Type
Essay
Category
Identity
Work

I would prefer not to

When my father, Laurie, retired from his job as a high school science and IT teacher, he’d been a teacher for about thirty-five years. He was, I think, a good teacher. ‘I wasn’t super teacher,’ he told me, ‘I wasn’t Eddy Woo, but my students did well and sometimes they bought me a beer years later, I was an ok teacher.’ I liked the fact that he was a schoolteacher, liked that he chose to work at a public school down the road, because his values were my values. But I don’t think I thought about it all that much. Teacher was one of the few jobs that had a clear outline for a child. You knew that teachers existed, you could see, every day, what they did. Not like an acquisitions partner at a law firm. Or a human resources manager. The job seemed stressful from my child’s perspective, and I knew that it never really paid enough to support the whole family, but it was decent enough, a profession and a vocation, and not in any way degrading.

Though he’d had a life before teaching and came to it late, Laurie told me once or twice when I was growing up that he thought teaching was his vocation. He liked students. Periods of job satisfaction came at times when he and his colleagues were given space and freedom to design their own curricula and to improvise as necessary in the classroom. He liked working at a working-class school where, for a long time, the parents did not obsess about their children’s test scores the way they do at schools in more affluent areas. He did not like the gradual shift in management strategies that put terms like ‘accountability’, ‘auditing’, ‘outcomes’, and ‘skills-based learning’ at the forefront of the educational project, before the more stalwart ideas like knowledge, language acquisition, socialisation and student welfare. ‘In my last year of teaching,’ Laurie said, ‘you would have to write on the board “Our learning intention today is…” and underneath you would write “And this will be demonstrated if you can”…’ He went on. ‘In my 35 years of teaching, it went from having a good idea of the lesson plan you were going to deliver, and then you would tailor the lesson to what was going on in the classroom, to coming in and being virtually a robot.’

He, my father, is one of the possibly millions?—don’t quote me—of Boomers who went to university because Whitlam made it free; and who entered for the first time in their genealogical history the mobile middle classes through professionalised workplaces like schools. Around half of my teachers from K-12 were members of this sub-generation. All were communists. At least a couple of them were. The rest were social democrats. And they believed, or so it seemed, that education was transformative rather than simply accreditive. They believed that certain worlds opened themselves up to you in the classroom, worlds you had never imagined, because that had been their own experience of education. They were not all great at teaching, and some of them were at least passively terrible. But they had their virtues, like wild hair, combi vans. Some of them smoked cigarettes long after that habit was socially tolerated.

The nineties and early aughts was a strange time to grow up. I’m only now starting to recognise the effects of that period—post Cold-War, the War on Terror, the birth of the technocrat, the professionalisation of the Left, the emergence of a mental health crisis, and the rapid undoing of the institutions left behind by the socialists and social democrats—on the structure of my thoughts and my life. It was the end of history, apparently: the war of civilisations had been settled, and the winner was Paris Hilton’s hair extensions. The effect on me, people my age, if I can speak appallingly generally, was that regardless of our political orientations or life experiences, our psyches internalised the faulty message of liberal capitalism, which was that our personal futures could be steered along a safe and predictable course if we worked hard, cultivated our talents, and demonstrated our worth via the well-trodden terrain of ‘achievement’. Then the world would be ours for the taking. On some level, when I compare my experience to my parents’, I have benefited from an almost extreme level of self-actualisation: thanks to my educational opportunities and enhanced consumer choices vis a vis the exploitation of labour in the developing world, I am free to coherently define my identity around an expression of my cultural desires. On the other hand, what are the markers of an elite culture to which I blunderingly attached my adolescent desires without dental care, a car, insurance of any kind? It’s a pantomime, and, I believe a form of poverty as yet under-examined. This period of neoliberalism imprinted itself on the psyche of the developing brains of my generation.

I didn’t live through this period with any awareness of the larger shape of what was happening then—my political comprehension then was mostly imported from another era, the Cold-War era maybe, which did not, I now see, offer the most relevant insights. It is normal to borrow dead language from another epoch while we wait for better, more apt terms to emerge. Such as bosses are bad, which remains true, not because of any moral quality of any individual boss, but because their role as boss is to extract as much and as high-quality labour as they can for the lowest possible wage. But what about now that I am my own boss? Or, when my bosses are also my colleagues, who are themselves being rigorously bossed, by bosses who are bossed by their bosses, a protracted labour chain descending right into the bowels of hell? Thanks to this unholy shackle, much of the time, I feel that I am a bad boss (of myself) and a bad worker (for myself) and a not-particularly effective human being for failing to draw appropriate boundaries between the various roles I play in the melodrama of my workplace, which remains largely within the confines of my bedroom.

Byung-Chul Han’s term ‘achievement society’ strikes me as a useful term to help understand this historical form. The term updates and extends Michel Foucault’s concept of disciplinary society. In a 2015 essay, ‘Beyond Disciplinary Society’, Han observes that:

Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories […] has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer ‘obedience-subjects’ but ‘achievement-subjects.’ They are entrepreneurs of themselves.’

In Psychopolitics, Han argues that Foucault’s thought-framework failed to examine the psychic territory that neoliberalism was beginning to colonise in the late seventies, focusing as he did too much on the corporal body. Han writes that the body ‘no longer represents a central force of production, as it formerly did in biopolitical, disciplinary society. Now, productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes.’ I disagree with Han on this point: Foucault’s his idea of disciplinary society does not appear to delineate body from mind—and why should it? Anyone who has experienced burnout could be left with no doubts about the physicality of psyche. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault defines disciplinary society as distinct from the sovereign society that preceded it as through the hyper-visibility of the disciplinary subject. ‘Disciplinary power,’ he writes, ‘is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility.’ Unlike the hyper-visible sovereigns who acted out random and shocking acts of violence against their subjects (most famously, public executions and tortures) to maintain social control, in discipline, ‘it is the subjects who have to be seen.’ The body that is ‘seen’ need not be, as Han suggests, explicitly corporal—in fact, as Foucault writes, ‘the examination is the technique by which power […] holds them in a mechanism of objectification. […] The examination is, as it were, the ceremony of this objectification.’ (The ceremony of objectification!) The examination also takes the form of the report, the assessment, the review. It is the excessive documentation most of us have had to become adept at managing, as well as self-administering. As I write this, I am also refreshing my email for news of a residency I applied for and long to be accepted to. Also due in my inbox is a grant outcome, a rejection from a prestigious British literary magazine, and edits from an editor I have never worked with before on an essay I’m not especially proud of. I can tell you, but won’t, how many calories, minerals and proteins I have consumed since waking, what my likely hormonal constitution is re: my menstrual cycle, how many steps I’ve walked—statistics that tell me some way whether or not I am optimising my time and body. In turn, I labour on reviewing creative work sent to me by students; I offer them ‘reports’ and reviews that may or may not partake in the ceremony of their objectification. Without much (or any) explicit external inducement, docile body that I am, I have made it my job to be examined and assessed—I can hardly complain when I am found wanting. And I have made it my lifestyle to pomodoro my way through the day, log my steps, and compose objectively unachievable lists of goals (among them is, of course, the goal of liberating myself from endless examination)—I can hardly complain when I feel tired and vulnerable. Nobody coerced me. Yet, in typical millennial fashion, I blame society. Individual pathology, or collective grievance? You know the answer.

Likewise, when Han says that ‘immaterial and non-physical forms of production are what determine the course of capitalism,’ and that ‘what gets produced are not material objects, but immaterial ones – for instance, information and programs,’ I can’t help but question where these immaterial objects are supposed to come from. Surely Han is not suggesting that information is produced immaterially? The suggestion reminds me of the ways in which artwork has, for centuries, been attributed an immaterial origin as a way of circumventing the corporeal needs of its makers. As Virginia Woolf wrote almost a century ago, works of art are not ‘spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures,’ but are rather ‘the works of suffering human beings, and are attached grossly to material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.’ No, it is bodies deprived of eight-hour sleeps and adequate sunlight and satisfying social encounters that produce the novel informational products for the marketplace. My low back pain and RSI may be a boutique complaint, but the fact remains that these injuries were sustained labouring too many hours in a row for too many years on my laptop.

Despite my defence of Foucault against Han, his ‘achievement society’ rings true, and requires less work than Foucault, I think, for a person to instinctively ‘get’. (For starters, you don’t have to read Foucault.) Instead of being characterised by prohibitions and taboos, writes Han, ‘achievement society’ is characterised not by ‘should’, but rather by ‘could’, and ‘can’; it is the sensibility of Just do it. In this context, self-optimisation through education, exercise, work—discipline, in other words—are technologies by which the individual can. Do what? Achieve. In a space where anything is supposedly possible, Han says, the inability or unwillingness to overachieve is a risk factor for auto-aggression, ie, depression. I would argue that the willingness to achieve at any cost is just another form of auto-aggression.

 

In those transition years, the years between somewhat ordinary liberal capitalism and the flourishing of turbo-neoliberalism, when I was still at school, the options before me might be understood as the old and the new ones. On the one hand, it seemed that if you cared about things like novels or geography you could one day become something like a schoolteacher, and that would be a good job. You had evidence that teaching existed and you could see what it entailed. On the other hand, the structure of our education was starting to be geared towards credentialism and professionalisation. And teaching was not yet a highly credentialed job (it has since become one). Even if our parents and teachers were against that culture, against neoliberalism, it infiltrated our consciousness by osmosis; by simply being in that moment in time, we came to understand that our mobility—whatever that meant—was the key to living a life. By which I mean a life that would matter. A life that would count. We were not wrong to think this—this was exactly what the neoliberal framework wanted us to believe, what it encouraged with its trail of crumbs into the dark forest of overachievement. Suddenly, and probably informed by very real pecuniary anxiety, every parent wanted their child to be a lawyer, or a doctor; a white-collar professional. As though the sole purpose of education was to enable class mobility. More sinisterly, I sometimes suspect that education can be used as a ‘soft’ way of breaking up intergenerational class solidarity; at its worst, it a form of intellectual gentrification. While my own education enabled me a superficial kind of class mobility, a rich sense that my mind was a mutable and trainable tool, and a deeper grasp of the theoretical dimensions of collective grievances, it is hard to deny that it didn’t also make me a bit of a wanker.

In that period (which is obviously not over, but allow me to use past tense for the drama of it), I now realise, if you were not committed to expanding your economic or social activity, or becoming thinner or stronger, or working harder, or learning more, or winning more, then you were made to feel that you were failing. The problem was that, like capitalism, the trail of crumbs led to nowhere in particular. There was no there there. Failure was in-built. Everyone failed, because there was nothing to win. The only way you could keep ‘achieving’ was to somehow endure the breaking point unbroken; to keep going when your body was exhibiting signs of distress: major depression, bruxism, panic disorder, PTSD, migraines, tendonitis, IBS, unexplained weight gain or loss, addiction, nightmares of the most nightmarish variety. The pathologies are easy to name, because they’re visible, yet the most common symptom has no clinical name, it’s just some grim feeling between cynicism and despair.

And by ‘achieving’ I don’t even necessarily mean winning honours and amazing job titles and perfect relationships that are recognised by the state. I mean like winning a tenancy agreement for a rental property with operational drainage at an affordable price that several hundred other people applied for, or winning a salary big enough and consistent enough to not worry about which bill to prioritise in a pay cycle; or being able to pursue higher learning without entering poverty. That you have to be or at least be supported by a ‘high achiever’ to ‘win’ these things that should probably be available to everyone, especially in countries we are told are very well off, tells us something.

 

In an essay on ‘lean production’ as it relates to the ‘business model’ of education (as yet an unstated mandate in most Australian public schools, though the management techniques are visible), Will Jonson wrote a decade ago that: ‘Occupational stress and its attendant physical and mental breakdowns have always been risks for teachers, but in lean schools, such breakdowns are a management goal.’ There is a point to stressing a workforce, and this applies to industries far and wide: it is by pushing workers to their limits that management can identify the ‘weak links’ in the labour chain (that is human beings who very reasonably cannot cope). The weak links are sent to the glue factory, and the resilient workers—or perhaps more accurately the people who are most capable of compartmentalising their burnout, or who are bound by desperation to eat shit—can stay. But they have to keep working more productively, to find ways to make their own jobs more efficient.

‘My demographic’ may be skewed towards true achievement subjects, outwardly ambitious people with rather utopian ideals, but it is telling that I don’t know many people my age who haven’t suffered at least one work-related breakdown, or unemployment breakdown, or a protracted burnout that carries on for years and years. Some of these people are locked in perennial downward spirals of ill-health—financially dependent on the only jobs they are qualified for, but which make them utterly miserable. This might not be hard data, but it is one reality.

And this is not about ‘my generation’ having been told they were precious jewels who could do or become anything, and then being crushed when they learn that they were after all just like everyone else. Children in Australia are told to get over themselves as soon as they can say the words tall poppy. It’s about neoliberalism having succeeded in taking away the ontological structures that could provide what could be considered a tolerable life. Nobody actually ever said there were no limits to a young person’s life. But they did say, by example, that you could do a general arts or science degree and then after you got fed up of your work as a social worker or draftsman or copywriter, or you found that you were not suited to writing a research thesis, you could always go back and do a Dip Ed. I’m sure that that is still possible, though now it’s a Masters, though now the job is a very different job—and much harder—than it was for my dad’s generation.

By the time Dad retired, he said that he was just so tired. It turned out he needed a quadruple bypass, but that is neither here nor there. He quit five months ahead of schedule. He was driving into work—then a 25km commute from where he and my mother had moved—when he remembered that an audit of a year 12 class he had been assigned was due. In the car, backed up behind traffic, he decided there and then that he simply wouldn’t do it. He quit that day. To which I salute him.

Dad’s job was often stressful and the pay was never enough. During his working life, he saw teaching become less valued by each successive government. He told me that before he started teaching, a teacher’s salary was pinned to the salary of a State backbencher—which makes sense when you consider that while not an ‘achievement’-oriented profession, it is a profession laden with deep and unassailable social responsibilities. As Laurie told me, ‘You have all these kids who you feel you owe something to. They’re dependent on you for possibly their emotional and intellectual wellbeing and in some cases even their future. So it’s a very high stakes job. It may not be a surgeon’s job, but nevertheless it’s a high stakes job. There is a consequence of doing the wrong thing. So that’s very stressful, and it never stops being stressful.’

Being underpaid and overworked, and seeing that you and your students were being objectified by politicians waging ideological wars was enough of a reason to feel grimly. But while teaching was not always a ‘good job’, it was better than a lot of jobs around then, and better than most jobs are now. He—my dad—didn’t actually begin to dread work until the last five years of his career, after he was 60, just as his classroom freedoms—a sense of autonomy and value as a skilled person—were being eroded. Now retired, Dad plays his saxophone and goes on bike rides with a gang of postmenopausal cycle enthusiasts and is building a canoe from wood scraps. I am finding it rather bleak to define as a good job a job that was never adequately valued in the first place. But this job, teacher at a public school circa nineteen ninety-nine, is now what anyone my age would describe as a ‘good job’, and which we are certain might not actually exist anymore.

Good job: allows you to cook dinner for your kids and support an underemployed, overworked partner and take them all on camping trips during the holidays (nb comes with holidays). Good job: doesn’t incur odd health problems; no need to weep miserably at work; need not apply for the same position every term or go on centrelink during the holidays (the way many teachers now must). Good job: job that doesn’t require its workers to be masochists.

I discovered last year, in bed suffering a bout of burnout, that I’m not a masochist. For some time, I thought I was—and I was, awful millennial that I am, very mildly proud of that. I was rewarded for being one in certain areas of my life, and I privately clung to that identity far beyond the term of its usefulness. I discovered through the lesson of acute anhedonia that nothing I did professionally was especially urgent, and that I could simply not do parts of it if I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to be burnt out, not again, not ever, which was a moment of recognising that I’d have to give up some of my ambitions. Giving up trying to be better than I am at many things also meant having to give up the imaginary goodies I would attain when I achieved those vague, untethered goals. If I took myself out of the race, I would not be in the running to win it. The dawning of this realisation was the realisation that the ‘prize’ would most likely be a panic disorder and a new series of exaggerated expectations.

Since I started working less, or at least working without a sense of diligent, puritanical masochism, I’ve finally stopped having the recurring argument my partner and I had all through our relationship from the beginning: him asking me at 10pm to stop working and look at him; me telling him to stop trying to turn me into a little lady of leisure. I like work! I would say. You are extremely stressed all the time! he would reply. Then I would throw a fistful of papers in the air and groan theatrically. I enjoy work (though some of what I consider ‘work’ might rightly be classed as leisure to a lot of people.) But I’ve stopped doing some of the internalised, highly private labour that is a by-product of lean ideology. I’ve stopped engaging with social media so much—which is work, creating content for our Silicon Valley overlords. I no longer bleach my fridge every Saturday (it really doesn’t have to be that clean?). I’ve stopped trying to cook and eat like I am some sort of live-in professional chef for myself (falafels delivered to the apartment are fine any time of day). I am accepting that it’s fine to do some of my paid work at the last minute. I don’t have a good job, and I am an objectively bad boss of myself, so why should I show up so diligently? The quality of the work is, frankly, much the same as it was when I spread it across my whole life. I’ve (almost) stopped trying to control the number of spare light bulbs there are in the bottom kitchen drawer, because the lightbulbs were not assuaging my sense of doom or inadequacy.

During this fuck-my-life phase last year, I reread Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, the Scrivener. Bartleby is widely studied and often ascribed a tragic role in his absolute negativity (he responds to each and every invocation to act with the statement ‘I would prefer not to’ until he is imprisoned, then self-starved to death), yet mired in dank blankets, anxious about the unanswered emails and the bank account, which was draining itself, I saw the character as a kind of hero. What would it be to commit to a negative stance, to refusal to self-objectify? I thought to get the statement tattooed on my right hand, the hand that is supposed to act, but by then I had lost so much work I couldn’t afford it. Still.

‘Just throw in the towel’ is not necessarily a workable solution to the mass burnout situation. Everyone has to find a way to earn money, and work itself can be very satisfying when it uses and expands a person’s capabilities. But I do think that if every single worker in every rich capitalist economy told their bosses that they would be happy to do the labour they had been contracted for but they would prefer not to work past the point of illness or humiliation, and then refused to do that, just refused! And stopped working out so much, and stopped calorie counting, and stopped relentlessly pursuing spiritual and domestic hygiene—in other words, stopped watching themselves being watched, weighed, judged, and found wanting. If that happened all on the same day, I believe that total mayhem would ensue. It would be the finest day on earth.

 

 

Read the rest of Overland 244

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Ellena Savage is an editor at The Lifted Brow, a columnist at Eureka Street, and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Monash University. Her stories and essays have been published and performed widely. She has both been shortlisted for and won various awards.

More by