Anomie of the People

LESLIE KAPLAN IS a French writer born in Brooklyn (1943), or an American author who lives in Paris and writes in French. The daughter of a US “information officer” busy with anti–Communist Party propaganda in the post-Yalta culture wars on the Continent, Kaplan moved to Paris as a child and stayed when her parents left. As a student, she was radicalized in the movement against the Algerian War. By 1968, she had joined a small Maoist organization that had recently begun its “settling down” campaign, sending personnel into large factories across France to make contact with the most militant workers. Kaplan had settled in a Lyon washing-machine factory when the strike wave of May and early June 1968 intervened; she would remain within the libertarian-communist left afterward, into the next decade. She began publishing in the early ’80s, and her first book, L’excès—l’usine (1982), distilled in an outwardly poetic form her experience of “the factory.” Now being published in translation (by Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap) for the first time, by Oakland-based Commune Editions, Excess—The Factory resurfaces in English at a moment when the factory, for the workers of much of Europe and North America, seems almost an anachronism: replaced by the big-box store, the warehouse, and the logistics cluster, when not by prisons blooming upstate.

The topos of the factory and the mine belongs to an estimable if minor tradition of the French novel: Zola’s Germinal, Céline’s Journey, Robert Linhart’s The Assembly Line. Kaplan’s writing here is distinguished from these models by its emphatic purging of the telling anecdote, the instructive story, in favor of the deployed detail that (as Kaplan elsewhere puts it) “is the condensation of many different levels, an infinity of levels.” Drawn out into nine “circles,” her anti-epic is superficially modeled on Dante’s poem. We might be descending into Blake’s satanic mills, but the arrangement is stripped of the Inferno’s theological trappings, allegorical mechanics, or cosmological order (instead: “the great factory, the universe”). As we pass from circle to circle, we seem to move from factory to factory, or from workshop to workshop. We—or rather the plural, faceless “you” called into being by the narrator—-operate in a continuous present: We make boxes, cables, crackers, rubber parts, headlights, ultimately just “things.” The sense of time is as uncertain as the identity of the narrator or the narrated “you”: “You are outside of time, under the sky of the factory”; “You move indefinitely, outside of time”; “Time is elsewhere: only space exists, infinite, in your mind”; “Time stays there, like a box”; “Time is outside, in things.” Like time, features commonly attributed to the subject are, in the factory, made things, rendered pastelike, viscous: “Thought is sticky”; “The gaze sticks to everything like a fly” (echoes, here of Sartre’s Nausea). There is little sense, as in the Inferno, of descent, or of a preparation for elevation. We are at rock bottom. But the concentricity proposed by the book’s structure suggests our uncertain movements are zeroing in on something. Violence seems around every bend. If most of what we do is making (boxes, cables, etc.), the place itself, its vastness, threatens, acts: “Space, space kills.” By the book’s end, this verb is given a palpable agency. We see, in a city square, a little girl playing with a “grey” baby: “At one point the woman who might be the mother says to the little girl: Come on, you’re going to kill the baby. The little girl lifts up the baby and asks: Do you think I’m going to kill you?” Fin.

There are no men in the factory. The workshops, the assembly lines, are as segregated as an Orthodox synagogue. The factory is vaster than the plant itself: It is the surrounding neighborhood, the city, and beyond (“the great factory, the universe”). Everywhere the gaze alights, there is no world, only waste: “All space is occupied: all has become waste. The skin, the teeth, the gaze.” The shadow cast by the factory is terrifying; on its outskirts, “you see torn off mouths, lost hair, burned bodies,” and “piled up barrels, shovels and skins.” Among these wastes, there are women, only women: beautiful, freshly made-up, Yugoslavian, black, hunchbacked, reading books, missing teeth, “used,” “damaged.” One of these women—perhaps all of them—is “there, infinite.” A flash of desire, a current of solidarity, runs between you and this “infinite”: “You love her, you love her so much.”

Throughout Excess—The Factory, not least in that final scene in which the mother chides her child not to kill that “grey” baby, we hear Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” playing over and over again on the café jukebox. The song was the number-one hit single in France in October 1968, just months after the general strike of May and June. “We’d live the life we choose / We’d fight and never lose / Those were the days / Oh yes those were the days.”The “universe” of the factory is, in Kaplan’s demanding little book, shot through with a crepuscular light. Because the factory had already begun to recede as a privileged site in the political, social, and historical imagination of the West by the time Kaplan wrote Excess—The Factory, its hulking presence might feel remote to a contemporary reader. The worldlessness and waste, the sheer terror of the place, remains, and will nevertheless ring a resonant bell.

Jason E. Smith is currently writing a book on automation to be published by Reaktion in 2019, and is Chair of the Graduate Art MFA program at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.