Vegan Literary Theory and Criticism: Toward a “Literature of Their Own”

By Shelley Harrison

This article briefly proposes an initial framework for articulating and formalizing a literary theory informed by the values of veganism and ahimsa—hereinafter simply “vegan literary theory”[1]—and for applying that theory through literary criticism of individual works of literature.  For the purposes of this endeavor, “literature” is to be broadly construed so as to include fiction and non-fiction written and spoken material as well as works in the fine and performing arts and in all expressive media, from painting and sculpture to audio and video recordings to video games and computer-generated simulations.

For present purposes, some fundamental concepts are defined as follows.

Hierarchy

The word hierarchy comes from the Old French ierarchie, from Medieval Latin hierarchia meaning “ranked division of angels,” from the Greek hierarkhia meaning “rule of a high priest” (Online Etymology Dictionary).  Hierarchy denotes, for present purposes, a system of thought, value, or organization in which some concerns or ends are prioritized over others.

Otherism

The word other comes from Old English oþer, meaning “the second” or “one of two,” from Proto-Germanic antharaz (source also of Old Saxon athar, Old Frisian other, German ander, Gothic anþar).  Id.  The present author uses the term “otherism” as a general category that encompasses biases and prejudices as found in sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and the like as well as in the “us vs. them” mindset.  This mindset embodies dualistic or binary thinking that disregards all gradation and degree—seeing the world in only “black and white” rather than recognizing “shades of gray.”

Anthropocentrism

The term anthropocentrism comes from the Greek anthropos, meaning “human” as opposed to the gods, and from the Old French centre, from Latin centrum, originally the fixed point of the two points of a drafting compass (thus, “the center of a circle” meaning that we use today), from the Greek kentron, meaning “sharp point.”  Id.  Anthropocentrism[2] denotes, for present purposes, the view, theory, or system of belief or value in which humans are regarded as the “center of the world” or in which “the world revolves around humans.”[3]  In focusing exclusively or almost exclusively on human concerns, anthropocentrism—a form of otherism—is inherently hierarchical by effect of focus on that which is regarded as central rather than peripheral, a circle-plus-hierarchy effect that can be envisioned as a cone, with humans at the apex and all else beneath.

Speciesism

The term speciesism comes from the Latin species, “a particular sort, kind, or type” (opposed to genus), originally “a sight, look, view, appearance,” related to the Late Latin meaning “a special case,” from specere, “to look at, to see, to behold.”  Id.  Speciesism denotes, for present purposes, applied anthropocentrism.  In other words, speciesism means putting anthropocentric beliefs or values into practice to the detriment of at least one other individual on the basis of that other individual’s belonging to a different species, e.g., through anthropogenic violence, oppression, enslavement, or displacement.

Theoretical Framework for a Vegan Literary Theory

Anthropocentrism, when unconscious, serves as the essential cognitive bias leading to humans’ exploitation of other animals and, when conscious, as the theoretical justification for such exploitation; humans’ invasion, colonization, alteration, and destruction of other animals’ living spaces; and humans’ interference with other animals’ life activities.[4]  The anthropocentric worldview has typically been taken for granted to such a degree that it fundamentally pervades human cultures, habits, political institutions, and socio-economic systems worldwide and throughout most of recorded human history.  Human concerns are typically so heavily prioritized that other animals’ concerns—even their very lives—are not considered at all or, if considered, are consciously disregarded as being of no consequence.  Rarely has anthropocentrism been challenged or even merely acknowledged.[5]

Literature is a potent means whereby a given mindset may be transmitted from one person to another and from one generation to the next.  In the absence of a clear, coherent, and compelling theory for use in exposing and examining manifestations of a given mindset in literature, such transmission may continue unrecognized and unchecked indefinitely.  Articulation and formalization of such a theory vis-à-vis anthropocentrism is, therefore, desirable, in the present author’s view.  Other social justice movements have benefited from access to a clear theoretical basis for examining, dismantling, and, where necessary, devaluing works of history, philosophy, science, art, and creative writing that embody fundamentally flawed worldviews.[6]  The animal rights, liberation, and emancipation movement can similarly benefit from having a favorable critical vantage point.

Toward that end, the present article proposes founding and framing a vegan literary theory on the propositions that:

(i) anthropocentrism is an inherently hierarchical system or pattern of thought, belief, or value in which humans’ concerns and ends are prioritized over those of all other species;

(ii) anthropocentrism may be expressed through or manifested in a literary work; and

(iii) anthropocentrism is communicable[7] from one human to another through such a literary work.

This theoretical framework is intended to provide a core that is general enough to be powerfully applied to all forms of literature, broadly construed; specific enough to produce valuable results when applied; and constrained enough to avoid inviting literary critics into areas such as those described in the “Cautionary Notes” section below.

Vegan Literary Criticism

The above literary theory may be applied to individual works of literature through one or more critical prongs, such as:

  • viewing a work of literature through a non-anthropocentric lens so as to bring express or implied embodiments of the anthropocentric paradigm into high relief
  • identifying and confronting anthropocentric concepts and values embedded in a work, the literary techniques used to downplay or hide those concepts and values, and the rationalizations offered to excuse or justify these concepts and values
  • examining the physiological and psychological effects on a reader, listener, or viewer of exposure to a work that depicts, describes, or defends speciesist acts
  • identifying and confronting the technical use of expressive means—such as word choice, visual design choice, spoken tone of voice, and physical gesture—to establish, justify, or spread anthropocentric cognition, beliefs, and values
  • extracting, by reading allegorically or analogically, insights from a work that can be applied to the benefit of animals; for instance, reversing the “beast fable” function, such that human characters are the puppet-like, stock players and the “moral of the story” is a gleaning to be deployed on behalf of other animals or from their perspective.[8]
  • suggesting ways in which anthropocentric content and means of expression can be replaced by content and means that are, to the degree possible, free from anthropocentrism
  • highlighting the merits of literary efforts aimed at countering anthropocentrism and speciesism or at producing an anthropocentrism-free alternative voice or narrative
  • exploring techniques for creating works which affirmatively embody, to the degree possible, the perspectives, concerns, ideas, and ends of other animals—i.e., a “Literature of Their Own”

Each of the above currents is already flowing in at least a tentative way.  For instance, many animal rights activists consciously seek to avoid using words, phrases, and colloquialisms that denigrate other animals or legitimize speciesism.  See, e.g., Animals and Media Guide (while laudable, even this effort unfortunately reinforces anthropocentrism at times by, for instance, characterizing “non-human”—alas—animals as “voiceless” rather than humans as unable or unwilling to pay attention to animals’ voices); the Humane Manual of Style; Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, by Joan Dunayer (Ryce, 2001).  Some efforts have also been made regarding visual depictions.  See, e.g., the Visual Design Principles Guide (rejecting, for instance, “Disney-ized” portrayals of animals and the use of animals as photo props).  The last approach described above has been at least partly—even if incidentally—instantiated through fictional works such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Cautionary Notes

Some caveats are worth mentioning.  First, while anthropocentrism shares many characteristics with other forms of otherism, and while social justice goals can be powerfully served by a collective and intersectional approach, vegan literary criticism should not be commandeered as a mere pretext or cover—a Trojan horse—for advancing human concerns and ends.  Other animals and their concerns merit a “literature of their own,” one which, except for the inherent limitations of the chosen medium and the given author,[9] is fully unencumbered by human-manufactured and human-serving ideas, perspectives, judgments, and agendas.  No matter how meritorious humans’ concerns are in their own right, they are still human concerns.  Ultimately, “piggy-backing” human concerns on animal concerns is another form of subordinating and exploiting animals.[10]  Such exploitation and subordination are contrary to the essence of veganism and ahimsa, and attempts to hijack vegan literary theory to serve human goals should be rejected.

Second, vegan literary theory should not be taken or used to imply support for any particular set of strategies, tactics, methods, or means for achieving social and political change, i.e., activism, beyond the tacit acknowledgement that literary criticism on behalf of animals itself may be a meaningful endeavor.  The effectiveness of a given activist strategy or tactic varies from one place and time to another.  While literary criticism may itself serve as a form of activism, vegan literary criticism should not be entangled with or anchored to any other form.[11]

Third, vegan literary theory should similarly remain dissociated from any particular socio-political theory, system of government, ideology, economic system, religion, or philosophical school of thought.[12]  In other words, “[t]he animals do not recognize / your religions, / your nations, / your other fabrications….”  What other animals do need from humans is to be left alone, not to be treated as pawns and instrumentalities in humans’ internecine power struggles.

Putting Theory into Practice

Authors who wish to engage in vegan literary criticism can, in the present author’s view, make a valuable contribution to the movement as a whole by pursuing this interest.  The process can be straightforward, such as:

  • choose a work, preferably one that has some cultural traction, such as a famous movie or influential political document; note that no genre (e.g., mystery, romance, fantasy), style (e.g., renaissance, classical, baroque), medium (e.g., poem, painting, play), nor subject matter (e.g., fashion, chemistry, travel) should be considered beyond scrutiny
  • examine that work through a non-anthropocentric lens, considering, for instance, how different an account of the events depicted in the work would be if that account were told by a pig or a crow or a shark
  • identify those differences and elaborate on the anthropocentric biases, values, and ideas that may have given rise to those differences
  • provide a glimpse of an alternate version of the work, one free from the anthropocentrism paradigm

While literary criticism may seem like an esoteric field, this field lies very close to the front line of the intellectual battle in which the animal-emancipation movement is now engaged.  No prior revolution with which the present author is familiar—not even the proto-abolition movement that ended human slavery—has pertained to overturning a structure as deeply embedded in human culture as the one which animal emancipationists now seek to overturn.  That structure is, in a word, anthropocentrism.  The nature of this structure—cognitive—and the magnitude of this undertaking—revolutionary, on a global scale—underscore the need for success on the intellectual front.  Over time, a rich body of vegan literary criticism may help turn the momentum of thousands of years of human culture, away from exploitation and enslavement toward respect and restraint, by engaging the intelligentsia and literati whose aid is needed on this front.

By Shelley Harrison

Notes

[1] Since veganism in its original, Watsonian form pertains expressly to animal exploitation and cruelty without, for instance, directly confronting incidental harm to animals resulting from human imperialism, veganism is not, in the present author’s view, comprehensive enough to encompass all concerns with respect to protecting animals.  Ahimsa may be preferable in this respect and in its literal meaning, but its religious and animist origins and overtones may be a drawback.  The “Golden Rule” (“Do unto others…) and Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm”) imperative provide other options but are also not baggage-free.  Given the currency of veganism, “vegan” seems to be the best available modifier.

[2] A mild distinction between adjectives may be tempting:  “anthropocentric” when pertaining to anthropocentrism as a system of belief or value; “anthropocentrist” when pertaining to an individual who subscribes to this system—that individual being an “anthropocentrist.”  However, the use of such labels for individuals is problematic, as it tends to “otherize” and dehumanize individuals by ignoring their differences.  Particularly in the age of social media, sound bites, and short attention spans, such one-size-fits-all labels—“She’s a liberal!”; “He’s a racist!”—are becoming potent mechanisms for calculated defamation and over-simplification.  Such labeling is, therefore, probably best avoided.

[3] While not intended for the purpose of defining anthropocentrism, Protagoras’ assertion “Man is the measure of all things” serves well as an eloquent and concise articulation of the anthropocentric worldview.  The medieval “Great Chain of Being” concept is another articulation of and theoretical justification for anthropocentrism, as is the Biblical “dominion” passage (Genesis 1:26-28; but see Genesis 1:29-30, clearly describing the pre-Fall world as vegan—for humans and other animals).  In characterizing animals with less complex nervous systems as “lower” animals, scientists like Darwin also articulate the anthropocentric model.

[4] Here again, the absence of a single word that serves as a point-for-point logical opposite of anthropocentrism is felt.  Biocentrism may be trotted out but still problematic, in part because -centrism itself has inherent problems in its tendency toward and implied subscription to hierarchical thinking.  Perhaps the simple negation approach taken in, for instance, a + himsa (“non” or “without” + “injury”) or non + violence would be best, but that approach would yield something like “ananthropocentrism”—a mouthful not likely to win many adherents.

[5] Jainism—the Jains appear to have been the ancient perfecters of the Indian concept of ahimsa—appears to be the earliest (circa 600 BCE) forceful, systematic, and fully implemented confrontation of anthropocentrism and speciesism that the present author has been able to find.  Secular vegetarianism appears to come much later, and coinage of the secular word “vegan” arrives in the 1940s.  Environmentalism is also, at least in part, a challenge to anthropocentrism.

[6] E.g., feminist literary theory and criticism; feminist jurisprudence; critical race theory.  A framework for vegan jurisprudence in particular will be addressed in a separate article.

[7] Communicable in the “contagious” sense.

[8] A beast fable is “[t]he commonest type of fable, in which animals and birds [sic] speak and behave like human beings in a short tale usually illustrating some moral point” (Oxford Reference).  Aesop’s Fables provide some of the classic examples of this genre, such as “The Fox and the Grapes,” through which the expression “sour grapes” has entered the language.  Such stories are a sort of literary analog to animal exploitation, wherein animals—albeit imaginary—are used to entertain, teach, or otherwise serve humans.  Reversing this service—treating humans as the “beasts” and animals as the primary beneficiaries of the moral—is a version of the theme that gave rise to the “Mythology and Fantasy Literature” series now being published in the Humane Herald.

[9] Even the most imaginative, subtle, fluid, and empathetic mind must eventually collide with epistemological barriers.  Epistemology as it pertains to the animal emancipation movement will, however, need to be addressed in a separate piece.

[10] The animal rights and vegan movement itself has, tragically, begun to be overrun by profit-making opportunism, in which the very animal concerns giving rise to the movement have been marginalized, if not forgotten.  Some popular “vegan” food or “cruelty-free” product companies, for instance, are owned by people who are not otherwise committed to vegan values.  Even many VOVBs (vegan-owned vegan businesses) continue to engage in severe habitat-harming practices in pursuit of financial gain. Perhaps even more disheartening, the same can be said of some non-profit organizations that are ostensibly dedicated to serving animals’ needs and of celebrities who “go vegan” for a quick publicity boost only to revert to a violence-based way of life once the newness and newsworthiness—to use that word loosely—wear off.  All of the above are instances of at least partly “piggy-backing” human concerns on animal concerns.  Similar dilution and dissipation seems to have overtaken the vegetarian movement in the 19th-century U.S.  See generally The Vegetarian Crusade [sic], by Adam D. Shprintzen (2013).

[11] An example of the type of encumbrance and entanglement to avoid can be found in the publications of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, whose well-meaning mission statement combines “animal liberation and anarchism” and whose principles include “support[ing]… strategies [such as]… economic sabotage [ranging] from boycotts to direct action.”  While the present author also supports such tactics, all such tactics and socio-political theories are just human gibberish from other animals’ perspectives.  The animals’ cause transcends and forecloses any rightful association with these or any other such means or theories.  Such association only adulterates the animals’ cause.  Complete non-exploitation of, non-disturbance of, and non-interference with the lives of other animals—which may be called collectively “nonsumption”—is the minimal standard; the theories and tactics with which humans convince themselves to live up to this standard are secondary.

[12] See note 10.