The following is a guest post by Sheffield Animals administrator Seán McCorry. We welcome contributors to our project blog. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
From ‘burning a £50 note in front of a beggar’ to smashing up posh hotels, it’s hardly a secret that our future lords and masters get up to some deeply objectionable antics during the frankly revolting bacchanalia of their student days. I suspect, though, that most of us were surprised to learn of the latest allegations about David Cameron’s university career, as detailed in a new biography by his former confidant, Lord Ashcroft. At an initiation ceremony for the University of Oxford’s exclusive Piers Gaveston dining club, Lord Ashcroft claims, the future Prime Minister ‘inserted a private part of his anatomy’ into the mouth of a dead pig. Or, in the earthier vernacular of social media, the allegation is that ‘David Cameron fucked a pig’.
But why a pig? What does it mean, exactly, that animal bodies are desecrated in the strange and appalling rituals of our ruling class? Others have suggested that the Prime Minister’s alleged participation in the violation of a pig’s carcass was a kind of trial run for his attacks on the most vulnerable people in our society. Again, this is unsurprising; fucking those who lack the political agency to resist their assaults is manifestly a priority of the present Conservative government.
I want to suggest that there is a deep affinity between violence against animals and the forms of political power wielded by our government. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida – who incidentally wrote the aptly named The Beast and the Sovereign – argues that establishing oneself as a fit and proper person for political office requires both the symbolic and the actual consumption of nonhuman animals. The process of becoming a ‘subject’ (that is, a rational, autonomous person, who may be entrusted with political power) is ‘carnophallogocentric’, to use Derrida’s rather odd neologism. This extravagant term might be more digestible if we carve it into bitesize chunks. To simplify a little, and at the risk of butchering Derrida’s argument, we can separate the term into its three component parts.
The first morsel, then, is logos, a word which in Greek means variously language, reason, or truth. In order to become a proper subject (and thus, a potential candidate for political office), we must first establish ourselves as sovereign over our own identity. We resist the urges of instinct where appropriate, we set forth our views in language, and we evaluate their content through the judicious application of reason. To be a subject is, first of all, to be a rational animal.
Secondly, and topically, Derrida singles out the phallus as a key component of subjectivity, and one which is closely linked to the rational logos. By phallus, he means not only the fleshy member but also a whole range of dispositions and attitudes which are associated with a specifically male conception of authority. Traditionally male, political leaders are understood to establish their authority by domesticating the urges of the body and the distractions of emotion (read as feminine here), keeping them firmly under the control of sovereign reason (understood as masculine). It is for this reason that poststructuralist feminists frequently characterise this model of political reason as intrinsically misogynist. The identification of political power with masculinity brings us back to the university antics of the ruling class: both the notorious Bullingdon Club and the Piers Gaveston Society (where the pig incident allegedly occurred) are all-male groups. The sexism of these associations is hardly subtle. According to the testimony of one former member of the Bullingdon Club,
Women aren’t allowed to formal dinners but at informal gatherings we would make them get down on all fours like a horse, whinny, and bring out hunting horns and whips.
This combination of misogyny and animalisation leads us neatly to the third part of Derrida’s carnophallogocentrism. With ‘carno-’, Derrida identifies violence against animals as a central component of political subjectivity. The sovereign subject establishes his supremacy by adopting a sacrificial attitude towards animality, in two senses. First, he supposes that he overcomes his own animality by subordinating his drives and emotions to the constraints of reason. (The irrational is therefore identified with both women and animals, and the ethical fallout of this move is well documented in Carol Adams’ important book, The Sexual Politics of Meat.) Second, he enacts this overcoming of animality in the practice of consuming animal flesh.
While carnivorous sacrifice is held to be central to becoming a subject of any sort, Derrida accords a special significance to meat-eating in the constitution of political subjectivity. In support of this argument, he asks ‘Who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d’Etat [a head of state] by publically declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chef must be an eater of flesh.’ The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is one such political vegetarian. Fortuitously, Corbyn became vegetarian after he ‘got attached to the pigs’ on a farm where he worked as a labourer. Ordinarily we might expect Corbyn’s vegetarianism to be used against him by his political opponents, though one suspects that Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions will prevent this particular slander from being aired for the time being. Corbyn’s sympathy for animals seems to chime with his mild social democratic policies and, above all, with his anti-militarism; all attributes which seem to set him at odds with the virility and calculating rationality of mainstream political ‘common sense’. Corbyn hardly epitomises the carnophallogocentric subject theorised by Derrida, and for this reason he is seen as an unlikely contender for political power.
Why, then, have the allegations weakened Cameron’s position so much? After all, actual and symbolic violence against animals (of which ‘pig-fucking’ is, admittedly, rather a niche subset) is implicitly taken as a prerequisite for aspiring to political power. One answer is that the bacchanalian excess of the dining clubs’ rituals marks them out as entirely the wrong kind of violence. It resembles not so much the legitimised violence of rational political authority as the bestial, idiotic violence of unreason. Somewhere in those nights of extravagant debauchery, we imagine, our Prime Minister lost his logos, and now he’s paying the price.
Finally, I’m curious about the uses of humour in responding to the allegations against David Cameron. Why is it that the sexual desecration of a corpse (not normally believed to be a hilarious topic) should become the target of such amusement? Clearly most people are laughing at the sheer absurdity of the situation, but I want to suggest a further reason here. Humour often functions to manage discomfort and, especially, to disavow our own participation in deeply embarrassing situations: in laughing at others, we forget our own complicity. In response to #PigGate, reports have resurfaced of a 2013 trade deal with China. Orchestrated by Cameron, this deal saw £45million worth of pig semen exported to the PRC. While jokingly cited as further evidence of Cameron’s unnatural affections for pigs, this deal in fact recalls our staggering economic investment in the reproductive control of animals. Strict vegans excepted, we all participate (if only by proxy) in the insemination of animals on an industrial scale. Even though we typically forgo the grotesque and deliberately degrading rituals of the ruling class, in a very real sense, we are all pig fuckers.