i wonder what it’s like to love your job …

… 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.