Cinematic Dialectics de bonne heure

Curator's Note

For a historical materialist film studies, La Sortie Des Usines Lumiere a Lyon (1895) is cinema's primal scene. Film history consists in a series of compulsive repetitions of the shot. What is Cinema? Cinema is a praxis that attempts to make what happens after labor is done perceivable - attempts to make social reproduction (i.e., "life") visible and audible despite capital's constant erasure of it. Where do the workers go when they leave the frame in La sortie des usines Lumiere à Lyon and all of its remakes? Melodrama, cinema’s dominant genre seeks to answer that question, though sometimes disguising the working class as the petty bourgeoisie, sometimes offering false percepts and sometimes disclosing reproduction’s truth. One hopes they leave the factory, to attend to social reproduction and not to labor at another site of production. One hopes they find a way to continue existing other than by reproducing their labor power and the wage relation. Cinema’s compulsively restaged primal scene brings an aesthetic promise of happiness, or at least respite, in the same frame that inaugurates the powers that will undermine that promise in favor of action, production and circulation.

The 1895 film introduces cinema’s specific capacity to think reproduction, the capacity of its chronotopes to refer percepts to ideologically obscured social forces: the forces involved in conversation, in parenting, in the division of domestic labor, in sex, in being separated by markets and together on the streets. Over the course of its history, cinema’s ethnographic power empties out La sortie’s promise of happiness and leads audiences to ask what we must do in order to be able to imagine that the workers aren’t headed to a camp, that man could stop being kapo to woman and that Capital’s genocidal dispossession could stop abjecting racialized surplus populations. Cinema begins with this film that inscribes the question of our revolutionary horizon in its off screen space.


Thanks, Dr. Schwartz, for this productive exposé on cinema's primal scene (one of them, anyway). How important is the film's framing, in your account? The composition limits the visibility of that outside world—where are they going?— but also blocks our view of the inside of the factory. It seems that the issue of showing/blocking the scene of labor also carries over through the ensuing history of cinema. In any case, you've led me to consider reclassifying this film as a mystery. Translate its static composition—half obscured, half peep show—into classical narrative, and it is as much noir detective story as it is melodrama. Again, thanks for reinvigorating the film.

I would like to second Rene Thoreau Bruckner's question. My immediate response was similar: we do not know where the workers are going, but the inside of the factory remains equally invisible. Or, to put it differently, maybe their destinations are as predictable as the monotony of work itself. So what the short film makes visible is the moment of exiting itself. Maybe what is truly invisible in capitalist society is not the sites of production and reproduction, but the mundane yet fleetingly utopian passages connecting them.

Cinema's allergy to showing industrial labor in particular, and what Marx called "productive labor" in general, is very well known. Some like Zizek make the mistake of calling this a recent phenomenon and other like Farocki knew that factory work has been encrypted off screen for the whole of cinema's history. My contention is that, in part because of the reactionary productivism that haunts avant garde depictions of labor , cinema's essential praxis, the praxis that drives it forward and which can't be discerned from the "myth of total cinema," of second life, that persists in all contemporary expression *as such,* is the attempt to render the quotidian and generational reproduction of the proletariate perceivable. Attempts to depict labor did not have the same effect on cinema's historical and art historical vectors. I didn't exactly mean to write a formalist evaluation of the acualité. I use it and certain of it's features as an emblem for the main genetic vector in cinema. In part this is derived from Deleuze's notion of the "soul of cinema," which I would rather call it's leading edge, apical meristem, or simply, the films I can be bothered with. My contention that making social reproduction perceivable allow one to show that cinema played a specific roll in the death of media and as a force along Art's general becoming-form-life. So, I agree that what's inside the Lumiere factory can't be perceived in the clip.

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