Another Nature

cap002 From Overheard in New York:

Girl #1: So, you’re a vegetarian?
Girl #2: Yep. Eating animals kills.
Girl #1: Wait, but you had sushi the other night.
Girl #2: Fish doesn’t count. It’s, like, not an animal.
Girl #1: Huh? Yeah, it is. It, like, breathes and stuff.
Girl #2: But it’s underwater.
Girl #1: No, it’s an animal, ’cause it moves around and swims.
Girl #2: Then how come I can eat it?

Christians rationalized eating fish on fast days in a number of ways. My favorite, because it’s the most enigmatic, is from the Penitentials, e.g., the Paenitentiale Vindobonense B (edited by Rob Meens, Het tripartite boeteboek), “Pisces licet comedere quia alterius natura sunt” (fish are allowable because they are of another nature). Some of what I’ve seen over the last few days has encouraged me to agree. I bought my spouse The Blue Planet for the holiday, and learned a bit about the glowing predator pictured above, as well as the male angler fish, which, as this review explains, “attaches himself to a female almost 20 times larger for the sake of reproduction, clamping into her belly with his teeth, where he will spend the rest of his life sharing blood and sperm.”

The fifteenth-century Speculum Sacerdotale provides another standard rationalization:

For God cursede no3t the water, for he knewe that water schuld mynster in baptym and be waschynge of synnes. And that elament is in reputacion most worthy for that it wascheþ away fylthe and synne, and also for that the spirit of God, as Scripture witnesseþ, was born ouer the water before the world. Therfore he was the more vnlef [reluctant] to curse the elament of water. But the erthe he cursede. And therfore in tyme of fastynge it is no3t lawefull for to ete of eny beste that longeth to the erþe, be it birde, be it beste crepynge or goynge on foure feete, for thou3 many briddis be bred in the water and of the water or þrou3 the water takeþ here fode, 3it they are to be sayde for to be of the erthe and to pertene to the erthe. For there be some fisshes the whiche hath of too partie forme of a foure-fotyd beste as porpas, houndfissche, the whiche mowe be eten in tyme of fastyngis in that partie where they are seen fisshe but no3t of the toþer partie. (53; cf Alcuin, Quaestiones in Genesim, PL 100: 518B)

As much I like the idea of abstaining from the doggy portions of a dogfish until Saturday, I find the most compelling rationalization, at least for today’s inchoate ideas, in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica:

Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods. (my emphasis)

In what way are fish less like us than other animals are? Aquinas explains elsewhere that Scripture

does not call fishes ‘living creatures,’ but ‘creeping creatures having life’; whereas it does call land animals ‘living creatures’ on account of their more perfect life, and seems to imply that fishes are merely bodies having in them something of a soul, whilst land animals, from the higher perfection of their life, are, as it were, living souls with bodies subject to them.

Many medieval texts resolve the question of what differentiates humans from other created things by observing that humans dominate animals. When the texts consider particular animals, these tend to be pigs, cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and other terrestrial creatures, whose value to this discourse is precisely the fact that they seem to possess language, reason, and (therefore) an immortal soul. But regardless of what humans and animals may seem to share, and regardless of what this suggests about the meaninglessness of human life, humans dominate animals and virtually no animal ever dominates a human. And by “dominate” I mean, in most cases, “kill and eat.” The domination is evidence that there must be something that humans have that animals don’t. Domination demonstrates that humans do have language, &c., and that animals, despite all appearances, do not. “Reason” is as much an effect as it is a cause of the human domination of animals.

It seems that fish don’t factor much into these proofs. Ambrose praises the underwater world for the spectacle of the natural order of creation it provides us; Augustine and Basil wonder about whether or not fish have memory; but generally speaking, fish don’t matter as much as other animals to the proof of humanity through the domination of animals, what I’ll call the sacrificial structure of the human. The Wild Herdsman in Yvain doesn’t prove his humanity at the expense of salmon, but rather of oxen (and perhaps other wild beasts, depending on the manuscript), creatures–given the Herdsman’s animalistic visage–very much similar to him. They look “ausi con” (as if) they were pleading while he beats them. Their submission shows that their pleading–their apparent shared existence with the Herdsman–is only an “as if,” only an imitation, while he, regardless of his animality, is a human. There is no “as if” with fish. There is none–and almost none–of the process of recognition and denial so necessary to the human relationship to the animal, because fish are too alien. They are another nature.

They are another nature because they are not as much alive as other animals. Not being quite living creatures, they are unsuitable objects for meaningful domination. They can be killed, but that killing doesn’t quite matter, not to Aquinas, not to our confused vegetarian, not to the human as such. This is a life that is not life; a life that simply doesn’t rate. Hence, I suggest, the lack of pleasure in eating fish. Since killing them accomplishes nothing for the human, which needs to dominate creatures like itself, there’s no good reason to kill fish, at least no good symbolic reason.

If there’s a life that ceases to be identified as a life whose death is meaningful, then it has escaped the burden of being made to die for the human. It might still die, but since its death isn’t symbolic, or at least not sufficiently symbolic, then the human has to be sought elsewhere. That elsewhere might be another sacrificial structure; it might be some other pleasure at the expense of something; it might still be a place where death is still made to matter. But perhaps not. Perhaps the fish–a purposeless life thank goodness!–points us to a way out.

Unrelated afterward. I wonder if JJC’s (safe traveling) seen this?

“The child, then, inhabits the inhuman in the same way that the postmodern inhabits the modern, and what makes this analogy initially seem so useful for theorizing the animal other is that it posits a permanently incipient multiplicity and self-difference at the very core of subjectivity as such, and in doing so promises to help us extend contemporary transvaluations of the structural homology between child and animal available to us at least since Freud.” (Wolfe, Animal Rites 57)


What’s interesting to me is that the various specialized ethical diets tend to describe the eater’s relationship to death. At least that’s how it strikes me. In order, from most deadly to least deadly:

Lacto-ovo vegetarian
…and finally, if we want to get fantastical, the Astomi

I think we can consider the same arrangement as indicating an increasing opting out of society and its discontents; that is, fruitarians are, according to a certain model, far more Utopian or ‘spiritual’ than pescetarians.

What troubles me about the whole arrangement is precisely that death is its organizing principle. I wonder–and here the ideas are still inchoate–if I can conceive of some way to dislodge death from its magnetic ordering force, if I can conceive of some way to empty death, and thus sacrifice, of its power. I suppose it’s better to be on the life side of the binary than the death side, but I wonder if there’s a way to step outside the binary altogether. – See more at: