Yesterday, at my request, at our little cinema at Yonsei University, the film Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Wolfgang Widerhofer) was screened – to myself and 3 students, none of them mine. I’d asked to see it as I had been quite struck by it when we first saw it several years ago. It is a film about contemporary agricultural production, shot over several years in Europe. Dominantly composed of symmetrical wide-screen shots, with sync sound and no voice over or explanatory text , it dispassionately unveils the process of food production as done today, on a rationalized industrial scale. The formal aspects of the film mimic the subject’s rationalized organization, producing a sense of monumentality which gives weight to the images and in turn gives a gravity to the subject which would likely be lost with a different aesthetic approach. The film is as much about the philosophical underpinnings of corporate agriculture as it is about the physical processes, though it utters not a word about it. In this instance, 100 pictures are worth a stack of sociology, economic and philosophy tomes.
As the camera looks fixedly at the organizing patterns, and the machinery of this “business” at work – clinically, with sometimes amazing technical finesse (the machines for gutting, vacuuming out innards, sorting egg and chick sizes), the herding of literal masses of pigs and chickens, spraying them with antibiotics, orchards and crops with insecticides and herbicides, the neat mono-culture greenhouses with each step rationalized for maximum production – one cannot help but be reminded of the messier earlier such attempt: the KZ camps of the Third Reich.
Which leads, naturally to other sites, less seemingly remote in time:
Watching I was also reminded of a school of contemporary aesthetics, though one which reaches back also to earlier ones. I am thinking of Berndt and Hilla Becher, of James Benning, of August Sanders and other artist catalogers who simply and directly show us what is:
Hilla and Bernd Becher
Somewhere these all interlink, and contradictorily they point together to a cruel and difficult truth, which we individually, and collectively as societies, do our very best to hide from ourselves. Most people probably only have a vague sense of some symptomatic aspects, and do not understand the source: that we have constructed a world for ourselves which is utterly out of sync with the world into which our species was born, and we, millenniums later, having long lost sight of this, blithely carry on as if all were in order while we are pulverizing to bits the very globe on which we live, and with it, ourselves.
In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.
(Capital, V.1, chapter 15)