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Amodern 10: Disability Poetics
December 2020


The Poetics of Meat, Mad Cows, and Human-Animal Illness

Liz Bowen

One of the most stubborn limits of disability studies is that which encircles “the human.” We think we know what kinds of beings are exposed to ableism and stigma, as well as to the more liberatory possibilities of disability politics. With the exception of a service animal here and there, the subjects and social dynamics with which disability studies is concerned are almost always assumed to belong to homo sapiens. At the same time, however, the history of disability and illness is a history of human encounters with animals, from pig-derived insulin to seizure-sniffing dogs to gorillas trained in American Sign Language. Though our concepts of disability, access, illness, and health regularly cross species bounds, the foundational “social model” of disability still privileges human-focused definitions of the social.1

Symptomatic of this limitation is the predominance of Temple Grandin as the go-to example of interspecies disability, in both disability and animal studies. Grandin operates, on the one hand, as a touchstone through which theorists try to think disability and “the nonhuman” together; on the other hand, scholars in both fields have taken the famed animal welfarist to task for her assertion that autism makes her uniquely capable of understanding and relating to nonhuman animals.2 The disability community largely critiques Grandin’s characterization of autism as essentialist, and animal liberationists (both disabled and nondisabled) question why her supposedly exceptional empathy for nonhuman animals has led her to design slaughterhouse equipment rather than become an abattoir abolitionist.3 And so, she provides a convenient scapegoat for those who, rightfully wary of the vile history of comparison between disabled humans and nonhuman animals, bristle at the very notion that disability should have any meaning beyond the human. In comparing autistic and nonhuman consciousness, this logic goes, Grandin devalues both autistic and nonhuman life, and so disability and animality should remain safely distinct.

Underlying this anxiety is the assumption that speaking of disability and animality in relation to one another necessarily means making comparisons or analogies between the two. This has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring how ableism and speciesism operate in mutually reinforcing, materially intertwined ways as Sunaura Taylor argues in Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. For instance, the health/illness binary not only devalues sick and disabled humans, but also renders nonhuman lives disposable in service of a fantasy of human health. When livestock are killed off due to disability or illness, both the agricultural industry and its detractors deploy the stigma of unhealthiness to their own rhetorical ends: for animal liberationists, “[t]he downed, sick – or even potentially sick – animal becomes the symbol of what is unhealthy, dirty, and dangerous about industrialized animal farming,” while at the same time, factory farms kill disabled animals en masse in order to appear that they prioritize “safety, health, and even compassion.”4 Both claims are founded on the assumption that an animal’s compulsory and violent death is a desirable alternative to its living with a disability.

It is understandable, then, that disability studies has been mostly uninterested in engaging with these debates. Compounding the ableist rhetoric on all sides is the problem of suffering that has been a matter of controversy in disability studies for quite some time. Disability advocates have been reluctant to embrace solidarity with nonhuman animals whose bodily conditions are the products of grave mistreatment, as doing so might enforce harmful associations of disability with pain and misery. “It is hard even to begin to consider what disability means in these instances,” Taylor says, “because of how inseparable it is from captivity, abuse, neglect, breeding, and, yes, suffering.”5 While she suggests that viewing the lives of livestock through a critical disability lens can help us “to ask who these animals are behind their suffering” and “to consider how the very vulnerability and difference that these animals inhabit may in fact model new ways of knowing and being,” the how of this imperative remains an open question.6 Given that industrial agricultural facilities are some of the most well-hidden private operations in the American landscape, most people’s only lenses into it are through the expository work of animal activists, whose singular message is indeed animal suffering.7 Moreover, as Jasbir Puar has argued, population-scale systems of intentional debilitation (such as industrial farming) pose a challenge to disability studies’ tendency to celebrate disabled embodiment.8 What would it mean to look for other modes of disabled life in this context, and how would one even go about such a thing?

One way toward answers to these questions, I propose, is through poetry. Even if most of us have very limited access to these beings’ day-to-day experiences, poetry makes it possible to reckon with, rethink, and repurpose the language we might use to imagine them. This possibility is among the core animating impulses of The Cow, Ariana Reines’s 2006 breakthrough collection of lyric, prose, and documentary poetry organized around modern systems of factory farming and medical-industrial discourse. The cows in this text fit into none of the imaginaries most readily available to describe livestock life: they are neither the contented cows of dairy industry ad copy, nor the histrionically abjected victims of PETA pamphlets, nor the quiet hill-dwellers of the pastoral. They are, rather, the focus of less familiar but more mundane realms of language production, such as veterinary guidebooks, architectural plans, and industry instruction manuals. By reproducing and representing these texts as poetry in themselves – often without even using line breaks to stylize them as such – The Cow appropriates the language of its world and ironizes it by exposing the objectifying logics that structure both industrial livestock-processing equipment and poetic address. Refracted through one another, poetry and meat production are revealed to entail a “processing” of life into digestible form, from which life is nonetheless always escaping, emerging, insisting upon itself.9

Through this processing, the material details of the cows’ lives and deaths come into focus with scientific precision: they are quadruple-stomached, pregnant, eating, lowing, breathing, being inseminated, obtaining pelvic fractures, having portholes put into their bodies, lying down, refusing to walk, going “mad,” crying out, and ultimately becoming food. Poetry, in its lack of demand for narrative or argument, enables the representation of these animals’ lives in language without contorting them into narrative prostheses – that is, the flattening of disabled figures into plot devices – or reducing them to the spectacle of their deaths.10 Even as the text foregrounds the debilitation that accompanies the cows’ conditions, it also emphasizes the extent to which they still manage to resist humans’ claims to epistemological and physical mastery. Humans do not fully understand the function of each stomach, Reines points out, nor do we always know why a cow might lie down and refuse to get up, disrupting production on the farm. “THE CAUSE OF THE RECUMBENCY IS, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, ELUSIVE EVEN TO AN EXPERIENCED CLINICIAN,” Reines copies from The Merck Veterinary Manual, highlighting a moment in which “downer” cows resist the protocol of human control by very nature of their disabilities.11 Disability, here, has meaning and possibility other than suffering, even as it may well be connected to it. It is possible, The Cow suggests, to consider what disability affords not beyond or “behind” suffering but through and alongside it, without reducing one to the other.

When a body passes through the factory farm and slaughterhouse, it also, just as importantly, passes through categories of subject and object, animacy and inanimacy, and life and death, culminating in its ultimate transformation from “cow” to “meat” – the linguistic shift that allows humans to cognitively sidestep the implications of digesting a sentient being. Poetry, in The Cow, does not simply represent, narrate, or analyze this process; it is the process. But, as we will see, the cows’ disabled bodies become not only the victims or tragic symbols of this process, but also the disrupters and drivers of poetic form. In response to the objectifying linguistic processes of the slaughterhouse, Reines takes Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” as a formal guide: like the proteins that carry the illness, The Cow’s syntax addresses bodies by moving through them, turning them into grammatical objects that nonetheless have agency. The Cow reckons with and at times relishes the knowledge laid bare by this interspecies illness: that no human can remain safely outside the various mechanisms – grammatical, mechanical, spiritual – that they might use to relegate others to the position of objects. After all, no matter how powerful a subject you might be today, if you eat a contaminated piece of beef tomorrow, you will become the object of a) a pathogen, and b) a whole society’s fear and hysteria. And yet, while ableist fears of madness may result in the denial of subjectivity to humans and nonhuman animals perceived as mad – specifically, through the mass “termination” of potentially BSE-infected cows and the institutional control of people who experience psychosis – these beings nonetheless remain agents, capable of acting on and with others.12 The text responds to this reality by incorporating a poetic “I” that is always vulnerable to having its capacities altered through zoonotic illness and its related objectifying processes, and thus vulnerable to having its status as a human subject thrown into question. In this way, the text invests in what Taylor refers to as “new ways of knowing and being” that emerge alongside or even out of debilitation and suffering, without obscuring them. Languageless beings deemed too mad, too disabled to live might not only suffer, The Cow suggests, but also model ways of resisting the linguistic systems that transform them into objects.

Reading The Cow through this lens complicates the metaphorical apparatus through which critics tend to read it, wherein the debilitation of female cows in factory farms indexes similar forms of suffering inflicted on human women through sexual violence.13 Though the text indeed traces the “resemblances” in the language around these phenomena, its sustained attention to the nontransferable language of food production makes it difficult to interpret Reines’s engagement with nonhuman life as purely allegorical.14 So, too, does the book’s self-conscious “conflation” of “cow with cattle car,” which reaches beyond analogy to suggest that the role of cattle cars in the Holocaust “humanizes, necessarily, the suffering of the beasts for which cattle cars were made.”15 Both of these metaphorical resonances – and the compromised status of metaphor in general – are essential to Reines’ project, though I will not have the space to grapple fully with them here. I will focus, rather, on moments in which the text not only asks readers to imagine what other registers its language of animal disability might point to, but also investigates how language participates in systems of human and nonhuman disablement in the first place.

Moreover, reading The Cow in terms of its careful attention to the material lives of disabled livestock not only challenges critical interpretations of this particular text, but also extends contemporary disability poetics into new conceptual territory. Asking what disabled animal bodies might have to do with poetic form aligns with the recent turn toward formalism in literary disability studies: that is, a growing body of scholarship that asks what an aesthetics of disability might look like beyond simply texts that are “about” disability or that have a disabled author.16 Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories, for instance, considers how cognitive disability can shape the structure of narrative, and books like Rebecca Sanchez’s Deafening Modernism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances trace the influence of Deaf and autistic language on the poetics of writers who are not identified with those categories. The Cow suggests that this field of inquiry need not be limited to human disability; even as the text does not purport to be about disability and in fact never uses the word, its poetics are driven by the processes of human objectification that produced “mad cow disease,” a form of species-crossing disablement. Still, it is not surprising that so far this critical turn has been anthropocentric in its concerns. To most people, it seems simply nonsensical to suggest that there could be such a thing as a nonhuman disability poetics, given that language is widely presumed to belong only to human beings. But The Cow gives the lie to this assumption – not by appealing to arguments that nonhuman animals have languages of their own, but by excavating the poetic processes through which so-called human language materially alters and is altered by both nonhuman and human bodies.

Still underexplored in this body of scholarship, moreover, is a consideration of illness aesthetics. Illness has long existed in somewhat uneasy relation to disability, challenging the social model’s definition of disability as purely a problem of social and built environments rather than a problem of biological impairment.17 A poetics of illness, The Cow shows, may well incorporate language of abjection and of biology that other theories of disability poetics have been reluctant to claim. The text’s pathogenic poetics suggest that, in order to understand the meaning and significance of illness to our world and the way we represent it, the lenses of built environments, stigma, and human identity categories account for only part of the picture.18 Though examining the formal properties of a pathogen – a biological cause of impairment – may seem anathema to disability studies’ commitment to the social, The Cow shows that the biological elements of illness can contain immense potential for intervention in the most fundamental organizing principles of society. Here, zoonotic illness demands a new grammar, unsettling the violent subject-object hierarchies that prop up not only distinctions like cow/meat and consumer/consumed, but also health/illness and human/animal – the very distinctions through which dehumanizing ableist rhetoric has historically cast disabled people as non- or subhuman.


Unhealthy Objects

In the context of the industrial slaughterhouse, there is no easy separation of material objects from grammatical ones. The outcome of the slaughter process is the transformation of an agential bovine subject into an acted-upon object. The Cow both reproduces this material-grammatical processing and throws wrenches into it by imbuing the objects of industrial slaughter with an enduring capacity for agency. As we will see, this necessitates dislodging ableist grammatical hierarchies in which health corresponds to agency. In a poem tellingly titled “ITEM,” Reines establishes a relationship between cows’ object status and the presumption of health by reflecting on the disjunctive relationship between the “feed” that cows are made to eat in industrial farming settings and those farms’ claims about the health of their products:

In the stall she is fed FEED. FEED has many things in it, for example, corn, lots of corn, and, until, recently, but maybe still, rendered animal. Rendered animal, for extra protein. The antibiotics make it possible for the cow to digest the corn, which, without antibiotics, would kill her, but which, with antibiotics, makes her fat, which is to say, TENDER. Marbled. HEALTH.19

This version of the cow as item is contrasted with an image of a “healthy cow” that appears earlier in the poem, which is a cow who produces between 20 and 35 gallons of saliva each day in order to moisten and digest grass. This healthy cow “does not eat protein, she makes it. Her stomach turns grass into her body.”20 Note the grammatical difference between these two descriptions: when the cow is healthy, she is a subject who makes protein, and when she is unhealthy – yet ironically represents the supposed HEALTH humans would gain through her flesh – she is an object who “is fed” feed that “would kill her.”

This shift reflects the underlying grammar of agricultural production, in which humans are able to create industries around animal exploitation largely due to the ease with which we objectify animal bodies, rendering them discardable. Animal liberationist Carol J. Adams has argued that renaming animal flesh “meat” constitutes the “objectification of consumption through language,” a process in which “[l]anguage distances us from animals by naming them as objects.”21 This obfuscation of animal subjectivity enables nonhuman animals to become the “absent referents” of metaphors for human oppression, where complaints that women are treated “like animals,” for instance, tacitly accept the abuse of animals on the other side of the analogy.22 This critique could easily extend to disability discourse: when we talk about violence done to humans who have been treated “like lab rats” by the ableist medical establishment, what are we saying about lab rats themselves? For many people, to acknowledge animal illness or vulnerability is a matter of cognitive dissonance, even or especially when humans have ourselves induced that illness – an object, after all, is not supposed to have health.

That’s not because objects can’t be alive, but because the concept of health plays a powerful role in determining a being’s capacity for agency. A healthy being is thought to possess the energy to assert its subject position in the world, and thus to take action, whereas an unhealthy being is supposedly in a state of needing to be acted upon – treated, healed, cured. This much is evident in early disability activism’s insistence on a distinction between disability and illness, in which disabled people, unlike sick people, were considered self-determining, autonomous, and agential. As Susan Wendell notes in her influential essay arguing for the inclusion of chronic illness in disability discourse, this distinction was not without reason, as the undue pathologization of people with disabilities often resulted in their being put in positions where “medical personnel controlled every aspect of their lives” despite their capacity to live independently.23 If being perceived as ill means being stripped of bodily autonomy, as it often still does for people with mental or other heavily stigmatized illnesses, then the distinction between “healthy disability” and “unhealthy disability” becomes a distinction between the potential for personhood and total objectification.

This hierarchy is a crucial element of The Cow’s grappling with the language of objectification: not just in metaphorical terms of how meat production is like the objectification of some humans, but also in terms of how any body’s – human or nonhuman – symbolic capacity for “health” can determine its status within the subject/object conventions of human grammar. Where disability studies has recognized that linking health to the capacity to act has disastrous consequences for people who are deemed unhealthy, Reines traces the implications of this logic to the realm of the nonhuman, revealing how the concept of health actually produces the conditions of animal agency or nonagency that it pretends to describe. Presaging Mel Y. Chen’s characterization of linguistic hierarchies in terms of bodies’ relative “animacies,” The Cow shows how ableist and anthropomorphic conceptions of health as animating and agential determine whether a body is a subject or an object within language, and by extension within the hierarchies of the social world.24 Indeed, as the above passage shows, the linguistic shift from “cow” to “meat” that takes place as the body passes through the slaughter process thus first involves a shift in health status: the unhealthy cow’s subjectivity is negated so that it can become the purportedly healthy object of human consumption. Once the cow is an object, its health can be defined only in terms of the human subject, the consumer. Reines reveals, however, how these symbolic hierarchies have disabling effects for both human and nonhuman animals. The irony of calling meat HEALTH, after all, is that the protein the cow receives through rendered animal matter – the very thing that enables an appearance of health – is also the origin of BSE, which spread to humans as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) via their consumption of infected meat. This phenomenon, along with the crisis of antibiotic resistance, has made clear that meat can mean “HEALTH” without being healthy for either humans or the animals it came from. In other words, having health and meaning health are two different things. The HEALTH of red and marbled flesh is, simply, a picture of health that refers to no one.


Prion Poetics

This tension between having and meaning health throws the factory farm’s grammar of health into crisis, destabilizing the hierarchies of agency that define industrial agriculture. Nowhere is this clearer, The Cow suggests, than in the rendering process. Rendered meat comes, often, from the bodies of animals that were ill or “downed”: that is, unable or unwilling to walk to slaughter for any reason. Downed animals that are disabled but not necessarily sick, then, are still thought to mean “unhealthy” meat, and are put to the same death and destruction as animals downed due to BSE or other illness. Meanwhile, those animals who are actually sick have been made unhealthy by the human demand for meat that appears to mean “health.” The objectification of consumption that comes with considering flesh “meat” thus empties all meaning from the language of health, and Reines seeks to interrupt this corporate-controlled bankrupting of language.25 What can language make happen, The Cow asks, when it dares to render those subjects who are subject to rendering? Is it even possible to do so without reproducing the same objectifying processes of the rendering machines – without reducing sick and disabled animal lives to the very suffering and death that are used to justify their destruction?

Somewhat surprisingly, “mad cow disease” offers a way of approaching these questions. Illness becomes a resistant force within the grammar of the text, particularly when it comes to disrupting the linguistic structures that transform animal subjects into objects. BSE poses the potential for intimate exchange between human and meat, in which the infectious mechanisms of prions – atypically folded proteins that induce other, typical proteins to take on their shape – make it materially difficult to separate the consumer from the object being consumed. Making meat the object of poetic address not only means addressing the cow’s suffering and lack of agency; it also means addressing how animal illness can and does act upon humans in a way that upsets their stable role as consumer-subjects. Indeed, the animal’s illness continues to insist on its capacity for agency even after it is transformed into meat. “Something gets out from under the end,” Reines writes. “Disease. Brains and shit.”26

In order to address an animal object that is mainly acted-upon and objectified while alive, but agential when dead, Reines must employ a new kind of grammar. It takes root in the moment of the animal’s final process of being made into an object, in which the transformation of the cow’s body is coterminous with its linguistic transformation into meat and, finally, waste. Lifting language from the advertising copy for a machine used to render pathogen-contaminated animal carcasses, she writes:


To address a carcass is to liquefy it. This is real poetry. . . .



This is real poetry because it’s a vat of signification. What is made to pass through. It’s language, it looks and sounds like language. Dissolve me. . . .

A machine that digests the planet’s great digestors. Whose illness eats their brains because they were forced to eat one another. Who are become a risky aliment. Signification is antique and staid. Fuck me.27

The linguistic transformation from the cow’s lifelong objectification to its final physical conversion into an object is indeed “real poetry,” as Reines’s repeated nods to Gertrude Stein’s meat-obsessed object poetics attests.28 But unlike Stein, Reines is not only interested in addressing the meat as a discrete object on her table. Rather, she updates Stein’s object poetics by introducing a third party – the BSE pathogen – to the scene of poetic address. When a piece of meat is made up of the folded-over proteins that can infect a human, the distances between cow, meat, and human start to contract. Moreover, as a protein, rather than a virus or bacterial agent, a prion is not easily identifiable as subject or object. Lacking both DNA and RNA, prions – even more than viruses – challenge our assumptions about what constitutes life.29 Like viruses, prions do not reproduce independently: they begin with a spontaneously mutated protein that then converts other already extant proteins into its own atypical shape, first in one animal’s brain and possibly, later, in others’. Thus, a prion is inseparable from the body in which it resides, even though it moves among bodies and species; in fact, because it is the animal’s own protein, the immune system does not recognize it as a threat to be fought off.30 The brain both acts and is acted upon, addresses and is addressed.

Reines demonstrates how this phenomenon unsettles the language of consumption by adopting a grammatical apparatus that mimics the movement of a prion. Consider the final two stanzas quoted above, which follow a very particular pattern:

1) A subject is introduced: “real poetry,” then “A machine.”

2) The following sentences, which we might expect to elaborate on or modify the subject, instead describe its object. “What is made to pass through” “looks and sounds like language” in the first; the “great digestors” “Whose illness eats their brains” “become a risky aliment” in the second. It is as if the subject is immediately consumed by its object, as an animal brain might be consumed by the ingestion of contaminated, rendered meat.

3) A first person is abruptly introduced in the final sentence, as both the implied speaker of an imperative and its object. The verb attached to it immediately challenges its bodily and/or ontological integrity: “Dissolve me”; “Fuck me.” Another consumer comes to the table, just to become consumed.

The grammatical thrust of these stanzas is to collapse the subject-object relation like a prion does in its chain of unusual foldings. To consider the cow in Reines’s medical-historical moment is to consider its relationship to human subjectivity in a new way, where choosing to eat meat might physically dissolve the brain, that organ where we so often like to imagine the subject is housed. The imperative form is fitting, then, as the poetic subject “I” is absent even as it is necessarily present and speaking. The first-person becomes, like a prion, an object with agency. The speaker, the human subject, is digested along with the “planet’s great digestors,” drawn into a churning mesh of consumption that gives the lie to industrial agriculture’s mythos of human control over the lives and deaths of animals.


Beside Suffering

This, it must be acknowledged, is a limited form of resistance. In The Cow, we don’t see nonhuman resistance as it is sometimes championed: animals valiantly resisting their objectification by escaping enclosure or lashing out at their confiners.31 Reines instead attends to thousands upon thousands of animals who never take action in these ways, and likely never have the opportunity. How might we imagine their lives, their ways of being and knowing, meaning more than violent objectification? As we have seen, one answer is in their capacity to upend language as it typically operates to consolidate human power. Still, in suggesting that The Cow’s prion poetics create a disruption in the objectification process that animates industrial processing, I do not wish to claim that a pathogen itself is liberatory, nor its resulting illness. What I find compelling about the prion as a poetic form is simply that it opens up a new way of considering disabled animals, beyond the terms of subjugation unilaterally engineered by humans. The point is not that BSE is a desirable condition, but that its spread resists the typically one-directional, top-down flow of industrial disablement from humans to nonhuman animals. In short, it forces humans to face their entanglement with and dependence on the animals they consume. This is evident in the widespread adoption of “mad cow disease” to refer to human cases; even in common parlance, the illness draws attention to the animal typically obscured by “meat.” Suggesting even, perhaps, that humans undergo a sort of becoming-cow through the act of consumption, BSE destabilizes the notion that humans can ever claim totalizing control over the animals they systematically debilitate – a notion central to the operation of industrial agriculture that strives for complete vertical integration, or to “own and engineer every stage of the [animal’s] life-and-death cycle.”32

Meanwhile, Reines offers another answer to the question of how to imagine these animals: sacrifice, or the offering up of one’s body for the purpose of sustaining a larger system of life. She sometimes imbues the cow with a voluntary, even erotic impulse toward death: “There is something certain creatures long for. To be hacked up and macerated. That’s having it come out and go into another’s body”33 ; “Herd me here into the glorious ever and ever above.”34 Though these lines would rankle animal liberationists, for whom the logic of sacrifice has long been synonymous with apologia for animal cruelty, I would nonetheless argue that this framing offers a challenge to the objectifying logic of the slaughter industry. It complicates the cows’ default status as devoid of agency, purely objectified and acted-upon – that ironic nexus of health and incapacity that enables cows to become meat.

Reines’s notion of sacrifice is not simply aligned with traditional models, in which an animal’s life is offered up to some more important and powerful force (either human or divine). Instead, it imagines sacrifice as a way of accounting for the interdependence of all life. In this sense, we might think of The Cow as cripping sacrifice, wherein “the human” is characterized by anti-ableist values like vulnerability and dependence on nonhuman life rather than by the unilateral power to control cycles of life and death. The fact that the human species’ survival inevitably depends on the harming and killing of nonhuman others, as Donna Haraway has long argued, means we are dependent on, rather than superior to, nonhuman life.35 And so, sacrifice in The Cow typically corresponds not to power and entitlement, but to indebtedness and humility. For instance, in a multilayered passage whose repeated pronoun “her” conflates a cow and the speaker’s mother, Reines foregrounds the speaker’s debt to both beings’ embodied sacrifices: “There is a whole body that went before me: it was her.”36 As Frank Guan has written, the cow, for Reines, “takes on grand proportions, becoming to modernity what male figures such as Ymir (in Norse myth) or Purusha (in Vedic myth) were to their respective ancient cultures: a vast, original, dead being whose corpse forms the material of the present world.”37 This sacrificial role is not romanticized, but rather is the source of the speaker’s deep ambivalence about “the guilt of knowing the world’s evil and still wanting to live in it,” and of her resistance to the notion that a “world” can exist at all if it is founded on such violence.38 She knows that the notion of animal sacrifice in the context of factory farming is perverse, impossible to honor, but also maybe the only way – pending the abolition of industrial farming – to recognize the cow as anything other than an object. Sacrifice is language for how a cow can continue to mean and to matter in the violence of the present, even after it becomes meat.

While animal liberationists might well still argue that sacrifice is violently anthropocentric no matter what, The Cow offers an interspecies disability perspective that complicates this picture. The disabilities and illnesses that cows experience in the text – being downed by birthing complications and/or sick with BSE – unfold alongside a narrative of human disability that includes bodily dependence on the products of slaughter. The story of Reines’s mother’s schizophrenia and homelessness is impossible to disentangle from cows’ conditions: not only does madness characterize both human and bovine experiences of vulnerability, but the mother’s neurodivergence is characterized by an obsession with vCJD. Despite the mother’s profound consciousness of the risks and ethical stakes of eating meat, her cravings for it complicate any animal liberationist utopia that Reines’s depictions of slaughterhouse violence may make readers long for – that is, a world in which no human eats meat. As disability activists regularly point out, the dietary needs that accompany certain chronic conditions, including mental illnesses, make this ideal impossible – especially when compounded by poverty.39 In one key scene, the malnourishing conditions of the mother’s life define her dependence on the systems of production and consumption with which the book is concerned:

“One day my mother and I met by the river, presumably to have lunch but neither of us had any money…. I need a steak, she said. I just feel so sluggish. I need the iron, I need the protein. What about Mad Cow I said. Well, yes, she said. How do you get it anyway, I said. Prions, she said. My mother was trained at Bryn Mawr, Jefferson Medical College, and Sloan-Kettering and she used to practice medicine. Prions are abnormally-formed proteins and they are extremely resilient, she said. And even though hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle have been slaughtered and incinerated, there are cow derivatives in absolutely everything. In lipstick, in plastic. And there is no way to know. I want a steak. So I gave her six or seven dollars and she went to Western Beef.”40

In addition to the mother’s anemia – which may be the product of poverty and/or bodily disposition – the mention of Western Beef, a discount supermarket chain in New York City, calls to mind the vast health and environmental inequalities that mark the rapidly gentrifying city. In the face of a real estate market that herds poor people into food deserts, leaving those with the least money most dependent on cheap plastic goods and factory-farmed discount meat, refusing those offerings is profoundly difficult, especially when one feels ill. Meanwhile, the prevalence of cow derivatives suggests that the disabling potential of the agricultural industry is so widespread that, even with significant financial resources, it would be nearly impossible to extricate oneself from it.

In the face of such sweeping disenfranchisement, the mother’s demand for possibly contaminated steak rejects the ideology of health as a matter of consumer choice, knowing that “mad cow disease” exists because companies wanted meat to mean “HEALTH” to buyers. Meanwhile, the steak provides necessary sustenance and healing for a woman who is herself unhealthy and disabled, and forms the basis of an act of caregiving. The speaker’s decision to buy her mother a steak, despite not having any money herself, is akin to the kind of crip caregiving that disability activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes, in which “[n]o institutions help us to survive – we survive because of each other” in sharing economies defined by “pass[ing] the same twenty dollars back and forth between each other.”41 While the intertwined and unevenly distributed vulnerabilities of the bodies involved in this sort of exchange are evident, so is the capacity for survival that precariously positioned humans can offer each other, and arguably even that animals of prey can offer meat-eating animals. “Mad Cow” here is not simply the sign of an odious industry, but a site of rare encounter between consumer and consumed: when the mother demands steak, she does not distance herself from the cow that preceded and inheres in it. She recognizes the “thousands of heads of cattle that have been slaughtered and incinerated,” and assumes a level of risk – if not commensurate with that sacrifice, at least beholden to it.

The life-sustaining potential of the cow in this context does not ameliorate or justify the brutalization of livestock in factory settings, but it does place the animals within a network of meaning-making that exceeds passive suffering. Following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, we might think of sacrifice and sustenance not as beyond suffering, which would suggest “an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice,” but rather beside it, which suggests “a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling . . . and other relations.”42 Sacrifice and sustenance are inseparable from animal suffering, which remains the most urgent element of livestock life. But through their vulnerable position as creatures of prey, cows make it possible for endangered others to live.

Meanwhile, the mother’s own vulnerability as a disabled woman – in the form of her pathologized fixation on Mad Cow – models an encounter with meat that is unalienated from the cow. Indeed, the mother’s non-neurotypical thinking forms the basis for the text’s prion poetics, in which the linguistic shift to meat – even to lipstick or plastic – does not obscure the cow’s continuous capacity to act and make meaning. Her risk-avowing relationship to meat resembles the first-person imperatives of the rendering process; saying “I need a steak” while knowing it may be full of prions is another way of saying “Dissolve me.” The simultaneous evocation and elision of subjectivity in these demands reflects the myth of consumer choice: excluded from the bourgeois politics of ethical consumption, the mother’s demand for a steak is a demand to be dissolved into a system of risk and violence in which she is already embedded. Disrupting the violence of industrial agriculture cannot simply involve the dietary choices of a concerned “I,” or even a mass of concerned “I’s”; it must first and foremost address the structural factors that make such “subjective” choices illusory. The resistant potential of the prion as a form, then, is that it dissolves the very notions of subject-object relation, human health, and consumer choice (represented by “HEALTH”) that produced the illness in the first place. By invoking this form of interspecies disablement as a formal device, Reines further undoes the possibility of easy rhetorical distancing around animal consumption.



Even as Reines is known for her insistence on a more explicit “I” throughout this text and elsewhere, it is always an I embedded in and dispersed across an interspecies system of violent objectification and consumption. It not the stable I that is implied by the poets and critics who reject it, who believe the I is enough of an individual subject to be separated out from the poem. “While American poetry dissolved its I,” Reines writes, “the starvational and massacred bodies of all the world larded newspapers with their blood and guts. Shit. LYRIC.” This is not just a reference to nonhuman violence, but also to World War II, which illuminated the compromised political investments of some of those poets most antagonistic to the lyric.43 The Cow thus draws a parallel between viewing the I as separable from the poetic object and viewing oneself (and poetry) as separate from forms of violence that extend the logic of livestock objectification to human beings. Neither view accounts for complicity nor for shared vulnerability.

By contrast, Reines’s attention to the health and illness of nonhuman animals as they signify, bolster, and threaten human health enables her to consider the cow as a subject whose objectification has implications for human life. Reines’s question is not how to address objects, as the machine manuals claim to instruct; instead, it is what happens to the object, and to us, when we do. One answer she foregrounds is illness, but to interpret illness only through a typical animal activist lens, as an indictment of the filth and evil of industrial agriculture, is to miss half the picture. Though BSE may be among the illnesses most associated with suffering and death, poetry offers a space in which sick bodies can matter alongside these objectifying elements of their existence. Illness and disability do not, it turns out, empty the cow of agency, but in fact insist upon its capacity to act on both language and bodies even after the cow’s life has ended. BSE demands recognition on the part of human subjects who would otherwise refuse to consider the cow when eating meat – not only recognition of the process of objectification that produced it, but also of the possibility of continued entwinement between bovine and human subjects. Yes, this is a terrifying prospect in the context of fatal illness. But it also implores those who benefit from the systemic disablement of animals to reckon with conditions of animal life that their language is otherwise designed to obscure.

Reines’s incorporation of the human subject into her object poetics does not only have implications for interspecies ethics, however. To consider how the sick cow can act in relation with others is to acknowledge the limits of how we think about sickness more broadly. An unhealthy “I” is, after all, a contradiction in a world where sick and mad people are regularly viewed as incapable of self-possession, stripped of autonomy, and required to be acted upon. A poetics that inhabits the position of such an “I” insists that to be ill is to live with that contradiction: to have both the capacity to act and the experience of being acted upon, whether by illness itself or by those who use it to justify the subjugation, incarceration, and abuse of other humans. From this place of contradiction and vulnerability emerges, in The Cow, the possibility of complicated, non-utopian relations of sustenance and intimacy that address the world as it is currently structured. While the poems are not optimistic about the world that makes them possible, and generally decline to imagine brighter futures beyond it, there are still moments of pleasure and possibility within it; poetry may be a liquidator, but it can also be a “Tender hand making a place where a world could get birthed.”44 This is a decidedly different kind of tenderness than the “TENDER. Marbled. HEALTH” of a piece of meat: not an idealized life force, but a tool for softening the distinctions that keep the various objects of industrial capitalism alienated from each other. In the world of the present, when most cows are not breaking free from the abattoirs and medical institutions traumatize patients as much as they heal, Reines’s language of agential objects nonetheless makes space for disabled and nonhuman bodies to act and encounter one another beside these systems’ logics of suffering and alienation.45 Not beyond, not eclipsing, but together in uneasy dependence and recognition.

Among the many “resemblances” between human and animal disablement in The Cow, Reines writes, “Maybe a situation can find a way to be a family against your will.”46 Though it may be preferable, for the purposes of eating and of politics, for marginalized and vulnerable humans not to seek common cause with nonhumans, those who are similarly situated in the debilitating grammar of industrial-capitalist consumption might still find something like kinship. For instance: a disabled mother with no money asks her daughter with no money to buy her a cheap piece of steak that will help her survive, if it doesn’t carry a prion that kills her. Though all of the parties to this scene have been objectified, each acts upon the others. Their relations are far from equitable, easy, or ethically uncompromised. But in this scene of address, they come together as a situation: not alone in suffering, and not only in suffering, but in defiance of a language that would deny their capacity to act. This, too, is real poetry – and maybe even the beginning of a world.

  1. This model describes a politicized view of disability in which, in the words of Adrienne Asch, “the physical, cognitive, sensory, and emotional make-up of the individual [is] not ‘the problem,’ but [is] a problem only because social institutions and human-made environments [are] created without taking into account the characteristics of all people.” Adrienne Asch, “Critical Race Theory, Feminism, and Disability: Reflections on Social Justice and Personal Identity,” Ohio State Law Journal, no. 1 (2001): 398. 

  2. See Cary Wolfe, “Learning from Temple Grandin: Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject,” New Formations 64, no. 1 (2008): 110-23; and Kari Weil, Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 118–19. 

  3. See Vasile Stănescu and Debs Stănescu, “Lost in Translation: Temple Grandin, Humane Meat, and the Myth of Consent,” and Vittoria Lion, “Disrupting Temple Grandin: Resisting a ‘Humane’ Face for Autistic and Animal Oppression,” both in Disasbility and Animality: Crip Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies, eds. Stephanie Jenkins, Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloë Taylor (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2020), 161–81 and 182–211. See also Lydia X. Z. Brown, “Critiquing Temple Grandin,” Autistic Hoya (blog), August 10, 2013, 

  4. Sunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (New York: New Press, 2017), 37. 

  5. Taylor, Beasts, 40. 

  6. Taylor, Beasts, 43. 

  7. For a discussion of this genre of activist imagery, see Yvette Watt, “Animal Factories: Exposing Sites of Capture,” in Captured: The Animal Within Culture, ed. Melissa Boyde (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 75–83. 

  8. Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). 

  9. “I account for myself by virtue of a process.” Ariana Reines, The Cow (Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2006), 24. 

  10. See David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000). 

  11. Reines, The Cow, 79. 

  12. I use the term madness here, rather than mental illness, not simply in deference to the colloquiual term “mad cow,” but rather in alignment with mad studies scholars’ reclamation of the term. Similar to “crip” in the disability context, the originally pejorative term “mad” has been taken up as an alternative to biomedical definitions of neurodiverse experiences. See Peter Beresford, “‘Mad’, Mad Studies and Advancing Inclusive Resistance,” Disability & Society 35, no. 8 (September 13, 2020): 1337–42. 

  13. See Chelsea Rebekah Grimmer, “Reading Against the Absent Referent: Bare Life, Gender, and The Cow,” Pacific Coast Philology 51, no. 1 (April 4, 2016): 66–87. 

  14. “Does a resemblance really mean anything. The world rhymes too much.” Reines, The Cow, 107. 

  15. Reines, The Cow, 100. 

  16. Examples of this mode of scholarship include Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); Rebecca Sanchez, Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); James Berger, The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Michael Bérubé, The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (New York: New York University Press, 2016); and Julia Miele Rodas, Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018). 

  17. Susan Wendell writes, “[S]ome unhealthy disabled people, as well as some healthy people with disabilities, experience physical or psychological burdens that no amount of social justice can eliminate . . . There is danger that acknowledging these facts might provide support for those who prefer the individualized, medicalized picture of disability.” Wendell, “Unhealthy Disabled,” 18. 

  18. For a more extended discussion of the need for cultural analysis to engage with biology, see Elizabeth A. Wilson, Gut Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). 

  19. Reines, The Cow, 32. 

  20. Reines, The Cow, 32. 

  21. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (London: Continuum, 2010), 92. 

  22. Adams, The Sexual Politics, 56–67. 

  23. Susan Wendell, “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities,” Hypatia 16, no. 4 (2001): 17. 

  24. Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). 

  25. This is an ongoing project for Reines; see her comments on advertising as “satanic poetry” in her interview with Christian Lund, and her discussion with Ben Lerner of the Bush-era corporate “you.” Louisiana Channel, Ariana Reines Interview: The Impulse of Poetry, 2019,; Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines, “Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines,” BOMB, 2014. 

  26. Reines, The Cow, 80. 

  27. Reines, The Cow, 55-56. 

  28. Tender Buttons’ massive central poem “ROASTBEEF” – at least twice as long as any other poem in the collection except “ROOMS” – is followed by poems on “MUTTON,” “MILK,” “FISH,” “CHICKEN,” and “SALMON,” suggesting that Stein was especially interested in meat’s unusual and fraught status as an object. The following passage in “ROASTBEEF,” which Reines would later crib wholesale as the title of a poem in The Cow, attests to this: “Please be the beef, please beef, pleasure is not wailing. Please beef, please be carved clear, please be a case of consideration.”[i] Taken literally, why would a poem beg beef to be beef? The answer immediately follows: humans beg for the transformation of cow into beef so that they might take pleasure from it without having to hear the cow’s wailing that preceded, produced, and maybe even persists in it. Unlike a cow, the object “beef” is “carved clear” of its suffering, and as a result becomes considerable as food. In other words, for meat to be “a consideration,” one must not consider the cow. Or, if one must, it can only be a cursory consideration, with the violence of slaughter quickly put out of the mind. 

  29. See Nigel Brown and David Bhella, “Are Viruses Alive?,” Microbiology Today, May 10, 2016,

  30. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “All About BSE (Mad Cow Disease),” FDA, May 10, 2019,

  31. Taylor, Beasts, 63–67. See also Jason Hribal, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2011). 

  32. Alex Blanchette, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 15. 

  33. Reines, The Cow, 46. 

  34. Reines, The Cow, 51. 

  35. This notion especially animates Haraway’s arguments in When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

  36. Reines, The Cow, 83. 

  37. Frank Guan, “How She Got Over: On Ariana Reines,” N+1, April 30, 2015,

  38. Reines, The Cow, 58. 

  39. Michele Kaplan, “Is Veganism Ableist? A Disabled Vegan Perspective,” Vegan Feminist Network (blog), September 7, 2016,

  40. Reines, The Cow, 36. 

  41. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), 137. 

  42. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 8

  43. For instance – and relevant to Reines’ poetic genealogy – Gertrude Stein translated the speeches of Marcel Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy head of state, into English. Beyond that fact, the exact nature and motives of her connection to the government is a matter of much debate. Critical accounts of Stein’s involvement include Barbara Will, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) and Emily Greenhouse, “Gertrude Stein and Vichy: The Overlooked History,” The New Yorker, May 4, 2012. Charles Bernstein has argued vociferously against the outrage over Stein’s affiliations, most recently in “Gertrude and Alice in Vichyland,” Jacket2, May 30, 2017.  

  44. Reines, The Cow, 42. 

  45. In a passage that seems to address the mother’s experience in a psychiatric ward, Reines details the various dehumanizations of the institution but ends with the fact of the mother’s agency: “You try to at least cultivate a language of dependency but you also keep on saying you don’t want the pills. You put yourself to sleep naturally.” Reines, The Cow, 103. 

  46. Reines, The Cow, 107. 

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Image: "mountain countree summr," by bill bissett (2020).