The Production of Language

Five weeks ago I came across a quote by Henry Ford.  It has remained close to the fore of my thoughts since then.

Speech is one of man’s most marvelous tools and there is a direct relation between the kind of speech which he uses and the kind of work he does.

A good engineer can tell what language a machine ‘been built in just by looking at it.  There are some languages in which a machine cannot be built at all.  There are some languages in which it would be impossible to efficiently manage a factory.

Ford’s speech has a distinctive directness to it.  It’s quietly militant.

This might not surprise those who know Ford’s capitalist success story of the assembly line.  There’s a steadiness to his prose that resembles the production line–just look at the repetitive evenness of the last three sentences.

Ford’s quote shows a remarkable grasp of the relationship between language and reality, between our knowledge and our actions.  More specifically, it reveals in no uncertain terms how capitalism is successful in large measure because of our language choices.

Ford no doubt would find dreadful a society without “efficient” factories and engines–though we must understand that “efficient” in this context is heavily colored by a capitalist frame of reference.  “Efficient,” for Ford* and many other capitalists, for example, means maximizing the externalization of costs, and minimizing accountability in order to maximize profit.  “Efficient” will mean something quite different to a Marxist or an environmentalist.

But what Ford dreads is precisely what many are fighting for: a language that makes a capitalist economic model an impossibility.**  The goal is a language which cannot support the flagrant exploitation of labor and environment.

Among those broadcasting this message are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, authors of Empire, Multitude, and most recently, Commonwealth.  One of their principle claims is that a language of resistance is an integral part of any successful resistance movement.  Of course, they’re not the only ones saying this, but they are perhaps the only ones saying it that have such a large constituency of readers.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Michael Hardt speak at the Nonstop Institute in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  He was very gracious with his time and answers, always working hard to understand the questions as clearly as possible, while remaining sensitive to the questioner’s desires.  In short, I was impressed and appreciative, along with many others.

When the microphone came around to me, there were two questions I had in mind, one that relates directly to Ford’s quote.  Hardt and Negri use the phrase “production of subjectivity” to discuss how capitalism influences thought- and action-patterns that benefit its continuation.  What I’m curious to know–and what I was lucky enough to ask Michael Hardt–is what happens when the key terms we use to critique capitalism are they same that have served its advancement so well?  Production is a term very near-and-dear to the capitalist way of life (see, for instance, how Derrick Jensen defines it–premise #5).  Do we reinforce certain lines of capitalist thought, even though we’re trying to critique it?  When we say “production of subjectivity” do we invoke a frame a reference that is best (if not only) understood through capitalist means?

Check out the video to hear his answer–roughly around the thirty minute mark.  (And please excuse my stumbling questioning.)

I’ll leave you with the same questions, as I don’t have any answers right now.  There are pros, cons, and in-betweens to all these choices.  What does a language of resistance sound like, read like, feel like?  On whose shoulders does it fall to create and sustain this language?  Should we be spending our energies elsewhere?



* Perhaps the most notorious admirer of Ford’s commitment to “efficiency” was Hitler, who told a Detroit News reporter in 1933, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”  Indeed he did: a framed picture of Ford hung in Hitler’s office and he’s the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. This should indicate clearly enough the devastating consequences of a subjectivity that fetishizes a certain type of “efficiency.”

** On this end of the spectrum we find yet another spectrum: there are those who argue the factory should be owned by the workers and there are those who argue the factory shouldn’t exist at all, no large-scale production facilities period, as they almost invariably support unsustainable economic models. We literally cannot continue an economic system of ravenous extraction and perpetual growth and sustain the ecosystems that make life possible.  The fact of this isn’t up for debate–but what we do in response to it most definitely is.

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1 thought on “The Production of Language

  1. Um, what is there to say that’s not already been said about Empire? I think of one line by Bun B in that most famous hip hop track from its publishing year, that, interestingly, seems to echo some of the not inconspicuous themes from this video: “Go read a book you illiterate son of a bitch and step up yo’ vocab” and when going or, should I say, following the song along, I feel something like peace (

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