Readers
Work
9 essays
Compiled by e-flux journal editors

In the first essay of this reader, Françoise Vergès writes of the invisible workers tasked every day with “opening the city.” Now, even as our cities are closed under lockdown, sanitation, transportation, and care workers continue to labor in public, under even more precarious conditions. Food delivery and call center customer service work are both designated “essential,” alongside crucial medical and public safety work, even as the latter structures are privatized and grossly underfunded, paid partially with cheers and claps. The adjudication of essentiality follows mandates to maximally protect economic growth and accumulation, rather than lives. Meanwhile, those who can work from home are obliged to keep production, immaterial or otherwise, on track. Think pieces and corporate memorandums wax normalcy as weekends and holidays blur away due to the destabilization of Post-Fordist time. The legitimizing demands of the work ethic loom large on either side of shuttered doors. Lastly, cultural workers, freelancers, those without contracts, who were already designated flexible, precarious, or expendable, are confined without financial protections or guarantees of medical care or shelter. Taken together, paradigms of labor and parliamentary sovereignty face new legitimacy crises. Simultaneously, an opening has also emerged for some: the possibility for work and projects to become self-determined, to become work that keeps us interested and emerges from our interests. It will take active imagining and collective purposefulness to liberate this autonomously managed work and creation from today's crisis economics and insert it into new collective horizons. Thus, today’s attempts to organize mutual aid and imagine novel forms of virtual solidarity instigated by physical isolation present a crucial opportunity for studying the contours of being together outside the dimensions of work, at least work that we haven’t chosen ourselves.

The following essays from the e-flux journal archives may be a good place to begin.

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Françoise Vergès
Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender
Originally published in May 2019

In this symbolic and material economy, black and brown women’s lives are made precarious and vulnerable, but their fabricated superfluity goes hand in hand with their necessary existence and presence. They are allowed into private homes and workplaces. But other members of superfluous communities—such as the families and neighbors of these workers—must stay behind the gates, unless they are willing to risk being killed by state police violence and other forms of the militarization of green and public spaces for the sake of the wealthy. For these workers, the special permit to enter is based both on the need for their work and on their invisibility. Women of color enter the gates of the city, of its controlled buildings, but they must do it as phantoms. Racialized women may circulate in the city, but only as an erased presence.

Keti Chukhrov
Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality
Originally published in November 2010

In his programmatic work A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno describes a number of signs of post-Fordist capitalism that mark radical changes in the First-World production system’s relation to labor over the past forty years. Most importantly, he states that post-Fordism has annulled or complicated the traditional Marxist correlation between the worker’s labor time and the degree of his or her exploitation. As labor is dematerialized and the division of labor in industrial production erodes, capital not only occupies the working hours during which products or goods (and its surplus value) are produced; it absorbs all of the worker’s time, as well as his or her existence, thoughts, and creative desires. Products or goods are produced not to be consumed, to be swallowed directly, but as a set of new modes of communication, knowledge, languages, or even worlds.

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
Debt and Study
Originally published in March 2010

They say we have too much debt. We need better credit, more credit, less spending. They offer us credit repair, credit counseling, microcredit, personal financial planning. They promise to match credit and debt again, debt and credit. But our debts stay bad. We keep buying another song, another round. It is not credit that we seek, nor even debt, but bad debt—which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi
The Coming Global Civil War: Is There Any Way Out?
Originally published in January 2016

Are we heading into the Third World War? Yes and no: war has been with us for the past fifteen years, it promises to be with us for a long time, and it threatens to destroy the last remnants of modern civilization. The exacerbation of xenophobia across the West and the rise of nationalism in countries like France are causes and effects of a looming war whose sources lie in the past two hundred years of colonial impoverishment and humiliation of the majority of the world population, not to mention neoliberal competition and the privatization of everything—including war itself.

Simone White
or, on being the other woman
Originally published in June 2018
Marion von Osten
Irene ist Viele! Or What We Call “Productive” Forces
Originally published in September 2009

An extensive 2004 study undertaken by the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics (BFS) found that, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, of nearly fifteen billion annual work hours, eight billion went unpaid. Two-thirds of that free labor was performed by women, while women in the wage-labor sector were paid on average 18 percent less than men. The study shows that the “invisible hand of the market,” with its celebrated promise of economic equality, fails when it comes to social, cultural, and life-sustaining activities; furthermore, it appears that the “free market” has something against women. If, on top of this, the current form of capitalism is characterized by its extension of the logic of commodity production into the social realm (although, according to its classical self-conception, the capitalist economy actually claims to exclude the interpersonal realm), this means that not only wages and social services are reduced and cut, but above all that the reproductive reserves are plundered. According to many contemporary theorists, what was considered in the Fordist system to be external to the concerns of the economy—communication, personalized services, social relationships, lifestyle, subjectivity—today establishes the conditions for the generation of wealth. Social and cultural competences and processes—the most varied forms of knowledge production and dissemination—are central to what Antonella Corsani calls “cognitive” capitalism.

Martha Rosler
The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation
Originally published in March 2012

A discussion of the struggles, exoduses, and reappropria­tions of cognitive labor, especially in the field of visual art, and especially when taken as the leading edge of the “creative class,” while critically important, is trumped by the widespread, even worldwide, public demon­strations and occupations of the past year, this year, and maybe the next. I would like to revisit the creative-class thesis I have explored here in a recent series of essays in order to frame my remarks in light of these occupations, and to make a few observations about the relationship between artists, the positioning of the creative class, and the Occupy movement.

Paolo Virno
Déjà Vu and the End of History
Originally published in February 2015

When psychiatrists refer to déjà vu, they do not mean a known event of the past playing out again, accompanied by either euphoric amazement or bored condescension. Rather, here we have an only apparent repetition, one that is entirely illusory. We believe that we have already experienced (or seen, heard, done, etc.) something that is, in fact, happening for the first time at this very moment. We mistake the current experience for the very faithful copy of an original that never really existed. We believe that we are recognizing something of which we are only now cognizant. As such, we could also describe déjà vu in terms of “false recognition.”

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
Imagine Going on Strike: Museum Workers and Historians
Originally published in November 2019

Imagine experts in the world of art admitting that the entire project of artistic salvation to which they pledged allegiance is insane and that it could not have existed without exercising various forms of violence, attributing spectacular prices to pieces that should not have been acquired in the first place. Imagine that all those experts recognize that the knowledge and skills to create objects the museum violently rendered rare and valuable are not extinct. For these objects to preserve their market value, those people who inherited the knowledge and skills to continue to create them had to be denied the time and conditions to engage in building their world. Imagine museum directors and chief curators taken by a belated awakening—similar to the one that is sometimes experienced by soldiers—on the meaning of the violence they exercise under the guise of the benign and admitting the extent to which their profession is constitutive of differential violence.

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