From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (25)—Elaine Flies Coach

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Elaine and Jerry rush for their plane and immediately are confronted with gender and class distinctions that are only made worse by Jerry's particularly boorish behavior (while running—gender—and at the gate). Some would call this the "edginess" of Seinfeld, but it certainly goes against my midwestern sensibilities. The scene ends with a particularly classless (I mean that as a criticism of Elaine's character) comment on class. For myself, I don't find the beginning or the end of the clip particularly funny, and find it to border on the downright offensive. Then again, as we know from the first episode to (in particular) the last, the Seinfeld characters are meant to be exactly that. They are not "Minnesota nice," and they are hardly passive in their aggression.

Take a look at Elaine's flight. Anyone who has flown surely can recognize a great deal from the middle of the clip (except for this quaint idea of in-flight meals in coach...what are they?)...
There is a great deal of grist here for our analytical mill. We begin with gendered competition (Jerry running away from Elaine) and end with race and class. In-between we have, well, the in-betweenness of the middle seat. From the olfactory whoosh of the bathroom door to longing for sustenance in a rationed situation, we have a tiny laboratory of social conflict...waiting to explode.

We also are introduced to an intriguing idea: "I have flown first-class; you haven't—I can't go back." Hmmm. This opens up an array of possibilities for our readings, and it has been particularly difficult this week to choose only three. We begin with Karl Marx. This passage from Das Kapital quotes extensively (and with withering acidity) from two earlier authors. Next, we read a bit from Stendahl's The Red and the Black. Soak in the often critical depiction of the rich peasant Sorel when dealing with the mayor of the city. Finally, we shift gears dramatically to look at "spatial subversions" in a Chinese silk factory two decades ago. And what is an airplane but a series of highly charged spaces?

The Antagonism of Capitalist Production
Karl Marx (1867)
[b] Kapital
The Ventian monk Ortes, one of the great economic thinkers of the eighteenth century, regards the antagonism of capitalist production as a universal natural law of social wealth. 'In the economy of a nation, advantages and evils always balance each other' (il bene ed il male economico in una nazione sempre all'istessa misura): 'the abundance of wealth with some people is always equal to the lack of wealth with others' (la copia dei beni in alcuni sempre eguale all mancanza di essi in altri): "The great riches of a small number are always accompanied by the absolute deprivation of the essential necessities of life for many others. The wealth of a nation corresponds with its population, and its misery corresponds with its wealth. Diligence in some compels kindness in others. The wealth of a nation corresponds with its population, and its misery corresponds with its wealth. Diligence in some compels kindness in others. The poor and idle are a necessary consequence of the rich and active,' and so on.

About ten years after Ortes, the High Church Protestant parson, Townsend, glorified misery as a necessary condition of wealth in a thoroughly brutal way. 'Legal constraint' (to labour) 'is attended by too much trouble, violence, and noise, ...whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.' Everything therefore depends on making hunger permanent among the working class, and this is provided for, according to Townsend, by the principle of population, which is especially applicable to the poor. 'It seems to be a law of Nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident (i.e. so improvident as to be born without silver spoons in their mouths) 'that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, and the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate are not only relieved from drudgery...but are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various' (the Poor Law) 'tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order of that system which God and Nature have established in the world.'[1]

Mayor and Peasant
Stendahl (1830)
[c] Red, black
My wife really has an excellent head on her shoulders, said the Mayor of Verrières to himself as he walked down to Père Sorel's mill at six o'clock the following morning. Whatever it was I said to her in order to maintain my due superiority, I hadn't dreamt that if I don't secure this little Abbé Sorel—who they say knows Latin like an angel—then the Director of the Poorhouse, that pushy fellow, is quite capable of having the same idea and stealing him from me. In what smug tones he would talk of his children's tutor!...Now this tutor, once he is at my house, will he wear a soutane?

M. de Rênal was taken up with this speculation when he caught sight of a peasant in the distance, a man of nearly six foot, who, in the early morning light, seemed entirely absorbed in measuring pieces of wood disposed on the towpath along the Doubs. This peasant did not appear at all pleased to see the approach of M. le Maire; for the pieces of wood obstructed the way, and were placed there contrary to regulations.

Père Sorel—for it was he—was very surprised, and still more gratified, at the singular proposition put to him by M. de Rênal concerning his son Julien. He heard it, even so, with that air of melancholy discontent and indifference with which the peasants of these mountains are so adept at cloaking their cunning. Slaves in the period of Spanish rule, they still retain the facial expression of the Egyptian Fellahin.

Sorel's response at first was nothing more than a lengthy recital of the deferential formulae he had by rote. While he repeated the empty phrases, with an unnatural smile reinforcing the air of insincerity, almost of rascality, natural to his face, the busy mind of the old peasant sought to fathom what motive could have brought so considerable a man to take his worthless son into his own house. He was extremely dissatisfied with Julien—and it was for him that M. de Rênal offered the unlooked-for wage of 300 francs a year, plus food, and even clothing. This last daring demand, which Père Sorel had the genius to put forward suddenly, had as quickly been accepted by M. de Rênal.

The demand impressed the Mayor. Since Sorel is not delighted and bowled over by my proposition as naturally he ought to be, it is obvious, said he to himself, that he has received offers from another party; and where could they come from if not from Valenod? It was in vain that M. De Rênal urged Sorel to conclude the deal on the spot; the old peasant's cunning obstinately refused that; he wished, he said, to consult his son—as if, in the provinces, a rich father consults a penniless son other than as a matter of form.[2]

Spatial Subversions
Lisa Rofel (1997)
[e] Subversion
These, then, are the spatial disciplinary efforts that Party cadres and factory managers put into practice and imagined would come to fruition. They have partially succeeded. Yet these same factory spaces and the bodies and consciousnesses that are objects of control contained memories of past spatial arrangements that held a different semiotics of production. Managers were not rearranging blank spaces. The history of earlier eras—the 1950s and the recent Cultural Revolution—still resided in them. Certain workers questioned and contested the new authority of efficiency with memories of previous spatial relations through which they still moved about on the shop floor. Through these memories, they created spaces of subversion, both subtle and direct.

During the time I spent at Zhenfu Silk Weaving Factory, I was struck by three particular spatial sites in which distinct cohorts of workers marked out their identity. The most dramatic, it appeared to me, was the one entailing the reappropriation of public space. In the context of economic reform, resting rather than working formed part of a political assertion about the identity of a good worker. A group of six or seven women on the A shift of Zhenfu's Number Two Prep Shop had claimed a comfortable and visible place to take breaks, where it would be clear to all that they were not at their work positions: a small table just off the shop floor, in full view of the shift leader's desk and the front entrance to the shop. It was the only place to sit down. This was no simple matter of taking long breaks. These women flaunted their presence by sitting and loudly complaining about the new production pressures...

A second site in which an older generation marked out their identity appeared to me more marginal than the table, yet just as crucial. This was the dense and massive space of the spinning, twisting, and combining machines. For memories also resided in these machinese and their alignment, memories that, in Raymond Williams' terms, were no residual in their counterhegemonic form (1977). These machines loomed a head taller than workers, so that prep workers disappeared among the rows of spindles. No central vantage point—no panopticon—existed from which to gaze on them. To see what they were up to, management had to walk up and down each and every row, a disciplined disciplining in which they rarely engaged. Older groups of workers, women who had begun working in the silk factories in the 1950s, gathered periodically amid the thick forest of machinery to rest and chat with one another. Their activities recalled previous practices...

The final site of spatial subversions resided in the very sinews of the bodies of the youngest generation, in their gestures and movements around the shop floor. These women, in their late teens and early twenties, were newly arrived from the countryside and had just begun to enter the factories the previous year. Subject(ed) bodies, they nonetheless refused to remain spatially rooted in one place or move in the prescribed circuits. There was a steady stream of visiting back and forth. Their bodily movements did not mimic new standards of rationality. They did not work quickly enough. They made mistakes in the tension of the thread. They did not look carefully to the left or to the right; they did not check, link, or make clear markings. They did not use their hands, eyes, and ears to inspect for quality. For this group, quality was well below the standards of the other shifts in the prep shop. Their consciousness did not participate in production problems...But these "dull-witted and clumsy" peasant women displaced the gendered disciplinary regime of space by acknowledging their differences from city women, while continuing to move freely about the shop floor.[3]
[1] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I [Translated by Ben Fowkes] (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), 800.
[2] Stendahl, The Red and the Black [Translated by Roger Gard] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 23-24.
[3] Lisa Rofel, "Rethinking Modernity" in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 166-170.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I [Translated by Ben Fowkes]. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.
Rofel, Lisa. "Rethinking Modernity" in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997, 155-178.
Stendahl. The Red and the Black [Translated by Roger Gard]. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
Wednesday, September 21st
The Close Talker
Customs vary, but Americans are uncomfortable with few things as much as "close talkers." We'll explore the concept next week on Seinfeld Ethnography.

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