Porcine Worlds: An Interview with Alex Blanchette

Photo by Sean J. Sprague.

This post builds on the research article “Herding Species: Biosecurity, Posthuman Labor, and the American Industrial Pig,” which was published in the November 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Julia Sizek: In your article, you discuss the ways in which human labor has been reorganized to tend to porcine bodies, and you end your article with a call for new forms of politics. Can you expand on the forms of politics you critique, as well as the politics you are attempting to envision? What do you understand the political implications of your work to be?

Alex Blanchette: There is a lot that we could touch on here—say, the political limitations of the exposé genre and how it conditions (too) much writing on the factory farm, or the diverse ways (for better or worse) that anthropocentrism is emerging as a keyword of political thought. But, for now, let me keep things focused on work.

The article ends with a call for a seamed political language about labor and animals, which could perhaps be read in conversation with recent interventions such as Alex Nading’s (2014) theorization of intimacy and entanglement. It is not a rhetorical flourish. I remain uncertain about how best to conceptually articulate (let alone critique) the types of interspecies authority, species-internal division, and ambiguous hierarchy emerging from spaces organized around a single type of nonhuman life. But starting at the level of farmwork in monocultural agriculture seems crucial. Along with scholars like Julie Guthman (2011), I am generally quite skeptical of a food politics that concludes with how one can be an ethical subject-consumer who confronts industrial agriculture at the supermarket. These sorts of dietary questions and decision-making frameworks might be easily posed when viewing this institution from outside, as a straightforward matter of human domination over generic pigs. But what about the actual workers and managers who have to cohabit with industrial pigs in their very specific and changing biological and economic natures? What about these humans who must, in some way, embody porcine physiologies? What would it mean for workers to ignore biosecurity protocols and hold themselves accountable for pig illness, or for managers to take a hands-off approach to hog disease? I am unable to answer these types of questions—and do not even see it as my place to pose them—and so my ethnographic writing does not center on critiquing the ethical decisions of individual people, including those who work in or even those who run agri-corporations.

Instead, I see this essay and its closing paragraphs as an initial gesture toward the need for a broader political project around the status of human labor in a changing global ecology. On the one hand, I’ve long been struck by the fact that most books on factory farms approach the issue exclusively from the ensuing quality of life of either animals or humans. There are exceptions, such as Timothy Pachirat’s (2011) ethnography of killing in the slaughterhouse. But the more popular journalistic exposés seem to operate as if there is an unspoken analytical choice that one needs to make, a necessary prioritization of species. There was a point when I, too, accepted this division and told myself that what Ireally cared about were the lives and perspectives of diverse (human) workers. Yet every step of my research—whether shadowing managers or working in breeding barns—taught me about how the dignity and experience of human labor is inseparable from the condition and scale of animal life in which farmwork is contextually embedded (and vice versa). One thing I am trying to get at here via the figure of the Herd and porcine worlds is how there is a broader form of species vitality not reducible, say, to genetics—a type of animality being made and remade in farms, university labs, corporate boardrooms, government bureaucracies, and wholesalers’ depictions of consumer desire—that conditions both the individual humans and hogs whose life and labor unfolds within it. Pig disease and the state of porcine immunity is but one working terrain of animality, and other things that I am writing move sequentially across the pig’s life and death cycle to illustrate the quiet struggles over the condition of porcine life that emerge in each of the factory farm’s workplaces. It’s a simple point, but one that I would want to underline: the question of whether labor politics can be about the value of human labor alone. A concrete example might be to ask what it would mean to insist that workers—and not just university-based animal welfare scientists—have a stake in defining what counts as “humane” conditions for animals.

On the other hand, what is the value and status of work today in the so-called Anthropocene? I have become quite influenced—in my writing, activism, and everyday ideals—by Kathi Weeks’ (2011) critique and politicization of work itself, the way in which it opens up the possibility of imagining a world where (waged) work doesn’t hold such unconditional necessity and moral sway over our lives. In spite of the fact, to paraphrase Richard White (1995), that people have historically known nature through work, labor has not been at the forefront of current ecological debates. That might change with the recent publication of Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015), a book that strikes me as crucial given the significant dimensions of ecological transformation that remain mediated in some way by wage labor. These are some of the political projects that give me a sense of closing unease about workers having to take on porcine immunities in their daily lives. Each step of the factory farm process—from folks in artificial insemination miming out pigs’ reproductive instincts to others who work exclusively on pig hormones through injections—could be redescribed as people becoming laboring prosthetics to single facets of pigs. Workers, here, are embedded into porcine physiology as new dimensions of the pig along with new arenas of human life are converted into necessary labor. The industrialization of the pig is therefore not a matter of dominating nature, but instead of exerting much social energy and capital in order to transform the species such that it requires emerging qualities and quantities of reproductive work in order to thrive (which is also a key point in recent theories of domestication [e.g., Tsing 2012]). As such, the broader politics of my project hinge on the implications of considering the planet as not just polluted, but as overworked in specific ways that make human work necessary to the very constitution of the future world.

This is all very germinal. It’s at once well-trodden and tricky territory. But I hope to develop parts of it further with an intellectually diverse group of scholars who are meeting in 2016 at the School for Advanced Research. One of the projects for that seminar is to open up a set of tools for thinking about how work is not an exclusively human capability, and thus what kinds of room to maneuver might be gained by a political critique that seeks to pluralize work beyond the human.

JS: What do you think about the term factory farm against other terms that refer to the agro-industrial complex?

AB: I find agro-industrial complex to be a better framing than most, because it trains our attention not on a single site—say, on a confinement farm or a slaughterhouse. And it moves us past a singular focus on moments of conception or death, suggesting complicated ways that the pig is being (re)generated at every moment across its life and death cycle. What a corporation chooses to feed hogs, for example, is affected by the types of commodities (whether meat or biodiesel) that will be derived from its body. The industrial pig is made across genetics labs, feedmills, trucking circuits, barns, packing plants, and dozens of other specialized sites for extracting additional profit from its carcass. Its body is exported to no less than eighteen countries. As the geographer Deborah Cohen recently put it in a public talk, the industrial pig is a logistical project. By subdividing the porcine species and organizing work in this way—not just among boars, sows, or piglets as organisms but around meat, fat, organs, bones, viruses, diets, semen, social hierarchies, movements, instincts, sentience, and hormones—corporations aim to create a being that is more uniform than previous generations in order to increase the species’ worth for global wholesalers. I am trying to write an ethnography of vertical integration in exactly these terms. One that sequentially moves from prelife to postdeath in a way that focuses on the material particularities of each working site or stage of porcine existence, while tracing how workers and managers grasp the broader project of porcine industrialization from their specific vantage point. My essay for Cultural Anthropology is but one portrait of the factory farm—implicitly articulated in tune with the practices of managers gazing out from the boar stud when pig life is still in potentia.

That said, some of my other writing uses the term factory farm to signal an open question: what is the “factory” in the factory farm? What concrete visions and stock images of industrialization from across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are translated onto farms, pigs, and work to motivate agribusiness practice? What forms of farm intensification are in play that do not spring from or are not mimetic of older industrialisms? As Deborah Fitzgerald (2003) has shown, in the early twentieth century the idea of making farms operate in the very specific image of Taylorist factories was a dreamform. Inside contemporary factory farms, to some extent, I see similar drives still operating. Moreover, I am interested in the question of why today factory farm is so easily employed as a term of derision in popular culture. My use of factory farm, in this sense, is intended to draw attention to the ways that, in these operations, industrialization is a reflexive and aesthetic ambition—even a motivating desire and ideal. As I participated in classes where managers were taught post–World War II manufacturing theory and statistics for rethinking porcine biology, I came away with the sense that industrial agriculture is a much less completed project than some tend to imagine; I’ve come to see it as an unfinished cultural and economic experiment in the mass production of life (and death). The architects of these operations are still trying to realize their unique visions and aesthetics of the “factory” in the factory farm.

For me, this opens up questions for which I do not necessarily have answers. What does it mean to study an ardent experiment in industrialization amidst a so-called “post-industrial” United States? What do we mean by the “post-industrial” in the first place, and to whom does it apply? While factory farming may be described as a timely issue in the media, its key terms and logics—standardization, vertical integration, mass production—have not been buzzwords since the 1920s. I am thinking with broader anthropological insights here. In different ways, Andrea Muehlebach’s (2011) and Christine Walley’s (2013) work illustrates how the Fordist factory continues to color aspirations in societies where actual industrial work is hard to come by. Kim Fortun’s (2012) notion of late industrialism suggests how society cannot just ideologically leave behind the factory in favor of some new economic epoch and zeitgeist. Indeed, traces of the industrial may be only more intimately felt going forward, as infrastructures wane and climates become erratic. As past and present factory aspirations make and manifest in pigs, one small contribution that I hope to make to this broader conversation is an approach that is not so much focused on identifying and prioritizing the radically new—to put it too simply—but that traces the diverse ways that people grapple with the continued possibilities, perils, and arguably inescapable endurance of old industrialisms.

I've come to see industrial agriculture as an unfinished cultural and economic experiment in the mass production of life (and death).

JS: In your article, class predominates as a way to understand ranking of people in factories. How do other distinctions—race and gender, for example—configure in your work?

AB: Thanks for asking this question. I would not want this essay to be taken as a statement of the isolated priority of class over other lived dimensions of difference and hierarchy. One thing that is important to note is that being able to describe farm-level U.S. meat agribusiness in terms of managers and workers is a relatively new phenomenon. The typical relationship is one of a farmer to small groups of workers. This essay is dedicated to managers’ efforts to make themselves into managers of vertically integrated life, developing themselves as subjects through a particular kind of relationship to the industrial pig as a species. Thought of in this manner, the Herd is really about senior managers coming to be the only ones who are akin to the classic figure of the farmer: someone who witnesses the pig across the entirety of its life and death. And what the worker—he or she who “works with” the Herd—becomes by the end is an entirely open question. The simple answer is someone who works at only one site or on one dimension of the pig. But that also means that workers end up sharing very little in terms of lived experience, given that each person is deeply intimate with only one facet of the pig—and, if biosecurity protocols were fully realized, they would live in homes with others who labor on that specific dimension. I am writing another article that addresses such forms of vertically integrated intimacy.

Processes of class formation in these very broad, positional terms are helpful in thinking about the abstract organization of relationships to the species. But they do not get us far within the worksites. They tell us very little about tactile workplace practices through which pigs and people are coconstituted. Race, gender, socioeconomic class, nationality, legal status, and language often came together in shifting ways across sites that conditioned how people were slotted into particular jobs and animal stages, were promoted up hierarchies, were capable of articulating (or resisting) intimate knowledge of types of pig, or affected powerful readings of animal nature that could alter the value of labor. I can only gesture to this here. Tropes of femininity and masculinity are struggled over and drawn from particular dimensions of porcine physiology—say, artificial insemination versus tending to piglets with musculoskeletal impairments—such that there can become a sensible gendered division of labor layered across stages of the porcine lifecycle. Parallel processes hold in terms of racial formation and effacement in a region where twenty-six languages are spoken in the elementary school. The industrial pig is a regional terrain for the regimentation of difference—people are being made as subjects through the pig—while, at the same time, American meat is a tangible product of a broader racialized and gendered capitalism that absorbs the energies of people from around the world. My book project tries to theorize ensuing workplace conflicts to materialize distinct kinds of pigs and people. The factory farm is a site that generates not only millions of pounds of meat, but also one of biocultural struggle over what it means to be animal, including a human animal.

JS: What are some works that you found useful in thinking through scale and consistency in the factory?

AB: There are tons, and one of the stimulating parts of this project has been the opportunity to continually return to the deep and thoughtful archive of industrial and labor studies in order to gain some perspective on how its basic tenets are changed (or not) by the mass production of life and death cycles. To name but a few that I am thinking with at this immediate moment: David Hounshell (1985) did important historical work on the ambiguities and tensions around the very idea of American mass production. Was it about making many things in mass, or making uniform things for the masses? The aim of pursuing quantity and quality, or scale and uniformity, often overlap and are mutually fulfilling. Classification and aggregation of cuts and qualities of meat are easier when there are 100,000 pigs being slaughtered in a week. But they can also be in tension, such as when genetically pursuing larger litter sizes changes actual animal physiques. In other writings, I demonstrate how corporate strategies to focus on one or the other manifests starkly different kinds of pigs that alter the conditions of work.

Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star (2009) opened up a rich conversation about standards as a phenomenon, one that—among many other things—put on the table the ways in which standardization is always a horizon or an aspiration. Some of the pieces in that collection, in consultation with industrial theories that I studied with managers as part of my ethnographic research, helped me see that the standardized pig is not something that can be definitively achieved, but instead is defined relative to other companies’ hogs. The rub of an always-standardizing pig is that it also makes the factory farm into an essentially limitless or nonterminal project. Moreover, these writings have helped me think about how standardization is not only in pigs’ qualities; setting standards is also an aesthetic, identity, and performance.

Probably the most important influence on how I think about factory work in general, and this goes back to your previous question, is Leslie Salzinger’s (2003) modern classic Genders in Production. There she theorizes the ways that managers and workers—not as generic employees, but as gendered subjects—must be continuously manifested and made as part of any capitalist production process. One central point of the book, for me, is Salzinger’s careful observations of how semiotic dimensions of a factory—the appearance of workers, the color of uniforms, architecture, forms of talk—come to impact actual outputs, such that global capitalism is both irreducibly gendered and continuously remaking gender. The book, perhaps cast here in slightly different terms than those used by Salzinger, has nonetheless helped me to think about how efforts to produce a relatively standardized organism at massive scales also generate the constant, ongoing, and never-fully-realized subjective production of specific sorts of people.

JS: What's next for you?

AB: I have a few things on the go. My book project describes dimensions of what it means to be human in industrial porcine worlds such as boar studs or even the broader region where I conducted my research, along with the surprising kinds of cross-species intimacies and politics that can emerge from within factory farms. After years of thinking about the politics of labor and life in this institution and locale, however, I now want to begin tracing some ways that the world is discreetly being made porcine. The degree to which we are invisibly in contact with pigs in our daily lives is stunning. There are as many as 1,100 commodity product codes coming out of hogs, and hundreds of those are not meat-based. There is gelatin coating some ink-jet papers, and it is often used in the assembly of computer processors. For most people, the reading of this text, right now, is in some way made possible by and copresent with pig substance. Bio-oils from hog feces are used in asphalt, and biogas from manure lagoons powers data servers. One offshoot of my factory farm book is a series of ongoing mini-projects for multiple audiences that examine the particularities and invisible circuits of hog lungs, livers, blood, fat, and hooves. Perhaps too much focus—from ecology to ethics—is paid to eating meat when corporate profitability has long been equally a matter of developing value in other substances intrinsic to pigs.

I am completing a separate series of installations with a collaborator, Sean J. Sprague, who has been working for five years on a mode of documentary photography that can speak to visual and political dimensions of industrial agriculture. Finally, I am mulling an ethnographic book on the afterlives of slaughter in Chicago, the former “hog butcher to the world.” It might deal with still-existing craft butchers and tanneries, traces of the pig in the urban ecology, meatpacking’s remains in the city’s infrastructure, Americana, race, and the cultural memory of Fordism, and what manual labor has come to mean today.


Fitzgerald, Deborah. 2003. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 446–64.

Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hounshell, David. 1985. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lampland, Martha, and Susan Leigh Star, eds. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. New York: Verso.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2011. “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 1: 59–82.

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Salzinger, Leslie. 2003. Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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White, Richard. 1995. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang.