I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those that haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Most of the discussion of carnism carry Melanie Joy’s assertion that carnism is an invisible belief structure–that is that most carnists do not even know that carnism exists, or that they are proponents. The linchpin being that they do not realize that they have a choice.
I disagree with this thesis: carnism is not invisible, but subterranean. It resides beneath (Joy’s oft used preposition for describing the location) the surface of our actions, neither subconsciously or consciously, but foundationally.
Every carnist, in the capitalist center(s), knows that animal consumption is a choice. In fact, trained as we are as consumers, we have come to view everything as a choice at least between this or that. Every trip to the restaurant, every trip to the grocery store is presented as an exercise in our own autonomy and freedom of choice. (What may be invisible, or at least obscured, are the structural limitations which give the illusion of vastness of choice).
What the vegans who employ the term carnism are doing is not a simple enlightening. It is an unearthing; a far more tumultuous and violent process. It disrupts as it reveals, and it reveals nothing that was not already known: animal consumption is as much a choice as everything else.
None would deny that they choose to eat meat. That choice is not invisible. What is obscured, for most, are the animals whose flesh become meat. And their invisibility resides not within the post-domestic reality of obfuscation (the hiding of abattoirs and “farms,” the night shippings, the glossy packaging, redistribution of idyllic farm imagery, &c), but like Ellison’s Invisible Man, the systemic structure (for the invisible man, racism, for invisible beasts, speciesism) causes others not to see them as they are.
This invisibility is even harder to cast away when the average carnist-consumer deals only with the product. Just as we can wear clothes made by underpaid invisible Bangladeshi hands so too is it easy to consume a burger made from an invisible steer. We know that he was a cow, but he is as much a specter as the Griggstown Cow.
What the vegan use of carnism, as a term, unearths, is not the invisible or unknown, but a set of consumer choices under a post-domestic, capitalist, and speciesist system that supplies a product from invisible sources. What makes this unearthing tumultuous for the carnist is not the non-revelation that one makes a choice, but the appearance of a specter.
…[R]ight there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him in the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth—when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
No, the utterance of carnism does not function as a magic word, an open sesame to the conscience of the carnist. Instead it is the one who unearths, who, just as she did before the discovery of the word carnism, serves as a medium for the ghost. Carnism-awareness advocacy, such as CAAN, is just a negative of consumption-based vegetarian advocacy.