The American meat industry is often narrowly portrayed through a damage-centered and simplistic lens as enacting harm on a nonhuman species. Resulting popular narratives call for people to seek only small hold farmers or, better yet, to stop eating meat. But, as Alex Blanchette asserts in Porkopolis, the scale of the pork agribusiness is such that these actions are well-meaning but misdirected. What is needed, he suggests, is a new politics of food “that cannot be reduced to an anthropocentric focus on what humans consume” (p. 236). Claims that we live in a post-industrial society, he warns, are premature; he advocates for “actual deindustrialization” (p. 245) and for careful consideration of what that entails.
This book is not a prescriptive how-to but rather a compelling why-to. The reader’s journey begins in an American rural community seemingly saved by a factory farm; and it ends with the identification of industrial chicken skeletons in the fossil record and the suggestion of a less visible but universal “pigification” (p. 243). On the stops in-between, Blanchette reveals interspecies entanglements of pigs and workers, showing ways in which workers and their bodies are becoming pigs. This happens on the so-called “live side” of pig operations, which include insemination facilities and farrowing (birthing) crates, and on the euphemistically-named “plant side.” Live side workers are closely attuned to pig behavior and needs, while “plant side” workers’ bodies are evaluated and selected to perform a particular single repetitive movement along the disassembly line of the slaughterhouse.
“Somos puercos” (“We are pigs”), one of Blanchette’s co-workers observes ironically at a party (p. 81). She is indicating not only the reality of their work but also a racial division: migrant workers of color work with pigs; across the hall, the beef cattle workers are a sea of white. But although for pig workers this identity is born of proximity, Blanchette makes readers aware that we are all becoming pig: unknowingly we come into contact with traces of pig in the products of our everyday lives. Referring to the pig agribusiness as a meat industry is a dangerous misnomer that invisibilises industrial harms to humans and nonhumans.
Blanchette pushes back at this status quo, visibilising intimate industrial practices often hidden from view, and revealing that, in its quest to fully standardize and routinize an industrial process that is always in growth mode, factory farms might actually be destroying the very product the industry relies on. The intensive engineering of porcine life-forms beyond what the life force can support enacts a violence shared between human and nonhuman bodies. The endless corporate quest for increased efficiency, Blanchette shows, increases reliance on care by human workers by producing a pig that is increasingly fragile.
At the end of Porkopolis, Blanchette makes several calls to action. On a basic level, his calls require that we grapple with uncomfortable and nuanced truths to avoid replicating the very system he critiques. Pushing back at the narrative that efficiency is virtuous, Blanchette suggests we demand “the right to be ‘un-efficient’ creatures” (p.237), reclaiming a place—for both human and non-human beings—as “more than economic creatures” (p. 237).
Kate Elliott is a Ph.D. candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Simon Fraser University. Her research uses virtual collaborative storytelling to track the lives, deaths and afterlives of grocery carts.