Workers' Skin: Dirtiness, Abjection, and Postsocialist Affect in a Romanian Locomotive Repair Yard
(University of MichiganUniversity of Bucharest)
Paper short abstract:
Focusing on the work of repair technicians in a locomotive shop in postsocialist Romania, this paper investigates the complex pragmatic, symbolic, and affective implications of dirty work.
Paper long abstract:
This paper examines the role played by dirtiness in a state-run locomotive repair workshop in postsocialist Romania. The poor state of the machines and the manual nature of their labor means that technicians are routinely in physical contact with grimy or viscous materials that are contaminating to the body and are seen as polluting outside the technological context in which they function. Although getting dirty is part of the job, Romanian technicians talk about the dirtiness of their labor and workplace in terms of embodied disgust and social abjection. I propose that dirtiness simultaneously functions as: 1. a practical matter (it needs to be removed from machines and bodies, and "read" in the process of diagnosis), 2. a symbolic vehicle that distinguishes between managers and workers and between workers themselves, and 3. an affective trope through which railroaders critique the devaluation of labor and express their dismay with the degraded condition of public railways under neoliberal conditions. Informed by twelve months of participant observation in an electrical locomotive shop in Bucharest, this paper draws on recent literature on anthropology of repair, and on theorizations of affect to explore the practical, symbolic, and affective implications of dirty rail work in a postsocialist context of underfunded public services, crumbling infrastructure and technology, and degraded workers' identity.
Revisiting railroads: sociality, mobility and infrastructure