Author of the Month: Brett MizellePublished: October 15, 2012
Brett Mizelle, Professor, History / Director, American Studies
“I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” — George Bernard Shaw
The wisdom of Shaw’s remark never seemed truer to History’s Brett Mizelle than it does with the publication of his new title Pig from London-based Reaktion Books as part of their successful animal series. “My book’s fundamental argument is that humans have had a long shared history with pigs, a species that has been materially and symbolically significant in the making of human society and culture throughout the globe,” said Mizelle, who joined the university in 2000.
Tracing the global human-pig relationship since early pigs were domesticated approximately 9,000 years ago, Pig explores how different cultures have perceived and interacted with these highly intelligent and sociable animals in different ways. In parts of New Guinea, for example, pigs are seen as sacred. “There are pig cults where they are held in high esteem,” said Mizelle. “There are intricate ceremonies surrounding their slaughter. Ecologists argue they are literally ‘piggy banks’ in the way they store surplus food, which rots quickly in the jungle. In contrast, in the Middle East, pigs compete with people for the same food sources so they have historically been made taboo. There is ecological common sense behind many of the ideas about the veneration of or hostility to the pig in various cultures.”
Mizelle’s book highlights the significance of both living pigs and what he calls “pigs of the imagination” in scientific research, popular culture, language, literature, art and music. He suggests that the way we consume the “cultural” pig and the “idea of the pig” have, along with transformations in the ways pigs are raised and pork is produced, obscured our understanding of the actual animal. The result is that paradoxes abound in our contemporary relation with pigs: “On one hand, there is tremendous interest in pigs as symbols and as characters in literature and film. In this manner pigs have contributed to the formation of human identity and culture. But at the same time humans kill and consume millions of pigs every year. Much of the book is about our ability to maintain these two seemingly inconsistent views at the same time. Why can someone see Babe or take their kid to a petting zoo before having pork chops for dinner? What is it about our contemporary culture that enables so many people to compartmentalize like that? Why don’t we think about the contradictions in our lived relation with pigs and other non-human animals?”
Mizelle’s journey into the world of the pig has taken him all over the country. He attended the two-day Pork Academy held in Des Moines, Iowa, that was tied to the World Pork Expo, the largest pork industry trade show. He has been to circuses and fairs to talk with pig racing proprietors and trainers specializing in performing potbellied pigs. He spent part of one vacation in South Carolina where he visited Caw Caw Creek, a free-range organic hog farm. He visited Abbeville, Ga., the “Wild Hog Capital of Georgia,” for the Ocmulgee Wild Hog Festival where he talked to feral pig hunters and trainers of dogs used in this “dog-hog rodeo” for his concluding chapter about wild-living pigs as unruly subjects. He is the co-founder and editor of the H-Animal Discussion Network, an on-line home for the growing number of scholars across disciplines who are engaged in the study of animals in human culture. For more on pigs, see his “Wonderful Pig of Knowledge” blog.