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Mousse 71 TIDBITS

Tears of a Foreman

by Noah Barker

 

Vertical integration of subsidiaries was a hallmark of an era in which the automobile and its appendages of debt, production line, and worker were cornerstones. This was before Toyota-ism’s outflanking of Detroit with a subcontracted and more flexible regime. But by the millennium, General Motors had also shifted from making automobiles to assembling and marketing them. Within a logistically liberated geography, a renewed frontier opened for uneven development. It is this “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration” that we peer into like a snow globe in American Factory (2019).1

 

The film’s poster features its title in Chinese characters, even as it lacked a Chinese release—an allusion to the omnipotent spectacle of globalization that the film mostly perpetuates. The narrative centers on a Chinese glass manufacturer, Fuyao, that opens a new facility on the grounds of, and employing the former workforce of, a former GM plant. All of the expected clichés follow: Chinese man eats Twinkie, Americans attempt unionizing, Chinese worker in Levi’s T-shirt ponders the new desires of his generation. American Factory is distributed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company, partnered with Netflix and a confluence of recent infotainment power players. It’s apt, then, that it omits Obama’s bailout of GM, and the fact that that bailout spawned further cycles of restructuring; GM’s use of Fuyao’s glass products since 2006, and Goldman Sachs’s ten percent stake in the company since that same year, are likewise not mentioned. Instead, platitudes on cultural difference play out in a moral tale that relies on an indivisible common denominator of human experience. The pinnacle of this expression occurs in a hallway at the Chinese headquarters when an American foreman, overcome with emotion, declares, “We are one,” and then a Chinese colleague consoles him before correcting: “One company.” Theirs is “a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity.”2 What they share is not the mutual interests of disparate communities, but a global application of neoliberal corporate culture and the spectacle that coheres it.

At one point, this foreman and his (also American) associates watch a song-and-dance routine wherein a troupe of Chinese workers sing well-worn themes:

“Intelligent and lean manufacturing
All industries should adopt them”

Their siren’s call is the logic of Agile enterprises in which the foremen immerse themselves, without falling prey to the reality of its rocky waters—bound to the mast, so to speak. However, this skit is followed by another that is too real. As couples in wedding attire enter and the men kneel, the foreman rises in objection to the unholy union of life and corporate power. He sheds tears, not over the expression of love, but for the interruption of his being; he is trapped in the gaze of the world. This animation of forces in which he occurs, co-choreographed by U.S. finance, coalesces on stage wherein a theatricalization of life and reproduction penetrates the image-screen of the subject. In the hall, standing in front of him and behind the camera, the documentarian becomes superego: we see them reflected in a pane of glass behind the foreman, nodding in approval of the oneness. For a moment the screen is penetrated for him and the suture is revealed for us, which is to say the position of our viewership; nowhere else in the film is the production of an image so interposed with the image.

The figurines and particles tossed about within the globe’s swarming currents are not the intentional outcomes of anyone depicted. Even Cao Dewang, the owner of the glass company, is a Faustian creature authored by his time. We share intimate moments with him on the road while he narrates memories of underdevelopment. The absent sounds of frogs and bugs are a remembrance of things past that drives him to depression. The camera turns to the landscape outside the car window, a threshold of interior and exterior that is both the source and substance of his wealth and a mechanism of self-preservation, delimiting world from subject. At night, Cao is alone with his reflection, though on water, not glass. The scene’s darkness is an anxiety-inducing reversal of optical axes: the daylit car window is now a mirror charged with vampiric symbolism. Just as the vampire cannot stand to see his reflection, the Faustian Cao is diminished by memory before hearing the figurative church bells that reaffirm the creed of work.

Founded in 1985, Fuyao is a prescient example of the enterprises encouraged by Chinese reforms of that decade. Municipally partnered multinationals, like Guangzhou Peugeot, were given market access with the requirement that goods be assembled from regional suppliers like Fuyao. Such incentivizing schemes are less distinct than one might think from the perverse “re-shoring” through foreign direct investment depicted in American Factory. By the time GM ended its vertical integration with the spin-off of its parts maker in 1999, Fuyao was making inroads to supply foreign automakers, beginning with Hyundai in 2002. These paths dictated by accumulation don’t make it into the tale the film tells—which is to say, the hidden hand remains such while markets shake the public sphere, “that apparent disorder that is in actuality the highest degree of bourgeois order.”3

 

[1] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: the Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 15.
[2] Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 15.
[3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1862, cited in Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 88.

 

Noah Barker is an artist based in New York.

 

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