- “The Paradox of My Work”Making Sense of the Factory Farm with Temple Grandin
“People are often confused by the paradox of my work,” writes Temple Grandin in Thinking in Pictures, “but to my practical, scientific mind it makes sense to provide a painless death for the cattle I love” (2006, 235). In a sense, this assertion summarizes Grandin’s lifelong struggle, documented in her bestselling popular science books about her autism and her career as a farm architect and animal welfare consultant, to explain to others and herself how she reconciles her intense identification with farm animals and her role in perpetuating a system that confines and kills billions of them per year. Grandin’s explanations for the factory farm would be critically notable on the basis of her growing notoriety alone: her ongoing work with major factory farming corporations to improve the living and slaughter conditions of “food animals” is becoming legendary, as she has single-handedly redesigned the equipment and facilities used in one third of America’s livestock-handling facilities. Moreover, along with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Grandin’s bestselling books Animals in Translation, Thinking in Pictures, and [End Page 169] most recently Animals Make Us Human—not to mention last year’s Emmy-winning HBO film Temple Grandin—are by far the animal ethics works most often cited to me by people who are not involved in critical animal studies. Solely given Grandin’s influence in both the farming industry and popular culture, sustained critical engagement with her work and its implications in the field of critical animal studies is past due. Yet Grandin’s cultural visibility only supports my argument in this article for what makes the content of her work so compelling: her explanations for the factory farm amplify and crystallize the justifications for intensive farming that we rely upon and circulate in our daily lives.
In using Grandin’s work to illuminate broader cultural narratives in this way, it would appear that I am at least partly appropriating her assertion that she possesses a vast “video library” of information in her head, and can operate like a “tape recorder,” repeating back to her readers in her singular manner—loud, determined, full of brass-tacks certainty—what we all tend to say more subtly and less often (2006, 5, 17). In other words, I am provisionally employing her work according to Oliver Sacks’s landmark description of Grandin, as an anthropologist on Mars (1995)—if only in that “Mars” in this case represents a North American culture that loves and respects animals and yet subjects them to unprecedented biopolitical control on the factory farm, in conditions that, as Jacques Derrida has argued, “previous generations would have judged monstrous” (2008, 26). Reading Grandin’s account as symptomatic of certain conceptual apparatuses, however, requires that I complicate the rendering of Grandin as an unmediated tape recorder. Contemporary theories of the witness are useful here: if Grandin is a witness of sorts to the cultural logics I am trying to identify here, what kind of witness is she? After all, it is sloppy to simply claim that she is an anthropologist on Mars—a claim that conjures up particularly dated assumptions about the relationship between an anthropologist and her object of study. We are now thoroughly aware, of course, that anthropologists could never be the objective, mechanistic recorders of culture that they were once supposed to be. I want to situate Grandin’s work differently, complicating the relationship between Grandin’s rhetoric and the cultural logic it appears to illuminate.
I try to read Grandin in a manner recently advocated by Dominick LaCapra [End Page 170] as being “sensitive to processes whereby texts question themselves, as well as overly restrictive interpretations of them, and [which is] not reducible to their symptomatic, ideologically reinforcing tendencies, however important these may be” (2009, 15). As we shall see, aspects of Grandin’s arguments undermine her own overall, seemingly justificatory and status-quo-preserving purposes. Yet it is crucial not to respond to these cracks in Grandin’s discourse in a way that too quickly either underestimates them as meaningless idiosyncrasies...