- From the Editors Cinema: Labor
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This issue appears at a moment when “precarious” is the term most likely to precede the word “labor” in scholarly, academic, and activist conversations. Today surplus populations find work in unimaginably degrading circumstances while skilled individuals may find themselves performing provisional delivery work or driving taxis. The job security of skilled modes of intellectual labor, like higher education, have been shown to be nostalgic fictions; “green jobs” represent a promise for a future that may already be past; and plaintive laments for Fordist modes, which were probably never what is recalled in retrospect, are sung in the public sphere. We live in a period of labor unrest. The ascendance of far-right and neofascist political movements has succeeded to no small degree thanks to their facility in exploiting resentment regarding deindustrialization, automation, unemployment, underemployment, and wage stagnation—resentment, in other words, about the status and value of labor. These same movements have also been adept in manipulating social media and broadcasting their anger via moving images. In developing this special issue we asked ourselves, what can we learn from thinking about labor (or its refusal) in relation to cinema, today, when “cinema” bears an archeological relationship to new media just as “labor” bears an ambivalent relationship to terms like the assembly line, wages, unions, collective action, time clocks, the working day, and strictly regulated gender divisions? How does work get worked out on the film screen (traditionally conceived) and in relation to the movement of the film stock, as opposed to the flow of video or the disposition of digital information reassembled in image-making today? The essays in this special issue attempt responses by deploying various tools to think labor with cinema: from the formal to the historical, from the psychoanalytic to the technological.
As is well known, “cinema” encounters “labor” at its origins, in the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 short “actuality” (documentary) film of the workers leaving their own (film) factory at the end of the working day. But the connection between the factory and cinema is fraught. Harun Farocki, the German artist and filmmaker, explored the end of the shift and cinema in ways that are still reverberating. Cinema has traditionally been repelled by the factory, the voice-over in his essay-film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) asserts. And then, broadly speaking for proprietary reasons, the camera is often not permitted inside the factory; but just as often, the cinema has judged the factory as beneath its notice. To rephrase the question posed by Isabelle in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1982 film Passion, one of the key films of our collective inquiry: why would anyone want to film factory work? There are spectacular exceptions of course: Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, for instance. And even when engaged filmmakers did gain access to factories, how long could the camera linger on repetitive motions on the assembly line before fatigue would set in? [End Page 4]
Despite the apparent non-reciprocity of filmmaking and the labor process, the history of cinema offers a rich archive of representations of labor: slave labor, domestic labor, reproductive labor, sex work, affective labor, office work, not to mention the backstage musical’s elaborate attempts to represent the labor of cinematic entertainment itself. Radical and anti-institutional forms of filmmaking, like those associated with the experiments of the postwar American avant-garde, were as much demands for an autonomous labor process as they were for aesthetic autonomy; in fact, the autonomies are inextricable.
Cinema has been primarily understood (for the spectator) as a means of escaping labor, or (for the worker in a Hollywood studio) as one of the most rigorous examples of what has been called the “division” of labor. The rise and fall of the studio system itself is but a slightly delayed retelling and indexing of the story of the reorganization and re imagining of labor in the postwar years. And yet, the film industry in the US is one of the last domains in which labor unions still exert a tremendous authority. The relocation of studio filmmaking...