Draft of an AI course policy

I’ve spent the summer futzing with an AI policy for my courses this semester. I based this on the few policies I found floating around online, including this one from Puget Sound. There was another one that I can’t find right now that had something like this set of bullet points. (There’s an example here from Michigan that’s close, but not the one I remember.) If I find it, I’ll link to it. And I got the idea to ask for what students put into the AI from our dean of online learning.

Here’s what I’ve got for the fall semester:

AI Policy
In this course, we value writing as a process. What does that mean? It means that this course is designed to help you learn to write by wrestling your ideas and the ideas of others into your own language. My goal for you as a writer isn’t to produce perfect pieces of writing, but to grow as a writer, thinker, and human being. That’s why I designed the writing activities in this course to focus on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences even when you are writing about what someone else thought or wrote.

For those reasons, you may not use AI to produce your writing submissions for this course. Written activities produced entirely (or mostly) by AI will receive no credit and I will ask you to submit a new piece.

However, you may use AI as a tool to aid you in the writing process, if you wish. The following uses of AI are acceptable in this course:
• To brainstorm ideas. AI might be able to help you think about different topics for an activity;
• To create outlines. AI might be able to help you think about how you might organize your ideas for an activity;
• To revise and/or proofread drafts. AI might be able to help you eliminate grammatical errors or alter the tone of your writing.
If you choose to use AI as a tool, you must include the queries you used for the AI as an appendix to your submission. Why? This allows me to understand how you used AI as part of your writing process.

NeMLA23: “An End to the Anthropocene”: Climate Change and Psychedelic Horror

If fungi seem to be everywhere right now, that’s not just a result of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Fungi and their psychedelic possibilities have been all over horror for ages. Contemporary writers like Jeff Vandermeer, M.R. Carey, Alicia Whitely, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia have used the third kingdom for allegorical ends, turning the hallucinatory and transpersonal potentialities of fungi into critiques of settler colonialism, imperialism, and misogyny. Today, I’m going to discuss two films that use fungi’s psychedelic possibilities to respond to the terrors of the Capitalocene, Gaia and In the Earth. Both released in 2021 by Neon, these two psychedelic horror films have strikingly similar narratives: an outsider encounters people living in the wilderness who worship a fungus as a sort of consciousness of the Earth fighting against the coming climate collapse.

Poster for Ben Wheatley's psychedelic horror film, In the Earth.
In the Earth (2021)

Poster for psychedelic horror film Gaia (2021)
Gaia (2021)

The use of fungi recalls what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing says of mushrooms. Their “willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes,” Tsing explains, “allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home” (3). In these films, however, fungi aren’t important because they can survive neoliberal ruin but because they act as a counterpower to capitalism itself. Fungi’s terrors are inseparable from its powers of appropriation. These films explore the uncanniness of fungi’s different ways of eating: the saprotrophic, which decomposes what it consumes; the parasitic, which lives off its hosts; and the mycorrhizal, which creates networks in symbiosis with other plants to exchange nutrients and aid ecological communication. The fungi of Gaia and In the Earth do a bit of everything, allowing fungi’s multiform powers of appropriation to make it resonate with capitalism. What cinches the allegory is that fungi is a diffuse networked system of appropriation. With their masses of hyphae, fungi elude description as individual organisms. What we see are the fruiting bodies of larger, more diffuse networks hidden in the soil that not only seem to have their own form of consciousness, but that can bring humanity into that consciousness through psychedelic experience. Both films rely on this conceit and use elements of psychedelic filmmaking to emphasize the permeability of human and nonhuman consciousness. The result is a pair of films that try to convey the terrors of climate change from the Earth’s perspective.

For that reason, these films force us to confront ecofascism, what Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier concisely defined as “[emphasizing] the supremacy of the ‘Earth’ over people; [evoking] ‘feelings’ and intuition at the expense of reason; and [upholding] a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism” (11). The far-right has long had what Sam Moore and Alex Roberts call “an ambivalence toward capitalism” (11). This ambivalence allows far-right ecologism to decry neoliberalism and environmental destruction on the one hand, and to treat climate change’s catastrophic effects on the global south as “racialized ineptitude” (42) on the other. To escape the impasses of the Capitalocene, far-right ecological thought seeks its solutions in ideas of Earth supremacy and naturalized hierarchies based in racialization.

Gaia makes these stakes clear almost immediately. From South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer, the film presents its fungus as part of a reimagining of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis’s “Gaia hypothesis,” the idea that “life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favorable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms” (Lovelock 254-55). Bouwer’s film asks what would happen if the Earth realized that the best way to do this was to eliminate humanity? This desire is shared by two back-to-the-land Afrikaaners, Barend and his son Stefan. Barend preaches a form of Earth-supremacy. The fungus will cleanse the world of humanity, he says, and “bring an end to the Anthropocene.” Barend’s eco-fascism seems implicitly allied to white supremacy, if only because he opposes the film’s two people of color, rangers sent to monitor the forest. One of them is quickly killed by the fungus, but the other, Gabi, seeks refuge in his cabin after one of his traps stabs her in the foot. Not only does Barend reject South African modernity, he also tries to hide his conversations from Gabi by speaking Afrikaans with his son. This doesn’t work, but the meaning is clear, and that’s before we see that his fungus worship has a lot to do with blood and soil. The fungus ties them to the Earth with its blood. When a fungus-headed creatures attacks, Gabi winds up coated in spore-tainted blood and the fungus begins to colonize her dreams and her arms. Barend and Stefan ward off this control by offering prayers and sacrifices to the fungus in return for mushrooms that cure them of this infection. Stefan steals one for Gabi, which clears her skin but not her mind, and Barend thus decides to initiate her into his cult with another of the fungus’s offerings, a psychedelic mushroom. Her trip begins pleasantly enough. She melts into and out of the earth and has a sexual encounter with Stefan before the vision turns dark. Barend fucks the earth and Stefan appears with an arrow through his head. Later, Barend tells her he’s had the same vision. The fungus wants him to sacrifice Stefan. More blood for the soil.

Gabi will thwart Stefan’s sacrifice by giving it Barend instead. The film briefly gestures toward a pluralist happy state of nature with Gabi and Stefan living together in the woods, but the fungus quickly brings this phase to an end. With Barend gone, they can’t ward off infection and Gabi is quickly overcome, her body consumed by the fungus. Stefan then leaves the forest and  falls back into his father’s apocalyptic project. In the film’s coda, he wanders through an unnamed city dressed like the Unabomber and leaving a trail of spores in his wake. The final image, a half-finished burger slowly enveloped by mold, suggests the Earth’s revenge to be inseparable from love.

Gaia wants us to see these ecofascist ideas critically, but its use of gender hierarchies undermines this critique. Early in the film, Barend insists that infection turns humans into the violent mushroom-headed creatures that roam the forest. However, the film’s two women escape this fate to become part of the landscape: Gabi quite literally becomes nature, absorbed into the forest floor. Stefan’s mother, long dead by the events of the film, has been similarly absorbed. As literary critics know, the alignment of the feminine and the land is a persistent trope of colonial and imperial literature. That’s because it runs through capitalism itself. As Claudia von Werlhof writes, in capitalism, women are “the only people on earth who always under all circumstances count as ‘nature’” (“On the Concept of Nature” 103). The film hammers the point home in its opening and closing sequences when the frame literally turns the world upside down. [SLIDE 5] A God’s-eye shot of the forest canopy captured from a great height reduces foliage to the texture of lichen before the camera slowly tips over, placing the lichen-forest canopy above and the blue sky below. This inverted image then dissolves into a drone shot inside the forest canopy as the camera glides over a riverbed, splitting into a distorted mirrored image above and a clear image below. When the drone approaches a canoe, we see Gabi, and the inversion ends as the camera passes overhead. [SLIDE 6] The film’s closing images reframe this inversion to suggest that what we’ve seen—Gabi’s story—is the real inversion. The conclusion returns us to what the film suggests is nature’s proper domination, absorbing Gabi into the landscape. As she expires, the camera returns to the God’s-eye shot, this time of her body completely colonized by fungi before dissolving to the opening God’s-eye view of the forest canopy.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) uses many of the same elements to surprisingly different ends. Dr. Wendel, a scientist studying the forest’s mycorrhizal network, has been lost in a UK forest, and Martin, a friend and colleague, heads into the woods to find her, guided by a ranger name Alma. One way to distinguish the two films is that Gaia exists in a world prior to COVID. The characters of In the Earth mask, test, and sterilize. When Martin approaches the ranger station at the beginning of the film, it isn’t clear where filming precautions end and fiction begins. Throughout, characters discuss the need to maintain a “sterile” environment. The people most fearful of contamination, though, aren’t Martin or Alma, both played by people of color, but the film’s deranged white researchers-cum-pagan-forest-worshippers. For Wendel and her ex-husband, Zach, fears of contamination camouflage their descent into madness.

Like Gaia, then, In the Earth is about ecofascism, here keyed to the rise of the far right in Britain. Wendel and Zach’s isolation in the woods has led them to become entranced by folklore about a forest necromancer, Parnag Fegg. Neither Alma nor Martin take the story seriously. Rangers have children draw Fegg before they go on hikes, Alma explains, so they’re too scared to wander off. Wendel, however, has come to believe Fegg is a personification of the forest’s mycorrhizal mat after she discovers its densest area lies under a Celtic standing stone. Her research hopes to discover how to communicate with the fungus, and she’s brought an array of light and sound equipment to do so. When her experiments fail, she turn to folk religion with Zach’s help. Together, they’ve decided the answer must be human sacrifice. And look, here come Martin and Alma. Taken as a whole, the racial division of the cast, the demands for sterility, and the turn to folk religion and human sacrifice suggest another ecofascist story, this one about an imagined return-to-origins and purity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr Wendel conducts her research for “the Fashdale Institute.”

Unlike Gaia, In the Earth is more circumspect about what it means to communicate with the nonhuman. Here the psychedelic also offers the possibility of communication between humanity and nature, but the people most committed to it are deranged. [SLIDE 10] Zach relies on trippy images, patternmaking, and offerings. Wendel, who pretends for much of the film not to accept Zach’s paganism, tells Martin, “Zach is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any.” Wendel is pulling Martin’s leg here, but the film does undercuts Zach’s beliefs. Nothing in its psychedelia supports ecofascist appeals to feelings and intuitions about nature. Instead, we see Zach wander aimlessly through the forest, claiming to feel its presence, but never knowing what it’s saying. At one point, overcome by fungal spores, he wanders in a hallucinatory daze and asks, “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want. Just tell me.” The film suggests the question is meaningless or unknowable. Wendel approaches communication along more scientific lines, but she is equally deluded. She uses the vibrations of the trees to produce feedback loops and trigger flashing lights in her attempts to communicate. The results are the sort of hallucinatory effects typical of psychedelic film: strobing lights, tracers, and tricks of persistence of vision. Wendel’s reasoning for these displays is no different than Zach’s. The forest network “wants to talk,” she says. “Nature is one giant system… This is the way to communicate with it.” Both Wendel and Zach believe climate change is so pressing that the forest must want to talk with us, if only to protect itself.

What In the Earth suggests here is that a capitalism increasingly deranged by climate change will intensify its violent repressions along racialized lines and it’s going to follow the divisions of existing imperial power. As the film shows, people of color are the first to suffer. Zach systematically tortures Martin, at one point chopping off his toes with an axe. When Martin escapes to the supposed safety of Wendel’s camp, she repeats Zach’s torture, cauterizing Martin’s wound with a heated iron. Both justify what they do as expressions of care. There’s never enough time to get Martin to a hospital. This is the only way. That’s bullshit, of course. When Zach attacks Alma late in the film, she drives a tent spike into his eye. He futzes with it for a moment then demands she take him to hospital. She doesn’t, obviously, but the point here is that suffering is for other people, and the benefits of science and technology for white environmentalists.[i]

Wheatley’s film lets us see something about eco-fascism, capitalism, and climate change that Gaia doesn’t: capitalism won’t spin off into reckless incoherence as climate change continues. It will keep pushing forward in its drive to accumulate value, even if it finds fewer and fewer commodity frontiers to exploit. Wendel’s research is a case in point. She wants to learn how to communicate with the mycorrhizal network to increase crop yields. The idea shows us one path capitalism is likely to take as the collapse of the biosphere closes resource frontiers. When capitalism can no longer rob nature, it will try to reimagine it as a recalcitrant workforce. Wendel’s research is the first step in what capitalism hopes will be a mere labor dispute with the Earth. After all, labor discipline and scientific and technological innovations have reclaimed productivity before. Why not again? What In the Earth adroitly shows is that these negotiations won’t work. They will, however, encourage the far-right’s murderous back-to-the-land fantasies of a purified nature, and it is the horrors of a supercharged ecofascism that psychedelic horror suggests to be the real terror of the Capitalocene.

[i] This scene also seems a play on Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Host (2020): Pandemic Horror and the Real Abstraction

I’m working on a new book about contemporary horror. To keep track of the films I’ve watched, I write up my notes and general reactions for later development. This post on Host is the first in the series. For posts on the theoretical basis of the project, see these posts on Jason E. Smith and Boltanski and Esquerre.

Host (2020) is a well-made little shocker from the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, meetings on Zoom were new enough that people were doing what we see the characters do in Host: actively choosing to get on Zoom to visit with friends. Zoom happy hours were a thing. It’s not drinking alone in your apartment if you’re talking to some friends on Zoom, or so the argument went. And this is what the seven friends in Host are doing: drinking on Zoom, comparing their “lockdown“ lives. The film was shot in the UK, so these characters were actually meant to be experiencing the government-mandated lockdown announced on 23 March 2020 and extended on 16 April 2020. (The film was released on 30 July 2020, before the second UK lockdown announced on 5 November.)
Shot using laptop cameras and Zoom (or edited to look like Zoom), Host is a high concept horror film: a found-footage horror film about a seance gone wrong using Zoom. That’s it. The only innovation, such as it is, is the use of Zoom. As a found-footage horror film, it follows the pattern set by The Blair Witch Project and followed by every found footage horror film since: the movie is over when the last person dies. No one gets out alive here either. It doesn’t matter whether they are being menaced individually or, as in the end, in a pair.
Perhaps that’s the formal trick of the film: to be in a frame is to be dead already, at least as a found footage horror film is concerned. Here we have characters in a pandemic, their faces in frames in Zoom, destroyed by a demon unwittingly unleashed by the one Chinese-British character (a plot point that shouldn’t be overlooked given the violence directed against Asian people in the West during the pandemic), and finally captured in the penultimate shot of the film in a triple framing: in the Zoom frame, in a photograph, in a doorway.
What, if anything, can we do with this film in a materialist vein?
Well, we could say the idea of the demon here is a kind of real abstraction. One of the friends, bored and waiting for something to happen, makes up a story to freak everyone out. The result, according to the medium, is that she has create a kind of empty mask that any entity can inhabit and use. The idea of the demonic coming forward doesn’t quite work, but of the mask that takes on its own dangerous power would.
On an affective level, the film is powerful, I think, because it captures something about experiencing life on Zoom. The images of the people on Zoom seem normal and everyday. They are present as you know them, in spaces that you recognize, mostly, and doing what you would expect them to be doing. Yet in the pandemic, these images are continually beset by the threat of disruption. Those could be minor disruptions—children, pets, deliveries, neighbors—or major. The image derealizes reality, you might say, following Debord. But this derealization is a violent dissociation of life and image. The loop of one woman brushing her teeth is a good example. This loop is her screensaver, we learn, and it comes on only after a glitch that shows the demon violently beating her to death. She is endlessly present and not present in this loop.
This, I think, is key to the film’s effects. One might think that this should be watched on a laptop, thus making the viewer part of this terrible Zoom call, an infection of the viewer perhaps best done by Ringu. That idea gets hinted at in the end as we watch some spiritual entity close out Zoom after everyone has died. But the viewing experience of this film will never be quite like that of Ringu. In Ringu, death comes from watching a video. Characters and viewers watch the video. The threat comes through the screen for characters and the implication is, for you as well. We all know you can now be part of a Zoom call without having your camera or mic on, those long video-like presentations that should have been an email, but that’s not the Zoom call of 2020, and it isn’t the Zoom call that Host gives viewers. No, what Host taps into is the fear that something might happen to the people on your call and you’ll be unable to help. That was always a possibility with video calls, but the pandemic brought this to the fore. You could see someone in their room just as you expect and then… you wouldn’t ever again.

On Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work

Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work argues that the rise of the service economy is the result of 1) the increasing productivity of manufacturing, and 2) the difficult, if not impossible, task of increasing productivity in services through automation.

These claims are, I think, correct, if also not earth-shattering. Of more interest in the specifics is Smith’s attempt to think through the relation of service work and the category of ”unproductive labor” from a Marxist perspective.  Smith rightly notes the incoherence of service as a category of economic analysis, yet retains it broadly by adumbrating  key categories of unproductive labor from Marx’s discussion in Capital volume three with all services. 

Part of the difficulty here is Smith’s reliance on definitions that Marx takes from Adam Smith, beginning with Smith’s definition of unproductive labor. For Jason E. Smith, the description of unproductive labor as labor that disappears in the moment of its production is not just what Smith means—and it is Smith’s idea—but also what Marx means. Yet at the same time, it is also fairly clear in Smart Machines that this definition cannot be what Marx means since Smith accepts the possibility that service work can be exploited. No surprise that Marx’s discussion of how teachers and other service workers can produce surplus value remains unquoted. 

And that shows, I think, my issue with the argument: its lack of engagement with value theory. Unproductive workers do not produce value for both Smith and Marx. The problem is that value doesn’t mean the same thing in either context. For Jason E. Smith, value seems easily quantified. It is increased labor productivity by sector. Rising productivity means an increase of value. 

Now, there’s a problem here in terms of Marxist theory: value is not the same thing as wealth. It is entirely possible in capitalist to have a situation in which more material wealth is produced but less value. This is a question of value composition, and it’s not dealt with at all by Smith. Falling capital investments and labor productivity rates give us unmediated access to value production. How? I don’t know. But it also explains Smith’s decision to treat all value production as a result of the interaction between capital and labor. Value composition is left out of the equation entirely. Now, why would that matter? Because labor isn’t the only source of value in Marx’s work. There’s also natural resources. There’s no sense in this discussion that the shift toward services occurs in the late Capitalocene, a period of intensified resource extraction and destructive climate change. 

You could argue that’s beyond the scope of this small book. Okay. Let’s look more closely at the categories of unproductive labor from Marx which matter most to Smith’s argument, the labor of supervision and labor of circulation. Both are unproductive, Smith argues, because they do not add value. Value is only created in production. The labor of supervision, which Marx explicitly compares to slave-driving (509), is correctly described as the labor of sweating workers for increased labor productivity. This is the labor of capitalists, to a degree, but it can be delegated in large firms to become wage labor. Marx also makes this point, but his reason for introducing this distinction is the opposite of Smith’s. For Marx, the separation of the labor of supervision from the capitalist means that the capitalist can be removed from the production process. The goal is to consider how one might separate capitalist control from its innovations in production (511). Organizing the labor process is a necessary aspect of production. Does that mean it produces value? It would seem possible, though Marx hates the idea because the only person who made it during his time was Nassau Senior, who reads less like a political economist than an apologist for capitalism. But Marx does treat this as labor that does not add value in production because it is outside the direct production process—and we will need to think about what that means in terms of the commodity fetish in just a moment.

The other labor in question is the labor of circulation. Here too the labor does not add value in the production process. It simply gets commodities from point A to point B. For Marx, it is of most importance for its ability to speed or slow the turnover of capital. Capital cannot be turned over into new investments without realizing its products as money. Or rather, it can, but this depends upon finance and debt strategies which will collapse if products are not sold. For Smith, circulation labor is just about getting commodities from point A to point B. It’s not just that they don’t add value but that they seem actively parasitic. 

And that’s what raises my ire in the book. The framing treats services, broadly construed, as parasitic on manufacturing productivity. This is a defeatist approach. The point, I suppose, is to show that service work’s lower productivity is part of a contradiction inherent to this formation of capitalism. At a certain point of labor productivity in manufacturing, poorly paid “low skill” service work begins to absorb some of the labor dumped from manufacturing, where the majority of value is produced. There are problems with this argument, though. In Smith’s telling, services are the last stop before a worker joins the reserve army of the unemployed. This may be true, but there is still a lot of other ”unskilled“ work in the first world in terms of agriculture, construction, meat packing, landscaping, and so on. Services continue to expand in the US, for instance, but much of that is going to health care. Other economic forces are driving that expansion. 

More than that, though, Smith’s claim that all non-commodity producing labor is parasitic on manufacturing productivity downplays that, for Marx at least, services can and are exploited by employers. If you hire a cleaning service, the cleaners are paid by the company to provide you, the client, a service. The company extracts value from their employees, meaning they produce value. Now, Smith would say, that’s true, but it can’t be intensified through technology. It can be sweated by managers with threats and so on, but it has an upper limit that can’t be increased. Fair enough. Smith’s concern, I suppose, is for capitalist accumulation. That’s stagnating. One might think this could be a possible locus for worker organizing and power. But for Smith is far more dour about this because of the dispersed nature of services, the lack of effect strikes in services have on society as a whole, and the difficulty of organizing across sectors. 

The problem, I think, all comes back to value. Smith insists value is created in production, not realized in exchange. With that perspective, the argument falls back on an old industrialist workerism: This leads to a variety of misapprehensions about the logical organization of capitalism. 

One of the worst, I think, is the blank reproduction of a claim from volume one of Capital that “labor-power in Marx’s formulation refers to the cost of the goods and services necessary to reproduce a given capacity to labor, day-in and day-out and over the course of generations” (123). At first glance, this seems fine and good. But it’s not so simple. First of all, this claim does appear in Marx but Marx has taken it, again, from Adam Smith. His use of it in Capital 1 appears early on during his discussion and thus operates at an extremely high level of abstraction. This is what we would think, in the abstract, that labor power is. But it is not, in practice, how capital functions. 

Smith’s book reflects one of the oddities of Marxism: a general sense that capitalism always works, even or especially when it doesn’t work for workers. There’s a sense that everything has been accounted for. Marx isn’t guilty of this but his use of means of subsistence to calculate surplus value can take him dangerously close, and for Smith, it will. Smith insists that the costs of reproducing “skilled” (aka highly educated or credentialed) laborers is the reason for differences in wages and salaries in different sectors. More on that in a moment. 

Marx here is working from Adam Smith’s claim that “a man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him” (book 1, chapter 8). For Smith, this sense of subsistence is bound up with a different mode of production—recall, Smith is writing not in the midst of developed capitalism but offering a dream of its possibility—and seems a version of “natural price” theory, which he uses elsewhere too (and in ways Marx will critique in subsequent volumes, if I recall correctly). We know that commodities don’t have natural prices. We also know, through historical work, that commodities in the eighteenth century didn’t have natural prices so much as moral prices, prices which were set by feudal traditions and enforced by social action, as EP Thompson explains in his essay on the moral economy. Labor, to the extent it has a price during Smith’s time, would have a moral price and be buoyed by other forms of production for its physical subsistence. Using it to analyze an economy premised on commodity exchange poses substantial difficulties.

Let’s bracket this historical problem, though, and approach the means of subsistence as Marx does, as a concept that enters into the production of value. As a concept, means of subsistence  binds the worker as a locus of physical and natural force to a larger natural metabolic process. In that sense, accounting for means of subsistence is necessary to imagine any economic organization.

The gist of Marx’s argument about means of subsistence, however, is that surplus value is value produced above value equal to the market costs of a worker’s socially determined means of subsistence. Marx’s presentation focuses on daily wages because employers purchase a day of labor-abstract power from workers and extract as much concrete labor—use-value producing labor—out of them in that period of time. What Marx wants to show is that surplus is not created through circulation, e.g., unequal exchanges between two merchants. If everyone buys low and sells high, no surpluses of production are possible. This is why Marx insists throughout the first part of Capital that a day of labor-power exchanges for its full value in terms of market costs for means of subsistence. He’s trying to track the source of surplus. Means of subsistence allow us to track what capitalism allocates for labor-power in production and how it can produce surplus value.

This is sometimes treated as a question of concrete labor time, as though people work for seven hours to reproduce their wages and then work another hour for their employers for free (another claim from Senior!). Marx’s account of the working day shows how intensely capitalists will try to extract more labor, either by extending the working day (though this is limited by the hours in a day and the worker’s ability to recuperate), or by intensifying work through co-operation and technological innovation. The problem is that capitalists can’t calculate value because they can’t be sure that their commodities will sell. They might approximate it by calculating their rates of profit, but even here capitalists anticipatewhat they may earn if their commodities sell. Now, they certainly try to extract as much work as they can from their workers. Of that, there is no doubt. But not in a way that they can track in terms of concrete labor time. They purchase a day of abstract labor-power and pay its market costs in means of reproduction. From the perspective of capital, this is a serious of commodity exchanges. 

All of which is to say, the purchase of labor-power and its payment in market costs of means of subsistence have nothing to do with the actual reproduction of labor. 

Why does this matter? We have to understand that, fundamentally, capitalism doesn’t care about labor’s reproduction. There is no rational process of labor reproduction. It is always strange to find claims about market rationality for labor reproduction built into the analysis of capitalism. Its defining feature, its production of commodities for exchange to accumulate value, is indifferent to workers’ needs. That’s an effect of commodity production, most especially the decentralization of market exchange that makes people into labor-power to be purchased. What capitalists purchase as a day or an hour or a piece is all that matters. That’s where ideas about “means of subsistence” actually matter. Marx’s two categories of capital account for all of this in the simple calculation of surplus value as the value produced in excess of the values consumed by production in terms of constant capital (e.g., means of production, raw materials, and so on) and variable capital (i.e., labor). 

Why does this matter? 

Means of subsistence suggests that capitalism cares about the ability of workers to reproduce their labor, that they must pay enough for workers to live. When one makes this central to the production of surplus value, it seems that capitalism understands what is in its interest or that it shares interests with workers. It doesn’t. 

What the reproduction of labor should direct us toward is the idea of appropriation. This is a concept utterly alien to Jason E. Smith, though central to work on social reproduction and care. Capitalism doesn’t simply exploit labor in exchange for wages. It also takes labor without paying for it. It’s not simply that women’s social reproduction work doesn’t cost capitalists much, so it’s easy to exploit and ignore (Smith 125). It’s that capitalism has been built on the backs of women’s reproductive labor and refused to pay for it. It’s that nature provides resources for production that also produce value for capitalism and that capitalism does not pay for those resources. And that’s why Smith’s lack of attention to the work of materialist feminists, social reproduction theorists, and to the environment matters. These are linked concerns, as Jason W. Moore’s theory of appropriation shows. For Moore, appropriation is as much a part of capitalist production as exploitation. The appropriation of cheap food, energy, labor, and raw materials is what drives capitalist accumulation. The means of subsistence problem is solved once we understand that capitalism relies on the appropriation of cheap food to lower its labor costs. When it can’t appropriate cheap food, it appropriates cheap labor through enslavement and unpaid social reproduction work. 

Now, this idea is fully present in Marx, not just in his discussion of original accumulation. It is  clearest in his discussion of workers and West Indian slavery in Capital 1. Capitalist production will use up its workers entirely, Marx tells us, as long as they have a continued steam of replacements for those killed in production. And Marx writes elsewhere, “Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it do so” (Capital 1, 381). 

Why write?

Grappling with the purpose of writing anything right now.

I got into cultural criticism because I wanted tools to demystify culture. You have to understand, the first part of my adult life was controlled by culture—not just the consumption of culture, but the production of culture. With Headboard, I spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what other people wanted and how I could keep these others satisfied while also satisfying my own aesthetic interests. Those others included band leaders, audiences, and record labels. It was a complex mix of people and involved a lot of market analysis: what’s popular now, what does it sound like, what can we use, what should we avoid for its particular significations, and so on. I wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but that was what I was doing. When I went back to college and read Adorno, I was shocked to recognize his description of that work. People had thought about this problem! So even when I went back to playing in a band, I carried critical theory with me: Adorno, Gramsci, Jameson, and so on.

The problem is that demystification only gets you so far. It helped me exorcise some demons, especially once I had to give up music and focus on grad school. But it can only get you so far in analysis. The result can historicize and criticize a particular work or a drift of work. That’s effectively what the first book was. But it doesn’t tell us much about what those works do or how those works are made other than as part of a process of hegemony. So there’s a dead-end here. We can critique and show the limits, but we can’t build a positive project. Or I can’t, anyway.

Okay, so what could I do instead?

Well, a lot of people went in for surface reading, affect, and post-critique because then they could write about what a piece of culture does. That seemed important for conjuncture reasons: institutions post-2008 saw declining humanities enrollments and the center of hegemony in 21C culture decidedly left cultural production. We have intense direct oppression of the working class and very little in terms of culture attempting to explain or mitigate that in a way which has any effect. As a discipline, English had (and has) a very real need to defend the study of aesthetic objects as a unique form of knowledge production as defined by the 21C university, whether we agree that English does produce this knowledge.

Some people read this project of institutional defense as an attack on critique. It is and it isn’t. From a conjunctural perspective, it would be a sensible defense if it had focused on a different audience. Post-critique evangelizes other scholars in English, as though we would be institutionally safe if we all chose the same object and method of inquiry. This is why, I think, post-critique can offer useful insights and still cause such a ruckus. It makes my back go up at times, especially since the drift of the argument can often seem to be that acceding to the desires of the master will solve our problems. I’ve read enough psychoanalysis not to fall for that one.

Yet I think affect is useful in terms of directing us to what cultural objects can do. That’s why I used it for my second book, but always focused on its situatedness. Affect and conjunctural analysis should work hand-in-hand, a position that we can find in disparate thinkers from Stuart Hall to Felix Guattari. Or what used to be called cultural studies. Somehow, that’s fallen off the radar as the critique/post-critique divide hardens.

The reason why cultural studies has dwindled as a recognizable position in lit studies, at least as far as I can tell, is that culture is no longer the central site for the construction of hegemony. Economic forces are MUCH stronger operators of hegemony now than culture was thirty years ago. Part of this is the collapse of mass media, which means we have fewer mass cultural texts attempting to mediate the contradictions of capital across many audiences. The atomization of the audience means that one can play to audience desires in particular ways. What would we call this? Consumer hegemony, probably. It’s not that I don’t think culture doesn’t have hegemonic effects. It just isn’t where the action is anymore. Close reading particular cultural texts doesn’t make much sense when they have so little effect. It has a real “missing the forest for the trees” vibe.

All of which is to say, I’m at a point where I want to step back for a moment and ask why doing critical work is worthwhile in the first place. Why do critical work at all?

We could use a pedagogical frame, e.g., what is it that students need or wish they had which we can give them? Why: because it will help students.

We could use a disciplinary frame, e.g., what is missing in the discipline? Why: because it will help others in the discipline understand something.

We could use an institutional frame, e.g., what is missing in our field that the institution needs? Why: because the field will help the institution achieve something.

We could use a political frame, e.g., what values or issues would we wish to examine in order to change that issue in the world? Why: because we wish to change something in the world.

So far, so obvious.

There must be more, but I got stuck thinking about this one:

We could use an aesthetic frame, e.g., what should we understand better about how a cultural text is made? Why: because it will help audience and producers understand their productions more fully.

That one stands out to me because it’s an approach we don’t take, or which some people in post-critique approach peripherally. One could imagine working back from a theory of attachment to a cultural text. It also inflects genre theory and work on film genre, though again as a mostly peripheral concern.

Is this a better reason for the work? Not necessarily. Yet it interests me, even if it is one so readily given to political and economic cooptation that it is hard to follow. To do it properly, it would have to be couched in critique. And it also confronts a likely resistance for the simple reason that I would approach this from the perspective of a critic and a reader rather than a producer. Genre studies gets around this problem by foregrounding reading as prior to producing, but it is the kind of objection one can readily hear from OUTSIDE the discipline and that’s worth thinking about.

But again this takes us back to the problem of culture’s dwindling role in the production of hegemony. If culture is not the key site of hegemony, then we have to navigate the middle ground between critique and positive production. What can be made or should be made? What is worth doing or saving or achieving, if anything can be achieved? Perhaps this suggests a path for a positive project alongside a conjunctural critique. Perhaps not.

Notes on Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment

Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment is the first book that adequately describes the specific economic shifts I lived through in Northern California in the late 20C. It goes further than marking the rise of services as such, and that’s what interests me.

It’s easier to see this in their case study of the enrichment economy than in their categories: declining agricultural revenues, rise in tourism, heritage creation, high end gastronomy, new narratives about the past, and the creation of ancestral/local manufacturing.

All of these can be seen in different forms in Sonoma and Napa counties: agricultural production declines through 1970s, shifting toward wine in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s alongside the development of wine tourism and high-end restaurants (e.g., the French Laundry).

All of this gets ported through new narratives of the past. These are distinct from those in France but no less false in terms of their history. Sonoma remade itself as wine country by playing up its minor history as a wine producer and intensifying production in the present. The introduction of the language of terroir and of biodynamic techniques play into this ancient past/future narrative. Even the renovation of the built environment to elide any design elements of the recent past for those of an older history and a contemporary present nicely captures what happened to Sonoma during the 1990s.

The area also sees a strange explosion of high/low commodification of the region. On the one hand, it gets attached to commodified food. “Sonoma” and “Napa” appear on a variety of commercially available foodstuffs, usually marketed as slightly more expensive, kinda-sorta-gourmet. It is used to sell kitsch housewares and so on. On the other hand, it becomes a byword marking a more expensive tourist experience, one that runs the gamut from bus trips and wine trains to high end hotels and private wine tastings.

I have a harder time connecting the area to what B&E describe as new traditions of regional production. People don’t go to Sonoma to buy knives. But the creation of regional food cultures is without a doubt part of this movement. Even the Healdsburg Guitar Festival could be folded into this kind of development.

Does this capture everything happening economically in the north bay? No. But it does describe a concerted shift in economic development in certain regions which coincides with the so-called neoliberal era.

What’s interesting is the focus that B&E place on patrimony’s role in this turn to enrichment. This builds from Piketty’s work and Boltanski’s earlier focus on the role managerial cadres as a new waged bourgeoisie. What’s unique in the enrichment turn is the relaunching of objects accrued over time as new commodities. The valorization of the past through material objects can only be accomplished by those who have had the means to accrue those past objects. Importantly, not just any objects can work in these forms of valorization. They must be objects that properly signify past-ness, which are capable of being valorized as heritage/traditional production.

People with access to these objects are not just the wealthy. The shift here that is of great importance is the rise of an upper middle-class of patrimonial capital. Managerial wages and wealth passes across generations and allows the accumulation of the right kind of objects for enrichment valorization.

Some might see this as the increased economic power of the PMC. That’s not entirely wrong, as the people that Ehrenreich wrote about as the PMC all those years ago would be the right generation of managerial workers who could accrue wages and turn them to this use. However, it would be worthless to attach the PMC to the enrichment economy as such because it does not adequately describe managerial class formation. (I think it might serve as a useful historically located term for a particular generational cohort of workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but that’s a hunch, not a certainty.)

A better analysis would connect this to Erik Olin Wright’s analysis of class formation and organizational assets. Those workers with a high command of organizational assets receive the highest wages and are most likely to turn those wages into patrimonial capital.

What might that tell us about labor practices and enrichment economies? It suggests that we’re going to see the pervasive effect of particular managerial ideologies about work, labor, and self-realization. That we’re going to see an aversion to unionization and collective efforts. That we’re going to see an increased emphasis on project-based work. That all of this will be linked to our supposed care for 1) our work, 2) ourselves, 3) our community, and 4) our history.

It also tells us a great deal about how enrichment economies treat people who B&E describe as “losers” and “servants,” that is, people without access to valorizable objects or communities and narratives that are open to the kinds of valorization that enrichment economies privilege. It is a service economy that wishes to evacuate itself of self-knowledge. The work of service is of no interest to an enrichment economy because valorization focuses on secondary objects. Labor does not add value, or so it seems. B&E describe labor as preserving value, either by preserving the object or allowing its continued circulation.

I think their discussion vastly underplays the role of labor. If the value of an object cannot be realized without labor, then labor is intrinsic to its valorization. Their offhand suggestion that valorization is disproportionate to the amount of labor is also unpersuasive because it directly translates surplus value into profit. That’s not how it works in Marx. Profit is the irrational social division of surplus value by capitalists, not a direct correlation with the production of surplus value in the production process. My sense is that the enrichment economy allows capital to divide the social surplus in ways necessitated by the massive accumulation of capital and the continued fall in the rate of profit for standard commodities.

Nonetheless, what B&E describe is a recognizable part of the twenty-first century economy, and one that is vastly more complex in its effects and operation than I’ve found in other analyses of neoliberalism or late capitalism or whatever we are in now. They would say this is still capitalism, but it is clearly a capitalism undergoing significant changes. Bringing this analysis into contact with Wark’s discussion of the vectorialist class would suggest we’re seeing the emergence of a number of distinct modes of valorization and accumulation. Whatever we call it, we can be sure it isn’t nineteenth-century capitalism anymore.

Reading Capital (somewhere outside the General Law of Accumulation)

What should one do with a reading of Marx now? It seems the last fifty years have been a long detour through psychoanalytic, structuralist, and deconstructive readings. Blame Althusser. He took up Jacques Lacan’s insistence that one should return to the foundational texts of a discourse, Freud for Lacan, Marx for Althusser. Many people have thought or been told Read Marx during these decades, perhaps even by people who never read Marx themselves, an encouragement that Mike Davis recounts recently: Read Marx! Okay. How?
That question—how?—has given rise to a small but persistent industry of guides to Marx, some academic, some popular. In academia, the answer to how? was answered by post-structuralist urges themselves often informed by Lacanian ideas, beginning with Althusser himself. Readings of Marx are always re-readings, of course, and re-readings are always interpretations and redefinitions. Read Marx! But, you know, read him using someone else to make sense of it.

That’s not entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely wrong. Attempts to send readers back to the language of Marx’s texts, for instance, need other theoretical supports, whether analyzing his rhetorical devices, his metaphors, his literary references. These are helpful turns but they open up fundamental questions about hermeneutic method: how do we interpret a text? What are the processes and theoretical supports for our so-called “close reading”? This is all the more pressing when it isn’t clear that a critic means to offer a psychoanalytic reading of Marx, or a deconstructive reading, or a Spinozist reading…

To answer the how, I think we have to answer another question, one which is more important but often seems to go unasked: Why? I mean, I started a band after I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico. Capital has the same effect on people, but that doesn’t justify another reading (or writing of a reading). So why do it?
In all fairness, most of the reasons why come down to a question of the writer’s now and Marx’s then. How can I make Marx’s ideas applicable to my world? Such an approach is effectively what Marxism means. Yet that approach founders, I think, on something we can see when we read Capital, volume one carefully. Marx’s only completed volume does not mean to describe capitalism in order to demystify its workings. No. That would make it a piece of political economy, not a critique of political economy. What is it, then?

It extracts categories from capitalism necessary to imagine its overcoming.
The categories that Marx devises in Capital—surplus-value, constant and variable capital, means of production and labor-power—are not useful for capitalists, and capitalists who know Marx’s terms and analysis of their interaction are unlikely to be any better at the work of managing their production than those who haven’t.

The divergence between Marx’s notion of surplus-value and the capitalist idea of profit offers a useful example of the problem posed by his terminology. Marx sometimes treats surplus-value and profit as the same, sometimes as different. The rate of surplus-value would seem to indicate the profit rate, yet it does not, and Marx is never terribly concerned about the divergence between the two categories, even in the notes collected in volume three. Yet Marx’s famous ”falling rate of profit“ is for all intents and purposes the falling rate of surplus-value: the continual accumulation of capital in means of production leads to the devaluation of living labor. The result is that labor-power is worth less and less, a vertiginous devaluation as capitalism presses itself to produce more in order to accumulate more and thus, perversely, devaluing labor-power as a result of its persistent drive to accumulate. Marx clearly sees the two terms as distinct, yet this intermittent use of them as interchangeable means that Marxist economists spent an inordinate amount of time trying to account for profit rates. And that’s before we introduce Pierro Sraffa into the mix.
Marx is unconcerned about this terminological distinction because the rate of profit is beside the point. His categories and analysis are not meant to fine-tune capitalist economies but to give workers the tools to take those economies apart.

The fundamental categorical division for this work is between use-value and exchange-value. It’s no surprise that the nineteenth century’s other famous socialist, William Morris, grasped the importance of this distinction in Marx more than any other. It’s the one that matters. Capitalism produces use-values almost incidentally—it needs use-values to be part of its commodities, but it is not concerned with use-values as such. What capitalism wants is exchange-value, pure value, money for money’s sake. It will consume labor-power and means of production without concern for what is enough because exchange-value lacks the very concept of enough. This is why Marx begins Capital with exchange and the system of signification which structures capitalism. Exchange in capitalism is essentially a linguistic system, one which seems to be capable of producing new values endlessly by exchanging equivalents within a closed system. Exchange-value is endlessly generative, like language.

But if exchange in capitalism is like a language, it is one that will talk us all to death.
It is this indifference to material wealth that Marx wants us to understand about capitalism. This, more than anything else, even surplus-labor or the falling rate of profit, explains why capitalism once produces more material wealth than prior modes of production and terrifying immiseration. Marx uncovers the operations of this pair, which is to some degree unconscious on the part of capitalists. What matters isn’t their lack of consciousness, though. It is our understanding that we can divorce material wealth from exchange-value. We can organize production for use rather than exchange. We can determine how much surplus-value, if any, is necessary to extract in production for a society to reproduce itself. We can control the anarchy of production for the benefit of humanity and the earth.

And Marx is insistent throughout capital that these are the two agents who we should care about. Human labor and the natural world are two of the three productive forces which capitalist production uses to expand its powers. Capital offers a set of categories and analysis which allow us to imagine social, political, and economic forms of life which would place care for humanity and the earth at their core. This would alter the third productive force which Marx highlights as yoked to capitalism, scientific and technical knowledge, by allowing it to develop in the service of care for the human and natural world. In all, then, use-value, along with the other central concepts and analyses of Capital, lay the ground work for a new ecological social world, one which values the well-being of life and its needs rather than the extraction of an inhuman value for indeterminate ends. That is the point of Capital and of reading it as well.

One can see this best in Marx’s persistent focus on metabolism. The idea would initially seem to come from the Physiocrats, the first economists to theorize the connections between different forms of production and consumption. Throughout his work, Marx exhibits a surprising (for him) amount of respect for the Physiocrats, especially Quesnay, and Marx’s analysis of social circulation in volume two of Capital recalls Quesnay’s table of circulation and his account of a national economy as a physical body with the flow of goods, services, and finances as its blood flow (Quesnay was trained as a physician). Yet Marx’s notion of metabolism is not limited to the human economy like Quesnay’s. Quesnay does make agricultural production the source of all value, which connects his circulation to the natural world. Marx’s metabolism, however, begins with the interchange between these productive forces (forces that are use-values and create more use-values) in order to show us how production organized by exchange will inevitably deplete these productive forces. This is the point of the analysis.

It also explains why Marx recurs to discussions of metabolic arguments when it is not in any way necessary for his argument. This is most apparent in his discussion of the value of labor-power. Marx recurs to labor-power’s value as the cost of its means of subsistence:

The value of labour-power, i.e., the labour-time requisite to produce labour-power, determines the labour-time necessary for the reproduction of that value. If one working-hour be embodied in sixpence, and the value of a day’s labour-power be five shillings, the labourer must work 10 hours a day, in order to replace the value paid by capital for his labour-power, or to produce an equivalent for the value of his daily necessary means of subsistence. Given the value of these means of subsistence, the value of his labour-power is given;1 and given the value of his labour-power, the duration of his necessary labour-time is given. The duration of the surplus labour, however, is arrived at, by subtracting the necessary labour-time from the total working day. Ten hours subtracted from twelve, leave two, and it is not easy to see, how, under the given conditions, the surplus labour can possibly be prolonged beyond two hours. (430 in penguin; 318 in MECW)

His reference there is is to a stack of political economy texts: Petty, Turgot, and Malthus. Considering his account of Malthus later on, the choices here are curious. I do not believe Marx wants us to understand that the cost of means of subsistence determine the value of labor-power for capitalists. He himself states this later on. Capitalists begin with an amount of capital, divide it into constant and variable capital, and invest it with an set of rate of profit in mind. This rate of profit drives their labor practices and extraction of surplus value. Marx doesn’t need the cost of means of subsistence to describe this process at all. His discussion sometimes has the curious suggestion that capitalists factor workers’ cost of living into their production decisions, which is obviously untrue.

The discussion of surplus-value is so abstract because Marx wants to make a point that would be much harder to make with a more accurate and complicated analysis of market economies: there is a distinction between necessary and surplus labor. The presentation indicates that workers are somehow able to produce enough value to pay their wages in one part of the day and surplus in another. This is nonsensical by Marx’s own analysis. The problem with capitalism, Marx rightly insists, is that production is directed toward exchange, not use. And in capitalism, Marx says, use only takes place after exchange. This is the realization of capital. One cannot, then, produce means of subsistence or the value equivalent of means of subsistence within production under capitalism. It’s not possible! What workers producer are commodities which have yet to be sold—that is, realized—and which may become at any moment unexchangeable—that is, unrealizable. The problem of capitalism is that it has delinked production from use by inserting an irrational, impersonal, and anarchic process of exchange. Workers produce the EXPECTED EQUIVALENT OF THEIR WAGES, or rather the equivalent of the capitalist’s variable capital.

But that’s not Marx’s point or his interest. What he wants us to see is, again, simple: workers need means of subsistence, and any ethical ecological system of production would have to account for means of subsistence (not as bare subsistence but as the means of living). Capitalism makes this a game of equivalents and their reproduction, of signs swapping with one another. If we want another world, we have to get past that.

Notes on re-reading Capital: On means of subsistence (after chapter thirteen)

One of the oddities of Marxism is a general sense that capitalism always works, even or especially when it doesn’t work for workers. There’s a sense that everything has been accounted for. Marx isn’t quite guilty of this but his use of means of subsistence to calculate surplus value comes close.

The gist of Marx’s argument, rhetorically, is that surplus value is value produced above value equal to a worker’s means of subsistence. The presentation focuses on daily wages to emphasize that employers purchase a day of labor from workers and try to get as much labor out of workers in that period of time. What Marx wants to show is that surplus cannot be created through circulation. Hence the worker’s day of labor exchanges for its full value—its means of subsistence as historically determined—and capital tries to get more out of that the worker’s day through the extension of the day, which is limited by the hours in a day and the worker’s ability to recuperate, or through the intensification of work via co-operation and technological innovation.

Marx here seems to be working from a concept in Adam Smith: “A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him” (book 1, chapter 8). For Smith, this sense of subsistence is bound up with a different mode of production—recall, Smith is writing not in the midst of developed capitalism but offering a dream of its possibility—and seems a version of “natural price” theory, which he uses elsewhere too (and in ways Marx will critique in subsequent volumes, if I recall correctly). We know both that commodities don’t have natural prices. We also know, through historical work, that commodities in the eighteenth century didn’t have natural prices so much as moral prices, prices which were set by feudal traditions and enforced by social action, as EP Thompson explains in his essay on the moral economy. Labor, to the extent it has a price during Smith’s time, would have a sort of moral price and be buoyed by other forms of production for its physical subsistence. Using it to analyze an economy premised on commodity exchange poses substantial difficulties.

Can we bracket this historical problem, though, and imagine means of subsistence as a concept that enters into the production of value? Perhaps. As a concept in Marx, it seems to bind the worker as a locus of physical and natural force to the larger natural metabolic process of life’s reproduction. In that sense, accounting for means of subsistence is necessary to imagine an economic organization that differs from capitalism because it distinguishes what is necessary from what is surplus. (This isn’t post-capitalism because it is still production for exchange, but that’s another problem.)

Capitalism as such doesn’t need the category of means of subsistence or care about it as a reality. This is why it is strange to see it built into the analysis of commodity production. Capitalism’s defining feature, its production of commodities for exchange to accumulate value, is indifferent to workers’ needs. What has been purchased as a day or an hour or a piece is all that matters. Hence Marx’s two categories of commodities in production already account for surplus value as simply the value produced in excess of the values consumed by production in terms of constant capital (e.g., means of production, raw materials, and so on) and variable capital (i.e., labor).

Why does this matter?

Means of subsistence suggests that capitalism cares about the ability of workers to reproduce their labor, that they must pay enough for workers to live. When one makes this central to the production of surplus value, then it seems that capitalism understands what is in its interest or its shared interests with workers. It doesn’t. Marx understands that, too. For the moment, I can only explain the retention of Smith’s concept of the means of subsistence something meant to look forward to an economy yet to come, an economy in which the despotism of production has shifted from individual capitalists and the impersonal market to planned political control.

More thoughts on emotional labor and capitalism

I’m reading Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back and re-reading volume one of Capital simultaneously (kinda) and just finished chapter ten in Marx. Marx insists that capital is indifferent to labor’s reproduction there, arguing that capital extends the working day to the furthest extent possible. This is a result of impersonal market forces as much as personal greed–in fact, more so, since Marx views this as the part of capital’s impersonal social domination. The argument there is predicated on a view of human life and human labor as a limited capacity; at one point, he discusses how a blacksmith has a limited number of physical movements within him which would get him to the age of fifty, but capital insists he work at such a pace that he dies at age thirty-seven.

One might view Hochschild’s discussion of emotional labor as one that examines capital’s steady draining of caring capacity. One begins in fusion and slowly moves toward “going robot.” Except that’s not what we see happening. When fusion fails, this certainly happens, and impersonal social domination makes this failure happen more often than not. Yet I think we miss something important if we treat the capacity to care as part of this energetics/hydrological metaphor. Work drains energy, true, and energy is necessary to care. That remains true. But one does not use up one’s emotional capacities in activity. They could be traumatized enough to not work, dulled through repetition, but it seems a mistake to imagine this can be “used up” like life force.

This suggests two things, one about Marx and the other about emotional labor. First, the idea in Marx of life force being consumed by capital is too linked to the understanding of capital as an ecological metabolism. That’s not because it’s NOT a metabolism, but because it uses the metabolic to analyze all relations. Everything is a result of metabolic rifts. Capital’s capture of labor, for instance, is compared to the greedy farmer’s soil depletion. When it comes to labor, we are always dealing with abstract labor time, a perspective that leads him to analyze all labor in capitalism as approximating West Indian slavery.

Again, West Indian slavery is his specific choice of comparison for the British labor market. West Indian slave markets and British labor markets are drawn into a direct equivalence: “For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland, and Wales, for Africa, Germany” (ch. 10). Marx understands slavery as an institution in the West Indies, correctly, as focused on the destruction of enslaved labor in production.

The argument is that capital will extend the working day to extract as much labor from a worker as possible, pushing the worker past the limit of physical endurance in order to extract as much surplus value as possible. We can narrate West Indian slavery using Marx’s distinction between living labor as variable capital and dead labor as constant capital. In effect, it was a system, and capital as such is a system, which treats the enslaved as almost-dead labor. Hence Marx’s continued evocation of vampires and werewolves. Its treatment of the enslaved put them on par with constant capital: they were investments meant to be destroyed in the production process, their cost amortized over an understood period of time. Yet they must also retain their ability to create more value by adding labor-power to raw materials–that is, their status as living labor/variable capital. Without that, there is no surplus-value. Workers are caught in this gap between between labor-power which is sold as a commodity and labor-power as it is lived and exploited in production. Capital lives by exploiting this gap, extracting greater lived time from its workers than the commodity bargain claimed to value.

From this perspective, capitalism can be understood as purposefully destructive or simply indifferent to labor and the environment. It certainly destroys its raw materials in production to create new values and lives by extracting labor. It will take as much as it can get and then more. But while we can point to its most aggressive proponents of destruction, it is perhaps better to understand them as extracting a surplus-code of sadism from the indifferent destruction of capitalism’s impersonal structure.

What’s the point of all this rambling, though? What does it have to do with emotional labor? The problem is whether there is anything in the production process, in terms of emotional labor, which addresses that labor’s reproduction. Marx’s analysis suggests that the production process is essentially indifferent to labor’s reproduction. The reasoning here again mirrors the British labor market with West Indian slavery: capitalism can push past the limits of what labor can do, physiologically, because it can replenish its workforce without difficulty. This is not the surplus army of the unemployed, not yet. This is not a question of wages. It is simply that workers can be easily replaced. Labor here is understood as without qualities rather than unskilled. Any laborer whatsoever can replace any other. Constant inflows of labor (or raw materials) are what makes capital so rapacious and destructive. It cares only for the production of exchange-values, and will enfold whatever is available to it as part of the production process.

Is emotional labor so easily replaced, so lacking in qualities?

Paolo Virno has approached this idea through the general intellect, arguing that general human qualities have become key instruments in the production process. Does that make it easily replaced through constant inflows?

Perhaps in some forms, e.g., retail, food service, some elder care, but not in others, especially those regulated, e.g., nursing, teaching, and child care. In unregulated areas, where labor is readily replaced, emotional labor seems to be exploited to the limit as Marx would imagine. In regulated areas, however, labor inflows are limited. Nurses, teachers, and child care workers, for instance, need training and credentials now. They cannot be easily replaced by capital through new inflows (without waivers to the credentials, of course, which is one way that capital deals with this).

The question is whether the production process shifts in some way to address reproduction when it comes to emotional labor? Marx really doesn’t have any interest in the management of reproduction. That’s ideological window-dressing to the destructiveness of capital. If we put this alongside the changes in managerial thinking during the 1980s and 1990s mapped by Boltanski and Chiapello, we would expect to see some shift in ideas about work which would gesture toward changes or ideas that workers wanted. Freedom and creativity, for instance, were the pieces most discussed by Boltanski and Chiapello, but the overarching sense was that one could use or free up one’s capacities to do something important, valuable, or meaningful. (A bad gloss, I’m sure, but it’s one I’ll use for now.)

Labor that produces emotions is one that will, invariably, experience emotions in return. Such emotions will not necessarily by specifically prescribed emotions by the workplace so much as affective experience. What matters is that the experience is regulated in the production process by the workplace through explicit codes or implicit norms, what Hochschild calls feeling rules. A set of feeling rules could make the production process of emotional labor, itself potentially traumatizing, more or less so. The regulation of feeling for worker and client operates simultaneously and is a necessary part of production, even if it means simply “keeping emotions in check” through the process.

An insistence that a kind of emotional labor bears its own compensation–through the feelings it creates in the worker–is not just ideological, I don’t think. It seems an extension of managerial ideology and of feeling rules. To love one’s work becomes part of a set of feeling rules, a form of emotional regulation demanded by the work. It also serves a useful disciplinary function by creating a position of imagined fusion between self and work which the worker must project in the doing of that work.

None of this means that loving one’s work isn’t real. Fusion is real. And here’s where it gets even harder to discuss. It may not even be bad, necessarily, as long as fusion is fusion between a process that aims toward, in Marx’s words, use-values. What am I producing that does not tend toward exchange but toward use, in other words? This is often how workers experience this labor, as the evocation of emotion in a person for their use. The problem, as Hochschild shows in The Managed Heart, is when this work speeds up or is put into a position when it cannot be done well. Fusion fails and the use or care which the worker really does create cannot be created by the worker for the client or the worker as such.

Notes on literature and emotional labor

What is the nature of the demand to love literature as part of the profession?

Let’s take it as a form of emotional labor first.

Here’s the basics of Arlie Hochschild’s discussion in Managed Heart: the emotional laborer must evoke a set of feelings—typically temporally bound with the presence of a customer—which serves the needs of a company/institution. Emotional labor is managed. Workers regulate their feelings using a set of feeling rules. Management operates through these feeling rules and through direct intervention when feeling rules are not being followed.

Self-management may be possible but is not central to Hochschild’s discussion here. That’s because the separation of interests becomes clearer the further one moves down the hierarchy. Upper management is here more directly aligned with the desire to evoke particular feelings in customers than workers, even if upper management is not engaged in the evocation of those feelings.

At first glance, then, the performance of emotional labor seems fully alienated. Yet the worker is not simply alienated in the production process. We see something distinct.

The central portion of Hochschild’s discussion focuses on the problem that emotional laborers confront in terms of their lived authenticity. Emotional laborers often begin from a place of fusion, in which their sense of self, emotional life, and work life, and neatly fused. This is something which production based on emotional labor encourages. Yet it is not easy to maintain and often fails. When it does, the worker confronts a question: Am I faking it all the time?

Phoniness would seem to be the price of all emotional labor, but it is one that appears when fusion fails, when the reproduction of emotions and self reveal themselves as separate for the worker. As Hochschild emphasizes, the discover of phoniness attacks the emotional laborer’s capacity for work. How? It affects a person’s self-esteem. This is a problem of emotional labor’s reproduction: an emotional laborer caught in this spiral will not be able to reproduce their capacity to labor. For this reason, emotional laborers work quite hard to figure out how to deal with this problem.

Hochschild offers us three ways workers typically deal with the split between real and fake emotion:

  1. Depersonalize the situation by dividing oneself between a true work self and a true personal self. In this instance, both are real but their separation allows the emotional laborer to navigate problems in production without it attacking self-esteem.
  2. Yet the work persona can come to seem less real than the private self. Treat the job as not serious. This causes a problem, though. If phoniness is the job, then self-esteem is attacked and anyone who allows this to become their lives will seem smaller to themselves.
  3. Resist all encouragement to act and “go robot.” In this situation, a laborer takes emotion and self out of the performance. All that is left is the act without feeling. It is unable to evoke the emotions required by the job.
    In essence, the good emotional laborer is skilled at separating public and private selves without losing sight of a certain truth within BOTH selves. The feelings they enact and evoke in work are real, but separate from their private selves.

How does one produce a true public self without making one’s private self vulnerable? Hochschild argues that emotional laborers use a similar set of techniques as found in Stanislavsky’s idea of deep acting. In deep acting, the emotional laborer draws on personal memories of feeling to act them out in a new context. The feeling is real, the context new. Hochschild contrasts deep acting with “surface acting,” which simply goes through the motions—a version of “going robot”

Is deep acting fake? No. Hochschild makes an important claim here: it is debilitating for emotional laborers to feel the constant difference between their internal feeling states and their external performances. Hochschild doesn’t see deep acting as bad or fake. It is necessary.

Deep acting shows us something important, I think, about emotional labor. The wage, in a classically Marxian sense, is not enough to reproduce it. One might equivocate and say that the emotional laborer slowly loses his or her capacity to labor emotionally and that this capacity must be reproduced outside the production process. They receive love and affection elsewhere and bring it to work. That is in part true. But there is a limit to this ability to import that capacity into the production process. The more that the work self seems fake to the worker, the harder the work becomes. Eventually, it becomes untenable. Positive emotions are needed within the production process to allow the work to continue.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying emotional labor is always happy and good and so on. It’s that intermittent positive emotional experiences are built into the production process as part of the laborer’s reproduction. Capital might hope to siphon an emotional laborer’s capacity for emotional labor drop by drop as though we are pieces of fixed capital, but this burns through emotional laborers quite quickly. The reproduction of the worker demands certain conditions within the production process, though they don’t always get it. A certain sense of fusion or positive deep acting not only allows this work to reproduce itself, it makes the production process possible. Without it, the whole system goes into crisis.

And that takes me to a later essay by Hochschild, “Can Emotional Labor Be Fun?” Hochschild asks the question because it should be clear to everyone that IT CAN BE. Of course. Much of this kind of work is work that people value and thus feel is important and rewarding—in other words, the stuff of fusion, as Hochschild puts it in Managed Heart. What throws people out of fusion and forces them to confront the alienation of their emotional work is when something goes wrong in the production process, here specifically low wages and low respect. For Hochschild, this appears when the care system itself has broken down in some way.

The result is a new set of problems for the emotional laborer. Hochschild writes, “When a care system breaks down one sign is that the three-way relationship between the manger, the emotional laborer, and the client becomes frayed. […] Either way, the broken system has prevented her from feeling proud of her work. It has forced her to manage her feelings about doing her job in a broken care system.” The focus of emotional labor becomes the management of the worker’s feelings toward the job itself.

So we have:

  1. Emotional laborer performing emotion using private experience in public on behalf of the company to affect a client in ways that are more or less authentically felt and hence reproducible for the laborer.
  2. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the client within the production process (e.g., when client rejects labor and so on) through management’s set of feeling rules.
  3. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the production process itself.

What does all this have to do with literature and love?

If we take the love of literature seriously as a demand, where would we find it? It would be within the production process. What is that? I suppose teaching. It would be the most obvious situation in which the construction of emotion to a particular end between two human beings would be possible. It would be the situation in which a teacher would draw on their emotional experience to enact in the classroom a performance of this love and to evoke it in the client(s).

Is this really a demand we confront on the institutional level? I mean… I don’t know about that. Other kinds of emotional labor, yes, but the love of literature…?

It may be at the level of the discipline, department, or program, I suppose. It would still place the demand within the production process but in a way that is so distinct from management/labor that it is hard to apply the ideas clearly.

I think what we see is more akin to Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument in the culture industry chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the selection of people already attuned to a particular ideology. The work selects for people predisposed to a particular set of feelings and beliefs (or easily trained to hold them).

Loving literature and inculcating that love, then, isn’t a task with a particular monetary compensation. It is part of a performance to be understood as a member of a class with its own set of interests and ideas. Yet again, though, who makes this demand? Whose interests does it serve? When did it appear? Has the practice of this feeling changed over time?

I have theories about the emergence of this demand within the profession as something that occurs alongside the rise of theory. It’s the affective contrary of critique. I doubt anyone felt called to love literature until then.

Of course, this turn co-occurs with a number of other cultural events, including the expansion of emotional labor as a result of the post-industrial economic turn and the increased prominence of women in English departments, not to mention the coincidence of colleges focusing on student satisfaction as consumers.

This is a perfect storm for English as a discipline. The gendering of care and the expansion of emotional labor makes the love of literature a happy ideological fit for the times. It seems a counterpart to the feeling airlines wanted to encourage in Hochschild, the feeling of domesticity. Isn’t the love of literature also a cognate for the canon wars? The love of literature can suggest to people in a similar idea: make me feel at home in literature. What feeling could be more raced, classed, and gendered than that?

None of this is to suggest that it is impossible to love or value literature—however defined—on the personal level. But it is to see the idea of this demand as embedded in a particular moment in time for the profession and its ideological understanding of itself. We may use our emotional lives in teaching literature—I suspect we all do—but the nature of the feeling rules and emotional management operative in higher education is, I suspect, more complex and less interested in our encouragement of someone else’s love. Perhaps one might understand it as the performance of our interest or love to evoke a particular affective response in students. Perhaps. Even then, though, it seems that the feeling work here is different, less about a relation to an object than a particular set of affective relations within a classroom or an institution. And that seems a more complex problem which lacks the formal management systems we see in managed emotional labor.