Dr Emelia Quinn on ‘Vegan Camp’

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» Dr Emelia Quinn on ‘Vegan Camp’

RAC member, Dr Emelia Quinn, discusses her work on veganism and camp, offering a fresh perspective on society's use of non-human animals

In this blog post I discuss my work on vegan camp.[1] I define vegan camp as an aesthetic mode and sensibility that shows us the ways in which fun and frivolity can productively co-exist alongside the horror and trauma more typically associated with an awareness of the suffering of animals.

This work began in late 2017, when I was asked to deliver a presentation about a single object on display at the Hull Maritime Museum, as part of a symposium reflecting on the legacy of the nineteenth-century whaling industry in Hull. I was invited due to my scholarly specialism in vegan studies, an invitation I therefore understood as a request for me to deliver a vehement attack on the horror of visual representations of slaughtered whales or to argue for the need to cultivate disgust as the appropriate response to historic artefacts of the whale hunt. However, when browsing the objects in the collection, I came across a piece of scrimshaw (engraving done upon whale bone or teeth) that provoked a somewhat different response. Described in the museum’s online collection as “The Jolly Sailor”, this piece of scrimshaw features a gaudy, colourful image of a young male sailor engraved upon the tooth of a dead sperm whale. The engraving is as kitschy in appearance as it is excessive in its assertion of masculine bravado: the sailor has a giant canon placed prominently between his legs and is waving the insignia of the British Navy proudly above his head. This piece spoke to me of the absurdity of human exceptionalism and of the sheer lengths taken to assert human dominance over the animal (even one already dead). Rather than horror at the canvas, I found that I loved this piece, that I found it hilarious in its excess. I was led to ask what to do with this pleasurable aesthetic response and whether it might be embraced and harnessed as a useful vegan affect.

Violence and Witness

The dominant mode of critique in much vegan scholarship is one of exposure of, and bearing witness to, violence. This mode is typified by the maxim that “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” In this formulation, veganism is an awakening to, and recovery of, knowledge that is otherwise hidden from view. The Save Movement (detailed by Alex Lockwood in a recent blog post for The Vegan Society[2]) is one of many examples of vegan activism that gives high priority to the act of witness and visual exposure, whereby volunteers bear witness to animals arriving at slaughterhouse gates, often with the aim of capturing footage for later dissemination.

Such work is undoubtedly important. The images generated by the Save Movement play an important role in inspiring vegan transitions and function to awaken the general public to the real, lived reality of animals suffering under industrial agriculture. However, for individual vegans, such work can also be emotionally exhausting and confrontations with relentless violence, paralysing. Vegan camp offers, therefore, an alternative and additional way of responding to the world that turns away from exposure of what lies beneath the surface to focus on a playful embrace of the surface itself.

What is Camp?

Camp is most often associated with queer culture (think the hyper-commodified campy extravaganza of RuPaul’s Drag Race). Susan Sontag’s 1964 ‘Notes on Camp’ is one of the most famous attempts to articulate what we mean by camp.[3] For Sontag, camp is a sensibility that manifests itself as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (275). Camp is an aesthetic sensibility that converts the serious into the frivolous, seeing the world as purely aesthetic phenomenon. For Sontag, the essence of camp is a disengaged refusal to see content beyond surface; it is an embrace of things being what they are not.

Camp therefore appears in direct opposition to the politics of exposure and bearing witness outlined above. To remain on the surface of meat is to fail to see the real live animal rendered absent through practices of slaughter.[4] However, I suggest that there might be something politically productive about remaining on the surface of animal products that have become highly overdetermined markers of what it means to be human. If queer camp exposes the artificial and exaggerated stylization of what has traditionally been seen as the fixity and supposed naturalness of gender norms, vegan camp seeks to further disrupt ideas about what it means to be human, as currently understood through discourses of human exceptionalism.

Vegan camp offers a recognition and alternative means of knowing that what we see (more often than not) is not the animal, nor its suffering, but the artifice and spectacle of human attempts to assert their difference from, and superiority over, animal others. Vegan camp can therefore be understood as a refiguring of our modes of looking as vegans, a way of seeing the world as a satirical spectacle designed to reinforce and encourage a commitment to cruelty-free living rather than retreating into a paralyzing sense of horror. In the process, vegan camp resists any attempts to speak for or on behalf of animals, acknowledging our distance from them and the limited anthropocentric ways in which we approach the world.

A further important aspect of vegan camp is that by laughing in the face of situations that might otherwise seem to call for earnest moral levity, it forces an acknowledgement of the complicity of vegans in systems of global exploitation. Vegan camp is not about asserting a high-horse superiority. Instead of disavowing complicity or self-righteous critique, vegan camp uses the structures in which it is implicated to reimagine a relation to the material world, offering a possible survival strategy for vegans: the ability to revel in the instability of human attachments to meat, in the paradoxical nature of the desire to consume and understand non-human animals and to accept the impossibility of a pure or complete veganism. In refusing to look beyond the surface, vegan camp laughs at the suggestion that dead animal bodies could constitute a position so central to notions of human identity, while not purporting to a holier-than-thou position beyond such structures. Indeed, rather than attempt to stand apart from an animal-destroying culture, vegan camp revels in and plays with such a culture, offering a campy performance of complicity.

Mocking Meat

The explosion in popularity of mock meat products provides a good example of vegan camp in action.

Many people have criticized mock meats for the ways in which they reinforce the centrality of meat to diets and present an image of vegans as consuming only unhealthy, ‘fake’ foods that can only ever represent pale imitations of the ‘real’ thing. It risks supporting stereotypes of vegans as joyless and repressed ascetics, denying themselves the pleasures they so clearly crave. In other critiques, to enjoy such replicas of meat is to fail to recover the real absent referent animal behind such products.

By contrast, vegan camp provides a lens through which to rampantly embrace mock meats and their ability to challenge the supposed ‘naturalness’ of meat eating itself. To dig into a specific example: the Vegan Whole Turkey produced by American food company Vegetarian Plus,[5] offers a lifelike replica of a dead trussed turkey, complete with mock cavity for stuffing. What exactly about a mock version of a dead bird signals, for many vegans, an aesthetically desirable and pleasurable experience?

Turkey is as good of an example as any for demonstrating the ways in which the surface of meat is invested with all manner of human meaning: roast turkey is deeply imbricated with ideals of the heteronormative family and the patriarchal father who carves it from the head of the table. In a North American context, the turkey has become a symbol of the origin myths of the United States, standing in for ideas about race, class and the nation and holding an iconographic role in the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

While at risk of conforming to narratives that promote the desirability and necessity of consuming animal products, the Whole Vegan Turkey, when viewed through a vegan camp lens, reveals that meat, as the main constituent of meals, a primary source of protein and strength and an emblem of masculine virility, is prosthetic. It reduces this heavily determined animal product to mere surface.

The ambiguous space between the real and the fake in such products also makes it possible to deceive meat eaters, a performance that works to expose the ways in which their own attachment to meat is based on ideological constructs rather than any inherent property of the dead animal bodies themselves. As I note in my article on vegan camp, there is the potential that vegans’ enjoyment of mock turkey, with mock meat and mock cheese, can provide a carnivalesque performance of the fluidity of such culinary terms. This invites a spectacle of camp excess, of food that is not quite what it seems. It also highlights the absurdity of industrial food production in an age of consumer capitalism, in which every product is expected to possess a distinctly recognizable surface aesthetic in a production line of identical replicas. Vegan camp is a performative relishing of such desires, a way to feast and enjoy their replicability without harming other living beings. It is to see the ‘mock’ of mock meats not simply referring to replication but to mocking meat itself, as an object of humour.

Camp Futures

Vegan camp offers an alternative mode of looking at and witnessing the violence undertaken by humans against animals that does not focus exclusively on revelations of violence. Vegan camp also offers a perhaps fuller, or more realistic, account of the ways in which humour and parody so often work in vegan cultures and communities to diffuse the dominant paradigm of human exceptionalism so apparent in Western culture.

Vegan pleasures and vegan desires do exist and are often implicated in complex ways in the practices of institutions and systems we otherwise seek to renounce. The resultant laughter is necessary if we are to commit to the possibility of a better future. It is a utopian vision of an alternative future rather than an attempt to assert one’s own moral superiority or supposed purity.

It is though worth adding the caveat that such an approach is not applicable to all sites of violence or trauma, nor is it exempt from the perpetuation of structural inequalities. However, I suggest that implicit to a vegan confrontation with traumatic violence is a motive of pleasure and the desire for survival in a culture that sustains neither ethical vegans nor the animals to whom their ethical concern extends. Vegan camp might therefore be seen as an aspirational gesture that looks to a future in which products of exploitation will no longer have the power to wound.

For those looking to explore a digital online archive of vegan camp, you can follow @vegancampcamp on Instagram where I also welcome submissions of further examples of vegan camp.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


[1] This work is published in full as Quinn E. Notes on Vegan Camp. PMLA 2020; 135(5): 914-930. If you don’t have institutional access, you can also listen to the following podcast interview on the concept: https://knowinganimals.libsyn.com/episode-153-vegan-camp-with-emelia-quinn

[3] See ‘Notes on Camp’ in Sontag S. Against Interpretation and Other Essays Penguin Classics; 2009, pp. 275-92.

[4] For more on the ways in which animals are rendered absent see Carol J. Adams’s famous formulation of the “absent referent” in her groundbreaking text, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. 1990. Bloomsbury Academic; 2015.

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