Blog Post

Performing Walls on Saturday Night Live


 In the past few years, labor conditions around electronic manufacturing and consumption have revealed the use of bodies to mediate between the consumer and the good that is being consumed. Marlow and Akkad describe the mineral coltan, a necessary ingredient for smartphones, and it's contribution in the murders and rape of the instability of the Congo. Pomfret describes Foxconn's labor conditions, which have driven many workers to suicide and strikes. The research and activist group SACOM describes exploitative worker conditions in China due to Dell's efficiency production and demand of electronics. And internet 'screeners' are used to filter out violence and pornography before it circulates on the internet, often resulting in trauma and isolation from relationships because of the images that they view daily. 

 These bodies- laborers, screeners, and completely unnamed subjects of rape and disfigurement in the Congo, mediate the consumption of goods all around the world. A recent sketch by Saturday Night Live attempted to acknowledge some of these issues without having to truly engage the violence that is a result of electronic production. The skit shows tech journalists critiquing the iPhone 5, and being confronted by Foxconn workers (played by all non-Chinese SNL actors) for their poor labor conditions. 

My initial reaction to this sketch was "oh good someone is bringing these issues to a very public place." But I realized that this sketch wasn't really about the workers of Foxconn. It was a nod toward the exploitative conditions that are necessary to make these products, without having to do anything about it. It was a sort of acknowledgement of the elephant in the room, or an airing out of the national ego.  

Wendy Brown's book Walled States, Waning Soveriengty can be used in viewing the SNL sketch as a performance of national walls.  Brown looks into what walling does for the national identity, “…walling expresses and gratifies this desire for a national imago of goodness, one that wholly externalizes the nation’s ills and disavows its unlovely effects on others, its aggressions, needs, and dependencies” (90). It is this desire of goodness, which often justifies everything from war to these labor conditions, that seems to be re-instated with popular culture's acknowledgment of these working conditions. The performance of these workers in SNL seems to be another way to maintain walls that protect the nation’s ego.

     Brown uses Sigmund and Anne Freud's theories to apply to the nation-state's ego,

“Defenses, the Freuds argue, spare the ego from any encounter that disturbs the ego’s conceit of itself…Translated into the desire for walling, national identity is restored not only to potency, but to virtue through walls. It is cleansed of both its identification and its imbrication with what it is walling out, whether extreme global inequalities, capital’s demand for cheap illegal labor, or anticolonial rage. Thus do walls help to defend the identity, virtue, and strength of the nation against a variety of challenges.” (95)

Brown is talking about physical walls- specifically walls at the U.S.- Mexico border and Isreal-Palestine, but I think it helps in reflecting on how realizations in pop culture toward the exploitative conditions of producers and mediators of electronic technologies may work more on behalf of the national ego, relieving the liberal guilt while putting our national identity back in place. It's a form of defense in human rights disguise. It’s a way of saying "We've acknowledged this issue, now we can go back to buying the new iPad". 

Does an awareness by consumers of these goods change  the production of working conditions? Or does it reinstate these practices, while "cleansing" the id-ego?  The Saturday Night Live sketches lack of Chinese actors in portraying Foxconn workers was especially revealing. The conditions and laborers are still invisible enough for citizens of the global economy to keep consuming, but the sketch itself seems to act more as Brown's walls than as an agency on behalf of workers, protecting the nation from guilt or action by allowing that there is an awareness of the violence.

Mel Chen’s interrogation of the ‘toxin’ in the dialogue around lead in the United States reflects on the Chinese immigrant as a threat to American society, “Yet even as the toxins themselves spread far and wide, such a ‘we’ is a false unity. There are those who find themselves on the underside of industrial ‘development’…” (276). A ‘we’ is also created in the Saturday Night Live sketch about Foxconn, and it is a national ‘we’ of consumers who feel really bad about the labor conditions around electronics, but who also don’t need to fully realize the workers, as long as they are imagined by actors in the safety of a filming studio. The bodies are absent, and therefore the national ego stays intact,“By foregrounding the lived experience of bodies…we are forced to witness the inherent brokenness of the raciality itself as a system of segregation even as it remains numbingly effective in informing zones of combat and privilege.” (379). 


1 comment

I'm so glad you decided to write on this topic.  I saw this SNL skit and immediately bookmarked it as something to show when teaching about ICTs.  I enjoyed your application of Brown and the positioning of this dialogue as contributing to walled spaces.  I think that is an innovative (and important) way to think about the role of ICT labor discourse in popular culture.