Sunday, 1 June 2008

In Front of the Camera, Behind the Commodity Fetish: Profaning the Cult of Work

Boris Knezevic

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)

1 comment:

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