Affective labour

[This is a fragment from “Uncanny Robots and Affective Labour in the Oikonomia,” Cultural Studies Review, Vol 18, No 1 (2012), pp. 153-73. The full text can be found here.]


Recent analyses of work, of its transformation and significant aspects over the last two decades, turn around the key themes of affect and precariousness. Post-Fordism is defined by a meshing of worktime and the time of life, the demand to be constantly available, always preparing for work. Social networking is also net-working.

Particularly in the still-feminised occupations of care and service work, in the expanding post-Fordist areas of the economy, with its own particular exertions, fatigue and forms of an oftentimes intimate self-management, it is affects that are put to work. Akseli Virtanen, Paolo Virno and others have theorised affective labour as the valorisation of human sociability as such.

Setting aside an easy distinction between human and machine, Patricia Clough et al argue “that there is an abstracting of affect to affect-itself, which disregards the bounded-ness of the human body, thus troubling the conceptualization of the body as the body-as-organism.”

Along similar lines, Kathi Weeks has insisted that there is an impasse in presenting “a true self versus its estranged form, or a reproductive sphere of practice separate from a sphere of properly capitalist production.”

The divergence between these two accounts is significant, not least because the latter presume a feminist, anti-racist and queer critical history leery of the implicit proposition, in Virno’s account and that of others, of nature deformed by cultural and economic processes.

It is not, then, authentic human sociability that is valorised in affective labour, but the apparently genuine circulation of affect as if it is not work.

Affective labour, whether paid or not, has long circulated as part of a compensatory logic, offered as a humanisation of the mechanisation of the labour process, in both Fordism and post-Fordism. In this respect, it is not simply a question of lamenting the indistinction between life and work as if the former might offer refuge, but of noting the ways in which a politics of the re-enchantment of life proceeds alongside the infinite expansion of worktime. Cooper, in her discussion of the complex articulations of neoliberalism and anti-abortion politics in the United States, has suggested that fundamentalism emerged here as an attempt to “reimpose the property form in and over an uncertain future,” a form that “as the right-to-life movement makes clear, is inextricably economic and sexual, productive and reproductive. It is ultimately a claim over the bodies of women.”

What I would emphasize is that the incertitude of property rights is resolved through recourse to genealogical inscription, and the exceptionalism that treats women’s bodies as bearers of properties (as distinct from property in one’s self) is simultaneously constructed through the legitimating assumptions of sex, gender, nation and race.

Moreover, oikonomia legitimates the distribution of surplus labour, orders the excesses of affection, allocating its sources and objects. It is, then, not a matter of reinstating a ‘work-life balance,’ inasmuch as that restoration might be tacitly understood as or, in practice, entail the return of (largely) women’s time to unpaid domestic work and the reproduction of life.

Nor would it be a matter of denouncing the enslavement that is implied by the indistinction of worktime and that of life, as if unpaid and poorly paid labour has not always been the precondition of the circumscribed ‘normal working day.’ The expansion of precarious work, the increasingly widespread predicament of infinite worktime that has overtaken the demarcations between life and labour need not play out, once again, as the naturalised allocation of surplus labour along oikonomic lines.

Nevertheless, given the indistinction between worktime and the time of life, the question of how workers might take (what might be redundantly referred to as) industrial action becomes both more difficult to answer and all the more pressing. To be sure, there is a more complex story to be told about both affective labour and precarious work, not least because these are hardly new, even if they are new experiences for some; and even as they emerge as novel motifs in social analysis, likely because (over the last two decades) these forms of work have come to impact upon the experience of work for white, middle class men in metropolitan countries.

Still, the question of what to do when the strike becomes structurally implausible, when workers are spatially and temporally disaggregated, or when the work contract is both precarious and infinite in its reach, becomes a more pertinent one for all that. Given the pertinence of (faking) affective attachment, what becomes increasingly troubling is the uncanniness of robotic feeling. In The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild, remarking on the strategies some flight attendants use when confronted with speed-ups, wrote: “Workers who refuse to perform emotional labor are said to ‘go into robot.’ They pretend to show some feeling. [Yet in] the conditions of speed-up and slowdown, covering up a lack of genuine feeling is no longer considered necessary. Half-heartedness has gone public.”

Perhaps, then, the oikos is haunted not by communism – at least as it has come to be understood, as party or state or policy – but by disaffection, a detachment from the oikonomic that signals attachments otherwise and, for this reason, barely deciphered by conventional political analyses, but nevertheless distinctly uncanny.

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