Harun Farocki’s In Comparison

Those seeking an answer to the question, “who am I?” often brush up against the question, “who am I not?” The self finds its place in the order of things by setting itself apart from the other; this is an age-old comparison, and one of the many that Farocki utilizes in his quest to illuminate a multiplicity of issues, questions, meditations, reflections, and memories inspired by his object of investigation, the brick. As a “poetic object,” the brick performs a number of duties; though it has served multiple purposes and assumed many identities throughout its long history, it remains fundamentally unchanged in structure and use. A brick will always be a brick, though its almost alchemical process of transformation from raw earth into an object of substance (shaped imperfectly by human hands or methodically by metal molds or precisely by enormous robotic arms) varies according to the needs of the situation. 

Farocki states that he “wanted to make a film about concomitance, and about contemporary production on a range of different technical levels.” It seems that, like many works of art that aim to investigate human labor practices, In Comparison ultimately provides a (both literal and figurative) foundation upon which to structure a dialectic about a deeply embodied labor of the past and an increasingly abstracted, mechanized labor of the present, as well as opening a line of questioning into the visuality of labor in the future. However, no such straightforward differentiation is possible, because the sequences Farocki depicts are all rooted in the very recent present.

The act of brick-making, a highly social endeavor involving the minds and bodies of a large part of a community building a clinic in Burkina Faso, makes the non-linear narrative journey towards becoming the alienated, metallic pastime of an orange automaton that swishes to and fro as it glues and places grey bricks in elaborate, computer-generated pixellations in a lab in Switzerland at the end of the film. Farocki’s deliberate, meditative camera work provides a surface upon which the mind can wander, just as the brick becomes the surface upon which that most human of creations, the building, is imagined and constructed. The brick embarks on a journey between necessity and art, labor and craft. As Marx wrote, “every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence the manifold uses of things is the work of history” (Capital, 125). Marx explores the notion that political economy fails to acknowledge the complex relationship between the worker and the object he or she produces. Farocki’s film bridges this ever-widening divide by carefully drifting with a half-journalistic, half-artistic eye over many landscapes of production, seeking to capture some of the missing substance that lies between work and consumption. In Comparison also puts in comparison a culture of consumption with a culture of necessity, blithely shedding light on many Western assumptions about the origins of everyday objects, as well as the attention devoted to their production.

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