Lauren Berlant Archive

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014, Reviews

The Ghosts in Our Machine


There is a guy sitting in front of me crying. He looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with—I don’t know why, it’s just a look. I later find out his name is Dan, he’s a schoolteacher, and just a year ago he met the woman sitting next to him, with her hand on his shoulder, at a half-marathon race. She was vegan at the time, active in animal rights; he was vegetarian, sometimes. (Over the next year Dan turned vegan, dropped ten pounds, took ten minutes off his half-marathon time. He speaks of quickened muscle recovery and ‘living aligned’. They both think that each of them has lucked-out in finding the other. He tells me all this the next morning as we run together. Near the end of the run he stops, waits for his girlfriend, and I go on alone.) There is a fresh and loving intimacy between them, as she cares for this man crying in her arms, that I crave. It is perhaps a little of why I’m crying too, because what I’m watching is hurting, and I need support.

It’s the scene in the fur farm. It’s Jo-Anne McArthur’s still pictures, used so affectively as they are woven into the urgency of having to break in to the farm facility, take her pictures, and then leave without being discovered, and without saving a single one of these scared creatures. It is what McArthur says in the foreword to her book We Animals: for all those I could not save. It is why I am crying now (watching the film; writing these words). For every good thing we do, we don’t save these individuals in front of us. They are already dead. The use of the stilled images makes this point strongly, sadly.

Still life. It makes me think of when my grandmother died. I was in Australia on a gap year, travelling. My family told me not to come back, to continue on my journey. My grandmother was ill, cantankerous, gave up on life early, except her sherry and her cigs. The only affection she ever really showed late in life was not towards us, but towards Scruffy and Tigger, their cats. So I did not go back. I send instead to my grandfather a condolence card with the image of a bowl of fruit on the front. On the back, it’s title: Still life. But she was dead. I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave me for not returning, for doing everything I could to get there. This is strangely the same feeling the film leads me to: please, let me go back to this farm, save them, do more. This is perhaps why Dan, I, others, so many others, are crying here as we watch The Ghosts in the People Barn at Farm Sanctuary. Have we done everything we can? For these foxes in the fur farm, death is not still life. Who will forgive us for not doing more?

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an elegy. A plaintive poem, a funeral song and lament for the dead. And because it is this, it knows it needs to hold its nerve. To stay in this tone of the elegiac, edited to perfection in the film, never missing a melancholic beat. To break this tone will be to lessen the story’s power. Even when animal protection workers know that a single story is more powerful than the facts and figures (85 billion animals each year, one cow every 12 seconds…) or a combination of both, they cannot seem to resist drawing us back to the incomprehensible, the overwhelming. I don’t know why this is. It’s like that episode of Friends where Monica wants to make everyone cry at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Perhaps the animal rights campaigners and communicators secretly want to not only stir emotions in others, but overwhelm us, be the one who has the power to do that. Secretly, they all want to be Ross (his first word has everyone crying; Monica flounces off). Ok! I admit it—I want to be like Ross, to write with impact. Comically, Ross has ‘it’. The Ghosts has ‘it’ too, but with a markedly different soul. What makes The Ghosts exquisite is that it holds its nerve all the way through, beyond the credits. The tone never wavers. And so, pure, it will linger on in ways that is, most of all, respectful to the lives lost, of all the lives lost.

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Vegan Before 40 – the beginning

In my magazine journalism class the other day I was discussing with two students their future plans, and the possible need to have an online presence for themselves if they want to go into any communications, journalism, PR role.

We were discussing what types of blog they read and write. One of the fears of blogging is to do with how hard it can be to maintain the motivation and momentum: blogging every week or every day, keeping an audience. It can seem like a real burden. So the idea of time- or post-limited projects has become quite interesting, e.g. 40 Days of Dating, or closer to home, 144 Acts of Writing. Discussing this, one of my students mentioned he used to read a blog called 400 Before 40 – that is, a blog counting down 400 days until the blogger became 40. I sort of laughed, but something fizzed inside me. Why?

Because when I got back to my office — I thought so — the student has mentioned it to me on the very day when I had 400 DAYS UNTIL I WAS 40. Freaky? You bet. I was a little freaked out for a few days there. Until, strangely, or not so much, a 40th birthday dinner with a friend, when we discussed its arbitrary nature. Of course, Irvin Yalom and the existential psychotherapists don’t think so — every anniversary or ending such as this reminds one, or rather resonates, with the fears of growing older and of death. I’ll admit, it got me thinking, and not in a positive way.

But then I was also thinking, all along… and what could I blog about until I was 40?

It wasn’t until I attended the excellent Animal Machines symposium at Sheffield University that it all sort of clicked. That is, I want to enter into the field of Vegan Indie Media (as the people at Our Hen House call it) as a writer; I also want to write about veganism in some sort of academic frame. Meeting people such as Matthew Cook and Richard Twine, who are doing just that, helped me begin to shape together some ideas.

Richard Twine is working on vegan transitions, interviewing people about their shifts towards vegan living, and, using Practice Theory, interrogating the meanings, materialities, and competencies that one requires to become adept at anything, include ‘being’ vegan. Discussing our own vegan transitions later with a colleague at Sunderland, the idea was then almost on the tip of my tongue. And then, later that evening, looking at the Vegan Before 6 (VB6) book on my shelf, given to me by a friend, it came together.

Vegan Before 40.

So here it is. The beginning. A tracking, an archive, an exploration, an intervention into a new vegan world. And blogging about it as a means of thinking it, as Lauren Berlant puts it in a recent interview with Jennifer Cooke about the uses of her own blog, Supervalent Thought, to develop her theories, they “are thought by way of writing, and not just thought in writing” (Berlant and Cooke 2013: 969). Or in Twine’s terms, of developing new skills (the articulation of a personal vegan ethos) as well as understanding the meanings of veganism, and perhaps, developing new materialities as well (networks of other vegan writers/readers?).

Berlant and Cooke (2013) ‘Transformations and challenges in politics, teaching, art and writing: An interview with Lauren Berlant’, Textual Practice 27:6, 961-970.

21 Soul Activism, The Self, Writing Blog

Digging deeper into writing about one’s loves


One of the exercises that I’ve practiced over the past few years is from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which is to write out a list of your obessions. They are, after all, the things one comes back to over and again, to write about, to obsess about. The obsessions are those, if one can give yourself to them, also the things that will bring you greatest joy. (The healthy ones, at least!). I’ve combined this with something taken from Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able to Paint: that is, to actually divide these into what one loves and what one hates. Hate is a hard, painful word and sensation. But I think there is no doubt that within us there are mixed senses of things we love, are drawn to, and those which we are also drawn to that cause immense pain, to us, or to others in the world, and things we perhaps do hate, and would like to see the end of. Both in the general (injustice, alcoholism, biodiversity loss, cruelty to animals) and also in the particular (Michael Gove’s attacks on educators, my father’s alcoholism, ash die back disease, bear bile farming).

I’ll leave the development of thoughts around love and that other word, hate, for another post (stuff around accepting one’s destructive urges). But for now what I wanted to do was dive deeper into the generalities I’ve put on my list of things I love. It is detail that makes the artist, the writer. Observation of detail, uniquely told or made. So I’ve practiced some free writing (another of Natalie Goldberg’s, or Julia Cameron’s, practices) on the topics from my list. So I’ve not tried to define or lead where the writing goes. Sometimes it feels creative, other times more essayist. I’ve just gone with the feeling.

First up: feeling healthy and full of energy.

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