For an institution that in its scale and effectiveness helped to inaugurate modernity, and is still the nexus of contemporary food production, the abattoir is a lacuna in our literature. Railways, the cinema, the factory, the car: all of these have had their songs of praise. The abattoir inspires no hymns, and its poets remain, like their subject, on the edge of things.

Contemporary abattoirs are found in country towns – Swan Hill, Inverell, Davenport – and on the fringe of cities, where logistics infrastructure gets built. In Blakwork Alison Whittaker details what surrounds the Tamworth abattoir: ‘hardware stores, rental car facilities, dog shelters, a CrossFit shed, crematorium’. Victoria’s largest pig abattoir, Diamond Valley Pork, is in the industrial suburb of Laverton North, west of the Melbourne CBD; it was one of three abattoirs where footage of pigs being gassed with carbon dioxide was recorded in secret by activists – footage that caused an outcry in March 2023 after it was aired on the ABC’s 7.30 program. Diamond Valley Pork supplies both Coles and Woolworths, and both corporations’ Melbourne distribution centres are close by.  

The abattoir is a logistics site, too, an organisation of deaths, to borrow a phrase from the critic Raymond Durgnat. Often I suspect that whether this is troubling to you has less to do with feelings about animals and more to do with how one thinks of death. Death can be systematised, but should it be? And what gives human animals the right to arbitrate? Whether a non-human animal is owed a ‘good death’ may depend on whether you think a non-human animal – and then, which species of animal – is, in the words of philosopher Tom Regan, ‘the experiencing subject of a life’, that is, a being whose experience of life, of being alive, matters to it. The pigs try to breathe, in that footage from the abattoirs. They raise their snouts in search of oxygen. They scream. I think that being alive is a matter of importance to a pig, in the pig’s own way, which we cannot know. 

‘Though predicated on the production of mass death, which is a form of mass loss, industrial slaughter cannot be described in the language of loss,’ Hayley Singer contends in Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead. Her book takes the abattoir less as a point of departure than as a terminus – of life and expression. The essays contained in it are mostly short (some are very short), and they are largely unresolved, reading like notes towards a book not yet realised, and perhaps unrealisable. Singer is preoccupied with language, more specifically with writing: what writing is and what we might ask of it. I understand the ethical stakes: writing scenes of violence, writing scenes of death, writing to, on behalf of, or even with, non-human animals, whose own expression is opaque to us. But I found myself frustrated by the writing-of-writing – especially by a looseness in figurative language that confuses already complex lines of argument. 

The form of Singer’s book echoes the abattoir’s divisions – life from death, task from task, body part from body part – in the way that its short essays are made up of shorter fragments, or fragment-paragraphs, their arrangement made more intricate, in some pieces, by devices that include numbering, indentation and ellipses. But on the sentence level a formal logic of separation is undone by shifting similes. ‘How to write the smells of an egg factory?’ Singer asks in her book’s opening essay, ‘February 2022’. ‘The question comes like a rustling in the paddocks, like silence, a long pause, like a Tuesday as I’m driving down the highway, like a moan when souls are dropped to the ground or hop lamely and foam, warm-pink trembling, sucking the edge of a wound.’ Clause follows clause, but the similes dissipate. Why is the arrival of a question something that rustles at the same time as it is a thing ‘like silence’? Can souls be ‘dropped to the ground’ or is it bodies that are dropped, and whose, and where? How is a question like a Tuesday?  

Meanwhile, the smell of the egg factory remains unwritten. Writing the thing itself is hard enough. The abattoir, the industrial farm: you start with the fact of a pig and end up at an impasse in writing the pig’s experience, which Singer terms ‘sowography … what human culture makes of pig culture in language’. You grasp for a handhold; the subjects of these essays spiral out to include trepanning, cannibalism, animal suicide, witches, spells, and ghosts. (This is a non-exhaustive list.) Singer often phrases actions as desires (‘This makes me want to’), and when she doesn’t, actions still feel qualified. One of the book’s shortest pieces, ‘Radiance of Nothing’, is a list of commands, indented on the page as ‘notes’, that the writer gives herself: ‘Challenge ideas of human uniqueness. Write along multiple and overlapping axes of difference including becoming animal-vegetal-toxic-insect-meat. Write along the lines of grief and by doing so allow grief to matter.’ Any one of these things would be the work of a lifetime, but the hedging (‘I write notes to myself like’) has the effect of making imperatives into hypotheticals, affording the sight of a writer dragging herself through a bootcamp she hadn’t yet signed up for. 

Singer writes that ‘the language of abandonment … is the flip side to loss’, where getting or being lost ‘speaks the shadow potential of being found.’ Drawing on Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she additionally posits lostness as ‘an orientation that points towards life beyond the boundaries of the known’. Lostness, therefore, is a kind of freedom – even if it is an ambivalent one – and stands ‘directly opposite to arrest and confinement, which is the cardinal point of abandonment, which is what I am hung up on.’ 

These passages, which come in a short essay called ‘Abandonment’, seem to outline a moral position vis-a-vis the theorisation, and writing, of the abattoir. If I follow Singer’s argument, abandonment occurs when the location and condition of something (a person, or a cow) is known precisely: the something is pinned down, then flagrantly ignored. ‘To be lost is not at all the same as being abandoned,’ Singer writes, but I admit to growing confused the more I try to puzzle out the differences, semantic or otherwise, between the two things in her essay, especially when the ‘language of abandonment’ is further proposed as ‘the same as the language of being buried alive’. 

Something lost may indeed have the potential to be found again, but lost – lives lost, the game lost, a lost cause – can also mean the end, no coming back from this. Singer acknowledges this in her statement that ‘mass death … is a form of mass loss’, so what precisely makes ‘the language of loss’ inadequate to the expression of these final, irretrievable losses? And if ‘the language of abandonment’ is the opposite of the language of loss, then what of abandoning ourselves to something? I might say that I abandon myself to despair, by which I mean that I have surrendered to becoming lost in it. Abandonment seldom has one cardinal point; it can be all-encompassing. 

My muddling through here, trying to parse the author’s argument with little faith that I have understood it, is indicative of my experience of reading this book. To Singer’s credit, Abandon Every Hope is both ambitious and uncertain: ambitious in its uncertainty. Her qualifications aren’t the problem: the problem is that an attitude of uncertainty is mussed, unnecessarily, by the author’s technical choices. I don’t think the confusion this produces is intentional. I do think it’s a hazard of the subject, the abattoir, which, in spite of its solidity, soon leads us into metaphysical, not to mention ethical, quicksands. Soon enough we may be overwhelmed, both writer and reader, by the queasy intractability of the thing. ‘The more I write the more I panic,’ Singer notes, late in her book, and this at least I understand. 

The touchstone of abattoir literature – a niche among niche genres – remains Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), which Sinclair, a socialist, dedicated ‘To the Workingmen of America’. Based in part on Sinclair’s first-hand observations of Chicago’s stockyards, kill floors, and canning lines, The Jungle has the rare distinction among works of literature – especially rare for a novel – of having effected legal change, though to food safety standards rather than to labour practices, much to Sinclair’s chagrin. 

Given its unusual though not unique condition as a place ‘out of moral notice’, to quote Whittaker again, those who seek to tangle with the abattoir will often predicate their work on the importance of bringing it to our attention, especially so when the abattoir’s removal from our notice is enforced by law. It is no coincidence that the footage of pigs being gassed with carbon dioxide – a widespread method categorised as ‘humane’ – had to be filmed in Victoria. The activist group that filmed it, the Farm Transparency Project, lost a significant legal challenge in the High Court last year against laws in New South Wales that criminalise the possession or publication of secret recordings made at abattoirs or farms, with no exception for recordings made in the public interest. The law declares: there is no interest here.

Chris Delforce of the Farm Transparency Project made this remark to the ABC:  ‘I thought that if people can just find out what’s happening, they’ll make the decision … to stop paying for it to happen.’ I’m not so convinced that people don’t know – or can’t deduce – what goes on at an abattoir, or that action, like a consumer boycott, follows from knowledge. The less admissible truth is that we do know, which is why the abattoir is banished to our peripheries – to distant sites that we might glance at, then pass by. 

It’s also true that an epiphanic realisation of the abattoir’s cruelty – a conversion process on which some activist groups depend – is, more often than not, about seeing: watching footage, bearing witness. This is no surprise. The relation of vision to knowledge and to power was central to Enlightenment thinking, and the abattoir is an invention of the Enlightenment: its purpose and location beyond the bounds of the city were first defined in the Napoleonic Code. Thus the abattoir rests on a paradox of (in)visibility, as site placed out of notice that is nevertheless internally divided along strict lines of sight – lines that apply both to workers and to non-human animals. Political scientist Timothy Pachirat, in his book Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, argues that, within the abattoir, ‘hierarchical surveillance and control are not incompatible with the compartmentalisation and hiding from view of repulsive practices, even at the very site of killing’. Only a handful of workers ever encounter – ever see – an animal ‘whole’, much less alive, as it enters the abattoir. The animals, too, are meant to be prevented from seeing what occurs to those ahead of them in the queue, though what, if anything, this does to ameliorate the fear of an animal relying much more on smell than on sight, I do not know.  

Seeing has hardly become less fraught since Napoleon. I could spend a lifetime scrolling through (or past) footage of injustices, my vision saturated, my conscience barely roused. ‘What does it mean to watch a series of executions and then just go on with your day?’ Singer asks in an essay called ‘Bright Unbearable’. I might quibble with the use of the word ‘execution’: an execution suggests a targeted killing, while the killing that goes on at an abattoir is comprehensive. (No animal that enters an abattoir is permitted to exit it alive, and that includes those born inside its walls.) But the question – the question is worth a reply. 

What does it mean? I think it means that we’re alive in the twenty-first century, that our awareness, both ambient and direct, of violence, cruelty and injustice, including the quotient dealt towards non-human animals, exceeds that of any human beings who have lived before. I am conscious not only of the animals I encounter – my cat within arm’s reach, curled asleep in the sunlight on my desk; the lorikeets that throng neighbouring trees, brassy and green; the ringtail possums that I sometimes spot feeding at night, and sometimes find during the day, dead on the road, so that I fetch my rubber gloves for another, hasty retrieval – but so, so many more. I peel back the lid on a tin of cat food and the blood-thread that connects me to the abattoir is bright in my mind: these organs belonged to some bodies. They were sorted by somebody, packed by somebody. The abattoir’s iniquities extend beyond the non-human animals to the people employed there, who are, disproportionately, vulnerable migrant and refugee workers, or First Nations. (As I write, unionised workers at Ingham’s chicken abattoirs in Western and South Australia are about to go on strike.) I think that’s what it means.  

The essays collected in Singer’s book appear to have been written mostly during the years of Covid lockdowns, when a widespread experience not just of onscreen mediation but of alienation was made crueler, more disorientating, by the imperative of physical distance. Here was estrangement from the material world made obligatory, and, for some of us, enforceable by police and soldiers. 

My guess is that the author’s success in evoking both the torpor and the torment of that time was a secondary motivation, but it is where I find these essays most effective. ‘What a sad year each day has become,’ Singer writes in a piece called ‘Big Curse Energy’. That is exactly right. The essay sketches anti-lockdown protests observed through the computer screen, classes taught through the computer screen, too many YouTube rabbit holes. ‘There is too much drinking,’ Singer notes. Other essays have dates as titles – ‘May 2020’, ‘December 2021’ – though where we are in time or space (apart from at the computer, falling through its windows) often feels like a conundrum beyond the writer’s ken. Sleepless nights bleed into bad days, which become the following night’s unholy dreams. 

Compounding the disorientation of lockdown is the puzzle of the abattoir itself, as a site and as a subject. On the one hand, the abattoir is a place where the living are turned into the dead, and its taboo status as a site of sanctioned killing lends the literature surrounding it a certain miasmic quality. Moral transgressions accrue on the page. Waste accumulates. Sinclair’s protagonist in The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, goes from a unionist to a strikebreaker and back again, and his time as a strikebreaker, on the wrong side of a moral boundary, is depicted as an Inferno: ‘rivers of hot blood, and carloads of moist flesh, and rendering vats and soap cauldrons, glue factories and fertilizer tanks that smelt like the craters of hell’. (It is worth noting here that Sinclair’s depiction of a majority Black workforce of strikebreakers, brought in by train to Chicago from surrounding areas, is floridly racist: one of Jurgis’s transgressions is to cross the colour line.)   

On the other hand, and precisely because of its purpose as a killing place, the abattoir, as Singer notes, ‘specialises in separations’. Responsibility for killing is diffused because killing itself is divided into smaller and smaller increments. Take the pigs in their chamber, or a steer in the knocking box, that station of the abattoir, where, after entering the chute, an animal has a steel bolt shot into its brain. The gas or the bolt: these are methods of stunning, not of killing, though an animal thus dealt with is unlikely to recover consciousness. (There are some who remain conscious.) Other procedures follow down the one-way traffic of the abattoir’s line. Shackling, cutting, bleeding. Heads. Tails. Ears. What does it mean?  

Singer’s book is filled with such questions, which are not quite rhetorical, and which prompt me to articulate an answer even if the writer can’t or won’t. And I don’t blame her for that. I don’t go to art to answer questions for me. ‘How can I speak the mutilated world without mutilating it further, or again?’ (‘On Immunity’). ‘What place is there for poetry in a world of ongoing and emerging zoonotic disease?’ (‘Big Curse Energy’). ‘Don’t we turn up to the scene of writing, each of us wobbly bags of water, held together by thin skin, an eggshell skull, and make incisions?’ (‘November 2021’). There is a difference in philosophy, and probably an irreconcilable one, between writers, like Singer, who seek a mystical, even shamanistic capacity in language (‘Writing drills holes into language, so language can expand; writing should let old blood empty out’) and writers – I am one – more literal-minded in their assessment of what writing can do. When I sit down to write, I try to write – no more or less. Punctuation preoccupies me; drilling, never. In that respect I may be the wrong reader for this book, though I find myself sympathetic to, if nonplussed by, what strike me as impossible demands that the author has placed upon writing and herself. 

The first of these demands, signalled in the book’s subtitle, is to somehow report back from the dead: ‘How to write of death, or even from death?’ Singer ponders at the beginning of an essay called ‘Snuff’. ‘How close can writing come to death?’ My answer is: not very. No writer will ever write from death, unless it’s Hilary Mantel reporting to us on her discourse with the ghost of Thomas Cromwell. I wouldn’t put it past her. The rest of us will only ever write from this side of the grave, though god knows (does God know?) there is a minor tradition of writers who have driven themselves spare with the questions Singer asks. Her term for what she is trying to achieve is ‘thanatography’, ‘an accounting of the dead’, as she defines it in ‘Snuff’. In a ‘note on form’ at the end of the book she expands upon this, calling thanatography a form ‘related to lament’ but also, more precisely, ‘a prose poem formed as a collage of news items and images laid side-by-side’. I am not sure if this note relates only to the essay called ‘A Thanatography’ – an account of live export – or to the book as whole. Either way, it seems to me that the success of a collage depends on the collagist’s decisiveness. But that formal exactitude is missing. 

The second impossible demand arrives with this declaration: ‘Writing, if it is capable of doing anything at all, has to incite total animal liberation. Has to move society towards a new form of existence, or it will be a failure.’  

I get it – I really do. Why aim for anything less than trying to change the world? And yet I think that writing in itself cannot do anything like this; I think ‘doing’ lies with readers, or rather that change happens, if it happens at all, in the tangle of meaning-making done between writers and readers, but also in what we do outside of writing and reading – in talking to each other, for instance, and in organising. (Outside of language there is music, there is painting.) A writer who charges themselves to ‘do’ liberation through writing – politics by proxy, as the novelist China Miéville has described it – will fail. This doesn’t mean that failure, the shortcoming of writing qua writing, isn’t a worthwhile and interesting subject for a writer. 

Nor should any writer, and I include myself in this directive, underestimate the violence involved in liberation struggles. It’s easy to write, though much, much harder to live through. When it happens, it happens to bodies; it happens in places and in situations where real life meets real death – not their written representations. The page will always be on the margins of such violence. 

‘What words are there for the hours at slaughter?’ asks Singer in an essay titled after Upton Sinclair’s novel, a novel that did not fulfil its author’s ambition of inciting a socialist revolution. ‘For the stench, the colds, the heavy loads, the life unworthy of life?’ And I answer: you have written them. Stench, cold, load: words will not, on their own, shut down the factory farms, the abattoirs, or incite the total liberation of animals. But somebody, somewhere – and it may not be while you are alive (and this is the only way that any writer speaks beyond the grave) – will carry your words in their imagination. It has to be enough. It may not be enough. 

Works Cited

  • Durgnat, Raymond. Franju. Studio Vista Limited: London, 1967. 
  • Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds: Industralized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2011. 
  • Regan, Tom. ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, Animal Rights and Human Obligations, ed. Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1989. 
  • Sinclair, Upton, The Jungle. Penguin Modern Classics edition, Middlesex, 1966. 
  • Singer, Hayley. Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead. Upswell Publishing: Perth, 2023. 
  • Whittaker, Alison. Blakwork. Magabala Books: Broome, 2018.