Revolt of the Means Against the Ends

[posted by Greg]

In the citation that appears on the homepage of The Cafe Irreal, Jean-Paul Sartre  describes how, in a particular cafe of a fantastic nature, the “means” (e.g., cups of coffee) rebel against the “ends” (i.e. the purpose for being in the cafe), making the world topsy-turvy for the cafe’s patrons. In fact, the setting of his description and the irreality that follows from it inspired us to name our publication The Cafe Irreal. I have been thinking of this citation as I’ve watched a strike (and the reaction to it) unfold in Tucson, the city to which I’ve returned after my recent trip to Prague. Specifically, the bus drivers and mechanics here have gone on strike over the city’s reluctance to guarantee a certain level of job security, and the reaction of some members of the public to the strike is, true to form (I have noticed this during other strikes), similar to the way the patrons in Sartre’s cafe would have reacted. That is to say, they are astonished and appalled that this “instrument” (e.g., the workers) who normally fill their assigned role of being a means to end (in this case getting from point A to point B), have suddenly refused to fulfill this function, causing some people’s world to go topsy-turvy. (Many other people who ride the buses are sympathetic to the drivers, and their main concern is how to get around now that their primary means of transportation has been disrupted.)

Of course, the scenario I’m describing here in Tucson, unlike Sartre’s fictional cafe, isn’t irreal: it may be a rebellion by what some people would regard as the “means to an end,” but in this case the means are human agents seeking a comprehensible end (job security), and thus lacks the irreality of the rebellion Sartre describes. In this very specific way the strike here plays out rather more in the way that the worker’s rebellion played out in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, though with vastly less melodrama and action. That film – which is currently featured in an exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art that no doubt also inspired me to write on this theme — rather famously portrays the instrumentality of workers in the bourgeois scheme of things, as can be seen in this clip.   Still, by the end of the film the factory owner has to acknowledge the human agency of the workers. In the same way, the people I’m describing here, once they recover from their initial astonishment, have to acknowledge the human agency of the strikers; unfortunately, this often takes the form of angry comments on, for example, the alleged greed of the strikers, or the belief that the strikers have their heads in the sand, or that they are communists because they’re members of a trade union or thugs because they’re Teamsters, etc.

Nonetheless, in that first reaction — that first astonishment at the rebellion of the means against the ends — there is, I believe, an irreal resonance.

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