Days of Labor
The worker, Marx famously said, is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. In the first decades of the twentieth century, and at the peak of production, Euville’s quarries were home to roughly one thousand workers who daily toiled in the extraction of limestone. The working hours were on average 12 but could range from 10 to 16, for six days a week, and labor conditions were fully unregulated. Personal protective equipment was nonexistent, workers had no safety glasses, no masks, no gloves, nor any type of special clothing. There was no sanitation, nor toilette facilities. Mining dust would be inhaled daily and a broken foot or limb wouldn’t keep one from working, miners had no insurance nor health benefits. Living quarters were squalid, but most families were given small agricultural plots, important for self-supplying. Many must have kept fond memories of their villages of origin. We are told that the wine drunk weekly could fill the quarries many times over—bottles would be snuck in and snatched at furtively, whilst hiding from thesupervisor’s sight. To escape the hardships of stone carving, stealthily and inconspicuously, the miners would carve small notices, personal inscriptions, draw doodles, engrave dates, names, longings and opinions on the quarries’ inner walls. In the mining industry, “home” was a fleeting moment, a brief instant wrested from the unyielding pace of working hours.
Work is a silent activity. Even when the undertaking’s vicinities are teeming with loud noise or when the laborers fill the environment with a steady stream of chat and prattle, workers are by definition robbed of speech. Jacques Rancière invites us to think about the political as a stage upon which certain issues or quests can be brought to public scrutiny, whilst others are suppressed, barred from articulation and thus rendered invisible. Politics, in Rancière’s view effects a distribution of the sensible, instituting a set of relations between the perceptible, the thinkable, and the doable which defines the way a class of human beings partakes in the common world, whilst governance implies the selection of a number of concerns, which are said to define our situation and the sense we can make out of it1. In political treatises, from Plato onwards, public space has been defined by excluding the worker, always too busy with his daily tasks to be able to mind the business of governance and policy-making. In the Republic workers are barred from constituting themselves as a political subject and their plight is thus rendered invisible. As Plato made clear, a slave may understand his master’s speech but he doesn’t own it, and workers are ideally temperate, obedient and competent. The nature of this exclusion becomes clearer, once one comes to establish that the motor of history is the struggle for recognition, that is, the “struggles of the proletariat to bring work out of the night surrounding it, out of its exclusion from shared visibility and speech.”2
On a derelict wall of Euville’s forsaken quarries the handwritten Italian word Miseria
–misery– stands out.
Fragmented and unarticulated as they may be, the markings in Euville’s quarries, were not so much an expression of political claims, but a poignant claim to the political; not a mere testimony of the miners plight, but a sign of rebellion against the hardship of daily life but above all against the inexorable pre-determination of their existence, a demand to be heard and seen made manifest in discreet revolutionary acts.
What is the status of these drawings? Could “these hard-won bonuses of time and liberty” be treated as art history? Modern art has always stopped short of breaking the traditional barrier separating those who strain themselves in practical labor from those who dwell in artistic endeavors. Successive generations of scholars have poured over the personal papers of artists or princes, yet would sneer at the thought of analyzing doodles left at factories, taverns or garrisons. This distinction institutionalizes what one deems to be of historical importance, and discards what is not. Yet, throughout history, the worker and the artist have always been kept in dialectical tension. As Jacques Rancière also notes, besides being dismissive of workers, Plato was suspicious of artists because artists are a curious crossbreed between the artisan –who remains cut-off from political articulation– and the poet –whose discourse shapes public awareness. He felt that art was a Janus-faced activity comprising contradictory motives, with a troublesome double nature as both craft and speech. As a consequence, throughout western history, the ontology of art was never settled and art always divided into two: the manifold crafts one calls fine arts on the one hand, and the latent promise of a unified universal, on the other. Keeping in line with this distinction, the Romantic ethos was built upon the opposition between art as a totalisation of experience and labor as an alienation of experience. Hegel’s “end of art” is not the end of art as such but the end of one of the aspects of art, art as a pedestrian activity, engaged with mundane wants, which must be superceded so that art’s hidden facet can be freed to fully embrace its destiny. Inheriting romantic themes, Modernism can be seen has a wholesale refusal to engage with craft, i.e. A comprehensive attempt to free art from labor so that it can “lay a claim to the absolute,” since art “in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art.”3
The same can be said of the worker. Like art, he too has a double nature, and like art, he too must cease to be whom he is in order to take possession of his own self. The strive for a “democratic distribution of the sensible makes the worker into a double
being. It removes the artisan from his place, the domestic space of work, and gives him time to occupy the space of public discussion and take on the identity of a
deliberative citizen.”4 From Hegel onwards, history is seen as a movement towards the moment when human collectivity will take full control of its destiny. The masses of workers are a majestic manifestation of this absolute resolution. But the arena of democratic expression is never a given and all too easily workers find themselves in a contracting space in which all forms of protest are depicted as a crime against social order. At the same time, when there is little solidarity amongst workers or a lack of clear political aims the masses can easily turn into the mob. And since worker’s populations are constantly uprooted and displaced in order to serve the interests of industry to achieve such solidarity is no easy task. Modern capitalism starts with the enclosure movement in Tudor England: the creation of a landless working class by expelling the peasantry from their villages of origin. Euville, was itself, host to successive generations of migrants, from impoverish Italians to political refugees, and seemingly even Senegalese, brought in by the German army during the occupation years. When reporting on worker’s movements it is thus all too common to find “lengthy accounts of strike action at the local factory, leading to violent protest that rapidly degenerate into riots and intra-class conflict, in the form of picketing and attacks on blacklegs, and internal strife in the union itself and in clashes between workers from different unions and workplaces”5 – all of which have trickled down through the ages until finding their contemporary expressions in the London Riots, the Battle of Orgreave or South Africa’s Lonmin shootings. And whereas the European working class made manifold achievements, in the expanding sprawl of globalization, every victory is a pyrrhic victory.
Only work makes workers visible, particularly when said work involves striving for better working conditions. In Nights of Labor, Jacques Rancière points out that the greatest form of oppression stems from the constant need to fight oppression, which steadily diverts wage earners from the pursuit of leisure, forcing them to embrace a notion of class consciousness, which is nothing but an extension of the oppressive identity that was thrust upon them. Little stories of personal affections or moments of leisure, which stray from the harsh realities of work discipline or the organized struggle, have no historical bearings. Every moment of intimacy is a moment the worker must steal away from both the factory owner and from the grand narratives of
class struggle and political emancipation. What one can see in Euville’s limestone walls, is thus the leftover life that stands in opposition to the history of great events. A
fading charcoal drawing depicts a female, her breasts enhanced by a naïf shadowy play of chiaroscuro, the contour of her body suggesting nakedness and fertility like a Lascaux’s Venus. Another drawing depicts a woman’s profile, her hair held up in a strict looking bun; another a man’s profile smoking a cigarette. We also hear about Nini, who was so proud of his costume made bicycle that he wouldn’t grow tired of drawing it all over the quarries’ walls. A female head, who is perhaps a portrait of the “Argentine” a bar tender. A wine bottle. A man with a feather hat. The word “Machina”, machine, several times over. To again return to Rancière, one should note that art and politics are contingent notions, and that the democratic privilege of being a speaking subject is concomitant with a regime of representation through which the banal, the overlooked or the negligible find their expression, disrupting established hierarchies. One would not exist without the other, and at the crux of the matter one could place Euville’s drawings: they are important because what they represent is unimportant; they are a claim to the political because they express an aesthetic claim to equality of subject matter; and they express an aesthetic claim to equality of subject matter because they are a claim to the political.
In the absence of the workers, in the haunted and derelict site, time seems to warp around a vanishing point, the vanishing point of the European working class, where present and past trade places. And as the abandoned quarries acquire the air of a foreboding, we the viewers are left before the disappearing horizon of the modern, in an eerie and unearthly landscape we are at pains to call home.
Ana Teixeira Pinto
1 Jacques Ranciere, Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, Temple University Press, 1991
2 Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum Publishing Group, London 2006, p.45
3 Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn, Verso, London 1998, p.83
4 Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum Publishing Group, London 2006, p.
5 Joseph Pridmore, Mass Violence and the Crowd: The Perception of Proletarian Community in Working-Class Writers of the 1930s, E-rea: Revue électronique d’études sur le monde Anglophone, 2006