Politics of Animal Ethics: Becoming, Mediation and Animal Rights

by Fabiolla Lorusso

Goldsmiths, University of London


Abstract: Human-centric ideas about being at the top of the food chain and being the superior species due to our development of complex rational skills, have influenced the construction of a biopolitical system that normalises animal exploitation – the factory farm. The factory farm imposes blurred boundaries between animal and machine, corpse and product, while it strengthens the power relations between human and animal. In this speciesist system, human subjectivity measures ethics and grants rights according to our own interests, ignoring the fact that animals have interests of their own. I would like to therefore ask how can we change human-animal relations to include animal subjectivity? I propose that a decentering of the human subject is possible through mediation. The virtual reality project iAnimal encourages the human subject to experience a process of becoming-animal, which requires us to challenge the biopolitical system that turns animals into corpses for consumption. I will then discuss the current proposed solutions for dealing with animal ethics, such as vegetarianism as an opposition to the exploitative economic system, and animal rights as a way of giving a voice to the animal subject. I will also analyse the recent development of lab-grown meat and its implications for our perception of animals, meat, and its potential to effectively reduce animal slaughter. Finally, I propose that although such solutions are the most viable given the current state of affairs, we are still failing to address the rationalist human-centric system that defines who ‘deserves’ rights. In order to end speciesism, we will need to redefine the human subject. We will need a change in the political system, allowing the objects of government to also be governors.


In Western society, human subjectivity has been significantly defined by its opposition to the animal. Animal ethics has therefore been subjugated to a political system that rejects the subjectivity of the animal. This human-animal dichotomy ignores that humans are animals, and that the human being is a constant process of co-becoming with other living entities. But by claiming power to measure ethics and grant rights according to our own interests, we are causing severe limitations to animal subjectivities. How can we change human-animal relations to allow space for more meaningful co-becoming? We would have to learn how to pay attention to animal subjectivities. This would mean acknowledging that animals have interests and values of their own.

Can we say that the animal has been looking at us? This is the question that Jacques Derrida presented in his lecture ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’ (2002), which led to many philosophical debates about the subjectivity of the animal. While being naked in front of his cat, Derrida experienced a sense of embarrassment that was a result of his acknowledgement of the animal gaze. This exchange meant that the cat was no longer a mere object being observed by Derrida. It was also a subject responding to Derrida’s presence, an idea that destabilised traditional boundaries between the observer and the observed. Donna Haraway, however, claims that Derrida failed to care about what the cat was “making available to him in looking back at him that morning” (2008: 20). Haraway therefore asks us to consider what would happen if we learned to respond to such invitations.

Responding to such invitations would mean immersing in the worlds of meaning of the animal subject. This immersion would perhaps require us to reshape our interests to find harmony with the interests of the animal subject. Animals have been looking at and responding to human subjectivity. Nonetheless, human-centeredness has many times neglected human-animal communication on the basis of deeming animals irrational for not speaking the same language as ours.

“Much of the problem lies in rationalist-derived conceptions of the self and of what is essential and valuable in the human makeup. It is in the name of such a reason that (…) the merely bodily or the merely animal, and the natural world itself-have most often been denied their virtue and been accorded an inferior and merely instrumental position.” (Plumwood, 1991 :6)

In her study about the relationship between farmers and animals, Despret (2008: 133) notes that farmers would often misinterpret the interests of their animals, lacking full understanding of their needs. The animals on the other hand were more likely to understand the farmers’ needs and act accordingly. Despret concludes that “animals know us in a manner that is sometimes incomprehensible for us”, and such exchange produces an “extension of subjectivities” (p. 134), which she calls “intersubjectivity” (p. 135). The concept of intersubjectivity poses significant challenge to the power relations of the human/animal dichotomy. It shows that communication is not restricted to language and cannot be defined under the measures of rationality. Massumi (2014) reads animal play as the origin of metalinguistic functions. In animal play, a bite does not have the same meaning that it would have in animal fight. Thus, Massumi suggests that it is “in language that the human reaches its highest degree of animality” (p.8). Our rationality cannot be separated from our animality. The anthropogenic machine that defines the human subject through rationality/animality dichotomies prevents animal suffering from being communicated in a way that reaches the letter of the law. It perpetuates a system in which if animals cannot speak like humans, they cannot demand rights, justice or respect. To engage in intersubjectivity and understand the needs of the animal subject would require us to accept that animals also want to live, and that they want to experience a life without suffering.

Haraway (2003: 20) proposes the concept of ‘metaplasm’, which explores the way in which animal bodies and human bodies can affect and be affected by each other. Metaplasm enables a new type of relationship to flourish, one that does not assume inherited distinctive characteristics, instead it proposes a fluid entanglement between species. By bringing our attention to metaplasm, Haraway reminds us that human history is intricately entangled with animal history. When we separate the human subject from the animal subject, we disregard animal subjectivities, needs, and capacity for feeling pain. By doing so, we are exerting an oppressive power-relation system that exploits nonhuman animals for unnecessary self-interested motives. The most significant example of this is the factory farm. The factory farm is an anthropocentric system in which the human subject is a political identity that holds the power to measure what is ethical, whose life is valuable, and who deserves rights.

According to Foucault (1976: 247), biopolitics is concerned with “taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species” through mechanisms of regularity. Thus, if sovereignty exercises the power to take life and let live, biopower emerges from the power of “making live and letting die”. James Stanescu (2013) discusses how animal studies have attempted to complete such concepts by exploring how factory farms become a part of the biopolitical system, especially considering how mechanisms of biopower function through a “move of rendering someone as inhuman and therefore disposable”, and a “move of rendering someone as human in need of training and eradicating all traces of the inhuman” (Stanescu: 2013: 141). However, Stanescu (2013) claims that the logic of the factory farm goes “beyond biopolitics” (p. 137), as the difference between the extermination of ‘inhuman’ humans and factory farms is that the first is attempting to dispose of corpses, whereas the latter is concerned with the production of corpses. The animal’s life is produced in the factory farm solely for its death. Stanescu describes as ‘deading-life’ beings who “should be alive, but are already somehow dead” (p. 155). The animal body becomes a corpse for consumption, and animals are no longer ‘living’, nor ‘beings’. Nevertheless, this biopolitical system that gives the human the power to control how and which animals are allowed to live (i.e. dogs, cats) or to be slaughtered (i.e. pigs, cows), remains unaddressed.

The use of biopower to define which types of animals are acceptable to eat also raises many ethical questions. If one would be horrified at the thought of eating a dog or a cat, what exactly makes dogs and cats more special than pigs and cows? If in Western society we think it is wrong to inflict suffering, kill and eat the companion species, then we should reconsider the idea of inflicting suffering upon, killing and eating any other animal. It seems that our concerns with animal ethics is also shaped by our own interests and that which benefits us – be it in order to satisfy our desire to eat meat, or to satisfy our attachment to domestic pets. Such ethical challenges ask us to think more carefully about whether differences between species are really that relevant when weighing the value of their life. The ideology that uses biopower in order to deem nonhuman animals our property without considering their own subjectivities, as well as justifying this act through oppositional distinctive boundaries that separate animality from rationality, shows very similar interests to the ideologies used to exert biopower over subordinate groups of people within our own species.

Kelly Oliver (2009: 30) notes that historically, the notion that the rational man is the measure of all things has been used to justify the exploitation of other groups deemed less ‘human’, such as black people, indigenous tribes and women, by comparing them to animals and by perpetuating dualisms of civilized/barbaric. This resulted in laws that treated other people as property, which followed the same property laws related to animals. In fact, the practices used to torture these subordinate groups have their roots in technologies for violence created for the domination of animals (Stanescu, 2013). For this reason, human ethics is deeply entrenched with animal ethics – until the concept of ‘animality’ is seen as a symbol of inferiority and ‘Otherness’ because the hallmark of human identity is to be rational. On this matter, the question of animal exploitation goes beyond one of just ethics. The lack of animal ethics is defended by a speciesist biopolitical system enforced on animals in order to maintain economic interests.

To acknowledge that animal ethics must include those animals that we consider food would require us to adhere to vegetarianism, and perhaps even veganism. But in order for that to happen, first humanity would have to acknowledge that factory farms are a cruel biopolitical system, and then we would have to discard human-animal dichotomies through a process of accepting the deterritorialization of becoming. For Deleuze and Guattari (2005: 3), a becoming is “to deterritorialize oneself following distinct but entangled lines”. Becoming invites us to immerse in a constant process of destabilizing the boundaries of existence within fluid multiplicities. I propose that this process can be encouraged through virtual reality mediation.

Núria Almiron et al (2016: 11) have analysed the effects of media on animals, looking at a correlation between audiovisual material and consumer demand for pets. For example, the popularity of films such as Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (and many others) incited the growth of the breeding market. However, once the film’s popularity faded out, consumer demand also faded. The implications of treating animals as products has its consequences: “The result is lack of knowledge in how to properly care for the animals… as well as abandonment and even mistreatment”. I am interested, however, in the use of media technologies as a powerful tool to generate the opposite effect – exposing the deading-life of animals in factory farms and encouraging a redefinition of our ethics. If animal bodies are used as corpses for consumption, stopping the consumption of meat would be addressing our political implications as consumers in a society where the exploitation of humans and other animals is “fuelled by the structure of political-economic arrangements” (Nibert, 2002: xiv). Thus, I am going to analyze the recent development of the virtual reality project iAnimal (2016), introduced by the international animal protection organisation Animal Equality.

iAnimal was created with the intention to “shed a light on the abuse suffered by animals raised and killed for food” [1]. The 360-degree virtual reality text consists of a collection of footage obtained from Animal Equality’s investigations of factory farms in the UK, Germany, Mexico, Spain and Italy. The footage is edited in a linear narration that shows the process of breeding, raising, castrating and slaughtering pigs inside a factory farm. These shocking scenes are mostly filmed in a low-level point of view style, placing the viewer in narrow confinements behind the bars, very close to the other pigs who are covered in blood and living in extremely unhygienic conditions. The voice over of Peter Eagan is like an omniscient second person narration that describes all the unpleasant details about these processes. The video is finalised with a slaughter sequence and Eagan’s voice over suggesting that the viewers “please, leave meat off your plate”. Animal Equality is attempting to expose the deading-life of factory-farmed animals to as many people as possible by bringing iAnimal to the streets and universities of the UK, the US, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Toni Shepherd of Animal Equality believes that using the latest technology is a way of attracting those who may be hesitant to discover where their food comes from (Svenska, 2016). In this respect, the virtual reality headset becomes a technological spectacle inciting people’s curiosity to engage in an experience beyond the audiovisual, even if that means immersing themselves in a reality shaped by pain and slaughter. Using virtual reality to address deading-life can provoke strong affective responses that may disconcert the viewer’s subjectivity and sense of morals, inducing a more solid sense of action and generating a political concern about the animal body. For when the screen between the viewer and the text is broken, the boundaries between representation and reality, human and animal, ethics and politics, are all destabilized. I would like to propose three stages of the iAnimal experience where these boundaries are challenged. The first stage is the intimate engagement between human and machine that produce an immersive experience. The VR headset is a machine capable of manipulating our human perception. It becomes our eyes and our ears; it becomes a part of us. To experience virtual reality we need to expand on the technology and let the technology expand on us. The second stage is a becoming-animal experience, enabled particularly through the use of techniques such as point-of-view camerawork, 360-degree and second-person narration.

As it is discussed by Deleuze and Guattari (2005: 3), becoming-animal does not refer to mimesis, it refers to the indiscernibility of human and animal that allows for the expansion of the subject as multiplicity; such becomings affect “the animal no less than the human” (p. 237). At this stage, not only the headset has become one with our body, but our body has also become one with the body of a pig.

Through this process of becoming-pig, iAnimal allows us to experience the animal body as deading-life. For instance, in one of the scenes the viewer is placed inside a cage with a sow that is unable to move for her lifetime and what seems to be the corpse of a piglet rests amongst her excrements. Since “factory farm is not just the fabrication and production of corpses, but also the fabrication and production of lives to be part of the fabrication and production of corpses” (Stanescu, 2013: 153), the sow, who is forced to breed incessantly, becomes a machine for the production of beings that will become either another breeding machine, if female, or corpses for consumption, if male [2].

Interestingly, virtual reality technology is designed to be interactive – the viewer can walk through spaces and interact with new worlds. But in the case of iAnimal, this interaction is very limited, as you are only able to look around 360-degrees. The lack of mobility, the lack of ability to interfere with or change the horrors of what you are watching shows us how limited is the becoming of animals in factory farms, as they are also unable to experience mobility, sunlight, and are unable to escape slaughter.

The last stage is the becoming-human of a pig through anthropomorphism – iAnimal is giving pigs a ‘voice’ to communicate their suffering. This becoming-human of pigs also happens through the viewer’s altered perception – a new perception where pigs are seen as capable of experiencing pain like humans do. These three stages of ‘becoming’ challenge the basis of the argument that attempts to justify factory farms through notions of human-animal opposition. They incite a change in us as human beings. This change that encourages us to redefine our sense of ethics also produces a change in animals, who become living beings beyond corpses for consumption. As Deleuze and Guattari (1994: 109) have said, “we become animal so that the animal also becomes something else”. Nonetheless, Deleuze and Guattari fail to address what is this “something else” that animals can become. Theories of human-animal becomings often elaborate on what humans can become and how these becomings enable the expansion of the human subject. But what can animals become? And what processes of becoming are we limiting by producing the animal subject as a corpse for consumption?

The use of anthropomorphism in iAnimal, such as translating the pig’s experience of pain into language, already implies that speciesism is so deeply rooted in our perceptions that it is necessary to assimilate animal suffering with human suffering in order for us to reconsider the value of a pig’s life. For instance, perhaps if the narrative of pigs in iAnimal were replaced with the narrative of fish, virtual reality would not be as affective since humans would fail to identify with the behaviour of fish. This may also be the reason why some people adhere to a ‘pescetarian’ diet instead of a full vegetarian diet. A paradox therefore emerges in relation to the implications of iAnimal. On one hand, iAnimal challenges moral boundaries, opening the possibility of a decentering of the human subject – and “we cannot decenter the human subject without also calling into question the animal other” (Oliver, 2009: 5). On the other hand, iAnimal achieves this by portraying the animal subject as similar to the human subject, which may reinforce a human-centric rationalist measurement of ‘rights’. But perhaps it is through this paradox that we can accelerate the deconstruction of speciesism. The end sentence in iAnimal addresses this with the statement: “You don’t have to see the world through the eyes of a pig to recognise the cruelty and suffering”.

iAnimal is successful in destabilizing human-animal distinctiveness, but it is lacking when it comes to destabilizing the roots of speciesism which refer to a rationalist supremacy, particularly as it does not address other animals that also experience pain but do not respond in a way that humans can relate to. Nonetheless, iAnimal uses virtual reality to help the human subject experience the deading-life of factory-farmed pigs, encouraging the rise of veganism as a form of ethical resistance. iAnimal is attempting to bring knowledge about the mistreatment of animals in factory farms and to question our consumer demands by allowing us to see pigs beyond corpses for consumption. Indeed, many animal rights advocates believe that by reducing the demand for meat, there are better chances for reducing exploitation and animal rights being granted. But is giving animals’ rights enough? It is necessary to take into account what is involved in the discourse of rights, and what are its implications for both animals and humans.

According to Oliver (2009) the history of rights is deeply entrenched in the exploitation of animals, as the rights discourse began with the domestication of animals and treating animals as private property. This perhaps tells us something about the way the rights system operates, which may be questionable. Sean Cubitt (2012) reminds us that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the responsibilities that states have to their citizens, excluding other groups such as migrants. “Rights do not express the responsibilities and obligations animals owe to one another or to us. Instead, they recreate the myth of innocence” (p. xvi). And this myth maintains the position of all groups who are excluded from politics on the basis of their ‘innocent victimhood’, which is once again an ideology produced under the measurements of rationality. If politics occurs when an “excluded sector of society which is nonetheless the object of government…demands to become a subject as well as an object of rule” (p. xvii), to end speciesism would mean to change the whole system for one where the governed can partake in governing. A system where animal differences, subjectivities and interests can be considered without being polluted with “the ideology that all other beings’ interests are subordinate to ours” (Almiron, 2016: 14), a system free of human-animal dualisms.

However, despite the animal rights discourse being flawed, the billions of animals being killed every year cannot wait for the whole of society and the system to change the way it operates. If we cannot end animal exploitation altogether, the least we can do is attempt to reduce it within the political and economic context we are living in right now. I would therefore argue that iAnimal addressing ‘human-relatable’ traits in animals is not problematic in itself. Human-animal becomings deterritorialize the perception of traits distinctively human or animal – these traits are shaped by co-evolution. The issue lies more in claiming pain, sociality and communication as distinctively human, as well as deeming anything else that differs from these characteristics as inferior and therefore to be dominated by the human species. We must not forget that it is not animals that have behaviour similar to ours; the human species originates in animality.

Furthermore, the most recent development of lab-grown meat is completely destabilizing the ontological notions of meat, leading to a disassociation of corpse/product. It particularly destabilizes notions of meat as deading-life, as meat no longer requires the slaughter of animals. This would present the potential to reduce animal exploitation drastically. In their crowdfunding campaign, SuperMeat, an Israeli startup, argues they are seeking to develop the mass production of lab-grown meat in order to replace slaughter houses and provide a more viable solution to ending animal exploitation, global warming and world hunger, that does not require an end to meat consumption [3]. Although the animal as a subject would no longer be a product, lab-grown meat still requires a small portion of animal cells, which would continue to cause problematic human-animal relations by perpetuating the same notions that animals must fulfill our interests. Regardless, SuperMeat would present enough challenge to the biopolitical system of factory farms and encourage the reassessment of humanity’s ethics in a way that places animal slaughter as completely unjustifiable. In this sense, lab-grown meat should be addressed alongside the philosophy of animal rights and vegetarianism, and that can be done through mediation that encourages human-animal becomings. SuperMeat therefore represents the political implications of the individual as a consumer, while simultaneously addressing the major issue presented by slaughterhouses.

I conclude that although animal rights discourses may not be ideal, pressuring government agencies to create policies that consider the welfare and ethics around animals may be a first step to reducing animal exploitation. In fact, animal rights would make sure that the development of something as revolutionary as lab-grown meat would not continue to perpetuate animal exploitation. However, this debate must not end on ethics or animal rights. In order to destabilize the basis of speciesism, we need to redefine our concept of ‘human-ness’, accepting our co-constitutive relations with other beings and the world, and not perpetuating dualisms of rationality/animality. We must also redefine politics without using the human subject’s interests to govern over objects. Politics would have to include the objects as the subjects, and media texts such as iAnimal represent an initial step to deconstruct our rationalist oriented concept of who is considered a subject and who is not.

“Rights can be granted, laws can be followed, but ethics and justice cannot rest there. In this sense, ethics must go beyond rights.”

(Oliver, 2009: 37)



[1] Quote was obtained from the official iAnimal (2016) website. Available at http://www.ianimal.uk/ [Accessed 12 April 2016]

[2] Details about the life conditions of pigs in factory farms are being narrated to the viewer, and they are all part of Animal Equality’s investigative project.

[3] Information obtained from the article ‘Supermeat seeks to replace slaughterhouses with science’, in Gizmag. Available at http://www.gizmag.com/supermeat-indiegogo/44424/ [Accessed 29th July 2016]



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