Exemplary Wild Sows

Essay from
Fahim Amir
When Theodor W. Adorno, the diagnostician of contemporaneity, was once asked to talk about aesthetic norms and guiding principles (“Leitbilder” in German) of the present, he rejected the request: the term “Leitbild” with its authoritarian tonality, he claimed, was probably a post-war German phenomenon and was in any case a feature of conservative cultural criticism. Basically, he continued, he could only discuss such a question fragmentarily and, furthermore, only as a problem.

The philosopher and sociologist, who has remained important for the cultural consciousness of the Federal Republic since his death, would have been 120 years old this year. Adorno, too, was once a child, and in his essay Parva aesthetica (1967) he looks back on a summer of his childhood, recalling an incident that comes across as a quirky entry in an old book of anecdotes. In Ernsttal, the much-respected wife of the stationmaster once appeared in public wearing a bright-red summer dress. Unfortunately, the local tame wild sow forgot its manners, took the loudly screaming lady on its back and raced away. If I were to model myself on anything, said Adorno summing up, it would be on that animal.

He had already turned to pigs in his philosophical fragments entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), written together with Max Horkheimer. Here they mention Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ voyages and his encounter with the sorceress Kirke. After negotiating perilous stopovers with lotus eaters and the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, Odysseus and his companions finally land on Kirke’s island. Here, Odysseus’ party succumbs to Kirke’s charms, savours the offered food and drink – and promptly turn into pigs.

Becoming a pig, the critical theorists’ write, entails first of all surrendering completely to a desire perceived as bestial. The danger here is to be found not in the loss of life, as in other adventures, but in the loss of autonomy. To avoid becoming a pig, on the other hand, one needs a cunning mind.

In Homer’s tale, only the strong-willed Odysseus is sufficiently wily, and he even succeeds in forcing Kirke to restore his faithful to their original form. Afterwards, they are all even more handsome and graceful than before, but they are not the slightest bit grateful. On the contrary, overcome with grief, they lament the loss of the good fortune of being a pig. Perhaps it was this passage in Homer that stirred the philosopher of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, to his famous words in 1863 that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

For Adorno, too, the civilised eye could only regard the porcine side of human happiness as a descent into unhappiness. Perhaps that is why the backward step, to a state of bestial contentment, can be seen as a kind of curse. But why are the companions turned into pigs of all creatures? Perhaps there is an echo of the fertility goddess Demeter in the figure of Kirke; after all, in her cult pigs had always served as sacrificial animals. It is possible that the prohibition of intermixing is attributable to their similarity of form and their furless and featherless nakedness. Or perhaps the gustatory resemblance is also significant, since it has often been remarked that human flesh tastes like pork. All these resemblances may have sharpened the contrast between the ground-sniffing quadrupedal pig and the up-standing bipedal human. In modern times, we have entirely forgotten that the ancient Greek words for sniffing and reason had a common origin. Whatever the historical reason for the particular objectionability of this change in form, anyone in the present day who gives in to illegitimate lust is called a pig in German.

The physical, social, economic, symbolic and intellectual relations between humans and pigs display a prodigious richness that sometimes encompasses contradictory opposites and has rarely ever been exhaustively described. This is attested not least by Adorno’s meandering trains of thought. For example, what is known as pigs’ proverbial stubbornness is regarded as willpower in the sly Odysseus: for the critical theorist, the cunning solitary figure already embodies the principle of later capitalist practice. His reason is that of the adventurer who, condemned to roam the world, takes risks that, however, ultimately also morally justify his gains. It could be added that for this, in the piggy bank, the virtue of calculating tight-fistedness took on a form that had to be physically smashed in order to convert that the hoard into usable assets. The few remaining china or porcelain piggy banks that have not been broken have now become valuable collector’s items. Incidentally, “porcelain” also ultimately goes back to the Italian word for young female pig, porcella.

Whether small or large, having a pig is considered lucky in German. But this can make people unhappy at first. For example, a snack bar owner whose franchise now sells animal-free sausages and burgers in several German-speaking towns told me that years ago he had unexpectedly inherited his father’s piggery long after he himself had gone vegan. So what was he to do with the surviving pigs that had dropped into his lap? He decided to let the pigs live happily where they were until they died of old age. What he had not bargained for was the anger his decision caused among the other farmers in the village. On one occasion someone hurled a stone through his window, wrapped in a note with an unmistakable demand: “Kill your sows for God’s sake!” The right to private property seemed to be of only limited interest to the village community. The tide then turned unexpectedly when the coun-try’s foremost tabloid reported on one of his beneficiaries, and in the highest possible terms. As it turned out, it was apparently the largest and oldest specimen of its breed in Central Europe. All of a sudden, the young pig farmer who had defied the usual course of events was the hero of his village, which through him had experienced unprecedented fame – a happy end for him and his pigs.

Pigs incurring wrath do not seem to be an entirely modern phenomenon. In medieval trials involving animals, half of those convicted were pigs. The rejection of pork characteristic of Islam and Judaism is attributed by recent research to state-building processes in ancient Egypt. The draining of swamps for cereal and livestock farming required coercive measures. The self-sufficient simplicity of pig farming by households and communities opposed this aspiration and became a symbol of individualism and communal independence. When the political rule of Upper Egypt was established 3,000 BC, it was accompanied by the re-evaluation of the pig as the former symbol of Lower Egypt. No state could be formed with pigs, which became the embodiment of insurrectionary evil. With the decline of their economic importance, their symbolic value diminished further. At first shunned, they were then sub-jected to prohibitions and taboos. An echo of these processes of establishing social, cultural and eco-nomic power can also be found in the value systems of Jewish and Arab pastoralists and nomads. Later, not even Francis of Assisi found compassion for the omnivorous pig. The Bible also has stories about pigs. When Jesus once asked a man possessed by demons for his name, he received the answer: “Legion is my name, for we are many”. To save the man, Jesus transplanted the multitude into a herd of swine, which then plunged into a lake. Pigs sometimes promise to keep us sane. Yet in most stories they have to die.

The plebeian vulgarity of their physiognomy often has an aesthetic quality that makes pigs seem unsuitable for representational purposes. Not infrequently they form symbolic links to counter-economies. During the Prohibition era in the USA, the serving of alcohol in the illegal speakeasies was dependent on appropriate dress, but this was never the case in the clandestine entertainment venues known as “blind pigs” and largely frequented by Black Americans.

Pigs prove to be deeply useful, not only as physical bodies that are maltreated, injured, denigrated and exploited, but also for thinking and storytelling. Even when they fall out of character, as in the image of quirky wit mentioned at the beginning, when an Ernsttal wild sow stirred up the encrusted dust of social conditions and, with a punch line, became a model of critical thinking. In this connection, it is crucial not to lose sight of the concrete global context within which real and symbolic pigs appear. For instance, the French equivalent of the “Me Too” movement has united thousands of women under the hashtag #balancetonporc (or roughly “Squeal on your pig”). In France, the term for pork is the historically established designation for an assaultive man.

In the novel Hauptstadt (Capital, 2017) by the Austrian writer Robert Menasse, on the other hand, a small, stray pig running free through Brussels is given the literary task of holding together the intan-gible, in this case the idea of a European Union as the most welcome of all hells on earth. Forces, complications and entanglements of all kinds accrue in the course of the story. The pig seems to be essential in this context. For the author, it is the only animal that, as a metaphor, covers the entire breadth of human feelings and ideological world views, from the lucky pig to the filthy swine. An essential message of his book about the messy capital city of an idea is that contexts don’t really have to exist, but without them everything would fall apart.


Lives in Vienna, AT • Writer, philosopher, university lecturer

E 2022 ZOOPOLIS – Cohabitation Teil II, Innsbruck, AT; Lifes, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, US • 2021 Cohabitation, Arch+, Berlin, DE

P Kohabitation, Koexistenz, Konvivialität: Tierstudien 22, Berlin, 2022 (with Jessica Ullrich among others) • Schwein und Zeit, Hamburg, DE, 2018, as Being and Swine: The End of Nature As We Knew It, Toronto, CA, 2020, as Révoltes animales, Paris, FR, 2022 • Donna Haraway, Das Manifest für Gefährten, Berlin, 2016 (afterword) • Transcultural Modernisms, London, GB, 2013 (co-editor, author)