Dis-Assembly Lines: gestures, situations, and surveillances | Alex Pittman

Gestures, situations, gags

Here is a familiar scene: it is the fall of 1952 and Lucy Ricardo and her neighbor Ethel Mertz are at work on the assembly line of a chocolate factory.1 Having proved incompetent to other tasks in the factory's production cycle, the women now occupy one of its final positions, where a humorless forewoman has assigned them to wrap each chocolate that comes down the assembly line, or be fired. This is not exactly an ordinary situation for the pair, who generally carry out the plots of the domestic situation comedy, I Love Lucy, inside the Ricardos' apartment, not in the matching uniforms of workers. Nonetheless, the two appear to have landed in a task with which they can also fall into sync. With fluid motions, Lucy and Ethel scoop up with one hand and exchange to the other the chocolates, twist the wrapping paper around them once, and place them back on the conveyor belt. So easy do they find their new task that Ethel even adds a small, self-satisfied flourish to her movement as she puts down her second or third wrapped chocolate. As the pace of the assembly line picks up, however, things – namely, their gestures – fall apart. Where the initial scoop and terminal placement of the chocolates once traveled along their bodies in an unbroken motion, their movements now begin to fracture as they attempt to hoard the candies or to mash them in wrapping paper before they disappear through the opposite wall. When the assembly line halts to announce the approach of the forewoman, their movements become even more discomposed: they sling the chocolates through the collars of their uniforms; they spit them into their hats; finally, they stuff the rest in their mouths.

And here is another scene, perhaps less familiar: it is any hour between 11 April 1980 and 11 April 1981, and the artist Tehching Hsieh punches a time clock that he has mounted on one wall of his New York City studio. Upon completing the punch, he turns to face a 16 mm camera mounted against the opposite wall, steps to the side of the clock, and documents his attendance with one film still, which captures in a single frame both the hour on the clock and his uniformed body. Known as “Time Clock Piece,” but formally titled One Year Performance 1980-1981, this is a performance of intense temporal and spatial constraint, one shorn almost entirely of a status and scale that one could call an event. Rather, among the many legal and formal documents that Hsieh accumulated as the traces and products of his durational performance, each punch registers as only a slight perturbation or tremor. This perhaps explains why, of the 14 days throughout the year that he opened his studio to the public to view his work, hardly anyone attended.2 In what is the performance's most accessible single document, a six-minute time-lapse film that is as breathless as it is convulsive, these tremors register bodily. Hsieh, despite his performance of attendant stillness and despite the forfeiture of his gestures to the camera's shutter, appears on screen as a twitching surface of compressed time: or, as the spectacle of a body that exhibits what, after Giorgio Agamben, we might describe as “an amazing proliferation of tics, spasmodic jerks, and mannerisms – a proliferation that cannot be defined any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures.”3

While Lucille Ball's and Tehching Hsieh's gestural acts hold obvious differences in their historical situation and in the forms of their production, distribution, and consumption, each is a peculiar kind of assembly-line performance that enmeshes the spaces of artistic production, labor activity, and home life. The bodily discompositions and gestural dis-assemblies that both works stage within this enmeshment present several challenges to how we understand the labor process as a site of subjectification. That these performances took place in what Marxist cultural criticism describes as distinct phases of capitalism, one known as Fordism and the other post-Fordism, each of which implies different relations of work to life, offers an opportunity to consider these phases as a movement across bodies, rather than as a map of subject positions as economically determined quantities. Both performances stage the collapse of the spheres of work and home through artistic production, as well as the discomposition of the types of subjects that are supposed to secure the distinction between these spheres. This is not to say that these performances work in identical ways. How they diverge, though, might come into a different focus if we first consider the ways these performances converge, less through representational similarity than through their shared disorganization of bodies and spheres through gestural and rhythmic performances of timing. Although it would be a mistake to take either performance as a realist document of the assembly line, both provide, through the impropriety of their gestural performances, alternative inhabitations of work as a disciplinary scene of inclusion in twentieth-century U.S. culture. These performances and visual media not only expose but improperly inhabit the apparatuses of surveillance that are supposed to manage their labor. Much of the work of this article lies, then, in the effort to articulate what else happens within these performances of gestural discomposition, especially given that each produces less an evasion of the space of disciplinary surveillance than proliferations of time that are only partially absorbed by the imperative to production.

Throughout, several tropes organize my analysis of the convergence of these labored gestural performances, even when these tropes are the implicit rather than the explicit idiom of the sections that follow. Two of them, the situation and the gag, I have embedded within my descriptions of Lucille Ball's and Tehching Hsieh's performances, but I want to briefly outline how these terms inform my movement between these sites. Critical to my approach is Lauren Berlant's recent work on the attachments that bind subjects to objects and scenes that at some point promised but have since come to block the conditions that might allow them to flourish. Such attachments, she argues, demand other forms of attendance to the present's slow grind under late capitalism than those provided by theories of the event.4 To describe endurance in the attenuated scenes of late-capitalist ordinary life, she describes the emergence of the genre of the situation, a genre organized in part through a sense of continuity that is also marked by perturbations and tremors that might (or might not) turn into events of lasting interest. The domestic situation comedy, in these terms, is a genre that makes the possibility of an event an open question, which is to say, a source of both anxiety (since an event is what threatens to rupture the forms of life that the sitcom characters live as repetition) and hilarity (since an event with a reorganizational force, impact, and scale is what never quite arrives in the sitcom, which tends to feature the smaller dramas of character adjustment).5

As a genre, the domestic sitcom is peculiarly suited to the aesthetics of precarious situations precisely because it repeatedly invites and withholds an event that might collapse the relational forms it sustains from week to week and season to season. The second trope, the gag, is an operation that blocks speech, whether in the form of chocolates stuffed into a mouth or a breathless and silent film reel. But the gag is also a performance of something that cannot find articulation in language. In comedy the sight gag is the emergence of what has been evaded or withheld in speech so that a situation might continue, even though, like the gag that Lucy and Ethel perform to hide the unwrapped candies, this evasion usually fails or produces effects that rebound on its producers. What is also notable about the gag is its status as a quietly insistent performance within the structure of an enduring situation. In his essay on gesture, Giorgio Agamben calls the gag a speech defect in philosophical thought: or, a dumbstruck silence in the face of what does not yet have the status of an event.6 What the gagged performance gestures toward in its non-idiomatic, as well as imposed and imposing, disturbance of situations, is one subject of this essay.

The gag therefore functions as a highly ambivalent trope, since it can as quietly affirm as it can comically perturb the scenes where it emerges. As such it helps conceptualize how Ball's and Hsieh's falls into silence perform something critical at the same time that they leave something else unsaid. Similarly, while the situation, as a genre and a temporal bracket, focuses attention on the ways tremors, perturbations, and disturbances matter, it is also a form contoured by the endurance and the repetition of norms. As well as marking points of conceptual and performed overlap between Ball and Hsieh, these tropes help describe the continuities, repetitions, serializations, and silences that are internal to each. However, what is also common to these performances is the spectacle of gestural discomposition. What are these gestures that Ball and Hsieh perform from their situations, from within their situated-ness, along materially and historically distinct assembly lines? What, in turn, do they dis-assemble as they fracture, shudder, discompose, disjoint, and contract?

Excursus: out-of-joint gestures

Near the end of his incomplete essay, “Americanism and Fordism,” Antonio Gramsci writes that, although industrialists might wish otherwise, the mechanization of the assembly-line worker's gestures provides not subordination but rather the conditions for “complete freedom” within an increasingly accelerated workplace.7 Gramsci then traces what he elsewhere calls a “new type of man demanded by [Fordist] rationalization” in the genealogy of workers tasked with the reproduction of texts (297). What links the scribe, the stenographer, the typist, and the compositor is an ability to isolate words and phrases into non-signifying textual blocks. In other words, these workers arrest and discompose flows of linguistic meaning into units they can release and recompose into new signifying forms. For Gramsci, the measure of this worker's skill is his capacity to embody abstraction at a nervous, muscular, and gestural level. He claims: “The only thing that is completely mechanicised [sic] is the physical gesture; the memory of the trade, reduced to simple gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, ‘nestles’ in the muscular and nervous centers and leaves the brain free and unencumbered for other occupations” (309). Because the Taylorist acceleration of this process requires a memory lapse (specifically, of the ability and desire to read) in order for the machine and the labor it paces to “nestle” comfortably into its corporeal home, Gramsci believes the successful mechanization of gesture leaves an empty mental space for a radical self- and class-consciousness to fill.

Let us note some salient points of Gramsci's theory of mechanized gestures. First, any gesture that testifies to a form of memory outside of labor is irrelevant to Gramsci. Indeed, on one level his theory disturbs humanist Marxism's claim that the most exploitative effect of the assembly line is its estrangement of a “human content” that precedes labor (308). Rather, gesture's mechanization produces a new type of body, one immanent to the labor process's organizations of pacing and timing, with capacities that Fordism can only attempt to manage and direct. That Gramsci does not gesture in kind to critical forms of life outside of labor is problematic, for he appears to delight in the possibility that Fordism will dismantle and reassemble all gestural differences in the same way. Further, his argument naturalizes one capacity as a specifically gendered difference: that is, a capacity for embodied abstraction only recognizable in the work of this “new man” that is also his potential revolutionary subject. Nonetheless, it is worth considering his suggestion that gesture might not communicate anything at all but that it might instead performatively and internally divide the time of the labor process so as to hide the worker in the plain sight of management. Such a theory of gesture should be of interest to performance scholars: a theory of performative division as opposed to expression, it presents gesture as a technique that does something quite different than transmit embodied forms of knowledge; and yet, given the specificity of both the event and the subject of gesture, Gramsci's theory is not entirely legible as an early deconstructive approach.8 When considered through Ball's and Hsieh's performances, however, a different set of questions emerges. Namely, if the machine fails to “nestle” or domesticate itself inside its new home in the laboring body's rhythms, do gesture's performative divisions of space and time similarly fail? Or, could the laboring body's dis-alignment with and by the temporal imperatives of the assembly line indicate, instead, a gestural performance that travels through without becoming a property of a virtuosic subject like the “new type of man” where Gramsci invests his hopes? I will attend to these questions through what I will call the performance of out-of-joint gestures.

Out-of-joint gestures mark a curiously manic and erratic, as opposed to smooth and well-executed, quality of performance relative to the temporal and disciplinary demands of the assembly line. These gestures, in short, fall out of sync and, in so doing, often take the form of a gag: as something, that is, that blocks speech, but also as a performance of something just on the edge of articulation. They are tactical performances that carve out fleeting temporalities of waste, ones opposed to an accelerated present organized toward production and surplus extraction. While I draw on Gramsci's analysis, I do not go nearly as far as him to claim that these gestures inaugurate a revolutionary consciousness. Especially in the case of I Love Lucy, out-of-joint gestures emerge in a situation where subjects scramble back toward domestic and gender normativity through that form of memory lapse that is one of the show's refrains: “We'd like to forget the whole thing.” Nonetheless, what interests me about such gestures are the ways they function (or, more accurately, malfunction) to buy time, to make time, and to waste time inside of situations where there never seems to be enough time.

I also call these gestures “out-of-joint” to focus on their iterability, or their performative repetition across works situated in slightly different historical moments and in relation to slightly different antagonisms. In other words, out-of-joint gestures are performances of bad timing, not only as they “disjoint” the subjects that perform them, but as they “disjoint” the unity of historical time, as well. In this sense I take the way these gestures break up and redistribute the flow of their own present as the justification for a historical and analytical twitch of my own, one that aligns a performance broadcast over a single night in 1952 with another that lasted from 1980–1. What I hope to achieve by tracking the repetition of this out-of-joint gesture through my own twitch is a different way to consider the differences between Fordism to post-Fordism. Rather than seek out how the conditions that enmesh work and life augur a seemingly endless number of vanguard subjects, I consider this transition as it rattles across the gestural capacities of bodies without, in the process, fixing an ideal subject. If, on the one hand, the performance of out-of-joint gestures divides the present time of its emergence, then, on the other, it brings its historically distinct iterations into proximity. In this sense, this chapter builds a kind critical habitus through these gestural performances, one that attunes analysis to migrations across generic and historical forms (such as domestic situation comedies and durational performances) and the ways they frame and enclose political antagonisms. Because out-of-joint gestures describe two temporal movements – shudder and repetition, division and continuity – my analyses attempt to integrate what the scenes of their performance disclose and what their jarring stillnesses occlude.

Within and without the home

Because Gramsci pins his hopes on the capacities of a “new type of man” while remaining ambivalent about the desires of women to Fordist regulations of appetite, I wonder what he would have thought of “Job Switching,” an episode of the television show I Love Lucy that premiered on 15 September 1952, and inaugurated the sitcom's four-season long position as the most watched show on network television. Weekly from 1951–7, I Love Lucy showcased the comically frustrated persistence of Lucy Ricardo, the homemaker who wants to break into the world of “showbiz” occupied by her husband, Ricky Ricardo, and formerly occupied by their landlords, Ethel and Fred Mertz. The outline Jess Oppenheimer, the sitcom's head writer and producer, registered with the Screen Actor's Guild places the show's conflicts within competing visions for the good life: Lucy's desire for the glamor of nightlife performance regularly runs counter to Ricky's desire to be an “ordinary citizen, keeping regular hours, and living a normal life.”9 However, the show's domestic situation was reproduced weekly not only by Lucy's frustrated efforts to perform outside of the home, but by her expertly performed incompetence at occupational tasks located within it, as well. As Lori Landay notes, this narrative incompetence of Lucy, the character, to find herself at home in the social spheres of either artistic production or domestic reproduction effectively secured the star image of Lucille Ball, the virtuoso of physical comedy.10 Such a comic contradiction, however, has not provided much clarity for the program's feminist analysts, since this tension between character and actor tends to divide scholars over the possibility of recuperating either for a politicized approach to mass culture.11

In other words, what divides feminist analysts is how to measure the effectivity of the circuit, which travels from the possibility and performance of subverted conventions to their eventual affirmation within narrative, which the show establishes as its genre. But because the show makes subversion itself a genre convention, one subject to repetition and serialization, debates over its possible or impossible feminist recuperation perhaps miss how it stages gender as a field of political antagonism. For this reason, I sidestep the question of recuperation to track an iterable performance that shudders its way through one of I Love Lucy's (if not television's) most iconic gags: the one in which, while at work on an accelerating assembly line, Lucy's and Ethel's well-ordered gestures come apart in the effort to keep these “men's” jobs in which they are apparently so precarious. And indeed, this scene isa gag, one that stops up speech as much as it performs something that cannot quite find articulation within language. As a performance of bad timing, its comic value derives from several competing temporalities, most notably that friction between the women's capacity to work and the speed of that capacity's extraction, but with the result of neither production nor accumulation but a disjointed gestural performance. Their bad timing at work – or, their bad inhabitation of the workplace's temporality – also derives comic value as it slides below the surveillance of the forewoman, that figure whose own improper inhabitation of gender threatens to put Lucy and Ethel back in theirs. While the scene on the assembly line is the most clear index and performance of these temporalities, the episode as a whole begins to appear as an immense accumulation of badly timed activities.

An attunement to such temporalities helps re-pose the central antagonism of “Job Switching,” which, as Fred Mertz puts it, is one between “two kinds of people: earners and spenders; or, as they are more popularly known, husbands and wives.” However, what Fred names as a gendered antagonism manifests, at the levels of both performance and plot, as a temporal difference between production (posited as value creation through the production of consumer commodities) and consumption (posited as the domestic management of these commodities through reproductive work). At an immediate level, Fred's use of gender to interpret differences between production and reproduction appears to participate in this period's ideological retrenchment of divisions of labor. Elaine Tyler May has called this period the “homeward bound” years, in which the domestic became a privileged site for the reconfiguration of home-spaces and work-spaces through inter-articulations of race and gender: that is, in the material and geographical redistributions of an expanding postwar middle class to racially segregated suburbs, and in the ideological demand that the middle-class woman serve as manager of the hearth.12 However, as Landay notes, in 1952, the year “Job Switching” aired, more women constituted the workforce than at the height of the war. She writes: “One of the ironies of the postwar era is that the ideology of separate spheres and polarized gender roles was strongest at a time of increasing permeability of the boundaries of those spheres and roles” (35). But the show plays these retrenchments for laughs: the humor of this “battle of the sexes” plot – which appears at least as serious as it is anachronistic – resides in how the show makes gender malfunction in its capacity to manage this temporal difference in postwar U.S. culture. What “Job Switching” adds to May's and Landay's accounts of postwar spatial divisions is the way gender is marshaled to secure the difference between these spheres as a difference of timing.

Across these divisions of postwar domestic space, the episode sends up its gendered operations through the oscillation of characters and objects between what it posits as a temporal difference between production and consumption. This dynamic bears itself out in at least three comedies of bad timing other than the scene along the assembly line. It is, after all, the return of Lucy's bounced check to the home that begins the episode's conflict. Likewise, domestic goods become increasingly zany in the situations of the men, who are expelled from the home by the unmanageable, queer vitality of the commodities.13 Finally, in the gag that closes the show, the women, nauseous from their over-consumption of chocolates, collapse after they each receive a five-pound box of them from their apologetic husbands. It is through the manic oscillation of bodies and objects between different spheres and moments of the economy, to the point that these spheres and moments begin to lose their distinction, that “Job Switching” stages its discomposition of gender as a reliable manager of their separation. In Sianne Ngai's terms, these dynamics mark the episode's aesthetic of zaniness, or its physicalized anxiety that gender regimes prove unable to secure a distinction between work (as production) and life (as reproduction).14

What is also notable about I Love Lucy is that, as one of the most technologically advanced sitcoms of its day, the show's producers had an unprecedented opportunity to construct its conflicts visually and spatially as well as narratively.15 One of the best examples of the non-idiomatic techniques the producers use to code the episode's antagonisms can be seen at the episode's start. When Ricky and Lucy's argument takes on a gendered character at the entrance of Fred and Ethel, the narrative division of spheres registers as a visible division of framed space. The show uses a range of framing and visual techniques to produce tensions within, not only between, divisions of labor. Notable within these divisions is the irony that the “men's work” Lucy and Ethel eventually find is occupied by women whose performances and spatial occupations already tilt toward a bit of gender trouble. The show constructs this both visually and rhythmically through a formal repetition of the shot composition of Lucy and Ricky's breakfast conversation, where Lucy “feminizes” Ricky through an aseptic emotional performance of “masculine” unavailability before she leaves for the employment office (Figure 1.1). In the chocolate factory, however, Lucy ends up in the structural position of Ricky in relation to what is now her female colleague's queering non-reciprocity (Figure 1.2). I call the emotional impassivity of Lucy's colleague “queering” here because, if the show tethers types of emotional performance to the gendered division of social spheres, as it does at the breakfast table, then the clarity of these spheres and roles blur in momentary but quite powerful ways through this peripheral, silently imposing character.16

Figure 1

Figure 1

Fig 1. Emotional impassivity at home and at work. Stills captured by the author from I Love Lucy – The Complete Second Season (1951). DVD. Episode directed by William Asher, 1952. Los Angeles, CA: Paramount, 2004.

When considered within the coordinates of what Eva Illouz calls emotional capitalism, the episode's cross-gender performances of emotional impassivity within divisions of labor take on a peculiar significance. Emotional capitalism, or the twentieth-century enmeshment of economic rationality and emotional coordination, she argues, was rendered explicit within a series of studies conducted by the psychologist Elton Mayo at the height of Fordist rationalization in the 1920s. These studies, known as the Hawthorne experiments, were designed to measure and refine labor productivity through the emotional and relational dimensions of work. What Illouz notes, however, is that the methods deployed by his team point to a moment in which emotional correspondence and intimacy figured centrally within the management of waged work. These methods and their results did not lack gendered implications either: with data drawn exclusively from women who were encouraged by the researchers to establish continuities between their experience in the workplace with that in the home, these results not only blurred the gendered divisions of productive and reproductive labor but were also applied as a general measure for labor productivity in the early twentieth century.17 Such a study, she argues, requires a revision of the history affective labor is marshaled to tell, which tends to proceed from the exclusion, until sometime in the late twentieth century, of affective from productive labor and from a clean division between gendered experiences of capitalist rationality.18 Rather, the modulation of productivity through the measurement of emotion augurs not only an entangled history of affective and waged labor, but “homo sentimentalis,” an affective-economic figure whose emotional styles of communication and intimacy, forged from the techniques of Fordist rationalization, serves as the relay between home and work. To return, then, to the rhythm of impassivenon-communicative emotional performance, both within and without the home, this might be why these performances appear through and as a kind of drag – that is, a cross-gender performance that also does not feel particularly good. Such figurations of drag as both emotional and sartorial style suggest the presence of ambivalent kernels embedded and performed within the episode's negotiated attachments to the normativities of work and gender.19

Negotiated attachments, indeed. As tempting as it is to suggest that these ambivalent kernels are the very stuff of I Love Lucy's subversions, it strikes me that it is through them that the episode recomposes normativity, as well. Consider the forewoman, that figure who, in the episode's distorted emotional economies and gendered divisions of work, also inhabits gender improperly, but only insofar as she embodies the mobile surveillance apparatus that threatens to return Lucy and Ethel to their homes. The assemblage of performed dynamics, visual techniques, emotional blockages, and ambivalently gendered figures ultimately raises the question, what is it that is “switched” over the duration of this episode? While “Job Switching” accumulates scenes of badly timed activity in general, the scene on the assembly line showcases its most frantic effort to make more time out of a situation in which there is so little. This is where out-of-joint gestures emerge to carve out of the assembly line's relentless forward motion a brief space and time of abeyance. What is funny here is not only the clash of corporeal and mechanical speeds, but that these gestures of consumption and non-productive hoarding slip below the forewoman's surveillance, and that they do so only to rebound when subterfuge produces more demand. Unlike Gramsci's “new type of man,” however, Lucy and Ethel perform compensatory moves along the assembly line in what the show regularly suggests are the only ones they know: that is, how to consume. In this respect, although the out-of-joint gesture divides the labor process from within, making a little extra time for its workers below the managerial gaze, it strikes me as a mistake to suppose a radical consciousness attends it. Rather, these gestures that re-place Lucy and Ethel in roles defined principally by their management of commodity consumption also presage their move back into the domestic sphere, a sphere that at the episode's end becomes further reified as a site of feminine reproduction when all the characters reach consensus on their gendered family roles. The memory lapse that Gramsci hopes might make way for the worker to realize a new consciousness surfaces here as a form of forgetfulness that is quite pernicious in its yield to the ideological and the generic status quo. As Ricky says when the nauseated Lucy and Ethel return: “We'd like to forget the whole thing. Let's go back to the way things were: we'll make the money and you'll spend it.” This amnesiac resolution of “the way things were” deploys convention as a sort of refrain in order to secure within genre the political antagonisms it everywhere evidences and that threaten to rupture its form. “Job Switching,” in this respect, switches little, but projects a kind of screen-memory, however fragile, of recomposed subjects and spheres.

Though comical, this closure of the generic circuit can be seen more broadly as a negotiated attachment, rather than a cheerful capitulation, to the normative demands of citizenship. I will return to how this quietly determines I Love Lucy's situation shortly, but it can be tested through Tehching Hsieh's durational work, “Time Clock Piece.” The second of a series of one (and in another case, 13) year performances, “Time Clock Piece” followed closely on his first performance of spatial and temporal constraint in the United States. This prior performance, known as “Cage Piece,” kept Hsieh confined in a cell inside his downtown New York City studio, with the additional gag-rule that he could not speak, write, read, or otherwise interact with the outside world. Where “Cage Piece” restricted his spatial environment, “Time Clock Piece” regulated his measurement and documentation of temporal experience, especially as such experience appears inevitably, if irregularly in the period of late capitalism, managed through the wage. The documentary demands of “Time Clock Piece” did create intensive spatial constraints, however, since his hourly punch of the clock required proximity to his studio, which became a work, home, and art space for the entire year. In general, these and Hsieh's other performances stand as experiments in the collapse of life and art, but experiments organized less in terms of a horizon of unalienated life than in the cultivation of alternative inhabitations of formalism's restrictions.

Given their taxations (such as sleep deprivation, bodily confinement, and unsheltered life, to name a few), it is unsurprising that vulnerability has emerged as one conceptual framework for these commitments to restriction.20 Not only a conceptual frame, however, vulnerability functions politically for his commentators as a liberal recognition of Hsieh's precariousness during the years of the One Year Performances, when he lived as an undocumented (art) worker in the U.S. While I do not wholly contest this recognition of vulnerability in both his art and his situation, it does carry a potentially insidious effect, as well as one that says little about how his work troubles vulnerability as a framework. As Angela Mitropoulos argues, vulnerability, as an attribution of political indecision to the migrant, implicitly subjectivizes the non-migrant within the structure of the sovereign decision – that is, as the one proper to the state, the one with the power to decide – and this despite the sense that these distributions of political sovereignty are what migrations, such as Hsieh's, throw into disarray.21 Put another way, Hsieh's intensive self-documentation within the situation of his undocumented status perturbs the law's apparatuses of recognition and capture, especially as these performances transact with (rather than represent) his formal citizenship status.22 Similarly, the delimitation of properly political spheres and subjects blocks any theorization of the enmeshment of artistic production, labor activity, and home life within onesphere. Such an enmeshment, to the degree that, in “Time Clock Piece,” no practical distinction between economic, aesthetic, or biological (re)production can be drawn anywhere, renders it, according to a certain literature, an exemplary post-Fordist performance.23 If, however, the performance's primary document, the time-lapse film that renders Hsieh's convulsive attendance to the clock and the camera, repeats Lucy and Ethel's gestural collapses within these same spheres, but in Fordism, then what might be gained by a consideration of a serialized, assembly-line performance like Hsieh's as a sort of domestic situation comedy? Those who have seen the severely minimalist film that documents “Time Clock Piece” will likely find this question perverse. As my experience during lectures, classes, and presentations attests, however, this piece does tend to elicit nervous laughter from its viewers. To switch its genre, then, might provide both a way to account for some aspect of this strange effect and a way to shift the expectations seemingly demanded by the performance's genre and by the performer's “status” within the state.

One way to consider the enmeshment of economic, artistic, and domestic spaces in “Time Clock Piece,” despite the lack of explicit visual cues within its documentation, is through David Harvey's claim that the body increasingly becomes a central mechanism, measure, and mode of accumulation in the situation of late capitalism.24 To elaborate this point, Harvey traces the circulation of variable capital, or the wage as the lever of the sale and purchase of labor power qua capacity. Harvey's interest here is on how to conceptualize the circuit of variable capital as it connects, at a structural level, forms of corporeal flourishing with debilitation in globalized divisions of labor. But the body as an accumulation strategy, when thought as a figuration of capacity in late capitalism, also conceptually bridges strands of Marxist cultural theory often set in opposition. For variable capital, which concerns the measure of labor power's potential or capacity, takes on a resonance with virtuosity, Paolo Virno's concept that refers not to good, impressive, or even pleasurable performance, but to the capacity to perform as such.25 “Time Clock Piece,” when figured between these authors, formalizes the accumulation strategies that reshape and erode the body under late capitalism, but it does so as a conversion of variable capital's circuit into the spectacle of out-of-joint gestures. This circuit's most direct reference is in his use of the time clock, the wage's measure, but in such a way that splits this device from its disciplinary function. What plays across the scene is instead the virtuosic performance of Hsieh's attendant body, a body that produces nothing but its capacity to attend, measured not by the accumulation of variable capital but by the accumulation of hair (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Fig 2. Still captured by the author from Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance: Art Documents, 1978–1999. DVD-ROM. 2000.

Unlike I Love Lucy's scene, another aspect of Hsieh's situation is in the camera's function as an apparatus of surveillance and capture. His alignment of a photographic, a cinematic, and a surveillance gaze has several notable differences from the kind of mobile, embodied surveillance of the forewoman that Lucy and Ethel slip below, but several important resonances as well. Most notably, the collapse of a mobile surveillance apparatus into a mounted photographic/filmic gaze of the 16mm camera makes impossible a performance of bad timing like Lucy and Ethel's: the Taylorist division, fragmentation, and measurement of time, which is the very material stuff of “Time Clock Piece,” requires of Hsieh a performance of perfect timing, as the documents his work leaves behind also function to record his mistakes.26 But as persistently as the performance measures time, it is equally a performance that wastes time: or, a gag that slips just under the inscriptive regulations he otherwise exposes.27 While his tactics of evasion differ, Hsieh's wastage of time within the spectacle of out-of-joint gestures should be seen in a sort of rhythmic continuity with Lucy and Ethel's evasions. Both are aesthetic projects that expose, in part, the surveillance apparatuses that would manage them, but in their improper temporal inhabitations of these apparatuses, each also suggests some politics of means – which is to say, of gestures – in opposition to ends-based politics.28 Especially in the case of the film that recomposes the measurements of “Time Clock Piece,” Hsieh's inhabitation of the surveillance gaze, rather than simply an exposure of it as harm, strikes me as a quite distinctive distribution of the sensible. For the film's imposing silence, which I take as one source of the nervous laughter it can elicit, functions as a gag of a rather radical sort: one that is not simply a representation of speechlessness but a refusal and an impasse of speech; a rejection of the incitement to speak in a form of recognition, agency, and subjectivity conferred by the state; as well as the affirmation of a self-documentation that slips below the proper scene of U.S. citizenship.

On immanent critique

Consider, then, what does not make it to the screen in “Job Switching,” for both the conflict of the episode and its dynamic discompositions and recompositions of its social spheres are unimaginable in the terms laid out in the sitcom's original proposal, which featured Lucille Ball not as an incompetent homemaker but as the movie-star wife of a Cuban bandleader. Despite the fact that this would have more closely aligned Lucy's and Ricky's characters with the off-screen life of the Ball–Arnaz marriage (which was the explicit inspiration and frequent source material for the show), both CBS executives and potential sponsors claimed such a show would stretch the boundaries of “reality” too far for television.29 While it is impossible to say how the show's internal conflicts would look if this original proposal had made it to the air, it does strike me as reasonable to speculate that the specificity of this episode's gendered conflict depends on the management of inter-racial and inter-ethnic intimacy off of it as well. Ball's and Arnaz's circumnavigations of intimacy begin to look like negotiations with the normative demands of citizenship – of what, that is, surfaces as a form of border and body patrol at the edges of national belonging – in such a way that is inadequately explained as either resignation to or willful subversion of such demands.30 Such an expansion requires a much longer study, but it points for now toward one way in which, despite certain differences, Hsieh's and Ball's rhythmic performances are enmeshed within a similarly negotiated inhabitation of citizenship.

Ball's and Hsieh's out-of-joint gestural performances demand an attention directed not toward the detection of some subject beyond or outside of capitalism, and which critique might function to protect or recuperate, but through the discompositions and recompositions of the laboring subject as a critical form. That is, rather than reduce these performances to the indwelling relations of power that mark their historical moments, I have tried to think in terms of the agitative movements that variously de- and re-form gender, genre, and citizenship from within. This has required that I not only take on ambivalence as a topic – for ambivalence certainly contours each of these performances – but that I take up ambivalence as a practice of attendance. Ambivalence can be seen, then, as the non-dramatic structure of the gendered, economic, and emotional situation that these works simultaneously expose and inhabit. Neither an event of radical rupture nor one of tragic resignation, ambivalence provides the situational circuit of the dis- and re-composition of spheres. A difficult thought, then, but perhaps a necessary one, for it strikes me as equally mistaken to over-emphasize the exposure of ambivalence as the signal and affect of radical incompletion as it is to under-state the pleasures that attend its inhabitation. I would like to close, then, by commenting briefly on why I have chosen this approach and why it might be of some political interest. In her article, “Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics,” Kathi Weeks argues that both immaterial and affective-labor theorists tend to be hampered by the model of estranged labor, which, in its maintenance of some subject outside of capitalism, reproduces a normative separation of social spheres that splits gender into a binary model. Rather, Weeks notes that the challenge is to develop an immanent critique focused “on work as a means of subjectification without the conceptual apparatus of alienation and the distinction between existence and essence on which it depends.”31 Gesture, I would like to suggest, provides one level of rhythmic attention to support the analysis Weeks recommends, but I would go further, as well, to argue that gesture might help us think of a movement politics that traces its way through virtuosic subjects but does not therefore become their property. Rather, gestures become the sites of improper, unanticipated belongings whose shapes, rhythms, and genres must be traced instead of supposed.


1. I would like to thank Tavia Nyong'o, the two anonymous peer reviewers, and the editorial collective of Women & Performance (especially Kara Jesella and Aliza Shvarts) for their intellectual support, editorial assistance, and stylistic advice throughout the period that I worked on this article. I would also like to thank Jeanne Vaccaro and John Andrews for offering me the invaluable resources of stretched-out conversation and expertly timed silence, especially when they offered these resources in situations where I did not realize they were necessary.

2. The script reads: “I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece. I shall punch a Time Clock in my studio every hour on the hour for one year. I shall immediately leave my Time Clock room, each time after I punch the Time Clock. The performance shall begin on April 11, 1980 at 7 p.m. and continue until April 11, 1981 at 6 p.m.” It was reproduced in Heathfield and Hsieh (2009). See also Heathfield's essay from the same book, “Undoing Time.”

3. Agamben (2000, 51).

4. See in particular Berlant (2010: 229–45, 2011).

5. Berlant (2011, 5–6, 176–8).

6. Agamben (2000, 60).

7. Gramsci (1971, 309).

8. For more on gesture, see Noland and Ness (2008).

9. See Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer (1996). A reproduction of the copyright is in the frontspiece of the book.

10. See Landay (1999, 25–47). For an extensive analysis of the anxieties of gender that attend the collapse of play and work, see Ngai (2012).

11. For opposed positions on this question of recuperation, see Mellencamp (1986, 80–95); and Doty (1990, 3-22). Mellencamp argues that Lucille Ball's virtuosic slapstick routines cannot be reduced to the enunciations of “Lucy,” the character, and, as such, suggest a subversive potential under the show's televisual surface. Doty argues that, nonetheless, these routines always functioned narratively to recapture the character within the domestic sphere and to secure not only her “place” but her infantilization there. For more on the relationship between critique and mass culture in postwar television comedy, see Hamamoto (1989).

12. May (1988).

13. When I say that these commodities have a “queer vitality” I am riffing on Karl Marx's claim in “The Commodity Fetish” that the commodity is “a very queer thing.” The vital and zany commodities in this episode are the chickens that explode from a pressure cooker and the rice that erupts from a pot.

14. See note 9.

15. See Jess and Gregg Oppenheimer's Laughs, Luck … And Lucy (1999) for an account of the early budgetary and production decisions (and occasional crises) that gave the show its look and feel.

16. In the terms I used to describe “the gag,” this scene also functions as a silent and silenced performance of something just on the edge of articulation. While I have not been able to confirm this fact, it is reasonable to speculate that, given the set design ofI Love Lucy, these scenes that collapse kinds of emotional performance at home and at work were also produced in the exact same stage/set space. Given its formal composition, they were almost certainly filmed through the same cameras.

17. Illouz (2007, 10–16).

18. Weeks (2007) makes a similar point.

19. Although not the subject of this essay, the bad drag performances of the men in this episode, particularly Fred, can be read through this claim.

20. Langenbach (2007); and Heathfield and Hsieh (2009). To be clear, both Heathfield and Langenbach do not reduce his performances to the framework of vulnerability, but they do not trouble it much either. In the monograph that Heathfield and Hsieh collaboratively released, they reproduce a photocopy of the “wanted” noticed that the U.S. Immigration Service released for Hsieh in 1978 (2009, 325). Hsieh gained U.S. citizenship during his final 13-year performance, at the same time that he disappeared entirely from the art world.

21. See Mitropoulos (2007, 127–36).

22. This provides one way to consider his arrest for weapons possession during his next performance, “Outdoor Piece.” His arrest and (near) trial not only snapped the formal rules that he had set for himself – in which, for one year, he would not enter any architectural structure – but it also brought him into direct confrontation with the law at a time when U.S. immigration services were apparently looking for him (see note 18). However, his extensive documentation of his practice apparently satisfied the judge that he was a “serious” artist whose work should be allowed to continue. He was not required to come indoors for his hearing and the charges were eventually dropped.

23. Theorists of immaterial labor draw attention to the enmeshment of these spheres in post-Fordism. See in particular Virno (2004). See also the essays collected in Virno and Hardt (2006). Heathfield takes their enmeshment as the reason to refer to Hsieh's lifework rather than artwork.

24. See Harvey (2000, 97–116).

25. Virno (2004, 54–5).

26. Jess Oppenheimer notes that the performance of “bad” timing that Lucy and Ethel perform is, in fact, a performance of perfect timing relative to the audience, whose laughter measured the duration of any particular gag. See Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer (1999, 10), specifically the chapter “Perfect Timing.”

27. Hsieh responded to a student's incredulous question of how he filled his time during the performances with the answer, “I just wasted time,” during a presentation for undergraduates at NYU in the Fall of 2009.

28. See Agamben (2000).

29. Oppenheimer and Doty note this; Agamben (2000).

30. So much more could be said about this point, especially when one considers that “Job Switching” opens the season that introduces “Little Ricky,” Ball's and Arnaz's biological son, whose broadcast was timed to coincide with his actual birth. Similarly, the crisis of citizenship that affected Lucille Ball, when she was brought before the House of Unamerican Activities a year later for purported Communist Party affiliations, and Arnaz's defenses of her, might be thought more through these clashes of rhythms.

31. Weeks (2007, 247).


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