Every Twelve Seconds.
I went to graduate school with Tim, and I can vividly remember the first time he told me about his dissertation plans. We were standing on Prospect St. in New Haven, next to the bike rack outside of Brewster Hall, killing time in the way that graduate students are so good at on sunny days. I was babbling on about an idea I had to write some ridiculous thesis about anti-party thought in 19th century America. When I finally came up for air, I turned the question to Tim. What grand plans did he have in mind? I will never forget his response:
“I’m going to go work in a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.”
I didn’t even know how to respond. This was a crazy idea. Double crazy for someone allegedly interested in political theory. Triple crazy for a vegetarian allegedly interested in political theory. And quadruple crazy for a vegetarian allegedly interested in political theory who was living in the married student housing ghetto at Yale with a wife and young children.
But sane enough to eventually become one of the best books I’ve read in years. Not best dissertations. Not best academic books. Just best books. Period.
Every Twelve Seconds is about industrial slaughterhouses and what Tim calls the “politics of sight.” The title refers to how often a cow is slaughtered in the factory Tim worked, about 2500 over the course of a day. As he reminds us in the introduction, however, it is not a book about animal rights. It is about violence and society. In Tim’s words, it provides “a firsthand, contemporary account of industrialized slaughter, and does so to provoke reflection on how distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in modern society.” But I think that sells the book short. It’s part The Jungle. It’s part Fast Food Nation. It’s part Dominion. It’s part a how-to guide for ethnographic research. And it’s part a golden roadmap for how to write relevant and engaging contemporary political theory.
But mostly, it’s a brilliant narrative that recounts not only the industrial process of turning cattle into packaged meat and the political and social structures of the world in which that occurs, but also what it feels like to be a human cog within that world. A world where men must necessarily come face-to-face with endless violence, at all times. And how, in response, that world must be designed. And so while the language of the slaughterhouse requires the cattle to be only known as “beef” during the endless march up the chute to the knocking gun and the killing floor, the men who perform these tasks — mostly poor, most unskilled, mostly immigrants, all working at-will for meager wages and in constant fear of being fired — must also come to be seen as just raw materials by their supervisors, with job titles like Tongue Trimmer or Tail Harvester or Spinal Cord Remover.
The narrative leaves nothing to the imagination, either technical or emotional. From the 19th-century-like imagery of standing around the factory gates in hopes of being selected for a job to the visceral experience of spending a 10-hour day doing nothing but ripping still-warm cow livers off of conveyor-belted hooks to the numbing bureaucratic cops-and-robbers game that the quality-control team plays against the USDA-inspectors on a minute-by-minute basis over clean knives and hand-washing and the trimming of feces off meat in the cooler, you don’t just read about the world of slaughter, but you actually experience it. And that includes the evolution of your own thought: as with the author, you are initially horrified by the sights, sounds, and smells of the slaughterhouse when confronted with the reality that is hidden in plain sight at the grocery store. This is where our steaks come from? But through the course of the book, the reader develops much of the desensitization that the slaughterhouse worker uses as a coping mechanism. Your revulsion toward the killing floor eerily dissipates as you move through the book.
Outside of the narrative, two analytical highlights of the book stand out. The first is the maps of the slaughterhouse, and the woven-in micro-description of the geographic slaughter process. So well protected are slaughterhouses by walls and state regulations, that it is difficult to get good information on even how they are actually organized. Tim recreates visual floorplans of the entire factory, with detailed information on where each worker stands, every USDA inspector patrols, and the jobs that occur second-by-second as the beef moves through the slaughterhouse. This brings to life various aspects of the narrative: for instance, the sheer duality of the operation, which is simultaneously a well-thought out and masterfully-executed engineering marvel of assembly-line efficiency, while also a disgustingly and surprisingly medieval operation: there is blood everywhere, the temperature is absurdly hot on the kill side and absurdly cold on in the cooler, the weapon of choice is the knife, and workers joke around by throwing animal fat at each other.
The second highlight of the book is the chapter on the bureaucratic oversight of the USDA. Much to my surprise, it turns out that a slaughterhouse has numerous USDA officials working full-time to monitor the production. One might think that this results in a high quality of meat (which it undoubtedly does relative to, say, 19th century industrialized slaughter), but the implication of Tim’s experience is that regulatory structure has become so routinized as to cease to be external to the process; instead, the regulations — or, more precisely, the skirting of the regulations — are the process. And so a cat-and-mouse game ensues between the quality control team of the factory and the full-time USDA inspectors, with the incentives offered to each of them veering so far from their underlying goals (profit and safe meat, respectively) that they appear to exist in an alternative world, where their jobs cease to reflect food production but strangely appear to symbiotically rely on each other’s existence. Not exactly a sideshow to the operation, but not not a sideshow, either.
There are those who may shy away from this book because it engages political theory. That would be a mistake. I hate contemporary political theory. I could no more finish a book by Foucault than I could write one. But this book neither drifts into that world nor relies on it, and the occasional forays that direction are not only tolerable but (surprisingly) very enjoyable. It all comes back to the human narrative, and the meticulous technical and emotional detail brought to it. You will never read a political science dissertation quite like this, because I don’t think one has ever been written. As Tim writes in his introduction, “the detailed accounts that follow are not merely incidental to or illustrative of a more theoretical argument about how distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in contemporary society. They are the argument.”
And a masterful argument at that. You will probably attempt to blind yourself to this book. It is much easier not to read it. But that, in itself, is kind of the point. As a meat consumer, it is debatable as to whether you are responsible for what goes on in the slaughterhouse, in reference to the animals or to the humans. And it is also debatable whether or not what goes on there is morally sound in a civilized liberal democracy. But anytime you seek to shield yourself from information because the very knowing of the facts might make you uncomfortable, well, that’s a strong sign that you are afraid of what your moral sense might find.