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Sunday, 6 February 2011

Industrial Archeology: L.-F. Céline: My Time at Ford's ("You're here to make the movements you're told to")


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Watch the Fords Go By (Ford Motor Company advertisement): A.M. Cassandre (pseudonym of Adolphe Edouard Mouron), 1937 (Library of Congress)




I saw some big squat buildings all of glass, enormous doll's houses, inside which you could see men moving, as if they were struggling against something impossible. Was that Ford's? And then all around me and above me as far as the sky, the heavy, composite, muffled roar of machines, hard, wheels obstinately turning, grinding, groaning, always on the point of breaking down but never breaking down.




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Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan, aerial view
: photo by Detroit Publishing Company, 1927 (Library of Congress)



'So this is the place! I said to myself . . . 'It's not very promising . . .' Actually, it was worse than anywhere else. I went closer, up to a door where it was written on a slate that men were wanted.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: large group on men and women standing, man being held back physically by several in group, May 26, 1937
: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)



I wasn't the only one there waiting. One of then cooling their heels told me he had been there, on the spot, for two days. The poor sucker had come all the way from Yugoslavia for this job. Another dead beat spoke to me, he said he'd decided to work just for the fun of it -- a maniac, a phony.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, May 26, 1937
: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)




Hardly anybody in the crowd spoke English. They eyed each other distrustfully like animals who had often been beaten. They gave off a smell of urinous crotches, like in the hospital. When they spoke to you, you kept away from their mouths because in there poor people smell of death.





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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, woman observing on far left, May 26, 1937
: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)




Rain was falling on our little crowd. The files of men stood compressed under the eaves. People looking for work are very compressible. What he liked about Ford's, an old Russian in a confiding frame of mind told me, was that they didn't care who or what they hired. 'But watch your step,' he added for my instruction, 'don't get uppity, because if you get uppity they'll throw you out in two seconds and in two seconds you'll be replaced by one of those mechanical machines that he always keeps on hand, and it's tough luck if you try to get back!' That Russian spoke good Parisian, because he'd been a taxi driver for years, but then he'd been fired because of some cocaine business in Bezons, and in the end he'd staked his cab in a game of zanzi with a fare and lost it.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: distant shot of large crowd, May 26, 1937: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)




It was true what he told me, that they took on anybody at all at Ford's. He hadn't lied. I had my suspicions, though, because down-and-outers like that tend to be off their rockers. There's a degree of destitution when the mind doesn't always stay with the body. It's too uncomfortable. What's talking to you is practically a disembodied soul. And a soul isn't responsible for what it says.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, May 26, 1937
: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)




Naturally they stripped us stark naked for a starter. The examination was given in a kind of laboratory. We filed past. 'You're in terrible shape,' said the medical assistant the moment he laid eyes on me, 'but it doesn't matter.'




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Journée Nationale des Tuberculeux: Anciens Militarires (National Tuberculosis Day: Veterans)
: poster by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Paris, 1917 (Library of Congress)



And me with my worry about being turned down because of my African fevers in case they chanced to palpate my liver! Not at all, they seemed delighted at the cripples and weaklings in our batch.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, May 26, 1937: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)




'For the kind of work you'll be doing here,' the doctor assured me, 'your health is of no importance.'




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, May 26, 1937
: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)



'Glad to hear it,' I said. 'But you know, doctor, I'm an educated man, I even studied medicine at one time . . .'




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: men in physical altercation, May 26, 1937: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)



At that he gave me a dirty look, I saw that I'd put my foot in it again, to my detriment.



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Machinists checking the value clearance for timing, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



'Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son. You're not here to think, you're here to make the movements you're told to. We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need are chimpanzees . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We'll think for you, my boy! A word to the wise.' Lucky for me that he warned me. It was just as well that I should know the manners and customs of the house. I'd already made enough stupid blunders to last me at least ten years. From then on I was determined to pass for a quiet little drudge. When we had our clothes back on, we were sent off in slow-moving files, hesitant groups, in the direction where the stupendous roar of the machinery came from. Everything trembled in the enormous building, and we ourselves, from our ears to the soles of our feet, were gathered into this trembling, which came from the windows, the floor, and all the clanking metal, tremors that shook the whole building from top to bottom. We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the tremendous din, it gripped us in our heads and around our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts. The further we went, the more of our companions we lost. In leaving them we gave them bright little smiles, as if all this were just lovely. It was no longer possible to speak to them or to hear them. Each time three or four of them stopped at a machine.



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A blast furnace being cast, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)




Still, you resist; it's hard to despise your own substance, you'd like to stop all this, give yourself time to think about it and listen without difficulty to your heartbeat, but it's too late for that. This thing can never stop. The enormous steel box is on a collision course; we, inside it, are whirling madly with the machines and the earth. All together. Along with thousands of little wheels and the hammers that never strike at the same time, that make noises which shatter one another, some so violent that they release a kind of silence around them, which makes you feel a little better.




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Molten metal from blast furnaces arrives at the open hearth foundry, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)




The slow-moving little car of hardware has trouble passing between the machine tools. Gangway! The workers jump aside to let the hysterical thing through. And the clanking fool goes on between the belts and flywheels, bringing men their ration of servitude.



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After a casting is completed, worker with a compressed air gun plugs the furnace wall with nine cubic feet of clay, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)




It's sickening to watch the workers bent over their machines, intent on giving them all possible pleasure, calibrating bolts and more bolts, instead of putting to an end once and for all to this stench of oil, this vapour that burns your throat and attacks your eardrums from inside. It's not shame that makes them bow their heads. You give in to noise as you give in to war. At the machines you let yourself go with the three ideas that are wobbling about at the top of your head. And that's the end. From then on everything you look at, everything you touch, is hard. And everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts.



Image, Source: intermediary roll film


Fabric for automobile tires in the process of manufacture, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



All of a sudden you've become disgustingly old.



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Interior of tool and die building, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



All outside life must be done away with, made into steel, into something useful. We didn't love it enough the way it was, that's why. So it has to be made into an object, into something solid. The Regulations say so.




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Labor strike, Ford Motor Company: group shot, woman standing in foreground and pointing finger with another woman standing to her left, May 26, 1937: photographer unknown (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)





I tried to shout something into the foreman's ear, he grunted like a pig in answer and made motions to show me, very patiently, the simple operation I was to perform forever and ever. My minutes, my hours, like those of the others, all my time, would go into passing linchpins to the blind man next to me, who had been calibrating these same linchpins for years. I did the work very badly from the start. Nobody reprimanded me, but after three days of the first job, I was transferred, already a failure, to pushing the little trolley full of washers that went jolting along from machine to machine. At one machine I left three, at another a dozen, at another still only five. Nobody spoke to me. Existence was reduced to a kind of hesitation between stupor and frenzy. Nothing mattered but the ear-splitting continuity of the machines that commanded the men.




Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Rubber for inner tubes being forced through a straining machine, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)




At six o'clock, when everything stops, you carry the noise away in your head. I had enough noise to last all night, not to mention the smell of oil, as if I'd been given a new nose and a new brain for all time.



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Power House, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)




By dint of renunciation I became, little by little, a different man . . . a new Ferdinand. But it took several weeks.



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Cleaning a finished magnesium casting, Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, May 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

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Henry Ford
: photo by Hartsook, 1917 (Library of Congress)



Louis-Ferdinand Céline: from Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), 1932, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1988

3 comments:

curtisroberts said...

Devastating and unforgettable. Impossible as it is to improve on Celine, your collaboration, I beileve, is one he would have greatly appreciated. Seeing this after the Sheelers is, well, mind-blowing in the best possible way. I feel engaged, enraged, enlarged and frightened. "Ford's". It's a funny usage that "cuts both ways" like all forms of paternalism.

aditya said...

.. because in there poor people smell of death.

There's a degree of destitution when the mind doesn't always stay with the body.

some so violent that they release a kind of silence around them, which makes you feel a little better.

You give in to noise as you give in to war.

I feel engaged, enraged, enlarged and frightened.

Its a tremendous tremendous post.

TC said...

Céline, whose medical specialty was social hygiene, was sent by the League of Nations on an investigative visit to the Ford plant in 1926.

His conclusions on the conditions of the factory workers confirmed his deep distrust of American industrial society.

He found the workers on the assembly lines reduced to a dehumanized state, living in a stupefied 'state of humility' somewhere between the human and the mechanical.


In an earlier post here, we find the narrator of Journey to the End of the Night at his wit's end in New York.