Public Thinker: Gabriel Rosenberg on Industrial Agriculture’s “Brutal, Violent Heteronormativity”

"Much of the anxiety around conversations about meat is a more fundamental horror that we lack a moral language to adequately describe."

The first time I encountered Gabriel Rosenberg’s work was in an urban bookstore, where a copy of his 2015 The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America gave me a genuine startle. As a kid from Iowa, well versed in the county fair culture of 4-H calf shows and horse competitions, I’d never seen mention of “America’s largest youth development organization,” as the branding goes, in a place like Berkeley. And until I read The 4-H Harvest I’d never realized how all that calf raising and horse training was tied to how communities like the one I grew up in framed sexual knowledge. I’ve been reading Gabe’s work ever since. A regular contributor to outlets from The Guardian to Vox, often with coauthor Jan Dutkiewicz, Gabe is reframing how we think about animals, plants, and ourselves. His is the voice I want to hear the most when some aspect of America’s troubled relationship with agriculture hits the news, from what to think about artificial meat to why a California girl’s goat was seized and killed. (Spoiler, the answer has to do with … 4-H).

Rosenberg is now an associate professor of gender, sexuality & feminist studies and history at Duke. This past spring, Gabe and I chatted over Zoom, with Gabe in Berlin and me in Providence. The conversation crossed equally wide territory, touching on calling rural places home, the strange things we’ve found in archives, why Twitter was once a great place to learn how to be a better writer, and what history is good for. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Bathsheba Demuth (BD): I started following your work years ago, because I felt you were saying all the things about American agriculture that nobody wanted to take responsibility for saying. And you were doing that in terms of gender, and how Americans (in particular) go make meat and consume it. How did you come to be that person?

 

Gabriel Rosenberg (GR): When I got to graduate school, a PhD program in history, I was taking classes on the history of gay rights that were written from what I considered to be a metropolitan perspective. As backstory, I come from Indiana, and I had gone to college in Iowa. Although I wasn’t exactly rural, I also felt strangely alienated by this story of sexuality that was told exclusively from the metropolitan perspective. So I wanted to think about how the field of the history of sexuality just assumed this metropolitan gaze. That led me into the direction of thinking about agriculture as a space where ideas about sexuality were being articulated and tested. I wanted to take rural society and culture seriously as an expression of modernity, as every bit as modern as the city.

But, along the way, I became unwilling to bow to nostalgic agrarianism. Not out of antagonism toward rural people and farmers, but actually the opposite. Out of respect. So much of the mythos of rural America was just powerfully condescending and patronizing to people who actually knew anything about how life was in some of these spaces that were organized around agricultural production. I wanted to do justice to that.

It is funny because, as a result, I have a rare reputation for being antagonistic toward farmers. I don’t see myself that way at all. I see it as a deep and powerful respect for people, to consider them fully modern in the same way that city dwellers are: to reject the notion that the countryside is some authentic, premodern, undiscovered primitive that we are going to go out and find.

 

BD: I grew up in a tiny town in Iowa. And, usually, I find the mainstream coverage of rural places and peoples to be aggravating for these same reasons. Either they are portrayed as MAGA-hat-wearing lost causes, or they are represented through a reflexive nostalgia. Neither of those have a lot of space for the complexity of being a modern person. Whereas you are actually quite adept at showing modern agriculture functions as an industrial space, where people do and don’t have choices in how they structure their economic lives and social lives under capitalism. So, it is interesting that people portray you as antagonistic.

I’m curious, do you draw on your background deliberately in your work?

 

GR: Like most gay people, or maybe just most people, I have a pretty conflicted relationship to what I think of as home, the community where I grew up, and to the Midwest in general. But I’m also an archive rat and I love going to the archive in a state college. I want to go to an archive that is in the most windswept distant corner of your midwestern state, I want to hang out there for a couple of months, and I want to look through the Cooperative Extension System files. That is the stuff that I really enjoy and nerd out on.

I don’t know if people necessarily think about their archival work in quite the same way, but there is always an ethnographic element to the archive. The kinds of archives that you want to foreground and that you want to access changes the texture of the social landscape that you explore in your work. And so part of how I stay connected to my object of study is through visiting a diversity of archives in person. That was a great challenge of COVID-19—the closure of the archives and not being able to actually go to these social spaces.

If you think only of cows as beings lined up just waiting for slaughter, you may have a hard time of imagining any other fate for them or, rather, a life for them.

BD: During the pandemic, I couldn’t go to my archives and most people couldn’t go to theirs. But there was an increasing sense that everything lives on the internet, which shifts people’s expectations for what doing historical research looks like and how it should be funded. Why do you need to go to places, the thinking goes. Can’t you just use the compendium of digitized information out there?

What that misses is the fact that history is more than what we expressively talk about. It is a field work discipline: there are things that you learn about how to read an archive from going to it, which don’t show up if you are just on the National Archives website.

On this note, I’m wondering if there is a bigger conversation that we are not having, about how it is that history is made?

 

GR: The embodied-ness of the archival experience is so important. The process of going and doing the research as actual living human beings transforms us, transforms our ethical and political sensibilities, and transforms how we feel about our objects of study in profound ways.

I’m working on a much larger project about the history of livestock breeding in the United States. One of the characters in the book is a poultry geneticist. I had originally looked at some of his papers at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which is obviously not a particularly remote or nonmetropolitan archive; it is right there next to Independence Hall. He is a very interesting guy, who had early on in his career done what we would probably now call experimental endocrinology on chickens. He had grafted the ovaries of hens onto juvenile roosters. And the purpose of this was to understand the sex development of chickens, primarily to be able to better organize the reproduction of chickens for more profitable egg laying. So, he had a real industrial, commercial purpose. But it gets taken up into experimental endocrinology and winds up cited by sexologists and medical doctors for decades after.

When I’m looking at this guy’s archives, there are literally feathers from the birds among his papers. I’m seeing pictures of these juvenile roosters who have had their bodies cut open and have parts of hens grafted onto them. This has impacts on their hormonal development, so it affects their plumage. I am touching the physical artifact of the bird there in the archive itself. And I found it quite moving.

I’m seeing the pictures of these birds, and I’m very affected personally when I run into these kinds of archival moments. This is where animals run face first into the brutal, violent heteronormativity of what we call the food system. This is where, for some, it is, breed or die; and then, for others, it is simply, you are food, so you die.

Whenever I am confronted with that and I see how that reformatting takes place, it is powerfully and emotionally affecting for me. The immediacy and imminence of that as an experience is just powerful. It is a reminder that you can go and pick up a document that someone has written out by hand and realize you are holding the same document that they wrote. It is even more powerful when you say this is a part of the body of the creature that my work is ultimately trying to reach back and speak to, to give it some force in the narrative of human history.


BD: Your work conveys an intense ethical concern for the lives of animals, but in a way that feels very different than the animal rights world of the 1970s and ’80s—the Peter Singer approach. What is your relationship to this iteration of the movement?

 

GR: So, obviously I’m an avid reader of Peter Singer, and anybody who works on animals has to be. I have a lot of respect for many of the contributions that Singer has made, both in terms of academic scholarship and Animal Liberation, which is, politically, an effective book. It has made a big difference in the world. I will leave it to readers to decide whether that difference is for the better or for the worse.

I also disagree with Singer. I’m not drawn to consequentialist philosophy and the general framework that Singer brings to the table of calling to question speciesism, what he thinks of as an innate bias for our own species. I have a difficult time following along with his argument and find myself mildly irritated with it. There is another philosopher by the name of Cora Diamond, who has a long-term engagement with Singer, and I’m on Diamond’s side. Diamond argues that Singer misunderstands what the task is when we are thinking about animals. Singer seems to think that we can divorce ourselves from our position as humans and that how the power humans tend to wield over animals shapes how we define the very concepts Singer would use to decide how we ought to treat them, concepts like sentience and interest. Singer thinks we can think our way to a third position free of, what I would call in my own work, the anthropic cage, one where we can make some sort of objective assessment divorced from our position as humans. But I think we are caged by our humanness—that our sensory, our cognitive, makeup leads us into certain kinds of ethical engagements. Diamond’s position is that Singer thinks he can think his way out of this anthropic cage, but he can’t. All he is doing is essentially creating more and more baroque and elaborate justifications for doing what he wants to do in the first place, which Diamond scandalously calls obtuse.

Instead—Diamond argues, and I agree—the real ethical task is to face the desire at the root of doing what you want to do, a desire that may well be inextricable from what you think it means to be human. That is, it may be that our speciesism is the only thing that can lead anyone to give a damn about animals, or other humans for that matter, and that rigorous antispeciesism winds up eroding any basis of morality it could hope to clarify. And so, when Diamond is criticizing Singer, a lot of what she is saying is that this consequentialist line of thought—that we should protect sentient animals because they have interests and that the task is to apply rationality to sort out what those interests are and how best to balance their interests with our own—is completely missing the point. You have to understand why you feel for animals as you do. And when you feel for them, you desire a world for them. You could desire a world that you might share with them. Diamond has a beautiful reading of a poem about a titmouse as a “son of life,” and what it means to think about particular animals as companions and friends. Diamond’s argument is that our ethical commitments emerge not from an abstract weighing of interests by an objective rationality, but by a more particular, perhaps sentimental encounter, an encounter that furnishes us with a view for how we might continue to relate to a creature so different from ourselves. We do not want to eat the titmouse—we should not want to eat it, Diamond says, not because we respect its sentience and have calculated its interests, but because we see it as fleeting companion in life rather than a prospective morsel. We are transformed by particular encounters, not bloodless abstractions, and our moral capacities must train on how and why we are so transformed.

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Humans and Other Animals

By Ben Mendelsohn

That was a really powerful argument for me and it has transformed my thinking about what I consider the most pressing problems of modern livestock agriculture. For me the big ethical quandary around livestock agriculture is not about necessarily whether we should kill and eat animals. Not to say that there aren’t ethical questions about that, but the fact that we kill and eat cows, pigs, and chickens is not what is distinctive about the contemporary system of animal agriculture. I think there are much more difficult question of what we do with creatures that we have drawn into this world, with whom we have invested the possibility to suffer and feel pleasure alike. That is what animal breeding is, of course. It is not just that in the US we kill 10 billion factory-farmed animals every year. Humans draw them into the world collectively, we animate them and open them to sensation. And what do we owe them because of a relation that I describe as interspecies procreation? That is a better question in a lot of ways, or at least it is a more interesting question for me, and it is invested in the particular, rather than abstract, responsibility that comes from how humanity authors not the death of livestock animals, but their lives. The fact that they were made to live marks our responsibility to them.

I often fear that when people become preoccupied with the grisly death animals suffer in the slaughterhouse, they train themselves to think of this problem in terms of nonrelationality—what is death, after all, if not the end of all relationality—and livestock animals as sort of the living dead, creatures who are all lined up, just waiting to become meat. If you think only of cows as beings lined up just waiting for slaughter, you may have a hard time of imagining any other fate for them or, rather, a life for them. The goal of much of my writing it to force readers to remember what the shadow of the slaughterhouse obscures, all that happened before they formed the queue: because livestock animals were propelled into life by humans, they are the children, I mean this literally, we have abandoned. I suppose much of the heat, anxiety, and disgust that circulates around conversations about meat is a deflection from a more fundamental horror about that abandonment that we lack a moral language to adequately describe.


BD: You mentioned this project you are working on now that is about animal husbandry and its overlap with animal breeding programs. Can you say more about this research?

 

GR: This is actually the book that I’ve wanted to write more or less since my second year in graduate school. My dissertation, and then book, was primarily about 4-H clubs, but the thing I was really interested in was something else: What does animal breeding for the purposes of reproducing livestock have to do with sexuality?

It has become this huge archival project, which is stretching from the 18th century all the way up to the present era. It asks a big question: How has modifying animal reproduction for the purposes of supplying protein for human nutritional needs modified how humans think about gender, sexuality, and race, the forms of human difference contemporary culture tends to view as biological?

The core hook is the relationship between the human eugenics movement and industrial livestock breeding. I don’t want to reduce it to just that—it’s over simplistic to just say that industrial livestock breeding causes human eugenics. But I’m trying to give a broader sense of the ecological conditions out of which the human eugenics movement might emerge.

 

BD: That is a really exciting project, I look forward to it. I can definitely see a connection between industrial livestock breeding and eugenics.

 

GR: That question comes up in Mackenzie Cooley’s recent book, The Perfection of Nature, which is really magnificent and I hope people read. She is resisting a one-to-one causal story, where she is examining animal breeding and the concept of human race in the early modern period. I’m in a similar place because it is always unclear to me whether eugenics is causing livestock breeding, or livestock breeding is causing eugenics—it’s an irresolvable question.

Ultimately, the truth of the matter is that historians are ill situated to adjudicate causality. Because it is not really what we do. I can tell a story about how these two things relate and their relations are going to go back and forth. They are going to be bidirectional. It is not going to be causal in any simple way.


BD: Sometimes you are writing within the academy for people who are in a particular set of specialized conversations, and then sometimes you are writing for those on the outside. How you think about audience in your work?

 

GR: Often, people want to run away from a more fundamental problem about their writing, which is that they want the idea of a public audience to tell them what to write, rather than having a strong desire to write something on the basis of the integrity of the statement that you hope assembles a public. And that is ultimately is what I really want to do. I try to write for that purpose. I have something to say, so I’m going to try to say it with integrity.

Maybe people won’t want to hear it—that’s always a danger—but I’m hoping to assemble a public for what I want to say. And that is a very difficult task, but you can get momentum and start to build a rhythm that attracts people and draws them to your texts.

That said, I want to be really guarded about the idea that I speak for the purpose of a specific and instrumental political goal. People often ask me, Do you write with the hope of changing the world? People who believe that may be quite self-aggrandizing in an unrealistic and unhelpful way. But most people don’t really believe that they will change the world. This is why it makes more sense to be a bit ruthless about one’s writing.

It would be good if there was a public ready for this statement, if there was a group of people who were ready to read this and were happy that it existed in the world, but I don’t know if that will be the case. I just have to send my work out there and hope that it draws people in and it produces a public.

That is a difficult place to get into with your writing, and for anyone starting out, it is incredibly painful. When you first start writing for public audiences, unless you are extraordinarily lucky, no one listens. Not at all. And you just have to learn to be numb to that silence. You threw something out there in the hopes that there would be a public for it, and, sometimes, it is not there.

 

BD: Academics sometimes expect instant payoff when it comes to public writing. In fact, what we are doing is generating conversations. It takes years and years and lots of different publications in different kinds of venues, along with a tolerance for some ideas not sticking. What stuck last time might not stick next time. There isn’t a formula either. It’s discomforting.

 

GR: One thing that Twitter did teach me was precisely that attitude, which is that you could think you were going to tweet something super clever and so smart and that you wanted everyone on earth to read, only to receive crickets. And then you’d rattle off something that was just the stupidest idea that popped into your head and all of a sudden 5 million people are reading it. You have no control over that. It is not something that you can plan and game.

There is a certain element of that to public writing in general. You can truly believe that what you wrote is something that absolutely everyone should read and that it is the greatest thing you have ever said. That may even be true! But sorry, no one is there for it. But it is a lovely thing to send a text out into the world and to see it find its way to a gathering of new friends. When that happens it’s a small miracle. Serendipity. And it’s best to cherish it rather than assume you can replicate it. icon

This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.

Featured image: Photograph of Gabriel Rosenberg