On Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm

When you close your eyes and picture a pig, what do you see? A curly, spring-like tail? A pink belly caked in mud? A curious snout nosing at the dirt or a trough? If I asked you to imagine pigs on a factory farm, the image would likely change. There are, for example, the familiar visual tropes of animals pressed into confined spaces, pressed up against one another in filthy, seemingly untenable proximity. Alex Blanchette’s vital and illustrative Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, & the Factory Farm (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020) relies not on trope, but on intense specificity to offer an evocative portrait of the industrial pig. Blanchette pushes beyond the familiar ideas and images of the factory farm to demonstrate the ways in which human and industrial animal life are wholly, hauntingly entangled.

In spite of the title and striking cover photograph by Sean Sprague, this is not a book about pigs. Well, it is, and it is not. At the heart of Blanchette’s book is a question “about the cultural politics of maintaining systems of industrial production in the United States” and the accompanying, interrelated capitalist projects of efficiency and standardization (17). The inquiry leads to the body of the industrial pig and the enormous human effort required to optimize the species for markets and then maintain that increasingly fragile state of optimization. While one could imagine this kind of relationship as unidirectional, Blanchette’s ethnography reveals that these forces of industry act upon both pigs and humans. As he writes, “Modern meat, as the model [of industrialism] is unfolding in the United States, revolves around remaking the lives and labor of human beings to make them amenable to capitalist animality” (4). Perfecting the industrial pig requires re-envisioning not only porcine biology, but human-pig relations with inter- and intra-species consequences.

Based on twenty-seven months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2009 and 2013 at four anonymized pork corporations with hubs in an undisclosed cross-section of the Midwest and Great Plains, Porkopolis offers an unprecedented look at the operations and logics of animal agribusiness. The book is organized into five parts, following the approximate life cycle of an industrialized pig from a boar’s ejaculate and a sow’s artificial insemination to a hog’s birth, death, and disassembly into meat and viscera. The fragility of this industrial porcine lifecycle, as Blanchette underscores, demands the intervention of human laborers. Accordingly, each part of the book attempts to spotlight one class of the industry’s workers “including senior managers, low-level farm managers, farmworkers, slaughterhouse workers, and porcine entrepreneurs” and their relation to pigs and the animal agribusiness’s project of standardized porcine life (25).

Each part typically opens with a shorter chapter that acts as an “interlude,” drawing upon a scene from Blanchette’s fieldwork to frame a central problem of that part (xvii). The tensions and research questions developed in each vignette are then discussed at length in the second, longer, accompanying chapter. Without the interludes, peppered with Sprague’s photographs, and Blanchette’s explicit consideration to structure as it is described in the book’s prefacing pages and introduction, these denser second chapters could feel like standalone articles. Yet, they do not. Blanchette’s attention to narrative flow and argument unites the text and provides a sense of momentum through to the epilogue.

Part I, “Boar,” explores the threat of porcine disease and the measures taken by the humans who tend and oversee these pigs to preserve the biosecurity of the herd. Extensive hygiene procedures follow workers home and structure their personal lives, emphasizing the long reach of this biosphere and the permeability of its facilities. Part II, “Sow,” describes issues of race, labor, gender, and sexuality as it follows Blanchette’s experiences in a breeding facility, physically stimulating sows as part of the artificial insemination process. Part III, “Hog,” centers the “hyperprolific sow” to not only examine the industry’s investment in porcine proliferation and the ways that genetic engineering has led to rampant runting in litters, but also to analyze the emergent forms of “craft and empathy” labors that undergird this industrialized reproduction (139, 141).

Parts IV and V shift focus from birthing and raising pigs, or “Live Side” operations, to the killing and processing of “Plant Side” work (104). Part IV, “Carcass,” looks to the slaughterhouse to analyze industry’s efforts to push towards optimal efficiency at the site of the changing relationship between the standardized disassembly of porcine bodies and the human bodies strained and injured in the work of disassembly. Part V, “Viscera,” lays bare the profits to be made in the industry’s waste products, such as the “post-organismal hog,” reorganized and understood as a “collection of discrete proteins, fats, amino acids, and nitrates” (215). The industrial pig shows up not only at the dinner table, but often more frequently in consumer goods, from flavorings for cat food and ramen to bioadhesive in the asphalt paving of American highways, to pharmaceuticals and much, much more.

Through his ability to work across different levels of these corporations, attend specialty trainings, and speak with management, Blanchette achieved access to the innerworkings of animal agribusiness that activist scholars and investigative journalists have long been denied. This unprecedented access prompts the question, how? The answer is partial and comes in the seventeenth endnote to the fourth chapter: Blanchette made his way into the belly of the beast through a blend of serendipitous circumstances, the good favor of some managers, and the appearance of having a benign scholarly project that in its days of fieldwork sought to investigate ideas of industry over specific ethical questions of human and non-human animal life and labor. The implications of these corporate relationships and their boundaries warrant further address in the body of this text and would be especially well-positioned against some of the projects Blanchette already engages, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Angela Stuesse’s Scratching Out a Living.

Another question that arises from Porkopolis is that of action—what can be done? While Blanchette warns against any easy solution and does not offer guidance to organizers, the epilogue is hopeful. A better future lies, according to Blanchette, in further scholarship. Cultivating a food studies that looks beyond anthropocentric consumption opens up broader fields of relationships for inquiry. Centering a politics of care for one another and across species might better equip us to combat inequities in new ways. Developing a politics of refusal that works against participation in ever-expanding capitalist efficiency and productivity may be part of the path towards deindustrialization.

All said, Porkopolis is a triumph. It is exceptionally readable and engaging in spite of the gravity of its subject matter. It is also creative and challenging in the most haunting and curious ways. While this book is a must-read for those working in the fields of animal studies, labor studies, and food studies, I believe it would also be of great value to undergraduate and graduate education. Blanchette’s attention to the ordinariness of industrial logics could facilitate some extremely productive conversations not only about life, death, and labor, but also about the depths of our entanglements, wittingly and not, in animal agribusiness and how we relate to other beings. There is much to be learned in considering those webs of relations. And ultimately, as Blanchette concludes, “the lives and deaths of the American hog are a reflection of how we humans live together” (245).

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Claire Bunschoten

Claire Bunschoten is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She studies issues of food, materiality, and popular culture.