The Spectacle and Surprise

“Our synaptic network is momentarily disrupted when we are truly surprised, as our brain scrambles to figure out what is going on. This is not a sinister experience; it is a moment of openness and freshness, in which new perspectives, responses, and reflections are possible” (Bogad 37).

I became a vegan in 2011, soon after I graduated from my MFA program. My partner and I were living in Alabama, in my hometown, and we started a community group – first to meet other vegans and build a supportive community (potlucks and weekly meetups), then to provide avenues for education and discussion (book groups, documentary screenings, lectures by medical doctors and spiritual guides), and then we began to brainstorm ways to culture jam.

And that’s where we ran into problems.

Last week, one of my classmates mentioned how collected and calm the Yes Men are during their spectacles, and how difficult it would be to engage people in public debate under a deliberate persona. I sympathize with these fears, but I also think that tactical performance allows for a kind of opening in the connection with strangers that makes this kind of interaction more joyful, effective, and in the end, less emotionally draining than traditional forms of activism or outreach.

I’ve spent hours in the sun at festivals and on college campuses, handing out pamphlets like Vegan Outreach’s “Compassionate Choices: If You Care About Animals, Please Consider Not Eating Them,” and while I do believe the time is well-spent and has a measurable and positive outcome, it is a difficult form of communication. Approaching a stranger with a booklet automatically triggers ideas of proselytizing, and the instinct is to deny and look away. Videos on how to leaflet recommend a self-assured smile and a strong, locked arm, and these work to create brief moments of opening between people. However, the space created through leafleting creates an outward, disjuncted space that does not coalesce.

The vegan activists I knew were conflicted about the use of spectacle. In our group, we had serious discussions on whether or not to use free signs and stickers provided by PETA. Even though they are the most well-funded animal rights group, their use of the spectacle – nearly naked women and other extreme visuals – has made their name a kind of shorthand code for passersby – Look Away.

And for vegans, there is the problem of empathy. Bogad suggests:

“Observe and participate in your cultural environment and terrain unsentimentally and with as much clarity as possible” (Bogad 41).

There is some pressure to be a Happy Vegan, to be positive and brush off people’s comments when they say “but cheese is so good” or “do you mind if I eat this steak in front of you?” And so then there is the question, “is it more helpful to animals for me to be laid back, instead of getting angry or upset?”

When the Yes Men described their goal as “identity correction,” the potential for tactical performance became much clearer. At its root, vegan outreach aims for a different kind of identity correction – asking people to remember the connection between a living animal and decaying flesh, by pointing out the cognitive dissonance that allows people to forget.

For me, the most powerful and effective moments of vegan activism come from those centered around animal bodies, like the supermarket sausage prank —

And National Animal Rights Day gatherings by Our Planet. Theirs too. where participants occupy public spaces and hold the bodies of dead animals that are the byproducts of factory farms, medical tests, and companion animal overpopulation. Although a quiet kind of performance, this action reasserts the animal bodies that are kept hidden from everyday life. Even in this video, I can feel the difference between looking at a poster of an animal and seeing an animal’s body. Even sympathetic viewers have become somewhat desensitized to 2D images of animals in pain.

The spectacle and the body become the only ways to create these “moments of openness.” The question I am wrestling with is how to interrupt daily life with animal bodies, how to stitch words and beings and food back together.

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