During the 8th Annual Symposium on Current Developments in Ethnographic Research held this year at the VU (28-30 August) keynote speaker and political scientist Timothy Pachirat talked about his undercover, ethnographic research at an industrialized slaughter house on the kill floor. Timothy, who is Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research, wrote a book about his research, ‘Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight’, in which he explores how industrialized violence at an American slaughterhouse is organized, disciplined, and reproduced. At the slaughterhouse, 2,500 cattle are killed per day – one every 12 seconds. With his consent, we share below parts of an interview he held this year with correspondent Avi Solomon from BoingBoing.com about his research and book.
Avi: Why did you choose to go undercover in a slaughterhouse?
Timothy: I wanted to understand how massive processes of violence become normalized in modern society, and I wanted to do so from the perspective of those who work in the slaughterhouse. My hunch was that close attention to how the work of industrialized killing is performed might illuminate not only how the realities of industrialized animal slaughter are made tolerable, but also the way distance and concealment operate in analogous social processes: war executed by volunteer armies; the subcontracting of organized terror to mercenaries; and the violence underlying the manufacturing of thousands of items and components we make contact with in our everyday lives. Like its more self-evidently political analogues–the prison, the hospital, the nursing home, the psychiatric ward, the refugee camp, the detention center, the interrogation room, and the execution chamber–the modern industrialized slaughterhouse is ‘zone of confinement,’ a ‘segregated and isolated territory,’ in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Invisible,’ and ‘on the whole inaccessible to ordinary members of society.’ I worked as an entry level worker on the kill floor of an industrialized slaughterhouse in order to understand, from the perspective of those who participate directly in them, how these zones of confinement operate.
Avi: What jobs did you end up doing there?
Timothy: My first job was as a liver hanger in the cooler. For ten hours each day, I stood in 34 degrees cold and took freshly eviscerated livers off an overhead line and hung them on carts to be chilled for packing. I was then moved to the chutes, where I drove live cattle into the knocking box where they were shot in the head with a captive bolt gun. Finally, I was promoted to a quality-control position, a job that gave me access to every part of the kill floor and made me an intermediary between the USDA federal meat inspectors and the kill floor managers.
Avi: What are the main strategies used to hide violence in the slaughterhouse?
Timothy: The first and most obvious is that the violence of industrialized killing is hidden from society at large. Over 8.5 billion animals are killed for food each year in the United States, but this killing is carried out by a small minority of largely immigrant workers who labor behind opaque walls, most often in rural, isolated locations far from urban centers. Furthermore, laws supported by the meat and livestock industries are currently under consideration in six states that criminalize the publicizing of what happens in slaughterhouses and other animal facilities without the consent of the slaughterhouse owners. Iowa’s House of Representatives, for example, forwarded a bill to the Iowa Senate last year that would make it a felony to distribute or possess video, audio, or printed material gleaned through unauthorized access to a slaughterhouse or animal facility.
Second, 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 third 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. I’ve already mentioned the division of labor in which only a handful of workers, out of a total workforce of over 800, are directly involved in or even have a line of sight to the killing of the animals. To give another example, 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.
To read the full interview go to: http://boingboing.net/2012/03/08/working-undercover-in-a-slaugh.html).