Men Who Shout at Goats

Agrarian Cultivation and Gendered Slaughter on an Azorean Island

in Social Analysis
Author:
Tim Burger Researcher, LMU Munich, Germany tp447@cam.ac.uk

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https://orcid.org/0009-0003-2612-7886

Abstract

Across many world regions, the informal slaughter of livestock occupies an important place in rural day-to-day realities. This article examines killing goats on São Jorge Island to show how attention to slaughter enhances our understanding of gendered selfhood, human–animal relations, and the impacts of depopulation. Building on ethnography of smallholder farmers who see their masculinity and livelihoods endangered by demographic decline, I argue that their idea of agrarian cultivation underwrites verbal hostility against animals. Male farmers’ concept of cultivation, here conceived as productive order-making between a threatening ‘natural’ and a desirable ‘domestic’ domain, is hence an ambivalent moral idiom. In moments of slaughter, the frustration about the difficulties of cultivation is expressed as men deriding goats to salvage a desired image of manhood and competence.

“This is already Amazonia!” exclaimed Filipe.1 We were standing on a steep, rocky slope that was supposed to be a vineyard (vinha). Our job for this February morning was to prune the vines and cleanse the terraces from undesirable weeds. The problem with that, as Filipe had put it metaphorically, was the abundant vegetation that had grown rapidly all over the vinha and strangulated the precious vines. Ripping out thorny blackberries, along with other plant species that together were categorized as “brushwood” (silvado), was an annoying and strenuous work. I was glad that more people had shown up for this kind of labor than usual. Our work party, led by the João and fueled by generous amounts of home-made wine from the previous year, had been split up: Filipe and I were working up the slope to do the weeding, João, his brother, and two friends slowly trailed us pruning the vines. “They got the experience, but they need us. It needs the manpower (mão de obra),” commented Filipe once we had finally reached the top. He proudly looked at his wounded hands and across the orderly vineyard: “Look, we did it. We won.”

On São Jorge Island, where I conducted almost fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, most of my interlocutors were deeply concerned about local depopulation, a predicament primarily articulated in terms of changing environment. People spoke of overgrown vineyards or fields as being “lost” (perdido) and experienced the sight of disappearing property as unsettling. Across boundaries of age, gender, or class, I recorded statements such as “this place is already lost” (este lugar já ‘tá perdido) or “we don't have any population, it's sad” (não temos populãçao, ‘tá triste). In contrast to the looming natural escalation, agrarian cultivation was understood as a key practice to counteract the proliferation of ‘lost’ land, so iconic of local decline. In the context of economic hardship and an environment that was felt to be out of control, the ability to sustain agrarian livelihoods was intensely valued. Keeping cultivation going meant managing the approaching brushwood while also making a living. As Filipe indicated above, it needed laboring hands, manpower in short, to accomplish this and thereby attain a satisfying sense of ‘winning’ against detrimental circumstances. However, the practice and idiom of agrarian cultivation (referred to as cultivar, tratar, or cuidar as terras) was deeply ambivalent. While its structural significance turned it into a potent stage for exhibiting masculine competence and agency, such displays also comprised the potential to slip into more abusive and destructive forms of masculine performance.

Filipe was a case in point. A few days after the work in the vineyard, I found myself sitting next to him in João's wine hut. Outside, in the rainy February afternoon, shivered a black billy goat, tied up to a post. We talked about the goat's imminent slaughter, since João maintained an informal side-business as a butcher and would return in a few minutes to kill the animal. His skill and productive agrarian capabilities were widely recognized, and clients regularly brought their goats for João to turn into desired meat. Before this billy goat's inevitable death, however, Filipe started insulting it. “You'll die, son of a bitch!” he shouted at the goat before pausing to take another sip of wine. “Oh, you're cold? Don't worry, we'll take away your cold. Pimba! See, cold is over! [laughing, then turning to me] Come on, let's kill this fag (esse paneleiro)!” I was quite surprised by this verbal aggression, yet would consistently encounter it over the following months. Men performed such a vicious attitude against animals in different contexts, for instance when fishing. There, middle fingers were pointed at the waves, and they repeatedly screamed at the fish to “Go fuck yourself! Take [the bait], you dick!” Still, the abusive discourse accompanied goat slaughter most prominently. The animals were regularly shouted at, ridiculed, and sometimes their dead bodies were paraded under laughter or used for symbolic sexual domination. Why insult animals so assiduously? I suggest that these aggressive practices are not just bizarre events, perpetrated by a few intoxicated and overexcited men, but need to be positioned in relation to ideas of masculinity, fear of decline, and conceptions of agrarian competence. Put differently, everyday slaughter, the proficient labor of killing and processing animals, was both a process of generating men's sense of self-worth and a site where male destructive potential could come to the fore.

This article contributes to the anthropological study of depopulation by drawing attention to its impacts on the relations between humans and nonhumans, or put more broadly, the environment. While human–animal interaction and agricultural practices have been central objects of ethnographic inquiry in rural areas, this case highlights the violent and gendered form such interspecies connections can assume. My argument is that from the perspective of my male working-class interlocutors, the difficult cultivation of a ‘lost’ vineyard and the slaughter of goats are part of the same sociocultural problem and are dealt with through a similar logic. There is a perceived continuum of valued order-making between a ‘natural’ and a household sphere, which ranges from weeding a vineyard and eventually producing wine to transforming a goat from animal into cookable meat. Navigating this continuum of cultivation, men like Filipe derided, and hence discursively ‘overkilled,’ goats because the animals stood in for an unruly natural domain. In their everyday experience of overall decline and a lack of human labor, my interlocutors felt incapable of controlling this natural realm (natureza) by means of their cherished male dexterity. The bounded moments of slaughter, in contrast, enabled them to perform prowess and experience dominance. Here, men could be in charge (mandar, lit. to direct, to order, to boss) and contribute to household reproduction by converting a ‘natural’ beast into a consumable or sellable commodity, that is, goat meat. Moreover, this kind of symbolic overkill, meaning insulting, laughing at, and staging ‘as-if’ sexual acts with bodies of goats, was a collective phenomenon. It only occurred when a group of men (and only men) had come together. This, I argue, is a secondary dimension pertaining to demographic shrinking as depopulation effectively valorizes conviviality (convíviu). Moments of slaughter set a rare stage for both feelings of togetherness, excitement, and competition among men: killing goats often turned into a theatrical display of who could control or dominate a natural signifier the best. Spurred by this game of hierarchy, certain farmers acted abusively towards animals.

In the following, I will first situate my argument within some broader ideas about cultivation, the killing of animals, and gender. I then explore the vernacular notions of ‘nature’ (natureza) and ‘lost’ plots of land, before discussing male attitudes towards skillfully controlling and appropriating the nonhuman domain, as well as the aesthetic potential these practices engender. Finally, I examine goat slaughter itself more thoroughly to analyze farmers’ gendered pursuit of social recognition and command over ‘nature.’ This last part leads me to discuss the relevance of the Azorean case for established discourses in current anthropological scholarship.

Agrarian Cultivation, Slaughter, and Gender

In making my argument that controlling nonhumans (for example, vines, livestock, or vegetables) and converting them successfully into consumable products of the household is a potent yet ambivalent site of moral action, I recognize a long history in Euro-American thought that emphasizes the parallels between ideas about gardening and ideas about social organization and self. In other words, there is an abundant multidisciplinary literature positing ‘cultivation’ as paradigmatic of ‘culture.’ In Mediterranean antiquity, Roman orator Cicero specified the respective term:2 agrarian cultivation, for him, provided a template for individual improvement (Markus 1993; Williams 1985). Throughout the centuries, the relation between work on land and social and personal order was engaged in starkly divergent European contexts. Examples reach from the Medieval theology of St. Augustine (Markus 1993: 7) over the doctrines of Imperial expansion (Drayton 2000; Dümpelmann 2013; Rudge 2022) to the anti-fascism of Czech writer Karel Čapek (2003 [1929]; see also Harrison 2008: 25ff.). The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman went so far as to conceptualize gardening as a horrifying model for modern statecraft—in which weeds represent undesired groups of people obstructing beautiful order—culminating in the genocides of the twentieth century (1989: 91–92).

More recently, anthropologists have employed the metaphor in an overtly positive way to describe how people cultivate their ethical self-formation (Laidlaw 2014), or even democracy as such (Banerjee 2022). This, however, leaves cultivation's gloomier side underexplored. Anand Pandian enquires into its lasting colonialist heritage when analyzing agrarian cultivation in Tamil Nadu “as both an operation on the land and an operation on the self” (2009: 19). He demonstrates how Kallar understandings of personhood cope with the heritage of an imperialist Western discourse that enforced cultivation as a praxis of virtue. Catherine Degnen, studying gardening in North England, similarly finds that by cultivating plants, gardeners enact their visions of the world (2009; cf. Strathern 1992: 2, 96). Weeding, sowing, or generally caring for plants are valued practices through which people seek to forge order out of disorder and thus make gardens aesthetically pleasing to them. On the same plane, Degnen argues, gardens can signify a threatened English nation and so-called “invasive” plants become profoundly hated “immigrants” (2009: 160). The cultivation of nonhuman species, here, provides an idiom and set of actions to express personal desires and macro-scale social troubles.

It is this double-sidedness of agrarian ideas of cultivation that I stress by ethnographically highlighting their potentially violent affordances as they are lived-out by Azorean farmers. Understood as valued order-making between the domains of ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’3 cultivation from the viewpoint of my interlocutors is best thought of as a continuous idiom encompassing seemingly incommensurable practices such as fruitful gardening and aggressive slaughter. Most of the existing anthropological literature on killing animals does not quite fit this case. There are rich ethnographic studies of animal sacrifice and ritual slaughter (Arumugam 2023; Evans-Pritchard 1956; Govindrajan 2015; Myhre 2013; Valeri 1994) and elaborate accounts of hunting animals as a dangerous and intricate undertaking (Nadasdy 2007; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Willerslev 2007). More recently, ethnographic insights into industrialized killing and butchering have provided a valuable layer on animal death (Blanchette 2020; Pachirat 2011; Wentworth 2017). What is rare, however, are studies of everyday slaughters ‘in one's backyard,’ so to say. As an invariant of rural realities, such forms of taking nonhuman life are mostly directed at household consumption or informal sale. In the Azores, people explicitly contested the idea that these kinds of slaughters operated as cosmological interventions.

The work of Paolo Bocci (2017) has provided helpful directions for the study of such profane yet prevalent forms of intentional animal death as he investigates the death being unleashed by attempts to protect nonhumans from anthropocenic ailments. In an unprecedented eradication campaign, 200,000 goats have been killed on the Galápagos Islands in an effort to save the famous tortoises. What was understood as “care” for one species meant high-tech mass slaughter for another species (2017: 426f.). Bocci thus identifies a continuum of care that encompasses both the love for tortoises and the lethal consequences of that love for goats. While these insights are valuable in calling attention to the contradictory articulations of human action in the process of nonhuman death, in the case of aggressive Azorean horticulturalists who participate in routine yet fatal encounters with animals, the expressions of gendered selfhood and demographic decline remain to be examined.

Since crises of social reproduction, and in particular demographic decline, reshuffle conceptions of subjectivity, agency, and livelihood (Dzenovska 2020; Weiss 2022; see also Narotzky and Besnier 2014), normative ideas of masculinity, too, become unstable (Almeida 1996; Bourgois 1995, 1996; Piscitelli and Simoni 2015). Following the shrinking of population as well as a decrease in moments of collective effervescence like festivals (festas), there are now fewer opportunities to showcase one's capacity to be “good at being a man” (Herzfeld 1985: 16, his emphasis). I follow Agustin Diz (2022) in his argument that certain desired situations—in his case football games, in my case slaughter—permit men “to enact individual and collective forms of productivity and ‘gendered agency’ (High 2010) at a time when [decline] challenges their ability to embody forms of laboring masculinity” (Diz 2022: 4). Male confrontations with decline and structural change have also been shown to be accompanied by higher levels of aggression and actual violence. Among Huli in Papua New Guinea, for example, Holly Wardlow argues that male violence—particularly against women—displays “men's postcolonial existential distress” (2020: 13). These embattled masculinities, through which men feel a loss of control over their self-representations, are however not simply caused by unfair relations of power. Instead, Wardlow argues for a need to situate performances of manhood within long-standing images of desirable masculinity. The remainder of this article explores such established conceptions underwriting vulnerable masculinity in order to demonstrate how a crisis of masculinity brought about by demographic change was recurrently acted out within confined moments of slaughter as they condensed the valued notion of cultivation, gendered subjectivity, and stresses about decline.

The Stakes of Cultivation in a Depopulated Landscape

The current manifestation of depopulation in São Jorge Island, and the Azores more generally, is part of a long-standing process. Historically, the Azores experienced cycles of remoteness and connectivity, economic boom and bust, as well as demographic increase and collapse. As a springboard across the Atlantic, the archipelago proved vital for early Portuguese colonialism and global exploitation: its ports offered strategic shelter and turned the islands into pivots of international commerce (Duncan 1972: 252). After steamships had obliterated the need for trans-Atlantic stopovers, the Azores and its feudal agrarian arrangements underwent centuries of economic marginalization, volcanic disasters, and administrative neglect (Chapin 1989; Matos and Sousa 2015: 29). Islanders responded to these adversities with massive and ongoing outmigration, a process deeply ingrained into Azorean historical consciousness, scholarship, and literature (see Nemésio 1974; Rosa and Trigo 1990). Today's demographic crisis largely stems from an emigration movement that cut São Jorge Island's population in half within decades: numbers dropped from 15,895 residents in 1960 to 8373 in 2021 (Estatísticas dos Açores 2021). While the EU admission of the Autonomous Region of the Azores in 1986 brought agrarian subsidies, opportunities to study in mainland Europe, as well as recently a nascent tourism industry, the demographic desertification remains dire. For island villagers, it is acutely experienced by way of their changing surroundings, that is, the emblematic transformation of former terraces, fields, and gardens into thick and unproductive brushwood.

Against this background, my interlocutors commonly situated what is and is not ‘natural’ in a discourse of productive human agrarian labor. One woman, for example, argued that a vineyard is not nature because nature is more like a forest (floresta), whereas in a vineyard a man (homem) works. Only the absence of a laboring man allows space for nature imagined as a human-deserted realm. In turn, human, or rather male, presence is signaled by tidy and productive gardens. However, she continued, all the weeds within a vineyard certainly can be called nature, because “nature is something that is born without anyone planting it.” After thinking for a moment, she extended that definition: “nature is something that appears by itself” (aparece por si próprio). The moment human work makes part of the picture, it stops being nature.

Her views were shared by most of my interlocutors.4 Nature (natureza) is associated either with a place like the forest or with the unruly processes that destructively interfere with the human sphere, pictured as male agrarian labor in a garden. The human domain is considered to start at the terraced limit of one's cultivated plots of land. This boundary, then, requires constant remaking through the physical work being performed in order to control agrarian social reproduction. Grown potatoes, pressed wine, raised chickens, or harvested tomatoes, all result from the exhausting labor of keeping in check the disruptive natural forces that negatively affect one's produce.

From this perspective, everything that grows on a plot of land without being supposed to be there is nature and an ugly thing (uma coisa feia). Horticulturalists primarily referred to weeds and invasive tree species as ugly, but this also embraces all sorts of vermin, pests, or fungi. Something like weeds is not desirable for a high yield or simply disturbs the view of neat, even crops. To counteract ugly natural matter “appearing by itself,” human work is paramount. Put differently, agrarian labor in an agrarian landscape forms a conceptual union with the household (casa), where horticultural products are processed, stored, consumed, or sold—where they serve social reproduction (see also Pina-Cabral 1986). This union, hinging on the association of the cultivated with the human, is seen as opposed to ‘nature.’ Obviously and problematically for most villagers, demographic decline brings with it a lack of this very labor power, which resulted in a perception of the household realm as being in decline.

What I want to convey is many farmers’ perceptions that the effective reproduction of the household involves the difficult cultivation of gardens for subsistence. Demarcating tidy and productive land against ugly and annoying natural escalation builds on competent and hard (male) labor. Since the terraced, small plots of lands are not mechanizable, most agricultural work is done by pickaxe (alvião), hoe (sacho), and hand. Cultivating land, then, is conceptually coupled with depopulation through the emblematic figure of ‘lost’ land. Identifying ‘nature’ with ‘lost land’ raises the stakes of agrarian cultivation and the role men assume in its productive and skillful execution.

The Aesthetics of Work

The dimension of aesthetic judgment, such as ‘ugly’ weeds, is significant in a conception of nature as both troublesome and yet productively controllable. My neighbor, a thin, energetic cultivador in his fifties, was especially articulate about the direct correlation between a clean piece of land and a well producing one. A clean land (uma terra limpa) was primarily one without any weeds, not even between the stones making up the terraces. He repeatedly lamented that young people nowadays were not willing to do the toil essential to keeping a field neat and orderly. Two siblings who had recently returned from emigration in Europe to take over their parents’ vegetable farm were his favorite culprits. “When [their father, who passed away two years before] was still cultivating the vineyard over there, it was perfectly clean (limpissima), not a single weed (erva) around! And look at it now! It's already lost (o prédio já ‘tá perdido). Why do they think it produces so little wine?” For him, only orderly land produced well, thus implying a direct correlation between aesthetic quality and quantitative yield.

While farmers in general agreed that too many weeds “take out the earth's strength” (tiram forca), which led to a diminished harvest and demanded counteraction by rigorous weeding, they were more invested into the aesthetic satisfaction a tidy field provides. Frequently, after planting potatoes manually for hours, a work party would spend a long while just watching and marveling at the uniform rows of fresh dark earth. Yet pride in inscribing one's personal skill into the earth was not of primary importance. Rather, farmers repeatedly articulated their aesthetic taste in seeing ploughed land or asserted that “only a cultivated land is beautiful” (só uma terra feita é bonita).

Referring to those overgrown plots of land, horticulturalists pronounced wider concerns of their historical predicament and collective future prosperity. Most were convinced that should São Jorge Island really profit from tourism, as the experience of the last years cautiously suggested, they had to maintain their land plots under tidy and productive cultivation. One man argued: “We live in such a paradise (paraíso) and they [other farmers] just let their land turn to shit. All those weeds! Look at [the just tilled garden]! This is what everybody wants to see. All the neighbors and the tourists enjoy seeing a beautiful piece of land.” When I mentioned that perhaps tourists made their way into this peripheral part of Europe to marvel at unbound nature and abundant green slopes, I became an object of ridicule. A similar collision of visceral preferences between me and my interlocutors occurred when I once walked the footpath to Fajã do Calhau, already devoid of permanent inhabitants. To my surprise, what I expected to be a charmingly green forest trail had recently been turned into a plain, dusty path. All the bushes, trees, climbers, and grasses had been cut down thoroughly and dumped down the slope. On encountering the municipality workers, who were still busy spraying Monsanto Round-up over the cleared spaces to keep new vegetation at bay, they were delighted to tell me that the hard labor of the past days had been worth it as to finally “make it all more beautiful” (para fazer mais bonito).

The correlation between land being uncultivated, or unworked, and being unattractive (see also Humphrey 2015: 5) also extended into historical consciousness. Many old people kept work ongoing in their gardens without direct economic need. One elderly woman explained that even though she found the constant work of hoeing tiring (cansativo) and annoying (chato), there was just no other option given the terrible speed of weed growth: “The weeds are just too much. We cannot win! Misericórdia, it is really tiring!” Her exclamation, invoking human defeat, referred to her husband's statement shortly before. He had explained to me that in the old days, all the now densely forested slopes were kept under cultivation. Back then, it had been hard and poor times indeed, so he grew up eating yam (inhame), if anything. Seeing all the abandoned, overgrown terraces nowadays, was crazy (uma coisa maluca). All this land, he reasoned, had no value any longer.

Men Who Dominate

These aesthetic expressions share an understanding of cultivated, controlled spaces as hard-earned signs expressing human triumph over a disruptive, potentially ‘winning’ nature. What has aesthetic, economic, and historical value is the work invested into successful cultivation. The paradise (paraíso) is a cultivated one. Beautiful, in short, is that which has been fruitfully transformed by human action. The affective unease ‘natural’ processes can provoke in certain Lusophone societies (Pina-Cabral 1986: 99) gains specific weight within a landscape shaped by visible depopulation, that is, the worrisome lack of human presence. Feeling that nonhuman species are taking over, horticulturalists responded by engaging simultaneously in resigned rhetoric and lively horticultural action. The ugly sight of overgrown land motivated agrarian work as it kept nature under control, enabled economic subsistence, achieved aesthetic satisfaction, and, as I will argue now, actualized a normative image of agrarian masculinity.

Male narratives of personal prowess and horticultural competency explicate the latter point. A cherished trope of conversation among men revolved around a single farmer confronted with a thorny problem of cultivation, overcoming it by re-thinking and working intensely, and eventually enjoying an abundant harvest while nobody else saw it coming.

For the idiom establishing masculine agrarian status, people often boasted about the number of buckets filled with harvested beans, or an incredibly big tomato, or the dozens of fish caught in one night. Next to sheer quantity, the culinary qualities of buttery beans, sugary tomatoes, or tender fish were underlined. In a subsistence-oriented economy, the spectacular results of one's competent work alone bear no value. Only by successfully converting entities from ‘outside’ (da fora), say beans, tomatoes, or fish, into consumable products of the household, does male labor contribute decisively to the demands of social reproduction.

Here, the skill and creativity for the eventual success comes from oneself. Most male horticulturalists I met were convinced of the uniqueness of their agrarian techniques and conveyed that sense recurrently with statements like “my ideas are different” (as minhas ideias são diferentes) or “I have other methods” (tenho outras maneiras). Examples of such methods included cultivating meticulously along the moon cycle, manuring potatoes solely with chicken excrement, or investing in a vinometer to measure the degree of wine fermentation and add sugar accordingly. However, all these proclaimed idiosyncrasies were frequently challenged as ineffective by others but also widely practiced across the island.

Finally, one's sense of self-worth is considerably increased when nobody else believed in a certain project from the start. It skyrockets when others had actively opposed it and can later be presented triumphantly with proof of one's superior capability. Out-cultivating a perceived rival climaxes these accounts of agrarian bravado. If you like, these are stories farmers tell themselves about themselves. They are built around the skilled male labor of mastering horticultural practices. I will provide a brief scene to bolster their local importance while also displaying their frequently flawed character.

Belmiro, an old wealthy man, one day showed me through his huge and very productive garden. It contained fruit trees, bananas, chestnuts, yam fields, potato and onion plots, but mainly coffee trees. Self-confident about the imposing range of finely domesticated plants, he told me about the pains he had undergone to bring it this far. When he had bought the land, it was all a mess, ugly and overgrown: “and now look at this beauty (beleza)! Isn't it impressive what the two hands of a man can do?” He explained excitedly how poor he and his wife had been when they married, how his unbroken diligence of working non-stop (sempre, sempre, sempre trabalhar!) had steadily lifted them out of poverty into well-deserved wealth and status. And yet, Belmiro systematically underplayed the economic dimension of female labor building the family's wealth. The upward trajectory he was describing had historically coincided with a specific pattern of local emigration. Emigrants had started to regularly return from California over summer. Enjoying their newfound wealth, they revived the sleepy weaving business of Belmiro's wife. In her account, she had been toiling day and night to supply the demand of the Americanos keen to purchase authentic furnishings from the homelands. As other villagers claimed, this had been the economic activity that brought prosperity to their household, not her husband's brincadeira (play, leisure) in his garden.

So far, I have described understandings of agrarian cultivation among horticulturalists in a depopulated, already ‘lost’ landscape. I started by arguing that the threshold between nature and human is located within one's fields—an understanding that appropriates productive plants into the human realm of the house. I then stressed the importance of an aesthetic dimension to agrarian labor and finally situated narratives of agrarian success within a broader discourse of masculine dominance over nature (natureza). These elements emerge from a general perception of the nonhuman realm as potentially disruptive yet also fruitfully usable. Skillfully working the land so that it produces crops, rearing animals, or fishing, in short, making an agrarian living, means both confining the ugly natural sphere and enabling desirable domestic reproduction.

The particular understanding of relating to various nonhuman species rests on the exercise of control in circumstances of intensely felt decline and economic precarity. Bringing the theme of slaughter back in, within this dynamic occurs the critical conversion of a goat: from a living animal outside into consumable meat inside the sphere of the household, the valued locale of social reproduction. In that, goats are similar to other agrarian products like potatoes or wine, as well as fish. A closer look at this life-ending conversion, as I offer it in the following section, suggests that gardening land and killing livestock are shaped by a shared model of making and maintaining order. Put differently, for many horticulturalists cultivation and violence only differ from each other in degree, not in kind.

Slaughtering Goats

I now return to the symbolic surplus of violence against animals in my fieldsite. Having described cultivating islanders’ concepts of the nonhuman realm under conditions of depopulation, the aggressiveness of insulting goats remains puzzling. This holds especially true when comparing these current slaughters to stories of the old days, when cows or pigs were killed in lavish celebrations. Before state legislation confined killing animals to official abattoirs, a Dia da Matança had been a terrific feast, according to my interlocutors. They often recounted vividly how a cow had been embellished with flowers and led down to the sea in a procession with music and excitement. Ana, by then 34 years old, recalled that when she was eight, the last cow had been killed in her village. She insisted that she still remembers it perfectly clear: the blood, the music, the atmosphere, the screams of the cow, the party. She felt sorry for the cow but was also convinced that her last day must have been a good one.

What is stressed by this historic glimpse is the semantic importance of slaughtering animals for the feeling of conviviality and social transcendence, which is nowadays, due to state regulations, deprived of its collective ritual quality (Moreno Andrés and López García 2013). These conditions were principally understood as a deterioration from an earlier ideal and along with persistent poverty and alcohol abuse, they affected the men around Filipe and João in the way they experienced slaughter. The influence of this structural dimension, causing a stark excitement about any form of shared conviviality (convívio), is further supported by many instances of killing goats with next to no verbal abuse. I participated in slaughters that were quick, distanced, and hardly noteworthy. These exceptions directly depended on only a few others being around or a lot of labor tasks standing in line—in short, when no precious sociality was within reach. Taking the life of a goat, then, conflates three elements: the desire for personal dominance in one of the few collective moments; anxieties over vulnerable masculinity under precarious conditions; and an ideology of having ‘nature’ under tight and productive control.

This final point requires some further explanation as to why goats are understood to symbolize unruly nature in the first place. Goats occupy a special place in Azorean categorizations of animals. Since there is a general lack of larger mammal fauna on the islands, except for marine animals, anything bigger than a rabbit is domesticated. There are no deer or boars. Among those domesticated animals, goats stand out because they are understood as being the most annoying to handle, a result of their skills in and urge to escape, and they are kept in ways that put them closest to ‘nature.’ Chickens and pigs are bred in small pens (curral) and remain relatively close to households, horses and donkeys are moved around to offer them space to graze but they are frequently used for ploughing and hence have a very specific labor-focused relationship to people. Cows are often kept further away, but, like sheep, are rather docile and stay in their herds. Additionally, trained cows or oxen are also used as draft animals and admired for their strength. Goats, in contrast, are usually pegged on semi-abandoned terraces or in the highlands with several meters of leash. Their ability to live off hardy and thorny plants designate them to ruminate and thus maintain the threshold between cultivated land and looming brushwood. This, however, often goes wrong. Almost every farmer has a story about how a nice goat, staked further out, managed to escape and was never seen again (nunca mais apareceu). These escapees have likely joined the sizable population of wild goats, thriving on the abandoned slopes of the island. While sometimes hunted with dogs and ropes, the wild ones (as bravas) profit from exactly those demographic and ecological processes that distress island residents. Goats, then, are the closest thing to a ‘wild’ animal there is in the Azores and, amplified by their unruly and picky personal traits, they have to be skillfully wrenched from the natural realm to be appropriated into the household economy.

Slaughtering a goat can roughly be divided into three phases. First, the animal has to be acquired, either sent by a client, raised oneself, or hunted in the abandoned parts of the island. Next to a readily tied-up goat, I also include in that first phase the preparation of tools, such as placing slings to later hang and butcher the goat, preparing a bucket of water and garbage bag for the skin and guts, looking for the iron rod called the “hammer” (martelo), and sharpening knifes. This was also the time the men drank another coffee and doubled up on their wine consumption, they went for a wee or called a mate who was not present to participate. Slaughtering a goat, then, was recognized as a critical and desirable event. Critical because it was extraordinary and could go wrong, as I will describe below; desirable, because it was best experienced in a group of friends. Frequently men reacted slightly hurt when they found out there had been a slaughter that took place without them.

The excited atmosphere of drinking, chatting, and insulting the goat usually changed completely for the second phase, the killing itself. Conversation calmed down, an air of concentration and seriousness emerged, the only utterings lame jokes and short instructions. With lowered voices, so as not to startle the goat even more, one of the men took the rope into his left hand, carefully pulled the goat right in front of him, then slayed it with the rod. A sudden hurry followed that tense moment: the lifeless animal was dragged a few steps towards the garden and a knife was handed over to cut its throat. When the goat's corpse was postured to bleed onto the earth, the atmosphere kicked back up again. Laughter, jokes, and calls for another glass of wine generated conviviality.

Before I continue with the third and last part of an ordinary slaughter, the critical nature of the event needs elaboration to discuss what is at stake in killing a goat. One time, José Manuel insisted on being the butcher (matador) as he often did. He was not skilled in skinning and cutting up the meat, but he enjoyed the act of killing, as he told me: “I really like doing this. I truly like killing goats and eating sopa de leite [a dish of milk and bread].” His statement about the desirability of slaughtering was followed by a longer discussion with João about the quality and amount of meat the young female goat would provide. They repeatedly grabbed the nervous goat's back, reassuring themselves that “this bitch has good material.”5 Meanwhile the place had been cleared, knifes sharpened, and José Manuel started what looked like a slow dance with the goat, trying to bring her into a good position. As the goat was nervous and José Manuel impatient, he went too early and missed her neck, only hitting her horns. He laughed about the goat's attempts to flee and called her a fucking bitch another three or four times. After he missed a second time, João had enough and together with José Manuel and another man took the bleating goat off her feet, hauled her over and not only slit her throat but cut off the whole head. José Manuel, holding the animal's feet, was energized. With the goat corpse between his legs, he moved his hips sexually and moaned with pleasure: “Aay, ouh, aiii [he then turned his head to us] Great! Marvelous! Ey, dying, dying! Dying is a very impressive thing.”6

Contrary to my own appalled reaction in that moment, José Manuel is not at all considered to have an unhealthy preference for death and sexualized violence. In fact, he is quite a successful carpenter with a firm rooting in the village. He does like to crack sexual jokes though and now, as the goat was being skinned (tirar o casaco), the guts removed, and the meat cut up (picar o carne), he explained to me that without horns, goats are easier to kill. On my naïve query, that consequently the horns are the problem, he laughed and confirmed that indeed the horns (os cornos) are a huge problem on São Jorge Island. He played with the double meaning of horns as also referring to cheated-on husbands, an enormous subject of male worry. The way José Manuel mapped masculine troubles on the physical appearances of goats reflects a broader line of thought that has received intense discussion among anthropologists of Europe. Anton Blok, for example, ranks the symbolic importance of billy goats for the performance of Mediterranean masculinity so high that he constructs from it a code of honor/shame (1981: 429f.). While accepting the broad premise of such human–nonhuman semiotic significance, others have strongly objected to Blok's reifying generalizations and insufficient historiographic evidence (Alinei 1982; Herzfeld 1984: 443–446). The point is that, for José Manuel, the goat provides a welcome semantic reference to divert attention from his failure by drawing on the widely accepted registers of male sexuality and human–animal opposition.

The goat by then has become an object of work, as we enter the third phase of a slaughter. João would usually prepare the meat almost on his own, only requiring help in the physically tough parts of tearing down the skin and sawing through the spine and other bones. Men gathered and chatted, insults declined, the whole critical process was, as they said, done (agora já ‘tá feito). Over the course of skinning and butchering the animal, two recurrent topics dominated the conversation. One theme was an elaborate speculation of how much the goat would weigh and what the quality of the meat would be, which meant determining its economic value. The men also discussed at length the culinary characteristics of different parts of the meat, the best ways to prepare those, and whose mother, sister, or wife cooked it the finest. In this way, the dead animal was appropriated into a household idiom, or rather it was discursively ‘cooked.’

This latter layer, inciting correlations between slaughter and commensality, goes beyond the obvious proximity between dead meat and food. It is also reflected in José Manuel's statement comparing goat killing with his favorite dish or João's exclamation months later, while mixing sugar into unprocessed wine where also the two halves of a butchered goat were hanging: “Wine, meat, hey! What else does a man want?” Killing a goat is approached here from a different angle—one that signifies the appropriation of natural matter into household logics. The assumed inevitability of slaughter to enable human reproduction relates male action to the overall reproductive thriving of the household (Pina-Cabral 1986: 18, 37–38).

How then to make sense of the shouting and the acts of staged sexual dominance? The central analytical aspect of goat slaughter is its multi-layered character. The goat, before, during, and after its death provides a reference point to project and negotiate various male concerns. Here, these are skill and status, economic calculation and household reproduction, and finally, sexuality and nature. They are all conflated in the general desire to establish dominance over the goat and what it represents, and to live through that process collectively as a group of friends. This builds on the constantly used idioms to phrase such desires: mandar (to command, order), a general notion of being in charge of things which is often specified by being the boss (o patrão) as well as convívio (conviviality), the sought-after state of joyful co-presence counteracting conditions of poverty and depopulation.

Put differently, goat slaughter is about enacting dominance on a nonhuman entity that is thereby deprived of its ‘natural’ qualities and taken into a sphere of control and reproduction, the household. The conversion itself, as shown, is critical. Best solved through calmness (calma) and skill (saber fazer, to know how to do), frequently stressed as ideal male qualities, the process can slip into an aggressive form of masculinity the moment proficiency fails. Hence, José Manuel's performed madness of arbitrary and ecstatic violence to distract from his lack of competence and João's symbolic ‘overkill,’ cutting off the unruly goat's head and showing it around triumphantly. When control fails to establish dominance, dominance is enacted by means of figurative violence.

João, the main matador, did not have to worry about his proven skill or established social position. He overall employed the least amount of surplus violence. He occupied a privileged spot in the rural masculine hierarchy and was sometimes half-jokingly called “the king of the jungle” (o rei da selva). Men like Filipe and José Manuel, in contrast, struggled with a felt lack of prestige and insufficient skill. Over the course of my fieldwork, they reverted more commonly to abuse and ridicule. This, I suggest, can be understood as a way to salvage their wounded masculinities. Ethnographers in various global contexts have written about the strong correlations between precarious livelihoods, aggression, and male understandings of themselves as vulnerable (see Almeida 1996; Bourgois 1995, 1996; Driessen 1983; Herzfeld 1985; Schubert 2020; Thornton 2018). In regard to livestock more specifically, Maurice Bloch has insightfully shown that Malagasy cultivators—transposing their humiliated relationship with French colonial administrators into the nonhuman realm—talk to their cattle exclusively in French. Their desire to enact some kind of hierarchical, if not “hectoring,” relation (1998: 194) emphasizes a crucial dimension of Azorean gendered slaughter: the symbolic model of one set of practices, for example arduously tilling overgrowing plots of land, can structure altogether different actions, for example killing animals or trying to ‘be good at being a man.’

My point is that symbolically over-killing a goat not only reasserts understandings of masculinity and aims to cement a hierarchical order, but at the same time confirms the boundary between nature and human, or rather outside and inside of the house. Converting a living, breathing thing into a sellable, cookable thing is not only a matter of craft and experience. Instead, the complex social fact of killing, which eventually enables reproduction (Stasch 1996: 374f.), provokes male discursive elaboration. This discourse can assume the form of ‘cooking’ the goat in conversation, as I described above, or excitedly mocking and insulting a soon-to-be-slaughtered nonhuman.

Conclusion

In this article I argued for historicizing and spatializing the gendered performance of hostility against animals. Exploring goat slaughter as informed by a particular notion of agrarian cultivation under conditions of starkly felt abandonment, I demonstrated how my interlocutors ‘live out’ their historical dispositions through their violent relationship to a nonhuman in the process of killing it. The informal slaughter of goats thus provides insights into masculine selfhood and the widespread impacts of depopulation, decline, and administrative neglect (see also Dzenovska 2020; Weiss 2022). Central for understanding the violent engagement with animals is the spacious concept of cultivation: its moral continuum embraces both productive horticulture and the slip into abusive domination of nonhumans.

Here, my case is at odds with several parts of the anthropological literature. First, anthropologists have prolifically employed the term ‘cultivation’ as a positive metaphor denoting different kinds of improvement, care, and refinement (cf. Banerjee 2022; Laidlaw 2014). Based on the ethnographic case presented here, I caution against this usage, having shown how an ideology hinging on cultivation can comfortably rationalize aggression and supremacy. Second, in an age of planetary crisis, anthropologists increasingly seem to celebrate the “unruly edges” or “neglected margins”, or plainly the “rural backwaters” of this troubled earth, where both biological and social diversity proliferate (Tsing 2012: 151; see also Lyons 2020; Tsing 2015). While this idea is surely promising in many regards, I hope to have shown that my interlocutors living in such a ‘rural backwater’—and clearly not advantaged by global capitalism—may be far from content with this situation and instead grow uncomfortable with these thriving margins of multispecies entanglement. Third, many studies concentrating on relationships between humans and nonhumans—such as most of those I presented in the literature review above—appear to shy away from the moment of slaughter itself. While lucidly describing the conditions and understandings of raising livestock and consuming meat (Weiss 2016) or elaborately laying out how ‘meat’ itself is enacted as real (Yates-Doerr 2015), the foundational moment of violence generating much of the ensuing ethnographic material ripe for interpretation is missing. Alternatively, some advocates for multispecies approaches who do examine instances of slaughter (for example, De la Cadena and Martínez-Medina 2021) draw a rigid line between industrial killing, which is construed as alienated and indifferent, and small-scale slaughter, which is characterized by care and relational intimacy. These latter acts of killing are suffused with an atmosphere of solemnity and peacefulness.7 If we are to appreciate the full complexity of relations between humans and nonhumans in rural settings, it makes little sense to either skip a key moment of interspecies hierarchy or to aestheticize it. Cultivators across the world are obviously not all cruel to their livestock. Indeed, the circumstances of agrarian loss in the Azores that saturate the antagonistic attitudes towards ‘nature’ are specific, yet they are comparable with those in numerous other world regions and thus force us to take naturalistic antagonism and, not least, hateful ‘overkilling’ into serious analytical consideration.

Summing up, I hope to have shown that masculine control, as the vernacular master trope of making an agrarian livelihood through cultivation, holds the discursive and practical potential to turn into rhetoric violence. Put differently, I suggest that male understandings of agrarian cultivation shape both daily gardening activities and the ways in which nonhuman life is insulted and ended. Emerging from the agrarian and moral paradigm of cultivation as valued order-making, these modes of relating to nonhuman entities are mediated by concepts of masculinity. Masculinity, in turn, assumes a particular, and frequently hostile, meaning in a precarious context where an agrarian livelihood is central to the overall experience of social life.

Acknowledgments

I am deeply grateful to Rupert Stasch for his comments on several drafts of this article. Quirin Rieder, Lisa Burger, Jacob Bessen, Gabriela Cabaña, and Pete Lockwood read and helpfully discussed earlier versions with me. I thank the participants of the writing-up seminar in Cambridge, in particular Sally Raudon, Matt Candea, and Kevin Yildirim, as well as the audience of the senior seminar at the Department of Social Anthropology in Munich. Hans Steinmüller made sharp and supportive suggestions, Martin Holbraad and two anonymous reviewers refined the argument further with constructive comments. Above all, I am grateful to my interlocutors and friends on the Azores who have generously allowed me and my family to be a temporary part of their lives. This research was funded by the ESRC (fees only, grant number ES/J500033/1), generously supported by the German Academic National Fund, and in its last stretches stabilized by the DFG-funded CRC ‘Cultures of Vigilance’ (Project B06, PI: Eveline Dürr).

Notes

1

Throughout this article, I use pseudonyms for my interlocutors and for most place-names on the island.

2

Etymologically, in most European languages the terms “culture” and “cultivation” root in the polysemic Latin verb colere (to tend, care for, work upon, but also: honor, adorn, worship). From there, Cicero defined education as the (agrarian) “cultivation of the soul” (Markus 1993: 6–7; Pandian 2009: 19–20).

3

‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are far from stable realms. However, as I argue at greater length somewhere else (Burger 2023), farmers’ conceptions of their physical surroundings often resembled a ‘naturalist’ framework. Challenging the primacy of a dualist view of the universe, Descola classifies different “modes of identification”: naturalism, animism, totemism, and analogism (1996, 2013). Naturalism, combining the continuity of a physical world (humans and nonhumans share an “exteriority”) with the discontinuity of subjectivity (only humans have an “interiority,” a mind or culture), is thus one of several ways of relating to one's environment. His contribution, which builds on a longer debate (cf. Latour 1993; Strathern 1980; Viveiros de Castro 1998), is to show that “nature” is consequently not a given domain, thing, or resource as Eurocentric theory had long taken it for granted.

4

While this article explicitly examines the perspective of male working-class farmers, their idea of a nexus between masculinity, cultivation, and personal prowess was often confirmed by female horticulturalists’ points of view. As I show somewhere else, there are altogether different ideas about ‘nature’ andfarming articulated by villagers, which are however rather differentiated by class positionality, not gender (cf. Burger 2023).

5

In this particular case, the insult against the goat, “bitch” (puta), did not so much signify masculine aggressiveness and unease about the nature-embodying animal, but seemed like mundane slang. Talking about the goat in this way was a routinized and low-stakes idiom, accruing from the prevalent use of sexualized slang in Portuguese everyday speech (see also Pina-Cabral 1993). However, in the other situations I describe, the general atmosphere was way more charged, and the insults were meant literally.

6

Maravilha. Maravilhoso. Ey, morrer, morrer! Morrer é uma coisa muito im- pressionante.”

7

I want to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for pointing this out in such clarity.

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Contributor Notes

Tim Burger is a post-doctoral researcher at the Collaborative Research Center ‘Cultures of Vigilance’ at LMU Munich. He has conducted fieldwork on the Azores and in Central Java, Indonesia, with a focus on agriculture, economic practices, household relations, and the state. Before pursuing his doctoral thesis in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, he studied for an MSc in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE), and BA in Social and Cultural Anthropology and Law at the University of Munich (LMU) where he also taught various undergraduate courses. ORCID: 0009-0003-2612-7886; Email: tp447@cam.ac.uk

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  • Alinei, Mario. 1982. “Rams and Billy-Goats.” Man 17 (4): 771776.

  • Almeida, Miguel Vale de. 1996. The Hegemonic Male: Masculinity in a Portuguese Town. London: Berghahn.

  • Arumugam, Indira. 2023. “Centreing Women, Countering Violence: Women Sacrificing, Sacralising Motherhood and Substantiating Intimacy with a Tamil Hindu Goddess.” Anthropological Forum 33: 27–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/00664677.2023.2174072.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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