Posthumanism is pretty easy to locate in pop culture. A sustainable theme in the humanities, film and television narratives have regularly relied on posthumanism as a trope for the last three decades: The Matrix, Avatar, Blade Runner 2049
, HBO’s Westworld
, and Netflix’s Black Mirror
, to name a few. In scholarship, look no further than Hassan
), who have been theorizing posthumanism’s meaning and ramifications, sustaining the theory and critically analyzing posthuman cultural shifts. As a through line, their works examine changing ideas about how we understand bodies and how information is the essential or privileged way to describe life: bodies are just
substrates—they are meat in meatspace, to reference useful, late-20th-century lingo for the physical world (OED Online, 3d ed., s.v. “meatspace”; see also, Barlow 1995
; see Gibson 1984
for reference to the body as “meat”), and bodies just happen to carry information for life (LaGrandeur 2014
Imagine our surprise when we experienced this important facet of posthumanity in a very unlikely and in-humanities place: the Wegmans’s Grocery Store meat aisle. There, among the chuck and the pre-formed patties, were packages of the plant-based meats almost masquerading as the real thing. Instead of being dichotomized from “authentic” animal-based meat and regulated to a separate, less conspicuous, side-facing aisle, Impossible™ Foods’s plant-based ground meat was juxtaposed with It’s What’s for Dinner beef. Meats (both animal and plant-based) were coterminous, where animal meat alone was no longer the exclusive fare with which to satiate carnivorous appetites. Rather, the dominant protein in American culture, of sustaining meatspace bodies, was being rhetorically challenged.
Wegmans’s meat section implemented a posthuman rhetorical move indicating a significant shift in the animal-based and plant-based conflict. The spatial arrangement argues what meat can be: a substrate carrying information. As simply a substrate, meat need not be authentically animal-based. Here, meat may not be digitized, per se, but it has become something else, a packet of information that has made its way into popular culture eating habits. In our current techno-cultural moment, where remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999
) is ubiquitous (i.e., communication media from the past and present borrows, remixes, and re-fashions each other), the remediating of other, non-digital or cybernetic practices is often overlooked. Posthumanism in the meat aisle is a revealing turn in the narrative of meat, of sustainability in an animal-based meat-eating culture, and a challenge to the hegemonic humanism connected to one’s caloric intake: to eating particular media (meatia). And, when considering how animal-based meat is becoming even more informational (e.g., the coming cell-based meat revolution), where meat comes in bits and bytes and is cultured and grown away from animal bodies, using posthuman and digital theoretical perspectives allows for interrogation of the semiotic constellations of current animal-based and plant-based meat narratives.
Explicitly, Impossible™ meats can be considered meataphors participating a larger capitalistic endeavor to stake a claim in the animal-based meat market using more traditional advertising strategies; however, Impossible™ meats are also, more implicitly, making posthuman moves in their persuasive efforts, rhetorically shifting the meaning of meat, a shift echoing posthumanism’s informational emphasis. Impossible™ meats has generated a new narrative of what sustains bodies through their persuasive practices, beyond the spatially significant juxtapositions with animal-based meats. There has always been a posthuman aspect to animal-based meats, to distancing cuts of meat from the animals supplying them and turning them more into information than bodies; that posthuman idea, though, and its expression is being filtered into new places, like the meat aisle. Such a meataphorical move shifts how audiences experience meat—namely, what meat means—thus, making animal-based meat-eating a different kind of ethical choice. Impossible™ Foods, surprisingly, focuses almost exclusively on the ethics of sustainability rather than animal welfare, making it more difficult to continue practicing animal-based agricultural practices. In understanding Impossible™ Food’s takes on the story of meat, remediating it for audiences through their semiotic practices, we can better see how posthumanism is mapped onto the food, cultivating it into a quasi-digital realm.
2. Ingesting Real Symbols and Digesting What’s Been Said before
Plant-based meat is a uniquely real image; it is a metaphor in how it poses for something else and yet is at the same time something itself. Of course, all metaphors can be considered both real and symbolic simultaneously: words are real in the more denotative sense that they are uttered aloud—are physical sounds, sonic materials. Words are connotative in having more cultural meanings. Most often metaphors are observed in linguistic and visual texts: “Take the bull by the horns,” or a visual image of one performing such an act, means take charge of a difficult situation. Metaphors, however, encompass a range of communication modes. They can be aural: think recordings of music. They can be tactile: think how vinyl stands for leather. Metaphors can also be olfactory and gustatory. They are related to the senses of smell and taste: think perfume for a rose, a jelly bean that tastes like popcorn. And, to use the term meataphor, as we do, rather than sign, is to focus on a key aspect of metaphors, what might be called the Lakoff-Johnson Key Concept: Metaphors offer individuals a way or ways to understand or perceive certain things because of the comparative way they know of or experience other things. Both conceptual and heuristic, metaphor is at the root of “the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980
, p. 3). Metaphors operate by foregrounding certain facets of a comparative concept or way of thinking, while simultaneously backgrounding other facets that appear “inconsistent” with the comparison the metaphor is being employed to achieve (Lakoff and Johnson 1980
, p. 10). And, for us, metaphors are too locked into being linguistic and/or virtual rather than “real” and in meatspace.
Of course, we are not the first to write critically about how metaphor has been a primary tool to translate non-animal-based meats to a meat-familiar public. Broad
), in an insightful analysis of the conceptual metaphors guiding how plant-based meat is linguistically
constructed, provides important insight into such foregrounding and backgrounding. Broad argues that two dominant metaphors drive how audiences imagine non-animal-based meats: (1) Meat is made. (2) “The market” creates space for alternative meats. The former foregrounds processes of construction/manufacturing. The latter “places an emphasis on innovation, capital investment, and insights from behavioral economics and marketing as the primary agents for catalyzing food system change” (Broad 2020
, p. 921). In her recent cultural history of the burger, Adams
, p. 212), too, is immediately struck by how the metaphors used in the discourse of meat alternatives “evoke the ambitious, aspirational, and transformational nature of plant-based meat technologies.”
Plant-based meat, though, is a metaphorically complicated conceptual food in that it is visually, tactically, olfactory, and aurally like its antecedent: animal-based meat. Considering plant-based meats as multimodal, meatspace metaphors extends how they are being imagined and experienced as part of Broad’s observations. For us, a meataphor is an appropriate term for plant-based meat as a dynamic and multifaceted metaphor and points towards a conceptual shift of meat into the posthuman realm, or into Castells’s (Castells 2000
) notion of a culture of “real virtuality.” Castells writes: “by real virtuality I mean a system in which reality itself (that is, people’s ma-terial/symbolic existence) is fully immersed in a virtual image setting, in the world of make believe, in which symbols are not just metaphors, but comprise the actual experience” (p. 373). For Castells, augmented and virtual reality systems turn into real virtual systems in which there is a cultural shift from seeing the virtual as “not real” or as an addition to experience into being fully acknowledged and embodied as
experience. What’s interesting where the meataphor is concerned is how real virtuality is being remediated in meatspace itself and how Impossible™ Foods is helping consumers understand this shift in consumption—between “real” and “virtual” meats. The rhetorical moves Impossible™ Foods makes in telling the story of meat creates what might be considered virtually real virtuality—nearly real virtuality.
The virtually real virtuality of meataphors is a useful posthuman position for exploring how posthuman experience privileges information over substance and questions about how much meat can be altered to become “meat” or a meataphor: “First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (Hayles 1999
, pp. 2–3). Though an “accident,” biological substrates still tug at the virtual, yet these tugs are also becoming informational. The tugs toward information in Impossible™’s storytelling set the stage for shifting consumer experiences with what it means to be authentically or “authentically” (as in almost or virtually) carnivorous.
Patrick Brown, founder of Impossible™ Foods, illustrates an emerging posthuman perspective, arguing that “meat” is an informational pattern, not some immutable substance that can only be ascribed to an animal-based material instantiation. Started in 2011, the company’s initial task sought a solution to the primary dilemma that separated the carnivore and the herbivore: “Before Impossible™ Foods, there was meat and there were plants” (Impossible Foods n.d.a
). Through isolating the informational pattern that “makes meat taste like meat” (Impossible Foods n.d.a
), Impossible™ Foods could create a plant-based meat alternative that was not an alternative at all, but rather “comprise[d] the actual experience,” to use Castells’s words (Castells 2000
, p. 373), of eating meat. In a 2018 blog post, six years into the company’s Impossible™ project, Brown elaborates on the company’s key assertion that “mammalian muscle” (Brown 2018b
) does not meat make: “Not only are animals not the only
way to produce [sic
] world’s favorite foods; they aren’t even the best way. Until today, the only technology we’ve known that can turn plants into meat has been animals. But cows, pigs, chicken and fish didn’t evolve to be eaten. They’re terribly inefficient at turning plants into meat, and there’s no reason to think they’ve even come close to reaching the potential for deliciousness in meat” (Brown 2018a
The key to Brown’s emerging posthuman rhetoric is the idea that animals are technologies—they are, from an albeit anthropocentric posthuman perspective, systems of information to be manipulated. Though Brown does present a contradiction in arguing animals did not evolve to be eaten, he still emphasizes that non-human evolutionary agency did not design delicious information. Regardless of agency, Brown emphasizes that animal-based meats are designed, either through animal husbandry and the technologies surrounding the processes (e.g., breeding and feeding cows for a particular marbling in the meats) or through evolutionary shifts. Such conflation and emphasis on design blurs the lines between animal-based meat and meataphor, putting audiences in an uncanny digestive position about eating: to rethink what counts as meat or what has the capacity to be meat, especially if meat is always already “remeatiated” by some force, human or otherwise.
), furthermore, repeatedly comments that Impossible™ Foods “will be able to transform natural ingredients from plants into meat that outperforms the best beef from a cow—not just in sustainability, cost and nutritional value, but in flavor, texture, craveability and even ‘meatiness.’” Though there are “natural ingredients” from plants, in the context of the post, natural ingredients are part of an informational network of environmental, capitalistic, caloric, and multimodal information arguing for the inclusion of plant-based meats as “real” and “authentic” food, even if they are transformed (i.e., the “natural ingredients” are remediated and/or designed into meat).
As Brown’s argument above suggests, the case for the Impossible™ burger is situated within the realm of persuasion. Impossible™ Foods can only gain traction if readers and eaters are persuaded that the meat they eat might originate from a different source. Casey Boyle’s Rhetoric as Posthuman Practice
) describes how such persuasive practices might be considered through a posthuman lens. Rather than consider rhetoric in an agential way—in that there is some kind of agency in an author or audience that enacts change—Boyle suggests an electric conception of posthuman rhetoric. Boyle asserts that “emphasizing capacity—and its etymological connections of potentials for taking hold—would connect practice with recent findings in distributed cognition… and work in ways not beholden to agency’s muddle of volition, experience, and ability to enact change” (n.p.). In more words, meat as conceptual construct is a capacity that can be filled in any number of ways: as formed in meatspace through the more implicit narrative construction of molecules to make Impossible™ meats and, simultaneously, through the more explicit language surrounding the meat itself—the narrative construction of the meat in media and how authors and audience members experience the capacities of these constructions.
In summarizing posthuman rhetoric, Boyle describes this shift: “Rhetoric as a posthuman practice is, through and through, an empirical and pluralistic art of asking, over and over, ‘which one?’” (n.p.). For Boyle, “Reorienting rhetorical practice from argument to information turns the activity of persuasion from convincing others with language and toward persuasion instead as a continuous activity that becomes in-formed across the material and semiotic, mind and body, form and content” (n.p.). Meat (animal-based and plant-based) is clearly formed across the semiotic, mind and body, form and content, and becomes part of an explicit paradigm for choosing a protein source. Options for creating the syntagm or narrative of a meal, of grilling say a steak, is not a choice in the cut of meat but of protein category. Which capacity for food does one go with?
Boyle’s application of such rhetorical lenses comes with posthuman consequences of social distance and the power that is agency and considerations of identity, ones Carol J. Adams noted nearly three decades ago in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory
(Adams  2016
). Much of Adams’s work can be considered a kind of proto-posthuman analysis in regards to meat. In particular, Adams’s discussion on the practices of naming meats and shifting the language of meat-eating clearly illustrates animal-based meat as an informational pattern rather than substance. “Language distances us further from animals by naming them as objects, as ‘its.’ Should we call a horse, a cow, dog or cat, or any animal ‘it’? ‘It’ functions for nonhuman animals as ‘he’ supposedly functions for human beings, as a generic term whose meaning is deduced by context… [This] generic ‘it’ erases the living, breathing nature of the animals and reifies their object status” (p. 46). Adams extends the discussion of the mystification of meat through linguistic means, showing that the dissociation of the animal is what makes “meat” possible. Adams suggests: “Animals’ lives precede and enable the existence of meat. If animals are alive they cannot be meat”; however, even after their post-mortem transformation into a body that can be butchered, “[a]nimals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them,” a process that is amplified by the gustatory maneuvers of “gastronomic language, so we do not conjure dead, butchered animals, but cuisine” (p. 46). In this linguistic turn, Adams’s logic-driven approach to thinking through the relationship between animals and meat sets up considerations of meat as a substrate, the same considerations that would fuel Impossible™ Foods’s Patrick Brown decades later.
In a related though contrasting vein, Shareena Z. Hamzah
) wonders at how the popularity of veganism and shifting cultural understandings of food and meat in particular will change or “tenderise fictional language”: “The increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through our consciousness to produce new modes of expression—after all, there’s more than one way to peel a potato. At the same time, metaphors involving meat could gain an increased intensity if the killing of animals for food becomes less socially acceptable.” Though Hamzah also notes the irony of plant-based meats and the consequences of being meataphoric, she continues: “It is interesting to note that a range of vegetarian burgers have been made to ‘bleed’ like real meat. Although the animal components of such foods are substituted, attempts are made to replicate the carnivorous experience. Beetroot blood suggests the symbolic power of meat may well carry into the age of veganism, in which case the idea of meat as power will also remain in literature for some time to come.”
Examining Impossible™ Foods’s meataphors and the posthuman rhetorical moves they utilize in promoting their products is important for understanding how metaphors are “real” in more ways than are usually considered and have significant impact on how “meat” is practiced and culturally imagined. Impossible™ Foods has harnessed Hamzah’s notion of “meat as power” in their marketing of both their meat products and their corresponding sustainability agenda, but in posthuman practice, has moved to harness the informational pattern of “meat as power.” Posthuman rhetoric, though it has the capacity to distance bodies from material conditions, also has the capacity to bring bodies closer to these conditions. Impossible™ Foods seems to be doing more of the former rather than the latter.
4. A Conclusion: Slaughtering the Meataphor
Impossible™ Foods’s posthuman rhetorical moves pose significant challenges to animal-based meat eating. Their meataphor and the language they use to narrate and market its existence is reframing what counts as meat and has become “its own thang”—not just a substitute. The posthuman rhetoric Impossible™ Foods’s employs has been so effective, Impossible™ Foods’s meats might be considered more pataphoric than meataphoric. The concept of the pataphor, originally developed from pataphysics, clearly connects to posthumanism as it questions what counts as reality. As a posthuman rhetorical device, the pataphor extends a metaphor into a new layer of reality. More complexly put, “whereas a metaphor is the comparison of a real object or event with a seemingly unrelated subject in order to emphasize the similarities between the two, the ‘pataphor [or pataphor] uses the newly created metaphoric similarity as a reality with which to base itself” (Lopez quoted in Hugill 2012
, n.p.) For instance, consider this metaphor: Ze made sure to bring home the bacon (i.e., earn a living).
A pataphor would look like this: Ze made sure to bring home the bacon, comfortable with zis finances, and because the bacon was lonely, not having been home in a long time. In fact, bacon thanked zim and started making dinner
. Impossible™ Foods’s multimodal metaphor (our “meataphor”) and the multimodal rhetoric undergirding the meataphor story has created a new context, a new reality, for considering what meat means, is, and the processes behind it. Thus, if Impossible™ meat was previously meat in the sense of being a metaphor—Impossible™ burger is “meat”—the meaning has changed pataphorically: Impossible™ burger is meat but it was never raised with the cattle it sits beside in the meat aisle.
Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner
’s responses to Impossible™ Foods only serves to support the fact that Impossible™ meats have indeed developed “thanginess” in and of themselves, thus reimagining what meat is. Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner
’s website provides information on meat substitutes, communicating a posthuman perspective about their own animal-based products. The headline for the meat substitute page reads: “Nicely done, beef. Substituting your taste is beyond impossible” (NCBA n.d.b
). Explicitly, the company suggests that there is no substitute for beef. At the same time, however, Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner
implicitly references Beyond Meat and Impossible™ Foods, entering a dialogue that acknowledges substitution and capacity, very posthuman ideas about food. Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner
even describes beef in posthuman terms: “What sets beef apart is that it’s a high-quality protein that is authentic, real and raised responsibly” (NCBA n.d.b
). In other words, our information, our science and our technology, they seem to say, is virtually real virtuality. Meat can be “its own thang,” so to speak, but audience members should choose animal-based because it is not inauthentic, unreal, and husbandry is not irresponsible. Doubling down, in its recipe page, Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner
usurps the notion of meat substitutes altogether, suggesting that: “beef is the ultimate ‘meat substitute’ that makes every dish and meal better” (NCBA n.d.c
Though Impossible™ Foods is creating a pataphor, a new context for their meats and meat reality in general, they are continually drawn into a system of capitalist representation that tries to frame Impossible™ products as a substitute to thereby maintain the animal-based meat status quo. Thus, there are dissonances between our rather abstract arguments about meataphors, pataphors, and lived reality. Meat space (i.e., the location of meats) in the grocery store is not really being its “own thang” in the sense of animal-based and plant-based equity—in the sense of providing audiences, consumers a helpful juxtaposition in understanding options and the competing forms of meat. At the point of selection, animal-based meats remain at the top of the hierarchy and privilege. Plant-based meat consumption is hidden in a small aisle and, furthermore, has no “butcher” or expert to help with selection and “cut” some meat.
And if/when animal-based meats are eclipsed by plant-based meats, what happens in such a posthuman culture of virtually real virtuality, where calories are gamified into an informational FitBit for a privileged few (i.e., those with access and the money for meataphors, since meataphors cost around twice as much as beef (Piper 2020
)) into an ecological reputation score—an ecological Klout? Will meat-eating specifically be translated into an online challenge akin to Impossible™’s Ecological Impact Calculator where an app awards a person certificates and awards for impact on their FitBit: Meat Eat? Perhaps that future is closer than we might imagine. Impossible™ Foods has already created its own rewards/points system calls Taste Place where you can eat, earn swag, and then brag to your friends (Impossible Foods n.d.e
). What’s next? Of course, such impact comes with a discount on meats for continuing to consume their products and make them money.
Impossible™ Foods meataphors rhetorically situate meat as a posthuman process and product, “sciencing” meat into a pattern of information that can be replicated, showing the virtually real virtuality of food, positioning tastes and bodies closer to all sorts of caloric engineered possibilities. Animals, in other words, do not need to be part of a meat-eater’s equation: All that is needed is Technology. Impossible™ Foods, however, has trouble responding more fully to Adams’s call to change eating habits and be critical of the arguments promoting animal-based meat culture. Adams hopes audiences will learn to “refuse to consume the images on their own terms but to look with resistance and recognize that images are anchored to referents, living beings, subjects, not objects, of our own lives” (Adams  2016
, p. 176). And while meataphors like Impossible™ meats are real images for bodily consumption, for better or worse, Impossible™ Foods’ rhetorical tactics often shield consumers away from any guilt about the privilege of humans in the hierarchy of food production and the socio-economics of access, instead using tropes of sustainability to manufacture a guilt-free meat-eating lifestyle.