“Those things we cannot unsee”: Interview with Jacqueline Morr of Project Intersect

One of my driving interests as an ethical vegan activist over the past few months has been exploring the intersection of ethical veganism and other social justice movements. Having been one to indulge in the myopia of “animal rights” for many years, I have experienced quite the eye-opening (to put it mildly) since pursuing a broader stance of resistance, leading me to take seriously the interconnections of forms of oppression. And to take seriously the necessity and importance of solidarity with other activists across movements.

As I explained in a previous post, I am co-editing a collection of letters from current vegans called Letters to a New Vegan. Through that project, I got connected with Jacqueline Morr, a writer and activist currently living in Los Angeles who is doing a range of academic and activist work on issues surrounding intersectionality, ecofeminism, and animal/total liberation. She recently founded Project Intersect, a zine that I hope will become a nucleus for intersectionality that brings together academics, activists, and a broader population… sliiime

Can you talk about your process of going vegan? When was it, and what factors played into your decision to stop participating in the exploitation of animals? In January of 2011 I moved to Chicago. Nick, a longtime friend of mine, had contacted me about an extra room in his new apartment in Roscoe Village for only four hundred dollars per month; I did not hesitate to accept his offer. This was immediately after I finished with student teaching in my hometown (Mansfield, Ohio), which solidified my desire to teach—and to finally move out of state.

Nick left Ohio immediately following high school graduation, having earned a film degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in addition to working toward a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts Studies from Columbia College (Chicago) by the time I arrived in that city on the lake. He’d already been vegan for a year, whereas I was one of those self-proclaimed “vegetarians” who still ate canned tuna and never even gave cow’s milk or chicken’s eggs an iota of critical thought. I had also spent six weeks in an eating disorders treatment facility in Philadelphia in February and March of 2010—of my own volition, I still feel the need to mention—and was still recalibrating my relationship to food and hunger and also to the post-traumatic self, the multiply-fractured consciousness left in the wake of recovery.

When Nick found the skim milk, “organic, free range” eggs, and “100% real” butter I’d put in his fridge he indicated his discomfort. If I could name the sense of shame I felt for introducing animal products into his cruelty-free kitchen it might sound something like denial. This prompted serious conversations regarding his veganism, during which he recommended I read Eating Animals. I plucked that book from his shelf and read it in a little more than a day. I cried when I finished. Not only for the enormity of the other animals’ suffering but also for my own willful ignorance and, strangely enough, a recovered memory: an undercover video from a fur farm in China I’d seen years before, thousands of minks ineffectively bludgeoned and stripped of their skin while still alive and thrown into pink and steaming piles of others in various stages of dying and decomposition. Writhing ever so slightly. Lidless eyes filled up with the horror of that violent human indifference.

The next morning I held ceremony at my last non-vegan meal, which consisted of diner buckwheat pancakes and a milkshake.

Your academic experience is in trauma studies. How has that research and scholarship affected your work as an activist? Have you found it useful for yourself (and others) who are striving to end the suffering of others?

Trauma and the traumatic subject fascinate me. More than that—I feel indebted to the language and physiology of trauma. The hard work of my Master’s thesis, which culminated in an extended research paper (a history of eating disorders and female [writerly] resistance), an artist’s statement (on the inherent “madness” and “feminine” aspect of writing), and a conceptual nonfiction novel called sick girl (regarding my personal experience as a clinically “disordered” female), revolutionized my experience and understanding of research and writing and critical thought. Specifically: I had begun to more rigorously connect my desire for and aptitude toward knowledge to my increasing unrest as an advocate of critical pedagogy and feminism, amongst many other things (animal and earth liberation not the least of them). A further result was that I more clearly understood the urgency of action around the issues that were closest to my heart and mind—in addition to discovering their utter interconnectedness. During this time I made explicit the previously implicit connections between my feminism, atheism, ethical veganism, earth activism, anarcho-syndicalism, and so forth. Proclaiming it from the rooftops, as it were…sounding “barbaric” yawps from the Manhattan Bridge or the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park.

While my time in the Trauma Studies Department at NYU contributed positively and so thoroughly to my increasingly intersectional mode of praxis around my ethical and political self, it also clarified the extent to which my idea(l)s are “radical,” even (and oftentimes especially) in the context of disparate academic and activist circles. Where I sought allies I found willful resistance, oftentimes hatred and bigotry: “feminists” rejecting the equation of the exploitation of their reproductive systems to that of other female animals; polyglots and Ph.D. candidates in Literary Criticism arguing against boycotts and direct activism on the basis that “choice cannot truly exist;” LGBTQIA activists employing ableist, sexist, and speciesist language to discuss the history of their own oppression.

I could prattle on forever here, but perhaps I should end by noting that knowing itself can be traumatic. In the case of animal/earth liberationists and radical eco-feminists this strikes me as especially true. Those things we cannot unsee will often wash over us in a wave of cold desperation. Of panic, really, with an intensity that would bowl us over. You know the sort: undercover videos from factory farms implant themselves as memories in the Nightmares Section of our brain’s memory warehouse. This cathexis then connects to an intense urgency, hatred, fear around the gestation crate, the bull hook, the anti-nursing bullring, the captive bolt pistol, the puppy mill, the free-range shithouse.

What are some of your primary issues of focus these days as an activist and advocate? What do you feel ought to be some priorities of the vegan/animal-rights movement(s) in general?

Intersectionality remains a central focus of mine. How to cultivate safe and productive spaces for radical eco-feminists and (gender, ability, intellectual, or otherwise) nonconforming persons in animal liberationist spaces; how to successfully critique welfarist incrementalism and cognitive moral dissonance by modeling engaged, intersectional, abolitionist ethics and politics; and, perhaps most importantly, how to model intersectionality through the language I use and the tactics I employ.

There is, I feel, a startling lack of definitional rigor that encapsulates the contemporary movement for “animal rights” (I would instead use the term liberation or defense, for deploying rights-based language to advance any radical social justice movement mires us in legal jargon and a certain capitalist economy of subjectivity—very limiting and counter-productive. This is aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s shunning of the concept of “tolerance” during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It’s the presence of justice.”) Amongst the fractured sects of this movement there are no real working—read: widely-accepted and applied—definitions of violence, personhood, accountability, effective activism, and yes—even veganism. I am in no way advocating that diversity, nuance, multi-vocality, and anarchistic values be swallowed up by some equalizing structure or language. Each of us must retain access to the fullest range of significations without fear of subjugation or silencing. But if we are to organize we must ourselves be organized and intentional. Not slaves to any structure or forms but certainly willing pupils, always read to learn and humbly accepting our ill-fated (human) grandiosity: our gross lack of perspective.

You founded Project Intersect, which is an exciting effort to bring together different activists and scholars in order to create a space and vehicle for dialogue on various (but related) social justice issues. Can you explain, briefly, what intersectionality is, and talk some about why it is such a crucial component of ongoing justice advocacy and how you feel it can change the way we approach the ending of exploitation?

I feel I’ve talked about this a bit earlier in this interview, so I’ll keep it brief here: intersectionality, in my understanding, considers all oppressions as interlocking and mutually-reinforcing. Its foundation is built upon the recognition and acceptance of empathy as the driving force behind all ethical concerns—with some caveats around white (male) privilege, colonial histories, indigenous practices, geography, and so forth.

It’d be a true exploitation of my own privilege to claim that all persons should adhere to intersectional ethics as I must, and do. How do I honor the history of the term itself, which was coined by black radical feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” without coopting or claiming the experiences of persons whose lives, in so many ways, are distinct from my own? Me, born to middle-class white folks in Ohio exurbia, sent to Catholic school where I accessed a truly college-preparatory education, possessive of my BA and MA, never having wanted for food or shelter or, really, friendship. Of course, as a female-bodied, young, atheist, body-modified, anti-capitalist, earth liberationist, ethical vegan person, I can find multiple intersections between my experience (of oppression) and that of others, especially female-bodied persons. Never claiming their experience as my own; never speaking for or at or artificially “with” them; but in solidarity and humility to the greatest extent possible.

Identifying and illuminating these intersections is key to collaboration and solidarity across multiple movements for social justice and liberation (power in numbers). This means posing to feminist-identified persons that the exploitation of the female body, regardless of species, must be recognized as intolerable. It means speaking with labor organizers and those who campaign for the rights of working-class laborers and immigrant workers about the exploitation of workers (both adults and children) in slaughterhouses, tanneries, the ivory trade, and so on.

What are some of your goals with Project Intersect, in the near future and further down the road?

Well, of course, to distribute the zine more effectively and widely—to put the publication in the hands of as many unawares passers-by as possible! It’d be lovely to have the zine come out bi-annually, but I’m a High School English teacher and find that I don’t even have time to read for myself anymore, let alone write. Bitter about all of that (teaching is wonderful and awful and uplifting and miring all at once.) But! The first issue of the zine is currently available online (e-mail projectintersectzine@gmail.com to request a copy) and in some brick-and-mortar stores: The Pop-Hop bookshop in Highland Park; Skylight Books in Los Feliz; and Stories Books & Café in Echo Park. All in Los Angeles, currently, but my collaborators on the project—Ashley Maier (a good friend and fellow activist) and Nick Morr (my spouse, and another radical liberationist)—are working to improve distribution and promotion of the zine. If anyone would like to help, please, contact us!

As a post-script I should mention that the theme for the next issue, whenever it DOES come out, will be On Violence.

Another of your interests is Ecofeminism. How would you define ecofeminism and its relationship to the larger feminist movement? Why is ecofeminism not always also a vegan movement?

These questions! Eco-feminism has a particularly interesting history, which I won’t recount here; instead I’ll point readers in the direction of Marti Kheel, Lori Gruen, Josephine Donovan, pattrice jones, and so forth. Eco-feminism itself represents that marriage I discussed earlier: a sort of praxis of ethics, experience, and care that fuses (without coopting or whitewashing or undifferentiating) multiple ethical, socio-political, economic, environmental, and ontological concerns. I fear I’m sounding too wordy but I hope my high-flung language is appropriate enough for this context. I care very deeply about the accessibility of these concepts and lifestyles, which must be moldable enough to fit the needs and desires of innumerable persons and communities.

As I’m finding myself a bit overwhelmed by this question, and in the interest of our time, I’ll be as direct as possible: vegan eco-feminism is a “radical” stance in that it establishes and aspires toward rigorous moral baselines. It’s polemical because many feminists identify strongly with one cause or another. Many self-identified feminists I’ve interacted with that are NOT vegan perhaps have never heard of eco-feminism, or feminist arguments for veganism. Or, if they are aware of such arguments, they’re resistant—perhaps they feel they cannot relate, or they have adopted a humanist stance, or they are simply disgusted at the comparison between their reproductive systems and those of female animals of other species. These run the gamut. Melanie Joy’s concept of cognitive moral dissonance resonates well here.

I am in no way asserting that feminists who have not yet made the connection between the oppression of “women” and the multiple other oppressions tended to by eco-feminists and ethical vegan feminists are “bad feminists”—nor are they bad people, necessarily (yet these things always must go forward case-by-case, as we know). As a white, cisgender, educated, able-bodied person I must accept the skewed perceptions that such privilege can and does promote. However, I feel no remorse in proposing that embodying ideals of non-violence, anti-capitalism, solidarity across social justice movements, and the opposition to all forms of bigotry (including speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, nationalism, and so forth) should rightfully be at the heart of all efforts to end oppression/the oppressors.

Besides all of these projects and interests, you have also contributed articles to a few publications and do your own writing. Where can we read some of your previous work?

  1. My personal blog, which has been cast aside as the result of my teaching schedule: honeyonthebrain.blogspot.com
  2. I’ve contributed a few pieces for my column “I Forge Things” at Yay! LA Arts & Culture Magazine: http://www.yaylamag.com/category/yay-lit/i-forget-things-literature/.
  3. I have forthcoming pieces in Letters to a New Vegan and an as-yet-unnamed project by professor, author, and activist Laura Wright on the intersections of ethical veganism, femininity, and eating disorders.
  4. Also, I’ve written a conceptual non-fiction book, titled sick girl, that sits gathering encrypted dusk on my hard-drive. It was written for partial fulfillment of my Master’s thesis. I love it and miss it, and intend to get through that final round of edits some day soon, and re-submit to literary agents. Hopefully. Hopefully.

Thanks so much for speaking with me about your work!

My greatest pleasure, of course!

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Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

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