This year I read the famous book by Carol J. Adams called The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. It’s a famous read among both animal activists and feminists because it makes those links between animal oppression and female oppression. One example of this given in the book is how many survivors of physical and sexual abuse often describe their perpetrator as making them “feel like a piece of meat.” How the perpetrator views the victims of these violent attacks is what Adams calls, the absent referent. When victims/survivors describe themselves as feeling like mere pieces of flesh, the animal – the piece of meat – also becomes the absent referent. Adams was not the first to coin the phrase but she did make it famous through this book.
So what is it? What is the absent referent? According to Adams, in chapter two:
“Through butchering, animals become absent referents. Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist. Animals’ lives precede and enable the existence of meat. If animals are alive they cannot be meat. Thus a dead body replaces the live animal. Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food.
Animals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them. Our culture further mystifies the term “meat” with gastronomic language, so we do not conjure dead, butchered animals, but cuisine. Language thus contributes even further to animals’ absences. While the cultural meanings of meat and meat eating shift historically, one essential part of meat’s meaning is static: One does not eat meat without the death of an animal. Live animals are thus the absent referents in the concept of meat. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animals as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present.”
She explains further on in that same chapter to illustrate the overlapping oppression of women and animals:
“Through the structure of the absent referent, patriarchal values become institutionalized. Just as dead bodies are absent from our language about meat, in descriptions of cultural violence women are also often the absent referent. Rape, in particular, carries such potent imagery that the term is transferred from the literal experience of women and applied metaphorically to other instances of violent devastation, such as the “rape” of the earth. The experience of women thus becomes a vehicle for describing other oppressions. Women, upon whose bodies actual rape is most often committed, become the absent referent when the language of sexual violence is used metaphorically. These terms recall women’s experiences but not women.”
So the next time a famous person uses the word “rape” to describe how it feels to deal with the paparazzi or have their privacy violated, you know why so many people get understandably pissed off: that person is using the literal word for a violent, unconsenting assault as a metaphor to describe something that’s more of a nuisance than a crime. By using the word “rape” they are referring to an experience they haven’t actually encountered while the people who have are not represented at all. The absent referent.
It is for this same reason I’m not comfortable with using the word “Holocaust” to describe what animals are experiencing on factory farms even though I understand why some activists do and I won’t deny some of the conditions are eerily similar. The Holocaust is a very specific term for a very specific time for a very specific people and I personally feel that the word is more polarizing than helpful to use for anything else other than for what it was. Perhaps if I were Jewish I would feel differently or feel more ownership towards the word but I am not and therefore do not feel it is within my right to use it except to talk about the actual Holocaust. If I use that word to bring attention to the oppression of animals, I risk making Jewish people the absent referent, something that is counter productive since any rights movement is about re-naming and re-claiming the absent referent.
Towards the end of the chapter, Adams touches on this as well:
“Animal activists should be wary of language that uses rape metaphorically to describe what happens to animals, without basing their analysis on a recognition of the social context of rape for women in our culture. Metaphoric borrowing that depends on violation yet fails to protest the originating violence does not acknowledge interlocking oppressions. Our goal is to resist the violence that separates matter from spirit, to eliminate the structure that creates absent referents.”
The absent referent does not need to be a word either. It can be a picture, a punchline, an advertisement, an expression or figure of speech. Anything that describes, defines or illustrates another’s experience of oppression through metaphor without actually acknowledging them is the absent referent. It doesn’t just apply to animals either. It can be a gender, a species, a race. As Adams describes it: “What is absent refers back to one oppressed group while defining another.”
When we refer to a baby male cow as “veal”, the animal is the absent referent. When we refer to what happens to animals at slaughterhouses as “processing”, their suffering and death becomes the absent referent. When the word “meat” is used, all the animals whose flesh that “meat” is comprised of become the absent referent, hence the quotes around that word in an effort to restore it for what it once was: living and breathing animals whom, as Adams says, could not be considered meat if they were alive. Which is exactly what they are before our insatiable consumerism demands they be sent to their deaths.