Modernity is a veil drawn over our eyes. When our primitive ancestors wanted meat, he or she had to run after the animal, feel it struggle for life, take its life, then watch its heart beat as its corpse is dismantled for meat. This was the case until quite recently. Except for the highest nobility, seeing the process of life turning into food was a everyday matter. Now, however, meat means nothing but lumps of protein and fat. They are neatly packaged and arranged on the supermarket shelves, alongside industrial merchandises like socks and shampoo. Of course, we know that our juicy steak comes from live animals, but our knowledge lacks immediacy. Our modern society chooses what is to be seen and what is not to be seen. It hides the unpleasant and emphasizes the desirable. Sooner or later, we get accustomed to this veil. Like it or not, we become hypocrites.
That is why we have to go see the slaughterhouse. We should watch animals die. We must experience what really is behind our packaged meat. We must witness the death of cattle, pigs and chickens, and the disassembling of skin, muscles and organs that once comprised a working organism together. We should see beyond the deceptive words of beef and pork, to see the cow and pig flesh that it really is.
Modern society hides such undesirable sights from us. We are educated to abhor violence, and look away from spilling guts and painful death. Yet, we are consuming more and more meat. Advertisements showing succulent steak arouse our appetite every day, while obscuring the grotesque reality behind it. We all love to have meat on our tables; we don’t like the sight of a dying animal. The former is inevitably linked to the latter, but the link is severed in our modern consumerist society.
Another sublime sight is the landfill. An average person in a developed country produces about four kilograms of garbage every day. It includes plastic cups, tissues, food we couldn’t finish and clothes we don’t wear. A small town of 5000 people would produce about 20 tons of garbage per day. It’s a astoundingly large amount; but after it is handed over to the garbage truck, we forget about it. We never get to see it again. It is conveniently and systematically removed from our sight. Adieu garbage.
The landfill is the place where they come together. There are recycling centers and waste-to-energy plants, but the greatest part goes to the landfill. It is where they are ultimately concealed. They are carried as far away from population centers as economically viable. Then, layers and layers of garbage are buried under dirt. All that exist there is waste. Except for the workers and scavengers, no one lives there; no one goes there. It’s the great septic tank of humanity. It’s a sublime sight.
We know how most of our commodities are manufactured. Automobiles, semiconductors or ships are all in the cutting-edge of our technological advancement. Automated arms relentlessly assembling cars, silicon wafers being examined in cleanrooms, massive metal structures being built by gargantuan cranes; these images are so often presented and boasted as an achievement, that we are very familiar with it. We not only understand how these products are made, but we embrace as man-made marvels. There is little distance between the process and the product here.
On the other hand, when it comes to our clothes and shoes, we don’t know. We are never reminded of how they are made. It’s forgotten, because we are never reminded. This lack of images is due to the reality being a bad advertisement. It’s not good for sales to show poor children working in cramped dirty sweatshops, weaving together fancy sports shoes. Thus, we consumers of the developed, modern world are kept away from it. When we put on our shiny new running shoes, we don’t associate it with underpaid labor, even though most of us have at least heard of it. The process and the product is, again, separated.
It’s a great hypocrisy. Death and gore is conveniently carved out of the picture. As casually as we pat our dogs, we dine on cutlets of animal flesh with third-degree burns. We throw away plastic cups as naturally as releasing fish back into water. We wear shoes like it grew out of a tree in our backyard. We are well aware of how delicious steak is, how convenient that cup of coffee was and how comfortable our new pair of shoes is. It’s advertised; it’s impossible not to know. However, we are unaware of the slaughterhouse, the landfill and the sweatshop that was necessary. If we know it, we only know it as insipid facts. We have become like chickens in a mechanized chicken farm. Inside our small racks, we absent-mindedly enjoy our meals made from scraps of fellow chickens.
It’s not about veganism. It’s not about “saving the Earth”. It’s not about preventing exploitation of child labor. As important as those issues may be, they are problems of a higher magnification. It is not a question of morality, or the survival of humanity. It’s about the infantile state where once something exits our sight, we feel as if it has disappeared, and the images which control what to see and what to ignore. Meat is separated from the process; wasting is separated from its product. It’s about overcoming this process-product separation.
This separation has a long history. Our hunting and gathering ancestors were involved in the entire process. As civilization began and professions appeared, not everyone had to be directly involved. The shoemaker didn’t have to skin animals, and the soldier didn’t have to forge his sword. Still, nothing was hidden. The stench of animal viscera and the loud hammering of the smithy were very familiar things. It was only in the last few centuries that the distance of separation increased exponentially. Commercialization and industrialization took this so far. Now we have to rely on images to see how the world beyond our immediate surroundings.
The images, however, don’t reveal the truth. Only the desirable is shown to the public, and the rest is hidden unless actively searched for. Construction of great monumental skyscrapers, skilled watchmakers carefully putting together a complex mechanical watch and farmers picking fresh red tomatoes from peaceful farms are good for sales. On the contrary, pigs being eviscerated, mountains of garbage and overworked children are not. Thus we are very familiar with the brighter side of our world, while we remain mostly unaware of the less beautiful side.
There is nothing that can be done about them. The reason so many images are produced is because they are profitable. They stimulate our desires, and lead us to spend our money. They help sales more than they cost. Those that cost more, simply have no reason to exist. However, we can still be inquisitive. We know where our meat comes from, where our garbages goes to and where our shoes come from. We have to actively familiarize ourselves with the less profitable images of our world. We should perceive our civilization as a whole, not as a utopian world of commodified pleasures. That is why we should go watch animals die, mountains of garbage rise and starved laborers suffer. We should be able to peek over the wall of separation between process and product. Whether that will make the world a better place, is a matter of a different scale.