Workers’ Skin: Filth and Abject Labor in a Romanian Rail Yard

Event: Research group

Location: Zoom

27 May 2022, 17.00-19.00 (Bucharest time)

Adrian DEOANCA, Researcher, “Francisc I. Rainer” Institute of Anthropology of the Romanian Academy

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In this paper, I examine rail workers ambivalent encounters with dirtiness in a state-run locomotive repair workshop in 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 and a vector of masculine performativity, Romanian technicians talk about the dirtiness of their labor and workplace in terms of embodied disgust and social abjection, coding them as ‘filth’ (jeg). Among workers, 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 degradation of labor and express their dismay with the 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. Filth, in this case, emerges as a productive heuristic for analyzing the embodied condition of repair work in late capitalism, and for gleaning the emergence of a poignant form of postsocialist affect among the industrial working classes.

Keywords: repair, labor, affect, body, dirtiness, railroads, postsocialism, Romania

Short bio

Adrian Deoancă works as researcher at the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ Institute of Anthropology of the Romanian Academy. He earned his Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, U.S.A.) in 2020 with a dissertation on the postsocialist transformations of infrastructure and repair labor in Romania. Since then, he lectures on contemporary anthropological theory at the University of Bucharest and at the National School of Political and Administrative Sciences, and contributes to several research projects concerning environmental relations, waste streams, and the decarbonization of heavy industry.

This event is organized within the research group The Group for Anthropological Research and Debates (GARD) hosted by NEC.