The allure of work as process and pleasure

    GENRE / In a deliciously written book, Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky delineates, dissects, and names a visual genre we are all familiar with but have not yet learned to appreciate its full potential and implications.

    The Process Genre. Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor
    Author: Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky
    Publisher: Duke University Press,

    «Nooooooo! Why!?!» We had only reached scene four in The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made, when my partner couldn’t take it anymore. It had been agonising from the outset, watching a cake being cut into meaninglessly messy, uneven slices. When a bag of Skittles and another of M&Ms were presented in the frame, with resigned cynicism, she (correctly) foresaw that they would be mixed in the same bowl. All done to the monotone-optimistic tunes of the typical how-to-video background music. It was painful to witness, but still makeable. It was not any longer when a third ruler-line was made on a piece of white paper trashing the two first lines for no other reason than pure sloppiness. That was when the mental pressure of obnoxiousness got too high.

    The video is, in the words of Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, «a parody of processual representation». All 20 scenes show «in¬stances of form-giving activities, of labor» and all of them in some sense «get the job done», but with poor technique, lack of skills, bad choice of materials and tools, and an amount of randomness that is the anti-thesis to what cinema, media, and documentary-researcher Skvirsky calls «the process genre» – a phenomenon that has not been named and thus not theorised until now.

    It involves technique, skills, knowledge, practice, and ultimately makes the work a certain result requires seem easy, even when it is anything but.

    Making and doing

    The process genre is – from industrial cinema of the early 20th century to contemporary YouTube how-to-videos – broadly speaking a «sequentially ordered representation of someone making or doing something». It involves technique, skills, knowledge, practice, and ultimately makes the work a certain result requires seem easy, even when it is anything but.

    What Skvirsky does in her new book is remake the most captivating features of the genre in the way she takes the reader through the steps of her own thinking on this phenomenon. The analysis progresses seamlessly, thoroughly, skilfully, and logically surprising – one cannot foresee the next step, but when taken it makes all the sense in the world – and not least with an ease that completely conceals the dramatic amount of complexity involved and the amazing chaos that must have preceded the text’s final form.

    The Process Genre. Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor is a fascinating delineating and dissecting analysis that has wide implications for the ways we may think about the genre itself and its object of study and representation: organised and productive human activity.

    It investigates five questions:

    1. How old the genre is
    2. What the relation is between genre and medium
    3. What effects it has on its spectators
    4. The sociocultural and political significance of the genre
    5. Why the explosion of the genre is happening right now. The pursuit of the answers to each question takes the reader unexpectedly far around on coordinates, that ultimately maps out the most pressing issues of our time.

    a fascinating delineating and dissecting analysis that has wide implications for the ways we may think about the genre itself

    Transformative potential

    The process genre’s power to reach into the spectator’s mind is something that can be mobilised for political purposes on both sides. It both shapes and is shaped by understandings of what work is (and what is work) and why it matters.

    According to Skvirsky, «the dissatisfaction and hilarity» of watching The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made (though my partner found it too disturbing to be hilarious) results «from the simultaneous invocation of the pleasures of the process genre and the eventual denial of those pleasures». Here she follows one of her main inquiries, namely why it has such a mesmerizing effect to watch something being skilfully created, transformed, or achieved through determined human activity.

    What the process genre can do is to «exhibit an aesthetic that makes palpable that awesome transformative potential of human labor», as Skvirsky puts it. While every step of The Process Genre is an exciting read – not least because of the excellently narrated analysis that makes even the smallest details appear indispensable – one of the most exciting parts is her reflections on what the genre might tell us about the significance of work, and whether work as a term for «productive effort» needs to be reduced to a specific social relationship, as for instance wage labour under capitalism.

    For instance, as Skvirsky shows, one of the genre’s potentials is to render visible forms of work that are not generally perceived as such, and to render visible the skills in forms of work that are generally perceived as unskilled. As such, the process genre both has the potential to preserve and revolutionise our ways of thinking about labor.

    Nina Trige Andersen
    Nina Trige Andersen
    Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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