Sunday, 8 June 2008
Sunday, 1 June 2008
In this world...a man himself is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.
You're wrong there, Top. I seen another world.
- Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line
Blue Collar's determined refusal of the mythic is evident from the very start. A series of shots of an assembly line set to Beefheart's 'Hard working man,' the title sequence plays with and undercuts the conventions of heroic representation, freeze framing and then allowing the image to curdle, holding on it a little too long as the track clanks emptily in the background. A reflective pause, just long enough to deliberately sour the iconicity. The whole film takes place in that gap.
This is Blue Collar's founding gesture, a pointed ambiguity, a refusal of the foreclosure of either sentiment or dogmatism. It's neither a hymn to the authenticity of the working man, nor a paean to the historic majesty of the industrial process. Blue Collar wants you to understand that for all the power of solidarity and wit, all the pride and skill, all the tenacity, all the beauty that a sentimental eye of any disposition might find, there is a slow, empty pulse of panic behind it all that resolutely resists aestheticization. This integrity spills over into Schrader's mid-Atlantic style, spare but without longeurs, the camerawork and framing discrete and unfussy without sliding over into cinema verite, all melodrama skilfully sidestepped. While Springsteen and Mellencamp on the radio might address your fears and sell you the Capraesque romance of the small man against the mighty Corporation, the dream of escape, the open highway, 'Thunder road,' the only Promised Land that the working stiffs in Blue Collar are going to case is the local Union Office and its ungaurded safe. No-one is going anywhere here and there is only one real concern, money, and the desperate need for more of it.
I take home two-ten a week man, goddamn. I gotta pay for the lights, gas, clothes, food... every fuckin' thing, man. I'm left with about thirty bucks after all the fuckin' bills are paid. Gimme a break, will ya mister?
There is no heroic individualism, no swaggering, no idea that the blue collar tough guys 'really live.' Pryor and Keitel have to lie to their wives to go out on a rare debauch and money worries run all the way through their attempts to get their rocks off, culminating in a despairing, early morning confessional on Smokey's couch. And it's precisely Smokey's superspade toughness, how badass he is, how prepared to go against the system, that has him killed.
Blue Collar won't let you escape the ugly reality of borderline poverty's constant pressure, the bills that just won't add up, the needs that can never be met. Its most telling symbol comes with Keitel's daughter who has tried to make the braces that he can't afford to buy her even though he's working two jobs, out of wire. The constant pain of it, like a metal barb in your flesh.
In Blue Collar the factory itself is largely an irrelevance, it isn't lingered over, there's no sense of its being exotic or exciting, fetishized. It's mundane, background. The director’s and the character's eyes are aligned and this is one of the ways in which Blue Collar manages to maintain fidelity, in locating us directly within the men's concerns rather than trying to appeal to any extra-diegetic or meta-critical level.
The only moments of overt directorial commentary are in the title sequence, the montage of machinery drowning out Smokey's attempt to escape, a highly symbolic, impersonal murder in which it is the factory itself that is used as a weapon of destruction, and again when the film freeze-frames in the final shot, a deliberately composed socialist-realist tableaux, which might be entitled 'The Workers Divided' and over which Smokey's justifiably famous lines are reiterated:
They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.
Blue Collar has two highly sympathetic black leads, unusual enough for a Hollywood movie (the bad guys are exclusively white), but also two roles in which the blackness is largely incidental. Again we're back in the characters' world. Bounded by their position as workers, there are no racial distinctions, none of the grueling attempts to address the 'issue' of race that characterizes more recent Liberal Hollywood. Blue Collar, made in 1978, is colour-blind in a way that is inconceivable in contemporary cinema.
In the final scene of Keitel and Pryor hurling racial abuse at each other, the implication, along with the quote that overlays it ('they pit the young against old...') is that identity politics begins to appear once economic solidarity is undermined, that identity politics is at best a form of misrecognition, just one more potential weapon in the bosses arsenal. Blue Collar's guiding assumption runs counter to most Hollywood: under the thin veneer of self-interest lies a deep, primal reserve of solidarity and understanding which must be actively broken up and partitioned. You thought you were both just workers but actually you're a nigger and he's a honky. The essence of the three-way relationship in Blue Collar is solidarity, and if that solidarity dissolves it is not due to an irruption of the inevitable human venality à la Treasure of the Sierra Madre and a million others, or due to the countermanding claims of race and blood, it is concerted and imposed. The shock and tragedy of the final scene is the recognition that once the epithets start flying around, the bosses really have won.
The fatal flaw for almost all of Schrader's characters is belief not that moral action is possible in an irredeemably corrupt world, but in the myth of the heroic individual, so remorselessly recycled throughout American culture. It's a form of tragic moral naivete. The naivete is a failure to recognize the systemic nature of the problem, the necessity of others. Within the 'Night Workers' series, the concluding, tentative redemption that Schrader lifted from Bresson’s Pickpocket sees the central character begin to realize his dependence on others, a move toward a recognition of his social character rather than the traditional atonement-as-redemption of standard Hollywood fare. In Blue Collar that dependence is already there, the tragic naivete of the group in question resides not in their misunderstanding the nature of reality but in failing to understand its scale and power. In Blue Collar there simply aren't enough of them.
Posted by it at 23:20
Whether we're dealing with the recent vogue for 'relational aesthetics', the curating of avowedly radical or committed exhibitions such Documenta 11 or the more ironic Communism exhibition at the Project Gallery in Dublin, or the prominence of figures such as Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou in the pages of Art Press and Art Forum, it is evident that the entanglement between aesthetics and politics has been a major practical and theoretical preoccupation as of late, both in the artworld and in academia – indeed one could argue that thematising this link has been one of the principal ways in which galleries and museums have organised affiliations with centres and departments, and vice versa. One of the ways of approaching this phenomenon is through a narrative of ebb or even defeat. Take, for instance, the following declaration by the British philosopher and critic Peter Osborne, from the pages of the journal Radical Philosophy: 'With the decline of independent Left political-intellectual cultures, the artworld remains, for all its intellectual foibles, the main place beyond the institutions of higher education where intellectual and political aspects of social and cultural practices can be debated, and where these debates can be transformed'.
The two films discussed by Rancière and Badiou (La Chinoise and Tout va bien) in a sense book-end the period of the Dziga-Vertov group, that is to say the period of Godard's attempts to match his political commitment with forms of filmic production adequate to his sui generis Maoism. As I will suggest in the conclusion, this absence of any but a cursory discussion of Godard's experience of collective political and aesthetic militancy may be regarded in some sense as symptomatic of a certain absence of the political economy of cinema – of the question of production – in Badiou and Rancière's 'subjectivist' treatments of politics and aesthetics.
Rancière considers La Chinoise at length in Film Fables, revealing much both about his own understanding of the articulation of politics and aesthetics, and about the specificity of Godard's 'Maoist' moment. Affirming the very impurity that he elsewhere uses to unhinge Badiou's contorted modernism, Rancière, picking up on the film's key caption 'Un film en train de se faire' (A film in the making), identifies as the stakes of the film the combination of an exposition of the montage/production process and of a Marxism staging itself. Marxism in La Chinoise is both what is represented and the principle of representation. But where does Godard find his principle of representation? In Althusserianism, the key reference (or material for excerpting) in the film, not to mention the target of Rancière's brutal break of 1969 (La Leçon d'Althusser) and the object of a mixed fidelity and polemic in Badiou himself. For Rancière, Godard's whole method may be located in a paragraph from Reading Capital, and grasped as the experience in cinema of the difference, to use a constant Maoist distinction, between that cinema which divides one into two and the one that fuses two into one. The latter, according to Godard, plagues 'correct' Marxist cinema, which always unites words and images by subjecting the latter to the former. To put it otherwise, Marxism tends to feature as a voiceover that directs the consciousness and affects of the viewer into the proper stance vis-à-vis the images flowing on the screen. Althusserian simplicity is portrayed as the antidote to Marxist dogmatism. As Godard put it in a discussion in California in 1968: 'La Chinoise had to be very simple, because they were very simple people trying very modestly to learn about simple things. So I had to be the simplest I could. It was the beginning of a new alphabet, so I didn’t even know how to speak'.
If Godard's films can be said to be political even when their subject-matter is not, it is because they undo this relationship. To stay with his more explicitly 'political' films we can think of the bizarre short-circuits in Le Petit Soldat, where he constantly wrong-foots our expectations of the 'right' images: thematising the problem of torture by showing the torture of a right-wing militant by a sympathetically portrayed FLN, depicting him making raised fist salutes in memory of the Spanish Republicans, and so on. More explicitly, the pedagogic work of Letter to Jane, or Godard's earlier short-circuiting of political expectations in Far From Vietnam fit this bill. In effect, following Colin MacCabe's pioneering analyses in Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, we could go further and track the various manners in which Godard's didactic anti-didacticism constantly frustrates that organisation of the image which would allow the overlay and imposition of meaning from director/producer to viewer/audience. One of the key aspects of Godard's films, in this respect, is the suspension of the illusion of knowledge, of 'oversight' provided to the viewer by the alignment of the perspectives of the camera, the spectator and the characters, a critical misalignment that takes place by refusing, within the image, some of the key technical tropes that make possible a totalising organisation – the pan where the camera pivots on its axis, the complementarity of shot and reverse-shot. Thus, beyond the difficulty of identifying political content (as in Le Petit Soldat) the requirement of the viewer-as-participant is induced by various ways of hindering the formal unity that would trigger a comforting, totalising knowledge. In Letter to Jane, we can see how these two analyses (at the level of form and of content) are conjoined. Likewise, with Godard's own self-criticisms – especially in his work with Miéville on Ici et allieurs, the principle will be similar: to undermine the fusion of the right image with the right sound under the aegis of a non-filmic transcendent idea.
In Rancière's terms, when the word 'lets you see' you can no longer understand, and when the image allows you to understand, you can no longer see. This two-in-one can be summarised for Rancière under the principle of metaphor, whereby an abstract idea is incarnated in a concrete image, and a concrete image can be identified by the abstract 'voiceover'. In discussing Godard – despite having put him in the register of the very Althusserianism he famously repudiated (perhaps thereby showing a surreptitious fidelity) – Rancière states one of the key principles of his understanding of the convergent work of politics and aesthetics:
This is the common work of art and politics: to interrupt the scrolling, the ceaseless substitution of words that make you see and images that speak, imposing belief as the music of the word. The One of the representational magma must be divided into Two: to separate words and images, to let words be understood in their strangeness, and images seen in their stupefaction.
Hence the protocol of separation that governs La Chinoise, which involves cutting off political discourse into the incongruous domain of the bourgeois flat in Paris: the aim is to produce an artistic understanding of political speech (not a suture of politics and aesthetics, but a critical-didactic dialectic, one could say). As Rancière puts it: 'The work of art is to separate, to transform the continuum of the sense-image into a series of fragments, of postcards, of lessons'. Think of the protocol of separation and estrangement in Les Carabiniers, where the brutality of war is conveyed through the conjunction of written placards (poems, quotations, declarations); farcically simplistic representations of battle; and the presence of a whole archive of postcards, of plundered territories as mere images, in one of the film’s most effective scenes. In La Chinoise it is dialectical comparison or dissociation of images and sounds which for Rancière constitutes Godard's unsparing artistic work on politics. (We could think of how this disjunction in politics eventually becomes a disjunction from politics, as if Godard loses all hope of a critical politics that would also be a critical practice of the image – or we could recall the brutal Situationist critique of le plus con de pro-chinois suisses position would be that he was on the wrong track to begin with.)
Godard's own estimation of his Dziga Vertov group is uncannily close to the very framework and terminology employed by Rancière. As he and Gorin remark about Letter to Jane: 'This is an aesthetic, this is a movie dealing with aesthetics understood as a category of politics. We prefer to speak of aesthetic and no longer of politics. We are only interested in knowing about a kind of expression. If I were in Vietnam, looking at a dead Vietnamese child, I would have exactly the same expression, as would Nixon or John Wayne...The term "proletarian revolution" in our country has become so misused that we prefer to say we are interested in aesthetics'.
Badiou turns to Godard's political aesthetics in an article entitled 'The End of a Beginning', recently published in L'art du cinéma. Like Rancière, he seems to skate over the Dziga Vertov works, strangely concurring with the consensus whereby in 68-72, Godard entirely subordinates his film to political imperatives, suturing his art to his politics.
The structuring category in Badiou's treatment of the film is that of periodisation (hence the title of Badiou's article 'The End of a Beginning'). Badiou reads Tout va bien as an attempt to make the gauchiste or Maoist 'real' of French visible in the midst of a situation of severe reaction and political closure (this is the sense in which he reads the title as a reference to the Chinese sayings in times of crisis: 'the situation is excellent'). If La Chinoise presented a filmic dialectic of political utterances and convictions, Tout Va Bien tries to make class struggle visible (in the arrangement of the factory, amusingly repeated apolitically in The Life Aquatic, as well as in the long pan at the end dealing with the intervention/expropriation in the supermarket, which as Badiou wistfully notes, repeated one of his own group’s actions). The film, for Badiou, aside from the historical referents of gauchisme stages the juxtaposition between the claims about objectivity (by the integrationist rhetoric of the boss and the PCF/CGT representatives) and a subjective possibility embodied in the workers' revolt. According to Badiou, Godard's focus is the issue of conversion, and one of the questions we may raise is whether there really is attention to the cinematic tools employed for this didactic/anti-didactic exercise.
The key question dealt with by Tout va bien for Badiou concerns the link between the vicissitudes of the couple, the politics of aesthetics (cinema, TV) and the aesthetics of politics (the presentation of revolutionary politics), and the political situation in France. The question that Badiou sees the film posing are subjective: what does the completed political beginning allow by way of subjective transformation? Note the question of the education of the characters. 'The film's conclusion regards the fundamental historicity of all things, the division of all that is, and therefore the resource in concrete possibilities of every experience, in particular that of the couple'. Badiou too is attentive to the formal dimension, which, alongside Rancière, he sees in the Brechtian dimension of Godard's work (Brecht is an explicit reference throughout Godard's work.)
Badiou cites seven elements as structuring the film: 1. Figural minimalism (the typological reduction, in the staging, of the action to a few representatives and key settings); 2. Typical gestures (running, fighting, etc. – following burlesque – already a principle of Les Carabiniers, but also one could argue of Breathless, where it is linked to advertising and spectacular stereotypes); 3. The monologue in front of the camera; 4. Documentary fragments linking typology to historical complexity; 5. Exteriors, indicating the outside; 6. symbolism of colours, indicated also by Rancière; 7. Again, dialectics, great symmetries: strikes and work, the office of the boss and his sequestering, the factory and the filming of adverts. We might wonder whether Badiou doesn't miss other aspects of the dialectic – for instance the significance of cheque signing at the beginning (to which we'll return) and the disjunctive placements of Montand and Fonda in the factory (as well as the background story regarding the choice of actors for those roles, to exacerbate a sense of struggle). This dialectic of cinema and politics (see Letter to Jane) will only be resolved by a (re)turn into the image and its analysis. Pedagogy is again at stake – since the film's theme is viewed as re-education, as the transformation of life, indirectly, by struggles. For Badiou, Fonda is the heroine because she draws from the declaration of the workers' novelty in situation the possibility of her own novelty in love.
Politically, both at the level of the entanglement of politics and aesthetics, and in terms of the concern with political pedagogy, Badiou and Rancière seem rather unconcerned by the prevalence of the theme of money in all of Godard's films, and those of the Dziga Vertov period in particular. Godard had been employed by Fox's publicity department in Paris for a spell and was always insistent about the centrality of currency to cinema – this is evident in his relationship to the star-system (think of the casting of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt) and also comes to the fore in his tactical and manipulative relation to film funding – from using his notoriety to garner commissions for the Dziga Vertov films from European broadcasters that would then refuse to show them, to putting 32 'political directors' from disparate left-wing factions on the payroll of his Marxist-Leninist Western Vent d'Est. The opening sequence of Tout va bien, showing the cheque-signing for the various contributors to the film, especially Fonda and Montand, is emblematic in this regard.
It is worth noting that Godard was emphatic in this period, both in his programmatic statements and his practice, about the primacy of the process of production over the moments of distribution and consumption in what he called the making of films politically (as opposed to the making of political films). Production should here be understood in a number of ways – in the sense of the function of the 'producer'; in terms of the mode and relations of production dominating the filming itself (the role of the collective in the Dziga Vertov group for instance); but also in terms of technique and technology, as when Godard powerfully argues that ideological relations are already embedded in the material apparatuses of film, the editing table for instance. (Not that Godard ignores the link between production and distribution, such as when the voiceover of British Sounds famously quips: 'If a million prints are made of a Marxist-Leninist film, it becomes Gone with the Wind'.) A further and very significant sense in which production is at stake for Godard is the extent to which film is capable of entering, to put it with Marx, the 'hidden abode of production', a problem Godard will encounter in different ways in British Sounds, Tout va bien, Passion and Sauve qui peut (la vie). In this regard, Godard's bitter 1973 letter to Truffaut, discussed by Richard Brody in the last issue of The New Yorker, is of interest. In that letter he mentions a film, tellingly called A Simple Film that would be the counter to Truffaut's Day for Night, a film that Godard regarded as a capitulation to a degraded Hollywood. Godard's film (which was never made) would be about
The other people who make movies, and how those 'others' do it. How your intern dials the phone, how the guy from Éclair carries bags, how the old man from Publidécor paints the ass [in the ad] for [Last] Tango [on a billboard] and each time, we compare the sound and the image… the sexual output of the old man from Publidécor and that of Brando.
Among the image's conditions of production, it is the relationship with money that particularly preoccupies Godard. As Colin MacCabe recounts, in the late 1970s Godard planned a film called The Story, with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton, a film about the tortured production of another film, on the mobster Bugsy Siegel, entitled Bugsy (which of course will later be made by Warren Beatty). In the script for this film about a film that is not made, which itself will never reach production, we find the following line, spoken by Bugsy's imaginary producer: 'Let the images flow faster than the money does.' As MacCabe notes, contrary to the producer in The Story, who seeks to hide the 'financial determination' of images, 'Godard's project is the direct reverse – to slow down the images until the money appears and the phantasy displays its very constitution’. For MacCabe, Godard's initial images of money – in particular the juxtaposition of money as normalising social function to criminal money in Breathless – will give way to a concern with 'the money in the image', a problem that as MacCabe notes is primarily mediated in Godard by the image of women and the economy of looks this image depends on ('the problem of the look is inseparable from money'). The Dziga Vertov films, on this account, despite their purported 'unwatchable' character, permitted Godard to formulate with greater precision the strategies for breaking with the manner in which the order of money dictates the order of the image, or better, to try and break with 'the order which crystallizes in a set of money-relations'.
This problem is both financial and formal. Against the classical alignment of the look of the characters, the look of the camera and the look of the spectator (to which we can add the crucial alignment of the sound) Godard and Gorin's films seem to oppose a practice of dislocation, with more or less overt Brechtian resonances. To show the money in the image, to make possible the concrete audio-visual, to enable the concrete audio-visual analysis of concrete audio-visual conditions this dislocation is crucial. For film to become a political tool – the aim of the Dziga Vertov group – it is thus necessary to suspend its mere instrumentalisation, its aesthetic and political alignment (this is evident in Godard's contribution to the Chris Marker-organised collective film Far From Vietnam, as well as in his dispute with the Maoist filmmaker Marin Karmitz). The pedagogical drive of the films of the années Mao interestingly reflects the dispute between Badiou and Rancière. For Godard both employs a didactic-exemplary mode, as affirmed by Badiou with respect to the typologies of Tout va bien, and seeks to short-circuit the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics by slowing down, dislocating and disjoining images. But crucially, it is his attention to cinema's conditions of production – especially the role of money in the image – which allow him, while sharing Badiou and Rancière's egalitarian politics, to work through the enormous difficulties that beset the production of egalitarian images and image-relations, whether exemplary or critical, emblematic or dissensual. In this perspective, political prescription and aesthetic critique can only be attained or prepared by a method of detour, a way of making films politically which, while not necessarily generating political films, will permit a political reflection on the aesthetics – the visibility, audibility and legibility – of politics. As in Letter to Jane, this involves a certain subjective stance (not speaking in another's name) and also a certain claim about the situated character of political and aesthetic interventions (how does Tout va bien go to Vietnam by staying in France – a question Godard and Miéville will pose about Palestine in Ici et ailleurs). This is not a prescriptive but a preparatory work of art on politics, whose aim, as Godard and Gorin argue, is to explore the aesthetic preconditions for the following conundrum: 'How can new political questions be asked?'
Posted by it at 23:19
This Woman's Work: Chantal Akerman’s philosophy of work in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
'Work,' for the Jean-Luc Godard of the late 1960s and early '70s, is a necessary component of revolutionary struggle, a value because it is the necessary response to jobs that need doing. In La Chinoise, Juliet Berto's character espouses a similar ideal, doing dishes because the dishes need to be done. This is both a revolutionary metaphor and a statement of fact about work’s necessity (for JLG, revolution is one of the necessities that must be addressed). Work, for Godard as for Mao, is a force that must be harnessed in order to achieve revolutionary progress, but neither escapes abstract concepts or struggles with the human cost of work.
The failure of the (nearly) revolutionary moment of May 1968 and its successors encouraged a belief amongst European intellectuals of the left in the imminence of another (successful) revolution. At the end of this fast-dissipating revolutionary hope lies another set of tasks in need of work: the tasks of liberatory reformation of a society no longer under threat of revolution. Even Godard, by 1972 abandoning the Dziga Vertov Group's particular brand of cinematic militancy, recognizes the need for a critical reevaluation of values and methods from a revolutionary perspective. This broader reevaluation of values and goals across the European left included a shift toward concrete marginal action against societal oppression. Some subgroups of European society are now emphasized in a platform of marginal reformism that approaches their struggles as disparate rather than united. The liberation of women, the end of racism, and other causes are now separated from class status and made independent. This end to solidarity is both the failure and success of the First World left. By fracturing their causes, concrete marginal action is made possible – in a reformist way – through the methods of capitalism and representative 'democracy.' The side effect of this fracturing is a loss of the possibility of unified actions or indeed any form of revolution, leaving individual interest groups to fight their own battles and also leaving individuals free from conceptually unified class interests.
Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a critical essay on the corrosive nature of 'work' – specifically, the invisible work performed by women. J. Hoberman once described this 200-minute-long film as an extended version of the first scene of a Hitchcock film, in that it takes Hitchcock's distilled sense of foreboding and stretches it back to something resembling real time. One of the radical elements of this representational mode is the way it restores work to its place as work. Work occupies time, demands effort and concentration and is oppressive precisely because it is necessary. Akerman's protagonist does most of her work in silence and isolation – which are also forms of anonymity. The film exposes her anonymous, invisible work and makes it an unmissable, all-consuming experience for the viewer – as it is for the character herself. For Akerman, 'work' is quotidian rather than abstract and theoretical. Work exists in-the-world. Invisible (female) work is rendered visible by observing the painstaking necessities of process. Tasks like peeling potatoes, washing dishes or vacuuming are presented in something approximating real time. This emphasis on process is contrasted with the dramatic elision of Akerman's other subject: the equation of sex, from a feminine perspective, with work.
Sex in the film is a form of work and an act of exchange that happens in even further secret than the 'woman's work' that makes up the rest of the film. Akerman doesn't complete this connection until she has fully opened up her examination of housework, but a few hints are scattered in the film. An early moment of closed doors and exchanged bills hints at prostitution; a conversation with her son shows his understanding of the difficult place of the female body in the sex act. At another moment, Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) spends just a bit too long straightening her bedsheets as her grip on performing her household duties starts to slip. The final revelation of the relationship between sex and work quickly turns into a violent revolt, with a shocking quickness that expresses the stifled power of the female. This last moment is a moment of individual revolt with no explicit claims to collectivity, but one could easily see a female-class consciousness develop from the same impulses. It's related to the radical female class consciousness of Valerie Solanas's S.C.U.M. Manifesto: 'Sex is not part of a relationship: on the contrary, it is a solitary experience, non-creative, a gross waste of time' (In 1976, the year after filming Jeanne Dielman, Seyrig directed her second of 3 radical feminist films, an adaptation of Solanas' book written by Solanas herself). This suspicion that sex is on some level 'non-creative' work for the female is the link between Akerman's feminist readings of sex and of work.
Akerman's film uses two major conceptual frameworks for 'work' that contrast with the cusp-of-'68, Maoism-inflected works of Jean-Luc Godard. First, the film opposes the Godardian/Maoist idea of work as a means to class power, instead recognizing the fact of work as an impingement on leisure and thus a counterrevolutionary action (a strand of thought more prevalent in strains of anti-work anarchism than class struggle communism). Both the Godardian position and the concept implicit in Akerman attempt to undermine 'work' as it is currently constituted, but they start from different definitions of that constitution. Akerman's 'liberationist' idea holds a more inclusive definition of 'work' as the activities necessary for life in the physical world, moving beyond the factory to including the home (and even the bedroom). The second major reevaluation of work in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles combines the leisure-oriented wing of leftist thought to the particularly feminist dissection of the nature of work that Akerman presents. Work – again in contrast to Maoist glorifications thereof as components of the revolutionary struggle – is very frequently a purely maintenance activity, a form of 'non-productive' work that produces itself as it produces its own negation. Washing dishes and cooking are both necessary and 'non-productive' work in this sense. Akerman's broader conception of 'work' moves work away from the productive/revolutionary/abstract concept and toward an understanding of work as a necessary component of being in the world. Akerman’s more inclusive definition of work reframes our philosophical understanding of 'work' – and thus also of revolutionary liberation.
Posted by it at 23:19
There is no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of his own life’s meaning – that event which I may not yet have found, but on whose path I seek myself – is not earned by work.
-Andre Breton, Nadja
Slavoj Žižek provides perhaps the most incisive critique of the depiction of work in cinema:
In today’s ideological perception, work itself (manual labour as opposed to 'symbolic' activity), not sex, becomes the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye. The tradition which goes back to Wagner's Rheingold and Lang's Metropolis, the tradition in which the working process takes place underground, in dark caves, culminates today in the 'invisibility' of the millions of anonymous workers sweating in Third World factories.
This invisibility, through which the fetishism of commodities is articulated, is already what Chaplin hints at comically in Modern Times, perhaps one of the earliest film depictions of a capitalist technological dystopia. In one famous scene, Chaplin's Little Tramp, desperately struggling to keep up with the increasing speed of the assembly line by screwing in more and more bolts (as the factory boss instructs a machinist over a then-futuristic video screen intercom to 'speed her up'), is literally swallowed by the machinery: trapped in a steel jungle of cogs and gears, the worker becomes part of the machine. (Not to mention the 'Bellows feeding machine' for which he is used as a test subject)
Even more to the point, when the Little Tramp takes a break for lunch, his hands and arms spasmodically repeat the activity he has been performing on the assembly line, holding imaginary spanners and screwing in imaginary bolts. Doesn’t this abstract mechanization of the human being already hint at the fetishized product of labour, as the human worker is mysteriously submerged, made 'invisible' (as human) in the process of being turned into just another machine attached to the production line? As Agamben points out in a recent essay ('In Praise of Profanation'), 'If the apparatuses of the capitalist cult are so effective, it is not so much because they act on primary behaviours, but because they act on pure means, that is, behaviours that have been separated from themselves and thus detached from any relationship to an end.'
If in the early days of Hollywood (and of film) it was still possible to depict the production process in all its misery, it is because the industrialization of labour, and the ideological mystery-making machinery of global capitalism, was itself less sophisticated, its reach further from total. As the production process disappears from the view of consumers in the West, its disappearance is 'recorded' on film, indexed by its absence. What is even more sinister here is the 'equation of labour with crime' as Žižek further elaborates:
The only points in Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity are when the action hero penetrates the master-criminal's secret domain and locates there the site of intense labour (distilling and packaging drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York).
When the production process does appear in contemporary films, it is stripped of all political meaning, reduced to background or setting, without commentary, or as in The Machinist, pictured through the eyes of a paranoid delusional factory worker wracked by guilt over a hit-and-run car accident. In another visionary precursor to this cinematic mapping of ideology, Chaplin's Little Tramp in Modern Times is arrested and jailed after accidentally participating in a workers’ riot and being mistaken for the 'leader'. When he is subsequently offered release for good behaviour (ironically and foolishly performing his duty as a citizen by successfully foiling a prison break), he asks 'Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here!'
This is no laughing matter – stuff like this actually happens. As a matter of fact it happened just last year in Franklin County, Ohio, USA when a 62-year-old man robbed a bank and then proceeded to hand the cash to a security guard saying 'Here, be a hero today,' then waited for the police to arrive. His purported aim: to land in prison until the age of sixty-six when Social Security kicks in – on account of financial trouble and age discrimination in the employment market. The judge, on hearing his plea (case of Ohio v Bowers), accepted Bowers' story and gave him three years in prison as a 'birthday present'. And we’re not even talking depression-era America, merely post-September 11 recession-era.
Work in capitalist society is thus on one hand concealed/criminalized, while on the other idolized in a 'cult of work'. The corporatist dream of the Futurists, who were known for fascist sympathies in Mussolini’s Italy, as expressed in a 1913 pamphlet by one of the movement's key figures, Filippo Marinetti, sounds like something straight out of Naomi Klein's 'shock doctrine' (and this from an artist, not an economist, decades before Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys): 'We will glorify war – the world's only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers...We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind…We will sing of great crowds excited by 'work.'' Marinetti spoke of a new age of 'negation of distances and nostalgic solitudes’ that would 'ridicule ... the "holy green silence" and the ineffable landscape' – an age enamoured of 'the passion, art, and idealism of Business.'
This double movement of mystification/glorification is precisely the site of the fetish – the glorification of 'work' through a puritan work ethic is the ideological counterpart of the fetishism of commodities, concealing from immediate awareness what we nevertheless 'know' is there: the production process, surplus value. Given Breton's Communist sympathies, we may then interpret his remark (at the top) as referring to 'work' in this specifically capitalist sense – as the activity of wage-labourers who produce surplus value for the owners of capital and whose labour is mystically concealed by the commodity produced. Similarly, when artist Mladen Stilinovic speaks of laziness, this does not mean simply 'doing absolutely nothing', but rather exempting oneself from the system of commodities: 'virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected. Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something…Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away from laziness, from art...There is no art without laziness.' In the capitalist economy, leisure is not opposed to work, for it is still within the system of production/consumption. What is not permissible is idleness, laziness, non-consumption.
The answer to the fascist/corporatist creed is therefore not one of simple opposition, but rather to profane the cult of work and debunk the mystery of the commodity. Agamben concludes with an analysis of the evolution of modern pornography as a realization of the capitalist dream of 'producing an unprofanable': 'in the very act of executing their most intimate caresses, porn stars now look resolutely into the camera, showing that they are more interested in the spectator than in their partners...Into the Marxian opposition between the use-value and exchange-value, exhibition-value introduces a third term, which cannot be reduced to the first two.' The 'apparatus of pornography', with its 'solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image', in a sense freezes the profanatory, liberating potential of a sexuality freed from immediate ends. The profane, at first liberated by the 'promise of a new use', once captured by an apparatus of power (apparatus of pornography as industry), is 'diverted from its possible use'. This unprofanable profane can be viewed as an articulation of a process of deterritorialization-reterritorialization – having freed sexuality from 'immediate ends' through pornography, capital immediately reinscribes it with a purpose through the process of consumption.
'The profanation of the unprofanable,' Agamben concludes, 'is the political task of the coming generation.' Profanation here means not merely to desecrate, but more broadly to 'return something to free use', to de-instrumentalize. Given his emphasis on play as an 'organ of profanation' and his lamenting of its decline in the modern world, is this not precisely where Chaplin provides an instructive model? Isn't his 'play' on the similarity between his appearance and Hitler's in The Great Dictator, for instance, precisely an act of profaning, of returning to free use, say, the toothbrush moustache? And isn’t profanation ultimately the answer to the commodity fetish, especially given the religious origin of the latter term in Marx's usage? The political task is to desecrate, debunk the cult of the commodity, of work, through play, in order to reclaim the surplus value of possible uses subtracted from the image by its inscription in the system of production and consumption.
Agamben, Profanations (2007)
Breton, Nadja (1999)
Stilinovic in Documenta Magazine 2007, no. 2, Life!
Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the Misuse of a Notion (2002)
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