“Smile for the Camera”

A black and white photo of women working in a factoryI was browsing through the late Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977) the other day and came across a passage in the chapter entitled “Signs and Notations” that read as follows:

For the ‘sign’ is ‘arbitrary’ only from the position of conscious or unconscious alienation. Its apparent arbitrariness is a form of social distance, itself a form of relationship…. The formal quality of words as ‘signs,’ which was correctly perceived, was rendered as ‘arbitrary’ by a privileged withdrawal from the lived and living relationships which, within any native language … make all formal meanings significant and substantial, in a world of reciprocal reference which moves, as it must, beyond the signs.

There’s a few important points here, I think, worth mulling over — perhaps with regard to the garment workers in the above photo.

We don’t know who they are, of course, when they are, or where they are, for we find them, juxtaposed with innumerable other pictures, through a Google image search, one that eventually lands us on a University of Virginia page devoted to the history of the so-called New Left. But their seemingly arbitrary placement, once the search page of images loads, populated by cartoons and graphics and paintings and photographs, is hardly arbitrary, of course, for we typed in “alienation” in the search bar, internet users around the world had already settled on just that word to name just those photos or used it in the text that accompanies them — i.e., the structure is already set and, when we hit the enter key or, long before that, maybe when we first settled on just those parameters of our search, we register our place within it. But we don’t see that for it is probably done unthinkingly, likely just because we’re looking for a picture to place at the top of a blog post, likely unaware of the many interrelations of similarity and nuances of difference in our uses of that one word, and surely without thinking much about those faces looking back at us. (If we had been aware then we might have dropped the eternal present tense, e.g., “who they are, when they are, or where they are,” to at least nod at the gap between us now and them then.)

But that situation in which we engaged in what we now judge to be those once arbitrary acts, the ones we now perceive as part of an otherwise unseen structure of algorithms and assumptions — thus making it hardly arbitrary at all — is only apparent to us now that we are removed from the typing and able to conjure back into existence ourselves as the now lost typist….

This one photo stood out just moments ago, attracted the eye; for unlike so many others of workers in factories produced by our search, these people are not, in this moment, workers. There is thus an irony to the image that may pass by unnoticed: they have stopped their labors, have all turned their heads — some smiling, others looking placid — all facing toward the unseen camera, recognizing the photographer’s interruption of their lives and thereby acknowledging, through their own participation, that an event is transpiring other than their labor — they are removed from their former selves, if only briefly.

In the now eternal, and thus fabricated, moment of this photograph, I can see the alienation of which Williams writes. For we find here workers who are unable to carry out their labors (what terrible things will happen to their fingers if they continue to work the sewing machines, with their heads looking backward over their shoulders at us?), all because of the observer’s intrusion. But instead of bemoaning the gaze, as so many scholars now do (indicting it as distanced from the authenticity and immediacy of the participant’s lived world), might we instead see this possibly uninvited intrusion as being required for cognition to take place, for identification to be practiced; for only by means of the estranged position of the observer — along with the curiosity that made this setting, for some particular person, a focus worth preserving for either the photographer or the one hitting “save as” while searching the web — could a comparative counterpoint be established, thereby creating this specific, collaborative situation.

Only in this way could one come to experience oneself as situated, as self, as related to some while removed from yet others.

“You are there photographing me here.”

“I am here, now, watching you, then.”

While Williams’s words — read in his absence, of course, making reading but one more of these alienating yet thought-provoking moments, much as with writing itself, inasmuch as we continually imagine the absent reader (“Dear diary…”)  — ensure that we remember that our analysis is forever condemned to be removed from the “lived and living” worlds of the people whom we study, they also prompt us to press much further than this, I think, so as to realize that without our distanced stance as observers, without the questions that we bring to what we cannot help but see as the alien or novel or anomalous moment, and thus without the gap between expectations and situations, there would likely be no knowledge, no generalization, no self-awareness, and nothing identifiable in the world of things as a lived and living situation, for there would be no limit, no center, and thus no relief — brief as it may sometimes be — from the relentlessness and, I could now add, the possibly awarelessness of being unsituated and uninterrupted.

We would therefore never have an occasion to pause, to adjust ourselves and smile for the camera, i.e., to depart and then return anew — for we now have knowledge of the departure and of our situation, able to imagine ourselves as overseen garment workers, making it possible not just to imagine but then also to inhabit something other than what may simply be the endless monotony of lived existence.

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