Friday, December 02, 2005


Simone Weil's "Factory Work" is a phenomenological account of the Fordist labour process and its "transmutation of man into workman" (55). Though the experience of the factory assembly line, full of sensation, sound, and movement, could in other contexts be considered "exhilarating" (54), this sensorial wealth goes unappreciated by the labourer: "Those who people the factories do not feel [its joys], except in rare and fleeting moments, for they are not free [. . .] for the vise of their servitude grips them through the senses, their bodies, the thousand and one little details that crowd the minutes of which their lives are constituted" (55).

What's interesting here, in the first place, is the way in which Weil describes Fordism as a mode of subjection through affect: it consists in the immediate capture of the senses that is simultaneously a desensitization, and so also a habituation to the machine. Reason is bypassed. Rather "what is recognized [. . .] is the barracks formula: 'Never mind the reasons!' [. . .] Come what may, the work must go on. It is up to the worker to get on with the job. And he does get on with it" (55).

Chaplin in Modern TimesWeil's account of the factory process is also an astute observation of the way in which subjection through affect and habit involves a detemporalization, or rather the denarrativization of time. The worker is unable to relate means to ends, and so "thought draws back from the future. This perpetual recoil upon the present produces a kind of brutish stupor" (57).

The resulting "mixture of monotony and accident" (58) makes of the labourer little more than an animal, who responds insensately, because so wrapped up the senses, to immediate stimuli and no more. The overall affective tone of the labour process is a "pervasive anxiety--the anxiety of not working fast enough--that is diffused through every working moment" (58).

It's because of its fundamentally non-narrative temporality that the factory experience also resists representation. For representation would entail the imposition of narrative upon an experience whose very essence is the loss of narrative. No wonder then that "workingmen themselves do not find it easy to write, speak, or even reflect on such a subject" (54).

So it is clear that the factory worker's subjugation is fundamentally non-hegemonic. And Weil's response to this predicament is to call for a hegemonization of the labourer within the production process. Weil sketches out a reformed factory system in which, though "nothing might accrue to [the worker's] actual rights" (70), labour could be emplotted within a master narrative of meaningful human activity, so producing a vision to which the worker would be wedded to his work, his consent finally secured:
If a workingman's job is to drop a die punch on a piece of brass destined for some device in a subway, he ought to know it. Moreover he ought to have a clear-cut image of the place and function of that piece of brass on the subway line, what operations it has already undergone and which ones are to follow before being put into place. the plea here is not, of course, for a lecture to each worker at the beginning of each piece of work. What is possible is such things as having each work group occasionally explore the plant by turns for several hours, at the usual wages, all to the accompaniment of appropriate explanations. Even better would be to allow each worker to bring his family along. And why not? [. . .] A workingman truly wedded to his job would be proud and happy to show his place of work to his wife and children. (67)
Here we see the pedagogic project of hegemony outlined. With sufficient education, the worker can enter heart and soul (rather than simply body and sense) into production. What's more, hegemony might also secure the expanded field of social reproduction, securing the consent not simply of the male worker, but also his wife and children. For it is a double wedding that ensues: married to the job as well as to his civil spouse, the worker inducts his family into subjugation to the machine age.

Take your Daughter to Work Day patchEven, then, in envisaging a workplace hegemonized, Weil already anticipates the posthegemonic real subsumption of society by capital achieved in post-Fordism with its "take your daughter to work" days and its language of "stakeholding" and individual proprietorship in the productive process.

The result, however, being that workers are their own masters only in the sense that they are encouraged to coordinate and so embrace their own alienation.

[UPDATE: See Jeremy's response in "factory revisited".]

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