Expressing yourself in a no man’s land of the culture wars? Emotional labor. Doing more housework than your tragically cishet husband? Emotional labor. Family and friends demanding uncompensated comfort? Emotional labor. Has “doing the work” left you “exhausted”, triggered, burned out, declaring, “I’m tired”, and in need of “self-care”? That must have been emotional labor. Surfing narrative chaos on the back of a vampire squid? Emotional labor. Trying to bend the moral arc of language towards hermeneutical justice? Emotional labor.
Why has labor gotten so emotional? Perhaps because we find ourselves at the terminus of historical forces for which we are still psychologically unprepared: the deindustrialized, overeducated West’s transformation into an economy based on “knowledge work” and “service work”, and its state of being extremely, always, online.
As humans, the psycho-economic surface area of our being has never been so… unlimited. We’ve heeded the call to “bring your whole self to work” and complete the total identification of life with work. But our jobs can be raptured at any moment to an automated script in the cloud, or a third world call center contractor pretending to be one. We daily engage in the ritual combat of social media for our shrinking horizons of community and purpose in the world.
And so the open office imitates the open market, the open internet, and the open savannah: “studies show” that such openness leads to the spiking of cortisol, the stress hormone, as our gazelle mindset in such circumstances anticipates attack from predators from any direction, so that to exist so firmly wired into the present is to be exposed to the infinite penetration of even the most primitive psychological weapons.
The academic origin of the term “emotional labor”, by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, however, refers only to the demands of emotive façades needed to perform certain jobs, citing flight attendants for their forced pleasantness, and bill collectors for their forced unpleasantness. Such workers become alienated from their feelings.
But in its digital afterlife, emotional labor has drifted into some illogical conclusions of queer theory’s concept of performativity as it is currently being played out online, where identity itself becomes a job, attention its wages. And instead of theory trying to imitate life, life imitates theory.
The blobbing of emotional labor into more domains is a feature, not a bug, of our accelerated language culture. What’s attractive in “emotional labor” is its poetic dialectic: the stormy jouissance of emotion versus the brawny tryhardiness of labor. While its online usage tends to polarize the two concepts, as if emotionless labor was the norm, this seems like hitting a coconut against a rock and calling its broken halves different names. I propose blobbing them further by injecting into a discussion of our present mode of production two of my favorite discredited thinkers: the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, and the Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In their irrationality, acceptance, resistance, belief and surrender, they tell us much more about the poetry of living than the science thereof. And as it turns out, they have thought quite a bit on how to imbue labor with the ecstasy of emotion.
So perhaps keyboard warriors are onto something by naming our alienation and trauma of living in the present “emotional labor”. The primary locus of labor is no longer physical, but mental, with all the chemical vicissitudes that entails. After all, what did Marx mean by alienation but a feeling?
For Marx, under such alienation the worker feels "unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself". While the hardships of physical labor have filled the pamphlets of the socialist canon, emotional labor perhaps gives us an insight into the undeveloped half of his argument: what “ruins the mind” of today’s worker? What happens when labor invades our interior world, and mental work wholly replaces physical work?
Enter the knowledge worker, “the man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts, and information rather than manual skill or brawn” according to management guru Peter Drucker. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2016, 48% of U.S. workers could be categorized as knowledge workers, and in 2019 Gartner estimated that the global population of knowledge workers passed one billion.
If industrial work is material labor that transforms one set of materials into another in the form of a product, knowledge work is immaterial labor that transforms data into another set of data in the form of a product. Such a broad definition hopefully encapsulates the diversity of typing monkeys to be found in finance, law, software engineering, design, HR and management.
What is the alienation of knowledge work? Knowledge work is isolating because it involves brains, which only have rudimentary mechanisms of communication between them. Humans have developed all sorts of methods for operating collectively in space to build and assemble with their bodies, but we are lacking in effective or humane infrastructure for mind collaboration. Software is still built on physical metaphors, a collection of objects to manipulate instead of subjects to inhabit. And should anyone master the relaxation of subjectivity that is the flex of creativity, the production problem of ideas becomes the distribution problem of ideas.
If transmutations of data can and will be automated by present and future algorithms (as industrial work can and will be by machines), then the primary work of knowledge work is perhaps, after all, to do with people: meetings, Zoom calls, sales pitches, presentations, scrums, processes, wikis, departments, offsites, Slack. All of which requires significant emotive work. The corporation, after all, is an incredible product of human ingenuity: tens or hundreds or thousands of workers bound together with nothing more to move them in the same direction than capital and narrative. The corporation is the contemporary synthesis of religions, guilds, governments, the military, conquistadors, pirates, and alchemists.
Likewise, service work, from retail to dining to hospitality, is not about selling a product but the lubrication of pleasant experiences. These experiences, on a corporate scale, are a reflection of that corporation, and not its representative. In this sense, corporations are people and people are made to be corporations.
The service worker is fundamentally in symbiosis with the knowledge worker via the latter’s expendable income. The most dangerous demographic of today’s society is not the proletariat, but career-driven parents, as evidenced by the extremes every government is willing to go to in order to keep mortgages afloat, keep children in school or childcare, and keep future pensions secure. Their relation to “service” involves a kind of deference by which the trend of rental over ownership is applied to the experience of having a full staff of servants.
Meanwhile, the hardships, low pay and pollution associated with physical labor have not been remedied, just exported. Pity the devastation in body and mind of the coal miner who must learn to code. This system serves to obscure power and drain us of our productive emotions. The primary reason why people work is not because there is a demand for labor, but because there is an excess of unproductive capital.
Man has been cursed to work; “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread”. But in nature we can find many examples of alternative labor relations: "Labor, nevertheless, forms the delight of various creatures, such as beavers, bees, wasps, ants, which are entirely at liberty to prefer inertia: but God has provided them with a social mechanism which attracts to industry, and causes happiness to be found in industry. Why should he not have accorded us the same favor as these animals?" Such was the learned opinion of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), an early utopian socialist from whose voluminous, ridiculous and prophetic compendium of ideas to reorganize society Marx and Engels cherry-picked a great deal to form the basis of their own theories. Could the curse of work be turned into a blessing?
This sentiment formed the basis of his theory of “attractive labor”, whereby workers would organize themselves, living in communal palaces, into two hour shifts at a variety of stimulating tasks, from beekeeping, silk weaving, opera singing, cleaning, scholarly pursuits, and so on, in a unique mashup of the monastic liturgy of the hours and factory work. For Fourier, the monotony of factory work was the bane of the worker, and variety, in all its manifestations, its elixir: “Life is a long torment to one who pursues occupations without attraction.”
Indeed, Fourier extended this idea of “attraction” to every aspect of his utopia. The family would be abolished and replaced by a high priestess assigning men and women to one another (including same-sex matches) in highly ritualized orgies, like the polyamorous’ Excel spreadsheet. Procreation would be achieved via parthenogenesis, although how is never explained. Children would subsequently be reared communally, a la the much later but clearly inspired system of Brave New World. By abolishing the family, the inequalities of the distribution of emotional labor between the sexes would thus be rectified.
Fourier also thought the aurora borealis “a symptom of the planet’s being in rut, a useless effusion of creative fluid, which cannot conjoin with the southern fluid as long as the human race has not carried out its preparations.” Global warming would melt the ice caps, unleashing a hidden arctic cache of citric acid deep within the ice, turning the new world ocean into lemonade.
Fourier’s charm is in the blinding sincerity of his belief in top-down solutions that had not yet been fact-checked by the next 200 years of human history. Yet his encyclopedic creativity, little seen since, seems to have been unleashed precisely because of a philanthrope’s belief in happy endings.
What is it like to be online? To be in god mode in a sensory deprivation tank, tripping on ether, while a many-appendaged Hindu goddess in a nurse outfit rubs your every erogenous zone with mink gloves. And yet unless we speak– post, email, like, emote– our presence is not felt. To be, we must express.
Therein lies the paradox in that, the more we express ourselves, rather than being a grand, fluid experimentation, our identity becomes more rigid via such constant invocation and novel, and more and more desperate, justifications of existence. Magic dies with repetition.
Emotional labor is the faultline of narrative bubbles, the gap between internalized pre-logical jiu jitsu and narrative dissonance from the outside. It is when you are forced to rationalize the unrationalizable. Any competing narratives of your identity within you smash against competing narratives of reality in multisided, infinity-D memetic warfare.
Here we may deploy the insights of the maverick psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), and his concept of the “emotional plague”. Reich enjoys the unique pedigree of having been ejected from the German Communist Party in 1933, the International Psychoanalytical Associate in 1934, and persecuted by the FDA, ultimately to his death in prison, in the 1950s.
For Reich, there are two reactions to psychic turbulence: a “backlash” or withdrawal, in which the victim bides their time for their ultimate reaction, or instead skips straight to a “lashing out” against the believed cause of the psychic pain. This latter case he describes as the carriers of society’s emotional plague: spreading neurosis in a violent attempt to purge it from your own psyche.
What is expression but the spreading of neurosis? There is instant relief in the post: your thought finds its next victim. Expression is the emotional vampire squid splashing ink ineffectually over the deep sea fiber optic cable being constructed via the Australia-Japan-United States Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment to bless the island nation of Palau with the magic of blazing fast internet speeds in order to counter China’s military zone of control in the Pacific.
Perhaps the spread model of r and k for COVID-19 can be applied to this emotional plague, as it fills filter bubbles to popping, superspreading misery and narrative chaos. Perhaps this serves to explain such diverse phenomena as conspiracy theories, cancel culture, collapsing trust, the comfort of cottagecore, and the emotional withdrawal into legal and financial instruments to replace the rules of engagement with those around us.
Previously there had been a cordon sanitaire established between the market and such sacred aspects of life as family, friends, and one’s purpose in life. But perhaps it is hyperconnectivity itself that allows the emotional plague to slip these lines, causing a backlash that sees the emotionally labored resorting to consent forms for sex, affection, or any kind of emotional comfort or support. Why is it that it is the most anti-capitalist among us who are willing to turn over more and more of our lives to the capitalist logic of hyper-litigiousness and financialization? Legibility is necessary for control.
Control is a form of resistance. For Reich, the mental, physical and economic liberation of the individual was determined by the quality of their orgasms. “Psychic illnesses are the consequences of the sexual chaos of society. For thousands of years, this chaos had the function of psychically subjecting man to the prevailing conditions of existence, of internalizing the external mechanization of life.”
Constantly escaping trauma and difficulty itself causes trauma, redistributes trauma, instead of absorbing it into a healthy completeness of the texture of life. People desire the smoothness of machines, of code, of virtuality over anything biological or organic: no violence, just ghosting. But this just expels the negativity into the social sphere, instead of processing it at its origin. A specter is haunting the world: the specter of contextless trauma.
Reich pushed the death drive and the pleasure principle out of the individual and onto society itself, bringing psychology into the crosshairs of Marxist historiography. My own private personal dread is an atmospheric build-up of all our collective, unpurged traumas. The libido is not an inside, controllable, force of will but an exterior, alien miasma terrorizing us all. This is the oppressive cloud that prevents the true and righteous revolution from sweeping the world. For Reich, a politics of “resistance” would be contraindicated. What about a politics of orgasmic surrender?
Our emotions have been offshored, notarized, plagiarized, capitalized, subverted, kept afloat by an invisible infrastructure of caffeine, antidepressants, ADHD meds, microdosed LSD and other assorted legal and illegal uppers and downers. If the prevailing opinions of any era are determined by those who control the means of production, what of the prevailing feelings?
Has the advent of the internet been a psychological disaster on par with the ecological collapse of climate change? A smoggy cloud of hopelessness, confusion, anger, anxiety and nihilism obscures the exits of the valley of the shadow of death. Can we learn to heal the trauma to the planet by learning to love work, and surrender to emotion?
Let our banners read: Beneath the melting ice caps, tentacle porn! Let the lemonade ocean wash away our arctic tears, our aerosols of emotional plague, our paroxysms of labor.
We have historical measures of sea ice cover, carbon levels, famines, but our emotional archaeology is sadly lacking. A time lapse of satellite imagery of the arctic will reveal that the ice “breathes” in rhythmic cycles exceeding human time perception, or that plants stretch, tickle one another, sightlessly wander, materializing carbon into pure air. But what of the adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine ravaging the pituitary? We need a y-axis of our chemical fluctuations, rendered in the acid palette of MRIs or chakras. The emotional climate is as good an explanation as any for the mysterious forces behind the production of history.
Today we find ourselves afloat rising sea levels, 5G brainfog, and the hormone wars being fought at the edges of the left and right. Are not antiandrogens, estrogen, progesterone, young blood transfusions, raw eggs, creatine, HGH, all on the same spectrum of phenomena, the same desire to transcend our chemically-induced funk into chemically-induced nirvana?
Brains wilt, chemicals decompose into their anonymous base atoms, like grains of sand through an hourglass, like cowards, slithering back into zygotes, silicon, or stardust. The more we rely on brains to power the brilliance of the human project, the more we find ourselves enslaved by chemicals: mirror neurons, doomscrolling, cringe, necromancy, police states of mind.
How might we bootstrap this mimesis run amok into new, communal, orgiastic ways to coordinate labor, to react to the next blow from our extended faculties, to bask in the warm beams of ray tracing, to form magic cults and keep fantasy alive? In a world that has accepted facts and narratives as plural, perhaps fantasy is the antidote to psychology.
Like everything, reversing the inclement effects of psychological climate change will take a lot of work. But is there a better definition of life itself than “emotional labor”?
Follow me on Twitter: Dennis Goodwin @sdfanvjkg.