“Every Twelve Seconds”: Timothy Pachirat and the “Politics of Sight”
May 2, 2012 4 Comments
The cover of Timothy Pachirat’s haunting new book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, is a photograph of a blood-stained slaughterhouse worker shown from the waist down. While the temptation might be to interpret this image as a sensational eye-catcher chosen to sell books, it’s something else entirely–it’s an apt visual metaphor for the contents of a magisterial study, one that the author wrote based on several months of full-time employment in the bowels of a Nebraska slaughterhouse.
Pachirat’s signal achievement is to show–really show–in detached but vivid detail the calculated methods used to protect slaughterhouse employees from the psychological weight of their actions. That is, to ensure that the elemental nature of their work is never quite acknowledged, never quite seen. Much as the slaughterhouse attempts to engineer individual animal identity out of the picture, so the worker on the book’s cover has his individuality erased. Instead of the face of a worker, instead of an expression that we can see and read, we–many of whom eat the products that come from this anonymous scene– get a generic rubber apron and boots, splattered with the viscera of animals that have also been “de-animalized.” The affect is poignant.
The erasure of identity pervades Pachirat’s account. “In the chutes,” he explains, “each of the cattle has its own unique characteristics: breed, sex, height, width, hide pattern, level of curiosity, eyes, horns, sound of bellow.” Then comes the cold mechanism of slaughter. The animal is stunned and stuck, shackled and suspended. This process, according to Pachirat, “seems geared to stripping them of these unique identifiers in order to begin the process of turning living animals into homogenous raw material.”
Even death amid this violence is somehow erased. Perhaps the most compelling evidence pointing to the purposeful avoidance of slaughter’s emotional toll is this harrowing fact: on the kill floor, nobody really knows exactly when a cow dies. Cows are stunned and stuck, hung and dismembered, but the actual moment of death during the flow of this macabre conveyer belt is often impossible to pinpoint.
Evidence of death’s ambiguity and elusiveness comprises some of the book’s most terrifying moments. Animals might appear to be dead but workers will often find a cow “hoisted by its hind leg . . . kicking and swinging wildly.” It’s not unusual to discover that a cow, before reaching the “knocker,” “struggles off the belt and begins to run around the kill floor, panicked by the blood, vomit, and sight and smells of the stunned and shackled cows dangling overhead.” Cows can even get to the dismembering stage while still alive. Pachirat: “The tail ripper, the first leggers, and the bung capper will begin cutting into a cow’s tail, right rear leg, and anus, respectively, while the cow is still sentient.”
Understandably, workers don’t want to confront the moment of death, they don’t want to feel implicated, and the logic of the slaughterhouse design reflects this desire not to know. “Only a few see the cattle while they are alive or are in the process of being killed,” Pachirat continues, “and an even smaller number are actively involved in the killing.” Plus, there’s the fact that “the act of killing itself is divided into more stages, which are also out of sight of one another.”
This book is important. Very important. I’ll be writing more about it in future posts. For now, buy it, read it, and share it with anyone who thinks they’re at peace with eating animals. After all, what Pachirat shows without telling, is that every time we eat animals we promote suffering that, should we confront it directly, we’d deem entirely unacceptable.