Slaughterhouse Five and a Half: Timothy Pachirat’s Months Undercover
Timothy Pachirat is not your average slaughterhouse employee. He’s the director of the undergraduate Politics program at Eugene Lang College and an assistant professor of politics at The New School for Social Research. But 7 years ago, as a PhD candidate at Yale University, Pachirat decided to take an ethnographic approach to his thesis on how societies normalize violence. So he applied for a job in an Omaha, Nebraska, slaughterhouse.
Pachirat’s stint working his way from the liver cooler to the kill floor is chronicled in Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, a new book by Yale University Press that has caught the attention of foodies, labor and animal rights activists, and academics. The book opens with a story that neatly summarizes its central paradox. Early in his research, a cow escaped from a nearby slaughterhouse, and Pachirat’s fellow slaughterhouse workers witnessed the Omaha police open fire on the animal with shotguns. “The next day in the lunchroom, the anger, disgust, and horror at the police killing of the animal was palpable,” Pachirat said. Yet at the end of lunch, the workers returned to a workplace that, on an average day, killed 2,500 animals, or one every twelve seconds.
“Slaughterhouse work is a kind of violence that is sequestered from the majority of the people who rely on it,” Pachirat said. “But it’s also hidden from the majority of slaughterhouse workers. Of the more than 800 workers in the entire slaughterhouse, only seven have contact with live animals, and only four are directly involved in killing.”
For five and a half months, Pachirat explored how the slaughterhouse was structurally and socially arranged to hide its inherent violence. Although he was first and foremost a researcher, Pachirat found that participating in this process was physically, psychologically, and emotionally grueling. “I would never have lasted more than a few days were it not for the kindness, acceptance, and, in some cases, friendship of my fellow line workers,” he said. “They taught me how to survive the work.”
Pachirat’s slaughterhouse days are well in the past, he’s been a faculty member at The New School for five years, but his time on the kill floor is what helped land him at the university. “When I gave my job talk here, no one asked me how this research fit into the discipline of political science, which is a question I got at a lot of other places,” he said. “One of the things that makes being at The New School exciting is that it values this kind of work.”
It is work that Pachirat continues to explore in the classroom. Recently, he’s taught Dirty and Dangerous Work, an undergraduate course exploring physical and moral dirty work; and Distance, Deceit and Denial, a graduate course on how societies create literal and figurative distance.
As for the book, Pachirat hopes readers take away more than simply an ethical consideration of their own meat consumption. “I want people to think about the mechanisms that keep us distanced from seeing, experiencing, and understanding the many processes of domination and violence that we rely on,” Pachirat said. “And how our collective deliberations about these processes might be altered if these distances were subverted.”