THE GREAT FACTORY, the universe, the one that breathes for you.
There’s no other air but what it pumps, expels.
You are inside.
All space is occupied: all has become waste. The skin, the teeth, the gaze.
This is the beginning of French author Leslie Kaplan’s (b. 1943) groundbreaking book Excess — The Factory, which has only recently been translated into English by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap and published by the Oakland-based Commune Editions, even though it appeared in French in 1982. The book’s first text, not quite a poem, but not quite prose either, ends:
Inside the factory, you are endlessly doing.
You are inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.
Reading the book is absolutely claustrophobic. The book is also — for lack of a better word — real in a way that a lot of books are not. Maybe that has to do with the fact that American-born Kaplan actually worked in factories around France in the 1960s, as so many fellow Maoists and Marxists did at the time. She was there. She knows factory life (is “life” too strong a word?) from the inside. This intimate familiarity radiates from every page of Excess.
From the assembly line, you see everything.
Everything enters, everything enters ceaselessly.
Forced innocence. Pain has no profit.
You have your ten-minute break, you go to the toilet.
With minimalist and undramatic precision, Kaplan transmits her experiences in the book, which consists of nine parts, nine so-called circles made up of between four to 15 texts or poems. Nine circles, then, and I do not hesitate in renaming them: the industrialized factory’s nine circles of hell. I use “hell” deliberately, insofar as there is a religious or theological aspect to the factory:
You drink, that’s normal. Words open the infinite. God exists, the factory. No history. It is terror.
You don’t know how to do anything.
You put together a gearbox.
God exists, but in a gearbox. The workshop is pure purgatory. You work, it’s normal. You work yourself to death, it’s normal (another line goes: “Of course, you can die”). In that spiritual sense, Kaplan’s work is reminiscent of Simone Weil, another woman who spent years in factories. In “The Mysticism of Work,” Weil describes life in the factory, or rather the daily death of physical labor, as follows:
Manual labour. Time entering into the body. Through work man turns himself into matter, as Christ does through the Eucharist. Work is like death.
We have to pass through death. We have to be killed — to endure the weight of the world. When the universe is weighing upon the back of a human creature, what is there to be surprised at if it hurts him?
This is precisely the things Kaplan writes about in her work: how work is like death; how matter is “really strong,” incredibly “heavy”; how workers endure the weight of the world. What she captures in particular is the rhythm of the factory, of doing the same thing over and over again, going to the toilet and back. Back to the assembly line. Italian activist and theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi would probably call this phenomenon the “refrain” of the assembly line. The refrain, the vibrations, the repetitions. Everything is exactly the same, everywhere. At the cafeteria, which you visit during your lunch break at noon: “You enter, you go to your seat. Tables and benches, and waxed tablecloths. The cloth has little squares, all the same, and it smells.” It is all the same, and it smells (is it the sameness that smells?). The squares are the same, the exploitation is the same, the pain, the profit. At the grocery store, “it’s all the same”; in the suburb, “it’s all the same”; even the paving stones, “all the same.” Some of the sentences in the book are also repeated, like musical phrases, unpredictable refrains: the line “All space has occupied: all has become waste” appears multiple times, and there are several references to a jukebox that “always plays Those were the days, my love, ah yes those were the days.” The work itself functions like a kind of jukebox, or the factory does — it’s all the same.
Yet it is not all repetition and sameness. There are small variations, minor displacements. Same, same, but different. In this pattern of repetition with minimal difference, Kaplan actually writes about not one but several factories in Excess: there is this factory and that factory, factories spread out all over France, all across the world, and yet there is just one factory at the end of the day, the universal factory, the universal rhythm. Same, same, but different — and vice versa.
This is not just a commonplace criticism of capitalism as a machine of leveling and standardization. This is also about the light that the factory casts on everything, about the strange situation where it is no longer only that you exist in the factory, but where the factory exists in you, where you have become the factory, where it has seeped into your very soul. It would, however, be a mistake to compare this horror with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from 1927, where the industrial machinery of the factory is portrayed as a monster, Moloch, who devours its children, the workers. In contrast, Kaplan’s factory is inert, it is not a sacrificial temple, and it does not have agency, however hallucinatory. This only makes it all the more terrifying: “The factory is there” — it is as simple and scary as that. The factory is simply there, it is always there.
The workers are also simply there, exhausted to the point of expiring. “You are there, weak, and with no project.” The book even draws a metaphorical connection between the workers and some scraps of fabric lying around. “The rags are weak,” it states, which is obviously meant to reflect the abject conditions of the factory workers — their outer, objective condition as well as their inner, subjective condition. Economy and psychology resonate here, though there is no traditional psychological introspection or so-called depth in Kaplan’s book whatsoever; there is no romantic subject, no first-person perspective full of individual feelings. But there are statements that describe affective situations: “You are mad.” “You are afraid, endlessly.” “There is no forgetting, ever. You are run through.” Those are the affects, the psychopathologies of the factory, and the important thing is that they are not individual but collective, or they are both; it is something everybody feels yet it is impossible to share this feeling. No community can emerge from this suffering, from this weakness. Around this affective agony no unity can be built. You are all alone in the pain that is, strictly speaking, not yours to begin with. In their illuminating afterword, the translators quote from a text Maurice Blanchot wrote about Kaplan’s book in Liberation in 1987: “There is no more outside — you think you’re getting out? You’re not getting out.” Or as Kaplan herself wrote in her second book, Le Livre des ciels (The Book of Heavens) from 1983, “Everything lives in its own light.”
Speaking of the translators, their main problem was how to translate the personal pronoun on that Kaplan consistently uses (only once does the text say I: “No one knows the trouble I see”) into English. This is the third person singular, which is neither “he” nor “she,” but “one.” In several languages, it poses no problem at all. On in French, man in German (it is the same in my native language, Danish, into which Kaplan’s book was translated in 2013). But in English it is different. “One” does not sound right, and the pronoun “we” presupposes a collectivity for which there is, as just indicated, no basis or justification. So they decided to go with the second person singular, “you,” which works, but no more than that. It is the lesser evil, but doesn’t really transmit the nature of the subject that works at the factory in the French original, if it can in fact be said to be a subject at all. The French version purposefully lacks the traditional kind of subjectivity that the pronoun “you” cannot but evoke. The subject in L’excès — l’usine is a much more evasive one, without a firm and grammatically sanctioned identity. Nor does the second-person perspective get to the heart of the matter as far as the daily routines are concerned — the actions you do day in and day out, the indefinite, infinite character of life and work at the factory. As one line from the book has it: “Infinity is here.” Capitalism’s materialization and modernization of Pascal’s infinity (the void that filled him with horror) is, quite simply, the factory.
This also relates to the topic of temporality, or lack thereof. The factory as described in Excess is a place outside time. Why? Because infinity is here, inside the factory, because work is opened in its indeterminate and open-ended core. Work doesn’t end. To borrow a concept from Martin Wyllie, one might talk of a negative eternity. Many lines in the book take great pain to make this clear: “Time is outside, in things”; “Time stays there, like a box”; “Time is elsewhere: only space exists”; “You are outside of time, under the sky of the factory.”
But if there is no time, what’s left? Space. Only space exists, Kaplan emphasizes. Time has been transformed into space, and it is not a nice place, this space: “Space, space kills.” Kaplan is a master of keeping the horror simple, of letting the tiniest linguistic units do their work. There is a materialism to her language, upon which the overall project of realism depends. Not just in terms of pronouns, also in terms of prepositions. Look at this text for example:
The street is a street under the sky of the factory.
You enter the courtyard.
You see the crates. The boards are there, laid out.
Blue plastic tarps at the back.
You enter the courtyard.
In a corner, the staircase. The staircase is iron, fragile.
Above, the line floats.
You go up.
The staircase is fragile. Iron, how wretched.
Note the ways in which prepositions structure the text and index the space of the factory. “Under” and “above.” Into, opposite, against, down, up, inside, outside. There is no time, no actions in time; instead, everything is space, relations between prepositions, which above all take the form of a certain verticality (a certain vertigo even?). “Life descends, vertical.” It is a topography interwoven by prepositions, numerous, plain, and naked. A prepositional inexorability.
The more general and principal problem that Kaplan, as a writer preoccupied with politics, confronts in Excess is multifaceted: How to make the factory speak, and how to speak against it? How to find a point, a position, a perspective from which to do this? How to describe the unbearable when there is no place outside the unbearable? This was a problem that Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini articulated nearly two decades earlier in his 1964 article “Comments on Free Indirect Discourse.” In the text, Pasolini envisages the transition from a Fordist to a Postfordist phase of capitalism and the aesthetic implications of that transition. What is at stake is a fundamentally new form of estrangement and, with that, a new situation for the critical and political artist. Pasolini claims that at the time of Charlie Chaplin, in the modern times of yesteryear, there were still some parts of language and existence that were not subjected to what Pasolini dubs a “technological vocabularium.” But in 1964, Pasolini argues, this is no longer the case. A “zero moment” has been reached. The technological vocabularium is everywhere; the factory is outside and inside us. Setting aside all obvious contextual and personal differences between Pasolini and Kaplan, the point is still clear and valid: there is no part of language which enjoys a “partial freedom.” There is no outside, no autonomy left. This is what leads Pasolini, in his conclusion, to speak of an “impossibility of imitation.” “It seems,” Pasolini writes in the very last sentences, “that one cannot ‘make’ the factory ‘speak,’ exploit its language, find a margin of freedom there, reanimate it. This is the problem.” This is the problem, indeed, more so than Pasolini could possibly have imagined, even though he addressed the situation as “the prefigurer of future linguistic situations.”
But hasn’t the situation, for all Pasolini’s prophetic powers, undergone a considerable transformation, if not since 1964, then at least since 1982, and onward? Asking this question implies another set of questions: Why now? Why does the English translation of Kaplan’s book — a translation that has been long overdue — come at this point in time? What is the relevance and actuality? One could go on to argue that the problem in the contemporary world, called by some critics a neoliberal world, is not a homogeneous, monotonous, and mechanical temporality from nine to five, but a heterogeneous, flexible, and momentary temporality 24/7. That the workplaces of 2019 are not cold, alienating, and industrialized factories but open office landscapes of pure de-industrialized creativity, and that the worker is less standing in front of the assembly line than sitting in front of a computer screen with a latte macchiato next to it. That people are less reduced to objects than produced as subjects. That debt rather than work is the main source of profit and paradigmatic instrument of control today.
Undoubtedly, there is some truth to this historicization, but only some. It is not universal truth; rather it is a truth that applies to certain parts of the (mostly Western) world. Production is still taking place, even if we — Western subjects — tend to forget it because production has been outsourced and relocated to the Global South. Industrial factories are not a thing of the past. Just look at the Maquiladoras at the US-Mexican border, Amazon warehouses around the world, Walmart, or the Foxconn factory Longhua, in Shenzhen China, which employs around half a million workers, some of whom started killing themselves, in pure protest, in 2010. Among them was the poet Xu Lizhi, who took his own life at the age of 24, in September 2014, after which his poetry was translated into English. Allow me to quote one of his poems, “I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That,” in its entirety:
The paper before my eyes fades yellow
With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black
Full of working words
Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages …
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that gray pay slip on the tenth of each month
To grant me some belated solace
For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words
Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons
Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early
By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,
How many days, how many nights
Did I — just like that — standing fall asleep?
In a 2017 article in the Guardian that draws a sinister portrait of the atrocious working conditions at the Foxconn factory, another worker named Xu blankly declares: “It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying […] Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing.” You work, you fall asleep standing up, you go home, you come back, you work, you kill yourself. It is a normal thing. Striking is not an option. Suicide is. Or should one say that suicide has simply become the only way of striking, a form of resistance, the last way out? What is certain is that some people around the globe would give their right arm to be treated as so-called human capital, creative and innovative entrepreneurs, playing Ping-Pong while contemplating their latest idea. And others — the ones who are part of the increasingly superfluous workforce in the global world of capital, the ones who are not even included in the Lumpenproletariat — would probably give their left arm just to get access to the factory and be exploited in the good, old-fashioned manner. This poem by Xu Lizhi is in other words an important reminder of how some things do not change and how wage extraction keeps functioning like clockwork in contemporary capitalism. It is an important reminder of how brutal factory life can be and still is. So is Leslie Kaplan’s Excess — The Factory. The proverbial shit is real.
As such, the book fits perfectly into the carefully curated catalog at the communist Commune Editions, with editors (and scholars and writers) Juliana Spahr, Joshua Clover, and Jasper Bernes and publications such as Swedish poet Ida Börjel’s Miximum Ca’ Canny the Sabotage Manuals and Italian writer and activist Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout. One might also think of Karen Brodine’s working poems Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking from 1984. But let’s stay with Nanni Balestrini for a moment. Born in 1935, Balestrini was an important figure in both the aesthetic movement Neoavanguardia and the political group Potere operaio (Workers’ Power), later developing into Autonomia, which, besides the abovementioned Franco “Bifo” Berardi, included people like Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, and Mario Tronti, author of the influential Workers and Capital from 1966. Balestrini debuted as an author in 1971 with the novel We Want Everything (Vogliamo tutto, published in English by Verso in 2016), a book that depicts a wave of mass protests and strikes at a FIAT factory in Northern Italy in 1969. The protagonist and narrator is a migrant worker from the South who wastes no time denouncing the factory as “the most absurd and disgusting thing there is.” He is equally quick in joining the struggle against wage and against work, a struggle that is not led by the union or the party and that is described, moreover, as a struggle against the very rhythm of the assembly line. To the question, “What do the workers want?” his answer is: “We don’t want the boss’s work rhythms.” They don’t want the rhythm of capital. They want another rhythm, and they actually believe that they can get it. As the main character declares: “I saw that my own struggle against work was a struggle we could all have together and win.”
This kind of worker’s optimism is absent from Excess (significantly, it was also no longer present in Balestrini’s own Blackout from 1980 [translated in 2017]): “[B]y 1979 even hope is exhausted the factory is no longer the place where the fight for power is waged.” In Kaplan, there is no revolutionary spirit in any traditional sense, no representation of a rebellion, no “we” (no “nous”) to initiate the sabotage and the furious unrest, no anything of that kind. As far as Kaplan is concerned, the time that had passed between working in a factory and writing the book obviously plays a part here. In the 1960s in general, and during May ’68 in France and the hot autumn of ’69 in Italy in particular, the historical strike was at its zenith — or should I rather say that the strike form was experiencing its last glory, spreading its dying rays of light? In any case, workers protested, went on strike, opposed their working and living conditions, which is also a topical theme in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1972 film, Tout va bien. Already in 1982, however, things looked different. Thatcher was attacking the unions in Britain and the US government tried to “break unions and empty factories,” in the words of Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. As a result, the total number of strike days dropped dramatically (according to Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, we have [re]entered a historical cycle of circulation, which entails riots rather than strikes). No wonder Balestrini writes in Blackout, “there is no hope in the factory.”
Still, there is hope in Kaplan’s Excess — hope in a different form, a strange hope, but hope nonetheless. It might seem as if everything is over and done with, and all we, as readers, are left with are a sense of determinism and defeatism. That nothing could have been different and nothing ever will. That nothing is to be done. But the fact that everything is terrible is not the same as everything is impossible. To depict hopelessness is not necessarily the same as giving up hope, as Dante proved. Sure enough, we have the factory, the street, the hotel, the bus, the Seine, the sky, the countryside — all the coordinates of this geography of Hell. However, I wonder if that is really all there is to say about Kaplan’s book, if that is truly the whole story? I like to think that it is not. One of the signs that go in this direction, away from utter and total despair, is the women that figure in the book. They are “used women” with “violent makeup around their damaged eyes,” but they are there. The factory is there, but the women are there too — and not only as a sign of an ongoing and intensifying feminization of labor, but also as a short-lived suspension of the circular, oppressing rhythm, remnants of some form of (past and/or future?) collectivity. One text begins:
When you go upstairs, you always pass the tall, beautiful, made up woman in the packing department. Colors, odors, blue and red. Enormous full woman, her big beautiful hair.
She is standing, her legs spread.
You look at her. You see her legs.
There is a sense of silent solidarity and unspoken care. A glimpse of a different song, an alternative refrain, minimal and momentary. And then the “you” of the text have to get back to work. “You see her big eyes, open,” the text ends, “You pass her, you sense her body, and then you turn back.”
At the very end of the book, there is a mysterious, inscrutable scene with a girl and a baby, but that is indeed another story. My point here and now is that just because there is no evidence of masculine heroism in Excess, no outright rebellion, no direct action, doesn’t mean the book is not political. Kaplan’s politics takes other forms. Which forms? Kaplan has given a possible answer herself, in a public seminar where she spoke about Franz Kafka. She spoke about a specific one-liner from one of his diaries — “To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins” — to which she herself added: “What do they assassinate? The possible, every thing that could begin, tear away, change.” Asked in another context, in an interview in connection with the Danish translation of Excess, about her ethical and political responsibility as an author, Kaplan replies:
I certainly believe that the author has a great responsibility, but it seems to me that the author primarily has a responsibility to language. That is, a responsibility towards every aspect of language, but primarily to what language contains of potentiality, possibility and fiction, which means that even though the person writes about what’s just happening nearby, the author should, to a degree, be aware of and feel responsible for the fact that things could be different. It is something inherent to language. All that is said contains the possibility of something else. This something else could of course be another world, another regime or another word.
In Excess, Kaplan maintains this responsibility, a responsibility to language and, by the same token, to politics. A responsibility to what Robert Musil calls a sense of the possible, a sense of possibility (Möglichkeitssinn), in his unfinished magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities. A sense of what could be, what might be, what if. A feeling that any word, any world, can be different. An attunement to the perhaps paradoxical possibilities that inhere in, and are essential to, the very texture of the world, past, present, and future. Simone Weil would probably talk about the possibility of revolutionary grace, but the idea more or the less remains the same: one never has the final word, not even the writer who has just finished a masterpiece. Nothing is set in stone. Nothing is forever. Not even the factory. Writing, like revolution, is a matter of jumping outside the line of the assassins, or outside the assembly line, which also means a matter of retaining a sense of possibility. This is the lesson of Excess. Some might go further and say this is where the politics of literature begins and ends.
Mikkel Krause Frantzen holds a PhD from the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, and is currently postdoctoral fellow at University of Aalborg, Denmark. He is the author of Going Nowhere, Slow — The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression (Zero Books, 2019).