No Fun: Living Death in Emotional Capitalism

by John Brissenden

A new book shows how the postmodern corporation, with its pop psychology and emphasis on fun, seeks to enclose not only our labour but our very life.

First published: 24 June, 2012 | Category: Book Review, Corporate power, Employment & Welfare, Vision/Strategy

Dead Man Working, by Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming, Zer0 Books, 2012.

Hard day at the office? In Dead Man Working, Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming remind us of the ways in which late capitalism, in its remorseless drive to capture and enclose our very living being, condemns us to a living death. No postmodern, corporate organisation, from the call centre to the university, is complete without its “vision and values” statement, its corporate social responsibility programme, its employee “wellness” regime. It suffocates us with its creepy injunctions for us to be “ourselves”. It leaves us with nothing, no escape. As the authors put it: “A quest without end or rationale, slowly poisoning almost every aspect of our lives on the job and even afterwards when we think the daily grind is over. But, of course, it is never over."

Dead Man Working is a book of two halves. Following the now familiar Zer0 Books format, it is a bit of a name dropper (Deleuze, Žižek, Lacan, Sennett…they should include a Zer0 Books bingo card with every new edition), but also sadly, infuriatingly, devoid of references or footnotes.

In the first half, Cederström and Fleming take us on a “harrowing journey through the petrified world of dead work”, and set out the predicament that will be familiar to any inhabitant of the postmodern “social factory”:

The real fault-line today is not between capital and labor. It is between capital and life. Life itself is now something that is plundered by the corporation, rendering our very social being into something that makes money for business. We know them. The computer hackers dreaming code in their sleep. The airline stewards evoking their warm personality to deal with an irate customer…The aspiring NGO intern working for nothing. The university lecturer writing in the weekend. The call center worker improvising on the telephone to enhance the customer experience.

Here, on the familiar terrain of bio-power and emotional labour, we are introduced to a procession of grotesques, from the passive aggressive Human Resource Manager, “armed with the latest kitchen-sink psychology, and behaving like David Brent from The Office”, to US Postal Service chief Karla Corcoran, ’swaddled in a blue blanket and hoisted into the air above a hotel ballroom on closed ropes and strings manipulated by some 500 of her 725 employees”.

Perhaps the most telling analogue for the social factory is a character from one of Louis Theroux’s documentaries, a patron of the Wild Horse brothel in Nevada named Humping Hank.

Like most brothels, the Wild Horse offers a rich menu of sexual activities, from ’straight lay’ (conventional missionary style) to ’crème de menthe French’ (oral sex with a sweet liquor chaser). But there is also something else, more exclusive, which can only be offered on request. Like the secret speciality of a chic restaurant, you will not find this service on the menu. This speciality is for the initiated known as the GFE: the girlfriend experience. And we soon learn that this is the only service Humping Hank is interested in. He does not fuck the prostitutes like the unrefined truck drivers who call in for a big steak, three beers, and a straight lay. Instead, Hank spends long nights with his ’girlfriend’, watching TV, eating popcorn, kissing and hugging, talking about their future, laughing, before time runs out, and he is kissing his beloved goodnight, often with tears in his eyes.

As the authors say, the emotional labourers of the Wild Horse dread the visits from Humping Hank, “since GFE is a violation of their very core, with no protection through role play”. And in the postmodern workplace, as with Humping Hank’s ultimate invasion, “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us”.

It is in this first half, in its exposition of the world of emotional capitalism, that the book is most effective. In the second, where Cederström and Fleming explore possible escape routes, they stick like glue to their chosen death-metaphor and, in so doing, make the basic error of over-extending it. As one reads on, one is almost conscious of them peering over one’s shoulder: “Did you see what we did there?”

That’s not to say that the latter stages of their journey are any less harrowing, interesting or thought-provoking. Along the way they show us the adult babies, retreating from the pressures of work into nappies and total dependence; we ponder the fate and the motivation of the bankers and Foxconn assembly line workers jumping off tall buildings; and we marvel at the stressed-out Londoners who pay £40 a pop to “become no one” in a flotation tank.

These are rejected as escape routes. Suicide “on the job” is a form of loyalty, ending ourselves without fuss at the very point at which our usefulness to the corporation reaches its limits;the suicide with a Message, either literal or metaphorical, is wasteful, in that we imagine the effect on the Other when we cannot, self-evidently, be present to witness it.

An effective escape, the authors wonder, may lie in a more complete and effective withdrawal from any discursive relation with the world of work. By emulating, not the baby, but the little girl (“the angry, indolent female child”), in her inscrutability and sheer unreachability.

By way of example they contrast the character of Charlie in the film of Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, with the figure of Danny, the boy in The Shining. Danny, they suggest, “assimilates the code of power, identifying with the ghosts to such an extent that they begin to inhabit his world and him [sic] theirs. He fights by keeping his enemies close”. Firestarter’s Charlie, by contrast, “escapes in precisely the opposite way to Danny, not by welcoming the enemy into her own world, but by a massive evacuation of the human, leaving only an indefinable instantiation of the body. This is what terrified the authorities so much, since they had no way to capture her, no way to communicate with her.”

They argue for a (re)detachment of oneself and one’s social relations from the world of work. We should see the conflation of capitalism and life for what it is:

This means not mistaking the commonwealth that we produce together for capitalism. Not mistaking life and its conduct for work. Not mistaking the body and its sensibilities for a human resource. Not mistaking self-direction and its improvisational energies for the injunction to work or the boss function. Each mistaken conflation creates conditions ripe for self-entrapment – the true currency of biocracy. Each detachment, however, represents a positive moment of removal, separation, or withdrawal from the scene of power. A return to the rich and life-affirming flows of social living that is so anathema to existence under capitalism.

I’m a simple soul, and I’m still thinking through precisely what this means, and what it might look like in practice. At best, it seems that it might be similar to something I already see around me increasingly. As the creepy enjoinders to get involved!, enjoy! and show your passion! become more and more shrill, more and more people respond with sullen refusal rather than half-hearted, eye-rolling participation. Maybe, in a looking-glass world of emotions turned up to 11, the only proper response is indeed on the emotional plane. After all, as Cederström and Fleming point out, “being a party-pooper is today the most serious crime you could commit”.

But in their rejection of class analysis (“The real fault-line today is not between capital and labor. It is between capital and life.”) and their reliance on death as a metaphor, Cederström and Fleming leave us with a dead-end that remains, for all its philosophically interesting ideas about adult babies, suicide and demonic children, ultimately conservative.

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