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.