“Because, man, that’s killing …” by Timothy Panchirat

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A literary nugget from Every Twelve Seconds. Here, the author wants to learn to be a knocker, the one who uses a bolt gun to kill the individuals coming in to the slaugterhouse.

Excerpted from Pages 150 to 153.

The cylindrical gun is suspended in the air over the knocking box’s conveyor, balanced with a counterweight and powered by compressed air supplied via a yellow tube. Camilo tells me that using it is not easy: the knocker has only one shot, and although the animals’ bodies are restrained, their heads thrash wildly. It takes a combination of patience and good timing to hit an animal squarely in the skull about three inches above the eyes.

After shooting a couple of cattle, Camilo motions for me to take the gun. I do so while he controls the conveyor and the side restrainers. I am so focused on the gun that I do not even notice the animal that comes through on the conveyor. Its head swings back and forth wildly, eyes bulging. Then it stops moving for a moment, and I hold the gun against its skull and pull the trigger. Nothing happens. The gun has to be pressed harder against the animal’s skull for the safety to be deactivated. I press again, harder, and pull the trigger. The gun recoils in my hands, and I see a hole in the animmal’s skulls. Blood sputters, squirts, and then begins flowing steadily from the hole and the animal’s eyes roll up into its shaking head. Its neck is extended and convulsing, and its tongue hangs out the side of its mouth. I look at Camilo, who motions for me to fire again. I shoot, and the animal’s head falls heavily onto the conveyor below. Camilo advances the conveyor and the animal drops onto the lower conveyor, where it is shackled. There is already another animal in the knocking box, head swinging and eyes large in terror. I shoot two more animals, then Camilo takes the gun from my hands, warning, “They’re looking at us.” Two red-hat supervisors are standing farther down the kill floor, gesturing for me to return to the chutes.

Back in the chutes, Fernando asks, “Why you out there doing that? You want to be the knocker?” When I say maybe, he responds, “No, you don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. Nobody wants to do that. You’ll have bad dreams.” This is the same man who told me that the point of using electric prods was “pain and torture.”

Fernando’s reaction turns out to be common. In the lunchroom, heating up my food, I talk to Jill, one of the two quality-control workers. We know each other from earlier conversations about dealing with the USDA inspectors when they watch the liver-hanging work.

“So, are you working in the pens?” she asks.
“how do you like it? Do you like it more than the livers?”
I shrug noncommittally.
Jill holds her nose.
“Yeah, it smells pretty bad out there,” I agree, then ask, “Do you know when the livers are going to start up again?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“I want them to train me to do the knocking,” I offer.
She looks up, surprised. “You want to be a knocker?” Her voice is incredulous.
I shrug again.
“I already feel guilty enough as it is,” she says.
“Do you really feel guilty?”
“Yeah. Especially when I go out there and see their cute little faces.”
“Well, basically if you work here you’re killing cattle,” I say defensively. “I mean, aren’t we all killing these cattle in one way or another?”
There is an uncomfortable silence.
“How long have you been working here?” I ask, shifting the conversation, and I learn that she has been at the slaughterhouse for three years. She has taken classes to qualify for a USDA inspector’s job, but does not want to apply for one because the work involves traveling and she has three small children at home.

The next morning, I am at work early for the free annual employee checkup provided by a company called Healthy and Well and paid for by the slaughterhouse. As an incentive to come to work an hour early, have your blood drawn to check for cholesterol levels, do a flexibility test (you sit with legs extended and see how far forward you can reach), have your blood pressure taken, and fill out a short questionnaire about your eating, sleeping, drinking, and smoking habits, the company provides a free breakfast of scrambled eggs, milk, juice, cereal, bananas, grapes, bagels, and cream cheese.

Rick, the safety coordinator, is responsible for enrolling employees for the checkup, and I sit across from him with a plate of scrambled eggs. When I tell him I want to be trained as a knocker he coughs on his eggs, and then after a few minutes says, “You seem like the kind of person who would be really good for a desk job.” It fits with a running conversation we have been having in which Rick has been encouraging me to start taking classes at the community college nearby and start looking for some other kind of work.

Later, I see Christian, Umberto, and Tyler, the railers from the cooler, and I join them. Christian and Umberto need to start working and eat and leave quickly. When I tell Tyler I shot three animals with the knocking gun the day before, he urges me to stop. “Man, that will mess you up. Knockers have to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever they’re called every three months.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because, man, that’s killing,” he says: “that shit will fuck you up for real.”

“What do they see as they race by?” by Timothy Panchirat

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A literary nugget from Every Twelve Seconds. The author has moved from working in the freezer section, hanging livers, to the chute area, where he has to use electric prods  or orange paddles to get the live cattle to move towards the knocking box section, where their lives are stolen from them so that we, as a society, can eat them.

Excerpted from pages 145 to 146.

After a few hours in the chutes, it becomes clear to me that both Gilberto and Camilo use the electric cattle prods extensively, sometimes sticking them under the animals’ tails and into their anuses. The cattle jump and kick when shocked in this way, and many also bellow sharply. Gilberto uses the prod in almost rote fashion, shocking practically every animal, especially as they near the hole in the slaughterhouse wall that leads into the knocking box. Even when the cattle are tightly packed, with the nose of one animal pushed up against the rear of the animal in front of it — sometimes even with its head squished between the hind legs of the animal in front of it — Gilberto still delivers the electrical shock, often causing the cow to mount the animal in front of it.

Already caked in feces from their time in the feedlot, the transport truck, and the slaughterhouse holding pens, the cattle are packed so closely together as they push their way up the chutes that the defecation of one animal often smears the head of the animal immediately behind it. The impact of hooves against the concrete splatters feces and vomit up over the chute walls, covering our arms and shirts, and sometimes hitting us in the face.

Running up the serpentine with swinging heads, the cattle are no more than a few inches away from us, separated only by the torso-high sides of the chute. Some poke their noses up over the chute wall to sniff at our arms and stomachs. I can run a bare hand over their smooth, wet noses, a millisecond of charged, unmediated physical contact. At close range, even caked in feces and vomit, the creatures are magnificient, awe-inspiring. Some are muscular and powerful, their horns sharp and strong. Others are soft and velvety, their coats sleek and sensuous. Thick eyelaches are raised to reveal bulging eyeballs with whites visible beneath darkly colored irises. I see my distorted reflection outlined in the convex mirror of their glossy eyes: a man wearing a hard hat, wielding a bright orange paddle. I look crazed, a carnival-mirror grotesque, upholder of a system that authorizes physical, linguistic, and social concealment to allow those who consume the products of this violence to remain blind to it. And what of the cattle, what of each of the twenty-five hundred creatures that are run through this chute each day? What do they see as they race by? What do they experience in the final moments before their deaths?

“Monuments in a Vast Horizontal Flatness” by Timothy Panchirat

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A literary nugget from Every Twelve Seconds. To give some context, at this point in the book, the author is working in the slaughterhouse cooler, hanging cow livers onto racks. He is working with a partner with whom he commutes to work. In the book, just before the extended section quoted below, the author speaks about the bond he is developing with his coworker.

Excerpted from pages 137 to 139:

But despite these developments, the possibility that my whole world is contained in this — that for ten hours each day, every day into an unforeseeable future, my horizons begin and end at the dirty-white cooler walls and the substance of my world consists of wiping off bloodied metal hooks with a cold damp rag and unimpaling and re-impaling warm livers by their posterior venae cavae — creates a black recess in my mind. Beneath the nervousness, anxiety, and small victories involved in learning the job, beneath the newness of the white frock and the green steel-toed boots and the double layers of gloves and ear protection, lies a terror of monotony. I have an unshakable sensation that the limits of my world are rapidly closing in.

There is a level at which everything about the experience of white-hat work in the cooler might be read as a struggle between submission to and rebellion against this imprisonment. External material factors are involved, of course. Small things — a carcass that falls off its pulley and thuds to the floor, a cart of livers that tips over, a supervisor’s reprimand, a running series of pranks and jokes among the cooler workers, the enormous resentments generated over seemingly trivial and insignificant matters, intentional unintentionality and deliberate carelessness about the work, and even physical pain itself — all become events of gigantic proportion in the landscape of sterile monotony that threatens to engulf the person in the regularity and the sameness of the cooler. The mind greets these minor events with a euphoria arising from a reminder of the inherent uneveness of life. Even as the lips emit the groans or complaints at the inopportuneness of a mechanical breakdown or curse at the incompetence of the mechanics, the mind delights in the rupture, slowly gathering strength for the interminable battle against monotony and the excruciatingly slow passage of time.

And when the unpredictable mechanical disruptions are long in coming and the flatness of the hours threatens to stretch into an unbearable eternity, then humans inject events of their own making. What the company rulebook refers to as “horseplay” becomes in this context essential to both psychological and physical survival. Pranks, jokes, random screams, whistles, and shouts, deliberate sabotage and surly insubordination, speeding one’s work up frantically or slowing down to a pace that threatens to undermine everything, ongoing feuds over trifles invested with an emotional and intellectual energy beyond proportion: what are these if not monuments in a vast horizontal flatness? Here in the sunless, skyless humanmade confines of a near-freezing cavern deep within the bowels of the place where thousands of cattle are killed each day — here, perhaps especially here, there also exists an architecture and art of survival just as significant as those of the vast plains described by Wright Morris: “There’s a simple reason for the grain elevators, as there is for everything, but the forces behind the reason, the reason for the reason, is the land and the sky. There is too much sky out here, for one thing, too much horizontal, too many lines without stops, so that the exclamation, the perpendicular had to come. Anyone who was born and raised on the plains knowns that the high false front on the Feed Store, and the white water tower, are not a question of vanity. It’s a problem of being. Of knowing you are there.” [2]

At the rate of one cow, steer, or heifer slaughtered every twelve seconds per nine-hour working day, the reality that the work of the slaughterhouse centers around killing evaporates into a routinized, almost hallucinatory, blur. By the end of the day, by liver number 2,394 or foot number 9,576, it hardly matters what is being cut, shorn, sliced, shredded, hung, or washed; all that matters is that the day is once again, finally, coming to a close, offering a brief overnight respite from the roaring, vibrating totality that has come to encompass not only the knives, hooks, and machines that kill, rip, and tear apart the cattle but also the human arms, legs, and hands that operate these devices. This, too, becomes killing at a distance, laboring day after day hanging freshly gutted body parts from animals one never saw or heared or smelled or touched in life; the feel of freezing air through multiple layers of clothing; the smell of perforated livers rising to the nostrils in traceable steam; the humming, clanging, clinking, defeaning mechanical soundscape; and the sight of liver after liver descending against a dull white wall, hour after hour, day after day, week after week until it constitues an endless, infinite landscape in which the slaughtered cow has no place and against which every act of disruption, no matter how miniscule, becomes an expression of being, of knowing that you are still there.

[2]: Wright Morris, The Home Place (1948; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 76.

“Every Twelve Seconds” by Timothy Panchirat

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I am reading the book Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight by Timothy Pachirat. It is an account of the author’s experience in a cattle slaughterhouse, where he worked undercover for five months and aided in the deconstruction of “cow” to “cow parts.” I am not yet done with the book but there are many parts that stand out to me. Over the next few days, I am going to post them as literary nuggets on this page.

“The Holocaust Sublime” by John Sanbonmatsu

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Here’s a literary nugget from a journal article by John Sanbonmatsu titled The Holocaust Sublime:

As intellectuals confronting holocaust, our duty is therefore to uncover the ways in which quotidian sources of human evil are papered over, obscured, and kept from troubling daily consciousness. We must also consider the ways in which we ourselves collude in practices of evil, in the present. Perhaps we do have some moral responsibility to attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and similar exhibits. But if we want to truly comprehend the meaning of “holocaust,” the unspeakable suffering of it; if we furthermore desire to bear witness to extreme violence in such a way that we might actually prevent it, rather than merely aestheticize it post factum; then paying a visit to our own neighborhood slaughterhouse may be the more logical and morally urgent place to start.

If you would like to read the full article, you may download it here. I received permission from John Sanbonmatsu to distribute it.