By James McWilliams
We discussed Tim Pachiratís Every Twelve Seconds in my ďeating meat in AmericaĒ class today. For those who donít know this book, you should. You must. Pachiratís material comes from his work as an undercover employee in an Omaha slaughterhouse. For five months, as fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation, he studied the Nebraskan abattoir from every angle, every nook, every cranny, documenting in finely grained detail the 121 stages of production required to bring meat to our plate, leather to our jackets, and, of course, fecal blood to our research laboratories. Of course. Of course.
Better than any analysis Iíve ever read, or could imagine reading, the book explores the interlocking politics of concealment and surveillance required to convince civilized society to go collectively brain dead over mass slaughter, worker abuse, and ecological degradation.
As near as I can tell, my students were moved. But in weirdly different ways. The arc of emotions expressed in class ranged from denial to silence to tears. What I mean is that some big talkers stayed silent while others took safe refuge in cold intellectual abstraction while another bravely just let it all go. Pachirat writes almost antiseptically about death. He doesnít hype up anything. Heís about as engagingly objective about the mechanics of killing sentient beings as one could be. And thatís exactly whatís so chilling about his book. Cramming for class this morning, I, too, kept crying. Not your normal day at the office.
Before discussing the book, my co-teacher, a philosopher (who was a NY Times Magazine finalist on justifying eating animals), led a beyond intriguing discussion about the moral implications of disgust. Does disgust signify immorality? Or is it merely an evolutionary response to disease thatís been periodically highjacked by rogues and psychopaths to sow seeds of xenophobia and tribalism? In the end, we sort of nodded in the direction of both options, but we did so under the agreement that disgust should be evaluated in terms of the contemporary goal itís attempting to legitimate. At the least, we were intrigued by disgust, which more than I ever was as an undergraduate.
What struck me the most was how Pachiratís conceptual framework kept framing our own discussion. I could see it in too many faces that never spoke: the concealment of big ideas in silence, the surveillance of professorial authority and external expectation. I remarked how stunned I was by the power of crass capitalism to create an institution so perverse that it could, under one roof, make room for paper pushers and fetus bleeders.
And then it was 3:20 and time to move on to who knows what.