Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sensing Sentience and Managing Microbes: Lifedeath in the Slaughterhouse

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sensing Sentience and Managing Microbes: Lifedeath in the Slaughterhouse

Article excerpt

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle enjoyed a peculiar sort of literary success--it was evaluated for its accuracy in reporting the details of packinghouse conditions and read by then President Theodore Roosevelt before receiving much popular attention or review as literature. Within four months of publication, it was credited as a primary force behind the first US legislation to protect consumers from adulterated food and drugs in June 1906. (1) Sinclair expressed regret that his socialist tome on the plight of immigrant workers inspired protections for consumers instead, writing in a Cosmo article that "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach" ("Life" 591). In one of the most gruesome passages of the book, Sinclair chronicles the diseases that befell each particular class of worker in the packinghouses, ending with "and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting--sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!" (Jungle 111). The public response to The Jungle made it seem as though after reading this disturbing passage, readers looked up from their copies and gasped, What if there's human in our lard!

This privileging of imagined future consumers--"customers" to business and "constituents" to government--over workers persists today and is built into the very details of daily work in a slaughterhouse. I argue that the distinctions between protectable, killable, and manageable bodies are made not merely in legislation but in the daily practices of making death happen, practices which define life and death as they are performed.

Life and death are not clear and separate categories in the slaughterhouse: they zig zag, nest, and lay on top of one another. Animals are stunned unconscious, but they may wake to consciousness again before losing enough blood to lose consciousness for good. Cells continue respiration long after death, breaking down muscle into meat, or living for days or years in the laboratories that come to collect tissue samples. And from the holding pens to the cooler, the insides and outsides of animal bodies teem with microbial life.

Timothy Pachirat's 2011 ethnographic account of working in a large Midwestern slaughterhouse is a worthy heir to Sinclair's Jungle a century later. At least on that large industrial kill floor, Pachirat claims, there is no categorical moment where life ends and death begins (238). (2) Unlike Sinclair and Pachirat, I focus on small slaughterhouses, places where just one or a few butchers and a dozen or fewer animals might encounter one another in a day. I find, contrary to Pachirat, that on the small kill floors where I've spent time there is a great investment in categorically separating life from death. In the intimate, multispecies daily practices of doing, the categories of who is killable, who must be protected, and whose lifedeaths must be managed are drawn and redrawn each day.

In this essay I consider two sorts of daily doings on small kill floors: sensing sentience--attempts to determine whether a dying animal can still feel; and managing microbes--attempts to control the relative rates of proliferation and death of the swarms of invisible critters that live on after the animal dies. In each of these cases, lifedeath plays out as a simultaneous, multidirectional happening, not a clear one-way line with a wall down its middle. In the first half of this essay, I focus on animal-human interactions, describing how slaughterhouse kill floor workers sense gradations of liveliness in the details of animal movements and responsiveness. I argue that these practices of sensing sentience disrupt an ontologically messy event of "lifedeath," enacting a separation between life and death as distinct states of being. …

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