Mick Smith – “The ‘Ethical’ Space of the Abattoir: On the (In)human(e) Slaughter of Other Animals.”

Smith, Mick. “The ‘Ethical’ Space of the Abattoir: On the (In)human(e) Slaughter of Other Animals.” Human Ecology Review 9, no. 2 (2002): 49–58.

This short article traces the strategies and practices that have led to the rationalization of animal slaughter in modern industrial farming.  It argues that these practices constitute an attempt to foreclose the possibility of animal expression.  This expression, Smith argues, unsettles our subjectivity (consciousness as humans) and our morality (conscience).  He shows how the abattoir, or slaughterhouse, has become increasingly shielded from public view and rationalized, through a division of labour and a broader “industrial food culture.”  Nonetheless, Smith argues that the voices of animals are sometimes heard, and these voices unsettle our animal/human distinctions and our capacity to attend to the (animal) Other.

Some comments and questions:

Smith doesn’t say much about what might be done to challenge industrialized slaughter, in practical terms.  He alludes to “strands of resistance” that challenge these processes of rationalization, but it seems clear that for him, it’s “vegetarian culture” that poses “a symbolic and practical threat to the usually unspoken predominance of a carnivorous cultural logic” (55).  But why are vegetarians the only (or even primary) mode of resistance to this logic of industrial agriculture?  Ironically, Smith draws heavily on Eric Schlosser, a well-known critic of industrial agriculture, but not a vegetarian (he advocates small-scale, ethically-raised meat).  Smith seems to elide the distinction between small-scale animal husbandry and large-scale industrial animal production, suggesting that so-called ‘humane’ practices are simply a moral backlash to the recognition of the immorality of slaughter.  This certainly seems to be the case in industrialized farming, but what about small farmers who care about and kill their animals?  At other times, Smith seems to leave this possibility open, calling for us to “seriously consider the ethical implications of changing that relationship [of industrialized instrumentalization of animals], of allowing greater freedom of self-expression to the significant Other throughout its life” (56).

What is the upshot of focusing on these processes of rationalization and the way they silence the expressivity of animals?  Or: what does an article like this mean for my everyday life and food politics?  Is it just a demand that the screams of animals in abattoirs should “reach out for us” and “touch us” (57)?  Once we’ve been touched in this way, what would it mean to take meaningful action—wouldn’t this mean helping to dismantle industrial farming, or creating alternatives to it?  Is it a coincidence that vegetarianism is the implicit response to this problem, or is this response actually a symptom of the modern, industrialized system of food that Smith is diagnosing?  If we move beyond the logic of consumerism, would vegetarianism still be the implicit (or explicit) normative response, or would we be forced to explore other options—could this mean seeing animals as creatures that we live with and (more uncomfortably) also as beings that we sometimes kill and eat?  If this article were to follow its own logic, then attending to animal voices might not mean avoiding the slaughter of animals altogether; it might mean doing it ourselves.  I’m not dismissing vegetarians or vegans; my beef (or tofu) is with the idea that vegetarianism is the only acceptable response to the horrors of factory farming.  I’ve lived with vegetarians and vegans, and spent short stints as one myself, and I have deep respect for their commitments.  Is it possible to build alliances between vegetarians, small-scale ethical farmers, and others who oppose the industrialization of animals?

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