Porkopolis and The Secret Life of Groceries

There’s this ascendent form of writing showing up everywhere from self-improvement books to books about how complicated things are: Start with a story of a person, could be a person from history, could be someone who came to your workshop, could be someone who stands in as the exemplar of a situation too big and complex to get a handle on. Focus on that person’s story to help readers understand the human scale of the enormous forces affecting them and, by extension, us. This form of writing has a long history in political writing, and it’s for sure effective and grippy. We are story-based beings. Because of this, maybe, the stories we tell shape the scope of how we think about what’s possible, what we can do next – and this is one reason I’m inspired by the work of places like The Center for Story-Based Strategy, because they help re-imagine the kinds of stories we can tell. Also, I’m a total sucker for both stories and stories about irreducible, brain-exploding levels of complexity. So these two books, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis, and Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries, were like candy to read. Terrible, terrible, horrifying candy. I feel like, read them? But don’t stop where they stop, because there is a core problem with where they land with the stories they tell.

Both books tell really amazing narratives about our entanglement with and embeddedness in ramifying tangles of the material production of what we consume. Both show that things are waaaaaaaay more complicated than you’d imagined. But both land at the end in a kind of shrug – things are so complicated, so intensely intertwined, so impacted and so overdetermined that we just ¯\_(:( )_/¯ (that’s my edit to make the Shruggie emoji like, sad shruggie).

The Secret Life of Groceries will show you how everything in grocery stores is pretty fucked. Everything we buy comes to us by truck, shipped by truckers who are themselves a profit source that keeps the trucking industry going – trainees who end up paying to drive, experienced drivers losing money year after year, people living in rigs they don’t own. When we look at grocery workers, shrimp production, how new condiments come to market, we find that it’s all, just, impossibly bad. Benjamin Lorr is a beautiful and a clever writer, and this book has a lot of the compelling rhetorical turns that made his previous book (Hellbent, a brilliant reflection on yoga) unputdownable. But in this book his philosophical interventions are less grounded – a lot of the book is about judgement and the space of aesthetics, but he leaves out quite a lot of the politics of collectively determining what is good and beautiful – even in cases, like trucking or grocery working, where he mentions in passing the work of labor organizers.

Porkopolis will show you how everything in factory farming (pigs) is pretty fucked. Everything we touch, from asphalt to the covers of books, to the traces of pig fat in diesel fuel that we breathe in because of the grocery trucks driving on our roads, contains pig remnants. Alex Blanchette is also a beautiful and a clever writer, though in a much more consciously and unashamedly academic mode than Lorr (and with that particular frisson that one comes to expect these days from Duke books, like any one could be the one to coin a new, necessary theoretical term). Blanchette shows how growing pigs under conditions of vertical integration, as in the case of the company he did ethnographic work with, shapes not only the industrial pig but also the human workers needed to tend the pigs, the ecosystems around factory farms, and far-flung webbings of material conditions invisibly tied to the interspecies factory floor. The book is the result of years of careful and hands-on ethnographic work and it is interesting and complicated.

So I’ll read and recommend both of them. But they both end precisely where I wanted them to continue, to say – given this endless entanglement, to echo Eva Haifa Giraud’s also pretty unanswered question, What comes after entanglement?

Blanchette suggests we consider deindustrialization. He says, “For the story I have tried to tell across this book is not one of domination and unmitigated agribusiness power but, instead, one of creative desperation to keep this system afloat. So many processes, from the blood of mares and the taste of cate, to human kinship relations and musculoskeletal systems, are riveted through hogs to create this system of cheap meat. And many more will have to be added in the future to keep it running. Large-scale agribusiness is totalizing because it is so fragile (and fragile because it is so totalizing); it is a story not just of domination but also of desperation in its efforts to cling to shopworn forms of value that no longer seem sustainable” (245).

Here is a long quote from the end of Lorr’s work:

“This is to say, the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve. The adage is all wrong: it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are. Retail grocery is a reflection. What people call the supply chain is a long, interconnected network of human beings working on other humans’ behalf. It responds to our actions, not our pieties; and in its current form it demands convenience and efficiency starting from the checkout counter on down. The result in both incredible beyond words – abundance, wish fulfillment, and low price – and as cruel and demeaning as Tun-Lin voluntarily choosing to return to those boats. To me this is a hopeful as it is depressing. We are in dialogue with this world, not at its mercy. We have a natural inclination toward what is right that is as powerful as any selfishness. But for those out there who bristle at this reflection, who want to scream the patently obvious fact that meat is murder, that labor without choice is exploitation, or whatever their own personal horror is, who want to shake the world awake to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done. At best, food is an opening, like any maw, that might lead us inside. Somewhere darker, more unknowable, a place where the real work of change may finally begin.” (“Climbing out to Fresh Air”)

The thing is, the place we find ourselves is neither dark nor unknowable – many people, from pigs to shrimp workers, insemination experts, the people harvesting mare’s blood to produce the chemical that causes the sow to ovulate so that she can be inseminated on a schedule, the people driving the shrimp to market, the people sterilizing their boots to keep the pigs alive – know in the clear light of day how bad and wrong things are. And many of them, like the people organizing for the lives of migrant workers, know with great precision where the real work of change needs to begin. It’s not a mystery that we do terrible things to one another and our world, it’s just capitalism and colonialism, buttressed with hefty doses of border militarism and the continual threat of state-sanctioned murder. So I don’t regret reading these books, and I know that part of what’s happening with my response to them is all about the fact that any time I’m working on a book I come to read everything in terms of the work I’m doing – so right now, working on a book about collective organizing as a better response to complex wrongs, of course I’m frustrated at all books that focus on complex wrongs without telling us stories about how people do or might stand in solidarity with one another. More books to read! More books to write!

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