Thursday, February 01, 2018

Work Like It is 1999: A Year of the Refusal of Work in Film

On first glance nothing much connects American Beauty, Fight Club, and Office Space except the fact that they came out in the same year, 1999. They are distinct in terms of their genres, middle brow prestige picture, pseudo underground action thriller, and comedy, and their reception; the first was a critically lauded Oscar winner, the second a critically reviled cult film, while the third found its audience through repeat viewings on cable, making it a more passive sort of cult film. Despite these differences of genre and audience they are linked in that all films about the refusal of work. 

Or, more to the point, a refusal of a particular kind of work, the white collar work of an analyst, programmer, or even waitress--what could be called immaterial labor. However, these films are far from the positive sense that the term takes in the work of Maurizzio Lazzarato. Immaterial labor, labor that encompasses knowledge, affects, and subjectivity is far from being  some prefiguration of liberation. These jobs are refused precisely because they encompass so many dimensions of subjectivity, the capacity to communicate, interact, and feel: Or, in the terms of the films these jobs are to be fled because they demand too much, too much time, too much of one's conscience, one's time, and, ultimately, one's life. It is Office Space which offers perhaps the clearest critique of the absurd imperatives of specifically emotional (or affective) labor. Emotional labor being the more feminized side of immaterial labor, not the much lauded "manipulation of symbols" but the production of affects through affects, creating a fun family atmosphere through one's dedication and joy. It is striking that critique comes not  through the center of the plot, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) frustrations as a midlevel programmer at Initech, but through a tangent concerning Joanne's (Jennifer Aniston) work at a family style restaurant.

If this scene seems more memorable, becoming one of those fragments that linger long after the plot has been forgotten, it is perhaps because cubicles have become more and more of a relic of a bygone age, but flair, and the particular imperatives of "emotional labor" have migrated from the fun family style eateries to multiple work spaces and situations. As Ivor Southwood argues, emotional labor is no longer just performed for customers but often for bosses too. Attitude is not just something that is consumed, customer satisfaction as product, but is integral to how one is assessed and monitored.

The particular subjective demands of emotional labor is that it is not enough to simply do the required work, have the particular "pieces of flair, " but one must desire to do so, to  express oneself through labor. As Paolo Virno argues as labor is defined more and more as a set of abstract capacities, the ability to communicate and interact, rather than concrete skills, particular types of knowledge, then it increasingly becomes this abstract capacity that is the defining characteristic of the job. The qualifications for these jobs are increasingly expressed in subjective terms defining character and personality. Virno traces this engagement through the changing vicissitudes of the term professional. No longer limited to the "professions," of lawyer, doctor, or teacher, all involving the acquisition of specialized knowledge the word "professional" increasingly designates a set of attitudes, habits, or values. All sorts of jobs and employment now require a "professional appearance" or "attitude." As Virno writes, Professionality on the other hand is seen as a subjective property, a form of know-how inseparable from the individual person; it is a sum of knowledges, experiences, attitudes, and a certain sensibility.” 

A further examination of the uses and valances of the term "professional" reveals a different side to this subjective property. At the same time that one must engage one's emotional and intellectual capacities at work one must do so in a way that is detached, impersonal. The phrase "be professional" is used both against those who demonstrate too much emotion, showing anger or sadness on the job, and those who do not show the proper emotional commitment and dedication, remaining indifferent or alienated. In Fight Club for example we see the opposite side of the professional, not the dedicated and impassioned commitment, but the impersonal detachment, the ability to see a job as just a job. This is illustrated in a scene where the narrator (Edward Norton) explains his job to a fellow passenger. He is aware of the ethical monstrosity of what he is describing, but absolutely indifferent to it. His calm indifference is his professionalism. 

Here we see a side of the professional that was perhaps more accurately described by Lukács rather than Virno. As Lukács writes,

"The specialised 'virtuoso', the vendor of his objectified and reified faculties does not just become the [passive] observer of society; he also lapses into a contemplative attitude vis-d-vis the workings of his own objectified and reified faculties. (It is not possible here even to outline the way in which modern administration and law assume the characteristics of the factory as we noted above rather than those of the handicrafts.) This phenomenon can be seen at its most grotesque in journalism. Here it is precisely subjectivity itself, knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their 'owner' and from the material and concrete nature of the subject matter in hand. The journalist's 'lack of convictions', the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the of capitalist reification."

The difference between Virno and Lukács is not as stark as the division between self-valorization and alienation. It would be incorrect to argue that Virno sees this phenomenon as positive, as grasping a prefiguration of worker's power, while Lukács sees it as negative, as reification. Virno for one, is far more ambivalent. After all he also writes, “Nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor.” The difference between their positions is as much historical as it is conceptual. Lukács is describing the professional with job security and relative high pay, one who could afford to identify with capital, an elite within the division of mental and manual labor. (Which makes it all the more striking that his description anticipates modern discussions of "human capital,"the subject as entrepreneur of his or herself). While Virno is describing a much more ubiquitous and precarious situation; not the ethos of the professional but the inchoate and ever present demand to "be professional"--with its contradictory demand to be both completely engaged and completely detached.

In all three films the central character finds professionalism, in some shape or form, to be burden, a destruction of the self. The professional world is not just left, but fled. Every bridge is burned. In Office Space exodus involves a scam, embezzling of funds, while in American Beauty and Fight Club the employer is blackmailed. These schemes are an attempt to preserve the material benefits of being professional, the higher wages, the paid travel, etc., without the subjective costs. If the only rationale, the only purpose, one can give for being a professional is the pay, then why not keep the pay without the work? What is striking here is that almost the exact same scene plays out in American Beauty and Fight Club, with the attendant differences of genre, played once for laughs and once for tension.

The similarity of the scene is not just because they repeat the same "take this job and shove it" fantasy, but they also represent a detournement of the standards and norms of professionalism. The fantasy is that since professionalism rests on a set of appearances and attitudes then it should be possible to subvert it by the manipulation those same appearances. The mere appearance of not being professional, "how would it look if..." is enough of a risk and a threat. This is as close as the films get to some kind of post-autonomous ideal of a strategy of refusal in which the more knowledge and subjectivity is put to work, the more that same knowledge and subjectivity can subvert the very structure of work. The higher the degree of subjective engagement the more sophisticated the sabotage. Of course, this is precisely what Lukács, preemptively negated; for him the more of oneself one sells the more one identifies with the reification of one's capacities and abilities, the more one becomes "a company of one."

This brings us to the final point of similarity of the three films. In all three films exodus from the world of the professional passes through manual labor. In American Beauty a job with fast food is desirable because it has the "least possible amount of responsibility."It is a job that makes no demand on one's time, energy, and subjectivity other than a few menial tasks and the barest facade of emotional labor. That it is a chain called Mr. Smiley's and that the employees can even muster a smile underscores this point: fast food is freedom from the demands of not only professionalism but any emotional labor. It is the closest thing to a factory suburbia offers. Fight Club pushes this even further. If one makes a thing, in this case soap, than one is judged on the product not one's demeanor or attitude. Tyler Durden is first introduced as someone liberated from the constraints of professionalism because he knows how to make soap (and napalm). Office Space is the only film to actual end on an ode to the pleasures of manual labor, pleasures which are presented fairly prosaically  as getting some fresh air and spending time with friends. Each film illustrates a crude dialectic in which the pleasures of manual labor are defined in sharp opposition with the pains of mental labor: inside becomes outside, alienation socialization, and the crushing responsibility of being professional is replaced by the separation of the producer from the product.

It is not so much work that is being refused, but a particular mode of subjection attached to modern work, that of the professional. The professional, with the focus on appearances, is in some sense opposed to an honest day's work. In different ways all three films more or less juxtapose real work, the work that actually makes things, that stems from real knowledge, to the world of professional appearances. Of course this is most true of Office Space, a film that just wants to do an honest days work without the bullshit of manager's memos and mandatory flair. It is also true of the most radical outing of the bunch, Fight Club. Even as Tyler Durden endeavors to unleash mayhem and tear it all all down, he does so in a desperate attempt to find something, some activity, that will fill the spiritual vacuum of a hard days work. It is Hegel's master/slave dialectic in reverse; if work no longer provides the necessary recognition of one's discipline and responsibility pick a fight with your boss.

It is worth asking why all of these films came out in 1999? What was it about that year of supposed boom and prosperity that made them possible? There is no easy answer, or rather there are multiple easy answers which come to mind. It is possible to see these films as misplaced criticisms of a better age (today's white collar workers turned fast food workers are probably less excited about the lack of responsibility) or as the first intimations of the limits of the Clinton boom. Chuck Palahnuik has stated in interviews that part of the inspiration for the novel Fight Club came from the little acts of sabotage and subversion on the job that he heard about from his friends. Like Office Space the afterlife of the film, its cult status, has perhaps more to do with its stories of service economy sabotage than its sad sack portrayal of office life. In retrospect the critique of office culture of all three films seems like a slightly updated version of cliches of office work since the fifties--the man in the gray flannel Banana Republic suit. It is the margins of these films that are more interesting, the portrayal of service work, and of an increasingly dominant economy of emotional labor.

If it is difficult to see exactly what conditions produced these movies (or at least such an inquiry would demand a more thorough consideration of the historical period) it is a little easier to see the conditions that have shaped their reception. American Beauty is burdened by its star's scandal, but more than that it is hard not to notice the absolutely inchoate nature of its supposed critique. What is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) rebelling against? his job? asparagus? his wife? his lack of connection with his teenage daughter? or the fact that he cannot have sex with her friend? Ultimately it seems like the story of a man who is shocked and surprised that he is no longer a teenager.

Viewed that way American Beauty has more in common with Fight Club than fans of both films would care to admit. Fight Club is also movie that has aged terribly. It is hard not to see it as a prophecy in which everything came true except the liberation. The basement fight clubs have become the mixed martial arts craze, the artisanal soaps have become the basis of a whole new wave of gentrifying breweries and pickle shops, and Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden looks like a model for Urban Outfitters. The only thing conspicuously absent is the destruction of debt. That is perhaps being generous; if we focus on the film's focus on masculinity and its unstated whiteness then it is possible to argue that the true inheritor of fight club is is more MRA than MMA, or perhaps even the "Proud Boys." From this perspective Mr. Robot  can be understood as reboot that attempts to leave out the original's obsession with masculinity.


Office Space is also a film that can be historicized through its remake. Mike Judge's Silicon Valley  dispenses with the cubicles, they have been torn down in favor of open floor plans and crash pad incubators, but flair has become all the more ubiquitous by being internalized as a form of quirkiness. More importantly the rage against the machine that led to smashing an office copier and a plan to embezzle funds has been replaced with the desire to be a different kind of company, one that, in this case, produces a quality compression algorithm. Rebellion is no longer from work, but becomes the work itself. As much as Silicon Valley satirizes the tech start up dream it still identifies with it through its plucky group of rebels. Gone is any not only ideal of an outside to work but any image of it--even the minimal utopia of watching Kung Fu is gone. This lack of outside is symbolized by the shows location, a house that is also a workplace. Dodging the boss's requests to come in on a Saturday has been replaced by a lack of distinction between the work day and the non working day.

It seems to me that we can come to a close with two quick lessons from this survey of anti-work politics in 1999 films. First, to paraphrase Foucault, "we must conceptualize the deployment of work on the basis of the techniques of power that are contemporary with it." Critiques of cubicles and cornflower blue ties not only risk being anachronistic, but missing that forms of exploitation have already discarded these trappings. Office Space and Fight Club continued to have relevance not because of their picture of sad sack office life but in spite of it, because at their margins they recognized new forms of exploitation. It is possible to think of these terms in terms of Raymond Williams concepts of residual, dominant, and emergent: on that note American Beauty is painfully caught in the residual critiques of suburban conformity and inauthenticity. In the case of Office Space and American Beauty  the emergent demands of affective or emotional labor are feminized, personified in the unreliable girlfriend or nagging wife. The future is female and is scary. Second, any critique of the current regime of work must be attentive to the nostalgia for past regimes, for grasping the way in which work always produces images of a better way to work as something of an after-image. 


  1. As someone with a shitty office job, reading these posts over breakfast is like taking the anaesthetic before going through the trauma of surgery. Seriously, your posts (and similar articles by others) take on a self-help quality for me, allowing me to get through the day. So thank you from me. What you do is very much appreciated.

  2. The 90's were also the scene of downsizing, or the first time in American history that white collar jobs themselves become precarious. These three masculine films see a vision of a scary female future with compulsory emotions and no dignity, and they attempt to look for a "masculine" version of this future hell: should I do construction, work at a fast food place, or make artisanal soap? Actually I think the scene in Office Space (the only good movie of the three) that best shows this is the coworker who, after injuring himself, getting worker's comp, and finding 'fulfillment' in inventing a stupid board game in his spare time (the "Jump to Conclusions Mat"). The hero of the film is dismayed by this similar vision of the future: a man, strapped into a wheelchair like an electric chair, delighted about inventing a board game. When all the productive jobs are taken by robots and third world slaves, will I, a young white man, going to have to invent games to amuse myself? That's why the alternative of doing construction always struck me as retrogressive. Not the masculine aspect of it, but the idea that work NEEDS to have meaning implies something which the movies never show: a population scrambling to make themselves useful for fear of ostracism and even death. These protagonists are like Diogenes rolling his barrel up and down a hill just to make himself look useful while the rest of his village is scrambling to keep up appearances for the emperor. Artisanal soap is rolling a barrel up aand down a hill.