Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 1999, Vol. 7, No. 2
  • Exploring Saturn
  • Jumping the Dragon Gate: Storytellers and the Creation of the Shanghai Identity
  • Teaching the Holocaust
  • Lecture on Southern Letters
  • Exploring Saturn

    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 Saturn?

    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 class.
    The commercial did not just depict a customer—which 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.
    The 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.
    While 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 project.

    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.
    For 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 workers—some 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.
    A 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.
    The 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.
    In 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.
    One 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 Saturn's marketing?

    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.
    From 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.
    One 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.
    I 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.
    I 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 post-Fordist capitalism.
    I was 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.
    We 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.
    One 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.
    These 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.
    -Sharryn Kasmir



    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


    [ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

    [ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | | Help ]


    Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
    Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

    Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
    URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
    Last Modified: Tuesday, 9 May 2000
    For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu