Slaughterhouse Rules

A professor spends a season in hell.
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Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

The Yale Agrarian Studies completist is always an easy person to buy for, but his smile may slip a notch when he unwraps Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. As if the title weren’t off-putting enough, the cover photograph shows a faceless man in full-body rubber apron and rubber boots, the whole getup spattered with fresh blood. Is that an elastic band on the slick red floor, or a tapeworm? Mercifully, the book deals only in small part with the actual killing of animals, being a firsthand account of various kinds of slaughterhouse work. Liver hanger, cattle driver, quality-control worker: in five months undercover, Timothy Pachirat did it all.

The comprehensiveness of his experience makes Every Twelve Seconds especially valuable, considering the meat industry’s campaign to stamp out precisely this sort of research. Iowa and Utah have already passed laws making it a crime to gain employment at a slaughterhouse for the purpose of documenting abuses and code violations; similar “ag gag” bills have been proposed in other states. It is easy to imagine the uproar that would ensue if the restaurant industry, which is a model of hygiene in comparison, were to demand comparable protection from whistle-blowers. When it comes to the meat supply, however, America appears none too troubled by the prospect of its blindfolding; the nation would rather take its chances with E. coli than risk channel-surfing into a slaughterhouse. Though “foodie” writers occasionally show interest in the act of slaughter, they prefer to witness it outdoors, on some idyllic farm, the better to stylize it into a time-hallowed, mutually respectful communing of man and beast. Readers are left to infer that their local meat factory is merely maximizing the number of communings per minute; the media fuss over Temple Grandin, a purportedly cow-loving consultant to Big Beef, has an obvious role to play here. But all this wishful thinking fails at the slaughterhouse door. Barring recourse to the inducements the animals get, it would be hard to coax average Americans inside even for a minute. As George Bataille once wrote, in a remark that leads off Pachirat’s first chapter: “The slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat carrying cholera.”

Also see:

A Spy in the Slaughterhouse
James McWilliams interviews Timothy Pachirat about his undercover reporting for this book.

And it always has been. We are sometimes told that urbanization has made us all squeamish about something people used to regard with a manly, no-nonsense spirit. The opposite is closer to the truth. As the great psychoanalyst Otto Rank pointed out, cave paintings and ancient myths indicate that primitive man—with whom our so-called hunters love to claim kinship—felt worse about killing animals than killing his own kind. (We find a similar attitude among the rugged Cossacks in Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don: “You should not kill an animal unless it is necessary, but destroy man!”) If our ancestors had had—as we now do—full awareness of animals’ sentience, and the wherewithal to live without red meat, and the knowledge that red meat is harmful in even the smallest quantities, would they have gone on eating it? We will never know the answer. What is certain is that long traditions of stigmatizing the slaughtering class started fading only after the factory farm made slaughter invisible, inaudible, and unsmellable to everyone outside that class. Of course, everyone has a pretty good idea what goes on, so that parents whose child wanted to be a cow-killer when he grew up (as opposed to, say, a soldier) would probably get him psychological counseling, but the bulk of mankind now has the luxury of forgetting how meat is made.

The most interesting aspect of Pachirat’s book is its discovery that our slaughterhouse workers are themselves deeply uneasy about the cruelty they are forced to inflict. This runs counter to the PR line according to which everything runs wonderfully humanely except when some psychopath slips into the system. Evidently there is no uncruel way to kill a large and terrified animal every 12 seconds, the pace now set by industry greed. Just moving the cattle along the chutes leaves employees feeling shaken and ashamed.

The cow struggles to right itself, but with the narrow passageway and downward slope slick with feces and vomit, it cannot get up … Fernando inserts the rings through the cow’s nostrils, clamps them shut, and attaches them to a yellow rope, which he jerks heavily … Finally, the men pull so hard that they rip the cow’s nostrils and the nose rings fly out, hitting Juan in the hand. “Fuck!” he screams … With electric prods Gilberto and Fernando push the remaining cattle over the downed cow, and they stomp on its neck and underbelly trying to escape the electric shock. Leaning against the wall, I look at Richard, who says shakily, “Man, this isn’t right, running them other cattle over this cow like that. I’m not going to take part in this. I’m not going to stand and watch this.”

Small wonder that some estimates put American slaughterhouses’ annual employee turnover rate at more than 100 percent, or that a high degree of euphemism characterizes even their internal communication. Live cattle are referred to as “beef,” the animals as having “come in to die,” while the employee who must fire the bolt into each quaking cow’s skull is a “knocker.”

Pachirat writes about how even abusive workers shrink from doing the “knocking.” When Pachirat says he wants to try, a colleague replies, “Nobody wants to do that. You’ll have bad dreams.” A woman in quality control feels the same: “I already feel guilty enough as it is … Especially when I go out there and see their cute little faces.” Pachirat samples the work anyway, much to another colleague’s dismay:

When I tell Tyler I shot three animals with the knocking gun the day before, he urges me to stop. “Man, that will mess you up. Knockers have to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever they’re called every three months.”
“Really? Why?”
“Because, man, that’s killing,” he says; “that shit will fuck you up for real.”

Fortunately the prose in Every Twelve Seconds is as chilly as the liver-hanging room. Written in a more emotional or protesting tone, the book would have been not just unreadable, but less credible as well. The author’s command of language, which renders every technical and architectural detail vividly, obviates the need for photographs like the one on the cover. In any case, industry hacks can always spin visual evidence of cruelty and filth—even video footage—as the tendentious record of an aberration. It is harder to quarrel with the sober description of business as usual.

No book is perfect. Pachirat is a political scientist, and while this book is generally low in jargon, it sometimes recalls Nietzsche’s scorn of the academic as someone unable to see with his own eyes. Every few pages some trendy thinker’s catchphrase pops up between the reader and the thing described, with no apparent gain in insight. Michel Foucault’s Panopticon analogy of perfect surveillance gets a dutiful airing, as it does in almost every social-science paper these days, but Pachirat’s own account makes clear how much all the people in a slaughterhouse manage to conceal from each other. The USDA inspectors are always a few lumbering steps behind the action.

Long traditions of stigmatizing the slaughtering class started fading only after the factory farm made slaughter invisible, inaudible, and unsmellable to everyone outside that class.

The author also conforms to the current academic practice of laboriously redescribing the obvious. To say that people hide what they don’t want others or themselves to see is to make a commonsense point that a small child could grasp. It verges on tautology. Yet for all his access to a rarely described world, Pachirat keeps returning to this of all points, writing in revelatory tones of a “politics of sight,” of “distinctions between visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined that, in theory, keep repugnant activities hidden and therefore make them tolerable.” In a profession where success is judged by how often one gets quoted, the author has perhaps succeeded in creating a new catchphrase, something colleagues writing on other topics may feel compelled to invoke. As in, say: “The dictator’s effort to conceal the massacre was a prime example of what Timothy Pachirat calls ‘the politics of sight.’ ”

But the American slaughterhouse deserves to be straightforwardly described for its own sake, and not as a case study for some overarching pseudo-theory. After all, if the meat industry succeeds with its ag-gag drive, Pachirat’s brave and extensive research might end up being the last of its kind. We can count ourselves lucky that Every Twelve Seconds is a very good book if not a flawless one. Almost despite itself it forces upon us an unacademic yet profound question: How can something be right, if it feels so horribly wrong?

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).
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