As a former Anthrozoology postgrad with a keen interest in eco-feminism, but also one who had to cut their studies short following a diagnosis of CFS/ME with much accompanying brain fog, I was excited and also a little intimidated by the invitation I received to review C. Lou Hamilton’s upcoming release: Veganism, Sex & Politics: tales of danger and pleasure. This trepidation was twofold; my ability to read and absorb academic writing is much reduced these days, and this (along with the relentless tide of bereavements and other such personal tragedies) was a large part of the reason I abandoned my studies early. But also, I knew that the book would consider in some detail the realm of feminist-veg*n theory, and would likely cover in particular the oft-cited and honoured Carol J. Adams, author of what is widely considered to be ‘the‘ tome of eco-feminism: The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).
See, my own knowledge of CJA’s work is more or less limited to The Sexual Politics of Meat, despite my own adventures in academia, and I know that C. Lou Hamilton has previously challenged a limited and often overly accepting (and uncritical) trundling out of CJA’s work when discussing the various intersections between human and animal oppression, with CJA holding the sceptre of Feminist Veg*n Theory. I’m guilty of doing this myself! As a vegan of 11+ years and a relatively early adopter of a more critical and nuanced approach to veganism (for a regular ol’ white person, anyway), I’ve often pointed to CJA as that font of knowledge where feminism meets veganism, and I very recently told a friend that I’m (admittedly) rather defensive of CJA as her work was so instrumental in my own vegan journey, and in my becoming less of an arsehole of a vegan (basically).
I was certainly open to an alternative approach to some of the stickier subjects cited in Tales of Danger and Pleasure, though. I’m not a supporter of staunchly anti-pornography feminism, and I’m definitely what you’d call sex-positive. I delight in the pleasures of the flesh (academic pun intended), I support the agency of sex workers, regard sex work as work, and appreciate the criticism of “Pornography” as a monolithic evil that must be torn down in order to liberate those helpless women caught up in its shackles.
That said, what is Veganism, Sex & Politics really about? Well, written by C. Lou Hamilton relatively early on in her vegan journey, it is a collection of pivotal lightbulb moments wherein Hamilton makes connections between both her formative experiences as a queer, anarchist, social justice activist, human being, and academic, and her growing appreciation of “veganism’s always more-than-political powers“. It openly asks the question: what does veganism have to do with wider struggles for social justice? And it encourages thinking critically about veganism (and its spokespeople) and in doing so, aims to “draw attention to ways of practising veganism that do not pit it against other personal and political priorities“.
Hamilton talks of the concept of contextual ethical veganism, that is, a veganism “not as a rationalist calculation of right and wrong, but an expression of the recognition of our dependencies on other animals“. For those more committed amongst you, this suggestion might raise hackles: surely the use and abuse of other animals for human pleasure or gain is absolutely a matter of right and wrong? Well, in the world we inhabit today, and in the staggering complexity of its unethical-ness, these questions become thornier and stickier the deeper we delve into the practice of veganism. This is by no means an invitation to abandon the pursuit of veganism (with pursuit an apt word here, as veganism is an evolving journey); indeed, whilst the book does offer a “defence of veganism” it also highlights those “unsatisfactory or even dangerous arguments in its favour“. This is necessary work in the promotion of veganism: to hold up fallacious and/or immoral arguments in veganism’s defence is ultimately to weaken the argument we are making.
My own vegan journey started simply enough, and the more the years roll by the more I realise that our ethics must be situated contextually. One of the earliest challenges to my black-and-white thinking about veganism was a book called Soul Hunters by Rane Willerslev, an ethnography of the Siberian Yukaghirs and of their hunting practices. Such a carefully considered exploration of the complex hunting culture of these peoples absolutely challenges the simplistic approach to veganism that I, as a middle-class white British woman with access to as much plant protein (and vegan junk food) as I like, live by. To consider each approach to subsistence by the same moral baseline is absurd. And our embracing this reality may seem frightening – it means that we must examine our own practices, privileges, and assumptions. It means that we must acknowledge the realities of food injustice, poverty, capitalism, ecological determinism, environmental racism, and many other critical issues. It means that we must venture into murky shades of grey and still emerge with a clear idea of our own ethics and morals. And that can be tough – but it’s also vital if we want veganism to succeed in the ways that will do the most good.
Veganism, Sex & Politics is a collection of mini-ethnographies. Whether discussing the importance of faux animal skins in the embodiment of camp, the mourning of leather as a vital ingredient in Queer history, or the subversive impact of Simon Amstell’s 2017 mockumentary Carnage, these stories are interwoven with Hamilton’s musings on the nuance of ethical veganism as a journey and as a lifestyle. Topics such as anti-racism and Disability politics are touched on, but, rightly, Hamilton focuses primarily on Queer and LGBTQ politics for the most part, referring us to writers like Sunaura Taylor, Christopher Sebastian, or Dr Amie Breeze Harper where appropriate.
I enjoyed and was reassured by this book; my only qualm was in the occasional, uncritical disapproval of vegan junk food and in the assertion that it is an inherently Bad Thing (whether morally/ethically or ‘bad for us’) as in the tale of Kathy Rudy’s ‘vegan year’. I sighed internally at the apparent judgement of ‘junk food vegans’ which seemed to fly in the face of acknowledgements elsewhere in the book of the complexities of veganism and of the barriers that exist for many. I am also definitely not into food shaming, no how no way. I do wonder if this slipped into the chapter as a response to the obvious hyperbole of Rudy’s story, but if so then it felt like a rather careless prop in an otherwise sensible critique of Rudy’s eventual abandonment of veganism.
I, for one, would recommend that the more scholarly amongst you read this book alongside the more well-known or well-established eco-feminist/feminist veg*n titles. Hamilton does acknowledge the thread of truth in CJA’s theorising on meat-eating and masculinity/macho-posturing (which I personally think is still important reading), but takes such comparisons in an alternative direction and adds important new dimensions to the discussion. This, after all, is how we evolve and learn, and prior foundations can be incredibly important. I am glad for the words of CJA and now I am glad for the words of C. Lou Hamilton and the respectful critiquing of some of our existing thinkers and spokespeople.
I think it’s important to note that Veganism, Sex & Politics is not a critique of the practice of veganism in and of itself. To me, it is a call for us to acknowledge that veganism is a not an end point, but a living and breathing and shifting endeavour in the context of a deeply problematic and unethical world. As our context evolves, so must our veganism evolve as we aspire to acknowledge and minimise our exploitative dependence on other animals. In this sense, you shouldn’t fear this book as a challenge to veganism (or to your own veganism) but rather a tool in the fight to make veganism more inclusive and to remove barriers to veganism for as many people as possible. (Let’s just leave out the junk-food-shaming, ‘k?)
I enjoyed this book very much! It was, at times, a complicated read, which is almost entirely down to my CFS/ME foggy brain. It’s a quasi-academic book for sure, and it cites many academics. The accessibility of academic texts is a topic close to my heart, but Hamilton’s tales and anecdotes do make this a lighter read than most. With all that in mind, HammerOn Press have very kindly offered me a competition copy of this book and you can win it! YOU!! This will be open for one week and is open to folks all over planet earth. I’ll also throw in some other surprise vegan/feminist killjoy goodies too. So, get entering and get sharing!
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