Zero Books, work and ‘being ourselves’

If you’re someone with an interest in left-wing theory and criticism, I would recommend you check out Zero Books. I’ve read quite a few of their releases now and, while not always agreeing with them, they have almost always been interesting and worthwhile reads. ‘Intellectualism’ is a very loaded word these days yet Zero doesn’t shy away from works identified as such. This is particularly noticeable in its books on popular culture – an area where ‘criticism’ has become reduced to, and dominated by, winking attempts at sarcasm. This has, of course, spread across the media – not least because of the odd tendency for television critics to move onto broader social commentary. The collection of essays on Michael Jackson was an utter joy for me to read, treating pop music as something worthy of high-minded writing (ranging from relatively straightforward criticism to prose poetry) and examining the different meanings, contexts, implications, relations contained both within and around Jackson.

This apparent fear of serious engagement and sincerity is something that has been on my mind for quite a while now (if you read this blog even semi-regularly, you’ll probably be aware of that). Not only in terms of culture and politics, but almost life itself. It was with great surprise and interest, then, that I found myself reading about this exact subject midway through this book. Its broad area of concern is the modern office work environment and capitalism’s encroachment on ‘emotional labour’. To put it brutally simply, the theory is that (for reasons I won’t go into here – read the book!) it is no longer desirable for the modern worker to be someone who does what they are told and quietly gets on with their job; rather, we are encouraged to ‘be ourselves’ and ‘think outside the box’. Management strategies are overwhelmingly aimed at ‘nurturing’ our emotional identity and our sense of authentic self. Our work is presented as the pathway to our ‘true’ selves. This means also that the modern workplace acknowledges the problems inherent with capitalist work and seeks to paper over them – managers will joke about working for the weekend like everyone else; corporate social responsibility programmes proclaim to tackle the ills of capitalist society; ‘creativity’ is fetishised, albeit as a very limited, profit-driven and unthreatening concept.

The result of this is that we are not encouraged to think about external society – its structures and power relations – but rather about ourselves and our immediate work environment. Any problem with work is re-conceptualised as fundamentally a personal problem. Marxism’s theories about alienation become meaningless, rendered instead as a subject for self-help and self-improvement.

Yet, the book argues, this alienation is still happening. Indeed, it’s more insidious than ever. Whereas with previous ‘Fordist’ models of work there was a strict separation of ‘work’ and ‘pleasure’, the commodification of emotional labour and corresponding entwining of ‘self’ with work has destroyed this. When you are constantly encouraged to ‘be yourself’ at work (albeit an apolitical, idyllically submissive version of yourself), where does the separation come from? How do you ‘switch off’?

This takes us back to the initial point, as the book argues that the result of this is an increasing infantilisation. Again, to no doubt do the argument a great disservice in its simplication, it theorises that the work where you are encouraged to ‘be yourself’ becomes identified with the ‘adult’ world and in response (and perhaps in subconscious protest at selling an emotional performance of your ‘self’) we self-consciously retreat from ‘maturity’ and being ‘serious’. Thus we have a generation of people who refuse to ‘grow up’, who refuse ‘adult’ responsibilities in their personal lives and who very ostentatiously pursue ‘play’. This ties into what I’ve previously written about conversation becoming so devalued that no-one wants to be seen as ‘too serious’ or ‘too earnest’ – instead we must accept everything but seriously engage with nothing. We find ourselves valuing ‘being ourselves’ but increasingly (without even realising it) we mock and undermine this at every opportunity, switching uneasily between an ‘authentic’ self (typically a creative self, a ‘fun’ self, a ‘liberal’ self) and rejecting this notion of ‘authenticity’ as meaningless with constant, corrosively self-reflexive irony. I almost fell off my seat when the book specifically mentioned Broadway Market in East London as a place to go and observe these traits in action.

To pick just one of the enormous number of strands here, the notion of ‘accepting everything but engaging with nothing’ occurs to me when looking at current ‘debates’ on for example, pornography, or social media. It seems that more and more we immediately rush to a glib ‘liberal’ opinion where anyone advocating that such things may have negative effects on us is at best worthy of ridicule, at worst of scorn. There is with many a reluctance to seriously consider such debates – whether it be because it’s seen as too po-faced, too dull or just pointless – and it has fostered an atmosphere where something like Zero Books can identify as a ‘radical’ publisher merely by publishing works which aim to discuss things with a degree of intelligence. Nonetheless, in a ‘lolz culture’ this proves invaluable in providing new perspectives and opportunities for discussion – as I hope my brief description of ‘Dead Man Working’ has demonstrated.

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