged his mistress “to wear furs as often as possible, especially when…behaving cruelly” (Steele 1996, 144). In his notorious erotic novel, Venus in Furs, the idolized woman is never absolutely naked, but always in some form of fetishized adornment. Steele continues,
At the sight of her lying on the red velvet cushions, her precious body peeping out between the folds of sable, I realized how powerfully sensuality and lust are aroused by flesh that is only partly revealed. Scopophilia (voyerism, erotic gazing) is here linked with tactile eroticism…Woman is both cold as death and warm as fur. (Steele 1996, 144)
In Venus in Furs, women, cruelty, and death are enfolded in a clutch of fur. Both power and subjugation shape the plushness that adorns and embellishes her nudity. Venus is adorned with violence.
Similarly, the popular series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness touches on the complex interplay between fetish and the erotic enacted through the use of non-human animal bodies. Tiger King is a fast fashion object that produced the erotic through encounters with deathly domination, thereby producing figures of the undead through fashion.2
It is no surprise that Americans took voyeuristic pleasure in Tiger King amid COVID-19. Sheltering in place simulates some of the experiential challenges of living in captivity for animals. Feelings of social isolation, loss of control, boredom, lack of autonomy, and depression can exacerbate underlying impulses to self-harm within confinement. Beings who live in confinement within zoos often engage in compulsive eating or refusal to eat, self-mutilate by pecking, chewing, or obsessive licking, and exhibit repetitive stress responses like pacing, rocking, or banging one’s head against their enclosure (Braitman 2014, 155). Although human-animals who watched Tiger King from their plush couches had notably far greater autonomy in terms of movement, food timing and allocation, privacy, and performance windows than most non-human animals living in zoos, many Americans experienced similar feelings of isolation within confinement. Tiger King appeared at an opportune moment: when privileged Americans lost control of their perceived bodily autonomy and felt caged indoors. In a way, the popularity of a show that includes, as the title states, “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” is an expression of the human-animal desire to regain power over the “wild” under conditions of domestic confinement imposed by a potentially fatal zoonotic disease.
Through dress, Joe Exotic sells himself as a carnal product. The big cats living in abusive carceral conditions serve as live accessories to support his performance of masochistic desire. The combination of pleasure and danger that tigers epitomize symbolically prop up Joe’s “exoticism.” As bell hooks writes,
Acknowledging ways the desire for pleasure, and that includes erotic longings, informs our politics, our understanding of difference, we may know better how desire disrupts, subverts, and makes resistance possible. We cannot, however, accept these new images uncritically. (hooks 1992, 39)
Here I want to think critically, with hooks, about the devices of desire that Tiger King uses to produce an “exotic” object whereby American audiences may simultaneously eat the Other and the self. By attempting to produce a powerful persona through the violent subjugation of untamable tigers, Joe Exotic uses dangerous non-human animals as a self-sexualizing lure to acquire power through the gaze of captive audiences. Yet as Hannah Arendt states,
Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (Arendt 1970, 56)
Although Joe Exotic used violent means to produce a highly-stylized and “exotic” image of power, he is a tragic figure destroyed by the desire to acquire power through violence. Joe Exotic’s violence was in legal terms, most explicitly directed at Carol Baskin and the Tigers that he murdered at the G.W. Zoo.
Within Tiger King, style is used as a form of camp to maintain the horrified, titillated, and amused gaze of American audiences. With camp, “everything is in quotation marks,” and the aim is to build an extraordinary theatrical world that “incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” [and] “aesthetics” over “morality” (Sontag 1964, 10). Audiences have not spent time critically interrogating the series because in the United States, Tiger King, is largely viewed as a stylized aesthetic production rather than a cultural object with political content and a gigantic dump truck of moral issues. Tiger King makes, “the ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful…” (Sontag 1964, 10-3). The elaborate stylization of Joe Exotic sets the stage for the campy trash-scape that Americans love to consume. Like Gaultier, Joe Exotic uses fashion to engage in a “massive staging of fetishized sex” (Vinken 2006, 31). Tiger King is a televised form of fast fashion. The theatre of Tiger King is draped in stylized camp to build a conceptual third wall that permits consumers to ignore the blood on our hands.
As Benjamin poetically details in the Arcades Project, fashion is “tigersprung” or a “tiger’s leap into the past through the fashioned present” (Lehmann, 2002). The nostalgic camp that the figures in Tiger King used as stylistic devices allow us to leap into a colonialist past to make contact with the “exotic,” as though colonialism is not the lure that invited us to masticate on the rural American Other in the present. This temporal tulle is a problematic veil that permits audiences to suspend our evaluation of colonialist desire through the consumption of stylized Otherness. As hooks succinctly writes, “it is by eating the Other that one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 378). If you can read the signs within the fast fashion object that is Netflix’s popular series Tiger King, it is possible to take a tiger's leap back to look at the long chain of colonialist violence that continues to excite carnal American desires to eat the Other in the present.
Beyond the literal understanding of meat as the prepared flesh or physical bodies of non-human animals, Tiger King plays on meaty gore in more metaphorical ways. Meat is an every-molting carnal performance. It is exposed raw skin. Meat is Joe Exotic’s discussion of his Prince Albert piercing. Meat is queer rural culture being offered up as a horrific monster for American spectators. Joe Exotic fulfills an “image of the pathetic and slightly sinister homosexual dandy,” a “decadent monster queer [who] is also invariably sad” (Weinstock 2020, 236). In gobbling up Tiger King, audiences relish in the monstrous construction of queerness that the show propagates. As Benshoff writes,
Both the monster and the homosexual are permanent residents of shadowy spaces: at worst caves, castles, and closets, and at best a marginalized and oppressed position within the cultural hegemony. Queer viewers are thus more likely than straight ones to experience the monster’s plight in more personal, individualized terms. (Weinstock 2020, 230)
Although I am and will always be unapologetically speaking to address the abuse that non-human animals face at the hands of human-animals, part of the address includes critically evaluating the origins of cycles of abuse, across species. Like fashion, abuse is a tiger’s leap into the past that leaves ripples of trauma in the present.
In Sistah Vegan, Patrice Jones narrates the intersections of homophobia, meaty consumption, and colonialism. In the afterword, “Liberation as Connection and the Decolonization of Desire,” Jones writes,
Here in the Americas, both homophobia and factory farming are direct legacies of colonization. Often seeing themselves as superior because they ate more meat, invading Europeans brought animal captives with them. Seen by both Catholic conquistadors and Protestant pilgrims as a sign of godless animality, same-sex pleasure was ruthlessly suppressed throughout the process of subjugation of the Americas. (Harper 2010, 198)
Tiger King invites American audiences to gnaw on our colonalist legacy of violence through exotification, the Othering of queer rural Americans, and the visual spectacle of captive Tigers.
The zookeepers in Tiger King enact the right to maim or to “not let live,” by using tigers as figures of the undead (Puar 2017, xviii). Conditions of abuse breed debility. Zack Sharf’s report elaborates on the health issues of Joe Exotic’s ceased Tigers:
When the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary received Joe Exotic’s Tigers, the big cats came in malnourished and weak, with lackluster coats and extensive dental issues. Additionally, many of the big cats were poorly declawed and had mobility issues as a result. (Sharf 2020)
Breeding programs whereby human-animals forcibly breed tigers and establish prisons as habitats for many generations is one way that we do not allow non-human animals to live. We breed debility when we breed white tigers. When white tigers are born with “undesirable” traits like crossed-eyes, they are murdered for a trait that is directly constructed by human systems of inbreeding for whiteness. In “The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness,” Annalee Newitz elaborates: “Stories about the undead are best understood in the context of anxieties about many kinds of race relationships that develop in the wake of colonialism. The undead are liminal beings who exist between the worlds of life and death” (Weinstock, 2020, 242). It is necessary to expand on this framework of the undead to include non-human animals. Tigers have been subject to the conditions of maiming through systems of forced breeding that (re)produce conditions of debility. Tensions excited by settler-colonialism have cut deeply into the lives of non-human animals, positing them as liminal beings who occupy the role of the undead.
With the undead in mind, I’d like to end by taking a tigers leap back to the Ocelot fur coat that spurred this exploration. When non-human animal bodies become subjects for masochistic desire, they are suspended, undead. Batallie elaborates,
Modern man’s gaze in regard to animals, his gaze in general, distinct from individual reactions, the gaze with which we see them, is an empty stare; it is the same gaze that sees useful things and any other random object. In our eyes, generally, the animal does not exist; this is why [the animal] does not die. (Bataille 2009, 75)
Through fashion, these Ocelots have been maimed: they cannot live and they cannot die (Puar 2017, xviii). When we take time to look at the undead, we open up questions about the animistic implications of garments that conspicuously fashion non-human animals as second skins.
Americans are living in a undeniable period of mass extinction and cyclical violence(s) grounded in the haunting present of the racial violence of white supremacy as well as violence against queer + trans people, women, disabled people, and non-human animals. How might Americans begin to reconcile the undead that we have inherited and continue to (re)fashion into being? As Leila Taylor narrates in Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul,
Horror has always been used to illuminate cultural anxieties and gives a voice to our collective fears. So what to make of the gothic in America, a place which by the very nature of its founding is predisposed to a culture of anxiety? The dread of knowing the enemy at the gate is understandable, but in America the enemy has already passed through it, and has been brought inside. The call is coming from inside of the house. (Taylor 2019, 47)
Or inside of our closets. Atonement for the deaths that we have brought into our own houses and inherited through lineages of colonial violence begins with a close examination of the breath of horrors that linger in our own houses. How do we release the undead from their state of suspension? And further, how do we mourn the skeletons in our closets?
1Why Fur is Back in Fashion, details some of the abusive practices on fur farms: “Some fox farmers, for example, kill their animals by anal electrocution. It’s supposedly the quickest practical method, with what one farmer described mildly as “a perception problem.” What affect does it have on the people whose job it is to use anal probes to electrocute foxes , seasonally?
More information about the abuses that those charged with doing the killing in animal industries can be found in Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat. As Pachirat explains in more detail, those charged with doing the most physically and emotionally taxing work tend to be POC who are underpaid and uninsured. Many people employed on the kill floor of the slaugtherhouse are undocumented workers who have been subject to conditions of workplace abuse and cultural marginalization.
2The essay that began this exploration is titled The Viral Horror of Tiger King, Zoonotic Disease, and Colonialist Human-Animal Desires. Short excerpts are included in this text. The full text is available upon request via email to D Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence. Harvest Books.
Bataille, G. (2009) The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture. Zone Books.
Braitman, L. (2014) Animal Madness: How Anxious Dog, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Simon & Schuster.
Connif, R. (2014) This Time a Fur Coat Is Helping Save An Endangered Animal. Takepart. www.takepart.com/article/2014/09/25/how-fur-coat-helping-save-endangered-ocelot
Connif, R. (2016) Why Fur Is Back in Fashion. National Geographic. www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine
Conover, A. (2002) Not a Lot of Ocelots. Smithsonian Magazine. www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/not-a-lot-of-ocelots-63683601/
Harper, B. A. (2010) Sistah Vegan: Black Females Vegans Speak On Food, Identity, Health, and Society. Lantern Books.
hooks, b. (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press.
Lehmann, U. (2002) Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. MIT Press.
Puar, J. K. (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility | Capacity | Disability. Duke University Press.
Sharf, Z. (2020 Apr. 9) Tiger King: Dozens of Joe Exotic's 'Malnourished' Big Cats Needed Saving. IndieWire. www.indiewire.com/2020/04/tiger-king-joe-exotic-big-cats-malnourished-saved-1202223877/
Steele, V. (1996) Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power. Oxford University Press.
Sontag, S. (1964) Notes on Camp. Monoskop.
Taylor, L. (2019) Darkly: Blackness and Americas Gothic Soul. Repeater.
Vinken, B. (2006) Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. Berg.
Weinstock, J. (2020). The Monster Theory Reader. University of Minnesota Press.
These images were complied specifically for the essay below by Kat Zagaria. Left: Coronavirus girl by https://www.vperemen.com is licensed under CC BY 20. Right: On a Dayboro Farm-06= by Sheba_Also 17,000,000 + views is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view copies of these licenses, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sal/2.0/.
Carol J. Adams’s 1990 The Sexual Politics of Meat posits that violence towards animals and women are inherently linked in a patriarchal society. In Adams’ parlance, animals, when consumed, constitute “absent referents.”1 There is an absence of the thing that produced the meat when it is consumed: the creature who gives their life for consumption does not appear except in a fragmented, consumable form. Fragmentation is preëmpted by objectification, which allows for a creature to be divided into a schism of parts rather than perceived as a whole, and consumed. Adams’ critique likens this consumption to consumable images of violence against women which proliferate in media, both objectifying and fragmenting them. She argues that Western culture normalizes the consumption of meat in the same manner that it normalizes the objectification of women, structures which, in both cases, create entitlement to abuse.
If patriarchal entitlement to feminine bodies and animals stems from the absent referent, both are to be consumed. Bright colors and cloaking oneself in further absent referents creates a fragmentation for the individual. The utilization in fashion of literal materials such as fur creates a complicity in an absent referent and thus patriarchy, but items that mimic these objects create a similar absent referent paradox. But cloaking oneself in the absent referent, however removed, can also be a gesture of recognition and state submersion through mimicry, and through a previously fragmented-means. If one accepts one’s similarity and rooted consciousness with other beings in more than human worlds, imitating those beings equates to a visual recognition of similarity. This act also encompasses the decentering of the human in fashion thought, which is something we will revisit later.
References to the body beneath the garment that subsequently hide it become exciting through visual spectrum vibrations. In Western society, the face must remain - while other aspects of the body can be fragmented through fashion, faces are untouched signifiers of beings beneath. This norm to preserve the face is seen as both a means of identification and a right to the governmental/male gaze - the male gaze, unencumbered, can consume a fragmented other, while the governmental gaze enacts violence and surveillance. Masks can constitute a disrupter to this gaze - one which we shall examine in the context of interconnection between pandemics, factory, farming, and the consequences of environmental racism. As I shall lay out below, fashion simultaneously can become an object of empowerment for an intersection of oppressed communities and resistance against a patriarchal, surveillance state; absent referents can function as recognition of a similarity of plights and regain our humanity by coöpting fragmentation.
The medical mask itself is an absent referent. Decontextualized, made up of various manufactured parts. As a garment, it contributes to objectification and visual fragmentation of the individual. It primarily refers to that which it protects against: airborne vectors of disease, most notably in the current moment, COVID-19. This specific coronavirus is borne of an animal, likely transmitted via horseshoe bat by way of pangolin2. The coronavirus itself thus is intrinsically linked to a more-than-human world, with a mask as our ever-present reminder of its ability to wreak havoc in human immune systems while also to exist benignly in its previous host.
These images were complied specifically for the context of this essay by Kat Zagaria. Left: A detail of a horseshoe bat colony. “Greater horseshoe bats” by naturalengland is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Right: A pangolin. “7M1A4869f” by gmacfadyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The mask occupies a critical intersection between its scientific status as a matter of fact and its societal status as a matter of care or concern. In Bruno LaTour’s phrasing, the matter of fact is something that is arrived at through traditional empirical science, so often considered as devoid of emotions. But LaTour also notes that matters of fact should concern us, and thus they enter a political realm as a matter of concern3. The medical mask as a garment whose necessity has become apparent with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has also seen itself accordingly politicized.6
To further our political considerations, we must consider the governmental backdrop against which the outbreak of COVID-19 occurs. If patriarchy is the basis for most governments, the surveillance state is, likewise, patriarchal. In a time of rampant nationalism and neofascism as a direct reaction to the failures of late capitalism, masks are instantly seen as anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and anti-nationalist. The pronouncement by the state of masks as anti-authority garments becomes fraught as it places individuals, especially those with Black bodies, in situations where they must choose to wear one for their health or risk being detained by the state or incarcerated. Masks are thus politicized despite being a health measure and a tangible manifestation of care for others, as they are perceived as a threat by an increasingly militarized police apparatus thereby enforcing conformity to western norms and thwarting potential subversion of the authoritarian state.
In addition to being a health measure, however, masks can indeed serve as a disrupter of state surveillance. Fashioning one’s body with a mask does indeed cross boundaries between medical necessity and the disruption of surveillance, and can thus constitute resistance to the patriarchal state. Our current COVID-19 reality sees the disruption of the Western norm of showing faces through the widespread use of facial masks. While these masks are slowly being fashioned into a variety of prints, fabrics, and scarves, they still constitute a denial of a norm while contributing to further visual fragmentation. And yet, masks mark individuals as not consumable; they are a very physical reminder of our need to breathe, our status as living creatures with lungs that must be protected from viral airborne droplets. Furthermore, these masks contribute to the inability of facial recognition software to track movements; it renders our image as nonconsumable.7
There is a relationship between coronavirus and climate change in their ability to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities. This relationship, in turn, flourishes due to structures of systemic racism that have been put in place by the state; structures that can rely, in part, on non-human entities for their enforcement. The connection between the COVID-19 pandemic, the state, and animals further places masks at the center of resistance to multiple life-threatening forces.One of these structures is environmental racism, which encompasses how the United States negligently (at best) treats the air, waterways, and soil of communities of color and of Black communities in particular. A blighted environment can trigger a host of health conditions for those who live in it as well as a loss of arable land.4
In order to view environmental racism in action, we can look at North Carolina. Black residents of North Carolina find themselves disproportionately near hog farms. There is not a particular geographic reason for this - hog farms can be located anywhere—indeed, some of the largest in the country are situated in remote regions of the US southwest. Strikingly, North Carolina’s farms are situated next to Black residential communities as well as Black church and recreation centers. Hog farms create runoff which affects these communities’ water via hog waste treatment, air via gasses from decomposing manure, and soil via manure which holds antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The 15 top hog producing counties in North Carolina are all located in Eastern North Carolina; Eastern North Carolina, in turn, has a high concentration of Black communities.5 As of July of 2020, North Carolina has exploded into a coronavirus hotspot, with its uptick in cases rivaling those of more populous states.6 As with many aspects of this pandemic, certain segments of the population are left more vulnerable due to their proximity to the factory farming system, resulting in the case explosion and, by proxy, mask mandates.
The 2020 Uprisings also see widespread use of facial masks, with their ability to both disrupt coronavirus transfer and facial recognition technology being more pivotal now than ever before. Individuals are nonetheless being tracked at these protests and targeted by a patriarchal, violent, racist police state. These individuals are targeted with the goal of admitting them into the mass incarceration system of the United States — a system that perpetuates slavery and consumes the labor of the incarcerated. Any means of disrupting this tracking — wearing non-identifiable clothing, covering tattoos, and covering ones’ face — can be seen as a means of resisting consumption.
COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred at meat processing plants in Iowa, Kentucky, and elsewhere tend to employ vulnerable populations and especially immigrants; the work is well-known as something one can do without a college degree and be paid well-for, but the human physical labor causes repetitive strains, and medical leave is non-existent.7 As coronavirus spreads through these plants that employ workers in close-quarters with one another as well as communities of color, there is an inherent link between the consumption of animals, the proliferation of environmental racism, and the preëxisting conditions that these factories cause.
Our need for the mask garment in this pandemic is thus tied to our consumption of animals and the locations where this process occurs. As masks can be used to resist governmental and patriarchal consumption, we begin to enter an ouroboros of cause and effect. Masks can be the resistance to the very thing that preëmpts their existence.
Our means of disrupting a patriarchal system are tied to the fate of non-human beings. Dismantling the factory farm requires a recognition of a shared plight against a state which abuses, enacts violence, leaves vulnerable, and enacts consumption on our bodies and the bodies of non-human beings. In Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, author Jason Hribal details resistance to a violent state on the part of the beings that we so often objectify as consumable. Non-human resistance can be seen as an inherent negation of objectification, a recognition of intellect, planning, and understanding. At each turn, resistance by humans and non-human entities to the state employs the state’s own patriarchal means of objectification, such as fragmentation, against it. Masks, while contributing to fragmentation, also can serve as resistance to the oppressors who previously employed the tactic
The mask’s signifier as a barrier to the spread of disease is arrived at via its aforementioned status as a matter of fact. Scientific and empirical evidence show us that two people wearing masks are significantly less likely to contract disease, particularly coronavirus. However, the mask begins to cross over into a matter of care when looked at for its dual functionality: while protecting an individual, it also protects those in the individual’s proxy. It thus demonstrates care for society, reaching out beyond oneself, and protecting others.8 The mask, quite simply, denotes care.
One long-term project that is embarked and reëmbarked upon in philosophy is the decentering of the human in order to reach a non-anthropocentric ethical formula. This formula begins with the recognition that non-human beings are worthy of consideration and care in ethical quandaries. If mass-adoption of masks equates to a new era of care that is particularly notable in the US context, then that sphere of care has the capability of growth to encompass other beings in a larger recognition of shared life. This recognition of shared life, in turn, requires an engagement with an ethics of care and engagement with permaculture ethics.
As a movement of design systems-thinking, permaculture considers agriculture holistically by elevating soil to the status of a living thing that needs to be cared for alongside sprouts. To take a permaculture approach to all life requires acknowledging naturecultural interdependence, as well as an accounting for and the creation of a reparation plan for the harms that humans cause towards one another and all living things. In considering masks within the permaculture framework, these garments constitute a recognition of our shared status as endangered beings as well as a recognition of the role of microorganisms. Masks create a constricting box for us to carry our own microorganisms while being conscious of the harms they might cause others. In taking permaculture as a starting point for wider considerations of care that decenter the human, we must enact these ethical obligations through everyday doings. Interdisciplinary researcher Maria Puig de la Bellacasa writes that:
In permaculture movements, where care for the earth is an inseparable doing from care of the personal, ecological interdependency is not a moral principle but a lived material constraint - required and obliged.9
The mask straddles both personal and public space. It is a signifier of our ecological dependency upon one another to keep each other safe while simultaneously protecting ourselves. It is in this way a physical manifestation of care and intertwined beings.
I end with some questions that this essay has raised: How can we expand our impulse to care for others to include non-human entities? If the advent of widespread mask wearing coincides with the recognition of the necessity for anthropocentric care, can the mask spread into care for non-human beings? Can COVID-19, and the circumstances which have ushered in the populations which this pandemic effects, preëmpt a revolution in terms of the way we treat one another in more than human worlds?
Domesticated dogs co-evolved to read human animal facial expressions. It is an adaptation that coincided with domestication. It is important to note that domestication is embedded within the violence of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy which has also affected how dogs respond to humans. Bénédicte Boisseron expands on this history within Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question where the author examines how long histories of racial violence and white supremacy are connected to the domestication and training of dogs as a mechanism of control. In an interview about the text, Boisseron cites the civil rights demonstrations in “Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when dogs were used against Black rioters…[which] also brought me back to the beginning of colonization in the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, in his book from the 16th century, talked a lot about how dogs were used against Native Americans by the colonizers” (Fielder 2019). Within Afro-Dog, Boisseron also writes about zoonotic disease as a justification for canicide:
Canicide has been committed in waves over the last centuries, motivated either by a popular fear of rabies or by a panic over a specific breed. In 19th century Paris, for example, the overblown fear of rabies led to dog massacres. More recently, in May 2005, the hysteria around pit bulls in Denver resulted in a pit bull ordinance that initiated a mass killing of dogs. Cynophobia has shifted from the human fear of a zoonotic disease transmitted through dog bites to the fear of a specific dog breed...Like the issue of race in humans, the pit bull exemplifies how much more “dog” and “breed” have to do with human perception and social construction than with science. (Boisseron 2018, 42-3)
Wearing a mask as a form of anthropocentric care arose as a part of a global zoonotic pandemic, highlighting the corporeal dangers of diseases that transcend taxonomic categories, which are also fraught with violence. In the era of COVID-19, mask wearing is specifically designed for the care of human-animals; although it remains to be seen, at this moment our species appears to be most at threat from the contagion.
The social ramifications of shared communicative signals between domesticated dogs and human-animals also remain unknown. This note is specifically included for the care of dogs who are visibly distressed or triggered by the use of facial masks worn by humans. Some dogs are uncomfortable being around our species when we are wearing masks as PPE. To mitigate this, desensitization training has been effective (Flaim 2020). This involves introducing the wearing of masks in stages, across contexts, as a form of exposure therapy. With slow introductions to this new visual and by using positive reinforcement tools, triggered dogs can slowly become comfortable with new social conditions that affect interspecies communication.
There is more to be said about how interspecies communication will be affected in the long term by the necessity of wearing masks to prevent human-animals from contracting or spreading the disease. Considering the intricate histories of white supremacist violence enacted through domestication and interspecies training, examining the role that gestural communication plays within the future evolution of interspecies communication is a place to start thinking more broadly about care. As white people, myself included, are attempting the long overdue work to unlearn racism as bell hooks writes in Sisters of the Yam, we may also consider what it would mean to untrain dogs to uphold white supremacy through policing as well as in everyday microaggressions. In dismantling the ecologies of violence that have shaped domestication, perhaps kinship could be an ethic of care that is applied within human and more than human worlds.
1Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Anniversary edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
2Lau, Susanna K. P., Hayes K. H. Luk, Antonio C. P. Wong, Kenneth S. M. Li, Longchao Zhu, Zirong He, Joshua Fung, Tony T. Y. Chan, Kitty S. C. Fung, and Patrick C. Y. Woo. “Possible Bat Origin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 - Volume 26, Number 7—July 2020 - Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal - CDC.” Accessed July 15, 2020. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.200092.
3 Latour, Bruno. "Matters of Fact, Matters of Concern." Critical inquiry 30, no. 2 (2003): 25-8.
6 Ma QX, Shan H, Zhang HL, Li GM, Yang RM, Chen JM. Potential utilities of mask-wearing and instant hand hygiene for fighting SARS-CoV-2. J Med Virol. 2020. PMID: 32232986.; Tovia Smith. “The Battle Between The Masked And The Masked-Nots Unveils Political Rifts.” NPR.Org. Accessed July 15, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/
4 Masks are known for being a form of resistance to facial recognition; their current widespread use means companies behind the technology are looking for ways to still identify individuals with them. Thus, masks are only a portion of steps that one can take to evade facial recognition technology — one can also utilize non-descript clothing, sunglasses, and unconventional makeup, among other means; they are nevertheless an important portion and will be examined henceforth
5 To go into the forces that contribute to environmental racism in their entirety would require a substantial exegesis, but a cursory list would include the state-sanctioned practice redlining, the neoliberal disposition towards regulatory leniency in favor of corporate profits, and the rising meat consumption that characterized the 1990s and 2000s, for a recent manifestation.
6 Genoways, Ted. “Hog Wild: Factory Farms Are Poisoning Iowa’s Drinking Water.” Mother Jones, sec. Environment. Accessed July 14, 2020. https://www.motherjones.com/
7 Due to its case spikes, travel restrictions against North Carolina residents have been enacted by neighboring states, including Pennsylvania. Ralph, Pat. “Pennsylvania Adds Delaware to List of States with Travel Restrictions Due to COVID-19 Infections Spike.” PhillyVoice, July 12, 2020, sec. News. https://www.phillyvoice.com/pennsylvania-covid-19-coronavirus-state-travel-advisory-restrictions-14-day-quarantine-delaware/.
8 Swanson, Ana, David Yaffe-Bellany, and Michael Corkery. “Pork Chops vs. People: Battling Coronavirus in an Iowa Meat Plant.” The New York Times, May 10, 2020, sec. Business. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/
9 Again, we see an oroborus of interconnections and breaths with the mask.
10 Bellacasa, María Puig de la. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. 3rd ed. edition. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Boisseron, B. (2018) Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question. Columbia University Press.
Flaim, D. (2020) Mask Force: Training Dogs to be Comfortable Around People in Face Masks. American Kennel Club. www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/mask-force-training-dogs-to-be-comfortable-around-people-wearing-face-masks/
Fielder, B. (2019) Why Animal Studies Must Be Antiracist: A Conversation with Bénédicte Boisseron. Edge Effects test.edgeeffects.net/afro-dog-benedicte-boisseron/.
hooks, b. (1993) Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. South End Press.
This is a joke:
1. My mother’s favorite non-human is a penguin.
2. My mother is Jain, and buys exclusively plant-based clothing, while also refusing to wear clothing that depicts animals in any form. She expects the same from me.
3. I am a goof and enjoy messing with my mother immensely.
4. I find pajama bottoms with penguins printed on them.
5. The next time I see my mother, for the first time in six months, I wear them.
6. When she sees me, she proceeds to begin scolding me before realizing they are penguins.
7. My mother laughs reluctantly.
8. I cackle.
9. You cackle._____
Thinking of non-violence against non-human animals as the basis for religion and caste-based human violence in India...
Earlier this week, I visited my parents’ house with a kitchen containing 7 lakh utensils. 7 lakh is 7 lacs is all the ants is all the octopuses is all the microorganisms in the universe. 7 lakh is the utensils in my parents’ house’s kitchen. It was 11am. Lunchtime. I was searching for utensils that looked most like the ones I have at home. Stainless steel. Flat. Curved slightly upward at the edges. Built for rotis and rotis alone. When I found it, a container that would do its job in containing: mumma enters. “What are you doing?” “Serving myself lunch?” “In that?” “What’s wrong with it?” “Don’t use that; use this (a copper-plated, shinier container the same shape and size)” “What’s the difference?” “Microorganisms don’t survive in more precious metals.” Which is to say, it is safer, more nonviolent to microorganisms and therefore, more Jain, to eat from a shinier plate. Which is to bypass class and caste connotations for containers. “Microorganisms exist everywhere, though.” “No, in fact gold-plated plates are even better because those have no microorganisms at all.” “Maybe they’re there, just wealthier?” Cackles.
Thinking of the relationship between sheen and non-violence, of containers as conductors, of micro-organisms hiding in plates, and links between preciousness and alive-ness in ascribing value...
Warning: Dead bodies are mentioned repeatedly within this audio recording.
This is an audio recording of a conversation with mumma. The audio is in Gujrati and centers the various kinds of ‘life forms’ in Jainism, including gold, a ‘prithvi-kai’, or ‘earth-being’. Gold is alive until 48 minutes after extraction from the Earth. Mumma says wearing a gold necklace is equivalent to wearing a dead body around the neck.
Brahmins have rules about contact with materials, especially those of a porous bodily nature. Leather is polluting, as explained in Purity and Danger: “Contact with leather causes impurity. If leather sandals are worn they should not be touched with the hands, and should be removed and the feet should be washed before a temple or house is entered” (Douglas 1966, 35). Rules about material contact also relate to caste systems. One rule states that “a Brahmin should not be in the same part of his cattle shed as his Untouchable servant, for fear that they may both step on places connected through overlapping straws on the floor” (Douglas 1966, 35). Straw itself is seen as a conductor between corporeal beings. It is thus charged with the dangerous potential of exploiting porosity by collapsing lines of class and of species. Within the context of a farm, straw is a conductor of energy as a food source for domesticated non-human animals. Straw also simultaneously serves as bedding and a material to absorb or collect bodily waste. Straw has many functions both energetically and symbolically within interspecies contexts, across cultures.
(re: “One rule states that “a Brahmin should not be in the same part of his cattle shed as his Untouchable servant, for fear that they may both step on places connected through overlapping straws on the floor” (Douglas 35). Straw itself is seen as a conductor between corporeal beings.”) This passage makes me think of materials as conductors of touch and the ways in which this manifests in Jain society, mostly through cutlery and utensils. I'm interested also in the ways casteism pervades non-hindu religions, including Jainism, or rather, the ways in which non-hindu religions in India align themselves with Brahmins and other upper-castes to be in proximity to Brahmin supremacy, while simultaneously being able to reject being casteist because it is not part of their religious structure.
To be clear, the aim is not to collapse distinct systems of belief and practices of prohibition—namely Jains and Brahmins— but rather to think across boundary lines in various ways. The example above illustrates some of the lines that are drawn via material symbols between humans and non-human animals. Viewing straw as a conductor for pollution, further reinforces hierarchies of class and species or the “clean” and the “unclean” within shared spaces of domestication.
(re: “Viewing straw as a conductor for pollution, further reinforces hierarchies of class and species or the clean and the unclean within shared spaces of domestication.” )+++ when the conductor for 'pollution' is a container, everything that can be contained becomes 'pollutant'
Learning more about prohibitions, especially in regard to species, can at times illustrate how value is assigned. The value that Jains place on life, informs prohibitions of consumables that come from non-human animals. And Falak, in the case of your Mother, there appears to be a soft prohibition on donning representational imagery of non-human animals. As someone who has built a number of prohibitions into their personal eating and clothing choices, I’m always interested in the lines where the ethics become murky; they often do. Which is why silk came to mind.
Silk is a luxury fiber that is made by boiling the chrysalis of moths waiting to emerge. The diet of silkworms varies but often consists of mulberries. Many Jains do not wear silk saris because of the massive killing of arthropods involved in silk production. Mr. Pramoda Chitrabhanu tallies the violence very directly, stating, “to produce 100 grams of pure silk, approximately 1,500 chrysalis have to be killed” (Chitrabhanu 2020). Similar to dairy production, the moths assigned male at birth are considered waste products after mating. Moths assigned female at birth are used as breeders and are killed after laying 400-600 eggs. Mr. Pramoda Chitrabhanu further explains that King Kumarpal (1133 AD) heeded the advice of his Jain teacher Acharya Hemchandra and prohibited killing in the state of Gujarat “for food, sport, or fun” (Chitrabhanu 2020).
However, the King did wear garments, likely a Patola, made from silk imported from China. Whether or not silk is a prohibited material is still debated. The Jain Ceremonial Canopy or Chandarva from the mid-19th contrary pictured below comes from Gujarat. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art didactic, the canopy is made of “silk satin with silk embroidery; silk fringe and braid; silk tassels wrapped with metallic thread” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
(re: "full paragraphs from “Silk...metallic thread.”) I remember mumma telling me stories of Kumarpal Raja all the time but don't remember this one, and it's so bizarre to read it in this context, I almost imagined mumma's voice as I read it. I think I'm going to have a conversation with her with this as an entry point, and maybe send you a recording of it....
Conversations about violence often lead to a discussion of what is not allowed. Material practices are one site through which human animals may choose to model a cultural or religious ethic. If one follows the loose threads of taboo, questions about who established cultural or religious prohibitions and why often become entangled with concepts of hierarchy. Instituting a broad material ethic often creates a sticky web of ethical dilemmas. This sometimes makes something as seemingly simple and benign as buying a pair of affordable socks feel impossible.
In the case of the story above, I am left with a few questions and more research to do, perhaps at another time. For example, did King Kumarpal know that he donned silk for puja which came from the killing of possibly thousands of silkworms? Or was there a justification for killing arthropods at the time? Were silkworms considered somehow lower than other living beings? In the United States, it is very clear that people across systems of belief and identification kill insects without question, sometimes with their bare hands. This poses many questions about how life is valued and how violence is justified based on taxonomic categories.
But also, to return to the case of silk, I’m interested how not knowing—
how silk is made
or whether the King Kumarpal knew the origins of the material
or whether or not science definitively proved that silkworms feel pain
or whether the knowledge that debility is bred into silkworms is enough––
[borrowing a concept from Jasbir Purar’s The Right to Maim]
[the right to maim / debility: is to not let live and not let die]
The debility that human-animals have bred into silkworms
genetically severs the wings
and renders them blind (Herbszt 2019)
or whether anyone would consciously squash and process 1500
beings with their bare hands to make a luxurious garment
—is crucial to the murkiness of taboos and prohibitions established in the service of nonviolent
action. [ The larger question that I often return to is: how should one be accountable for the violence(s)
that one participates in through our consumptive pleasures? ]
Falak Vasa: (re: “not knowing--- how silk is made”) This reminds me of the time I went to the Smithsonian Museum with my family, and I was walking through huge halls full of taxidermy with baa (grandma) and she loved all of it. And I'm certain if she knew what taxidermy was, she would've had a very different reaction.
(re: “how should one be accountable for the violence(s) that one participates in through our consumptive pleasures?”) I'm excited to explore this question but I know that within Jainism there's a simple answer because there is always an assumption that violence against non-humans (including microorganisms) is happening - penance. And it's ironic but this can often take the form of more 'badhas' (prohibitions) including fasting.
Chitrabhanu, P. (2020) Story of Silk. Ahimsa Foundation. www.jainsamaj.org/content.php?url=Story_of_Silk:-_By_Mr.
Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.
Herbszt, C. (2019) Do Silkworms Feel Pain? The Reason Why Vegans Don’t Wear Silk. The Pretty Planeteer.
Puar, J. K. (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility | Capacity | Disability. Duke University Press.
Unknown. (Mid- 19th century) Jain Ceremonial Canopy, Chandarva. Philadelphia Museum of Art. www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/72380.html?mulR=2801
I gently place my left foot into a stainless-steel stirrup, gradually bearing weight on that foot as I slowly swing my other leg over Renn’s backside and down his barrel, comfortably slipping into the right stirrup. I am careful to imagine the feeling of someone sitting on my back, so I ease into the dark brown leather saddle with care.
For a highly sensitive horse like Renn, correct leg placement is crucial to communication. Should my leg position inch backwards, Renn would interpret my gentle ask for forward motion as asking for a complex lateral dressage move. A good-fitting saddle makes for a coherent translation between us.
This physical comportment is complemented here by a coordinated outfit on both horse and rider. Renn wears a hunter green saddle pad. I wear a pair of tight hunter green breeches and a black shirt, always tucked in, with a black leather belt hugging my hips and black leather boots perfectly formed around my calves, ankles and feet. Almost half of my riding attire was too once a living, breathing animal.
Renn breathes in waves, inhaling deep into his barrel and out through his tender pink nostrils. I sink deeper into my seat. My bodyweight distributes evenly as my heels reach towards the ground. We continue at a slow pace, with a loose rein. His head hangs low, despite the array of tack I need to ride him. A running martingale, a hack-a-bit, a figure 8 noseband all connect my hand to his head and mouth. I wear multiple dead animals to “correctly” ride a living one. I look and play the part of the colonizer.
My horse wears back and front boots when we jump, to protect him from his own legs and the aluminum shoes he wears on all four feet. Renn is so enthusiastic about jumping that he requires a “belly guard” girth; the piece of leather that wraps the saddle around the barrel of the horse. This too prevents him from injuring himself.
Reingard Spannring outlines the anthropocentric steeping in all forms of riding, and most forms of horsemanship. In the chapter “Mutual Becomings? In Search of an Ethical Pedagogic Space in Human-Horse Relationships”, which is part of the book Animals in Environmental Education, Spannring writes:
Archeological findings suggest that humans developed mounted herd driving methods that allowed them to kill whole herds of horses. Horse riding led to an increased scale and efficiency of productivity, the accumulation of animal wealth, and greater disparities in prosperity and power and–together with horse drawn wagons and chariots—greater mobility. Thus, the domestication and use of the horse transformed Eurasia. (Spannring 2017, 80)
Spannring gallops forward a few thousand years to a multi-billion-dollar European horse industry. The global industry is still plagued with anthropocentrism, but now under the sparkly new moniker of natural horsemanship, a “mutual cross-species embodiment of movement” (Spannring 2017, 83), always defined by the specific horse-rider relationship. Poignant in the article is Spannring’s contextualization of where this embodiment, or becoming, happens: in spaces that support human social and economic “infrastructure”. The author points out the prescribed embodiment between horse and rider, whether in the disciplines of dressage, jumping, cross country. Each discipline calls for an unique equitation specific to that activity. To each, whiteness and colonial dress is the default.
Livestock were used as tools in the Imperial expansion of English ideals across the northeast part of the United States; interactions with horses that were once ubiquitous are now rare for many people in the U.S. and horse ownership is associated with a certain amount of wealth, privilege, and land ownership. Historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson delves into the role of livestock in the early days of colonialist occupation; keeping horses, cows, pigs, and chickens in an appropriate manner were seen as markers of civility. Livestock were viewed as distinctly different from the wild animals of the New World. They were property and, above all, seen as distinctly English. And horses maintained a special place in this hierarchy, especially in New England. Anderson explains, “New England horses may have been status symbols as much as working animals, owned more often than not by older, more prosperous men” (Anderson 2004, 146). Now, all over the United States, horse ownership continues to identify a specific privileged lifestyle. Different centuries in the same uniform.
Police horses are the most common “livestock” animals seen in spaces that represent or facilitate human activity. Research around pedestrian physical and psychological reception of the presence of police horses is noticeably lacking. One of the only sources I could locate is a study summarized in the book Making and Breaking Barriers: Assessing the Value of Mounted Police Units in the UK. In the book, the authors note this gap in research, making a preliminary hypothesis that their findings are likely transferrable to mounted police outside of the United Kingdom. They explain, “Police horses are thought to have unique operational and symbolic value, particularly in public order policing (making barriers) and community engagement (breaking barriers) deployments. They may represent a calming presence or, and potentially at the same time, an imposing threat of force“(Giacomantonio 2015, iii). Police horses are props in crowd control; the horses are unable to express their own desires and fears. Both riders and horses are tied to the obligation of their “job” and the horses are subject to various stressors in human anthropocentric infrastructure. Regardless of how much desensitization training or operant conditioning horses undergo, how can we approach this relationship as ethical if the nonhuman collaborator is expected to perform certain duties through their entire shift or event?
My saddle fits me and Renn perfectly, accommodating the movement and size of his exceptionally large shoulder. Over the course of a week, Renn and I “test rode'' multiple saddles from various brands. A second hand Prestige X-Paris proved mutually-effective at alleviating the sore back Renn exhibited during his last chiropractic appointment. I’ve never been to a chiropractor.
As I researched the appropriate asking price assigned to my second hand Prestige saddle, I discovered the Italian Sellier produces and markets tactical saddles for law enforcement. The brand introduces their products with the line: “Mounted police officers need to carry out their service professionally and with the full collaboration of their partners.” Each tactical saddle is named with some form of “anti-riot” taglines that read: “The riot control saddle unique in its kind.” And “HIGH PERFORMANCE. Anti-riot version with unbeatable comfort.” Are comfort and stability used interchangeably here?
The build of the tactical saddles is structurally similar to endurance saddles, a piece of tack familiar to most equestrians. An endurance saddle is designed for horse and rider comfort over difficult terrain and on longer journeys; they are lightweight and often have center-fire rigging, a cinch system that distributes weight more evenly over the horse’s back. Rather than the piece of fabric or leather wrapping around the horse’s barrel and attaching or buckling to two points on opposite sides of the horse, center-fire rigging attaches to four points, two on each opposing side. The Prestige endurance (or Trekking, as the brand calls them) tack line bears a striking resemblance to armor as compared to my jumping saddle. The endurance line features a highly padded seat raised slightly off the horse’s back for ventilation, decorative padded stitching, a medium pommel, and padded panels under the seat.
Tactical saddles, as marketed by Prestige, are designed to keep their rider in the seat and to fit a wide variety of horses. They have a padded pommel, a wide twist that pours into a moderately padded seat, and a medium-deep cantle. Leg panels have protruding knee flaps to keep the rider in place. The pommel and cantles have steel D-rings with which to attach saddlebags or breastplates. In the tactical saddles, these clips are marketed as places from which one can attach bulletproof horse vests and hind-end plastic shields. Prestige specially offers customizable add-ons to their tactical saddles, including a holster for a baton and Kevlar stirrup covers. On request, the brand will even remove the Prestige logo from their Law Enforcement saddles. This is seemingly in line with the fact that the brand does not advertise their Law Enforcement saddles anywhere on their slick, graphic social media presence.
The intersection of colonialism, livestock, and civility or what is good and right permeates American history; it continues to influence the fashion trends of the equestrian world. A mounted police officer, when not dressed in armor for a riot, wears the typical outfit of tight-fitting clothing, tall boots, and a collared shirt. The prescribed ways of dress, of lifestyle, and whiteness are inherent in how equestrians and non-horse people conceive a specific image of the person who rides. The presence of Black people on horseback at demonstrations pushes back on the expected visual, style, and race associated with riding, power, and horse ownership. But, as noted in the New York Times, “Black cowboys have always been an integral part of the American experience” (Thompson-Hernández 2020). Black riders are integral to the American experience in part because they destabilize the imagery of a prosperous white man atop his horse.
Anecdotal evidence gathered from reviewing the comments section (always a painful experience) on the publication Chronicle of the Horse suggest that the white equestrian community is deeply shaken by the presence of Black riders in public spaces. I was reminded why people advise against reading the comments section of any publication. I was simultaneously reminded that this is who I am among at horse shows. At the tack store. At the equine conventions and clinics. These are the people who bred my horse, who trained him. I cannot deny that these are my people.
Riders like Brianna Noble, the Compton Cowboys, and Adam Hollingsworth (Dreadhead Cowboy) are notable figures in this visual and stylistic undoing of stereotypical expectations of who rides and who has the means to care for and live an equestrian-centric lifestyle. There are, of course, further geographical influences on these stereotypes. Noble and the Compton Cowboys are located around Oakland and Compton, California and Hollingsworth in Chicago, Illinois. They are all “Western” riders; an entirely different discipline, equitation, and style than my own. Hollingsworth, Noble, and most of the Compton Cowboys make stylistic choices that stem from a distinctly Western-cowboy-rodeo aesthetic.
Noble made her voice heard amongst a crowd in her choice to ride her horse, Dapper Dan, to a demonstration where she was the sole rider. Noble has an impressive resume with extensive experience rehabilitating off-the-track or auction horses, and starting an organization to support low-income access to horses. Noble notes in an interview with Tori Repole of Heels Down Magazine that she has faced a lifetime of white equestrians questioning her presence around horses (Repole 2020).
Halfway east across the United States, Adam Hollingsworth also known as Dreadhead Cowboy, too is questioned as a horseback rider. In an interview with Ximena Larkin for the New York Times, Hollingsworth “…said it was not unusual for onlookers to question his ownership of the horses. "When people see me on a horse, they always ask if I'm a police officer. They ask if I got money. If I steal it. How I get it," he said” (Larkin 2020). Hollingsworth’s property was vandalized and he received threats of violence because he doesn’t fit into the visual narrative of the power-wielding individual on a horse.
A Black protester, or any non-police presence, on a horse moves away from being only an intimidating force in a crowd. As Noble describes a potentially threatening situation for Dapper Dan: “when the black smoke hit his face he put his head up a little, but I just put my hand down on his neck and said ‘dude, you’re fine.’ And he knew he was. As a horsewoman, that was everything for me” (Gilmore 2020). These Black riders’ presence as unrelated to a formal occupational obligation allow their relationships with the horses that bravely carry them to move outside of only an anthropocentric framework. I’m speculating but the most educated aspect of my knowledge as a horsewoman insists that Noble knows her horse well enough to read his body language. If the horse was in danger, Noble would have removed him from the situation. A police horse may not have easy access to the option of refusal.
Pedestrians assume historically colonialist attitudes associated with the presence of a horse and rider in public places in part because Noble, Hollingsworth, and the Compton Cowboys are all riders who don’t wear the same uniform as the police.
Ruth K. Burke:
Domesticated animals (horses, cows, goats, sheep are my area of practical expertise and caregiving so I’ll speak to these species specifically) as accessories/props - used to further specific ideals of “civility”, farm work being “good” work.---Creatures of Empire - Virginia DeJohn Anderson. What is the relevance of this history in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, the violent police responses, and the toppling of confederate monuments where individuals are often figured on their (typically anonymous) mounts?
As a horsewoman, I spent a lot of time of Chronicle of the Horse and anecdotally observed the skewed reception of Black people on horseback vs. mounted police officers - the employment of what-about-isms “where is her helmet”, and assumptions that highly experienced riders don’t know their horse well enough to bring them into a public space. Need screenshots of anonymous CoTH comments from Facebook. Black urban riders, and Black cowboys (a gendered term that encompasses various genders of riders) owning and keeping horses - requires land and they are expensive animals - in itself is an act of rebellion against oppressive forces.
Too often imagery of Black urban riders is mistaken for “this man stole a police horse” — I have seen it throughout the protests. This negates the existence/possibility of Black urban riders, removes the possibility from the popular imagination, while reinforcing stereotypes around who steals from whom, what can be stolen (property, non-human lives as property)
Ruth K. Burke:
I recently had to purchase a new saddle for my horse, although I purchased mine used, I was deeply disturbed by the sale of tactical saddles by the Prestige Brand (Italy) designed specifically for law enforcement to hold an array of weapons/tools to use against almost always Black and Brown bodies. “They can be customised with specific accessories: protection for the legs, baton holster and rear shield for the horse’s back, as well as saddlebag, rear bag and front pouch.“ ; so there’s a layered, multispecies violence happening in the mass production of leather products and then the application or use of these tactical saddles to then carry out violence and intimidation towards other humans.
(TW: violence mentioned, not graphically, but generally) Italian complicity, active alliance, and advancement in the project of whiteness is something I have been examining recently, especially in the American diasporic context (I myself am an Italian American). It is worth considering how Italian assistance in providing these materials continues to advance the project of whiteness well into the 21st century by Italians aligning themselves with the police force. This itself was preëmpted in the 1930s and ‘40s by massive numbers of Italians entering the police force as a way to advance their status as culturally white. Just two decades prior to Italian Americans entering the police force en masse (c. 1910), Italians experienced racial violence in Louisiana and Mississippi at the hands of white perpetrators. But rather than align themselves with others who also experienced racial subjugation on a much greater scale, Italians actively chose the side of white oppressors at a time when experiences of racial violence were still fresh in diasporic memories in order to be considered white themselves.
The leather industry is a vital craft in Italy today, one whose intertwinedness with the Italian economy is deeply tied to Italy as a center for fashion and garment production. Italian leather is highly sought-after for the skills that Italians are thought to bring to the leather trade via their decades of experience with the material. Prestige’s involvement in this is both a further advancement of Italy’s economic interests in fashion, but also, the continued Italian advancement of the project of whiteness via its alignment with the militarization of the police force.
Recommended sources: on Italian police involvement and Italian involvement in the project of whiteness (I do not condone all that this source says in terms of his opinion, but in terms of the historical analysis, it is a good start):
Luconi, Stefano. 2001. From paesani to white ethnics: the Italian experience in Philadelphia. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Opposite side, perhaps of interest: Leftist traditions in the Italian diaspora: Bencivenni, Marcella. 2016. Italian immigrant radical culture: the idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940 https://doi.org/10.18574/nyu
Ruth K. Burke:
These tactical saddles are not much different than Australian, also called Endurance, saddles. Yet instead of marketing additional clips and ergonomic design as beneficial for long periods of time in the saddle and ample places for provisions (first aid human/horse, water, food, grain etc), Prestige Italy touts a place for a baton holder...
I think of Tania Brugeria’s work, Tatlin’s Whisper. She has a long history of engaging various forms of animal violence into her work.
Anderson, V, D. 2004. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Giacomantonio, Chris, Ben Bradford, Matthew Davies, and Richard Martin, 2015. Making and Breaking Barriers: Assessing the value of mounted police units in the UK. RAND Corporation and University of Oxford. https://www.rand.org/
Larkin, Ximena. 2020. "'You can't just Get Up and Steal a Police Horse': Style Desk." The New York Times.
Gilmore, Erin. 2020. “Brianna Noble Is the Horsewoman We All Need Right Now.” Heels Down Mag, June 3. https://heelsdownmag.com/brianna-noble-is-the-horsewoman-we-all-need-right-now/.
Repole, Tori. 2020. “Brianna Noble Addresses Inclusivity, Socioeconomics And Racism In Equestrian Sport.” Chronicle of the Horse, June 15. https://www.chronofhorse.com/article
Thompson-Hernández, Walter. 2020. Evoking history, black cowboys take to the streets [with graphic(s)]. New York Times, Jun 09, 2020. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/docview/2410845255?accountid=26417 (accessed July 16, 2020).
“Law Enforcement Saddles.” 2020. Prestige Italia. Prestige. Accessed July 5. https://www.prestigeitaly.com/
I am particularly interested in how Nike shoes are used in crossing the US/Mexico border and placing them in dialogue with 18th century Rococo shoes. I am interested in positioning shoes often used in crossing in comparison to the physical restraint caused by the binding form of the traditional Rococo shoes prescribed to female identifying bodies.
The Nike Cortez have a racialized colonialist history as they were named after Hernán Cortés, who colonized Mexico in 1518. Yet the shoes are often worn by communities of color on their feet during arrests and apprehensions. Nike Cortez shoes serve as a marker of the continuation of its colonialist history. In Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767, a female identifying body leans over a swing in a moment of leisure to be interrupted, sexualized, and militarized by her assailant kneeling under her in a moment of white male gaze. Her shoe swings off her foot and free falls in the wind as a precursor to an assumed moment of physical apprehension.
In my current work I reference 17th century ceramics, sugar sculptures, and the Rococo period to reclaim an oppressed history through opulent objects. Installation is my primary practice where painting and sculpture merge to appropriate European art history through a feminist of color perspective. For example, in my installation High Maintenance, 2019, I encrust a room with dreamlike images of gendered pink toys, oversized cake toppers, miniature soldiers, and moments of border crossings. High Maintenance references my father’s crossing of the US/Mexico border in the 1970s by depicting feet and Nikes spilling out of a car, specifically an iconic Barbie car, a signifier of my girlhood and the consumerism that marked it. One wall of the installation is plastered with gilded wallpaper Amerikkkan Landscape, 2017 that alludes to the interiors of the Château de Versailles with images of Brown bodies hidden in the foliage in the style of French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. By intertwining decadent European aesthetics with present histories of colonialism and militarism, the dioramas in >High Maintenance depict ideas of a “fête galante” and within the foliage lie stark reminders of the journey to come as signs labeled “no wall” stand next to bodies at leisure and play.
Through crossing the treacherous terrain of the US/Mexico border migrants are faced with barriers and mounds built as deterrents to persuade them to trace their footsteps back or die. The landscape is militarized as the wall was built from remnants of warfare used in the Gulf War in the 90s. Shoes, hats, tuna cans, notes, toothbrushes, water jugs and other familiar utilitarian objects are left behind in the physical process of crossing. Shoes are left discarded as a precursor to loss and apprehension.
The physical pain of walking creates a disruption in the wearing of shoes, where Rococo shoes are prescribed a pain for leisure. Pain is exotified and prescribed to notions of identity, fashion, and decadence under patriarchy whereas Nike shoes and those used in crossing carry the same weight of indulgence, exploitative labor, and violence worn to cross physical barriers as a result of NAFTA and its exploitative labor.
Ok first of all I love this & I love u. Second of all, this is making me think of this act of putting on and removing shoes in the context of crossing, movement; of taking off shoes through security at airports, and also of the semantics of 'just do it' re: labor.
Nike offers a tool on its website called the Manufacturing Map. Its data was last updated in November 2019, and is not consistently entered across all fields (PDF here; Excel sheet here). Nevertheless, it allows us to track where Nike is creating its products and, notably, where its centers of production are for South and Latin America.
The map also shows that Nike is not completely concentrated in terms of its factories being located in Asia. While there are a number in Asia (Vietnam hosts 43 factories; China, 42), Nike is also known for selecting countries outside of where we typically consider factories as being concentrated.1 The most recent labor statistics which I exported from this map are as follows:
When Nike moves into these new manufacturing markets, other companies follow — this phenomenon is known as the Swoosh Index. Nike’s participation in these markets has been characterized as follows:
When choosing factory sites, Nike looks for cheap labor. However, it also picks countries with stable–usually authoritarian–leadership, decent infrastructure, a pro-business government, and a liberal trade regime. When it decides to leave, that doesn’t signal the end of prosperity. It often means that countries are ready to move on to high-end manufacturing. And democracy2.
In neoliberalism, Nike’s taking advantage of these countries is characterized as a positive aspect of the corporation, a step towards democracy via colonization.
Nike’s creation and sale of the Cortez sneaker against this backdrop becomes all the more fraught. It actively exploits emerging labor economies worldwide in order to create its sneaker, including labor in countries that Cortez colonized. Nike is a continuation of the colonial project, and its adherence to profits above all else, including labor exploitation, is spun positively in business media and, furthermore, emulated by other corporations.
1Harris, Dan. “Nike Likes Manufacturing Outside China and You Should Too.” Blog. China Law Blog (blog), August 7, 2019. https://www.chinalawblog.com/2019/08/nike-likes-manufacturing-outside-china-and-you-should-too.html.
Fragonard, J.H. (1767 - 1768) Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette (The Swing). The Wallace Collection. www.wallacecollection.org/collection/les-hazards-heureux-de-lescarpolette-swing/#&gid=1&pid=1
Mayorga, Y. (2017) Killer Shoes, (Hernán Cortés) #2. www.yvettemayorga.com/work#/ceramic/
Mayorga, Y. (2020) Monochromatic Dreams. https://www.yvettemayorga.com/work#
Villagomez, J. and Caitlin O'Hara. (2018) What happens when migrants die in the Arizona desert? PBS. Getty Images. www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/what-happens-when-migrants-die-in-the-arizona-desert
This is a meandering set of thoughts connected only by the thread of flayed skin.
There were four stations of life for Brahmins in pre-colonial South Asia. Collectively known as the system of four āśramas, these were: brahmacārin, gr̥hastha, vānaprastha, and saṃnyāsin. These outline a progression of stages in the Brahmin’s ascetic path. A brahmacārin is a celibate student of the Vedas and other relevant texts, learning the rules of self-disciplined conduct (ācāra) under the tutelage of a guide (an ācārya). A gr̥hastha lives in a house (a gr̥ha) with a family and lives a non-celibate but disciplined life. A vānaprastha leaves domestic life to live a solitary and celibate life in the forest (the vana). A saṃnyāsin gives up (saṃnyāsa) everything to wander from place to place alone, remaining celibate and mendicant. There is considerable variation in the system, its rules, and the way in which it is presented. In some contexts the four āśramas are thought of as a serially ranked progression to be undertaken in the course of one life, whereas in others they are all life-long options and are not ranked or presented as a sequence. Even in contexts in which the āśramas are presented in hierarchical sequence, Brahmins were not expected to proceed from the first to the last and could remain in one āśrama for the duration of their lives. Nonetheless, the hierarchically ordered sequence remains as the classic model.
Saṃnyāsins were supposed to wear the skin of a dead deer to signify that they had attained such a high level of self-discipline that previously-applicable rules and regulations of conduct no longer mattered. Many caste-based rules deal with the question of purity and pollution and contact with a dead animal is considered impure for Brahmins. Such contact is therefore prohibited.The caste system is, of course, itself a form of violence, and these rule systems are a way of enacting the often-invisible background violence necessary to maintain hierarchical and normative social order. Draping the dead deer’s skin over one’s own skin publicly displays an extremely intimate form of such defiling contact, calling attention to the gravity of the broken rule and highlighting the individual saṃnyāsin’s ascetic prowess. By wearing the flayed skin, saṃnyāsin Brahmins were signifying that they had renounced even the concepts of purity and pollution that had previously structured their lives. They had become so self-disciplined that contact with a dead animal no longer mattered. As Dimock puts it in a footnote to the text cited below, “all but the most indifferent ascetics would fear the contamination and impurity which comes from contact with a dead animal.” (Dimock and Stewart, Caitanya Caritāmr̥ta, 490)
In some circles at least, the issue of saṃnyāsin Brahmins wearing the skin of a dead deer became controversial, but not for the reasons of purity and pollution that one might expect, for it seems to have been agreed upon that those rules really no longer applied to these people. Instead, the controversy had to do with what else the Brahmins might be saying by wearing the deerskin. They were advertising themselves and broadcasting their attainment of a high level of self-discipline. They had failed to adequately give up their own egos and their attachment to high social status. Bragging is the opposite of humility. In a passage from the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, a hagiography about the androgynous mystic Caitanya (held to be the simultaneous reincarnation of the male god Kr̥ṣṇa and his female lover Rādhā in one body) composed in Bengal around 1615 CE, we meet one such deerskin-clad Brahmin. Caitanya, referred to as “Prabhu” and “Mahāprabhu” (Lord and Great Lord, respectively) in the passage below, convinces the Brahmin to wear cloth instead. I give the passage in Dimock and Stewart’s translation. Brahmānanda Bhāratī is the name of the Brahmin in question. Note that both Caitanya (Prabhu/Mahāprabhu) and Brahmānanda Bhāratī are saṃnyāsins at this point, so this is a conversation between equals. My editorial comments are in square brackets:
“Another day, Mukunda Datta said to Prabhu, “Brahmānanda Bhāratī has come to see you. If you give the order, I shall bring him here.” But Prabhu said, “He is a guru, I shall go to him.” And so saying, Mahāprabhu with all his bhaktas [devotees, followers - Caitanya was a charismatic mystic and had many such followers] came before Brahmānanda Bhāratī. Brahmānanda was wearing a garment of deer-skin, and when he saw this, Prabhu was very sad in his heart. Even though he saw him, he pretended that he did not, and he asked, “Where is Bhāratī Gosvāmī?” [Gosvāmī literally means “cowherd” but is used as an honorific title among worshippers of Kr̥ṣṇa, for Kr̥ṣṇa himself was a cowherd.] Mukunda replied, “That is he whom you see before you.” Prabhu said, “That is not he; you are mistaken. You call this one that, and know nothing at all. Could Bhāratī Gosvāmī wear a skin?” When he heard this, Brahmānanda thought to himself, ‘He does not like my wearing of a skin, and he speaks well; I wear the skin because of vanity. I do not cross over ocean of existence [which is the goal for Brahmins, for birth and rebirth at all in the cycle of saṃsāra are the problem to be overcome] by wearing a skin. I shall not wear this skin, from today onwards.’ Prabhu knowing his heart, had an outer garment brought. Putting aside the skin, Brahmānanda put on the other cloth, and Prabhu came and bowed to his feet [by which Caitanya shows his own humility toward the reformed-Brahmānanda and signals his acceptance].” (Dimock and Stewart, Caitanya Caritāmr̥ta, 490)
On the basis of wearing or not wearing skin, I was reminded of the flaying alive of Christian figures like Bartholomew the Apostle, who was killed in this manner by the Romans and is often depicted in statues and other images holding his own flayed skin. But I am not well-versed enough in this tradition to feel as though I can do it justice (on which see the methodological note at the end of my post), so you can read this instead: www.laphamsquarterly.org
Here is an image of Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin. You can see the skin of his face drooping from the folds, and the exposed skeletal features of his own face. Other statues of him are much more graphic. This one is taken from www.metmuseum.org
And then I thought of the cover art to Necrot’s forthcoming album, Mortal (2020), because it has an absolutely sick image of people holding their own flayed skin. I can only assume that the artist must be aware of Bartholomew’s case and the images of him. You should preorder and preview the album from their Bandcamp site, from which the image of the album cover below is taken: necrot.bandcamp.com/album/mortal
Many death metal bands focus on such horrific imagery to send a social message about the horrors of the contemporary world, like climate change, capitalism, and the meat industry. I don’t know if Necrot are doing this, but the band Carcass might have started the technique (in the least, they were an early example of it). Their albums featured grotesque photos and descriptions of pustulent, diseased, mutilated, and surgically manipulated human bodies. Here are the album covers for the first two Carcass albums, Reek of Putrefaction (1988) and Symphonies of Sickness (1989):
Here is the track list for Reek of Putrefaction:
The point, for Carcass, was to force the consumer to reflect on their meat-eating practices on the basis of the forced realization that we were also made of meat, and that cutting up our meat would cause us pain. Listening to a Carcass album might create a sense of shared fleshly empathy. The technique here seems to also rely on cultivating a sense of disgust and repulsion toward one’s own flesh and its possibilities and then extending that sense toward the flesh of other animals. Listening to and thinking about Carcass might just make you too grossed out to eat meat ever again. This, at least, is what many fans of Carcass like myself have taken their project to be. Jeff Walker of Carcass seems to deny this in this recent interview, but does at least confirm the dietary predilections of some of Carcass’ members. What he says here is worth reflecting on (and you should totally also listen to Carcass)
Cattle Decapitation are also famous for doing this, and their recent album (which again you should buy) Death Atlas (2019) was a reflection on climate change and associated horrors. It was released in 2019 and contained an amazing song called “Bring Back the Plague,” which was prescient for 2020
Lest you think such ghastly meditations are less than serious, or merely the niche of death metal artists, know that a somewhat similar technique is used among Theravāda Buddhist monks and laity in contemporary Thailand. Gazing and meditating on the hanging remains of decomposing human bodies helps monks achieve an understanding of the impermanence of all things, a fundamental Buddhist principle. It also helps them overcome their fears of death and their attachments to this human body. I have no doubt that it probably also further reinforces their vegetarianism.
A note on the Theravāda practice from a book on contemporary Thai Buddhism follows:
“This is a relatively well-known Thai meditative practice called asubha kammaṭṭhāna or maraṇabhāvanā. There are several monasteries, like Wat Khao Yai in Pichit and Wat Hualampong in Bangkok, that have corpses, donated by their parents, of those who have died prematurely in accidents; the corpses are hung naked on meat hooks or on racks with their torsos sliced open and their entrails hanging out. Monks are told to meditate while seated in front of the hanging corpses. For monks and laity who cannot travel to one of these monasteries, photographs of the corpses in different stages of decay are available for sale at other monasteries or in the amulet markets or Buddhist bookstores.” (McDaniel, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk, 240)
I want to be clear that the similarity suggested here is only found at the surface level: both this practice and the case of the death metal meditations given above rely on meditating on disgust, morbidity and death. Examined more closely, the similarity dissolves into particularity, as the two meditations have distinctly different ends. This is, of course, to say nothing of the larger belief systems, contexts and thought-worlds in which these practices are embedded. Theravāda Buddhists and death metal listeners do not necessarily share a single contextual horizon. The contextual horizon provides legibility, meaning and shape to the practices. Without the context we cannot make sense of what is going on. To take just one example of the wide differences here, consider that listening to death metal is supposed to be cathartic, fun, and energizing. One can listen to it alone, or with a friend, or with hundreds of people at a concert. The listener can consume various intoxicating substances while listening to some sick riffs, and so on. The point is obvious: Theravāda monks are doing something completely different. Thus the aim of making the comparison is not to produce a conflation in which it would seem that death metal listeners and Theravāda Buddhists are really doing the same thing. To do so would be irresponsible, inaccurate and lazy thinking. Rather, the goal of comparison here is to explore the different uses to which the confronting presence of festering human decay can be put, and how such images can help to transform the subjectivities of those who gaze upon them. I also want to note that I have given a distinctly Buddhist reading to what the meditative process of listening to a Carcass record might look like, and so the similarity I find might really only be thus because I have produced it. Nonetheless, it is one possible way to think about the aesthetics of death metal, and a thought process in which at least some fans engage.
Lastly, the image of human corpses hanging from hooks in Bangkok with their entrails dripping out reminded me of Rembrandt’s 1655 painting, the Flayed Ox:
Once again I do not know enough about Rembrandt and the contexts – both historical and contemporary – which condition the interpretation of this painting, but I wanted to add the image nonetheless, for the reader to gaze upon and think about with the above meditations in mind. As with Bartholomew’s example, the reader is encouraged to explore further.
Flayed skin and mutilated flesh, worn on the body, gazed upon, or thought of thanks to the contents of a song or album, connect these different examples. For some cases, so does the associated sense of disgust that one has when faced with such objects. Saṃnyāsin Brahmins wear flayed skin to show that they have gotten over their fear of pollution and the repulsion that they might have felt when confronted with a dead animal’s remains. Buddhist monks use disgust to sever their attachments to the impermanent human body. Some death metal bands force us to be disgusted with certain features and practices of our current political world so that we might be inspired to try to fashion a better one. Christians looking at images of Bartholomew and viewers of Rembrandt’s Ox may well also be seized by a sense of disgust, though I am not sure to what end.
Again, though, note that the connecting thread of the presence of flayed skin and/or mutilated, decaying flesh here is the only point of comparison. It means nothing without the contextual horizon in which it is embedded. Likewise, note that disgust in the above cases is highly particularized and different each time. Reading these various senses of disgust under the rubric of some general, undertheorized concept of disgust would fail to appreciate the details. In each case disgust is experienced differently: it is felt for different specific reasons and put to different ends. The saṃnyāsin’s disgust at the potentially polluting skin is not the same as the vegan Carcass fan’s disgust at the thought of eating an animal made of the same flesh as a human, and neither uses disgust to help achieve a realization of the impermanence of all things. Comparison on the basis of the object of flayed skin opens us to an exploration of different particularities. Offering a window into various cultural practices, time periods, meditative techniques and belief systems, such comparison ultimately invites us to consider new possibilities that might be fashioned today using the insights gained from such wide-ranging study.
I have used flayed skin to jump from context to context with the aim of illuminating them in some detail. Of course, this post can only be brief and introductory. To explore traditions other than one’s own – those from other cultures and other time periods – demands discipline, patience, attention to detail and the intentional bracketing off of one’s own familiar frameworks, theories and habits of thought. To do otherwise is irresponsible. It also risks learning nothing at all: there is no point in exploring foreign territory only to find therein what one already knew. Too often this is what happens when inhabitants of the modern West encounter the non-modern or the non-Western: contemporary Western theory swallows up these others with its broad, indelicate sweep, turning them into subspecies or examples of itself. The non-modern, non-West is wholly assimilated to the modern Western repertoire of thought and cannot articulate itself on its own terms. Nothing is gained in the exchange and much is lost: the modern Westerner is impoverished by learning nothing; the non-modern, non-Westerner has just experienced a form of erasure and violence. In hopes that the reader of this post will heed this warning, I have provided an annotated bibliography for those interested in the material below. I wish I knew more about the European contexts referred to above but have refrained from comment precisely because I do not know enough to avoid the pitfalls referred to here. I do know a lot about Southern Asia and metal (death, black, and doom) and am always interested in talking more about such things, though I will insist that interlocutors follow the rules outlined in this paragraph. I do eat meat.
I love the connections you’re drawing, and am especially interested in this possibility of a Brahmin sanyasi attaining a level where they can either transcend/escape caste rules established/upheld by them in the first place, or bring their own escape within the folds of the caste system, at the pinnacle of its hierarchies, thereby placing them in a position of unaccountable power. Similar to the formation of sub-castes within sub-castes within sub-castes, it’s interesting to see this happen at all strata of the system. I’m also wondering about proximity to divinity vs claiming divinity, and the differences in how power is articulated through them.
Also thinking of this Jain story about Mahavir I’ll try and summarize here (rather colloquially): So Mahavir is in deep meditation in the forest when a cowherder passes by and leaves his oxcart, asking Mahavir to look after them while he returns to his village to do some chores or have lunch or something. Mahavir doesn’t respond, still meditating, and the oxcart wanders away. When the guy comes back, he doesn’t see the cart and gets mad at Mahavir, demanding to know where his oxcart went, but Mahavir remains in meditation and doesn’t respond. So the guy goes, ‘Can’t you hear me? I’ll show you!’ and gets some nail-like thorns and hammers them into Mahavir’s ears. But Mahavir remains in meditation, his will stronger than any physical pain, and that’s kind of the story as I know it.
^Relating this to what you were saying about relationships between gore and detachment from the impermanent human body.
(re: "power") This move absolutely puts saṃnyāsin Brahmins of this type at the top of the hierarchy (at least in their own perception, and for those who buy into it, though as the story given above shows, not everyone agrees). It is structurally vital that the person at the top of the hierarchy gets to ignore the rules completely. But this can go in several directions and is ambivalent with regard to the question of whether or not it is a meaningful escape from the caste system. On the one hand one can see it as a license to retain the utmost privilege of caste while not following the rules; but on the other, there are at least some cases in which the entire caste system itself is described as a rule to be ignored by those who have achieved the highest level of wisdom and understanding. In the latter case, the ascetic comes to the understanding that caste is meaningless, and welcomes and embraces (physically and metaphorically) those of low castes and those outside the caste system altogether (Caitanya is one such example, but there are many). Taken together it is an instance of a familiar structure in which power and resistance to power go together and are mutually inseparable and complementary.
(re: "I’m also wondering about proximity to divinity vs claiming divinity, and the differences in how power is articulated through them.") This is a very interesting thought that I will have to think about further. The Brahmins are not divine themselves, but Caitanya is. I have thought about power and asceticism quite a bit, but my analysis was thus far sociologically flattening the divinity of Caitanya and just assimilating him to the position of a high-ranking ascetic, or talking about what the general movement around him managed to achieve with regard to power. Thank you for pointing this out. I will wrestle with it for some time.
I only want to add one more European art reference to flaying with an accompanying story. Artist Chaim Soutine is known for his paintings of people in which their flesh seems to melt and colors swirl. Indeed, a 2018 retrospective of Soutine’s work at The Jewish Museum was titled Chaim Soutine: Flesh. Not coincidentally, Soutine painted many flayed rabbit studies. There is a story that once, when Soutine was painting a particularly old carcass, his friend and fellow painter Marc Chagall went to pay him a visit. Upon reaching Soutine’s apartment, however, Chagall could not bear to go in because of the scent; not knowing that Soutine was painting a carcass, he ran through the streets crying,“Soutine is dead!”16
Soutine’s interest in flesh and its particularities that of decay clearly came through in both his portraiture and his studies of decomposing non-human corpses, lending itself again to the concept of existence in a more-than-human world with certain rules of physics guiding the decay of all bodies.
Wullschlager, Jackie (2008). Chagall - Love and Exile. Allen Lane. p. 154.
Books quoted from:
Readers interested in thinking with the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition ought to begin by reading at least the introduction to the following work, if not the full volume. For the modern reader who has never really encountered the thought-world, aesthetic systems and so on of a pre-modern culture, the experience of simply reading such a text can be a valuable exercise in subjective transformation:
Kavirāja, Kr̥ṣṇadāsa. The Caitanya Caritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja: A Translation and Commentary. Translated by Edward C. Dimock and edited by Tony K. Stewart. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Readers interested in the practices of contemporary Theravāda Buddhists might begin here. The work is extremely accessible and even a page-turner. Further notes in the book can then be followed to learn more about Theravāda history, philosophy, and so on: McDaniel, Justin. The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Suggested further reading (aside from the above):
Readers interested in the narratives around Kr̥ṣṇa ought to begin by reading the following work in full. Readers interested in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava tradition will have to read this in addition to the Caitanya Caritāmr̥ta. What I said above about the modern reader encountering a pre-modern work applies here too:
Bryant, Edwin. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Book X). New York: Penguin, 2003.
For an essay that discusses the Rembrandt painting (meditatively, not historically, and, unfortunately, I think, only from within the perspective of modernity): Cixous, Hélène. Stigmata: Escaping Texts. London: Routledge, 1998.
For a rich, if dated (but foundational and therefore worth starting with), exploration of caste: Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
For a history of the āśrama system referred to in my post: Olivelle, Patrick. The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Chocolate Babies (1996) Directed by Stephen Winter
Words of reflection on surviving territorial violence
8mm shots from Ebay seller: "wbustudent"
On May 25th, I purchased 15 reels of 8mm film from an internet auction. The listing, created by a seller in Florida, provided a sparse description of the materials being sold:
“The majority of the footage on these reels (95%) is of men horseback riding with footage of an occasional male runner or cyclist. The camera man/woman liked to zoom in on the riders' boots, occasionally. Herein lies the fetish…”
The auction listing was a jumble of these words
"An Hermes 90cm Silk Scarf, "Gibiers" pattern, designed by Henri de Linares. Together with a box. Labeled within the print: Hermes. 36"x36" Photo: Hindman Auctions
* * a quick calculation * *
1, 7"- 8mm reel-(400ft) at 18 frames per second is equal to 32 minutes
Thus, 15 purchased reels (x 32 mins) is equal to 480 minutes, or 8 hours of footage.
At the time of writing this, the same seller has created a new listing which indicates an additional six reels have been located, and sold, with three available and remaining.
9 x 32 = 288 + 480 = 768 / 60 = 12.8, or half of one day
One film canister included a brittle masking tape label, with the annotation:
MOUNTIE -- XXXVIII 38
38 X 32 = 1216/ 60= 20.26 hours nearing a full day
* * * * * * *
IT BECAME AESTHETIC AND I NO LONGER HURT
* * * * * * *
A WEALTHY, TITLED WOMAN’S
DEAD HUSBAND’S BOOTS
WALL TO WALL, AND
WITH A SMILE, SHE IMPLORES
MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME
* * * * * * *
J. Kent, Collage of leather from fashion and BDSM magazines, 2019
J. Kent, Balenciaga heels bought
on the secondary market, 2019
Kassy / Kasem Kydd is the site DJ for this metaphorical fashion show that takes the form of a brutalist web zine. Their sound plays on the main page and can also be found on their soundcloud page.
KT Duffy is a new media artist from Chicago.
They designed and developed this publication.