Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics

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Citation: Kathi Weeks (2007) Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics. Ephemera 7(1) (RSS)


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), labor (RSS), immaterial labor (RSS), theory (RSS), feminism (RSS), feminist theory (RSS), white collar (RSS), pink collar (RSS), domestic labor (RSS), marxist theory (RSS), alienation (RSS), estrangement (RSS)


In this paper, Kathin Weeks links recent discussions of immaterial labor with two traditions in feminist scholarship:

  • socialist feminism's work on reproductive labor's addition to "Marxist analysis of productive labor"
  • Hochschild's research on "pink collar" service workers, and what it adds to the work of C.W. Mills

Weeks offers a critique of these approaches and suggests an alternative. Both approaches imagine parts of life that exist outside of capitalism, but in post-fordism, there is no "outside." There is no "reproductive sphere separate from capitalist production" (as socialist feminists stand from) or a "model of the self prior to its estrangement" (that Hochschild works from). Weeks argue that this is untenable and promises an alternative approach, a "life/work" binary based in what people want rather than who they are.

Socialist Feminism and the Exploitation of Domestic Labor

In this section, Weeks outlines the "domestic labor debates" by socialist feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. These feminists focused on expanding the idea of work to include domestic work, something that Weeks claims they achieved. As Weeks describes it, "over time the arguments came to hinge on the question of whether domestic labor was best conceived as internal or external to capitalist production proper"

  • Domestic labor debates (Malos 1995)[1]. Weeks argues that this debate focused on the material forms of work in homes rather than "affective forms of domestic labor."
  • Standpoint Theory: (Harding 2004)[2]. Weeks claims that this conversation focused more on caring labor, and saw "reproduction, again typically equated with domestic space, is the site from which feminist political subjects might be constituted and alternative visions imagined" (237). Weeks argues that this approach tended to adopt the "same logic of separate spheres that dominated the domestic labor debates, and weakened by "gender dualism" (238).
  • Systems Theory: (Sargent 1981)[3]. (Weeks doesn't go far into this)

Under post-Fordist production, Weeks argues, the distinction between social life and labor, between domestic life and production, no longer hold, if it ever did, since social life is part of the economy. Furthermore, the practices and standpoints of social and domestic life are now a core part of service and creative sector work. There is no "inside" or "outside." Furthermore, it is now clearer that gender binaries also no longer apply.

Mills and Hochschild: White Collar and Emotional Labor

Some of the limitations of the socialist feminist traditions are addressed by Mills and Hochschild's sociological work on post-industrial labor.

In White Collar[4], Mills identifies a shift to post-industrial labor, where white collar work "involves putting subjectivity to work in jobs that are less about manipulating things and more about handling people and symbols," a "personality market" personal details are part of exchange (239).

Weeks argues that Hoschchild extends this analysis further in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983). Hochschild argues that when we do what Mills calls selling our personality, we're putting in emotional labor to do the selling (240). The act of managing one's emotions, formerly a private act, is now part of work. Secondly, Hoschchild argues that emotional labor is about more than seeming to be, but is also about coming to be-- what Weeks calls "the production of subjectivity" (241). An example of this might be when people need to move beyond seeming to love the job to "actually trying to love it" (Hochschild 6, qtd in Weeks 241).

The Estrangement of Immaterial Labor

Weeks argues that both Mills and Hochschild take the Marxist approach of describing white collar and affective labor as "estranged" (alienating) labor, with people estranged from the person they are performing in their work(Hochschild), and estranged from each other (Mills). Weeks observes that Hochschild was especially concerned with ways that affective labor brought the performed person "into the temporalities, subjectivities, and socialities of non-work" (243). i Weeks argues that both Mills and Hochschild's arguments are subject to the same limitations as the Marxist approach: "a tethering of the critique to a nostalgic ideal of pre-industrial artisanal work and to an essential ontology of labor" (243). Mills contrasts white collar work with an ideal of craftsmanship. Hochschild differentiates between the private and public realm, even while also calling into question the distinction of the private real from the public market. Weeks also explores the self-awareness of both writers on the limitations of this strategy.

Life, Work, and the Logics of Immanent Critique

Weeks argues that these critiques "prove limited as guides for future interventions" because of their reliance on "some kind of spatial or ontological position of exteriority" (245). Weeks asks "how to develop a politics in the absence of an outside in which to stand" (later quoting [5]) (245). Quoting Hardt and Negri, Weeks argues that "once 'social life itself becomes a productive machine,'[6] the terms of that distinction and its conflicts must be made more complex than once imagined" (246).

Weeks explores the possibility of replacing the binary of reproduction/production with "the distinction between life and work." (246).

  • life is "more capacious" than reproduction
  • the idea of life doesn't make assumptions about household or family
  • "who one becomes at work and in life are mutually constitutive" -- "there is no position of exteriority... work is clearly part of life and life part of work" (246)

Weeks asks if there might be a "liberatory project" of life in conflict with work might be one that "strives towards relations of equality and autonomy rather than hierarchy and command" (247). Weeks also suggests that the work/life boundary might be usefully used to create new answers to the unwaged household labor debate, a debate that has become less clear as the issue of domestic labor is less visible[7].

The work/life boundary also risks relying on an "outside." "how might one formulate a critical assessment of what of what we are becoming in and through work without depending on a given model of what we truly are," Weeks asks (247). One possibility is to make claims about "a potential self" -- "subjectivites that might come to be... The self at work could thus be judged in relation to a self that one might wish to become" (248), an approach similar to that of Wendy Brown, who replaces "I am" with "I want this for us" [8].

Theoretical and practical relevance:

In this paper, Weeks offers an analysis of the standpoints of critique in research on domestic labor and white/pink collar work. She argues for using a "life/work" binary rather than private/public or reproductive/productive binaries.

Notable References

  1. Malos, E. (ed.) (1995) The Politics of Housework, Revised Edition. Cheltenham: New Clarion Press.
  2. Harding, S. (ed.) (2004) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge.
  3. Sargent, L. (ed.) (1981) Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. Boston: South End Press
  4. Mills, C. W., & Collar, W. (1951). The American Middle Classes. New York.
  5. Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2000) Empire. Boston: Harvard University Press.
  6. Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2004) Multitude. New York: Penguin.
  7. Young, B. (2001) ‘Globalization and Gender: A European Perspective’, in R.M. Kelly, J.H. Bayes, M.W. Hawkesworth and B. Young (eds.) Gender, Globalization, and Democratization. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 27-47.
  8. Brown, W. (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.