Introduction: How to write the history according to cattle
Laura Gustafsson, Terike Haapoja
Bovine culture began when Bos acutifrons, first of the genus Bos, appeared on Earth 1.5-2 million years ago. The Museum of the History of Cattle, however, focuses on the last 150 years of bovine history. It is during this period that the bovine world has undergone unforeseen changes. Instigated by industrialization, these changes have touched not only humans, but all species. For undomesticated species, the effect can be ever-diminishing living space and the exponential population growth of an effective predator. On the other hand, those that have assimilated into the human culture have been forced to share man’s changing ways of understanding progress, community and corporality.
Over the course of the last Century new scientific knowledge and its technological manifestations transformed life, reproduction and death for both humans and animals. Parallel to this development was the discussion about the normative body, the ethics of reproduction and the difference between humans and animals. Inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, eugenics and stockbreeding, the practice of selective breeding of men and beasts aimed at minimizing the costs inflicted on the society by imperfect bodies. Industrialization relied upon a similar idealization of normalization and efficiency. The human and non-human bodies in the primary section of the economy were standardized. Through further refinement, the fragmentation of the working process and the transfer of control from employees to managing bodies enabled a new kind of dominance over the work force. Theories of division of labor, specialization and the removal of non-productive stages all accelerated the optimization of industrial production and turned employees into replaceable parts in a machine that, as a whole, became increasingly difficult to comprehend. Seeing cattle as instruments that produce meat, milk and leather was a consequence of the production structure in which the individual’s body, characteristics and entire life span from insemination to death was dissected and synchronized to the requirements of industrial efficiency.
The maximizing of financial gain and the elimination of elements that would put strain on society through scientific, technological and sociological applications, mark the lives of both people as well as other species in the post-industrialized world. Financial profitability has become the goal in all aspects of reality, welfare must be measurable and non-profitable activities are to be considered unworthy of discussion. With the latest financial crisis, however, it seems like the neo-liberal ideology mainly produces losers. Having agricultural employees and animal rights activists fight each other instead of fighting the global inequality is an effective strategy of a financial politics which benefits from repressing both groups. The reason for the despair of animals and humans can be found in the same cultural structure. People, fauna and nature have all been objectified as fuel for the economic-bureaucratic machine benefiting only one percent of the people, a minority of a minority. Using the history of cattle as a mirror, we can thus also reexamine our own culture.
The entire human civilization rests on arrangements made with other species, either voluntarily or by force. Civilization would never have come about if cattle had not been domesticated into draft animals for the needs of soil preparation. Wealth, segregation of society, development of culture and the transition from pre-historic to historical times all came about as results of cultivation. From this perspective, we owe gratitude to cattle. Slaves, both human and bovine, without whom civilization would not have been built, donated their history to free people.
History requires continuity between generations, individual links forming a chain of heritage. It also requires means of transferring information, whether verbally, written, or through other forms of heritage. History not only depicts the past but also explains and justifies prevailing powers. For history to be maintained, a space is needed for stories to be heard. History enables the perception of cause and consequence and offers an overview. The most effective means of controlling population groups is the destruction of history. It is not unjustified to claim that history is always the story of winners. Yet suppressed narratives persist and always exist behind the veil of official history.
The history of the cattle is one of many unwritten histories. Unlike that of the human groups that have been silenced, bovine history, in a number of ways, is beyond writing. The entire concept of history is derived from human culture. Cattle use their tongue to touch, not to transfer history to future generations. We lend our tongue and our language to them and speak on their behalf.
Speaking on behalf of someone else is always a possessive gesture. We can’t and don’t want to claim that we know what the history of cattle has been like and how they have experienced it. However, we do know for sure that they have been present and that there is a yet untold perspective to our common history. With this in mind, we can attempt to imagine and give shape to the space that lacks their voice, the space from which they, even now, witness our world.
The project would not have been possible without the dedication and help of numerous people. We would like to thank the interviewees that shed light on the bovine life and its link to the lives of humans as well as the help we received from the staff at Faba with regards to our multiple questions to do with the bovine cattle. Our wish is that our views will open up the conversation on the culture in common instead of reinforcing the existing contrasts. The support from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland and the Kone foundation has been essential for the project that operates outside the parameters of conventional presentation and form. But the biggest thanks belong to those who are absent: the cattle. To whom, as said, we owe almost everything.