Flight From the Body: A Psychoanalysis of Veganism

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Flight From the Body: A Psychoanalysis of Veganism

Veganism is often defended but rarely described. By way of correction, the following is a tentative, psychoanalytic exploration of the meaning behind an individual’s choice to be vegan.

Interpreting human nature through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis is to make the error of being about 100 years out of date. It also requires great care in making claims. Freud still has his ardent followers, but to address the first point, better progress is made, here as in any other field, when dogma is lifted and subsequent iterations improve on the original ideas. Psychoanalysis has been very well adjusted by several existential thinkers across the 20th century and I shall be using their contributions in my own approach. Secondly, what can we claim for it? Certainly not scientific rigour. Psychoanalysis was the original pseudoscience and there is no way to prove or disprove many of the assertions it makes. In this sense it is not falsifiable*, which Karl Popper rightly cited as the mark of a scientific theory. What psychoanalysis is very good at doing is helping to uncover the meaning behind things, especially when it comes to irrational human behaviour. Psychoanalysis is a descriptive art and it can still be used reasonably, I believe, to understand and characterise human motivation. The utility of my contribution rests not on its scientific standing - it has none - but on its ability to point to meanings and to encourage introspection and description. Sorely needed in the vegan case, I think.

To begin with I will examine anxiety, paying special attention to the role of the body. I use Freud’s three psychosexual development stages, not exactly as Freud would have described them, but taking on board several excellent revisions made by Norman O. Brown*, Ernest Becker* and a few other 20th century neo-Freudians and existential thinkers who seemed to grasp what Freud was getting at. Instead of working only with instincts, as Freud strived to do, these modifications will help to situate the story more roundly within the human condition.

As infants, we arrive in the world wrapped in a cocoon of dependence. At the breast, every bodily wish is satisfied, every comfort is afforded, every itch scratched for us. This is what Freud described as the oral stage, in which total communion with the mother is possible, bodily pleasure is assured and demands for food, warmth and security are all met.

Herein lie the seeds of later anxiety, says Norman Brown in Life Against Death (Brown, 1959). Humans have a protracted period of infancy, compared to other species, and we experience unrivalled pleasure during that time. If we want a theory of anxiety we need to look back to the initial conditions of our lives, in which pleasure and protection were so assured that any later infringement of them is felt as a tyranny.

Indeed, very soon things begin to get tough. As the child learns to differentiate himself from his mother he begins to learn the limits of this perfect universe. This corresponds to Freud’s infamous anal stage, in which the infant discovers the limits of his own body including, remarkably, that it has an anus; an ending. Not only this, but the products of the anus are taught to him as being fetid and unwanted. The child’s body begins to fail him: it is faulty and arbitrary. He realises that his world of perfect pleasure cannot keep on being expanded.

If this account is to be believed, anxiety arrives in our lives via this primary failure of the body. Our bodies deny us expansive pleasure and they alert us to the presence of finitude, or death. As Ernest Becker puts it in The Denial of Death: ‘the body is a universal problem to the creature that must die’ (Becker 1973, p163)

It would be easy to describe vegans in terms of the flight from death alone. Eschewing the products of death on the dinner plate serves to escape the anxiety aroused by the reminder of death. Abstention then becomes a device for reducing anxiety. Of course, a moral case might argue that we care about preventing death in other beings without necessarily fearing it ourselves. I feel that both explanations might be true. The personal flight from death can inform a subsequent moral position without any loss of integrity. I also think that death anxiety alone is not enough to explain the observable behaviour. Whatever its truth, the insight can go a level deeper. In vegans all the products of the animal body are shunned, not just the death­-inducing ones. (If anything vegetarians, who abstain from consuming only the dead flesh of animals, are more accurately described by the death flight). The explanation clearly needs another level of nuance.

After realising that the body will fail him, the infant abandons his pleasure project. Here is Freud’s third developmental phase - the gential stage - in which all the channels of pleasure we explore in infancy are concentrated into a limited subset of zones. We then require a non-bodily means of seeking pleasure, namely, the ego. For Freud, the ego is ‘that part of the id [our pleasure drive] which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world’ (Freud, 1923). For Becker, the ego is the symbolic, non-physical arena that man needs in order to continue to seek expansive satisfaction when the faulty body has been abandoned. The extent of our ego life, which causes us to build churches, run banks, compose sonatas or pursue careers, shows just how extensively we pursue the pleasure project without our bodies.

The ego-dwelling person remains, however, linked to a body that is decaying, gross and failed. This is the basic human dichotomy. While we play out our lives as symbolic, immortal beings, the body reminds us that we are base and arbitrary and destined to die. The body serves to recall the failed project to be warm, loved and universal. The body is a reminder of death. If death is so close to the body in our developmental pathways, then maybe the anxiety that seems in part to be motivating vegetarian or vegan behaviour actually has its roots in the body.

There is a slight irrationality to the usual course of abstention from animal products that is worth exploring. When I speak to new vegans, or even those not so new, I find that less evocative products like, say, suede are usually the last to disappear, even though ostensibly they involve as much death as, for example, a prime streak. Taking the example further, how about a blood diamond, which does not summon the same immediate recoil as, say, sizzling bacon? What I am getting at is that the less forcibly a product assaults our primary senses, the longer it takes for it be addressed by our morality. In due course the products vanish from the ethical shopping trolley, but the delay is revealing. Reminders of death that are less visual, odorous and pungent receive later, or even less, attention. This is not explained by rational morality, but it is highly susceptible to a body based explanation. Bodily stimuli are weighted more heavily than rational ones. Body cues* as well as death cues influence the abstention behaviour.

Milk and eggs are a reminder of both creatureliness and sexual reproduction, itself predicated on the death of the individual such that the species might thrive. The sexual products of the body attest to the body’s phylogenetic sexual purpose. I think there is a meaning tucked away in here. Anxiety binds to bodily cues and again, encountering anxiety, the vegan opts for abstention.

This nuances the account as follows: a vegan is apparently acting to reduce body anxiety and not just death anxiety when he avoids animal products. This is understandable from the nature of the stimuli: to crunch down on bones or to eat a muscle belonging to another animal is a rich and terrifying reminder of what it means to inhabit a body. For a creature with an early history of bodily trauma, this is anxiety-producing.

Recall that being reminded of bodiliness is the same, in our account, of being reminded of the spectre of death from behind the protection of our egos. This is why it can be so terrifying. I am suggesting that in certain individuals this terror is addressed by anxiety-reducing behaviour in the form of veganism.

Purity is a word often applied to a vegan diet and used by vegans to describe it. A quick search for ‘pure vegan’ on Amazon reveals dozens of cookery titles containing the words ‘pure vegan’, ‘pure food’, ‘pure and simple’ and so forth. Google will sell me ‘Pure Margarine’, ‘pure vegan vitamin D2’, ‘pure vegan supplements’ and ‘pure vegetarian cafes’, among others. I believe the aspiration reveals a wish to flee from the body. Purity is not attainable in a physical sense, certainly not with our failed, arbitrary bodies, but only in a symbolic realm. This is ego territory. When a vegan chases purity, he is running in the direction away from his own body and away from anxiety.

Body anxiety and death anxiety are also expiated in behaviour that is apparently paradoxical. I have had many experiences of vegan friends thrusting into my hands images of animal-testing atrocities or posting on Facebook some of the more grisly depictions of slaughterhouse bloodshed. Whilst it would appear antithetical for a vegan to fascinate themselves with such imagery, I believe that in this manner they are seeking to externalise their anxiety. The anxiety aroused by these themes needs to be dealt with - if not by avoidance then in some other way. So it is made public, shamed and jointly reviled. The quest for anxiety reduction is still apparent and it again points to a heightened body/death sensitivity. A wellspring of anxiety around the body and of death is in evidence, albeit with immersion rather than abstention as the result.

It would be interesting to correlate these ideas with studies to reveal how body cues are dealt with by individuals identifying as vegan. The topic could be approached empirically. As far as I’m aware, no study evaluating death cue sensitivity in vegans has been performed. The present analysis would advise looking at body cues also.

These ideas contribute to a more descriptive account of veganism, one that suggests a place for body anxiety and not simply a reaction to death. Usually the movement is overwhelming motivated by its defence and, very often, its propagation, such that this kind of personal reflection is rarely made. I opened with the rationale for why it is reasonable to use psychoanalysis for this sort of exploration. If it has helped to reveal the meaning behind the symbols of veganism, then it has been useful. If it offers any explanatory value to the subjective experience of becoming a human being then it again has some worth. I hope it accomplishes at least the beginning of greater introspection.

James Southwood wades deep into sports psychology and existentialism on his blog www.DyingToWin.net and is a World Champion of Savate (French kickboxing). He studied maths and philosophy of science and continues to grapple with the unlikely bedfellows of rationalism, veganism and psychoanalysis.

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