Monday, April 23, 2012

Diminished Visibility As a Means of Preserving Consumer Interests

Two things that really struck me in today’s readings were the mechanisms that underlie the diminishment of visibility, and the way that our consumer society encourages this diminishing visibility as a means of preserving aesthetic interests. In what I found to be a very effective tactic used in Every Twelve Seconds, Pachirat sets up a thought experiment describing a world in which there is total visibility. This world would be “organized around the removal, rather than the creation of physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distances” and “ every zone of privilege would exist in full contact with the zone of confinement that was its counterpart” (240, 242).  In this way, eating meat would acquaint the meat eater with all of the steps taken to turn sow into steak. As I read this, I thought about how many people (e.g., small farm owners and workers) are privy to both the consumption side and production side of meat. Surely, there are many people who are involved in both the killing and eating of meat, and this underscores the larger objective of this argument. The argument and purpose of this book and module is not about eating meat, it is about visibility and accountability.
Pachirat goes on to discuss how transparency can generate transformational politics. He uses the phrase “transparent, literally or even figuratively” many times, which I found problematic. Although the idea that literal transparency (e.g., glass walled slaughterhouses) could engender political change is not implausible (though still most likely improbable), the idea that figurative transparency, in the form of this book for example, could engender political change seems quite far-fetched to me.  We are all reading this book and these articles, and I imagine that they have only catalyzed quantitatively and qualitatively paltry changes in our lives. It seems that the most tangible effect of figurative transparency is the creation of more excuses and rationalizations. So maybe literal transparency (which seems only viable in thought experiments really) is the answer, but how long until this literal transparency falls subject to compassion fatigue anyway?
Pachirat then explicates the ways in which divisions of labor serve to diminish the literal transparency, even on the kill floor. Yet, there is still some literal transparency there. In our consumer society, however, even this transparency can be effectively destroyed. According to Bauman, “technological progress has reached the point where productivity grows together with the tapering of employment; factory crews get leaner and slimmer” (313).  How will “more effective” technology streamline and further obscure industrial slaughter? How will “more effective” technology streamline and further obscure torture? Will we one day have the technology to perform all of our “dirty work” without anyone actually having to see what is going on? In many ways, this trend has already began. Without such technologies as airplanes and computers, outsourcing and cheap foreign labor would not be possible or efficient. I wonder how effectively technology will be used in the future to further distance us from the underside of our consumer society. This diminished visibility will help preserve aesthetic interests by allowing consumers, like meat eaters for example, to consume meat without anyone having to think about where this meat is coming from.
These aesthetic interests are the motivating force of our consumer culture, because “consumers [in a consumer society] must be guided by aesthetic interests, not ethical norms” (Bauman 321). So, is there a place for ethical norms in this consumer society of diminished visibility? Specter discusses how much of the green movement is “compelled by economic necessity” (44), and how many of the efforts of the consumers who buy into this new “green” trend are misguided. All of this makes for much superficial modification, and no effective or lasting change. I suppose it is a step in the right direction, at any rate. Still, it is clear that we have a ways to go. Maybe lasting change needs to begin with transparency and increased visibility.


  1. In this week's reading I was really interested in the idea of how aestheticized our culture is, especially our consumer culture. Bauman discusses how even our professions have an aesthetic hierarchy. While there are many different jobs in which people can work equally as hard, only certain ones are glamorous enough to be considered top-tier and highly respectable. The people that have these jobs fall into the category of the privileged. For example, a meat cutter at a slaughterhouse may work just as hard as a doctor, but the doctor has the more desired job aesthetically and thusly belongs in the privileged sector. This concept of aestheticism can be equated with the meat industry. Meat is meat, yet we as consumers want meat that has no sign of the dirty work and hard labor that goes into making it look presentable, which is clean, pure, and not at all like the living animal it once was. We want to be eclipsed from the ugly. We as a consumer society want to distance ourselves as far as possible from a reality that is not aesthetically pleasing. By distancing ourselves aesthetically, we also engage in moral distancing. We do not want to face the “ugly” immoral practices that exist behind the production of meat, of clothes, the harvesting of fruit, etc. Most of us, however, are wrapped up in this consumer culture, for it is all we really know.
    I think why it is so hard for many of us to come to terms with this unit is because we are so complicit in the “ugly” immoral practices and because we want to pretend like they do not exist so we do not have to be held responsible. While I do think it is up to us to decide to sacrifice something and make a change in our lives to do good, I also think that we are taking the first steps by engaging in a class like this and learning about our roles in society and involvement in things we would rather distance ourselves from. At least we are becoming aware, which is far more than many students on this campus can say. While I always think I can do more and probably make more changes and take more action, I think that education is one action that is an important step in creating change.

  2. Like Britt, I was particularly interested in the focus of this week’s readings on visibility, and the mechanisms that underlie it. Thinking about the alternative paradigms suggested, I started imagining what these alternative paradigms might look and feel like. I, too, wondered about the susceptibility of full visibility to push us into the realm of compassion fatigue, or even just blindness of habit. After all, even according to Pachirat, lack of visibility is not the only force maintaining the grunt and grime of slaughterhouses; it is, as he calls it, “killing mediated by… monotony” (238). He also includes a quote about hunting societies, suggesting “a hunting people’s deep, unreflexive attitude towards animal life” (250). To me, these statements perhaps contradict (if only partly) the notion that, “were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to do it this way.” (246).

    This thought process led me to a partial conclusion about the irony of our current situation. Could it be that in preserving this aesthetically driven experience and notion of the ideal for mainstream/upper-class American society, a certain mental framework has emerged that would not otherwise have been cultivated, a framework in which we are distanced enough from the process—both dirty and cruel—to see it in a particularly critical way? Let me explain. Any cruelty that becomes monotony tends to catch its partakers and witnesses in its own internal logic. This is true of many different forms of cruelty, but for whatever reason the one that presently comes to mind is domestic abuse. It takes not only someone on the outside, but also someone who does not buy in to the “normalcy” of that internal logic, to scream “stop!” We, as the ignorantly preserved class that did not know about all of these cruelties in depth until now—at a stage of life where our sense of right and wrong and our notions of aesthetics and the grotesque are pretty firmly cemented—have been implicated in this system for our entire lives, but because it was hidden it was not able to work its way into our consciousnesses as “normal.” This puts us not only in a unique position to criticize the system; I think it might also put us in an ironically unique position to “see” that there is something (indeed, many things) flawed about it. This is not to say that the reverse doesn’t happen—that people in the slaughterhouse don’t cry “cruelty,” etc. because if that were the case there would be no need, really, to render it invisible. But this does not take away from my point that we are in a very particular position of previous ignorance that ironically makes us more susceptible to being horrified over the contents of a book like Pachirat’s.

  3. I think that Britt highlights a lot of important issues and presents questions that I found myself struggling with as well. I found Pachirat’s explanation of a society in which there is total transparency particularly interesting because it relates to all the themes that we have discussed in the course thus far. In a world of total visibility, the public would be forced to acknowledge the atrocities that are committed on their behalf, such as torture and mass incarceration, which would make it much harder to morally distance themselves from the problems of society, an idea that Coetzee references and one that applies to all of our past topics. Pachirat references meat eating when he writes, “…to eat meat is to know the killers, the killings, and the animals themselves” (Pachirat 242). While Pachirat hopes that this would cause people to change their habits, I also questioned whether or not this would really have a lasting impact.

    I agree with Britt that evidence reveals that increased visibility often leads to more rationalizations. Coetzee references this phenomenon when he maintains that if we use our minds to think about these issues, instead of our hearts, that we will always come up with more rationalizations as to why we should continue eating meat or committing other violence. How could we ensure that in a world of increased visibility that people would think with their hearts instead of their minds, so as to refrain from creating more rationalizations as Britt referenced?

    I thought that her question of compassion fatigue was relevant when looking at the class’s reactions to Pachirat’s book. Compassion fatigue is an issue that I have struggled with through out this entire unit, because I feel conflicted about society’s ability and desire to change their meat eating habits, even with total visibility into the slaughterhouse process. I am feeling conflicted because I have always felt positively about society- that increased awareness has and will lead to progress. However, I think it would be very easy for people to be shocked by the pictures and descriptions of the slaughterhouse process, but turn off their initial reaction later because eating meat has become so natural and desirable for them.
    I am no better than others, because I too am shocked and disgusted by the descriptions but then continue to eat meat on a daily basis. It is so easy for me to ignore these disturbing images in my head because it has become so natural to me, and at the risk of sounding unsympathetic, I just enjoy the taste. This is something I have struggled with because I often think of myself as a very compassionate, sympathetic person, but yet I choose to eat animals, knowing the inhumane process by which they are killed for my benefit. That being said, I believe that talking about these issues in class is the first step towards change- that forcing ourselves to confront the problems makes it more likely that we will take action.

    While I believe that increased visibility could lead people to change their habits if it hurts other humans, I question whether this will really happen in terms of eating meat. Has it become so natural for us that permanent large-scale change is unrealistic? Does this say anything significant about us as human beings?

  4. All of the readings for today did a great job of connecting the ideas of consumption, slaughter, and human impact to ethics on a larger scale. Pachirat’s last chapter was a brilliant display of how the politics of sight in the slaughterhouse were mirrored in every aspect of society today. I agree with Brit that two points I was most focused on were that of visibility and aesthetics. I immediately thought of the connection to Alexander in what we don’t see in regards to prison politics. For me, today’s readings really brought together Professor Stern’s discussion about slaughterhouses as a vehicle of understanding in the way we treat one another. Who has the privilege of blindness? What if we really did have to “touch the hands that sewed the seams” (Pachirat 241) of the jeans when we bought them? The idea of turning society upside down, instead of concealing- revealing, is an idea of revolution. Revolution is about facing the ugliness, admitting to it. This led me to thinking about “inverted quarantine” which I think also has a lot to do with privilege and sight. How do we make choices based off of what we allow ourselves to see and not see, to admit to and to ignore? The aesthetics of what we chose to see create the fake reality we chose to live in. We live in a world of the new Jim Crow, slaughterhouses, consumption, and how else do we change these things but to make them visible?