This last while I’ve been finding it hard to write here. Of course, there never was a sustained moment when I was able to eke out a time or find a space to write free from the interruptions of paid work and the duties of home. I’m not complaining, mind, mainly because I don’t have the time.
This morning I had the shuffle function working on the iPod, and up popped Piss Factory as I was running up one Connolly Station platform to make my way across to another so that I could get a train across to Pearse, preparing myself for another day of interruptions, messages, and manipulation of symbols. This morning that song hit my thoughts like acid, the shifting rhythms of a percussive piano and the jazzy guitar drift, with Patti Smith’s 16-year-old girl, her pungent voice, her freely associated stream of images mocking, railing against the factory disciplinary rhythm and the minds and bodies it has shaped.
The job is ‘inspecting pipe’, but the place makes piss, not pipes. To call it a piss factory isn’t simply a matter of saying that what gets made there is useless: it’s only through the production of pipes, and their inspection, that plumbing and sewage systems can function, and it is through these systems that piss, and the act of pissing, acquires its particular meaning in modern society. Without plumbing and sewage, we would have an entirely different conception of piss. Therefore it is not just that the factory produces piss, in that it enables people to go to the toilet in a defined way, but that it also produces the meaning of piss.
Pissing on something, of course, has been an expression of contempt since forever. The factory also produces piss in that sense too: its rhythms and its discipline produce the gush of mocking resentment from the 16-year-old. The track has no percussive instruments other than the tinkling piano, whose rhythm ebbs and flows like someone taking a piss. And then there is the idea of piss denoting youthful ebullience, as manifest by the boasts, in ‘full of piss and vinegar’. Also, there is piss in the sense of ideas without consequence or bearing, as in ‘full of wind and piss’. We can add to that the idea of piss as waste: as in pissing it -whatever ‘it’ is: youth, money, talent, time- all away. All these things are produced in the Piss Factory.
There are a few lines in the song that resound hellishly in light of the current mood. You may hear similar things at work, or on the radio. The idea that one should be grateful for a job, in the place of occupying the ranks of the army of the unemployed, is pushed incessantly by state broadcasters, business shills.
Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week
But it’s a paycheck, Jack.
Is what you hear here the narrator coming to terms with her ‘job in a piss factory inspecting pipe’, or is she really sending up, or maybe lamenting, a kind of masculine stoicism on display by others, in the face of humiliating compulsion, of subordination to the factory process? This sort of response is also, we can presume, a product of the Piss Factory.
What this reminds me of is Blake’s Chimney Sweeper, which I’ve written about before:
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
In which the child, engaged in the cleaning of chimneys -another system designed to dispose of another kind of waste- is conditioned to produce the response adequate to keeping the system working as intended, in the process disciplining other children who might be inclined to other ideas: ‘if all do their duty they need not fear harm’.
In contrast, however, to Blake’s Chimney Sweeper, Patti Smith’s sixteen-year-old is considerably wiser to her predicament:
You could faint in the heat
But these bitches are just too lame to understand
Too goddamned grateful to get this job
To know they’re getting screwed up the ass
All these women they got no teeth or gum or cranium
She can see the psychobiological ravages of the labour process in a way Blake’s first Chimney Sweeper cannot. I would note in passing here that the mix of slang ‘ass’ and medical terminology ‘cranium’ in dealing with industrial production also echoes Blake’s own poetic vocabulary. And yet for all her insight, even though she sees how she has been shaped, to the point of herself identifying with a machine:
But me well I wasn’t sayin’ too much neither
I was moral school girl hard-working asshole
I figured I was speedo motorcycle
I had to earn my dough, had to earn my dough
She is still there, in the factory, doing her job. Listening to her talk about her experiences, and aware of Patti Smith’s own trajectory, and temporarily oblivious to the fact that ‘I got’ is not necessarily past tense, you might be inclined to conclude that the account is retrospective, and that the girl has conjured an escape from the Piss Factory. Yet even though she’s talking about having to ‘earn her dough’ in the past tense, as the song ends she’s still in the factory, hiding away her ‘desire’, dreaming of heading off to the city to become a big star. And given the frantic intensity of her exertions, going above and beyond what is required of her, pushing her productivity to absurd limits, subverting the manufacturing process at least to the extent that it disturbs her fellow workers, you might start to wonder if even this desire is itself a product of the Piss Factory. That is, even the idea of the escape route to individual freedom and affirmation may be just one more factory product.
This question goes to the heart of Blake’s own political concerns. Saree Makdisi’s superb ‘William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s‘ describes Blake’s differences with bourgeois radicals such as Tom Paine, in whose company he is often placed, in the following terms:
The difference between the bourgeois discourse celebrating the manufacturing process and that of the conservatives of the old order is that the former imagines the opening up and development of a realm beyond production in which it ought to be possible to be free from the rule of necessity, whereas the latter does not. For bourgeois discourse, the realm of freedom is of course that of politics, and also that of culture-that realm in which an independent consumer can choose a unique mode of self-fashioning and hence self-identity-both defined by the logic of consumer choice (choice of products, choice of representatives). This depends upon the possibility of being able to open up just such a realm, in which autonomous organisms can make choices, in which, in fact, there can be not only an autonomous organism in the first place, but the possibility for making choices based on sensory input and the rational choices enabled by the regulation of the five senses.
But if, as Blake’s work insists, the organism making these choices is seen as a product of the system which also produces the objects of consumption from which it chooses, what we are left with is no longer autonomy and freedom, but a closed circuit of production and consumption, producer and consumer, organism and organ, all generated by the same continuous process as parts subservient to the requirements of a larger whole composed by them. In other words, if the principle of homogeneous equivalence is extended from the products of this process -that is, commodities- to its producers, the exteriority fantasized by middle-class writers-and the fantasy of the realm of cultural and political freedom -is threatened with annihilation. If the logic of the reified object is extended to the logic of the reified subject, it becomes difficult to imagine a realm within this process which might avoid or evade the laws of the commodity and hence the rules of necessity; in other words, it becomes difficult or impossible to imagine genuine freedom within such a social system.
So the 16-year-old girl in the Piss Factory, who imagines genuine freedom through a unique mode of self-fashioning, may conceive of herself as an autonomous organism, but at the same time her organism is being fashioned by the system in which she is compelled to produce. The far-off destination of New York, with the affirmation that may come from being a big star, is one more element of what flows from the factory, since it comes into view via the laws of commodity and the rules of necessity. When confronted with countless reports about how young people nowadays are only interested in becoming celebrities, as opposed to pursuing real careers, the right response, following Blake and Patti Smith, ought to be: what is it about the conditions in which they live that maintains this interest? And how much are marketed dreams of celebrity, and of escape through adulation, really part of a broader disciplinary process?
Things appear to have gotten worse since the early 1970s. Mark Fisher, in a New Statesman article on Reality TV, serves to highlight the gap between the search for escape in the shadow of rock’n'roll, and celebrity aspiration in a post rock’n'roll era:
New Statesman – The age of consent
The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den are themselves
synergies of a sort, between business and the dominant new mode of
entertainment this decade, reality television. Reality TV is flat with
the anti-cultural imperatives of business: cheap to make, it does
ideological work even when it is not giving guru status to dull
business people. It fits in with capitalism’s anti-mythic myth: the
idea that we have liberated ourselves from the dangerous illusions
allegedly propagated by art and politics.
In an age falsely
presented as post-political, abstractions are eliminated, and the
personal, the biographical and the emotional come to the fore. “Tell us
how you feel” becomes the ubiquitous demand, as calculating business
and a hugely amplified sentimental interiority become the only two
faces of “reality”, the cynicism of the one using the alleged
authenticity of the other as its alibi.
X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, Cowell’s other vehicle, could be
dismissed as irrelevant fluff, but the sad truth is that, with the end
of Top of the Pops and the rise of multichannel TV and niche
narrowcasting, they are now the closest thing we have to a public space
in entertainment. Yet it is a space where it feels as if punk never
happened, and indeed, neither did rock’n'roll. It is the return of Tin
Pan Alley, with eager young hopefuls dutifully performing songs written
before they were born and being required to show deference to banal
corporate megastars on the make. It is a world that is, oddly, both
entropic and changeless, where the audience is never challenged, and
people are always given what the marketing machine anticipates they
We have simultaneous veneration of the boss and the manufactured illusion of escape to keep us where we are.
But we can still learn from the Piss Factory. At the same time as one might be inclined to cavil about how her desire may be shaped and maintained by the conditions in which she works, one is obliged to ask what else does the girl have but desire? It is only this desire that maintains the possibility of escape, that allows her to keep her bearings, to refuse to lose, to refuse to back down. It’s her desire, which, in its refusal of the boss who says ‘you do it my way or I push your face in’, ultimately keeps her alive.
Patti Smith’s own thoughts about Blake, in this regard, are instructive:
I was reading William Blake as a child. Songs of Innocence was next to Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty. And I learned things — about chimney sweeps and the terrible child labor of his time. I could see he cared about children. The second way I came to Blake was as a painter: I studied his work and palette. More recently, I’ve studied Blake the man. And what I learned was that this was a man who had visions as a child, who was ridiculed and even beaten for having these visions. But he maintained those visions his whole life. Wherever they came from, whether he animated them from within or they were from God, William Blake held on to his vision. He never got a break in his life. His work never sold. He lived in poverty. When he spoke out, he nearly lost his life. He could have been hanged for insurrection.
What I learned from William Blake is, don’t give up. And don’t expect anything. Like when you were asking me, did I deserve a record deal? Don’t expect it. I have a great life. I’ve seen dark times too and have had, in certain times of my life, nothing. No material things, not much prospects — except my own imagination. But if you perceive that you have a gift, you already have life. Everything else is, as they say, gravy.
“My Blakean Year” is not any specific year. It’s more of a time. It could be a week, a decade. Also, there’s the line in there: “Throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear.” That’s the one thing in our country — I know we have a horrible deficit, all of these horrible things happening. But the worst thing the Bush administration has done is instill huge amounts of fear in our people. That is deplorable. We have to replace that fear with awareness and a determination to make things better.
To which I would modestly suggest that our awareness of our world, and how it is shaped by the way we are compelled to do what we do, is still dominated by the idea that what matters is that a person is, as Blake described it,
‘Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to the Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science’.
and that this stupid cloak needs to be thrown off, and pissed upon.