Saturday, 8 October 2011

Taking a Walk in The Elephant's Graveyard

by a Feral Subject

The first tracking shot in The Elephant's Graveyard establishes a town of tight streets, semi-detached houses that constitute a warren of domesticity built against both the sky above and the surrounding green hills. A man walks hastily away from the town into the hills- effectively commuting the wrong way- as he purposefully escapes. The camera cuts to the reasons for his flight. As well as stifling semi-detached domesticity the town is bisected by streams of traffic taking hard working citizens to either the IBM factory or the shipyards and docks down by the sea front. The town is a network of wage labour, measuring time out abstract minute by abstract minute until wages are earned at the expense of bodily, intellectual and psychological exhaustion. Then there is time for leisure, looking after the kids, maybe even a few beers with workmates. Then the next day starts in order that all of this labour can be accumulated into capital that might produce more factories, offices, semi-detached houses and workers in order to produce capital that might produce more... Bunny, the man walking with some haste into the hills is having none of this- at least for today. He turns with a grimace towards the repetitive activity of the town and strides out into the hills to hide. Once in the hills, Bunny encounters Jody, who is another refugee from the regimes of wage labour and domesticity. Both men are classic work-shy proletarians; both admit to fooling their wives; Bunny pretends he's a postman and Jody a factory worker. The latter is also older, more experienced in the art of slipping away and refusing to work. In conversation he keenly undercuts the younger mans doubts about his chosen non- vocation. There's no point in feeling guilty and no point in worrying about being caught. This is because- as Jody points out with proletarian fatalism- they will be caught for not being on the job and so might as well share the bottles of wine he has.

The Elephant's Graveyard - written by Peter McDougall-was first broadcast in 1976 as part of the BBC's long running 'Play for Today' series of specially commissioned dramas whose remit was to examine topical subjects. Dennis Potter, Lindsay Anderson, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Alan Clarke all contributed to it and the series often attracted controversy due in part to its unflinching approach to sex, violence, class conflict, poverty, etc.1 While this would place 'Play for Today' in a British 'social realist' tradition- something that continually blights UK cinema and television- the series also experimented with both form and subject. For instance, Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle is like a low budget, less emancipatory and more mean spirited version of Pasolini's Theorem; both share the disruptive figure of an angel/ demon that upsets and negates, calling into question the social relations he is cast into. The Elephant's Graveyard is just as disruptive in its negative critical impetus towards the world of work though through the simple joy of not working this is a gentler negation. And it shares a sense of everyday uncanniness with Brimstone and Treacle. However embodied the two men are in their slacking from the quantitative time of wage labour The Elephant's Graveyard- running, climbing trees, drinking, laughing, philosophising, joking- there's a spectral melancholy to it all. They are not where they are supposed to be. Rather than fulfilling the roles of subject- worker such as clocking in, posting mail, working the machinery of production, clocking out, watching telly, etc., they've stepped away from all that tightly measured wasted time. It's worth remembering- though we're rarely allowed to forget- how important quantified time is to capital. IBM- an American company that provides one of the workplaces in Bunny’s town- stands for 'International Business Machines'. An early 1889 'innovation' of IBM was the invention of a time clock to record a worker's arrival and departure time on a paper tape. Clock in, clock out, punch in and punch out as the clock punches back. Refusal of this quantitative time is central to The Elephant's Graveyard: stepping out of the time of capitalism into a potentially more qualitative, fulfilled time of doing absolutely nothing.

The Elephant's Graveyard has little to do with British social(ist) prolekult realism. Not working here is an opening out to momentary possibility rather than a litany of destitution, monetary need, depression and begging for work from welfare bureaucrats and bosses. Peter McDougall identifies and articulates a different form of proletarian 'need' in this tale of slacking and skiving. This is a 'need' not to be caught in the work/welfare/home/leisure apparatuses and to no longer be defined as working class, worker, prole. The Elephant's Graveyard is one of the few instances- at least in British culture- where this particular 'need' is not only acknowledged but valorised and articulated in language and gestures a million miles away from that of an Oscar Wilde style aesthete or the refusal of work as a preamble to a career in art. The refusal of Bunny and Jody- like most genuine instances of refusal- isn't particularly aspirational within the terms set by capitalism. They just want to think about things a bit, maybe get drunk and recognise themselves outside of the predicates of being working class sons of toil. It's not too speculative to see much of Peter Mcdougall's own experience reflected in this refusal as he spent his youth enduring the hard graft of Glasgow shipyards.2 He probably worked alongside a fair number of aspiring Bunny's and Jody's and their 'craic'- or banter- and habitual hatred of work infuses The Elephant's Graveyard with a class hatred different than that articulated by even the most radical elements of the 'old' Left. As Jody might have said though doesn’t: 'Who the fuck wants to take power as a worker when that's exactly what we wanna escape from?' Needless to say, the only presence of the official representatives of the 'workers'- the trade unions- in The Elephant's Graveyard is in a piss taking diatribe by Jody who describes the process whereby even sincere leftists become absorbed by the 'sponge' of the media and career ambition. A 'sponge'- also composed of wage labour and the religious work ethic of Scottish Protestantism- that Jody thinks is to be avoided whenever possible.

It's hard to imagine The Elephant's Graveyard being commissioned or made in a 2011 Britain. In 2011 even an involuntary period of unemployment leads to enforced exclusion from our increasingly shrinking 'Big Society' and subjection to discipline, disdain and derision by state, media, economic and welfare apparatuses. Even in 1976 it's difficult to think of many cinematic or television antecedents that express the refusal of work as a joyful and oppositional proletarian gesture. If there are cultural antecedents for The Elephant's Graveyard then they tend to be literary and rarely British. We can find them diffused throughout 19th and 20th century culture. For instance, there's Herman Melville's intransigent scrivener Bartleby, whose 'I would prefer not to' is uttered in the heart of 19th century Wall Street. Or the character of Voshchev in 20th century Soviet dissident Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit, dismissed from his job for thinking too much in the midst of production. When Jody and Bunny wander the hills drinking it seems like a distant echo of the poet Arthur Rimbaud's preference for 'infinite walks, rests, trips, adventures, wanderings.' (Letter, August 25th, 1870) over wage labour. Or as he put it during the Paris Commune: 'Work, now? Never, never. I'm on strike' (Letter, May 13th, 1871).3 This foot dragging proletarian recalcitrance towards the supposed joys of labouring was never really acknowledged in orthodox socialism, Marxism and anarchism. An exception to the tendency of 19th and 20th century anti-capitalism to venerate labour was the wildly popular ‘Right to be Lazy’ by Marx’s brother- in-law Paul Lafargue. He wrote in 1883 that ‘the proletariat […] has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.’4

Of course, that The Elephant's Graveyard is produced in 1976 places it at a particular historical juncture of a more recent politics predicated upon the refusal of wage labour. In 1976 there were still the determined lines of flight of Autonomia in Italy and the post-Situationist libertarian left throughout Europe and North America. This libertarian left partly arose out of practices such as wild cat strikes, sabotage, factory occupations, 'proletarian shopping' and non-payment of rent and bills and a dis-affiliation from 'being' a worker. The Elephant's Graveyard captures something of the emotional tonality of this period in a much quieter register. Rather than the great meta- narratives of resistance and defeat, crisis and revolt, it traces the history of this affective 'need' to resist by any means necessary even if that just entails going for a walk. Still, when Jody and Bunny imagine the massacre of good hard working families by Apaches in the hills where they drift its hard- for me anyway- not to think of the 1977 era 'Metropolitan Indians' in Italy. Dressed in feathers and war paint a contemporary wrote that they would:

"Habitually break into shops and appropriate useless goods.... they also frequently appear at the most elegant movie theatres in groups of about thirty people, naturally after visiting the most expensive restaurants where they obviously didn't pay".5

Even the relatively gentle refusal of work outlined in The Elephant's Graveyard always carries a little of this threat so terrifying to the capitalist or reformist 'Left' and the 'Right'. That said it'd be easy to read the fear of domesticity and the ‘wife at home’ that recurs in The Elephant's Graveyard as a reassertion of working class masculinity that borders on misogyny. Maybe, though, it’s worth reading the flight of Bunny and Jody from both wage labour and the unwaged social reproduction of domesticity as an acknowledgment that domesticity too- and the normative roles of 'man' and 'woman'- are reproduced in capitalism and central to it.

The Elephant's Graveyard is also situated exactly at the point when UK punk began to articulate its own sense of 'No Future' against and through the 'No Future' of capitalism. Without being reductive, Punk partly reflected a decomposition of the Keynesian welfare state that we're still living through in its 'new' guise of neo-liberal crisis. One of the most pernicious forms this crisis takes in the present is the 'Big Society' dream of social entrepreneurs, engaged volunteer labour and the suggestion that it's o.k not to work 9-5 so long as you're a 'creative'. Even 'slacking' might be alright for capital so long as it occurs at the local self-organised library as a form of volunteering. That this goes hand in hand with a disciplinary impetus towards the imposition of disciplinary welfare upon those counted as surplus to the requirements of capital isn't that much of a contradiction.

Part of the subversive import of The Elephant's Graveyard is the wry acknowledgment that 'need' as a simple desire for there to be more to life is expressed through a refusal to be anything in particular- especially a worker- by people whose class position deems them feral subjects unless they're labouring hard. This runs entirely counter to the normative standards of contemporary neo-liberal UK plc. that only allows self- development, workplace development or maybe cognitive behavioural therapy and pills. If the BBC commissioned such a drama now its inevitable Bunny and Jody would be 'chavs', miscreants, 'scum'- if not it'd be a bit too controversial for Milliband, Cameron and our illusory 'Big Society' to swallow down its collectively self- righteous throat. It’s worth speculating that neo-liberalism also gradually established a cultural hegemony that’s especially evident in television drama; occasional exceptions to this such as The Wire tend not to originate in the UK and such televisual subversion is not at all the rule.

As both Jody and Bunny recognise their brief refusal is destined to fail and a return to toil, the strictures of responsibility and the parameters of capitalist social relations is inevitable. That's not to say that such slacking off the job is completely pointless though. They discover less instrumentalised social relations outside of work- through arguing, reflecting and playing together they become friends. And there's always the possibility of repeating the experiment of momentarily running away even as one is always sucked back into work and welfare discipline. Or as Giorgio Agamben, the finest contemporary philosophical proponent of what we could call 'Bartlebyism' writes:

'I tend to think that every act emanating from the singular need of an individual, the proletarian, who has no identity, no substance, will also be, all the same, a political act.' 6

The Elephant's Graveyard reminds us that in work or not we're always potentially feral (non)subjects who will steal, sabotage, sleep or find that moment of grace to momentarily just walk away.


tp:// iii See ‘The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune’ by Kirstin Ross (Verso, 2008).

No comments: