Thursday 13 December 2007

Capitalism, Exploitation and the Nottingham Lace Trade

Nottingham is famed for its manufacture of lace during the Industrial Revolution, but as Marx notes in Capital vol. I, the production of lace was brutally exploitative, relying on unregulated child labour and shortening workers' lives through horrendous working conditions. So, how do we feel admiring the beautiful, historic Marquet Squre, centre of nineteenth-century lace-trading, knowing the suffering that created it? As Walter Wenjamin famously wrote: 'There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism' (Illuminations, p. 256).

Firstly, then, a little bit of background about the Nottingham lace trade. As Susan Ashby writes (

“The first ‘stocking machine’ was invented by William Lee in Nottingham in 1685, which further developed into a ‘warp frame’ or ‘stocking frame’ in the 1700s, but the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution left their mark on Nottingham too. Even then, it was known as a centre of fine lace making. As many as 120,000 people and their families made their living by creating stockings and bobbin lace from cotton thread in their homes, fuelled by the cotton mill built in the village of Hockley by Richard Arkwright in 1770. As the industry, like many others, shifted from the home trade of handmade lace to large-scale factories, individuals were frightened of losing their livelihood. The "Luddite" riots briefly threatened to overturn the technological and social changes that mechanization brought, and soldiers had to be posted to protect the factories and the machines, but the resistance soon passed.

Lace making reached true efficiency when John Leavers invented what came to be known as the ‘Leavers machine’ in 1814. These machines, first powered by teams of men, then by steam, gradually replaced the hand-powered frames. The factories employed predominantly male factory workers known as ‘twisthands’, who operated the 20-ton machines and kept them lubricated with graphite ("black lead") and oil. Many of the local Nottingham businesses were focused solely on the finishing of lace which was made elsewhere in the East Midlands countryside; unfinished lace was often limp, tangled and dirty, and sometimes stained with the very graphite and oil that kept the machines running efficiently. The finishing tasks (bleaching, running, mending, drawing, scalloping, clipping, and cropping) were performed mainly by women, often in factory surroundings that were overheated, poorly ventilated and poorly lit; still, their hours were generally better than workers in other factory industries.

Thomas Adams, a noted Quaker, did much to reform the working conditions for the ladies in his factory, providing indoor toilets, a tea room, and a sick fund. […] By 1865, there were one hundred and thirty lace factories, with nearly as many supporting industries, and the population of Nottingham had quintupled over the previous century. At about the same time, during Queen Victoria's mourning for Prince Albert, a fashion for black lace swept the country. Throughout the early 1900s, Nottingham dominated the machine-made lace industry, with nearly all of the machine lace in the United Kingdom being produced, finished, processed or shipped through one or another of the city's lace businesses. Nearly every passenger ship that travelled across the Atlantic in those decades carried a cargo of Nottingham lace (including the Titanic).”

Marx denounces Nottingham's lace trade as an example of the exploitation of the worker by capitalism:

"Mr Broughton Charlton, county magistrate, declared, as chairman of a meeting held at the Assembly Rooms, Nottingham, on the 14th January, 1860, ‘that there was an amount of privation and suffering among that portion of the population connected with the lace trade, unknown in other parts of the kingdom, indeed, in the civilised world. … Children of nine or ten years are dragged from their squalid beds at two, three, or four o’clock in the morning and compelled to work for a bare subsistence until ten, eleven, or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, and their humanity absolutely sinking into a stone-like torpor, utterly horrible to contemplate… We are not surprised that Mr Mallet, or any other manufacturer, should stand forward and protest against discussion…. The system, as the Rev. Montagu Valpy describes it, is one of unmitigated slavery, socially, physically, morally, and spiritually…. What can be thought of a town which holds a public meeting to petition that the period of labour for men shall be diminished to eighteen hours a day?" (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, ed. David McLellan, p. 154)
Can anyone tell us, do the Assembly Rooms at Nottingham still exist? And should they record the meeting described in detail by Marx in the form of some recognition of the people who suffered to generate the wealth that established Nottingham as the trading centre of the East Midlands? All comments welcome!

Sunday 13 May 2007

Foucault Versus Facebook

The American prison systems of the late 18th and 19th centuries utilised the notion of the Panopticon - Jeremy Bentham's design that allowed all prisoners to see each other (pan, all; optic, see/observe) and therefore reduce the duty and necessity of prison guards. (We could all go off on a Marxist tangent here about the capitalist monetary system of breaking down skills into a series of jobs to keep the working classes in place but make the rich richer, but we'll have to stay out of it for now. Cans, worms.) The original panopticon got the prisoners to work menial jobs whilst all in each other's sight lines, therefore turning the watched and the watchers into one.

Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish that the psychological effects of this can be transposed onto society: modern disciplinary systems such as schools, armies, factories and hospitals create an observed, normalised society - he who misbehaves is seen doing so, and in turn he who sees the misbehaviour knows that if he can see it happening, someone can see him.

Were Foucault alive today, I'm pretty sure he'd rather like Facebook. Not only could he cruise the profiles of young men in his area (Facebook enables you to see the full profiles of anyone in the same "network" - eg city, town, university - as you, but only to see thumbnails of those outside of it), but every time he logged on he'd also be greeted with a page telling him everything that is going on in his surroundings.

Who's made friends with who? Who's updated their profile photo? Who's changed their favourite film or band? Who's joined which groups? Who's attending which event? Who's now single, or in a relationship? These profiles are, of course, partly lies - we are trying to construct our personalities, to represent, to come across as fully-formed people with quirks and characteristics when in fact we're all in a state of flux and self-creation.

It's only a matter of time

The panopticon of Facebook has enabled me to discover this: one of my friends is "not a feminist but..." (one of my favourite phrases ever, in fact I'd love Julie Birchill's fake TV documentary of the same name - in which a group of modern women are locked in a Big Brother style environment and have different privileges, such as to work, choose a spouse and press charges for rape - removed one by one over ten weeks); that another is a Future Conservative UK member; that two people who hated each other at school are now friends (did they grow up, or do they just want to have more friends on Facebook?).

And what is it saying about me? Is someone about to point out that, really, I don't love The Purple Rose of Cairo as much as my profile pretends, but I just couldn't think of a better "sad" Woody Allen film, to make me appear a more rounded person? Is Facebook trying to normalise me into telling the truth, or getting us all to judge each other as we reshape our meagre young lives? Perhaps it wants all of us to influence and argue each other, and delete people from our friends list for stepping out of line and joining the Future Conservatives UK group. I don't know. (I would quite like to talk to Foucault about this. Sadly he is dead. But there is a Facebook group called What the Foucault? that works for now.)

Foucault - oh, it's hard.

Monday 30 April 2007

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

As a relative novice in the world of Critical Theory, I have decided that rather than embarrass myself attempting to debate the relative merits of theorists I almost certainly have not read (that shall come later) my first post should draw on something that I actually do have some knowledge of: obscure examples of cinematic detritus which are slowly becoming available through collectors sites like 5 Minutes to Live and Shocking Videos.

One of the most fascinating films I've come across is La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? (Can Dialectics Break Bricks?), a 1973 French situationist film made by director Rene Vienet. The film redubs a Chinese martial arts film, Tang shou tai quan dao (The Crush, 1972) to transform the narrative into a conflict between the proletariat and the bureaucrats within state capitalism. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of the Woody Allen film What's Up, Tiger Lily? in that it reappropriates and recontextualises a work through overdubbing a completely new narrative. Reflecting the situationist technique of detournement (defined as "the reemployment in a new entity of preexisting artistic elements"), the film is actually remarkably similar to such recent phenomena as fan films and mash-up videos. And, as with all such media, it really does need to be seen to be believed:

Friday 27 April 2007

Visualisations of Utopia (Part Two)

Continuing my brief foray into the many and various ways (available on the Internet) in which Utopia is imagined or visualised to publicise, conceptualise or legitimise art, advertising, fiction or film....

“The Man From Utopia.” Album by Frank Zappa, 1983. The
album is named after a 1950s song written by Donald and Doris Woods. The sleeve art features the work of Italian artist Tanino Liberatore, portraying Zappa on stage trying to kill mosquitoes. The cover represents Zappa’s disastrous performance in Palermo, Italy in July 1982 in which the firing of tear-gas canisters and live ammunition between the security forces and the audience forced the band to flee the stage. Tanino Liberatore also created RanXerox, or Ranx, with fellow Italian Stefano Tamburini in 1978. RanXerox is a science fiction graphic novel series featuring Ranx, a cyborg-punk creature made out of photocopier parts. The artists also worked on the comics Cannibale and Frigidaire.

Utopia Dive Village, Honduras, opened 2007. A scuba diving and luxury vacation resort in the Caribbean, on the island of Utila’s ‘pristine beachfront.’ The resort has a blog, ‘Building Our Place in the Sun,’ detailing its construction, the diving on Utila and the local Utilian carnival parade (

“Road to Utopia.” Released in 1946 (but filmed in 1943) and directed by
Hal Walker, Road to Utopia is part of the “Road to…” series of musical films. Starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, the film takes place on board a ship and in Alaska during the Gold Rush. Featuring songs such as ‘Good Time Charlie,’ It’s Anybody’s Spring,’ and ‘Welcome to My Dream.’

“Utopia 2516.” A musical by the Australian company Captivation Musicals performed in Plymouth in 2004. Written by Drew Lane Utopia 2516 depicts a world without war, hate or greed but also bereft of love, joy and happiness.

“Utopia Place.” A private place for gay and bisexual men to meet in North Geelong, Victoria, Australia. ‘Utopia’ is commonly used to promote homo- and bisexual clubs, facilities and travel resources: the website, for instance, offers an online community to foster a deeper understanding of gay life in the region and publishes Utopia Guides for homosexual travel in Asia. Founded in 1994 by Singaporean, American and Thai partners, it aims to create ‘positive social alternatives for gays and lesbians in the Asian region.’

“The Fortress of Utopia.” A novel by Jack Williamson, 1939. A U.S. writer, considered by many as the ‘dean of science fiction,’ Williamson was a novelist, short story author and university professor, and influenced Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl. By the 1930s, Williamson was an established genre writer and contributed regularly to the pulp magazines, publishing many collaborations with the science fiction author Frederck Pohl. The gritty, realistic tone of his work from the 1930s onward is thought to be influenced by his psychiatric treatment and psychosomatic physical illnesses. Williamson is also famous for coining the word ‘terraforming,’ (literally ‘Earth-shaping’) used as a synonym for planetary engineering.

Thursday 26 April 2007

Hybridising Agency: Humans, Objects, Machines

"This Is What the Future Looks Like" – an illustration of the "Machinic Authority of the vEmpire" by Dragan Kujundzic, University of Florida (BMW ad, on Hotel "Moscow," Moscow, Summer 2003.)
John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (2000)

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000) and Multitude (2005)

Keywords - globalisation, actor network theory, automobility, bioproperty, cyber-spatial civil society, multitude, Empire, machinic exodus
How does agency encounter the moment of the transnational? Is agency purely human? The problem of locating revolutionary agency within Marxist discourses, to compensate for so-called working-class ‘embourgeoisment’ and the failures of Stalinist bureaucratised communism, has variously looked to humanity as the new arbiter of revolutionary hope. The arguments of John Urry and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri engage in Marxist debates over locating political agency, by combining Marxist theory with post-structuralist and globalisation discourses to reconfigure a project of radical democracy.

John Urry draws on actor-network theory to explore the ‘complex mobile hybrids’ formed through mediations between humans, machines and technologies that reconstitute social relations in an age of extensive corporeal and virtual mobilities. He writes that, ‘People possess few powers which are uniquely human’ (Urry 14), and goes on to invert Marx’s famous dictum, proposing that this is ‘not to suggest that humans do not exert agency. But they only do so in circumstances which are not of their own making’ (Urry 14). Urry has written extensively on automobility, which he identifies as ‘a complex of interlocking machines, social practices and ways of dwelling’ (Urry 190).
As car-drivers, humans become intricately involved with their cars so that they lose subjective autonomy and are reformulated as ‘quasi-objects,’ entering the public sphere in their mobility (Urry 190). Similarly, cybernetic and electronic-based technologies refigure the human body as ‘technosocial,’ symbiotic with machines rather than defined by the boundaries of human skin, creating a powerful but unpredictable agency (Urry 70-1). The boundaries between humans and machines are thus transcended through instantaneous and virtual mobilities allowing a digital convergence of non-proximal local groups in what Urry calls ‘cyber-spatial civil society’ (Urry 74).

The Utopian possibilities of such ‘digital nomadisms’ are, however, underwritten by the ‘electronic fortressing’ of what Urry describes as a ‘new global medieval world’ (Urry 76, 13-14). Analogously, Hardt and Negri outline the privatisation of immaterial forms of property, such as mp3 files or Internet resources, as ‘Baroque’ and ‘neo-feudal’ (Multitude 196). The biopolitical productivity of the multitude, they argue, and its democratic ‘electronic commons,’ are being radically truncated by repressive re-privatisations, culminating in ‘bioproperty,’ or the ownership of life itself in the form of patented genetic codes for plants and animals (Multitude 185).

Empire’s rigid reterritorializations, argue Hardt and Negri, are symptomatic of its machinic authority, in which all movements are fixed within its system and can only exist within hierarchical and exploitative relations (Empire 39, 14). As the living alternative immanent within Empire, the multitude must consequently resist Empire’s rigid boundaries through a ‘machinic exodus’ that hybridises labourers and new productive technologies in ceaseless mobilities. Machinic tools, such as the computer, must therefore become ‘prostheses’ in the creation of ‘new posthuman bodies’ (Empire 215).

Like Urry, Hardt and Negri refer to the ‘new nomad horde’ that threatens Empire with its power to circulate, emigrate and rupture the repressive boundaries of the nation-state (Empire 213, 363). With its mobility and miscegenated hybridity, the multitude poses a radical act of resistance with the powers to actuate an already-extant but virtual global citizenship through irrepressible migrations, both legal and unauthorised. In this way, Urry and Hardt and Negri use the metaphors of the machine and of hybridity to reconfigure radical political agency, identifying Utopian moments within current processes of globalisation.

Sunday 22 April 2007

Visualisations of Utopia (Part One)

I have recently trawled through the web for images of Utopia and discovered a wide and bewildering variety of ways in which Utopia is used for artistic, commercial, religious and political purposes. Below are the first of a series of images that caught my eye, in no particular order. Hope you like them!

Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for a 1519 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. The lower left-hand corner shows the traveller Raphael Hythlodaeus, describing the island. More’s Utopia famously derives from the Greek words for ‘no place’ (outopia) and ‘good place’ (eutopia). Drawing on Erasmus, Plato and Lucian, More describes an island in the New World, linking Raphael’s travels and Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts of discovery in Four Voyages (1507).

"Man From Utopia." Magazine cover, 1972. Underground comic by Rick Griffin, American artist famous for his psychadelic posters in the 1960s. He was involved in the underground comix movement, inspired by the surfing subculture of southern California and psychadelic rock posters of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly. Griffin designed concert posters for the Human Be-In and The Charlatans. He was killed in a motorcycling accident in 1991.

A turn-of-the-century postcard of flying machines above a mega-metropolis (Duke University, Special Collections Library). As well as futuristic images that have fascinated artists, flying-machines also have a currency as vehicles of Utopian realisation through production, as exemplified in the Freedom commune, founded in Kansas in 1897. During the early part of the twentieth century, the Utopian colony achieved notoriety not for its Utopian lifestyle but, rather, for its flying factory. The reformer, Carl Browne, had designed the principle of rotary winged wheels to develop a commercial flying machine that would provide employment for Freedom’s denizens and ultimately supersede the bicycle!

(source: H. Roger Grant’s ‘Portrait of a Workers’ Utopia: The labour Exchange and the Freedom Kan., Colony’)

"The only way we'll make things work is if I lie to you and you lie to me." Poster designed by Olafur Eliasson and Israel Rosenfield from the Utopia Station project at the Venice Biennale in 2003. A station in Venice, designed by Tiravanija and Liam Gillick, hosted a series of programmes and performances themed around reimaginings of Utopia. Over 160 artists were commissioned to design posters that were exhibited around the city.

If anyone has any images they would like to blog, or more information on the images used here, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday 17 April 2007


I would like to hear from anyone who has read this novel and enjoyed it because this will help me understand better what pleasures are to be derived from literary mediocrity.