Endurance and Exhaustion

Precarity is the condition of having to endure despite  the toll. Exhaustion and endurance are the temporal dimensions of precarity. They are also corporeal. 

To avoid abstraction, lets  begin with where I am. I am  sittting at the Bagel shop I deliever for,  typing this as I  wait for another order. I had three hours of  sleep, obligations and applications robbing my  hours from  me.  But,  to  not wake  up,  to not  go to work is not a choice -  to  do so would be to threaten  the conditions of existence.  My  endurance, and exhuastion, is also bodily, my head feels sluggish and heavy  despite the coffee and there is  a new pain in my  neck. And yet,  as a bike delivery boy, I must endure and use this tired aching body. 

It is easy to  criticize myself- this  exhaustion being  the failure not of a system  that demands work of  my body to  survive  but the result of my own managment of my time and my body. I should have been more productive,  I shouldn't have left those applications to the last minute, I should be doing physical therap more regularly for my  neck.
 
I think about a piece my friend  is  writing on self-care, the way in which my body is being treated as a machine- something to be optimized and oiled up,  exhaustion to be treated with a pill.  My relation is one of alienation- my body confronts me as something other than  myself. Yet this relation  is not  one of total estrangement,  its  is more  akin  to  the relation  a  collector has to a valuable object-  something precious to  be cared for. 

Self-care introduces a split in the subject- the  manner in which  the carer  and the caree are seperate.  Lawrence Cohen talks  about this relational aspect of  care, about  how care is premised  on a recognition of the object of care a recognition that is recieved.  He also speaks of  the cunning of this recognition, the manner in which the relation of care is premised on a politics of  recognition- what  bodies  are recognizable as deserving of care , what vulnerability is legible and entails ethical obligations.    

Thinking of the binds of this recogniton, I am drawn to reflect on the relation to self under  an exhausting neoliberal regime of precarity. The bodily faults and physical injury, in the form of exhaustion  and vulnerability,  are read not as a failure of a larger regime but of a personal failure to manage the self. Here, our own precarity, our own  manner in which we fail  to ever be the productive, well  managed machines we are demanded to be is figured as a lack. Yet it is the recognition of this lack which makes the self  legible as an object of care, the  motor which drives the engine of neoliberal self-care .I want  to  "hack" my productivity and get my body "into  shape".  The very terms of self-recogntion upon which the care is premised introduce the  operational categories and bodily politics of the neoliberal subject.  

 

Self-care  as self-discipline.

This contrortion of my body to machanic rhythms and physical technics is structured by my  own concern  forendurance. I want to  survive and therefore I mus work and because I must work I must manage my body in  such a way that it works and make of  myself a working body.  

Parenthetically, I wonder if this sort of relation to the self as  a working body which I here am figuring as a sort of  auto-entreprenueral self-disciplining reallly is fundementally novel  to neoliberalism. Bodies had to be integrated into  the machinary  of production at  the onset of  capitalism. Focualt reminds us of this in the  History of Sexuality as he tries to make sense of biopolitics.   

Yet, in so far as  this integration functions not through dispossession and state  violence but through the sort of self-discipline  that  transforms  the body into a productive,  laboring machine, this is thought of thought of as distinctly "neoliberal". Perhaps this is a problem with Focault's account of the birth of biopolitics, where, as a historian, he periodizes what is actaully a structuring logic of capital. Or perhaps it is our own fault as readers,, who  are so tempted to see  a rejection and new path away from Marx that we overlook  continuity..  

 

There are of course values in attending to what marks the currrent phase of self-discipline as contemporary, the particularities of  neoliberal self-discipline and care. We can think firstly of the restructuring of labor under  neo-liberalism as it moves  from  waged labor to increasingly on-demand payment for particular tasks. This logic certainly infuses my job for which I am "working" right now ,  where my schedule changes week to week, coordinating my body and time with the changing demands of the New York Food delievery logistics through an  algorithm. It also is the case with large tech companies,  most notably the emoloyment methods o netflix, where people have  unlimited vacation time and are hired to complete tasks not work for specific hours. Here,  just as bike delivery, labor increasingly becomes entirely  task  based- not linked to hours worked but tips for delieveries - careers once immune from this logic become broken up  into a series of tasks.  

The particular issue of self-disciplining here is the manner in which this new compensation becomes entirely based on ones own  self-disciplining.  So while capitalism fundementally relies on the creation of scacity and the use of hunger to force people to sell their labor,  the terms  under which labor is sold shift in this neoliberal  moment- to  discrete on-demand tasks. 

The factory is thus no longer the site of labor discipline, one only needs to look at the free  planning and working at home opportunities afforded to tech workers to see that  the disciplining no longer comes from  on high  in the space of work but is entirely mediated through self-discipline.  That is to say, there is no seperation between  the workplace and the home, no  moment in which you should not be thinking of your body as a productive machine.

The novelty of this is not the alienated relation to the self,  which marx noted charactarizing the conditions  of labor,  but  the manner in  which this alienation has entirely become asssumed. No longer needed are  the pedagogical and disciplinary techniques of the supervisor  or manager. We must govern  ourselves  according to this own  logic. Welcome to the soical factory.

And again, the reason we do so is fundementally related to thematics of endurance in the face of precarity.  We do not want to sell our labor so we look for the flexibility offered by the on-demand gig economy. But then, as over-worked  uber drivers and exhausted bike delievery people like myself can  tell you, we become aware  that we must sell our labor to  survive.  And so, we sign  up  for more hours, clock into to the app  that governs our work, let the algorithms  know that our bodies  are available to be part of the machinary of production. 

 

Yet, I want to think of Moten and Harney  here.  That life hasn't become fully disciplined cause hey, we got this body politics surround. Cutting through, within and beyond  the rhythms of neoliberal  on-demand labor is  the undercommons, that fugitive fostering of life that allows a certain  autonomy- autonomy not from dependence  in general but autonomy from  the need to sell our bodies and labor to survive. 

Right now, I can write  this  because in  the bagel shop I work for, there are very few orders during the weekdays. Here,, in my repurposing of time,, we see an older form of worker insubordination- stealing time  from the boss. Yet, in a post-wage gig economy,, this is no longer a possibility  for time management is not the problem of  the boss but of the self. So, the undercommons, the fugtive fostering of the posssibility of life and endurance  becomes the only means of resisting capital's hold on the body.   

As I leave the bagel shop, the baker gestures to me: here,  take this bag  of bagels.. It is a gift, part of an  ongoing and unpayable social  debt, a form of material support. The bagels, once private are  transformed into something outside  the commodity-form, a gift given,  a token of friendship.. I bring the bagels home and they join the coffee and books my friends have stolen or been  "gifted" from their work.

THe free  bagels  and cofffee, the near  endless  supply of books,  these are free and given to the  commons because in our labor we  are  necessarily given access to  the condtions  of existence and it is a possibility to  divert these materials to the common. Not paying as much for food and coffee, reading books taken and not paid for,  my condtions of existence are mediated less by  my  sellng of my body but throuh the mutual social  debt  of the undercommons.  The material  support-- the bagels and coffee-- mean  that I buy less and work  less.    
  

This, I think, is what the poet Manuel Arturo Abreu means when they speak of "precarity devorced from  austerity" and the precarity of  abundance. Our own precarity forces us  to expose ourselves to others and through this exposure we make  gifts that never intend to be returned. THe mutualiziing tendancy that exists among precarious  workers is not a given,  but one possibility.  

Just as likely as the freely  given gift is the sort of narcisstic project of self  improvement that leads to a hording of resources rather than  putting them  in common. I think  here off some of the precarious bike delievery  workers  who work long hours in order to serve the materialism of  a hip  bike aesthetic: the chrome bag, the hexagonal  bluetooth speaker,the addias  sports  wear  and the  track bike that doesn''t come cheap. 

It is  not the desire for these luxuries that I am crititiquing but the means by which they can only be aquired through the selling of labor  which leads to this disciplining of the self.  

Blog posts are supposed to be short and yet this one is longer than I can expect  most readers to endure. So I will end on this one last reflection  on materialism. 

The danger of materialism is the manner in which it has in  making us  think that our desires  can be filled through our alientated labor. We want something nice, so we work a little harder,  take  on more  hours, work more gigs,  discipline the self, endure exhaustion in  service  of aquiring that thing. ANd in doing so we transform ourselves into  laboring machines. Classist arguements always decry  the materialism  of the precariat from  the position that luxury is not something that the precarious deserve until  they secure the more basic conditions  of their existence.    

 

This is not my point.. The desire for certain clothing,  for fancy  electronic equiptment is the material  basis of  a culture, a culture in  which  people recognize each other and have community. The question is not the materialism itself but the means of aquireing the materiaIs.  I will end with this  short annecdote in praise of looting::

Everytime "looting" breaks out there is an undeniably racialized aspect to its  portrayal:: white  people are gettting food and mediciine, surviving and  invoking the state  of  emergency that tempororily  suspends the rules of property in service of the endurance and survival  of whiteness. On the  otherhand black people are shown walking away with "luxury"  or "inessential"" goods, liquor and electronics equiptment. Yet, I think that we must praise looting, highlighting how these two acts against the regime of property serve to put things in common that had previously been enclosed in the commodity form.

In the 70s there  was  a huge blackout in NY. it was the beginning of hiphop but the majority of young black  and latino artists  didn't have  acccess to the electronic equiptment required for this form of expression. But when the blackout hit, there was  a massive looting of  electronic stores and millions of dollars of luxury  electronic equiptment was stolen.  

This equiptment  became the material  basis in the coming months  and years for the dramatic growth of hip-hop.. So, we see in this looting not crass materialism but a sort of radical re-imagining of  the distribution of resources. Of course,  this rise of hiphop has fundementally stayed true to this fugitive origin story, becoming a global  form whose beats quicken the hearts of the undercommons.. so,  loot, put things in commons, create the possibilities of an existence outside the exhaustion of machanic  bodies.

 

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