Dead Man Eating

2013-02-13_15-23-54_556A week ago I saw the Eugene Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean.  The story is well known, thanks to the 1995 movie.  Sister Helen is asked to be the spiritual advisor of a man on death row at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.  There is no doubt that the man – here called Joseph de Rocher – is guilty of a particularly horrific murder.  He claims he is innocent.  Sister Helen works to get him to admit his guilt and seek forgiveness.  This forgiveness comes both from God and from the family of his victim, and the theme of forgiveness is less religious than based on universal values and emotions.

The opera, wonderfully acted and sung by the leads Janis Kelly and Michael Mayes, was powerful and moving.  Heggie’s music, tonal rather than abstract, carried the story and its emotions effectively, with hints of jazz and rock and a folkish hymn that threads through the work.  Michael Mayes, his body pumped up and tattooed, his gait hunched and splay-footed, showed us Joe de Rocher before he ever opened his mouth.  The only false note was in the execution scene, when de Rocher is posed against a wall with outstretched arms, a forced and unnecessary evocation of Christ.

The last wish of de Rocher’s mother is that he be allowed to have the cookies she baked for him.  We don’t hear about his last meal.  But the Corvallis artist Julie Green2013-02-13_15-27-46_835 has, in her series “The Last Supper,” painted over 500 plates with images of the last meals of death row inmates.  I saw them at the Corvallis Arts Center last month, where I took these pictures.  Most of them, like Mrs. de Rocher’s cookies, are painfully banal: cheeseburgers, pizza, fried chicken, French fries, ice cream.  Occasionally the prisoner refuses a meal; one requested only “God’s word.” Painted in blue on found plates, Green’s series gives the date of execution and the state, and the description of the meal as provided by the Department of Corrections.  The plates form a sorrowful parade of mundane wishes.  Green aims to add fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished in all fifty states; it has been abolished in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, but the vast majority of executions since 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated after a brief hiatus) have taken place in Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma.  (The Death Penalty Information Center gives full background.)

Green’s work makes no overt statement about the death penalty, but like Dead Man Walking, it forcefully expresses the essential humanity of even those we deem the worst among us.  It challenges the idea that we can, or should, legally kill others as a form of punishment.

Fake meat and factory meat

Last week the Oregonian food section had a recipe for vegan coq au vin.  I have nothing against vegans, but this just seemed perverse to me; not only the imitation of a meat dish, which was never going to taste like the original, but its use of all kinds of fake meat products.   The ingredients included seitan (a wheat-based meat substitute, also known as mock duck), liquid smoke, fake bacon and fake parmesan cheese.  It seemed a travesty of real food.  There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan cooks who don’t feel the need to use fake meat – I love Heidi Swanson, and Bryant Terry is fabulous – and I honestly do not understand the necessity of developing a vegan cuisine which is an artificial version of a meat-based diet.  There are so many great vegetables out there.

Not that I don’t recognize the issues surrounding eating meat.  Joy Mench, an animal scientist from UC Davis, raised a bunch of these in her talk at OSU the other night.  She began with a shout-out to Emily Anthes’s new book Frankenstein’s Cat, which argues that biotechnology “puts human and animal welfare in conflict.” (here’s a recent interview of Anthes with Terry Gross).  Mench pointed out that biotechnology is only one of many technologies that are applied to food animals and that allow for greatly intensified animal husbandry and, for Americans, the cheapest food in the Western world.

Mench got her Ph.D. in the UK and contrasts American practices to European ones.  The British activist Ruth Harrison coined the termed “factory farming” back in the 1960s, and American farms have become more factory-like while Europeans, for a number of reasons, are backing off from the factory model.  One example is the use of CAFOs – confined animal feeding operations, the tiny “crates” that are used to confine pigs and other animals.  From an economic point of view, these certainly have advantages in terms of ease of feeding and preventing injury to the animal.  From a behavioral point of view (not to mention an ethical one) they are terrible.  Europeans have largely outlawed CAFOs; but legislation, said Mench, is not the answer in the more market-oriented US.  Although Proposition 2 in California prohibited CAFOs, not all states will pass such laws (Idaho and Nevada have attempted to attract California chicken farmers when Prop. 2 goes into effect in 2015).

Mench believes the necessary work toward more humane animal husbandry must be at the level of the retailer and the consumer – that in the US we need to work via the market. She is skeptical of the value of labeling, since many terms such as “natural” and “humane” have no legal meaning, and others such as “free range” imply oversight that is non-existent.  Instead she points to the effectiveness of consumer boycotts in forcing companies such as McDonalds to use humanely raised eggs, and believes that similar consumer pressure will lead to the elimination of CAFOs in the next decade.   I certainly hope that she is right.

The Codex is Dead, Long Live the Codex

Yesterday’s New York Times included this paean to MOOCs by Tom Friedman, fan of all things techy even if he does not understand their implications very well.  MOOCs (massive open online courses) were one of the topics covered in a very lively workshop (or symposium) I organized last Friday on “Digital Humanities.”  I think MOOCs are swell but I don’t think online lectures are teaching.  They’re lecturing, which is not the same thing.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  The workshop (or symposium, which sounds a little too Platonic to me), started with four short presentations on varying aspects of the digital world and its impact on the humanities.  Dan Rosenberg of the University of Oregon gave a lovely riff on the term “data” and its numerous ramifications.  The term “data” to refer to pieces of information emerged in English in the seventeenth century; “data” comes from the Latin “dare,” to give, whereas “fact” comes from “facere,” to do or make.  Data are givens, and rhetorical as opposed to the ontological fact.  Patrick McCray of UC-Santa Barbara talked about “big data” and how it has been used in sciences such as astronomy, noting increasingly complex organizational structures (according to this recent piece in Perspectives on History, historians’ organization of data is rather lacking in technological expertise).  He asked the important question of how data relates to our identity as historians.

I talked about Google books and the N-gram, again raising some of the points I had made here.  I went on to talk about the claim that history needs to be more rigorous and scientific, and what that might mean, pointing out that some of these critiques are not new, but that now more than ever we need to communicate what it is that historians actually do.  Rob Iliffe, who gave a wonderful keynote talk the day before on the Newton Project, declared that the impact of digitization in the humanities meant the end of close reading and the end of the life of the mind, turning libraries into “information hubs.”  bibliobimbo-erik-heldfond“Modern books, “ he announced, “are museological artefacts,” and (my favorite bon mot) “presence is a fetish.”  But his conclusions were not all gloom and doom.  We humanists are on the edge of a brave new world, and we need to seize it and shape it – and in so doing rearticulate the value of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical world.  The two hours of passionate discussion that followed did not resolve anything but gave this “bibliobimbo” a lot to think about.