“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.

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