“Every Twelve Seconds”: Timothy Pachirat and the “Politics of Sight”

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.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to “Every Twelve Seconds”: Timothy Pachirat and the “Politics of Sight”

  1. I started reading this book last week after hearing Timothy Pachirat interviewed on the “Our Hen House” podcast. I was so impressed with his approach to the topic.

    One aspect I’ve taken away so far is that it does the animal rights movement little good to “blame” the slaughterhouse workers (after all, demand ==> supply). Rather, many of the workers are themselves victims of a cruel and inhumane industry that takes advantage of whomever (both human and non-human animals) it can. I think this harkens back to your recent post about liberalism and human rights advocates needing to also consider animal rights and vice versa.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful posts.

    • CQ says:

      At the Whole Foods checkout counter this week I met a well-to-do vegan mom whose children go to a ritzy private school and who doesn’t know a single other vegan in her privileged, conservative circles. She sure was happy to meet an animal activist!

      In the course of our animated conversation, I told her I used to protest the rodeo and circus twice a year with fellow activists. “You know,” she replied, “my husband’s first job was in a circus, and he told me that though the animals were treated abominably, the human workers were treated even worse.” In the short time her husband endured his time there, he learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with him for life: to identify with any sentient being suffering like a slave.

      I imagine that most slaughterhouse employees, especially immigrants (legal or not), feel boxed in: they must earn money to support their families, and they don’t have any viable alternatives. Such misery.

  2. brian lindberg says:

    Raghavan Iyer once said that a visit to a slaughterhouse should be part of the kindergarten curriculum. The remark signifies two important facts:

    1) As repugnant as the contents of this book might be to us, the full experience of a slaughterhouse is of an entirely different order. And anyone who “can’t handle the truth” will be strongly motivated to create another truth to supplant it.

    2) It is when we are very young that we all experience a strong sense of compassion for other living things. Why we lose it is a complex dynamic, but in the final analysis, we have the power to choose. As adults, it is our responsibility to try to set our children upon that trajectory which best serves the full nature of mankind.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that we could find a slaughterhouse which offers tours. An employeee with a hidden camera and a talent for documentary production would be a close second.

  3. Provoked says:

    The whole industry is built on exploitation… On the victims and the workers alike. Of course it’s a job no one would want. It would be like going to hell everyday. No wonder why some slaughterhouses conscript prisoners…

    They say there’s two kinds of men that work in a slaughterhouse: Those that hate the work… And those that love it. How our culture can accept “meat” regardless of the desperation and defeat – I’ll never know.

    Please do continue discussing Every Twelve Seconds. It’s important for us to understand the disease in all stages of it’s infliction.

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