A few podcast episodes ago, on Episode 118, author and powerhouse Timothy Pachirat — the mastermind behind Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, wowed us with his heartfelt and harrowing stories of working in a slaughterhouse in Omaha, Nebraska. After the episode aired, comments, tweets, and emails poured in — you were all as captivated by Pachirat as we were, left as speechless — yet fiercely inspired — as we’d thought you’d be. This groundbreaking book, which guest reviewer and doctoral student Katie Gillespie is about to tell you all about, is available for a limited time (a signed copy, no less!) when you become a monthly supporter of Our Hen House for a minimum of $10 per month.
Book Review: Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, by Timothy Pachirat
Review by Katie Gillespie
In 2004, Timothy Pachirat concealed his identity as a researcher and got a job in an industrial Nebraska cattle slaughter plant where a cow is killed every twelve seconds on a continuous production line. He started out working for several months as a ‘liver hanger,’ a position that revealed the oppressive monotony of the division of labor on an industrial (dis)assembly line. Pachirat then worked for a few days in the chutes, herding live cattle into the knocking box, which afforded him close contact with the live animals upon whom the entire system relies, and allowed him to witness the attitudes of the other workers. Finally, Pachirat was promoted to a quality control worker — a role which gave him the freedom not enjoyed by the line workers — to move fluidly throughout all spaces of the slaughter plant. In the five months he worked at the plant, he used these three vantage points to understand industrialized slaughter in the United States. The result is Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight [Yale University Press, 2011], a meticulously detailed account of the inner workings of slaughter, and a more general reflection on the workings of U.S. society at large.
The value of this work is not so much in the information it presents. Though it does provide a great deal of insight into the day to day workings of industrialized killing, there are other accounts of slaughter which tell us about the violence of slaughterhouse work and its effects on the humans and nonhumans involved. Rather, the value of this work is in the way Pachirat presents the incredibly detailed material, relating it to his theoretical structure regarding the “politics of sight,” the power of visibility and invisibility, and the physical, social, linguistic and methodological metrics of distance in industrialized killing.
Pachirat defines his politics of sight as “organized, concerted attempts to make visible what is hidden and to breach, literally or figuratively, zones of confinement in order to bring about social and political transformation.” At first, I thought Pachirat was making the now-familiar argument (popularized by the likes of Michael Pollan) that the simple act of making things visible is what leads to social and political transformation. And, in fact, he does make this argument to some extent, and a large part of the project is, indeed, dedicated to making the invisible visible. But Every Twelve Seconds is much more than an exposé. Pachirat, who is careful not to reveal the name of the plant specifically because he does not want to engage in an exposé of one plant, is aiming to provide an ethnography of slaughter work, and, more generally, an account of “distancing.” His politics of sight refer not only to making the invisible visible, but to drawing attention to the ways in which even when the invisible is visible, we are experts at distancing ourselves from what we see. He shows this distancing not through consumer responses to visibility, but through the ways in which even those closest to the process of killing compartmentalize their own role in the process – at least in part because of the necessity of focusing on their own suffering and desperation, and attempts to keep up with the speed of the line.
Pachirat’s clinical description of the slaughterhouse begins not with the live animals, as one might expect, but with the front office. He then moves backwards into the fabrication department (where the carcasses are cut into uniform pieces, packaged, and shipped out), then onto the kill floor. Finally, he moves out into the chutes, where the live animals are herded into the plant. This reversal of the process of slaughter emphasizes in an interesting way the homogenization at work in the system. As he moves us further back in the slaughter process, we see how the homogenous aesthetic of the packaged meat becomes a carcass, a dead body, and then a living, breathing animal. Through this reversal of the production line, individual characteristics (size, sex, horns, etc.) become visible, until you reach the live animal, an unpredictable and utterly non-homogenous creature with a will of her or his own.
This transformation through the production line is mapped in carefully rendered diagrams of the 121 jobs in the slaughterhouse, and the divisions (both physical and social) within the work of killing. These diagrams, and the related appendix – which, along with the notes, you shouldn’t skip – are some of the most interesting parts of the book, and should provide an invaluable teaching tool as well.
As counter, and complement, to this somewhat sterile description of spaces and jobs, Pachirat give us his personal narrative about his time working in the slaughter plant. He recalls his own anxiety and guilt about getting hired, the friendships he forms with coworkers, the workplace politics of the slaughterhouse, and the day to day experiences of the physically exhausting, often numbingly tedious, and always poorly paid work he performs.
This account reads like a gripping novel, and, long after finishing it, I still find myself haunted by it in ways I was not anticipating. But I am haunted not by the more expected, sensational details of slaughter — the violence, the blood, the suffering of animals and humans. True, all of these are present. But what is far more lingering and disturbing is the way this work of killing is utterly mundane: the monotony and the division of labor for the line workers; the desperate drive to keep the line moving; the quality control records that must be falsified in order to meet USDA standards; and, most of all, the industry’s reliance on this monotony and desperation to keep the killing line moving without hesitation and with no questions asked. These are the things that worry at my heart and mind.
And, of course, these are the things that make Pachirat’s work an invaluable resource for thinking about killing animals, meat-eating, workers’ rights and the politics of citizenship, speed and industrialization, human health, animal rights, and the contradictions between law and practice. For me, Every Twelve Seconds is not a book about hope. Pachirat does not provide an easy prescriptive solution for moving forward; there isn’t one. Instead, this book is about reflecting on how a politics of sight might make us each more attentive to what it is we’re allowing ourselves to see. A politics of sight is about opening more than our eyes. A politics of sight is about seeing with our clearest eyes, our most compassionate hearts, and our critical-thinking minds what is right in front of us, and what we know is concealed from view.
Katie Gillespie is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. Her work focuses on animals in the food system — in particular, within the dairy and slaughter industries. Katie currently teaches an undergraduate class, “Animals, Ethics and Food: Deconstructing Dominant Discourse,” which asks students to explore and rethink their relationship to animals in the food system, and she co-organizes the Animal Studies Working Group at the UW. In her free time, Katie writes the blog Serenity in the Storm, which features vegan food, news, and animal studies-related topics, and she volunteers at Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood, WA.