Note for the preservation workshop NYC

Globalization and preservation: two abstract and abstracting processes that oftentimes are critiqued as a perspective that leaves out people, lived experience, specificity, the street, the intangible and heterotopic flux. A google earth view of the world chimes well with an alienated populace passing each other anonymously in the crowded streamlined furrows of the contemporary metropolis, with heritage and city planners seemingly more concerned with museumification and/or a sleek shining renewal that foregrounds commercial interests and markets (national cultural heritage at best, new privatised shopping malls at the other end). Being in the city that a famous Italian neo-realist film-maker once said he would not film until cinemas screens were 70 mm vertical rather than horizontal, can I be forgiven for noting that although the New York moment of September 11th 2001 was striking for many reasons, the one that struck me was the way people unusually stopped in the street to look up together as if at a screen event (just as we did worldwide, by a kind of proxy experience – which is not at all yet globalization from below). Far be it for me to celebrate some transitory globalisation of Gotham spirit or to somehow favourably–perversely applaud the brutal crisis that brought a population together in myriad forms of protest (in New York itself, across the US, and worldwide) and which has been so viciously abused in various ways by homeland and patriot action since then. What it does say to me is that there are more detailed perspectives on Global events that should be the preserve of those that work this terrain.

So I ask, naively, what of those people on the street, the entire corpus of urban studies that starts with street life – two examples, in NYC, Dunier’s book Sidewalk; in Kolkata, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay’s work on street food.

Who are the people here? That question drives my interest in a more overtly political project inspired by a certain reading of Marx. Gayatri Spivak points out that Marx’s project in Kapital is to teach his implied reader to see through the trick of commodity fetishism. The members of the German social democratic workers party were to see through the facade of capital and grasp its inner workings, exploitation and expropriation of their own creative energies, in a way that would lead from critique to transformation – and then interregnums would burst asunder, chains be cast aside, a new continent of thought and new possibilities of life engaged. Communist new dawn.

Before then, Marx must write and explain. In the Working Day chapter – the longest in Kapital, the hinge of the book, in my mind the equivalent moment of ethnographic work that a street-life study might engage, an exhaustive and emotive survey – Marx, drawing from Leonard Horner and the Factory Inspector reports, tells the story of the scandalous conditions of workers in circumstances barely distinguished from the worst examples of wage slavery ever seen. Leonard Horner of course was caught in a policy cleft between the parliamentary negotiations of reformers and resistance to reform. The entire struggle of the Working Day, and the ‘modest Magna Carta’ of the 8 hour agreement that cuts through this negotiation, is a foundation for the second half of the book (and the subsequent volumes) which show different ways in which Capital responds to worker’s struggles, using technology, organisation, geographic dispersal and more, to maintain its advantage. Marx’s message here is that the workers must go further than negotiations about hours of wages… Of course based on detail, but ambitious too. Engels already had made the first moves in examining the Condition of the Working Class in Manchester, in 1844, what Marx adds is a theorised agenda for further researched and engaged action around these conditions. The book is not a description of what is that should remain fixed, but a call to action, an elaborated manifesto, and agenda for a future that would preserve life, through struggle.

Rush forward to Lenin’s Bolshevik party and the factory exposures, to Mao reporting on the peasantry from Hunan, to Adorno’s talk of Parallel Sociology, to the Italian workerist tradition examining class composition, through to contemporary explorations by groups like Kolinko: call centre inquiry and ‘mapping’ exercises by activist groups in sectors as diverse as higher education, banking, sex work and service sector precarity like waitressing and similar. All research projects with a program.

Can the engagement with people in these last studies – that try to report, as did Marx and Engels, on the imbrications of lived experience with the great machinations of globalization – be offered as an example for our work? To work in the way that only occasionally and under extreme circumstances falls to us today when we are shocked into standing, stop and stare, looking closely and wondering at the spectacular facade upon which global processes are screened? In the oft-replayed destruction of some buildings, a globally overwritten image, there is perhaps something potent still that leads us to a philosophy that is not just contemplation, to a sociology that is not just interpretation, to a policy engagement that is not just negotiation. A project and a campaign may be? Is that still possible? Is that what might be done, as a way to think about our work, and to work, on work – hi ho, hi ho?

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  • john hutnyk  On 19/02/2010 at 05:45

    ‘Leonard Horner was one of the Factory Inquiry Commissioners of 1833, and Inspector, or rather Censor of Factories until 1859. He rendered undying service to the English working-class. He carried on a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet, to whom the number of votes given by the masters in the lower house, was a matter of far greater importance that the number of hours worked by the “hands” in the mills’ (Marx 334 Penguin, 225 International Press edn)

    ‘the ruthless factory inspector Leonard Horner was again on the spot’ (p397 Penguin)

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