Vincent Guihan: We Other Animals

Podcasts are a unique medium that can be tremendously beneficial, are available at no cost, and cover a wide array of topics.  After moving to Texas and working from home, the isolation and intellectual void became mind-numbing. Podcasts helped me to go vegan (Colleen Patrick-Goudreaux, Vegan Radio, Vegan Freaks), to learn about what was going on with animals (Animal Voices, Elizabeth Collins, Jordan Wyatt), learn about abolitionism (Gary Francione, Roger Yates, Vincent Guihan).  Bloggers are also a saving grace; I am a fan of too many to mention here, but Animal Emancipation and the We Other Animals podcasts are high on my list of must-read, must-hear.  Vincent is so multi-faceted, it is hard to get it all in a brief article.  He is a published poet, a pirate, a playwright and a podcaster.  He is an academic, an abolitionist, and animal activist.  He creates beautiful AR posters. He kayaks. He works on his dissertation. He has eight cats all with unique histories, all of whom he treats with great respect. He cooks, and is a cookbook author, with his New American Vegan book recently published by Tofu Hound Press. He is innovative and is not content to veganize traditional fare, but to explore an entire new vista of tastes, textures, and something called “flavor theory.”

Here is the interview with Vincent in its entirety:

You have been a vegan for ten years.  How did that happen?

Like a lot of people, I wasn’t entirely sure why I went vegan.  I knew that my lifestyle was harming nonhuman animals. I didn’t have all of the details worked out.  But I wanted to stop harming nonhuman animals and I knew that veganism was the simplest, most meaningful way for me to do that.  It wasn’t until a bit later that I learned about abolition, understood that provided a simple and effective way for me to think about my moral intuitions and organize my work.

About the pirate and poet? (on your blog)

The piracy is just an internet meme joke.  But I’m also a published poet.  Mostly small stuff.  One of my one act plays was also performed when I was in college as an undergraduate many, many years ago now.  Some pirates also represent some of the earlier forms of democratically organized labor.  That and I enjoy the sea (and water in general) and saying ARRR!

How did you get into blogging and podcasting? You mentioned starting with food blogging; is there another blog out there?

I started with my first blog a handful of years ago now, VeganImprov.  The blog is mostly about improvisational vegan cooking (cooking without a strict recipe) – mostly about getting in the kitchen and trying out complementary flavors, colors and textures and seeing what happens.  When I read Francione’s books, particularly Rain Without Thunder, they made a huge impression on me.  And one of the perceived impediments to adopting veganism is knowing what to cook and how to cook it.  So, I thought, this is a small contribution I could make.  Why shouldn’t I? If it helps just one person make the transition to abolitionist veganism, then it’s worth it.

I started my second blog, We Other Animals, in part to blog my dissertation, but I decided that wasn’t necessarily all that useful.  So, I turned it into a general commentary blog.  Mostly, I blog about what interests me: nonhuman animals and their ethology, the political economy of animal slavery, the rights of animals not to be used as property and our responsibility to go vegan in light of those rights, and so on.  The podcast stems largely from the blog, trying to make the message of the blog even more accessible, but also to expand on some topics for which a blog article is just too long.

But again, I thought, well, I have a $15 headset with a mic, and a little netbook with a mic-in port, why not give it a try? It will probably be an ungodly distaster, but why not?

Loved your open letter to Gary Francione; background?

Gary and I haven’t seen eye to eye on everything always. We’re both passionate and committed advocates who take animals very seriously.  It’s only normal in a movement like abolition where there is no absolute party line, where advocates are encouraged to think critically, where there’s no propaganda machine, and so on, that disagreements occur.  All I can say is that I was wrong here and there (not always politely), but that he was always magnanimous about it.  I issued the letter because he’s often a target of harassment especially from the larger animal advocacy community, and I find that very disappointing.  I find it disappointing because it’s both wrong and intellectually problematic, and because it’s often very, very boring.  Most of the criticisms I’ve seen directed at Francione and his work have been little more than cut and paste, underinformed personal attacks, and it’s very unfortunate that this passes for ‘critical thinking’ among some animal advocates.

The doctoral is in what area? How is the dissertation coming along?

The area is called Cultural Mediations, but it’s largely a cultural studies degree.  My research focuses on the contemporary Canadian novel, its focus on representation of nonhuman animals and the politics that follow out of those representations.  So, for example, Timothy Findley has a whole novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage, about Noak’s Ark and one calico cat’s attempts to stay alive during the flood aboard the Ark.  Barbara Gowdy has a novel about talking nomadic elephants, the White Bone, who are looking for sanctuary in Africa.  Yann Martell has a novel, the Life of Pi, about an East Indian boy (Pi) who ends up on a lifeboat with a number of nonhuman animals from his family’s zoo, including a Bengal Tiger name Richard Parker.  The novel is all about Pi reexamining his relationship with Richard Parker.  All of these novels ask very serious questions about what we owe nonhuman animals and tend to pose nonhumans as agents of change to whom we owe moral duties.  It’s a curious post-WWII tendency and my work asks: “what exactly does this mean and how does it suggest the way we perceive the human/nonhuman animal relationship to be changing?”

I rarely talk about my academic work on my blog and podcast, but it still tends to make its way into my more practical work there.  My work with (mostly) sociorealist literature and moral realism go hand in hand. When advocates are faced with a complicated moral problem, for example, I think there’s often a tendency to do a bit of hand-waving and oversimplification and then to rationalize a decision based on their inclinations. My work with (mostly) sociorealist literature  and moral realism go hand in hand. The strong support for welfare reform in the animal advocacy community is a good example; it privileges what makes activists feel good, but it neglects to take into account all the realities of what nonhuman animals face in slavery today and how the property status of nonhuman animals and speciesism makes welfare reform morally problematic as well as strategically and tactically unhelpful to nonhuman animals.  In contrast, I prefer to look at the reality of a given moral situation in depth and suss out what it means in terms of its complexities. Abolition, in contrast to welfare reform, works from empirical data and soundly reason in that suggests that welfare reform has correlated with a rise in use historically. So, even if there were no moral problems to promoting reforms, I would never advocate welfare reforms because they don’t work in reality. Furthermore, abolition works from a soundly reasoned view that if we want people to stop using animals, we should tell them to stop using animals, go vegan and educate others about veganism and abolition. And although I am not a philosopher, that makes good sense to me!

What keeps you going when the work is so discouraging at times?

I’m never discouraged. There’s probably some sort of  personality disorder for that, but my sense of solidarity with the oppressed is enough to keep me going. I never have doubts about veganism or the rights of animals. I believe in the prospect of social transformation. Reform and violence are not shortcuts; they are steps backwards. In the meantime, every new abolitionist vegan who demands a different future is one brick removed from the foundation of slavery in the present. Every domesticated nonhuman animal who is adopted and whose personhood is restored by love and care is another. In some respects, I don’t feel like I have the option to be discouraged when I see change already happening all around me.  But even if that weren’t the case, there only has to be one abolitionist vegan in the world and the system of animal slavery will always have to answer to someone’s criticism, someone’s demand for change, someone’s insistence on an end to that slavery.  The system’s collapse is inevitable so long as we keep working and building a movement that turns our opponents into our colleagues, and that’s a powerful thing.

What do you do to keep in balance, for fun, to make sure you have time for your family?

I like to run, cycle, swim, kayak, camp, cook, listen to music, read, play Scrabble, bake, dance, chat, talk about ideas and other things. I also make AR posters and outreach/education materials with my partner and we run a discussion forum (animalemancipation.com), which is mostly fun. Pretty standard stuff.  My life is pretty quiet and average, but I find it enjoyable and that’s what really counts.

Background on the cats, how they found you, their personalities, etc.

This  would be a very long story, since I live with eight cats. They’re all very unique.  Azrael, Thor and Jasmine were all rescued by my partner when she lived in Montreal from a cat colony there.  Jasmine and Thor are brother and sister, both white long-hairs.  They both like to bite my toes, Jasmine especially when I’m recording a podcast. Azrael is a small, long haired Maine coon mix. Fred was adopted from a friend. He lost the tips of his ears when someone thought it was a good idea to let him out in a Montreal winter and he was lost.  Julius and Harriet were adopted from our local shelter.  Julius is a remarkably friendly, but also remarkably sneezy, blue cat.  Harriet is a very surly tortie who growls at everyone. Wade and Seymour were both adopted from a no-kill shelter not far from us.  The two were very close after a four year stint together in the shelter.  Wade only has one eye, and both of them were a little skittish, but now they’re both very well-adjusted and very happy.  I want to thank everyone who saves the lives of nonhuman animals daily with shelter and rescue work.  I know there’s not a lot of thanks and glory in it, but each life is precious.

Lots of info on the cookbook? Do you cook? Did you before becoming vegan?

I do! I was vegetarian for a decade before becoming vegan and I cooked almost that entire time as well. Of course, I’ve gotten a lot better with practice, and veganism is a great way to learn how to cook.  You really get to know the proper flavors of a very wide range of foods cooking plant-based meals.

The cookbook, New American Vegan, focuses primarily on common ingredients, techniques and recipes from the Americas, less on Asian or fusion styles of cuisine. It’s coming out this spring from Tofu Hound Press.  There will be 150 recipes, give or take, and they’ll range from very simple sauces (e.g., kiwi and jalapeno coulis) to much more complicated dishes (e.g., acorn squash stuffed with lentils, wild rice and greens with both a white and a red sauce).  The purpose of the book is to help vegan cooks get comfortable with flavor theory, understand common building blocks, and how to really understand what makes a plate flavorful, inviting to the eye and so on.

The cookbook, I find that many vegan cookbooks focus on imitating meat-based cuisine or on fusion.  I find the former fairly boring and although I like the latter, I think it’s been overdone. I like kitschy imitations sometimes myself, but serious innovation tends to interest me more.  I also think there is no strong sense yet of what vegan food should really taste like, how a primarily plant-based cuisine will express itself visually and in terms of its flavor or how the vegan palate should be properly cultivated.  My book is an attempt to advance that dialogue into a more public discussion.

Part of the world where you are?

I live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.

Hope for the future?

Yes, today, I hope everyone who reads this article and is not yet vegan will take the rights of animals not to be used as property seriously and go vegan, help to educate others and work to end the property status of nonhuman animals and cultural speciesism as quickly as possible. Tomorrow, I hope we can fix all of the other problems of the world.  Whether we will be successful, it’s the right thing to do, and we will certainly be unsuccessful if we give up before we start.

Here are links to some of Vincent’s work:

VeganImprov

We Other Animals