Emotion work, cognitive capitalism, and digital labor

In The Managed Heart (1983), Arlie Russell Hochschild detailed situations in which smiling, welcoming, and genuinely caring are part of a job. Taking Delta flight attendants as her case study, Hochschild showed how this gendered but increasingly common demand in the marketplace should be understood as emotion work. In Empire and Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri build on Hochschild’s feminist sociology to suggest that what they call “immaterial labor” has become “hegemonic,” which is not to say the numerically dominant mode of labor but rather the mode that now most greatly influences policy. Feminist theorists like Antonella Corsani and, more recently, Nina Power have described this as a rising “feminization of labor,” in which labor in general increasingly approaches the conditions that have always characterized women’s labor under capitalism: unpaid or paid little, interstitial, precarious, and often dependent on “soft” skills (communication, care, emotion work).

Importantly, the feminization of labor depends heavily on networked infrastructure and digital technology (whether call centers in India or freelancers with laptops in San Francisco cafés).* Moreover, as Jodi Dean and others have argued, the internet is one of the key sites where immaterial labor is performed and the feminization of labor is realized, via (variously) “communicative capitalism,” “cognitive capitalism,” or “the information economy.”

The use of technology in humanistic teaching and research (themselves both gendered and increasingly un(der)paid forms of labor!) is thus, in this moment, a pressing feminist issue. If collaborative teams, flextime, telecommuting, and women in the (paid) workplace once seemed like radical labor innovations, today they are capitalism’s preferred modus operandi, often facilitated by digital technologies and often used to shift overhead to the worker, reduce hours and benefits, and make workers as fungible (and thus fireable) as possible. The distinctions between consumption and production, work and leisure become difficult to discern.

When we consider that in some circles, it is an orthodoxy that the use of “big data”** requires the use of piecemeal labor structures like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, it is important to question the labor implications of the use of digital techniques in the humanities. Likewise, it seems illuminating that many of the metaphors currently used to describe digital humanities work allude to masculine-coded manual labor decidedly associated with the old spirit of capitalism: “tools,” “digging into data,” the “DiRT wiki,” the rhetoric of the “hands-on.” Such terms seem tailor-made to suggest that this work is anything but immaterial.

What feminist interventions might be made into current digital labor structures? How much emotion work is involved in digital projects, and to what degree is it recognized or effaced? Can feminist critique help to explain why digital humanities fetishizes “building tools,” whereas the use of pre-existing platforms in virtuoso displays of emotion work (Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, moderating forums, and, in an earlier moment, Livejournal) is not only questioned as work but generally declared not digital and certainly outside the realm of “digital humanities”? In what ways is digital humanities by default complicit with the “new spirit of capitalism,” and how might such defaults be reset?

*As Andrew Ross has argued (in Scholz, ed.), one of those infrastructures is hidden hypertaylorism in the factories that produce the material substrate of the digital world, usually involving women—think Foxconn.

**As I believe Ted Underwood has pointed out, almost no humanities projects involve truly “big” data, so this injunction is largely hypothetical.


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Corsani, A. (Antonella). “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming-Transfeminist of (Post-)Marxism.” Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. SubStance 36, no. 1 (2007): 107–138.

Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.

Grant, Melissa Gira. “Girl Geeks and Boy Kings.” Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Winter 2013. www.dissentmagazine.org/article/girl-geeks-and-boy-kings.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000.

———. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

———. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 20th anniversary ed. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2003.

Horning, Rob. “Facebook and Living Labor.” The New Inquiry. 17 May 2012.

———. “Facebook in the Age of Facebook.” The New Inquiry. 19 April 2012.

Moulier Boutang, Yann. Cognitive Capitalism. Translated by Ed Emery. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011.

Power, Nina. One-dimensional Woman. Winchester, UK ; Washington, USA: 0 [Zero] Books, 2009.

Schwartz, Madeleine. “Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships.” Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Winter 2013. www.dissentmagazine.org/article/opportunity-costs-the-true-price-of-internships.


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