Interview with Timothy Pachirat
As many readers know, I’m a fan of Tim Pachirat’s recent book Every Twelve Seconds. A big fan. What follows is an uncut version of an interview he generously agreed to do with me. A truncated version ran two days ago in the Atlantic.com’s National section. -jm
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Timothy Pachirat’s first book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, is a blend of analysis and first-person narrative set in an industrial abattoir in Nebraska. It was there that Pachirat, as part of his dissertation research (at Yale), was initially hired to hang cow livers on hooks. From that position he moved to the “kill floor” and, eventually, to quality control — a position from which he had to resign, because he could no longer tolerate the institutional pressure to overlook safety violations.
Every Twelve Seconds is arguably the most nuanced account we have of the relationship between sight and power within the industrial slaughterhouse. Many years ago, Michael Pollan wondered what would happen if the walls of a slaughterhouse were made of glass. Pachirat has made those walls transparent, and what he finds is as disturbing as it is unexpected. I recently spoke with Pachirat and asked about the revelations that led him to write his book.
How does a Yale graduate student pass as a slaughterhouse worker? At one point you note “I am on dangerous ground.” Did you feel this way often?
I was initially paranoid about being “found out.” I questioned everything: my appearance, my mannerisms, and even my handwriting on the application form! It didn’t take me long to realize, though, that this concern was a bit overblown. No one in the employment trailer of the slaughterhouse was on the lookout for Ph.D. candidates, and my brown skin, upbringing in Thailand, and prior experience with manual labor mapped nicely onto the slaughterhouse managers’ conceptions of who should be working in their plant. Once I was hired, what quickly became more worrying was how I would survive the grueling work. My first job was hanging thousands of livers each day in a freezing cooler. Here, it was my fellow line workers who taught me the physical and psychological skills to get by. Then, after a few months on the kill floor, I was promoted to a quality control position, an unexpected occurrence that resurrected my fears of being exposed. At that point, I had access to very sensitive information on food safety and on slaughterhouse-USDA relations and felt anxiety every time I heard the front office or the kill floor managers call my name over the radio.
Your book is deeply attentive to every aspect of the slaughterhouse experience, including sounds and smells as well as sight. You refer to your body “being assaulted on a more basic level.” Were certain sensory aspects of the slaughterhouse environment easier to adjust to than others? Why?
I do try in *Every Twelve Seconds* to convey the entire sensual experience of massive, routinized killing, but the printed page simply cannot do justice to the slaughterhouse sensorium. Contemporary Western cultures tend to equate knowing with seeing, and yet sight is also the most removed and mediated of our senses. Sound, taste, touch, and, especially, smell, confront/assault/engage/invite us on a much more basic, and therefore subversive, level. There were days, after the killing ended, when I walked through the dirty side of the kill floor and found myself unexpectedly marvelling at the visual collage: the shades of red, purple, and green against silver gleaming metal and the topographical textures created by different viscosities of blood and vomit. Even after directly witnessing the horrific violence, it was possible to apply an aesthetic frame to the visual information. But smell, in particular, was impossible to mediate in this way. Even after months on the kill floor, I would inevitably gag–and sometimes vomit–whenever walking the long hallway to the locker room each morning at 5 a.m. And the smell was not something that remained outside of me, something to be known distantly. It seeped into my clothing and skin, becoming a part of me. Likewise with the sounds of the kill floor. I sometimes wish that I could experientially recreate the smell- and sound-scapes of industrialized killing for my readers, and I often wonder how reactions to the realities of the routinized taking of sentient life might be different if they were smelled and heard rather than simply seen or imagined visually through words on a page. Widespread exposure to a sensorium of slaughterhouse smells and sounds might do more to bring an end to our current practices of gratuitous killing than all the undercover videos and written exposes combined!
When you worked in the chute guiding cows to the knocker, you were in constant contact with animals that were in the last few seconds of their lives. Can you describe their demeanor at such a moment?
In “Killing at Close Range,” the chapter that describes my work in the chutes, I write:
“Running up the serpentine with swinging heads, the cattle are no more than a few inches from us, separated only by the torso-high sides of the chute. Some poke their noses up over the chute wall to sniff at our arms and stomachs. I can run a bare hand over their smooth, wet noses, a millisecond of charged, unmediated physical contact. At close range, even caked in feces and vomit, the creatures are magnificent, awe-inspiring. Some are muscular and powerful, their horns sharp and strong. Others are soft and velvety, their coats sleek and sensuous. Thick eyelashes are raised to reveal bulging eyeballs with whites visible beneath darkly colored irises. I see my distorted reflection outlined in the convex mirror of their glossy eyes: a man wearing a hard hat, wielding a bright orange paddle. I look crazed, a carnival-mirror grotesque, upholder of a system that authorizes physical, linguistic, and social concealment to allow those who consume the products of this violence to remain blind to it. And what of the cattle, what of each of the twenty-five hundred creatures that are run through these chutes each day? What do they see as they race by? What do they experience in the final moments before their deaths?”
More recently, I’ve had the chance to hang out at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York. There, I’ve spent time with Kaylie, the cream-colored heifer who escaped from a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse, and Mike, the dark speckled steer, who escaped from a New Jersey slaughterhouse. These animals are individuals with personalities. One would have to be an utter emotional lout not to recognize them as so clearly capable of joy and excitement, of anxiety and terror. The conceit–the pure, arrogant, exercise of domination–in industrialized animal agriculture and slaughter is the conceptual and experiential reduction of billions upon billions of sentient, individual creatures like Kaylie and Mike to an undifferentiated, continuous stream of raw material. But even as they are pushed head to tail through the chutes at the rate of one every twelve seconds, covered in excrement and vomit, the individuality of these creatures constantly asserts itself against the human fantasy of domination. As a society, we do everything within our power to erase the animality we share with the tens of billions of creatures we raise and slaughter under such horrific circumstances, but even in the chutes leading to the place where they will be shot one by one between the eyes, the repressed always returns in the form of a moo, a bellow, a fleeting moment of interspecies eye contact and recognition.
In what ways did you observe slaughterhouse workers protecting themselves from the psychological impacts of the violence all around them? How did you protect yourself?
The slaughterhouse as a whole is divided into compartmentalized departments. The front office is isolated from the fabrication department, which is in turn isolated from the cooler, which is in turn isolated from the kill floor. It is entirely possible to spend years working in the front office, fabrication department, or cooler of an industrialized slaughterhouse that slaughters over half a million cattle per year without ever once encountering a live animal much less witnessing one being killed.
But second and most importantly, the work of killing is hidden even at the site where one might expect it to be most visible: the kill floor itself. The complex division of labor and space acts to compartmentalize and neutralize the experience of “killing work” for each of the workers on the kill floor. After the knocker shoots the cattle, they fall onto a conveyor belt where they are shackled and hoisted onto an overhead line. Hanging upside down by their hind legs, they travel through a series of ninety degree turns that take them out of the knocker’s line of sight. There, a presticker and sticker sever the carotid arteries and jugular veins. The animals then bleed out as they travel further down the overhead chain to the tail ripper, who begins the process of removing their body parts and hides. Of over 800 workers on the kill floor, only four are directly involved in the killing of the cattle and less than 20 have a line of sight to the killing. There is a kind of collective mythology built up around the knocker, a mythology that allows for an implicit moral exchange in which the knocker alone performs the work of killing, while the work of the other 800 slaughterhouse workers is morally unrelated to that killing. It is a fiction, but a convincing one: of all the workers in the slaughterhouse, only the knocker delivers the blow that begins the irreversible process of transforming the live creatures into dead ones. If you listen carefully enough to the hundreds of workers performing the 120 other jobs on the kill floor, this might be the refrain you hear: ‘Only the knocker.’ It is simple moral math: the kill floor operates with 120+1 jobs. And as long as the 1 exists, as long as there is some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this 1, then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, ‘I’m not going to take part in this.’
To give another example of how the work of killing is compartmentalized, the kill floor is divided spatially into a clean side and a dirty side. The dirty side refers to everything that happens while the cattle’s hides are still on them and the clean side to everything that happens after the hides have been removed. Workers from the clean side are segregated from workers on the dirty side, even during food and bathroom breaks. This translates into a kind of phenomenological compartmentalization where the minority of workers who deal with the “animals” while their hides are still on are kept separate from the majority of workers who deal with the *carcasses* after their hides have been removed. In this way, the violence of turning animal into carcass is quarantined amongst the dirty side workers, and even there it is further confined by finer divisions of labor and space.
In addition to spatial and labor divisions, the use of language is another way of concealing the violence of killing. From the moment cattle are unloaded from transport trucks into the slaughterhouse’s holding pens, managers and kill floor supervisors refer to them as ‘beef.’ Although they are living, breathing, sentient beings, they have already linguistically been reduced to inanimate flesh, to use-objects. Similarly, there is a slew of acronyms and technical language around the food safety inspection system that reduces the quality control worker’s job to a bureaucratic, technical regime rather than one that is forced to confront the truly massive taking of life. Although the quality control worker has full physical movement throughout the kill floor and sees every aspect of the killing, her interpretive frame is interdicted by the technical and bureaucratic requirements of the job. Temperatures, hydraulic pressures, acid concentrations, bacterial counts, and knife sanitization become the primary focus, rather than the massive, unceasing taking of life.
Now, I don’t think anyone sat down and said, ‘Let’s design a slaughtering process that creates a maximal distance between each worker and the violence of killing and allows each worker to contribute without having to confront the violence directly.’ The division between clean and dirty side on the kill floor mentioned earlier, for example, is overtly motivated by a food-safety logic. The cattle come into the slaughterhouse caked in feces and vomit, and from a food-safety perspective the challenge is to remove the hides while minimizing the transfer of these contaminants to the flesh underneath. But what’s fascinating is that the effects of these organizations of space and labor are not just increased ‘efficiency’ or increased ‘food-safety’ but also the distancing and concealment of violent processes even from those participating directly in them. From a political point of view, from a point of view interested in understanding how relations of violent domination and exploitation are reproduced, it is precisely these effects that matter most.
One of the many things that really impressed me about your book is how well you write dialogue. Most anthropology scholars don’t have such a skill. How’d you learn to do that?
I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a better writer of dialogue than most anthropologists! But I did try to capture as much lived conversation on the page as possible, mostly by taking jottings on conversations as soon as possible after they’d happened and then inscribing them as fieldnotes once I returned home each day. Also, so much of my work as a liver hanger in the slaughterhouse involved lengthy, monotonous stretches of time without any conversation at all. The cooler was too loud, the work too physically demanding and monotonous, to allow for any talking. This made the conversations that took place in the lunch room and ten minute morning and afternoon breaks, no matter how seemingly trivial, much more memorable and important. And once I was promoted to a quality control position, I was given a radio that allowed me to listen in on and include conversations amongst kill floor managers and supervisors.
How do you think consumers of meat would react if they saw what you saw?
Paul McCartney is credited with the oft-repeated claim that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian (or vegan, which is really the ethically consistent choice!). The rhetorical force of this statement presumes a more or less standardized response to industrialized slaughter made visible. Disgust, shock, pity, horror: the precise emotive label is less important than the assumption of a reaction that would engender political action to end or transform the practices of industrialized killing. The massive, routinized violence continues, the glass wall hypothesis implies, because it is hidden, shrouded in darkness, confined to remote places. Under the light of everyone’s gaze, under our gaze, it would wither and shrivel up, scorched by the heat of our disgust, our horror, our pity, and the political actions these reactions engender. Variants of this hypothesis drive much of contemporary politics on the left and the right: the assumption that if X or Y could just be made visible, people would act to put an end to it. (On the left, think of WikiLeaks’ release of footage from the war in Iraq; on the right, of anti-abortion groups holding photographs of fetuses in front of Planned Parenthood.)
But the ethnographic account of killing work in *Every Twelve Seconds* suggests a much more nuanced relation between sight and sequestration than simple binaries between visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined can accommodate. Even when intended as a tactic of political and social transformation, the act of making the hidden visible may be equally likely to generate other, more effective ways of confining it. *Every Twelve Seconds* shows clearly how even at the site where we might least expect the work of killing to be hidden–the kill floor of the slaughterhouse–there are myriad spatial, linguistic, and social mechanisms for keeping the work compartmentalized. It also shows how, in the person of the quality-control worker, isolation and sequestration is possible even under conditions of total visibility. A world of glass-walled slaughterhouses might lead in turn to the further commodification of mass killing, the creation of pay-per-view spectacles in which enterprising slaughterhouses charged the general public to watch live feeds of the killing over the internet or to enter the slaughterhouse and participate in the killing in person.
*Every Twelve Seconds,* of course, itself enacts a politics of sight, seeking to subvert particular physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distances separating the reader from the slaughterhouse. At the same time, it is also an account, from the perspective of lived experience, of how concealment and visibility are at work in the slaughterhouse, demonstrating that hierarchical surveillance and control are not incompatible with the compartmentalization and hiding from view of repulsive practices, even at the very site of killing. In the end, I do think that a politics of sight that seeks to make repugnant practices visible is a necessary condition for political and social transformation, but it is not a sufficient condition.