Working life forces us to immerse. Immersion in an amnesiac sense: a total erasure of previous thoughts, desires, longings. This immersion is integral to the sustenance of capitalism. Work is so consuming because it functions on our attention. We are distracted precisely from acknowledging the futile nature of our work. If our attention was allowed to rest long enough on the futile nature of our employment we would simply leave and do something else with our lives. Which of course wouldn’t correspond well with the demands of a capitalist economy – everyone sitting around doing nothing, going fishing and eating cake.
Though our capacity to decide to do nothing – or do something else – is severely curtailed by the creeping sense of insecurity in the modern workplace. All employees are disposable, jobs feel precarious. Employees are required to constantly sell themselves, smile, improve their skills, prove their worth. And we do this for the fear of unemployment is too strong. Unfulfilling low paid work benefits greatly from this very climate of precarity that exists in work life. The apparent scarcity of jobs means individuals start to feel anxious even about the loss of a job that is far beneath their experience and qualifications.
What is produced is a continual feeling of insecurity – an insecurity that feeds on the centrality of work to our understanding of what it is to live and be human. Unemployment is a scary abyss of watching the Jeremy Kyle Show and sleeping til noon. Flexible work has not provided freedom but a constant need to market oneself to the next prospective buyer. And we are all commodities selling our teamwork skills and managerial experience.
And it does alarm me how normalised this mode of existence has become. Stood crammed into the tube on the way to work in this wondrous capital city of ours, a morning never passes when I don’t wonder how, why and what we are doing here squashed together, not talking, barely breathing, headphones plugged in, brain switched off, when we could be climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world in a boat or learning Japanese or starting a jazz band or eating croissants or doing yoga in some shala in South India….
And yes I know – we gotta stack chips – but I wonder how this immersion of work has really caused us to forget. How working life resists remembering. How days pass and it is impossible to separate one from the other, impossible to separate one week to the next. Going home the details are forgotten, each day forgotten, each moment forgotten, each face forgotten.
Ivor Southwood suggests the idea of estrangement – “trying to distance yourself from what you’re having to do, withholding your emotional labour” as a strategy to defend ourselves from succumbing our critical mental capacities to this immersion. The emotional aspect is crucial here, for while we can recognise and perhaps accept our bodies and our physical and mental labour are for sale, it is the occupation of the emotions that make this environment of precarity so uniquely pervasive. Ivor Southwood further advises us “to try to re-occupy yourself and your own thoughts and mind, and to try to evict the language of aspiration and fun that attaches itself to most work.” Occupation is a useful and significant metaphor, considering how ‘occupy’ has in recent years gained a renewed sense of political meaning. Some interesting parallels can be made here with the occupy movement, for the occupy movement has never just been about the occupation of space. The occupation of space was a tangible signifier for an idea – an idea that seemingly needed space to cumulate.
And so we need to find the space – mentally and emotionally – to re-occupy our minds, to maintain our own sense of self – or more specifically to remind ourselves of the very situatedness of our lives. That is to say the historical, social and economical contingencies that has placed us in the very moment we find ourselves. For example next time your find yourself at the photocopier, or filling in some spreadsheet, or folding a hundred pairs of identical leggings, or waiting tables or whichever mundane task it is, the point is not to think that this is inevitable but instead to build up a historical critique of the position you have been placed.
Building a historical critique will allow things to become strange again. Realise a capitalist system of doing things is not inevitable. Free ourselves from the demands placed on us by recognising their arbitrary and fleeting nature. But of course we are encouraged to forget. This process of estrangement requires daily vigilance. As Pierre Bourdieu describes when a sociologist enters the research field, they must adopt a sense of reflexivity in order for the norm to become new again. The researcher takes a ‘second step back’ when encountering their subject of study. Similarly Michel Foucault remained consistently detached from everything he studied. This active detachment meant Foucault could never be captured in definite terms, put in a box or categorised. Putting ourselves in boxes is a key skill we are taught in the modern workplace. By contrast this form of detachment is not merely standing outside the box – not simply an anti stance – but rather a means of demolishing the box altogether. Without the box – without a commonly agreed term of reference – the individual becomes unreachable. It is not possible to communicate with a discourse that is not coming from a position, that is not centred. It is a discourse coming from without – as Herbert Marcuse would say.
So here’s to thinking without boxes.