Department of English
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506
Society for Critical Exchange
MLA, San Francisco, Dec., 2008
One of the most challenging assignments of my professional career has been one that prior to this I had regarded rather smugly when hearing of others carrying it out--namely, the task of writing entries for an encyclopedia. A multimillion word Shakespeare encyclopedia, edited by Hugh Grady and Patricia Parker included entries on Marx, Marxism and Marxist Theory, and Marxist Criticism of Shakespeare, that I was commissioned to write. Of course, much of what I included in these entries was on the order of the criteria of “need to know” or “good enough” knowledge, but I found myself wanting to include something more, however much constrained about “originality” in surveying any number of handbook treatments and definitions in order to compose my own. Yet, after the shock of realizing what it meant in practice to summarize Marxism in a couple of thousand words, I began to be rather pleased with myself at some formulations I came up with, rather standard formulations that might nevertheless claim a degree of originality or even creativity in their conception. One in particular raised the issue of Marxism’s relation to affect, as I described exploitation and alienation as respectively the primary objective and subjective consequences of capital’s oppressiveness. (Perhaps Marx or someone else already used this formulation, of course, and I replicated it unconsciously or accidentally.)
The relationship between the two happens to underscore the oxymoronic feel of my title, the possible collision course of Marxism and affect, more recently reconciled in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s notion of “affective labor,” drawn from Lazzarato’s 1996 article on the “General Intellect.” The concept is both gender marked and has shifted, however, since Hardt and Negri use it to describe a kind of labor traditionally excluded from classical Marxism, namely, the “caring labor” of mothers, whereas Lazzarato referred to a realm much less associated with social injustice, yet equally gender-marked, namely, the realm of fashion. The labor of either kind was excluded by Marx, just as was, in one of his noted examples, the artistic work of the pianist. Marx excludes this labor from his theorizing, not on the grounds of its value or its use, but on the grounds of its not producing a profit for an employer, stipulating that as such it is not therefore technically “productive labor.” But Lazzarato’s example for immaterial labor, as it happens, carries an association that may be more fundamentally related to Marxism and the “Marxist feelings” of my title, namely, as creative labor.
My distinction between alienation and exploitation roughly approximates the discourse of an earlier issue within Marxism, namely, the relationship between and debate over the “early” and the “later” Marx, or the “humanist” Marx as opposed to the “scientific” one. It is as if the primary project of the humanist Marx was to describe and decry alienation, but of the scientific Marx to describe and decry exploitation.
The writings of Marx are no strangers to feelings, of course, as we recall the passionate anger of passages in The Manifesto, or the various, scattered comparisons of the capitalist classes to vampires, prostitutes, and swindlers. Marx’s own anger is, as the flip side of “caring labor,” perhaps a quite different variety of the immaterial labor argued by Hardt and Negri’s expansion of Marxist concept of productive labor, into a direction they do not seem disposed to include as they make critical space for the labor of loving mothers. We might, therefore, consider the nature of affective intellectual labor, along with its gendered implications, although not my present concern here.
But the foundation of the foundational work Capital, if we treat it more scientifically as something like a “build-up” theory from first elements, is really based on a bracketing or even an excluding of affect. Affect as such does not appear to be, as it were, foundational. For Marx, and for the rhetorical organization if Capital, the first principles of the analysis of capital begin rather from the element of the commodity, which Marx defamiliarizes and makes more “mysterious” before he attempts his excavation and explanation of it. Borrowing the concept of the fetish from religion, moreover, makes the affect associated with it (fear?), subject to the suspect feelings of religious belief and fantasy, only to be exposed and explained by scientific reason.
Exploitation, then, as far as Capital is concerned, would seem to be the more privileged of the two terms, just as, for Hardt and Negri, the inclusion of affective labor is nevertheless still subordinated, perhaps, to the traditionally productive sorts of labor from Marx’s focus. It is nevertheless just another kind of labor, or a variant on the productive norm. It is accounted for by another “objective” element of capital, namely, surplus value, the concept which Engels viewed as Marx’s chief scientific discovery. It is the unpaid, unrewarded “extra”time of the laborer, from which the capitalist will derive the surplus associated with profits and profitability. It may somehow be related to how one feels about that extra labor, and to the class awareness that might arise from recognizing it, but it is not directly about those feelings.
Happiness, and “really free working”
An interesting passage in the Grundrisse, however, might serve to contradict or question the diminished status of affect with respect to rationality in Marx’s thinking, and to invite some rethinking of productive labor and immaterial labor. The passage involves Marx’s consideration and critique of political economy, specifically of Adam Smith, with respect to a fundamental understanding of labor. That understanding, however, is primarily an understanding about affect, specifically the affect of the worker about his or her work. Interestingly, as far as its adumbrations of Hardt and Negri’s promotion of the concept of immaterial labor, it has less to do with their model derived from the “caring labor” of mothers, and more to do with Lazzarato’s model derived from the creative work of fashion. While creative work, such as Marx’s own example of the pianist technically not being a “productive” worker until providing a profit for an employer and augmenting the ability to increase the employer’s wealth, seems on the one handed subordinated to more useful sort of labor, a consideration of affect in labor demonstrates that the affective is more foundational.
Attitudes toward labor, as it happens, return me momentarily to my early modern research, specifically to Shakespeare, where it is not a historical stretch to consider his late romance The Tempest, often taking to constitute something like Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theater just prior to his retirement to Stratford-Upon-Avon, as a professionalist meditation on labor itself. (Marx, a huge fan of Shakespeare from his family background on into his collaborations with another Shakespeare fan, Engels, often cites the playwright for his insights into the nature of money and exchange, but might has well have cited him for his many insights into labor and labor relations.) The play is incessantly concerned with labor, from is chaotic first scene onward, when the sailors fighting to maintain their ship from sinking in the play’s perfect (though magical) storm, rail against the whining nobles, telling them their complaints “assist the storm” and to return to their cabins since they can do no real work. Yet the boatswain, the hero of the short ship sinking scene, is portrayed as immensely enjoying the struggle with the elements, cheerleading his men on with “Yarily...” The play soon contrasts Prospero’s two workers, the spirit Ariel and the “monster” Caliban, in their attitudes toward their employment, even in their first lines. Caliban grumblingly opens with “There’s wood enough with,” while Ariel begins, “All hail, great master, grave sir, hail. I come/ To answer thy best pleasure,” with the inflated rhetoric of the co-worker about whom one can never be sure whether the speech is fake brown-nosing or sincere sycophancy. The play’s romantic plot, the love-at-first sight of Ferdinand and Prospero’s daughter Miranda, takes a sweet though ironic look at love of work, as Ferdinand is enjoined by Prospero first to pile up “thousands” of logs, a task designed to make him work for, and decelarate, his love for her, “lest too light winning make the prize seem light.”
Ferdinand’s attitude is that the work is no work at all, really, since his “mistress refreshes” his labors. Prospero’s old former counselor Gonzalo, fantasizes in a set speech on his ideal commonwealth, drawn from a revolutionary vision of labor Shakespeare found in an essay by Montaigne on the New World, in which everyone is idle and nature’s bounty produces enough for all without any work and specifically without exploitation of some by others. Prospero’s own busy work of the play–orchestrating the dual subplots of managing the affect of the romantic relationship at the same time thwarting the assassination plot against him–ends not with full but rather with partial or phased retirement, as he leaves the magical, theatrical island to return to his position of Duke of Milan, retaking the job usurped previously by his brother.
Marx, like Shakespeare, considers a variety of attitudes toward labor in the passage in question here, and, like Shakespeare, offers up contrasting views, in particular both overly romanticized and insufficiently idealistic attitudes. For Marx these are exemplified respectively by utopian economic thinking and by capitalist apologetics, and from the precise discursive way in which he distinguishes his own attitude from these two. The passage in question focuses primarily on the fundamental attitude toward labor by Adam Smith, in its reproduction of what might be thought of as a certain worker’s attitude, or a certain worker’s attitude in certain given circumstances. His critique of Smith revolves around the assertion that for Smith “labour never changes its value,” regardless in a way of what one might be paid for the labor. That is because in working, say for an hour, in his normal state of strength and activity and with whatever skill he possesses, he must give up the “identical portion of his tranquillity, his freedom, and his happiness” (Marx’s italics). In order to summarize Smith’s fundamental attitude toward labor, Marx goes on to cite the biblical curse by Jehovah on Adam, “In the sweat of they brow shalt thou labour,” concluding, “This is labour for Smith, a curse,” with “tranquillity” the state identical with “happiness.” The worker for Smith, therefore, engages in willing “suspension of tranquillity” [Grundrisse, Penguin, 1973, p. 611].
The rational understanding of labor and labor value here assume a fundamental attitude toward labor itself Marx acknowledges its very historicity, that Smith’s view of labor as a curse reflects the position of “not-labour” as “freedom and happiness” with respect to labor’s various historic forms, as “slave-labour, serf-labour, and wage-labour.” But Marx categorically rejects the implications arising from founding a concept of labor in this way as “curse,” or in a following section, on a similar view of labor as fundamentally a sacrifice (the view of a much less well known political economist, Nassau Senior), a view he regards as accurate only insofar as it applies historically to wage-labor.
Including the contrary, romantic extreme about labor, Marx much more briefly rejects what he takes to be the attitude toward work of the utopianist Fourier, an attractive view of labor as” mere fun, mere amusement,” putting down Fourier (in a phrase uncannily anticipating the spirit of immaterial labor as gendered feminine), as conceiving of labor “with grisette-like [shop girl like] naivete”  .
Here is the rhetorical moment when Marx inserts by contrast with Smith and Fourier his own reduced view of what labor is essentially, perhaps even ahistorically: “Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriouness, the most intense exertion.” [He continues by describing how material production can “only achieve this character” when 1) its “social character is posited,” and somewhat less clearly, 2) when it is of a “scientific and. . .general character,” not merely “human exertion” as harnessed natural force” but “exertion as a subject. . as an activity regulating all the forces of nature” . “Really free working,” therefore is modeled on the immaterial labor of artistic work and composition, in its “damned seriouness” and intensity, unlike that of a utopian model. A subjective attitude toward work, therefore, might be considered more foundational than the “objective” relations of commodity fetishism and exploitation. [The latter term, while it may be ordinarily considered now to be a “fundamental” Marxist concept, turns out to have its own linguistic secondariness associated with it, as Marx in discussing surplus value once apologizes for borrowing the term exploitation from the French, since his native language did not seem to have a counterpart for it.]
The work of looking for work: happiness from Adam to Will Smith
I want to conclude by reflecting on a recent film which seems to me to puzzle out and exemplify some of the oxymoronic take of my title, its juxtaposition of the objective with the subjective, and to consider how work attitude might be problematized in a contemporary popular context, Will Smith’s recent film, The Pursuit of Happyness. The movie strikes a topical note in the current era of financial meltdown, and focusing, against the feel-good needs of a commercial audience, on the feel-bad subject of trying to find work. Its critical if not its popular and box-office reception would be even more mixed and problematic today than when it came out in 2006, for the expected national consumer mood now would more likely valorize escapist entertainment, rather than the painful and protracted job hunt which constitutes almost all of the film’s running time. It probably manages to miss most of its potential target audiences.
It is difficult to imagine how The Pursuit of Happyness could have been pitched to producers on its own terms, rather than merely as a star vehicle. The latter served it as well as could be expected, producing good box office at first, and an Academy nomination for Smith’s superb acting as the real-life Chris Gardner, the African-American who fought enormous odds to rise into the financial investment world and to be hired by a prestigious investment firm. The poignance of the film, magnified by the real life casting of Smith’s own son as his young son in the film, ostensibly carries the grimmer aspect of its rags-to-riches narrative. The story follows the lead’s rocky marriage, as his struggling wife has pegged him already as a failure and then abandons him with their five year old son to go elsewhere on her own to get away from a dead-end job. Gardner has desperately tried making a living by selling a few pieces of medical equipment he’s bought, bone density scanners, finding them however overpriced, having to repair one on his own, having another stolen. Admiring the sports car of a well-dressed man who tells him he’s a stockbroker, Gardner asks him if the job requires a college degree, and is told it requires only skill with numbers and people. Through a variety of ploys and deceptions, Gardner manages to land an unpaid internship at a high power firm that will select only one of the competing interns for a position, creating a new dilemma for his impoverishment. As his troubles mount and he becomes painfully homeless, every tiny step of the way struggling as if climbing through mud, in one excruciating scene he resorts to sneaking into a subway restroom with his son to sleep overnight, the everyday minute to minute crises of of single-parenthood multiplied geometrically by the abject terror of being caught, whether in the sleeping arrangement, at the investment firm, or with a kindly executive he befriends, and to whom he eventually reveals his brilliant aptitude by solving the man’s Rubik’s cube puzzle on a car ride. While luck and pluck, as is traditional for American daydreams tales, combine, nevertheless the overall effect, because of the film’s heightening of every painful affect, is rather one of despair and to the infinite ways in which it may be made impossible to make it out of one’s conditions.
In the complicated matter of affect, the film might well have been pitched as Horatio Alger meets Marx. Its writer Steven Conrad is one of the few screenwriters with a propensity for focusing entirely on work and the workplace; hen is now completing a new film entirely about an escalating rivalry among store managers, The Promotion, starring John C. Reilly. But the portrayal of labor in The Pursuit of Happyness is unusual, since the real labor of the film is the work of trying to get work, against enormous and concatenating obstacles. While some critics of the film found its happy ending either actually “happy,” if they liked the film, or cloyingly happy and predictable, if they didn’t like it, a few shrewder critics, such as Stephanie Zacharek of salon.com, noted something far more interesting about the film, even regarding its happy ending as “inconsequential” in comparison to the weight of the rest of the film, its portrayal of the “intangibles” and moment by moment humiliations of poverty and homelessness. In the current economic downturn, moreover, the film’s focus on the work of looking for work might make it largely unbearable for viewing. The final picture of the company Gardner will work for is hardly idealized, moreover, with some possibly ironic visuals. Moreover, in the context of the particular unhappy historical ending of what it has come to signify to be employed in the financial investment world, the new meaning of the ending is downright creepy. Will Smith’s looking for work becomes an allegory for work itself, the sacrifice of tranquillity that Adam Smith assumed to be at the heart of labor, but which Marx identified as a historically specific affect of capital. If looking for work is as alienating as work itself, we are no longer in the realm of Marx’ “really free working,” when in the same passage he accuses Adam Smith of not understanding the “liberating” quality of overcoming obstacles in creative work. There are, however, obstacles and there are obstacles. The movie makes quite clear that an unpaid internship, as Gardner and his predatory prep school competitors are fortunate to enjoy, is a condition only available to those who have already attained comfortable wealth, automatically excluding someone who must work merely to survive, but even less possible for someone as destitute as Will Smith’s character.
The movie marks its specifically African-American and even lightly ironic retelling of the story of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps by its deliberate misspelling of “happiness.” Specifically, it rewrites ironically the patriotic rhetorical flag of Jefferson’s declaration of the right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American Dream simply cannot be told with the same conventional affect that the phrase has become in the white patriotic honorific. Appearing on the one hand as a mural’s misspelling at the son’s day care center, a naive and childlike accusation of our country’s flawed ideal, the misspelling also historically connects the present to a noted New England preacher and minuteman of the Revolutionary War, Lemuel Haynes, the son of a white mother and an African American father. After the Revolution Haynes wrote and spoke extensively against slavery, arguing by an analogy of affect: that the thwarted feelings of liberation of the colonies were exactly like those of slaves toward America. It was Haynes who in one treatise misspelled happiness with a “y,” reminding us of the continual need to respell and reconfigure our master terms.
While we might maintain a desire to see the film as heroic, transferring the obstacles of work, or “really free working,” from work itself to the search for work hardly accomplishes a heroicization of this second-order labor. Rather, through the film’s exaggerated focus on the painful affect of the everyday moment, the transfer produces an almost uncanny feeling of an ever-receding goal. It is as if one were to experience an enormous series of monumental personal sacrifices eventually followed by a new definition of a pinnacle of success–to be rewarded by being granted the opportunity to fill out a job application form. That feeling parallels the narrative-political structure of the film. In this newest historical form of alienation, we experience the literal form of a Freudian nightmare rather than an American dream almost within reach. The feeling is that of an infinite regress that in our historical moment becomes all too real.