The weekend passes so quickly. Already it’s back to the grind before you know it. I went to the art museum with my son today, to look at the Detroit Industry murals, which are on the banner of this blog. But listening to the audio tour (which included many people we know and love), I was reminded of my own shop floor, which has had no one lionize it in a mural, nor photograph it nor write poetry about it. My own shop floor has no goddamned air conditioning, nor working ice machines. The management gives out these little 10oz bottles of water, which half the time are room-temperature. If and when they get around to it. It’s about 1oo degrees on the floor and our break room is supposed to be air conditioned. My steward has filed a grievance about it, but still we swelter without respite.
Well. I thought about it on Friday (on the line, no matter how busy you are, you always have plenty of time to think) and realized that the office, which is right next to our break room, is air conditioned. And clean. In an earlier post, I wrote about the bosses freaking out about the shop floor being clean. The break room/cafeteria has had a near-lake of mud since the A/C went out. But I haven’t seen anyone over there to mop it up, now that the big inspection has passed. So I started thinking about how nice it would be to have lunch in a clean, cool place. Like the office. I asked a few of my co-workers if they would be willing to eat with me in the office on Monday if the A/C isn’t fixed. I thought it was a capital idea. It’s hot and dirty in our break room, why not go eat in the office where it’s cool and clean? I can not imagine that the bosses would tolerate their air conditioning being out for an entire week. After all, they have to sit in there. So many people looked at me like I was nuts when I suggested it. But I’ll get back to that.
The French theorist Michel Foucault wrote a book in the 1970s called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison. He traced the history of prisons from the 1700s, when people were still displayed publicly through today’s prisons, which are located far away from most “civilization”. And the most jarring thing that he describes in the book is not torture, although that is nasty. The most frightening thing that he describes in the history of prison is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a building with a tower at the center from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner or schoolboy is incarcerated. Visibility is a trap. Each individual is seen but cannot communicate with the wardens or other prisoners. The crowd is abolished. The panopticon induces a sense of permanent visibility that ensures the functioning of power. Bentham decreed that power should be visible yet unverifiable. The prisoner can always see the tower but never knows from where he is being observed.
The end result of this observation is that the prisoner regulates his own behavior. The prisoner never knows when the wardens are watching and so he keeps himself “in line”, making the wardens’ work easy. The prisoner internalizes the prison. He keeps his own chains locked up tight. The wardens’ work is done; the prisoner is punished and punished and punished and will never get free unless he, himself, realizes that the chains are all broken and the locks are made of dust. That he has been keeping himself in bondage all this time.
When my co-workers looked at me like I was crazy for suggesting that we eat in a cool, clean place which our labor builds, funds and maintains, all I could think about was the panopticon and how we spend so much time maintaining our own chains and our own locks and our own goddamned prisons. If it were up to the bosses, or the powers that be or whomever, we would work until we dropped. We would never utter a complaint, we never ask for more than crumbs and we bow and scrape and thank them for the opportunity to dojust that. There’s nothing crazy or outlandish about wanting to eat a dignified meal in the middle of one’s work day. So I’m bringing chips and cookies like a good hostess and inviting my fellow workers to sit down together in a cool, clean place and enjoy our lunch together. We’ll see how it goes.
Stepchild in the Promised Land