Of Labor Lost: Name the Enemy

July 27, 2012

I’m in Boulder Colorado, teaching a summer course on Feminist and Queer Documentary in their film program. My class on Tuesday—on Talking Heads Feminist Labor films—was nothing if not queer: but not in that gay way. Rather, it was stunning for me to re-teach films that are seminal in this history, films I’ve taught many times over the years, and to feel like the words, images, and very ideas being projected are suddenly so strange as to be utterly unfamiliar and therefore outside of comprehension.

In Barbara’ Kopple’s 1976 Academy Award winning, Harlan County USA, the working-class (poor) American laborers interviewed frequently call the corporations they work for “the capitalists,” but stranger yet “the enemy.”

In Julia Reichert (and James Klein and Miles Mogulescu’s) 1976 Academy Award nominated, Union Maids, the women laborers are not just eccentrically and unrecognizably in unions, they are union organizers, and weirder still, call themselves “socialists” and even “radicals.”

Now, as I’ve said, I’ve taught these films a million times, and in previous years the talk was all about documentary form: the pros and cons of talking heads. While these seventies staples still perform this role in film history and on my syllabus, I couldn’t but also queer the docs’ content: the wacky idea that laborers deserve decent working conditions and benefits, that all American citizens deserve education and health care, and that collective organizing is our only tactic to gain and insure these rights, given the structure of capitalism. The illuminating lesson of reteaching this class in 2012 (I first offered it as the very first class I taught in 1990) turns out to be that identity politics really have proven successful in our many visibility projects that have made the representation of women, and queers and people of color relatively innocuous to contemporary audienecs; yet, it seems, we left not just class, but an overt class critique, outside of these so-readily available pictures that I now teach as historical oddities in class.

Now, in Boulder (unlike at Pitzer), I am teaching in a State school to young people who are working—at movie theaters, bakeries, behind counters, and in stock rooms—while attending college. Certainly, all my students at Pitzer are not wealthy (many of them are the first in their families to attend college), but the culture of private liberal arts education insures that they don’t work while they are at school (they take loans, and sometimes, grants, and work in the summer).

So perhaps the film felt so queer because I was watching it with students who labor. But no: even these working students could not see themselves, could not identify, could not apply the strange terms and ideas of these not-so-distant sorta-even mainstream labor films to their own experience: organized, angry, articulate labor is really too queer for our times. And frankly, given the recent rush of this blog post, On Leaving Academia (for Google) by Associate Professor of Computer Science, Terran Lane amongst my hoity-toity professor friends (via Facebook), it seems that none of us can really see the corporation as the enemy anymore. While Professor Lane carefully, eloquently, and cogently spells out (in leftist terms) how the neoliberalization of academia has made the University of New Mexico an inhospitable place for him to work, he turns none of this critical gaze on the corporation to whither he flees.

Here, I find guidance from Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s brilliant writing in The Soul at Work. Berardi explains (among so many other things) how our work as intellectuals in this time of “Semiocapitalism” (where the mind, language and creativity become the primary tools for the production of value) has transformed away from an Enlightenment project that was necessarily ethical and political. Today, our work as members of the “cognitariat” “becomes a part of the autonomous process of capital” because it is now located on the Net and occurs every time we type.

Given this transformation, how do we insure that our work remains ethical and political? Is it really okay to “luv” or “friend” or labor for Google as all of my students so unselfconsciously, unapologetically, and even joyously seem to do? Aren’t corporations still the enemy? Is there a difference between knowledge work (“brain work”) and our “fragmented cognitive labor” (“chain work”)? Bifo and I insist: yes!

We can imagine and enact applications of our cognitive labor within environments and experiences that fall outside the corporate Internet (and here, on this web-page, I see that I must fail; but in the class, where I queer labor, ah, there, a moment where my soul is at work for and within the community of learners who puzzle over seeing labor together). Can Dr. Lane have similar experiences with his colleagues at Google? These answers do not seem easy, given the pull of the Internet and the pleasure we take in our work here. And, I don’t want to romanticize the University nor the “real” classroom. However, I will suggest that our most important work today, as the cognitatariat, is to find spaces outside of capital, as Occupy so daringly enacts, and to continue to name the enemy.

“Neoliberal policies are cutting back education and the public health system and is cancelling the right to a salary and a pension. The outcome will be impoverishment of large parts the population, a growing precarity of labor conditions (freelance, short-term contracts, periods of unemployment) and daily humiliation of workers….What is thrilling right now is the multiplicity of new connections and commitment. But what is even more exciting is finding ways that can set in motion the collective ‘exodus’ from the capitalist agony.” On #Occupy: Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Geert Lovink

3 Responses to “Of Labor Lost: Name the Enemy”

  1. Terran Lane Says:

    “he turns none of this critical gaze on the corporation to whence he flees.”

    Well, no. That wasn’t the point of that particular post. The post was a lamentation for my loss of an institution that I love and respect and have been part of for the larger fraction of my life, in one role or another, and to express outrage at the forces that are eroding it. Critiquing the (plentiful) downsides of corporations as well would have rather diluted that message, don’t you think? That’s another topic for another day.

    By the way, it should be “whither he flees”.

  2. alex Says:

    Terran (if I may):

    First, can I say, thanks so much for responding, I really do appreciate your gesture of communication and interaction (and then also, for giving me the grammar tip! Just one way that academic blogs are different than writing in properly published places, I don’t get an editor for all my idiosyncratic turns of phrases [and constant use of dashes and parentheses, too]). But, then again, that’s one reason I like blogging (the topic of a number of recent posts, too, by the way). I knew you were a real person, one I’d never met nor heard of before your post appeared on my Facebook page (several times!), and I was quite concerned about using your powerful post in a way that would feel personal against your quite reasonable and reasoned decision and analysis. Really: I was concerned about about using you. Because yes, I was aware that turning your gaze to the corporation was not the point of that post: one I ripped from its larger context of a longer and richer blog to make my particular point (which we could say is another downside to blogging, and all Internet writing, as Bifo reminds us: our words are fragmentable and commodifiable cognitive labor.) Yet, the very same upside is that I can now correspond with you, because you generously and generatively emerged from the wilds, and can ask you: how do you feel about working for the corporate sector, and that particular corporation to boot (or do your new employment circumstances disallow you from discussing that publicly?) I know that much innovative, and exciting, and productive work is happening in that sector now: that they’re hedging in on all that was best about academia as Universities become more corporate. I also know I might be pressed if forced to make the choice you did, and that my private liberal arts college shelters me from many of the problems you describe in the public education sector (at least for now). So, any response is welcome, and thanks again.


  3. […] but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (please see my similar experience when teaching feminist labor films from the 1970s in class last week). Meanwhile, Andrew Keen is […]


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