Saturday, November 30, 2019

We Are All Servants: On Class and Subjectivity in Parasite and Knives Out

A common thread connects Parasite and Knives Out, two of the best films of the year. That thread is not just the representation of class, but more specifically the servant as kind of figure of class struggle. At first glance this is surprising, nothing seems more archaic, more out of touch with the existing labor relations than a household servant. In different and contradictory ways these films illustrate that in age of service jobs and emotional labor the servant has gone from being a remnant of feudal era to the closest one can get to a universal figure of alienation.

Classical political economy considered the servant as an unproductive worker, and as a remnant of the old world. Buried in The Wealth of Nations, a book that is cited more than it is read, there is a discussion of the servant in the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. What is striking is not that Smith classifies the servant as unproductive worker, along with the politician and soldier, because their services "vanish in the their very act of their performance." Smith conflates production, the production of wealth, with the production of things. What is less often commented upon, however, is that Smith understands the servant to be utterly dependent on their master. They are not too different from feudal peasants, so tied to one individual that their fate is not distinct from his--compelled to die for the glory of one man. In contrast to this, the small producer, the craftsman, or merchant dissipates their dependency by making things for many rather than serving the one. The transition from feudalism to capitalism is a transformation of dependency, a liberation through its diffusion.

As much as Marx was a critic of this idea of liberation, pointing out that serving many customers is actual serving "the market," and thus serving a master that is all the more harsh and invisible because it is impersonal. At the same time Marx also separated productive labor, labor that produces value, from any attachment to production in the physical sense, the production of things. As Marx writes, 

A singer who sings like a bird is an unproductive worker. If she sells her song for money, she is to that extent a wage-laborer or merchant. But if the same singer is engaged by an entrepreneur who makes her sing to make money, then she becomes a productive worker, since she produces capital directly. A schoolmaster who instructs others is not a productive worker. But a schoolmaster who works for wages in an institution along with others, using his own labor to increase the money of the entrepreneur who owns the knowledge-mongering institution, is a productive worker. But for the most part, work of this sort has scarcely reached the stage of being subsumed even formally under capital, and belongs essentially to a transitional stage.

This separation is uneven and incomplete in Marx's writings, partly because the shadow of the feudal servant lingered over it. Marx and Smith agreed on one thing, even if they disagreed about its implications, the sun was setting on the direct servitude that tied one individual to another. In its place was not just a new mode of production aimed at producing things rather than reproducing social hierarchies, but an increasingly impersonal relation in which individuals are interchangeable representation of general market relations. (Of course Smith and Marx disagree if this change is liberation or a new form of subjection) Now, as the direct production of things, productive labor in its classical variety, is increasingly automated and outsourced, a new kind of labor has emerged. It is no longer the direct servitude of a butler, maid, or teacher, but a generalized servitude in which abilities to please customers, to interact pleasantly with others, and to meet even anticipated needs are required of every job. This is not just true of the gig economy with drivers and delivery people who can be rated and evaluated, but is true of workers who must demonstrate their commitment, their flexibility, their enthusiasm, again and again in order to just keep their job. 

As Paolo Virno argues, the selling of one's personal qualities leads to the revival of personal domination at the heart of the wage relation. It ultimately transforms personality itself into an aspect of the job. As Virno writes about the difference between the specialization of the worker and the rising demand of professionalism, 

"Specialization is something impersonal, an objective requirement that can be evaluated based on shared parameters. Professionalism on the other hand is seen as a subjective property, a form of know-how inseparable from the individual person; it is a sum of knowledges, experiences, attitudes, and a certain sensibility. Correctly understood, post-Fordist ‘professionality’ does not correspond to any precise profession. It consists rather of certain character traits."

What Virno stresses, in contrast to some of his Post-Autonomous comrades is the fundamentally ambivalent nature of this new form of labor. The exploitation of one's capacities to communicate, interact, feel, and think, gives rise to both new forms of domination as well as the potential for new forms of liberation. As Virno writes,

"When the fundamental abilities of the human being (thought, language, self-reflection, the capacity for learning) come to the forefront, the situation can take on a disquieting and oppressive appearance; or it can even give way to a non-governmental public sphere, far from the myths and rituals of sovereignty." 

It is precisely this new form of domination, and with it the intersection of personal and impersonal aspects of domination, that Parasite and Knives Out illustrate and explore.

Parasite is the most recent film from Bong Joon Ho, who is no stranger to class struggle or satirizing capitalism. Only in this case the scenario does not require a nightmare train or a mutant pig, just two families. One family, the Kim's lives in a basement apartment in Seoul scrapping by as outsourced workers folding pizza boxes, the other, the Park's living in a luxurious home of opulence and security. The plot begins when Ki-Woo, the son of the Kim family, is hired by the Parks as an english tutor. From that point forward one by one the Kims get jobs working for the Parks, as art therapist, driver, and maid. Inserting themselves into the Kim's lives, and displacing the existing staff through a series of brilliant cons and scams. 

As much as Parasite is a kind of con it is a con in which the work of the illusion is virtually indistinguishable from actual work. One may fabricate an identification to get a job as a chauffeur, but one still has to drive the car. The con just gets one in the door. There is no ruse, no fabrication that can dispense with the need to sell one's labor power in order to live. That the Kim's are grifting themselves into jobs, albeit comfortable and easy ones, undermines the utopian element of the con film, the idea that one could pull off a scam that would put an end to the need to work. The best the Kims' can hope for is raiding the liquor cabinet and refrigerator of their employers when they are away for the weekend.

As much as the Kims prove to be talented at fabricating credentials, creating fake identities and back stories they are unable to completely overcome the class hierarchy. They are betrayed by their smell, a smell that betrays their dank basement apartment. It is a smell that nearly "crosses the line" in the words of the patriarch of the Park family. The line he alludes to is fundamentally asymmetrical. The Kims are asked to do tasks that exceed their job description, even participate in the Parks' son's elaborate birthday party playing the part of "American Indians". This does not cross the line, but the slightest hint of impropriety on the part of the Kims risks overstepping the boundaries imposed by the Parks. Well before the recently fired housekeeper shows up, and the film takes a darker turn, Parasite underscores the futility of pulling oneself from their bootstraps.

Rian Johnson's Knives Out is also a return to Earth from a director more well known for traveling space and time.  It resembles at first a drawing room mystery. Harlan Thrombey, a phenomenally successful writer, who may actually be a self-made man. We do not learn enough of his back story. We do learn that he has a family of his own, a daughter, a son, and a widowed daughter-in-law, as well as three grandchildren. The entire family are absolutely dependent upon Harlan's wealth, and absolutely convinced that they are self-made. The family gathers for Harlan's eighty-fifth birthday, a party which ends with Harlan dead in what first looks like a suicide, but, as they say, nothing is as it seems. 

Johnson infuses the old premise with very contemporary references. At times the film feels like a strange reversal of Brick, where that film had high schoolers speaking like characters in a Dashiell Hammett novel, Knives Out has characters who look like they should be in a Agatha Christie novel talking and acting like many of the audiences that might have gone to see the film Thanksgiving weekend. There are references to Hamilton, the New Yorker,  and, of course, Trump. My favorite one liner ripped from today's dinner tables has to be, "I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you: you're famous.” While the former film drew together the world of high school and tough detectives to underscore the brutality of the former the latter film seems to offer a kind of time lapse image of the what could even be called the "bourgeois"--compressing together drawing room etiquette and instagram influencers into one image. The stately manor and tweed jackets are there to remind us, as the narrative makes clear, both how much old wealth underlies new wealth, as well as  how much new wealth is desperate to make itself appear old and established. There is continuity underneath discontinuity and continuity between discontinuity. (I do not want to give away one of the film's funniest lines about the old house that is the center of the film). The picture of the bourgeois it draws is not a flattering one. Not only are they delusional about their own status, claiming to have made their own wealth, they are delusional about their overall standing in society, and their relationships with each other.

The primary object of their delusions is Marta, Harlan's nurse, health aid, and confidant. All of Harlan's children tell her that they consider Marta like family, and that they voted to invite her to Harlan's funeral but were out voted by the others. A claim that subtly subverts itself as the film goes on. They congratulate themselves on welcoming an immigrant but don't seem to know where she comes from, Ecuador and Paraguay are mentioned, nor that her mother is undocumented. In one of the more awkward scenes of the film Marta is brought out in the middle of a family squabble as the representative of a "good immigrant." It is ultimately Marta who is at the center of the story, she is the one who who knows the truth about Harlan's death and is also the object of subsequent lies as the family tries to frame her. Marta, however, cannot lie, or, more to the point, lying makes her physically sick, a plot point that the film has a great deal of fun with. She is also concerned about the well being of others. To some extent her decency is what saves her in the end. The Thrombeys expect her to act in a self-interested way, as they would act, but she does not play that game. 

That might be the strongest point of conflict between the films, or at least the point from which to begin. The Kims are not good, and they know it. They consider goodness to be a luxury that only the rich can afford. Marta, on the other hand, is the only decent person in a world of lies. She is what the Thrombeys believe themselves to be, a hardworking and caring person. The fact that she is the daughter of an undocumented worker, what is referred to at one point in the film as an "anchor baby, either undercuts the film's moralism or separates morality from law. As much as Knives Out  drifts towards a kind of moralism that risks affirming the very Horatio Alger stories that it satirizes, I am tempted to see Marta less as the saint she is made out to be, than as someone who has learned different lessons about helping others, about the need for solidarity. Even her inability to lie is ultimately less about her goodness than it is a constraint she must contend with. 

Marta's decency, like the Kim family's con, becomes more opaque when viewed from the perspective of work. We know that Harlan considers her a friend and confidante, looking forward to their nightly games of go as she administers his medications, but we do not really know what she thinks of these encounters. Is she his friend? Or, as other elements of the film suggest, a consummate professional, listening to her patient's concerns with the same care as she administers his medication. When it comes to "care work" it is hard to know where the job ends and the person begins, just as it is hard to separate the con from the job. 

The films can also be differentiated in terms of how they position themselves with respect to class. Parasite is a film about the working class in the age of surplus populations. As much as the Kims scramble for work, for a place to pick up a free wifi signal, etc., they ultimately understand that it is best to have "no plan." Plans inevitably go wrong. In contrast to this the Thrombeys not only believe that they have made their own fortunes, overlooking the very inheritance that they are willing to kill for, but that anyone can with enough hard work. They believe in the plan even as their own experience contradicts it. 

Both films take place in a liminal space in which market pressures, the pressures to get and keep a job, intersect with personal demands and relations, the pressures to please or appeal to a specific person. This seems to be to be part of their appeal. They are both films about the increasing intimacy of work. It is this intimacy that brings the two films together, but also limits them. They are not films about class struggle, or politics, and in different ways, both illustrate the constraint of the individualistic ideal of "making it." They are, however, films that map the increasing intersecting lines of subjectivity and the economy. 


Alois Sieben said...

"Both films take place in a liminal space in which market pressures, the pressures to get and keep a job, intersect with personal demands and relations, the pressures to please or appeal to a specific person. This seems to be to be part of their appeal. They are both films about the increasing intimacy of work."

I wonder how this idea fits with Olivier Assayas's pair of films, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, in which Kristen Stewart plays an assistant/servant to an older woman. The first is overly intimate and fits with the take here, but the second involves the assistant never even conversing face to face with her boss. Instead, the lines of communication involve money, notes, phone calls, texts, etc. (distanced and mediated). The only intimacy happens in a scene in which Stewart browses on Google photos of her boss, or in another scene where Stewart tries on her clothes, lies in her bed, while expressing a desire to be her.

unemployed negativity said...

Thank you for reminding me of those films, which I have been meaning to watch.

Dominick said...


Adera said...

Love the analysis