In his Lectures on Ethics, Immanuel Kant says, “Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite;…. as soon as a person becomes an Object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function, because as an Object of appetite for another a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by everyone” (Papadaki). Essentially, Kant illustrates the act of dehumanization that takes a person and diminishes their humanity equating it to an object. Drawing heavily from Kant is Slavoj Zizek in his essay Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing. Zizek, along the same argument of objectification outlined in Lectures on Ethics, delineates the problems with courtly love and applies it to modern instances of sado-masochism, which elevates the woman, or Lady, to a “radical Other” that is unattainable. Not only are the expectations unattainable for her to obtain, but she herself is unattainable for the knight because her false image is nonexistent. Similar to Zizek’s argument in Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing, Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, through John Ueno, places Akiko, as well as all other women, in the position of the sublime object thus discrediting her and the rest of female specie’s humanity.
The Objectification of Women
In his essay, Zizek lays out the social problems associated to the idea of courtly love. The first problem stated warns the readers about spiritualization evident when the knight sets his Lady upon a pedestal making her the sublime object. In regards to the theories of objectification, Zizek’s first problem mirrors a few of the defining features of objectification dictated by Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton: denial a person’s subjectivity, reducing someone to their body or appearance, and silencing a person’s voice (Papadaki). Within the conventions of courtly love, the Lady “loses concrete features and is addressed as an abstract ideal” creating a nonhuman, radical Other that assumes the Freudian role of “das Ding, the Thing” (Zizek 1182). Because the Lady is emptied of her true substance, the knight can fill her with whatever he chooses; she becomes what he wants her to be. She acts as the mirror upon which the “subject projects his narcissistic ideal” – the knight’s idyllic fantasy is reflected back towards him. The knight sees in the Lady what he wants to see.
On a similar note, the marriage between John Ueno and Akiko parallels Zizek’s first problem regarding sublimation in courtly love. Like the knight, who sets the Lady within the realm of unrealistic expectations making her and the fantasy unattainable, John Ueno urges his wife, Akiko, to attain perfection thereby denying her her own personalized identity. As Nussbaum and Langton argued, John objectified his wife reducing her appearance and value to that of meat, and to do so he denies her a voice. His vision that he projects on his wife is like that which BEEF-EX expects of the cows it slaughters for meat. John wants his wife to be docile, obedient, and fertile. The author, Ruth Ozeki, even remarks in an interview included in the back of the book that while writing the novel “meat took on a variety of metaphorical resonance: I was thinking of women as cows; wives as chattel; and the body as meat, fleshy, sexual, the irreducible element of human identity” (Ozeki 6). Ozeki’s cattle metaphor assumes John Ueno’s voice as it turns Akiko into a sublime object, a thing. His image of her is nothing more than a piece of meat allowing him to treat her however he likes.
To ensure she complies with his vision of appropriate behavior, John demeans her and shows her through My American Wife! how ideal housewives should act evident when he says, “The whole point is to show perfect families. We don’t want families with flaws” (Ozeki 129). John praises appearances over authenticity. Thus, Akiko obeys and truly tries to embody her husband’s fantasy and as a result becomes embedded in what Zizek refers to as the symbolic Real; her created identity cannot be known because it does not exist – it is not real. The signifier of her life is reduced to meat. Meat can be made into whatever the cook wants it to be. Likewise, Akiko is made into John’s ideal image. She, like the Lady, becomes the mirror that shows John only what he wants to see; she appears “not as she is but as she fills his dream.” When Akiko thinks back to when she dated John, she remembers that “John was able to fill up any conversational spaces with his own words and opinions” (Ozeki 97). Through discourse, John constructs his wife’s identity highlighting Akiko’s main struggle throughout the text – her lack of identity. She herself does not know who she is because she has so completely adhered to John’s image of her.
Deferment Vs. Instant Gratification
One aspect of Zizek’s problem with sublimation that translates differently in My Year of Meats is attainability. For John, his fantasy, unlike the knight, is that which is attainable for him. The obstacles common to the traditional courtly love tale heighten the fantasy. Acquiring the Lady too quickly lessens her appeal; the chase is what the knight desires. Postponement is essential. John Ueno, on the other hand, desires instant gratification; his idea of perfection is conquerable – order not chaos. He wants his wife to be amenable, not unpredictable like the Lady, but Akiko is like the Lady in that she leaves John in the end, which he never predicted. The chaos of the chase in courtly love maintains the knight’s interest in the Lady, but John Ueno is not a knight. When he slowly loses his grasp on the order, he becomes erratic and irritable. The unattainability is not in John Ueno’s marriage to Akiko but in Akiko’s inability to conform to the mold of perfection that her husband has formed for her.
Confusing Reality with Fantasy
In the latter half of Zizek’s essay, he states the next problem with the courtly love formula arguing that it has nothing to do with passion; courtly love is an arrangement. Within this argument, Zizek uses the relatively modern phenomenon of sado-masochism evident in much of pop-culture (take 50 Shades of Grey for instance) to express his point. First, Zizek explains masochism in perverse terms because it is the servant (knight) that initiates the sexual encounter with the Master (the Lady). When Zizek moves on to define sadism, he points out that it is not a “symmetrical inversion” (Zizek 1183). Sadism, unlike masochism, can “never form a complementary ‘sado-masochist’ couple” between the sadist and the victim (Zizek 1183). Masochism is the pretense of sexual control whereas sadism actually sexually victimizes an individual. The former allows the participants to return to reality and the latter is reality. Like a Freudian slip, masochism is a paradox: “there is more truth in the mask we wear, in the game we play, in the ‘fiction’ we obey and follow, than in what is concealed” (Zizek 1184). Masochism then possesses an underlying meaning that exists in the Real. Brutality in masochism, a concealed version of that which exists in sadism, surfaces once the sexual humiliation of the masochist by the Master is internalized causing hysteria in the masochist; pretense becomes reality. Both masochism and sadism are a quest for order apart from chaos.
Elements of masochism and sadism that Zizek uses to reveal the problem of courtly love develop between John and Akiko. In terms of masochism, the entirety of their marriage is a farce; no passion exists. It is merely an arrangement initiated by John to establish order. Yet when the truth of Akiko’s fertility sabotage comes to light, John becomes hysterical similar to the masochist, and he internalizes the humiliation of not being able to conceive as an attack against his manhood resulting in an outburst that physically harms Akiko. Then again, their relationship also fits within the model of sadism summed up perfectly when Zizek says,
What we encounter here is a kind of loop in which the (mis)perceived effect of the brutal act upon the victim retroactively legitimizes the act. I set out to beat a woman and when, at the very point where I think that I thoroughly dominate her, I notice that I am actually her slave – since she wants the beating and proved me to deliver it – I get really mad and beat her… (Zizek 1187)
Similarly, John feigns innocence when he savagely abuses his wife because within his delusion she asks for the beating through her own actions and inability to adhere to his image. Like a meat tenderizer, John beats his wife into submission. So regardless of her inability to conform, she is still elevated to the status of the Thing and is used like an instrument wholly at his disposal.
In the End…
Because of Akiko’s embodiment of the meat metaphor, the Lacanian Real especially in terms of the symbolic order expounded on in Zizek’s essay Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing echoes throughout Ruth Ozeki’s novel. “Meat is the message” opens the book and then permeates throughout the whole novel. My Year of Meats maintains the symbolic order as it uses the metaphor of meat to highlight the objectification of women expected to conform to society’s image of the ideal woman. However, in the end when meat is found to be contaminated and detrimental to society, the symbolic order binding Akiko to the meat metaphor shatters finally freeing Akiko to relinquish the pretense and adopt her own identity. If meat is bad, then so is blind obedience to an abusive, controlling husband.
Ozeki, Ruth L. My Year of Meats. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998. Print.
Papadaki, Evangelia. “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, Or, Woman as Thing.” Ed. David H. Richter. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (2007): 1181-97. Print.