December 12, 2008
Lee Grieveson (University College London), “Visualizing industrial citizenship; or, Henry Ford makes movies”
Additional support for this event came from ARTHEMIS.
Lee Grieveson is the author of Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth Century America (University of California Press, 2004) and co-editor with Haidee Wasson of Inventing Film Studies (Duke University Press, 2008), among other books and articles.
Event report: Henry Ford once said, “We want to make men in this factory as well as automobiles.” The Ford Motor Company’s motion picture department reflected Ford’s belief in the role of film in producing and teaching happy workers and humans. In this talk, Lee Grieveson considered Fordism from the perspective of Foucault’s notion of “governmentality,” tracing how Ford’s involvement in film production was imbricated with ideas about productivity, self-discipline, and autonomous liberal selfhood as the cornerstones of individual and social happiness. The shaping of the worker’s subjectivity—as facilitated through pedagogically-oriented films—was thus intimately tied to industry, which was, in turn, related to a larger social welfare project involving education, civility, security, and liberty. The Ford film project, which produced and distributed dozens of educational films for workers and for the general public, broke ground on a number of fronts, including the free widespread circulation and exhibition of films outside the theatrical systems in the US and South America. Over time, the Ford film department became one of the largest American film producers and distributors and the Ford films reached vast audiences during the silent cinema era. His film initiatives further established Ford as an innovator of monopoly and celebrity capitalism. Grieveson’s textual examples—including the Ford “tractor films”—painted a portrait of industrial America different than the dystopian vision of Modern Times, celebrating the order, efficiency, and discipline of assembly practices and mechanized manufacturing. Representing an analogy between the mass production of automobiles and the production of good humans, the Ford films were part of a larger modernist project revolving around technological innovation, mass manufacturing, and communication systems. The Ford film project, marred by the Depression and scandals over anti-union violence and anti-Semitism, was eventually discontinued in the mid-30s.