A belated, but no less sincere, thanks to the “Made by History” team at the Washington Post for giving me some room to write about the fallout from Trump’s criticism of Admiral William McRaven and what it reveals about public rituals of expressing gratitude for the troops. Trump’s comments were characteristically loutish. Hardly news. My interest is in the scramble they provoked for everyone else to say their own “thank you”s to the troops.
My article is available here.
Imperial Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy and American Popular Culture Since 9/11, a smart new anthology edited by Scott Laderman and Tim Gruenewald, includes my chapter, “Imperial Cry Faces: Women Lamenting the War on Terror.”
In it, I explore the trope of the crying female agent of state power in popular culture depictions of contemporary American warfare, and map the currents of gender, sadness, and imperial violence embodied by characters like Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Rather than analyzing the representations of these frail female warriors, I instead consider the political complexities of their crying in context. Ultimately, I demonstrate that this type of lamentation, which might read as a critique of American militarism, serves actually to sustain it.
I’m very happy to be presenting with Wendy Kozol at this year’s meeting of the American Studies Association. Our paper, “An Asymptotic Approach to Visualizing War,” reflects on The Day Nobody Died, a project by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, to propose a radical reconsideration of the politics of spectatorship, representation, and indexicality in conditions of saturation violence.
We’re presenting as part of a panel that we organized, entitled “Secrecy, Transparency, and Power: Visual Methodologies for States of Emergency,” which includes Keith Feldman, Anjali Nath, and Carrie Rentschler.
… To say this is not to make a passive-aggressive complaint about mine (it is summer, after all). Rather, to say this is to query the nature of the experience being conjured when people say “I love my job.”
Miya Tokumitsu offers a brilliant takedown of the “do what you love” mantra that seems to define the emotional imperative of neoliberal capitalism, particularly for creatives and knowledge-workers. The problem with this formulation, she writes, is that it begets “the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.” The do-what-you-love model banishes menial-seeming work to the realm of the unloveable, taking certain types of workers along with it and compounding their chronic undervaluation.
Clearly, unequivocally, academics do not suffer in this way, even as we are carried along by the same current. For those of us, like academics, who ‘get’ to do work that we (are expected to) love, devaluation takes place at the intersection of the two economies –material and affective — in which we labor. Even as the kind of work that we do is idealized as culturally meaningful and personally fulfilling and hence infused with affective worth, our actual compensation often lags. For academics, traffic in the currency of love is especially vexed, because so much of our labor is free, or virtually free (Exhibit A: your last royalties check). Loving what you do becomes compensation for this, and also for being regarded with derision in an anti-intellectual culture, for the ambivalence of our students, for the bureaucratic insults of the neoliberal university. For all these reasons, I think Marc Bousquet’s “We Work” should be first-day-of-Ph.D-program required reading for everyone.
However, I want to ask a slightly different set of questions, about the actual dynamic that a person might be referring to when she claims to love her academic job. But first, a quick detour through postcolonial theory. In “In Terror, In Love, Out of Time,” Asma Abbas reflects on the ways that love becomes a vector for fear because it attaches us to things that might become objects of terrorism or violence, as the most devastating forms of either target our beloved objects. Obviously, I’m writing about a radically different context, but I think Abbas’s work is helpful as a reminder of how loving something exposes us to various kinds of predations. (Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love might also be useful here.) Loving one’s job — or one’s anything, really — too much is dangerous because it leaves us vulnerable to extrinsic and intrinsic forces.
To love something is to create a soft target for another entity that seeks to do you harm. It is also to open yourself up to an internal undoing. This is because love, fundamentally, is intersubjective. It necessarily involves another being, some kind of interaction, even if that interaction is only imaginary or wished-for, and that interaction rewrites us, for better or worse.
But if one loves her job, who or what is the object of the feeling? To what, precisely, is this affection being directed? What is the implied or imagined object when one expresses her love for an academic job? One’s students? The act of teaching? Colleagues? One’s institution? Its administration? The pursuit of knowledge? Some vague notion of the academic enterprise? How the work makes you feel? The attachment to each of these objects brings its own kinds of risks, some perhaps more readily apparent than others. For example, love for one’s colleagues risks mystifying our shared context of labor and the competition (financial and otherwise) that it fosters or rewards, and even the most well-intentioned or benevolent of institutions are mechanisms of subject-formation that operate as easily by consent as coercion.
But I think the most dangerous might be the love of how the work makes you feel. In any of the other instances, it is possible — if logistically difficult — to detach. We can attempt to change jobs, renegotiate our positions, coast on tenure, invest less in teaching, etc. But to disconnect from a feeling is far more difficult. Even as loving one’s job with this kind of meta-feeling might increase, at least temporarily, the amount or intensity of the pleasure we can derive from our work, it opens us up to new kinds of exploitations and injuries. We work all the time to chase, restore, or preserve that feeling, toggling between frustration when we cannot access it and greed for more when we can.
The danger of loving one’s work becomes most acute in the breach. Personally, the the loss of love for my work often functions paradoxically to make me want to work more, as I am always certain that the next project, or the next, or the next will be the one to reinvigorate it. So I am perpetually overcommitted and at least a little worn out or disenchanted, but still saying “yes” because some part of me reasons that working more will make me love working more.
And to the extent that I’m not alone in this pattern (and my anecdotal evidence suggests that I am not), this matters because it shows how love, and the pursuit of it, works to serve the institution’s best interest. In the moments when we see or experience our work as something less than loveable, the illusion threatens to break, to reveal work for what it is, and all it ever was: work. And theoretically, that revelation should make us want to work less, to take some time off for not-work. But instead, reverses that dynamic and draws us back in more deeply, encourages us to work harder despite our circumstances being unchanged. Of course, when we love another person, there are often very good reasons to resist the temptation to walk when they seem unloveable. But this is not that.
Just as we can be good, or kind, to people that we do not love, I want to find an affective orientation to my work that enables me to do it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and well without ever loving it again.
Just yesterday, I was teaching, albeit somewhat elliptically, about the value of of images that provide a clearer view of others’ suffering than that which Western newsmedia usually affords. In the context of my objectives for the class (like illuminating differential allocations of visibility and attention to certain kinds of suffering), this approach made sense. But even this fuller truth is ultimately partial, perhaps even damaging, if it is all we can see.
As it happens, just a few days before I was teaching about the importance of seeing suffering, Wendy Kozol and I published a new piece in Reading the Pictures about the importance of images that expressly do not show suffering, even (or especially) in places where it is also endemic. Specifically, we wrote about the urgency of looking at Everyday Middle East in the midst of a news cycle otherwise dominated by chemical attacks in Syria, civilian casualties in Yemen, and murderous repression of protest in Gaza. Against the photojournalistic fascination with images of desperation, violence, and catastrophe, the photographs featured in Everyday Middle East, like this one by Tanya Habjouqa , insistently visualize the Middle East as place where life is valued, nurtured, and sustained rather than taken, ended, or degraded.