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April 29, 2013

Inside the Slaughterhouse: My Interview with Timothy Pachirat

Early Saturday morning, the Indiana Legislature adjourned without passing an onerous and far-reaching ag-gag bill. It was an important stymying of a bill that was an affront to farm animal welfare and the First Amendment. The Senate had cleared the bill by a vote of 29 to 21, but House Speaker Brian Bosma pulled the bill after a number of House members condemned it as a transparent attempt to deny Americans the right to see what’s happening with the nation’s food supply.

Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight

Meanwhile, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has not yet signaled where he stands on the bill that just narrowly passed the state legislature there. Almost every major newspaper in the state has condemned the bill and there’s been a broad outpouring of public disapproval, including criticisms from the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters. As I wrote last week, there was a raid on a major Tennessee walking horse trainer and figure, and it is alleged that he violated state and federal law by soring horses. The HSUS is now assisting with the care of the injured horses.

Ag-gag legislation would also impede public access to information about slaughter practices and the operation of slaughtering plants, in addition to shielding factory farms from any public scrutiny, and we can’t afford to let that happen. Timothy Pachirat’s book, “Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,” could not be timelier. A political science professor at the New School in New York City, Pachirat spent six months working at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska. I’ve done a short Q&A with him, and I’ll be publishing it in two installments – today and tomorrow.

Here’s the first half of our exchange:

Wayne Pacelle: Working at a slaughter plant has to be one of the toughest, most morally deadening jobs there is. Did a lot of people come and go during your six-month stint?

Timothy Pachirat: The turnover rate in the slaughterhouse is incredibly high; industry-wide it is close to 100 percent and that was reflected in my experiences as well. But equally startling was the long line of people at the employment trailer each morning trying to get a job in the plant.  

WP: Why did you select the slaughter plant as a subject of study?

TP: I wanted to understand how massive processes of violence are normalized in modern society. Close to 27 million land animals are killed each day in the United States by dispossessed humans laboring under horrific conditions, and yet this massive work of violence is completely normalized and, for the most part, completely hidden from the sight and consciousness of those who rely on its products on a daily basis. What are the social, political and linguistic mechanisms at work to make this kind of massive, everyday killing possible?  

WP: In your book, you observe and explain why slaughter plants and factory farms are often in very rural, out-of-the-way places.  What’s at work here sociologically?

TP: There are economic, political, and logistical factors for why most industrialized slaughterhouses are located in rural places. What I find most interesting is the way these factors also contribute to the continued reproduction of the violence by shielding urban consumers from the realities of what they are eating. Distance itself becomes a valuable commodity.

WP: Even within the slaughter plant, there’s an attempt to hide what’s going on, and to compartmentalize what’s occurring. Why is the design set up this way?

TP: 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 to that work without having to confront the violence directly.' Most of the architectural elements of the kill floor, including the extreme compartmentalization of the killing work, is overtly motivated by efficiency and food-safety logics. 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.

Check back tomorrow for part two of my interview with Timothy Pachirat.

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