Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking

View of an art gallery with white walls, 2 speakers stand beside a blue carpeted platform, surrounded by a black curtain.

5.1 surround sound installation, 12.30 minutes long.

Mixing and additional editing by composer, performer and sound artist Joe Howe.

A polyphonic chorus of voices read extracts from the poetry collection Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, by the Marxist-feminist writer Karen Brodine. Brodine completed this work between 1978 and 1987 in San Francisco, supporting herself as a typesetter while also working as a political activist. Subtitled ‘a collection of work poems’, they trace connections between the alienation of the mechanized workday and marginalised experiences of class, gender and race.

The readers in this work speak Brodine’s passionate and fiery words over a shifting backdrop of digital tones and beats mixed from distorted field recordings of office equipment. Sometimes the voices speak in precarious harmony, as when they chant down the hours and minutes until lunch break. Other times they overlap, talk over one another, interrupt and repeat one another. Together they attempt to speak of what work takes from workers’ minds and bodies, and what it can’t: solidarity, intelligence, dreams. These things are the noise, the interference that erupts from the edges of discourse to haunt the orderly running of capital and labour. 

Extracts from Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, courtesy of Red Letter Press www.RedLetterPress.org

Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking

An essay by James Clegg, 2020

Karen Brodine’s collection of poems Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking (1987) reflects a nexus of shifting labour, gender and sexual relationships. In the 1970s and 1980s the US workplace had become a testing ground for economic restructuring; typesetting – the industry Brodine turned to for her livelihood and de facto inspiration – was a melting pot of competing claims over women’s’ productivity. On one hand, as the industry transitioned through its post-industrial and pre-digital twilight-era of phototypesetting, it saw employers attempt to brand the work as ‘deskilled’ to justify taking on non-unionised female and black female employees who would work for less security and less pay. On the other hand, this ‘feminization’ of the workplace created spaces that were no longer the exclusive domain of white (outwardly) heterosexual men. And this new environment, diversified across class, gender and racial lines, fuelled a new kind of identity politics. In fact, Samuel Solomon claims in his essay Offsetting Queer Literary Labour that the broader feminization of labour at this time, ‘was part of the development of lesbian and proto queer identities, collectivities, and structures of feeling,’ whilst phototypesetting technologies specifically, ‘contributed to the development of queer print cultures and of LBGT literature as a category.’[1]

Where some radical feminist and social groups in the 1980s rejected salaried work altogether, Brodine recognised the potential of working as an insider, with the new situation giving her and other women and minority groups access to what might be described as language in the service of capitalism. Without being able to account for the specific content of texts running through the fingers of typesetters, this phrase is intended to evoke a sense of proximity between typesetting and the bureaucratic management of that broader construct we might term the ‘public sphere’ and – at the same time – the local production of inequality within the workplace. As a poet in the business of critical analysis, Brodine valued this entanglement as a necessary means of addressing social realities. As she stated in an essay called ‘Politics of Women Writing’:

I believe in a feminism which does not rest its theory on biological determinism, and on the separation that naturally follows it. It is socialist feminism, based on a class analysis of women’s oppression, that weaves together the experiences of lesbians, working women and women of colour… [This writing] is one way to to bridge the enormous gulfs in this society between one life and another.[2]

Karen Brodine

The idea of accessing language in the service of capitalism is also intended to capture the sense that whilst facing these social realities, Brodine’s work also carries a sense of excitement and opportunity. Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking posits a worker who, at the threshold of public communications, can potentially channel the system in order to dream of other realities.

The material that Aideen Doran has chosen to revivify in Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking is therefore loaded. And the work doesn’t see Doran change any of Brodine’s original poems; except where different voices reiterate certain lines it is comprised of a reordered selection of five pieces from the broader collection. This deceptively simple format is powerful. It highlights that Brodine’s words encapsulate a subjective struggle that remains relevant today, because the precarity of the gig economy continues to pose issues of inequality (who knows the extent of the uncertainties resulting from the coronavirus pandemic taking place at the time of writing). If we listen to some of the testimonies that form part of Women in Publishing: An Oral History – a UK initiative that paralleled the many publishers and initiatives Brodine was active with in the US – we might also keep in mind that in this area the progress is tragically limited. Perhaps further, that Brodine’s Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking encapsulates a uniquely fertile moment.

As Jane Chomely, Women in Publishing member, equality campaigner and feminist bookseller says,

I feel just recently that we’ve been going backwards.  When the poorest people in society end up paying the bills for the bank crisis and you know that many of those poor people in society will be women; and child care is squeezed; and male parental leave isn’t happening; when we move into the gig economy, and you think who is it that works part time mostly. It’s women. We’re getting into the worst of times and so we have to get going again. [3]

Jane Chomely

Coupled with the fact that digital technology has seen a proliferation of the kind of dematerialised production anticipated by photo-typesetting, Doran’s choice to revivify the work of Karen Brodine happens at a crucial time.

In the opening verses of Brodine’s first poem – which Doran retains at the start of her work – we are asked to imagine that labour can be performed so routinely by the skilled worker that the mind is liberated to wonder. Not allowing us to wallow in the dead representation of the worker as appendage to the machine, her words gift us the idea that whilst the body undergoes its muscle-memory tasks, thinking continues to take its own subversive paths. The worker’s thoughts as she works – as represented by Brodine – are deep and circuitous, traveling through the ‘layers’ and ‘fossils’ to the ‘ idea that this machine she controls is simply layers of human workhours frozen in steel, tangled in tiny circuits, blinking out through lights like hot, red eyes…’[4] .

Within the first-person narrative these images necessarily correspond to stolen moments, yet in the half-light, they create enough to sense that Brodine is testing a new synergy between the female worker and the machine. In this there are echoes of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, which was first published in the Socialist Review in 1985. Both delight in the proximity of the body and the machine, a joyful corruption of the boundaries of any specific identity, history or point of origin. Although, in Brodine’s poems, these speculations are always accompanied by the material realities and stresses of the workplace. The line ‘when she sits at the machine, rays from the cathode stream directly into her chest,’ is poignant because Brodine died at the age of 40 from breast cancer; and this passage continues, ‘… when she typeset… her hands burned and peeled and her chest ached from the fumes.[5]

Against these lines Doran’s soundscape establishes an evocative, broad horizon. The electronic ambience produces a space in which social realities and science fiction seem to merge, perhaps more so than in Brodine’s text. And again, there is a parallel to Haraway’s essay, which strategically traversed different disciplines in order to create its (self proclaimed) blasphemous voice. In the manuscript of the second poem Doran revivifies (beginning Line corrections. Interview with Leola S. Typesetter: Karen B’), Brodine used a specific typesetting to emphasise the words ‘history’, ‘origin’ and ‘women’ by separating their letters, also the same categories Haraway was deconstructing. This is not to say that Brodine’s work needs to be seen in relation to Cyborg Manifesto, but that in their own fleeting fashion her poems articulate the same level of structural questioning, a distancing from modern certainties. Whilst a strength of Brodine’s work is that play with the female worker as an agent subverting a system, there is also a more transgressive suggestion of co-operation between the systems of capitalism and the repressed, between labour and the imagination, between the body and the machine. Where the soundscape in Doran’s work is otherworldly, the voices are matter-of-fact, echoing the balance in Brodine’s work between the mundane and that rush of postmodern excitement: female workers as pioneers of new sexualities, new roles and new forms of defiance, albeit internalised or understated.

The matter-of-factness of the readings suits both the form of some of Brodine’s poems, which derive their structure from formal typesetting jobs, and the aspect of them that serves as testimonial accounts of the workplace. And there is much that is autobiographical in Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking. In one passage, for example, Brodine alludes to her employer’s decision to shut her in a separate room after she won an appeal to be allowed into a typesetters’ union. In this instance she draws out the episode with a wry commentary on their attempt to demote phototypesetting for being less physical and ostensibly less skilled:

if we stick you in the little room
with the heat on, you’ll be happy.
that’s what you wanted.
you’re an electronic technician,
not a typesetter.  you’re lucky
to be shut out of the union.

I know that typesetters
grow more capillaries
in our fingertips
from all the use.

here’s a test: cut my fingers
and see if I bleed more.[6]

The importance of this kind of testimonial description is that it preserves for the record the dubious activities of those in power, and shares and therefore legitimates the anger that female workers were not supposed to feel in the face of inequality. Doran’s subtle change of Brodine’s title to Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking,signals a desire to preserve this testimony whilst – by pluralising the subject – creating a sense of shared solidarity. As a sound piece, as an enveloping work to be experienced in time, this is very clearly an embodied solidarity that will always bring the material into the present. The voice carries the body in a way the text does not.

Whilst it is obvious why many focus on the socialist, feminist or queer elements of Brodine’s work, it is perhaps important to stress the universality of many of her descriptions too. Most people will recognise the minutia of control within the office environment; the waiting for lunch followed by the scrutiny of how long you have for it (‘they write you up if you’re three minutes late. three write-ups and you’re out.’[7]) Brodine was against positions that hinged on separations and for her feminism was a project that had to be carried by everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender or race.[8]

Part of an unofficial movement Karen Kovacik termed ‘The Poetry of Pink-Collar Resistance’[9] Brodine’s work – like those of other women writing out of clerical, secretarial or waitressing positions – rejects many established literary standards. This is bold writing that has an opinion, that is grounded in a reality and that preferred to refashion skills in order to exploit, reveal and reorganise that reality. Not pander to pander to the kind of aesthetic distanced that is often favoured in bourgeois circles. Brodine was, we should not forget, a prolific activist, co-founding a number of radical groups and publishers and organising with Women Writers Union, Radical Woman and the Freedom Socialist Party. Her work is therefore, not surprisingly, close to the bone and is not concerned with being ‘proper’ where ‘proper’ stands for hierarchy. And in a sense this might be the most revealing of the politics of Doran’s work too.

Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking,like the material it articulates, is tactical, in the sense that it occupies a temporary space. ‘A tactic insinuates itself in the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances… it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing”.’[10] There is no closure or final word in this work, as there wasn’t for Brodine’s worker, because that is not afforded by a system that is still intact. Resistance does not begin or end with the clarity of a clearly defined subjectivity, but comes precisely from the precarity caused by its denial and the recognition of that such certainty belies privilege. It is working in the liminal zones between places and states, that everything has to happen. Nothing will be easy, or given, or necessarily legitimate. We are entangled in a complex world of competing claims over our subjectivities, but must build from that social reality to avoid falling for aesthetic tricks.

But as Brodine’s words echo through collective voices, as they resonate against the ambient soundscape, there is an optimism in this too. The space created here might require constant reactivation to prevent anything going backwards, but it is there, at the threshold of public communications, where – Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking suggests – we can channel power in order to dream of other possibilities.

walking tired through the resting plant
past huge breathing rolls of paper
waiting to be used[11]

James Clegg is curator at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh.

Mixing and additional editing for ‘Women Sitting at the Machine, Thinking’ by composer, performer and sound artist Joe Howe.

[1] Solomon, S, ‘Offsetting Queer Literary Labour’ in [email protected] A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 24: 2-3, Duke University Press, 2018. p.241

[2] Brodine, K. ‘Politics of Women Writing,’ in The Second Wave, Volume 5, issue 3, Summer/Fall, 1979. p.7

[3] Cholmeley, Jane. Jane Cholmeley on the various waves of feminism and how WiP may be a template for the future on Women in Publishing: An Oral History available at: https://www.womeninpublishinghistory.org.uk/content/themes/women-in-publishing-impact-1980s-and-1990s/14-jane-chomeley-considers-waves-feminism-wip-template-future (accessed 24/04/2020)

[4] Brodine K., Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, Red Letter Press, Washington, 1990. p.3

[5] Brodine K., Woman… , 1990. p.3

[6] Brodine, K. Women… . 1990. pp10-11.

[7] Brodine, K. Women… . 1990. p.12

[8] Brodine, K. ‘Politics of Women Writing,’ in The Second Wave, Volume 5, issue 3, Summer/Fall, 1979.

[9] Kovacik, K. ‘Between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Lyric: The Poetry of Pink Collar Resistance’, in NWSA Journal, Vol 13, No.1 (Spring), 2001.

[10] Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press LTD, London, p. xix.

[11] Brodine, K. Woman… . 1990. p. 18