Friday, February 16, 2024

Ahead of its Time: On Clockwatchers


Clockwatchers is an underrated film. Perhaps it came out too early, missing the slew of films critical of work and cubicles by at least a year. 1999 was the year of Fight Club, Office Space, American Beauty, and The Matrix, which all dealt with an escape from the confines of the cubicle. Or, and this is probably closer to the point, a film focusing on the working lives of four women would never touch the same points of cultural resonance as Fight Club or Office Space, which were as much about the crisis of masculinity as it was about work. It also never had the same afterlife as those films, which gained most of their audience through fancy boxed DVDs and endless repetitions on cable. Luckily the film was made available through streaming on the Criterion Channel, which makes it possible to rectify its status as an overlooked classic.

The film deals primarily with temp workers. In the forgotten nineties when this film was made the temp was in some sense the figure of precarity, an interchangeable worker whose fate was almost entirely tied up with the fluctuating needs of various offices and enterprises. To be a "temp" was to be "of the workplace, but not class of the workplace," to paraphrase Marx. As a temp your work was necessary, maybe even vital, but because you were a temp you were not included in the social dimension of work. People barely managed to learn your name. I should say that I worked as a temp for several summers during the nineties. In the nineties "the temp" was both the best illustration of the alienation of the white collar workplace and a sign of what was to come. This prediction both did and did not take place, mutating in the form of the gig worker and other technologically mediated forms of precarious and part time labor. 

What is perhaps most striking about the film now is less is vision of the nineties as its examination of what I have called "the affective composition of labor." The way in which work is a management and articulation of affects, hope, fear, frustration, and joy, both in society and within the particular workplace. Understanding these affects helps us understand both our attachment to work and the possibilities for transforming it. 

The film begins when Iris (Toni Collette) arrives for her first day as a temp in an unspecified credit agency in an unspecified city. We do not learn much about Iris, but she is portrayed as lonely, living with her father, and her job at the temp agency is seen as just a brief stop off on the way to better and brighter things. There are references to a letter of recommendation and an upcoming interview with a big company. Iris' time at the credit agency is both alienating, on her first day she is left to wait for hours before anyone even tells her what to do or where she should be, and oddly rewarding. She is introduced to Margaret (Parker Posey) and then to Paula (Lisa Kudrow) and Jane (Alanna Ubach). The four bond over their marginalized status in the workplace and soon become friends. 

It is of course commonplace even a cliche to say that work is alienating; the question is from what. There are philosophically sophisticated answer to this, as in Marx, that invoke species being and our unique status as humans. Sometimes a simpler answer will suffice. What Clockwatchers illustrates is that people want to be recognized, to belong to something, but that they want to belong as individuals, to be seen as who they think themselves to be.  With respect to the former, the film shows how work promises some kind of community, but constantly frustrates it, as the friendship between the four women is eventually destroyed by the antagonisms of work. With respect to the the later, individuality, each of the four women have an identity that is not so much formed through work but opposed to it. 

Paula claims to be an actress who will be in a new play; Jane is going to be married soon, and the job is just a day job to her planning; Iris, our narrator, is documenting everything that happens in her journal; and even Margaret is working only to get a coveted letter of recommendation to another job. These strategies are in some sense fictions or doomed to fail, Paula is not really an actress and Jane marries a man that she knows is cheating on her, but they at least offer the promise of being something other than just a temp. A pretend actress and a failed marriage is better than just being an employee. Work frustrates community by promising to realize it, and individuality by leaving no time for it. 

With respect to the letter of recommendation, the one that Iris has and the one that Margaret wants, they all serve to illustrate Paolo Virno's point about the increasingly servile nature of contemporary work. The more on works with others, the more one's labor is a managing and participating social cooperation, the more one is subject to the individual and arbitrary power of others, even if they do not remember your name. 

Lastly, it would be remiss to overlook the figure of Cleo (Helen Fitzgerald), the full time worker who starts after Iris. Her status as outsider solidifies the group, proving that negative solidarity and solidarity are often thoroughly intertwined and inseparable. Denied any real community, any connection, she maintains her individuality through subversion. She is the office thief whose theft of assorted tokens of individuality, treasure mugs and knick knacks, drives the company into an increasingly repressive lockdown. Her story illustrates that friendship, community, and identity are themselves like the office supplies we take back home with us; they are at the workplace but can only ever be stolen from it. 

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