Originally published in The Islamic Monthly
by Hasan Azad
This age of information we live and breathe in is at its apogee. It defines all that we do. Literally, every movement we make, every place we go, every book we order, every movie we watch, every news article we read, every picture we like – is collected and collated and stored as data. Freedom has never been a bigger lie. As Julia Angwin writes in her book Dragnet Nation: “[T]oday the anxious question – ‘who’s watching?’ – is relevant to everyone regardless of his or her fame or criminal persuasion. Any of us can be watched at almost any time, whether it is by a Google Street View car taking a picture of our house, or an advertiser following us as we browse the Web, or the National Security Agency logging our phone calls.” This is the age of the Panopticon. We are all at the mercy of the all-seeing eye of the megamachine – the megamachine whose fodder is data, our data, our very souls and selves.
Take Denmark’s ban last year of kosher and halal slaughter of animals that have not been pre-stunned,which was recently in the news again. (How this relates to information and data may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me.) According to the law animals that are not “stunned” before their blood is let – whether by gassing, electrocution, or with a bolt through the skull – are seen as necessarily subjected to needless pain, the understanding being that pre-stunning renders animals “unconscious” and incapable of experiencing pain when their necks are cut open.
Conversely, in his study of industrial slaughtering practices Every Six Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Timothy Pachirat observes the innumerable times that animals are not rendered “unconscious” by the process of stunning. They are frequently noticeably alive even after they have been “stuck.” “Sticking” is the name given to the way in which animals are bled in non-kosher, non-halal, secular slaughterhouses. Significantly, the cut is a lateral one along the length of the neck, as opposed to a horizontal one in the case of kosher and halal slaughter. It is significant because the horizontal incision cuts through the carotid arteries, and is designed to kill the animal through massive, rapid bleeding; whereas, the lateral cut of the secular slaughterhouse, which is not in itself intended to be death-dealing, bleeds the animals relatively slowly. This is why Pachirat often found animals showing clear signs of life (such as rolling eyes) while they were being skinned a few feet beyond the “knocking” chute where a bolt was shot through their brain.
Jews and Muslims who eat kosher and halal meat argue that such methods of killing animals are less cruel than mainstream means. And, more importantly for them, they are in keeping with religious law, which, according to one position, does not allow for the stunning of animals (another perspective does allow for it, hence the Danish ban is only directed at kosher and halal slaughter practices that do not include pre-stunning). This is because pre-stunned animals risk being dead before their blood is let, and an animal is not considered halal or kosher if it has died before the religious rite of sacrifice has been carried out.
It is Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan’s contention, however, that industrialized slaughter – and the attendant practices surrounding factory farming – misses the higher objectives of Islamic law vis-à-vis animals, which is to maintain kindness and mercy in every aspect of a Muslim’s interactions with them, from their raising, to their transportation, to their slaughter, to their eating. There is a sacrificial – from the Latin meaning “to make sacred” – aspect to one’s relationship to animals. Whereas the slaughterhouse functions according to the logic of the megamachine, where efficiency always trumps empathy.
And this is where the connection with data comes in. As mentioned earlier, we are at the mercy of the all-seeing eye of the megamachine whose food is data, our data, the data of our very souls. And the logic of the megamachine is defined by efficiency. In his two-volume masterwork The Myth of the Machine, the historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) argued that modern society is a megamachine. The megamachine is the coming-together of science, technology, and political power as a single community of interpretation that renders life-enhancing values useless, eccentric, and even taboo. This, because such values do not further the logic and reach of the megmachine.
The megamachine, according to Mumford, is run by (and for) “the dominant minority” – the 1% in contemporary parlance – in relation to which individual and group personalities are leveled: “With this new ‘megatechnics’ the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations.”
In the history of the megamachine, the invention of the clock is significant. Originally created by Benedictine monks so that they could practice their rituals with timed regularity and accuracy, it was subsequently coopted by Charlemagne, who then passed an edict ruling that all his subjects work and rest according to a single, official clock. Mammon had won over God, as Neil Postman puts it. And of course the clock is definitive in its role behind the creation of the idea of efficiency, which is the guiding principle of the megamachine.
The megamachine cannot countenance a philosophy that seeks to undermine it. The Mosaic Law was and is such a philosophy. It literally has built into it a day of rest (Sabbath) when people are forbidden to work. In other words, they are forbidden – by religious law and values – from contributing to the megamachine. According to Mumford, what he calls the Pyramid Age is the first large-scale example of the megamachine, and the biblical Pharaoh and Moses are archetypal figures for and against the smooth running of the megamachine for and against the dominant elite and the weak masses.
Secular law, as opposed to religious law, is crucial for the functioning of the megamachine. Especially because it reduces its subjects to the same level, and therefore more readily manipulable. Christianity – as opposed to Judaism and Islam – has been more readily malleable to the law of the megamachine, not least because of the New Testament edict: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Therein lies the roots of secularism: the separation of Church and State. Although historically this process has been messy, it is significant that this idea is promoted by European secularists who argue for the fundamental compatibility of Christianity with secular European values, and the fundamental incompatibility of Jewish and Islamic values. It helps also that Christ (at least the Pauline Christ) came to abolish the Mosaic Law, so it was all the more – and is all the more – easy for Christians to adopt the laws of the land. Or so the argument goes.
In this age of information, which reduces each and every one of us to data points, which are mined in order for our present and future manipulation, including that of our offspring and our offspring’s offspring, we must all be reduced to units that are essentially the same. The principle of efficiency entails this. And group values – such as religious laws – that are not in tune with the rules of the megamachine must be made to conform. This is the real reason why Denmark (and this sentiment is echoed, and will soon enough be seen, across Europe) ruled that non-stunned halal and kosher meat is illegal. Not because of any fundamental concern with animal welfare – as already mentioned, any serious study of industrial slaughter practices quickly reveals how fundamentally cruel they are. And it is not that Jews and Muslims are necessarily more humane when it comes to how they treat animals either. In reality, they are just as guilty of horrific behavior towards animals as their secular (or otherwise ) counterparts. They are merely trying to hold onto the vestiges of a religious law that is gasping its final breaths in the face of the all-encompassing, all-seeing megamachine which understands only its own logic of efficiency.
And may God, Yahweh, Allah have mercy on us all…
Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bwturbex/26604182127 (Mad Max - Broken Window Theory)
 Julia Angwin, Dragnet Nation, p.1 http://www.amazon.com/Dragnet-Nation-Security-Relentless-Surveillance/dp/1250060869/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1438752964&sr=8-1&keywords=dragnet+nation
 Luis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, 1966, p.3
Originally published in Allegra Lab
Review by Hasan Azad
Long-term vegetarian (and member of The Beatles) Paul McCartney famously observed that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all become vegetarians. Part of the motivation behind Timothy Pachirat’s beautifully-painful, painfully-beautiful work is precisely to provide a much-needed window on the everyday violence that the vast majority of us in the industrialised world are in/directly connected to: meat.
Our seemingly insatiable appetite for meat fuels a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone, and is responsible for not only the killing of more than 8.5 billion animals each year, but also for mass-pollution (through the release of methane, particularly from cattle, as well as untreated sewage sluiced into rivers); for deforestation (due to the clearing of massive tracts of land for intensive animal farming); for the release of vast quantities of antibiotics into the ecosystem (which are fed to animals to prevent diseases prevalent in intense farming conditions); for inhuman working conditions (industrial slaughterhouses are the most physically dangerous working environments in the US, which was the subject of Eric Schlosser’s (2001) book-turned-movie Fast Food Nation)…the list goes on.
Pachirat spent nearly six months working in various capacities (from liver hanger, to animal prodder, to quality control inspector) in a slaughterhouse in Nebraska that ‘processes’ cattle: a fairly typical slaughterhouse in its slaughtering practices, it ‘processes’ twenty-five hundred cattle a day, or one every twelve seconds. Through careful documentation of what he saw, including meticulous floor plans of the slaughterhouse, which he would re-collect during the evenings after work (entering slaughterhouses under false pretense is a criminal offence worthy of hefty punishments), Pachirat provides “detailed accounts…which are not merely incidental to or illustrative of a more important theoretical argument about how distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in contemporary society. They are the argument” (p.19). One of the central motifs of his work is the manner in which sequestration and sight work symbiotically within the spaces of the slaughterhouse.
Pachirat makes rich use of Michel Foucault’s insights into our surveillance society.
In Jeremy Bentham’s late eighteenth-century designs for the ideal prison system, the Panopticon—with its central watchtower surrounded by backlit prison cells, which render prisoners constantly observable—the prisoners internalise the logic of the prison, and effectively regulate themselves. Foucault argues that this ideal of surveillance runs through prisons, hospitals, schools, and factories. With the revelations in 2013 by investigative journalist Glen Greenwald of comprehensive domestic and international surveillance by the NSA, we now know surveillance has entered our living rooms and bedrooms. In the slaughterhouse, surveillance makes workers continuously aware of the need to keep up with the inhuman (and inhumane) rate of processing animals. From the ‘chute’ where cows are forced into the machine by liberal use of electrical shocks, sometimes to their anuses (for all intents and purposes the slaughterhouse functions as a machine, and the various levels of workers, from the floor workers to the overseers, including USDA inspectors, are bound by the logic of meat production—efficiency—over all other considerations), to the strippers who rip hides from these recently beautiful creatures, dangling from their hind legs by chains (sometimes while still alive), to the liver hangers. It only takes forty-five minutes to reduce these “magnificent, awe-inspiring” animals (p.145) to two carcass halves.
Pachirat identifies four metrics that go into rendering these animals into beef products: 1) Linguistic: where the creatures are never referred to in terms that recognise their individual existence. For example, when animals collapse in the chutes from exhaustion, from slipping on faeces and vomit, thereby holding up the line, the workers announce it as “beef down”, and the necessary steps are taken to get the line moving again. 2) Physical: where the slaughterhouse is designed in such a way that it dis-locates the work of killing, so that workers (apart from ‘the knocker’, about whom I say more below) do not feel directly responsible for the killing. 3) Social: the slaughterhouse depends on an underclass of workers, quite often comprising ‘illegal immigrants’, who are in turn exploited in harsh working conditions, and with poor pay. 4) Methodological: this is a combination of the above three, and is embodied in the figure of the QC who, in addition to overseeing the quality of the meat—as far as acceptable levels of contamination from faeces and other waste—“assist[s] with the surveillance and control of bodies, both human and nonhuman, to enforce the discipline necessary for industrialized killing” (p.208).
To say a little more about the physical metric, which is the most illuminating: though the slaughterhouse employs over eight hundred people, only seven people have contact with the cattle while they are still alive. Of those seven only four are directly linked to the work of killing itself. Those four are known as the ‘knocker’, the ‘indexer”, the ‘presticker’ and the ‘sticker’. The knocker stands for nine to ten hours each day, and in the space of ten to twelve seconds for each cow, steer, or heifer, shoots a bolt into its forehead. The indexer spaces the animals, after they have been shot, on the overhead rail, and the presticker and sticker slice open the neck of the flailing animals and cut the carotid arteries and veins to bleed them out.
The actual work of killing is, from the very beginning, sequestered to only a handful of individuals out of a total workforce of over eight hundred.
Significantly, even the work of killing itself among those four workers is spatially fragmented: the knocker stands in one location where the cattle enter the kill floor. After he shoots the animals, they are hung from their hind legs and carried via overhead rails through a series of ninety degree turns that puts them behind a floor to ceiling wall, which takes them out of his line of sight where the sticker and presticker do their job. The work of killing is dis-located, and there is no definite location where the moment of death actually takes place. This gives rise to a fascinating relationship between the workers and their work, whereby only the knocker is imagined as killing the animals, even though all one hundred and twenty one of the workers on the kill floor are involved in the processing/killing of the animal. In Pachirat’s crystalline prose:
“Only the knocker places the hot steel gun against the shaking, furry foreheads of creature after creature, sees his reflection in their rolling eyes, and pulls the trigger that will eventually rob them of life: only the knocker. If you listen carefully enough to the hundreds of workers performing the 120 other jobs on the kill floor, this might be the refrain you hear: ‘Only the knocker.’ It is simple moral math: the kill floor operates with 120+1 jobs. And as long the 1 exists, as long as there is some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this 1, then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, ‘I’m not going to take part in this. I’m not going to stand and watch this.’” (p.160).
The workers are themselves numbed by the speed of the machine of industrial slaughter, and, somewhat paradoxically, it is “[t]his numbness [that] can help the worker lose track of time, relieving the almost unbearable monotony of the line work” (p.217). Psychological dislocation from the type of work that is done—as far as the processing of the beef in all in its stages, from killing, to slicing, to dicing, and cleaning—is an essential component. It speaks to the underclass of society (comprised mainly of ‘illegal’ immigrants) that the slaughterhouse depends on, and, in turn, takes advantage of in order to sate our need for cheap meat.
In a remarkable final chapter, Pachirat argues for “a politics of sight that breaches zones of confinement” (p.255), “a world organized around the removal of physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distances” (p.254), taking inspiration from science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed (1974). However, beyond providing simple binaries such as “visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined” (p.253), Pachirat invites us to think critically about a “context-sensitive politics of sight that recognizes both the possibilities and pitfalls of organized, concerted attempts to make visible what is hidden and to breach, literally or figuratively, zones of confinement in order to bring about social and political transformation” (p.255).
The glass walls of Paul McCartney’s imagined slaughterhouse is not, in other words, itself sufficient.
For, who is to say that simply being made to see the violence (against animals, against civilians, against all manner of living bodies) may not itself become a source of pleasure and profit? (Stephen King’s 1982 novel, Running Man, which was made into a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1987, and the more recent The Hunger Games trilogy of books and movies, come to mind.) Humans have had a long and complex relationship to violence—whether towards one another or towards animals—which is not, it would seem, going to be solved any time soon. Especially given that the military industrial complex is by far the biggest global industry, and which, as Pachirat strongly indicates, relies on the same four metrics as the meat industry. One cannot help but wonder if our hunger for nonhuman flesh is somehow—however remotely—connected to our seemingly insatiable appetite for human blood.
Collins, Suzanne. 2010. The Hunger Games Trilogy. New York: Scholastic Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.
King, Stephen. 1982. The Running Man. New York: Signet.
Le Guin, Ursula. 1974. The Dispossessed. New York: Harper and Row.
Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Pachirat, Timothy. 2013. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. New Haven: Yale University Press. 320 pp. Pb: $22.00. ISBN: 9780300192483.