Monday, February 15, 2021

What's Love Got to Do With It? On Sarah Jaffe's Work Won't Love You Back


For the past ten years I have been teaching a class called The Politics and Philosophy of Work. At least once a semester someone mentions the phrase, or mantra, "Do what you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." This bit of wisdom, which has been attributed to various different sources, is offered as the solution to all of the problems of work and of life. Like similar phrases of popular philosophy imploring us to live in the moment, or live each day like it is our last, its popularity is directly proportional to its disconnect with anything resembling reality.

I thought of this phrase while reading Sarah Jaffe's Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone in part because she opens with it. Jaffe's book is in some sense a refutation of that thesis, but it is much more than that. Her focus throughout chapters of research, interviews, and analysis is on those jobs that people love, teaching, art, video game design, nonprofits; jobs where people have to produce love, housework, care work, and even retail; and those "jobs" that people take to get the jobs they will love, internships. On an affective level it is diametrically opposed to Graeber's Bullshit Jobs. Where that book was concerned with the particular alienation of job that lacked meaning and purpose, Jaffe's book is almost exclusively concerned with the jobs that people feel passionate about. Its central question is how does love become its own kind of subjection.

This question has different answers in different situations, but subjection through passion generally functions through a sense of privilege and good fortune. People who get to teach, make art, work at nonprofits, and so on are often made to feel that they are fortunate to be able to do something that they are passionate about. This passion often serves as a substitute for compensation. When it comes to internships the compensation is often delayed or deferred. Jaffe refers to internships as a kind of "hope labor" where one is driven not by compensation, or often even a real passion, but the hope that one will eventually find a job that one can be passionate about and be paid for doing. In the forms of work that Jaffe surveys hope, caring, passion, and even joy become liabilities as much as perks, the keep people working long hours for bad pay. 

As I have written about on this blog (and in something else I have been working on) it is possible to think of the love of one's work in terms of an "affective composition of labor." Every job has its pleasures and pains, its tribulations and its satisfactions. The affective composition of labor is articulated differently not only in different jobs, but across the same workplace. To take the example of universities. The division between full time and adjunct teaching is not only a massive division in terms of compensation, with the latter making a fraction of the former, it is also a different articulation of joys and pains. Adjuncts are often assigned introductory courses and composition courses, courses that are not only labor intensive but are far removed from the seminars and upper level classes that provide the joys of teaching for the dwindling number of tenure track faculty. 

As much as every workplace has its own particular affective composition this affective composition extends beyond it to include the general working conditions in society. The latter explains why people continue to work as adjuncts, or pursue internships, or continue to work 5 to 9 (to quote that horrible commercial--see below) at some passion project that could hopefully (one day) turn into a career. These actions are situated against a general terrain of precarious working conditions, and bullshit jobs. To return to the university again, at least once a year I talk to a student interested in graduate school. I try to do the right thing, to talk about the desperate job situation, about adjuncts and budget cuts, but I know what I am up against. It is hard to argue with someone who wants to do something that matters, who wants a joy beyond what is offered by a good salary at a bad job and the latest consumer goods (if even that is still possible). Not to be too spinozist (at least in this blogpost) but talking someone out of what they perceive to be a source of joy is doomed to fail. 

There is a dialectic of sorts between bullshit jobs and hope labor. The more the general labor situation seems plagued by demanding and demeaning jobs the more people are driven to find something with passion and purpose. This is an escape from work on the terrain of work itself, an escape from the cubicle to the coffeeshop or, worse yet, the corporate co-working space. On the opposite side of this dialectic, those stuck in jobs that are not perceived as difficult or demanding have no sympathy for those who work doing something perceived as fun, rewarding, or meaningful. Case in point the hostility shown towards teachers. As Jaffe has said in an interview, unless you are a coal miner there is supposedly no reason for forming a union. This conflict  undermines any solidarity across the affective divide. I imagine a book on the difficulties of teachers, artists, and athletes will be met with derision by many--"what do they have to complain about?" or "If they wanted more money they should have gone into a more lucrative career." For this reason alone Jaffe should be celebrated for writing this book. It is hard enough to criticize work in our society, hardy still when it is a matter of criticizing jobs that people love.

The opposition between jobs that are loved and jobs that are hated is also a conflict that takes place entirely on the terrain of work, wage labor is the unexamined presupposition of both sides. The dissolution of unions, of organizing, of left politics means that the difficulties of work are countered on the terrain of work. People are trying to escape the limitations of this that job, whether those limitations are perceived as low pay or lack of meaning, by finding a better job and that is increasingly a losing strategy.  We cannot work out way out the domination of work (pun intended). 

I am not offering a full review here (you should just read the book), just using the book to rethink some ideas I have been working on. I would like to ask one basic and fundamental question. How do those of us, that lucky few, who do something that love struggle against the way that love becomes the basis for increased work, increased exploitation? One answer is to treat that work as a work, to recognize that the relation between employer and employee as a necessarily antagonistic one, and to change working conditions collectively by organizing rather than individually by trying to find a better job. There is no doubt that this is a necessary condition but I wonder if it is a sufficient one, especially for those of us who love our jobs our love some aspect of our jobs. I am fortunate to be represented by a union, and the union  works on my behalf in terms of salary and working conditions, but it does not seem sufficient when it comes to the demand I put on myself or how much I work. I know that it is often the enjoyment I get out of work that keeps me working so much. I often say yes to a conference presentation, lecture, or writing an essay because it sounds interesting, volunteer to be on independent studies and theses because I want to support my students and so on. I try to separate the pleasures from the demands of work, oddly enough this blog is an attempt to play with ideas in a way that work does not allow. I would be lying, however, if I did not say that I still often fight for my servitude as if it was salvation.  

Jaffe argues that one solution to these ties that bind us to our work. First, and most importantly is to focus on other people, on friendship and family. As she writes, "Work will never love us back. But other people will." This might seem obvious in theory (albeit difficult in practice). However, this answer takes a surprising turn in the conclusion of the book where Jaffe connects it with grief and heartbreak. As Jaffe said in a recent discussion with Kathi Weeks, "we need time to grieve." I think that this is an important and overlooked aspect of what could be called the affective aspect of anti-work politics. It is not just that we need time to pursue other pleasures, hobbies, sex, naps, and so on, but our existing commitments to work do not allow us enough time to bear the burdens of our connections and commitments to each other. I think that this is not only true, but also increasingly important to say especially since it undermines the facile hedonism that underlies some anti-work politics. It is because we are finite creatures subject to loss and sadness that we need a life free from the domination of work.  Or, to return to Weeks' slogan, we need freedom from work to pursue a life because we only get one (and sadness and loss is inevitable). 

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