A pregnant sow repeatedly knocks her skull against the metal bars of her crate inside a factory farm. In a Herzogian moment, the author who encounters the noise in the breeding section screams that the pig is trying to “kill herself”. An experienced co-worker reassures him that this “rare behavior” occurs when the sow attempts to nest but cannot on a concrete floor (p. 125-126). Despite spending all its life inside a concrete pen, among successive generations of pigs born and bred inside Dover Food Corp. since the 1980s, the pig’s evolutionary instinct to nest just as it might once have done outdoors unsettles the rhythm and the hyper-calculated logics of the animal factory.
The behavior is also the effect of Lutylase, a birth induction hormone used to ensure that sows' reproductive cycles coincide with production cycles and workday routines. The predictable workday, in turn, ensures that workers can pick their children up from daycare. This dissonance illustrates what Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis (2020), an ethnography of industrial pig-farming, seeks to defamiliarize: the end goals of industrial efficiency, accounts of human and non-human labor, and the vital biopolitics of porcine-human relations.
In popular views, American industrialization is concomitant with the Fordist mode of production with its emphasis on automation and assembly lines. However, when Dover’s managers refer to the “Herd”, a concept which refers to the standardization of the contemporary pig as a “totality” (p. 6), then the certitude of what makes a ‘factory’ form begins to wither. The totality appears not only as a factory-internal discourse and an attempt to use all of the pig (p. 215). Rather, it is multi-sensory, experienced by the town’s residents as an overwhelming stench that saturates the air and attracts large flies (p. 44). Thus, Blanchette theorizes the Herd as a “species-making device” (p. 52-53) by which every single element of the pig—its size, meat, breeding abilities, bones—and the world around it, from kinship relations to wind patterns and soil ecology, are presented as eternally manipulable towards increased safety and profits.
If older ideas of standardization rendered human labor dispensable, Blanchette shows the counterintuitive opposite: as a discursive-technological project, the Herd relies on tactile, non-standardizable human labor which seeks to “intensify instincts” in ways that exceed what the pig’s own body is capable of. Such intensification is seen in the techniques used by Felipe, a worker, to mount sows and mimic the bodily pressure of hogs to stimulate them (p.101-103, 110), injecting hormones and feeding runts powdered milk from bottles (p. 122-123), and in the creative efforts of two other workers, Bianca and Robin, to keep weak piglets alive (p.158-160). The labor is not always life-affirming, and overworked pigs lead to overworked humans: to Sergio’s thumbnails, Alicia’s chronic pain, and a migrant’s forced display of cheer to avoid racial harassment on the slaughter line (p.188).
Yet the factory does not subsume it all: such labor also yields new forms of interspecies knowledge which reimagine more humane forms of pork agribusiness (p. 163). As Porkopolis makes visible the detailed processes that capitalizes on every part of the pig “which never really lives or dies” (p. 219) and contests the fixation on human diet as a justice solution, it accumulates, as part of its method, a suspicion of wastage and late-industrial efficiency.
While capital thrives on short-circuiting time and speed to generate new consumption avenues, hyper-efficiency is often recast as environment friendly. In contrast, the “positive politics of inefficiency” (p. 236) that Blanchette proposes are inextricable from the existential aspects of what it means to be a living being outside of—or despite—economic rhythms. Life, in this model of inefficiency, can at times be unsettling, such as when the only pig in Sean Sprague’s photos looks directly at the camera, implicating us as consumers (p. 132); at other times, life gestures towards possibilities, as in Maria’s unauthorized rubbing of sows’ backs to provide comfort on the production line.