26 May 2007

Identical Hogs, & Eroded Memory

When nothing will ever be the same again

In May of last year, Harper's published an article, "Swine of the Times: The Makings of the Modern Pig," by Nathanael Johnson. Laid up with summer fever, phlegmatic and aching, I'm catching up on reading and re-reading, though the pressure pooling behind my eyes makes writing about it difficult.

(Above the blogs I frequent, ranging from academia - to the arts - to cinema, [with some imponderables], you'll find a list of Readings: a brief, luminous 1982 essay on aesthetics by John Berger; a discursive post at A Lake Country Point of View that begins with a small flower and spirals outward, gathering in linguistics, myth, history, touching on Persia, soil chemistry, wolves - ; a New Yorker profile of the ruler of former-Soviet Kalmykia, an autocratic Buddhist millionaire chess master; a Discover article on exotic fungal parasites & their control of hosts' minds. I'll be adding to the list in the future. If I don't have anything new up, you might try one of these.)

Parenthetical housekeeping put aside, let's turn to Nathanael Johnson and swine.


The modern hog farm depends on artificial insemination: boars must be coaxed into ejaculating into jars, sows stimulated and encouraged by lined workers and then injected as though a pastry were being filled. 'It all seems,' Johnson writes, 'an awful lot of trouble for something creatures normally do without encouragement.' It is a recent development:
In 1990 artificial insemination accounted for only 7 percent of America's swine breeding. At that time large confinement operations were just emerging as industry leaders. These big operations aimed to maximise their efficiency by producing standardized pigs, which grew at predictable rates and produced predictably uniform meat. To make a standardized pig pig, these companies needed standardized genetics, which they could most easily distribute in the form of semen. According to the most recent count, more than 90 percent of large hog farms used artificial insemination.
Pork, like every other American agricultural commodity, has become centralized & standardized along industrial lines; techne provides the means to maximise efficiency and profit. The number of hog farms in America has decreased by a factor of ten (more than 650,00 to less than 70,000) in the last twenty years. In packing plants, swine carcasses are moved via conveyor into a machinated curved knife, which 'slices the cylindrical loin from inside of the body cavity. If the animals aren't just the right proportions, the knife will hit the wrong spot, wasting meat or cutting into bone.' The demand for uniformity ('cookie-cutter perfection') outweighs the risk: A herd of standard pigs can now be devastated by a single pathogen because of their genetic uniformity; pigs are kept hermetically sealed, behind razor wire, filtered air, concrete, filed in close together, fed antibiotics that grow the pig faster but also breed resistant disease. They never leave the barn. In group pens, 'pigs sometimes go a little crazy. They often attack one another, at times killing and eating their pen mates.'

The reason? Stress. Johnson:
Pigs are, after all, highly intelligent animals - probably more intelligent than dogs - and, like dogs, they grow restless without anything to do. When swine cannot so much as turn around in their crates, they often develop repetitive movements, biting at the air and swinging their heads from side to side - movements that some students of animal behavior say signal frustration or neurosis.

As breeders have pushed for efficiency, they have also relaxed the standards for physical traits that allow pigs to stand on concrete their whole lives without going lame. Hogs can live up to twenty years in the wild, but large pork producers usually cull sows after less than four years. Sows can produce more than ten litters, and older sows birth larger, healthier pigs. In confinement a sow's health won't hold up much past three litters.
Some pigs tremble all their lives in confinement or die of shock when a barn door closes; they go lame in crates or insane with boredom. Stress produces acid, breaking down the muscle tissue, turning it to mush, bleaching it of color, souring the taste; this only became a problem after a combination of overbreeding and cramped living conditions lived out on a 2'x7' rectangle of concrete.
The industry has responded admirably to the demand for consistent, copious, and cheap pork. But in satisfying those desires, it has done away with the other qualities that once distinguished pork, like flavor and variety.


Believing in Progress makes it difficult to consider anything irretrievably lost; certainly not in our lifetime. In one that has been so short as mine. We are accustomed to considering modernity an expansion of options, not a winnowing. We are self-conscious, self-aware - of ourselves, of our place in history. As Emerson wrote of his time, 'Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism' - with the exception that we are too self-are to build sepulchres, or to reverence. We know more than they, after all.

We do not consider, by and large, any experience to be inaccessible to us. One of the things that strikes me about the piece above is the thought that what I am eating is in some fundamental way different from what a person ate a century ago, or even fifty years ago - or twenty. That in reading an account of a man eating pork I think I understand, but I don't: the substance of the thing, the taste, has changed.

That the category still exists makes it worse. Maybe the danger isn't in losing things forever - all things fade; there is remembrance. The danger, perhaps, is that we won't even notice they've gone - will think that we still have what in reality is a pale copy, a substitute.


This is a passage taken from Erik Fosnes Hansen's segmented and wandering novel Tales of Protection (translated from the Norwegian by Nadia Christensen):

He sat down with difficult, stretched out his leg again, raised his glass, sniffed down into it.

"I tell you, there's a great deal of re-creation in the mere atmosphere of a glass of brandy like this. But what am I thinking of - wouldn't you like a glass too?"

"Yes, thank you."

He started to get up from the chair again, but this time she forestalled him. He let it happen.

"Re-creation, yes," he said, as she went to the cupboard to fill a glass. "That means to restore. No, no, don't take from the fancy bottle, take from the little ugly one. That's the best."

"This one?" She held up a dark bottle with no label.

"Yes, that's right."

A dark brown fluid ran thickly into the glass. She corked the bottle, sat down with him, they raised their glasses to each other.

A stream of warmth and light rose from her abdomen to her head.

"Well?" he smiled.

" - powerful!" she said, when she caught her breath again.

"That's a Madeira from the West Indies," he said, "from 1828, if I remember correctly. Just taste that, it was made when Goethe was still alive, and Beethoven had died only the year before."

She drank some more. A sunny landscape rose in her, she seemed to see hands, brown hands, in the sunlight, green leaves, a yellow beach, a blue sea.

"Since then it's been drawn again and again, almost every twenty years, so it would keep. Quite unique, isn't it?"

"It tastes absolutely pure," she said, "and yet heavy."

"Yes," he said, "you can truly talk about restoring something when you drink an elixir like that." He leaned back, suddenly seemed very young, very dreamy. "Eighteen twenty-eight - tastes like a good year for people," he said. "No chemicals in the alcoholic beverages, no pollution in the grapes." He sighed. "Besides, it's good for the thighbone. Best medicine to be found."


Lamenting what is lost is inherently conservative in both of the word's senses: longing after a lost Eden; trying to conserve the Garden. It does not trust that the future will bring better things, or that something lost can be replaced by another of merely equal value.

Perhaps it's appropriate, tangentially, that the nearest equivalent to the passage quoted above happened to a former teacher at my California boarding school (having been invited, and somewhat bewildered): it was in an idyllic retreat north of San Francisco called the Bohemian Club, a campground in a redwood grove where rich and powerful men - business leaders, politicians, cabinet officers, think tank trustees, solidly Republican and conservative - Clarence Thomas was among those present - mingle with artists and intellectuals in a secluded natural setting, Jimmy Buffet playing guitar on a porch, alcohol trucked in by the barrel. One night, he shared his cabin with a Southern gentleman who had a bottle of Kentucky bourbon dating to 1861, before the Civil War. He insisted on opening it; my teacher remembered it as 'pretty good, though I don't know bourbon.'

Emerson is correct - we are a retrospective age - but we're less interested in sepulchre than in a kind of endless historical taxonomy. Never has there been more media, more to read, to view - more historians working, more critics writing. The retrospect grows shorter and shorter. Popularly, the news cycle creates instant nostalgia - twenty years ago, ten, last year (best ever!), a month, a week.

Sick as I am, I'll end with the questions these fragments raise in me: whether substitution erodes our memory, makes us unable to imagine the world as fully as we had; how what we consume literally composes us and more broadly composes our world; what standardization and copying implies for nature as in food as in art.

And, as much as I think that we are less aware of history than we should be, less fully aware of our place in things, too indifferent to the way things have been - is Emerson right, following the passage I quoted, when he calls on us to 'cast off the dry bones of the past' and 'enjoy an original relation to the universe?' Is it simply that we need less of this endless citation, of the Anxiety of Influence? Or do we need reminders that the world was not always this way?

1 comment:

John B. said...

Thank you for mentioning my blog in a favorable light.

Genetics are a kind of memory, too; and as you suggest, these pigs, having had their history bred out of them, are now threatened because of that deprivation.

If I'm reading Emerson correctly, he'd answer your questions at the end of your post by saying that what we call history reveals, from an intellectual standpoint, a kind of eternal present. In any case, he'd draw a distinction between knowing the past and disparaging the present in terms of the past.

You aren't the only person thinking about the nature of history today. I thought you might enjoy looking at this.

I hope you get to feeing better soon.