- Spring 1999, Vol. 7,
- Exploring Saturn
- Jumping the Dragon Gate:
Storytellers and the Creation of the Shanghai
- Teaching the
- Lecture on Southern
Sharryn Kasmir, assistant professor of
anthropology at Hofstra University, is the William S.
Vaughn Visiting Fellow and visiting assistant
professor of anthropology. She is the author of
The 'Myth' of Mondragón: Cooperatives,
Politics and Working Class Life in a Basque Town
(SUNY Press 1996). She participates in this
year's Fellows Program, "Inventing Work," and
researches the revision of work at the Saturn
Corporation in Spring Hill, Tennessee. She recently
discussed her research with Letters.
LETTERS: What makes the new forms of work
at Saturn important to study?
KASMIR: I am interested in how new forms of work
at Saturn remake workers, how they make new
working-class subjects. If we think about the
production of work-based subjects over time, surely
it is a continuous process, but surely there are also
particular moments, historical conjunctures, in which
we see more dramatic transformations. Early
nineteenth-century industrialism presented such a
moment, when work, how people thought about work, how
people thought of their own identities vis-á-vis
work, and how they became social and political agents
in relation to work all changed in the broadest
sense. I think we live in such an epoch. We are
living through and creating a shift in the material
conditions of work, in our conception of time with
regard to work, in all kinds of social relationships,
and in all manner of cultural meaning regarding work.
This is why I am looking at Saturn. In many ways,
Saturn is at the forefront of this process.
LETTERS: How did you get interested in
KASMIR: In 1991, I was writing my dissertation on
the Mondragón industrial cooperatives in the
Basque region of Spain. I remember seeing a Saturn
commercial. It was one of the early commercials, in
which a schoolteacher ordered a blue-green Saturn.
She wrote a letter to the workers who were building
her car and included a photograph of her third-grade
commercial did not just depict a customerÑwhich was
common enough in car ads but narrated a response by
the workers who built her car. The workers who
finished the car placed her photo in the glove
compartment, to let her know they received her
letter, and then they signed a poster, which they
sent in reply. The commercial suggested that Saturn's
reorganization of work created workers who identified
with the product. That is, it suggested that Saturn
workers were not alienated from the products of their
labor and claimed that this freed them to have a
close relationship with consumers.
commercial simultaneously presented the
contradictions of capitalism and the wage-labor
relation, showing the specter of the assembly line
and the alienated worker, and promised to resolve
those contradictions. The poster is positioned as the
resolution. It reconfigures work and personalizes the
workers for the customer. It is a symbol of the
resolution of key contradictions of capitalism, and
Saturn is made to embody that resolution. The
structure of this advertisement operates like the
kinds of myths anthropologists study. It tells the
story of a deep cultural contradiction and then
mediates that divide.
I was thinking about workers, work. and forms of
industrial organization, here came a commercial that
constructed an image of a new work force. The
commercial also invited viewers to think and even
care about the work process. In the back of my mind,
I thought that Saturn would make a great next
LETTERS: Are you interested more in the
production or the marketing of Saturn?
KASMIR: In both they are tied together for me by
the notion of subjectivity. Workers as subjects are
configured in advertising, on the shop floor within
the corporation, in management and public relations
discourses within the corporation, and in union
discourses. As an anthropologist, particularly one
who tries to combine the political-economic and
symbolic traditions of my discipline, I am interested
in all of these.
LETTERS: What makes work at Saturn unusual?
KASMIR: The model of the Saturn plant is closely
related to co-determination in Europe, especially as
practiced in Germany and Sweden. There is union
representation at every level of decision-making
within the plant. Every council or planning body in
the factory has United Automobile Workers (UAW)
representatives. This responds to periodic movements
within the U.S. labor movement calling for workplace
democracy. There are fewer job categories at Saturn
than in other industrial workplaces, so there is a
flatter hierarchy. I imagine this would change how
blue-collar and white-collar workers view their
employment. The cooperative labor-management accord
at Saturn changes the way managers do their jobs and
how they envision labor-management relations.
Another unusual feature is the work
itself. What is considered to be the classic Fordist
model of factory work centers on the assembly line,
in which a worker performs a routinized, discrete
task that is one small fraction of a production
process, and the next person in line does his or her
task, and so on. In recent efforts to restructure
factory work, in what is often called the post
Fordist regime, workers work in teams. A team is
responsible for a set of tasks or a segment of a
production process, and it manages and monitors
itself. A team sends its part of the process or the
product it has made to the next team, which it
considers a customer. It has to meet the demands of
that customer in terms of quality, price, and
product, in ways that bring market forces and
business mindedness to the shop floor. This team- and
quality-centered production and emphasis on
intra-corporation entrepreneurialism not only
characterizes Saturn, but it makes Saturn, in a
sense, quintessentially post-Fordist.
LETTERS: Teamwork and quality have positive
connotations, but they seem like they could add a lot
of pressure for workers.
KASMIR: This is an empirical question for the
particular case of Saturn, and I do not know yet. But
there are critiques of total quality management and
teamwork from union perspectives that have a lot to
say about the pressures that accompany these aspects
of post-Fordist production.
example, a team is a self managing unit that has to
set quality and production goals for itself within
the guidelines of what the factory needs to produce
and the quality standards it needs to meet. There is
pressure for workers to stand by their teammates and
to achieve the team's goals. On the one hand, team
work is positive, because it creates opportunities
for camaraderie. On the other hand, critics say it
creates a managerial function among the workersÑsome
workers manage, sanction, or discipline other
workers. These activities could be regarded as
detrimental for solidarity among workers. Certainly
they redraw the line between management and labor as
social and political categories.
Teams, by their very definition, cross
standard job descriptions. A lot of the power of
unions stems from the fact that unions regulate jobs.
So if you are a machinist class 1, you do a given
job. If you are a machinist class 2, you do another
job. You do not do both jobs. For proponents
of the team concept, this is a welcome replacement
for outmoded union bureaucracy. For critics, a team
breaks down the job classifications that have
traditionally been what unions have policed on a shop
floor; so team-based production looks like an attack
on an important source of union power.
focus on quality also creates stress. A problem in
quality is a team's problem, not management's
problem. This responsibility makes team members' jobs
much more difficult. One criticism is that signs of
increased stress, like high blood pressure and
anxiety, are evident in total quality plants. But
supporters say that this kind of production offers a
lot more job content, while work in a standard
assembly line is dull, repetitive, and alienating.
For every case study that shows that total quality
management and teamwork are good for workers, there
is a case that shows they are bad for workers. The
jury is still out.
LETTERS: How does Saturn's type of
production affect subjectivity?
KASMIR: I am investigating whether Saturn workers'
subjectivity is affected because they work
differently, have a different union contract, have
moved to a new area of the country, and have thereby
been uprooted from friends, kin, and older forms of
industrial culture. Social theory that looks at how
work relates to identity, class, and community would
predict that changing the work process and experience
must necessarily have an impact on people's identity
and agency in the world. I am investigating this by
interviewing people associated with Saturn.
South is considered free of older kinds of labor
conflicts, modes of industrial work, and
working-class culture. Does the move South change who
Saturn workers think they are in the world, how they
act, how others understand them, and how they
understand themselves? These is sues are really the
heart of my project.
Spring Hill, Tennessee, there has been a change in
local political leadership that has reflected
Saturn's move to the area. The town itself has been
radically transformed since General Motors announced
that Saturn would locate in the Spring Hill/Columbia
area. There was a boom in real estate prices,
followed by kind of a bust. There was a flurry of
development plans, with less development than
anticipated. I expect that people's social
relationships in the area have changed as a result of
the influx of thousands of new workers and the rapid
growth of the area.
of the things that is interesting and different about
Saturn is that the UAW-Saturn contract specified that
Saturn would hire GM workers. Local people were not
hired. The contract was written in the late 1980s, a
time when there was tremendous de industrialization
in the United States, especially in the Northeast and
the midwestern rust belt. Automobile workers suffered
more than their share of layoffs and plant closings.
The UAW saw Saturn as an opportunity to recoup some
of the jobs that had been lost in GM. Thousands of
workers moved to Spring Hill, which was a very small
town, and the surrounding area, mostly from northern
cities. Recently in The Tennessean, there was
an article about the North/South cultural conflicts
that were present early on when the workers first
began to come to Saturn. Much of that has died down,
but I want to document, ethnohistorically, the
transformation of the local area.
LETTERS: What are you learning about
KASMIR: Extensive popular and business literature
has focussed on the phenomenon of creating the Saturn
brand, a process that includes everything from
advertising to choosing the styles of cars. This
literature suggests that Saturn is remarkable for how
quickly it won brand recognition and how well people
remember key features of the brand. The advertising
is working. When I talk about the project, people
respond positively. They are interested because they
know about Saturn from the advertisements.
talking to people in New York (where I come from) and
Nashville, I have consistently found that people have
a favorite commercial and can describe its narrative.
They remember the characters in the commercial and
sometimes have some strong emotions about it. I do
not know if the specific technique of representing
workers has been an effective sales strategy, but
certainly the sum total of the advertising campaigns
has been effective. The popularity of the commercials
is one of the ways Saturn's impact is greater than
its local effect in Spring Hill or among Saturn
workers and customers. Even people who do not buy
Saturns have some idea of what goes on at Saturn and
why Saturn is important. I am most interested in the
broad cultural influence of the advertisements'
representation of work and workers.
LETTERS: Could you explain how anthropology
affects your approach as a scholar to this project?
KASMIR: Anthropology wants to be able to say that
it is a discipline that studies the human condition
in all its physical and cultural manifestations.
Given that industrial, advanced industrial, and
post-industrial societies are parts of the human
condition, anthropologists want to be able to say
these are parts of our purview. Yet as a discipline,
we are still enamored with the "exotic." I push on
this boundary of the discipline.
of the things that distinguishes anthropologists from
sociologists and urban geographers is our
methodology. We do prolonged fieldwork in a setting
where we live, and try to take on the habits of an
ordinary life there to the degree that this is
possible. Something about that experience transforms
one's way of knowing. For me, fieldwork is a
compelling, intimate, and rigorous way of knowing.
also draw on cultural studies, sociology, and
political theory. I am learning a lot more about
literary studies in the Fellows Program, which
enriches my analysis of the images and texts that I
find in the advertising, managerial, and academic
writing about Saturn.
LETTERS: How does this project relate to
your first book, which examined production in the
Basque region in Spain?
KASMIR: My Basque research was an ethnographic
study of a world-famous system of industrial
organization called the Mondragón cooperative
system. It was considered an alternative model to
standard capitalism. It was one of the most, if not
the most discussed of such models in universities,
corporations, and nonprofit economic development
organizations. This system had capital that stayed in
its community, and a bank that gave preferential
lending to member cooperatives. The workers owned the
factories. The system seemed to solve what in the
1970s and 1980s were considered the crises of
capitalism, such as de-industrialization, worker
alienation, and lack of worker participation.
began to think about the ways in which, in the '80s
in particular, unions were looked upon in academia
and the media as stodgy, part of the past, incapable
of representing workers' interests, and unable to
respond to the pressures of world competition. People
discussed the Mondragón cooperatives in large
part as an alternative to unions and as offering
private ownership to the working class. I began to
look at the Mondragón model as an ideology of
also interested in the relationship between forms of
work and national identity. That was a minor theme in
my last book, and is a theme that I want to develop
in this project. One of the earliest and most
repeated stories told about Saturn is that it would
save U.S. industry, be a model for U.S. industrial
revival, and show that U.S. auto manufacturers were
able to compete with the Japanese. Saturn was
announced in the '80s when Japanese imports became an
important part of the car market. Patriotism,
Americanism, and an "American identity" were framed
and mobilized within the Saturn concept in really
interesting ways that run parallel to the way in
which Basque identity and nationalism were mobilized
in the Mondragón cooperative setting.
Saturn and its cars were supposed to
symbolize a new way of doing things and were
positioned as the hope of U.S. industry. The name
"Saturn" was taken from NASA's Apollo program, which
was supposed to conjure up an image of U.S.
competition with the Soviets. But that competitor was
reimagined as Japan in a period when the U.S.'s
concern was not space exploration and fighting
communism but industrial competition, specifically in
what had been the hard core of U.S. competitiveness,
the automobile industry. So Saturn was very
definitely developed as a U.S. project for a U.S.
agenda for U.S. renewal.
LETTERS: Work might seem to some people
like an everyday necessity and burden rather than an
interesting subject for someone to study. What is it
about the concept of work that interests you?
KASMIR: The anthropological concept of culture is
rooted in everyday life. That is to say culture is
everything that makes up our ordinary lives. There
might be expressive forms of culture that are
particularly colorful, interesting, joyful, or
sorrowful, but they are no more or less theoretically
significant in the anthropological concept of culture
than the most ordinary things, like work. I approach
questions of the human condition with the notion of
culture as that which inhabits the everyday. In that
regard, I find work fascinating. To me it is no less
remarkable than some of the more spectacular aspects
of human display.
spend an enormous portion of our lives at work,
especially in the U.S. today. Those of us who are
working are spending more and more time on the job.
One of the U.S. cultural themes that I am exploring
in this project is the tension between work and other
parts of life, like leisure and family. I am trying
to understand what it is about work that is both
enriching and degrading, personally fulfilling and
sapping. I am interested in the ways in which people
express their discontent about the relationship of
work and family in their lives. You often hear in
media accounts and academic books about people's
concern that they are not spending enough time at
home or with their families. People nervously seek
all kinds of ways to save time and find more time,
while overtime continues to in crease, and people
feel pressured to spend an enormous amount of energy
and hours on the job. I want to understand this
tension, anxiety, and nervousness as a cultural
theme. I want to understand how it shapes modern
consciousness, people's subjectivity, and their
feelings about who they are.
of the most important transformations that we are
undergoing is the way in which we understand time,
our place in time, the availability of time to us,
and what counts as valuable or wasteful uses of it. I
think about this from a broad historical perspective.
I think about the way in which the first industrial
towns brought an industrial time clock to what had
been a rural or agrarian sense of time, and what a
dramatic cultural and personal shift that must have
implied. I think we are right in the midst of that
same caliber of shift. I think that in the last
decade or two, we have been making a transition to a
new kind of time. In addition to the changes in the
way that we work and the amount of time that we work,
there have been technological innovations in
computers and telecommunications that change the
structure of time and its meaning to us.
broad shifts in concepts of work and time have
implications for Saturn where the corporate discourse
constructs Saturn as a different kind of company. One
of the ways in which Saturn is different is that it
cultivates a family atmosphere. People I have spoken
with in Spring Hill have said that Saturn does have
that atmosphere and that people really do feel
connected to their workplace. I want to know the
extent of that connection, what it means for workers,
and what it means for life outside of the factory.
Saturn workers are on a difficult work schedule. They
are on rotating shifts, which have an impact on
family scheduling and create a kind of "Saturn time"
that differs from other kinds of time.
LETTERS: Have other corporations or
companies tried to emulate Saturn?
KASMIR: Saturn's level of union participation in
decision making is pretty unusual. But the teamwork,
just-in-time production, emphasis on quality, and
mobilization of workers' emotions and intellects to
improve production have become wide spread. But what
is becoming apparent, particularly during last
summer's big GM strike, is that Saturn has not borne
the kind of fruit one might have expected. In the
transformation of GM's corporate culture, the
features of democracy, including the management/labor
accord and union participation in management, have
been less significant than the success of the Saturn
brand name, image, customer relations, and the way
the dealerships do business. In a sense, the sales
dimension has influenced GM more than Saturn's
transformation of production.
What interests me about this is that
there are theorists of post industrialism or
postmodernism who argue that sales and the semiotics
of sales and consumption are becoming much more
prominent than production and work in the cultural
landscape and the meaning systems of U.S. life. For
me, this is an interesting issue that I need to
pursue in my research.
In 1985, when General Motors announced
its search for a site for Saturn, states and
municipalities competed for the facility, which was
to be the largest single industrial investment in
U.S. history. Several governors appeared with GM CEO
Roger Smith on the Phil Donahue show to pitch their
states. Comic artist Dick Kulpa, former alderman of
Loves Park, Illinois, sent the "It's Loves Park!"
comic to GM. After receiving it, GM sent him head
shots of company executives, from which he drew
characters in "Race for Saturn," a four-page comic
book. This comic satirizes the unrealistic claims
made by competitors for the Saturn plant and
positions Loves Park and its superhero mayor as
making a more modest but reasonable offer. This and
other texts from the period are reminders of the
ravages of de-industrialization on historic
industrial centers and indicate the array of cultural
productions that surrounded the Saturn project. GM's
participation with these productions suggests that
the corporation used the state- and local-level
ferment around the project to its advantage. In the
summer of 1985, when GM announced its choice of
Spring Hill, a novelty song entitled "Saturn" was
released by a country music promoter.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
[ RPW Center for the
About the Center |
Howard Lecture Series |
Seminars and Programs |
Programs since 1987 ]
Site Index |
Created by Vanderbilt University
Publications & Design.
Photo credits: Gerald Holly
and Vanderbilt University Publications &
Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
Tuesday, 9 May 2000
For more information: