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On Ironies

Published onJul 25, 2023
On Ironies

Early on in the book Blanchette gives a disclaimer that the book is not an exposé of the American meat industry. This disclaimer distinguishes Porkopolis from journalistic writing that aim to confront industrial food systems as the “other” in American society. For me, the disclaimer also set the tone for the many ironies that are a major part of understanding the current concerns in agribusiness. Looking past stereotypical representations of the meat industry that exist in opposition to a “bucolic and ‘normal’ agriculture somewhere else” is to work with ironies that inher in agribusiness today. As agribusiness tries to extend its reach over both hog and human physiologies, segregation policies among workers working on different stages of the hogs’ growth are imposed to protect hog immune systems. These policies police managers’ own social interactions as well. Blanchette’s honest exploration of such ironies shows that this is “not a simple site of anthropocentric domination over another species”.

Human-animal relationality is a key site of interrogation in the book to understand what is beyond straightforward “anthropocentric domination”. Blachette shows that while hog muscles are being generated as biochemically consistent to build more commodities from their bodies, human muscles are evaluated through fitness tests and assigned to roles best suited to their skeletomuscular form in the slaughterhouse. As factory farms work towards becoming ever more “industrial” through investments in muscles and tendons, humans and hogs are embedded in “distinct and mutually isolated porcine worlds” matched based on distinct physiological features. This deep understanding of how posthuman labor is shaping capitalist practice today instead of critiquing agribusiness as a form of liberal capitalism from the outside is what makes Blanchette’s writing so compelling. At every point that he describes his encounters with hogs, humans, sights and smells, I find myself investigating them with him and seeing posthuman labor- an often amorphous term- take shape in factory farms.

Blanchette’s exploration of the “hormone worker” was an instance that reframed hormones in agribusiness for me. While hormone injections and their impacts on hog and human health have been a nefarious topic in mainstream media, this book points to a facet of its use that is more implicit and is changing the way work is organized around the pig such that human division of labor has been “cleaved into the fissures of the porcine species”. Such entangled forms of labor are meant to enhance certain porcine functions like reproduction through processes like “stimulation”. As workers stimulate reproductive processes in pigs, the “value of labor becomes inseparable from the ability to conjure, perform, or inhabit porcine reproductive natures”. Alex calls this and other such instances of laboring alongside hogs “an untapped source of intellectual knowledge for understanding and building… different agricultures”. What pathways for different agricultures emerge when workers, usually seen as a source of embodied knowledge, are valued for their intellectual knowledge of working with pigs?

These alternative possibilities are gestured at by tracing the present moment of industrial agriculture through a history of industrialism over time. Alex explores how industrial categories—such as “machine,” “worker,” and “manager” are placed onto diverse workplace practices, pigs, and people and what socio-material impacts it has on pigs, people and factory farming. Tracing a link between slaughterhouse disassembly and Fordism, Alex shows how factory farming has been intertwined with industrialism from the get-go. This history allows him to situate the current moment of factory farming not within postindustrialism but as enmeshed in many industralisms.

Porkopolis works to understand the industrial, nature, human, animal, and many other categories through the work of both hogs and humans while becoming painfully aware of the pervasiveness of the industry even in the book’s material form which opens up the space to imagine agricultures not seen so far.

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