Friday, January 05, 2007

The Worker's Body (Intro)

Maybe I'm back on the topic of 'desire & capital' (search the blog if you weren't reading previously).

The worker invests himself or herself in leisure activity, these days quite often paying money to watch moving images, whether on a television screen, a cinema screen, or a computer monitor. Alienated from labor, and worn out from the expenditure of mental, physical, and/or emotional energy, the worker pays for escapism, alleviation, even merely coping or accompaniment (potential functions for mass media as seen from the consumer's point of view). Capital is the reason for the question; capital works to provide the answer. Capital "wins" in both situations while the worker wins in neither. Unless one glibly points out that the worker is lucky to have a job and fortunate to have access to quality media. In which case the glib one should probably check the clock and make sure there's still time to reach the Future Business Leaders of America meeting.

There is much negativity and moralizing about cinema's functions as "wish fulfilment," "fantasy," "escapism." Being good modernists we eschew such functions (or try to), and at best ignore the fact that these functions certainly do exist on a massive scale (for "others"). Or if we choose to be postmodernists we look to have our wishes fulfilled knowingly, ironically, creatively, subversively. But here is one major logic for the activity of wish fulfilment as disseminated in commercial cinema. The wish to be fulfilled is created and aggravated by deadening labor; the fulfillment isn't simply a representational re-allotment of power (i.e., "workers can't be powerful in reality but we'll let them take control at the movies")--there exists also an hegemonic function in which the (real) worker's very powerlessness is coded as noble, in touch with life, and in fact the very source of of this vitality. The worker can thus have fantasies of powerlessness attended to by stories & images not of omnipresence, but of specifically working class power as developed and iterated on an individualistic, class-bound scale. Thus Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing--a "good" man, an "honest" man, who has earned his muscles and his figure through hard work; he is in touch with his roots as well as his hips (think also of the third class in Titanic, and we needn't say too much to convince readers of this function's constant enactment on black people, particularly for "their" musical & athletic prowess). Swayze is great, powerful, real--but he is also contained (by class). The working class is to learn to accept and perhaps even enjoy parts of this role in part because of innumerable iterations of this theme in media as seen every day, endlessly. The middle class (to say nothing of the upper) learns to internalize these messages even further, as well. The Jennifer Grey character in this film provides a fantasy entrypoint also for middle-class viewers: the one who can romanticize a slum romance, who can always (deep down) still access that working class vitality for themselves (and for sexual pleasure) ... even if debutante balls and country club manners stifle the impulse. Thus the bodies of stars, whether sexualized, or otherwise empowered (through violence, labor productivity, whathaveyou) become an attraction for viewers, particular the majority of working-class viewers, who receive carefully coded doses of displaced empowerment & control in the media. The "need" (demand) for escape is created, then met--all on capital's terms.

Sexualized: porn stars & women actors (mostly, not always); violence: martial arts and tuff guys (Willis, Stallone); labor productivity and ingenuity: Steve Dangos (Brian Donlevy) in An American Romance (or Stakhanov, or the Maoist equivalent--for this issue isn't only limited to nominally capitalist societies).

(Ah, wilderness! And strength of the working class! All natural, corn-fed, coarsely-bred. Anyway what does it say about my own class sympathies that I've always had a crush on 1980s Jennifer Grey?)

Viewers are not, however, sheep, even if we sometimes act like it. The intended capitalist functions of mass media do not always align neatly with the behaviors of viewers, working class or otherwise. Laura Mulvey's much celebrated (and much denigrated) essay "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," which in 1975 was a polemical attack on classical Hollywood (in particular) and commercial cinema (in general) for its treatment of women (the objectified other used for male viewers' pleasure), is a still defensible reading of Hollywood cinema, but generally for its understanding of the medium as it is "encoded" (cf. Stuart Hall). The "decoding" of films and media by audiences is not this easy, which is demonstrated by David Ehrenstein's amazing article "Desert Fury, Mon Amour," which is an argument against a too-quick determinism and in favor of simple viewer activities (e.g., Ehrenstein as points to the practices of the many non-straight white male viewers who developed more nuanced codes & reactions to the commercial cinema than the Mulveyan stance might initially accept). So I will also want to look at examples in which the cinema (as a medium) becomes the site for profound autocriticism of some of its own practices--hence Browning, Godard, Pasolini, Makavejev, and Fukasaku in the future (among others).

Sooner or later, more will follow ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is regarding your kind offer about King Vidor's 1944 An American Romance (made long ago, so allow me to repeat: "This film is unavailable on home viewing formats, according to the IMDB, but it shows on TV sometimes, and if anyone out there would be interested in a dubbed tape and has extraordinary patience, I could maybe do something to get it your way."

I am interested and extraordinarily patient! In fact, I specialize in literary and film treatments of immigration. If you contacted me at, I'd be very grateful.