“A slave: a being whose life and death are in the hands of another. What else are cattle, sheep, poultry? The death camps would not have been dreamed up without the example of the meat-processing plants before them.”J. M. Coetzee.
Elisabeth Costello is the main character after whom the book is titled; an aging white Australian writer and vegetarian who advocates against the “commodification of animal flesh” and the general thingification of animals for the sole purpose of consumption.
Slavery, as we have come to understand it (through Orlando Patterson and others), is stretched so as to include animals, what Costello refers to as “captive herds…slave populations” whose work it is to breed for us, such that their “sex becomes a form of labour”.
Even with such seemingly obvious references to the enslavement of Africans, there is no mention of the Middle Passage, of the horror of the plantations nor of how the (black) slave is denied ownership of their reproductive labour.
Costello can only go as far or as late as the Nazi death camps to find a fitting approximation in order to arouse the compassion of those she presents her papers to. Each day, abattoirs around the world produce “fresh Holocausts”, she claims, a point she elaborates on with such intense devotion that some accuse her of being an anti-Semite.
Cruelty against animals in the meat industry, anti-Semitism and slavery are all collapsed into one. Whatever hairs Fanon split between oppression and non-beingness are knitted meticulously together in the service of the lives of animals.
I have no expectations of Coetzee displaying some sort of “conceptual fidelity”, none whatsoever, and know far too well that even reference to slavery of blacks on an equal plane as cruelty against animals would have resulted in some kind of erasure of the slave experience anyway.
I mention this because there’s something really obscene about this kind of appropriation and even if it’s not unique to Coetzee, him being a master of words makes it resonate that much more painfully.