How to do things with farts: Factory Work and Subversive Farting

May 21, 2009

I work part-time in a Factory in Berlin, on a traditional assembly-line. Its 12hours shifts so i thought there would be plenty of time to think about what occurs according to Marx’s theory of value. Although the occassional mental reliefs when one can gasp at the theoretical implications of work were rare. So i sought mental relief not in a theorized rationalization but in reflections on the concrete activities of working and farting (or rather the burned sulfur smell on the assembly line), through a Benjaminian ‘Profane Illumination’

Marx writes of work: ‘He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be. (Capital Chapter Seven: The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value)

This was quite obvious when subjected to traditional disciplnary assembly-line procedure. It is an insight that doesnt emerge in service-jobs where your communicative personality is subsumed into some sort of production process, since the labour-activity is expirienced as an authentic ‘being yourself’, like a bartender or something. Although the line is thin, call center jobs involve an equal mechanization of bodies, minds and voices. Alienation it seems should be a self-evident concept, but i suppose its out of fashion since yuppie/media jobs involve now some sort of project of self-realization, of the pursuing of the prescribed inner purpose, like being a creative and autonmous market actor.

Im posted at the sulfur-section of the solar panel assembly line. A group of 3 workers waits every 5 minues for a box containing the panel-to-be to come out of an oven onto a portable conveyor belt, that looks like a foosball table. Someone weighs a few grams of Sulfur, which are distributed on the side of the box that will contain the next unprocessed panel that will be inserted in at the front of the conveyor belt oven. A second worker takes the hot panel, where the sulfur has been burnt onto to the next station in the assembly line. I was mostly unscrewing and screwing the bolts of the box after the processed panel had been replaced by a new one to be inserted into the front.

I made some jokes to entertain during the occasional free minute. But i aimed to deploy a humour that employs its immediate surroundings, that designtes the immediate symbolic surroundings through their materiality. This strategy emerged, as a counter to the jokes of another worker, who put a piece of black tape on his upper lip and did the hitler things. I also passed through a stage of conservative joking. There was an air-brush to blow away dust, and while waiting i used it to fan my sweaty forehead and made the same joke “Im in a convertible car, or on the Titanic”. This joke like the Hitler makes external references and introduces them to the immediate surroundings, but doesnt challenge them, they are just a prop like the square bit of black tape to put on your face. Its an escapist joke, wishing to be somewhere else, more bourgeois (The joke wouldnt work as an escapist relief i had said “Im in a hurricane”)

A subverisive joke would have as its butt the concrete, or more specifically the arbitraryness and fragility of what we assume to be the concrete. A made a fart joke that brought in the materiality of the situation, not of the general economic materiality, which people there were quite aware of, but of what we were up to. When the boxes were opened for the processed panel to be taken to the next stage, there was sometimes still a wiff of the burned sulfur, so i said “Either someone farted or someone has been burning sulfur nearby”. The fart is just a signalling to the joke and its butt, because if someone had actually farted it would be embarassing rather than funny. If the joke had just been “Did someone fart” it would have been incomplete, what was added was the concrete dimension, the literal incorporation of the surroundings: that we were burning sulfur. The comic signalling of the fart allowed a suspension of what we were seamlessly and continually doing. It brought to display our material surroundings, momentarily bringing the activity of burning sulfur into a fragility. This seemed clear since one of the workers quickly responded in a serious tone “No, the smell comes from the burned sulfur in the box”, in order to performatively reassert the taken for grantedness and self-evidentness of our material undertaking, in order to pull back the symbolically suspended material process of the assembly line that was the butt of the fart joke.

Might a Fart be something subversive (if we read it into “bodily collective innervation” and “revolutionary discharge”)
“The collective is a body, too. And the physis that is being organized for it in technology can, through all its political and factual reality, only be produced in that image sphere to which profane illumination initiates us. Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto”” (Walter Benjamin – Surrealism The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia)

I have a Marxist Fart-Joke:  What does one do when “all that is solid melts into air”?