By Nicholas Croce, September 6, 2021
On this Labor Day, a call to academics studying work… to get to work.
After taking a break from doctoral studies four months ago, I’ve come to the conclusion that academics, specifically those interested in the workforce, labor, and precarity, need to get to work. And no, I am not implying that academics aren’t working hard enough: for sure, keeping university classes going during this pandemic is a herculean labor. Nor do I mean to say that professors and social science researchers should drop their academic jobs and get into other segments of the workforce, per se.
After four months of precarious work arrangements, tedious and dehumanizing interactions with welfare, and dealing with the psychosocial impacts of socioeconomic precarity, I am moved to write—no, I am moved to scream, to shout it from the ground up into the heights of academe—that anyone studying modern work needs to get out and experience it, today.
The structure and mechanisms of labor are changing fast. Gigification of the labor market continues to increase. Within the COVID-19 crisis, the gulf between good jobs and precarious work appears stark in so many respects: for salaried workers, work from home policies are booming, while for gig workers, the risk of falling victim to the pandemic is inescapably part of the job. It used to be fairly easy to spot gig work vis-à-vis more stable forms of work. As work on the whole faces the forces of gigification, a potential future comes into view: one of growing precariatization with its deleterious effects on social life and economic stability across the life-course.* We need theory that is eminently concerned with the experience of workers to disentangle the current forms of mystification at play.
Those who incorporate feminist theory and praxis into their research may understand where I am going here. The wisdom of feminist epistemology is, in part, that a person’s social position lends specific “situated knowledge” (thinking with Haraway, Crenshaw, Ahmed). Even outside of explicitly feminist discourse, the frame of situated knowledge, along with related formations of feminist epistemes, are increasingly normalized in the social sciences, thank goodness. What I am contending here is perhaps not new, but a resounding that academicians need to make real commitments towards situating themselves proximate to the ultramodern situated knowledge of today’s workplace. This is not a call for academics to pack up their desks and start a full-time gig job, and above all, I don’t want to suggest that, for instance, a tenure-track professor at a R1 research institution can practically embody an equivalent of the situated knowledge of someone with a far different socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic background, disability experience, and on. Nor should they try. The life-histories, bio-politics, networked wealths, and identities that come together within an historical moment to create an embodied situated knowledge cannot be manufactured. What is possible—and worthwhile, if not simply necessary—is for those working in the academy to get a sense, even if only brief, of an embodiment of work that is so common today, a kind of work who, due to its cybernetic, algorithmic, and networked nature has not existed prior.**
In some consequential ways, the gigification of work has made witnessing that situated knowledge more accessible than ever. I have to believe that’s worth something, and not just for ethnographers. Those experienced in ethnography already understand how living proximate to the embodied knowledge of others is key to their work (and perhaps even more critically, any empiricism worth the name, one that is reflective of social life). Our ultramodern and present condition, one which is so often isolating and mesmerizing, dulling and spectacular, screenified and multiple—sometimes all at once—makes this kind of (re-)orientation necessary for the social scientist. For me, working in the gig economy (sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes due to precarity) has made my academic work more humanistic, my research questions sharper, my theorizing more anti-oppressive.
So, yes, to be blunt: I hope my academic mentors will consider taking part of their next sabbatical working at an Amazon warehouse. Your chances of a conditional job offer are high: for me, all it took was a quick and easy, automated ‘background’ (credit) check.
The need is great, not just for ethnographers, but for anyone developing theory and research on work and labor to get out there and experience it. After just two days in an Amazon warehouse (cut short by a COVID-19 outbreak), I began to feel just how bizarrely (dis-/)embodied the work felt. On one (embodied) hand, after just an hour working in the freezer, I developed a cough that stuck with me for days. Yet on the other (dis-embodied) hand, the workplace strikes me as one without bosses, where the managers are algorithmic, hiring and firing happen algorithmically, and Taylorism takes on a hyper-micro microphysics of laboring bodies.
So, let this be an uncanny but very necessary invitation to past and future teachers and colleagues in the social sciences who care about labor today to get out there into the gig workforce. It isn’t fair to leave the theorizing on complicated issues like dually embodied and disembodied labor, algorithmic embodiment and the latest Taylorism, and the gigification of increasing types of work to the early-career academics who find themselves in that line of work more often out of necessity than curiosity. We need you.
For both good and nefarious uses, theory is powerful in that it can reach out, define, explain, and even reorder in its own image. At this time of growing obfuscation about the nature of work and the hidden bodies who do it (a new and very old phenomenon), it is hard to imagine how theory can keep up. The consequences are grim if the social policies of tomorrow are based on understandings of gig work circa 2016.
How surprising it is that, even in this world where I become a logistics algorithm, my body still speaks. I get cut by the cardboard box as another CROSSES [workers yell "crossing" when passing] down the aisle. Marx haunts here, as my blood still mixes with material and becomes consecrated as commodity. The bodies in the chiller are new kinds of bodies, perhaps. Algorithmic bodies. “No admittance except on business”—even for the worker. I have become the platonic form of worker, perfected, because I do not know how I perform and therefore cannot slow the line, cannot spot the surplus value, cannot ream out the boss. My only freedom is swapping my Work Scanner for iPhone in a dark corner of the warehouse floor and sending off a few texts. (field notes)
* I do believe one reading of the growth of platform capitalism (via Nick Srnicek's Platform Capitalism) is a future where work is, albeit in different experiences and embodiments, increasingly precarious across place and space. I write about this some elsewhere.
** Cybernetic, especially in the rapidity and nature of sending and receiving tasks, algorithmic in that work is assigned through complex and obscured (for the worker) models, and networked in that the work as social labor is made social via cybernetic and algorithmic means.