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Carol J. Adams: Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory

Carol J. Adams is the author of the groundbreaking and controversial The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Continuum 1991), which explores the relationship between patriarchal values and meat-eating. To explain this relationship, Adams introduces the concept of the structure of the "absent referent:" Behind every meal of meat is an absence, the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The absent referent is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our "meat" separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone.

The structure of the absent referent not only keeps animals oppressed, but women and other non-dominant humans as well. In parallel with the consumption of meat, the objectification of women, whether as severe in the case of rape, or as trite as a pin-up girl, keeps something from being seen as someone. And Adams offers strong evidence that women and animals are linked as absent referents in the texts of a patriarchal society: Terms relating to the parts of a woman's body and cuts of meat are often used interchangeably, and Adams points to advertising that does so in an overt manner. The link is also seen in everyday language: If animals are the absent referent in the phrase, "the butchering of women," then women are the absent referent in the phrase, "the rape of animals."

The Sexual Politics of Meat means that what, or more precisely who, we eat is determined by the patriarchal politics of our culture, and that the meanings attached to meat-eating include meanings clustered around virility. We live in a patriarchal world in which men still have considerable power over women, both in the public sphere (employment and politics) and in the private sphere (at home, where in this country woman-battering results in the death of four women a day). What The Sexual Politics of Meat argues is that the way gender politics is structured into our world is related to how we view animals, especially animals that are consumed. Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships. Moreover, gender construction includes instruction about appropriate foods. Being a man in our culture is tied to identities that they either claim or disown--what "real" men do and don't do. "Real" men don't eat quiche. It's not only an issue of privilege, it's an issue of symbolism. Manhood is constructed in our culture, in part, by access to meat-eating and control of other bodies.

Through the sexual politics of meat, consuming images of women provides a way for our culture to talk openly about and joke about the objectification of women without having to acknowledge that this is what they are doing. It is a way that men can bond publicly around misogyny, whether they know it or not.

In Neither Man nor Beast: Feminist and the Defense of Animals, (Continuum 1994) Adams extends her feminist analysis to animal experimentation, abortion rights and animal rights, proposing that feminist conferences should be vegetarian, and providing a solidarity framework for animal advocacy that acknowledges the issue of race privilege in animal advocacy. She provides a feminist philosophical discussion of the interconnected forms of abuse of women, animals and children. Lastly, she offers a feminist philosophical framework for discussing theology and explains the dialectic between what we think we know (epistemology) and how we view animals and ourselves (ontology). She argues that the problem in liberating animals is that our culture often keeps the debate at the level of ontology, when it is actually often one of epistemology.

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