Whenever aspects of my job start to get me down (usually the result of some new, nonsensical bureaucratic procedure introduced without consultation or, apparently, thought, whether at university or national level), I always try to remind myself that at least I have a job that, mostly, allows me to do stuff that I actually enjoy much of the time, and pays me very well for it; I am in a very privileged position in that respect, and I try not to forget it. It’s not that I think I have the perfect job – as I discussed a few months’ back, there are certain attractions about the idea of being compelled to switch to Plan B – but I would admit to slipping, now and again, into the assumption that it is potentially perfect; that were it not for the various things that stop me teaching, researching etc. in exactly the ways I’d prefer, it would be very hard to complain. An excellent essay in the latest edition of Jacobin, ‘In the Name of Love’ by Miya Tokumitsu, raises some important and searching questions about this sort of attitude; since reading it, I’ve been fighting the compulsion to quote lines and paragraphs on an hourly basis, and I can only urge you all to read it as soon as humanly possible. In my case, at least, it positively demands self-examination, and indeed a fair amount of self-reproach.
Tokumitsu’s essay (as I hope you now know, having read it) takes a stand against the much-quoted Steve Jobs line on work: DWYL, Do What You Love (and Love What You Do) as “the unofficial work mantra of our times”. This leads us on the one hand to despise (and generally ignore) the work carried out by the vast majority of the world’s population, as being insufficiently rewarding and self-actualising – as if acquiring a job that one loves is merely a matter of choice, and a failure to do so therefore a failure of will or character rather than above all a function of class structures. On the other hand, it is also actually damaging to those who are in this position of privilege: not only do we seek to turn our sources of pleasure into work, as if work and profit can only ever be the highest goals, but we set ourselves up for being taken advantage of: “Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.” After all, if we academics are willing to work evenings and weekends writing books and articles, because during the working day we’re too busy dealing with students and admin to get any research done, and because we (mostly) actually enjoy research and writing, then our employers are very unlikely to complain.
Even if this experience becomes in reality ever more burdensome, and we become conscious of how far it’s actually affecting our happiness and health, we continue to drive ourselves on to breaking point and beyond, partly because of the sense that “this is a job I ought to be loving” and hence failure (in performance and in enjoyment of it) can only be a consequence of personal flaws, and partly because of the ever-present implied threat that there are lots of other people who’d love a chance at such a job. And the products of our labour are excessively, unhealthily personalised, which explains our sensitivity to criticism – that bad review is an attack on my very being, as that book is an expression of my heart and soul – and creates a profound psychological dilemma, as that which we are supposed to love doing and which is supposed to ground our entire sense of self becomes a source of fear, anxiety, doubt, pain etc. This is why I don’t read reviews…
One thing which Tokumitsu doesn’t really discuss is the idea that the DWYL mantra is actually harking back to a precapitalist idea, rejecting the regularised monotony of the sort of jobs found in Fordist mass production in favour of feudal arts and crafts; part of its power is its evocation of an idealised pre-modern, pre-industrial economy, but with social media. At any rate this tends, I think, to shape the reactions of many academics to changes in higher education: expansion of class sizes means that we can no longer lovingly hand-craft our students, external constraints on research activity set limits on the free play of our creativity and try to force us into regular boxes. It all presupposes that I ought to have the freedom, as an academic, to do exactly what I like in the way I want to; we are, I think, for the most part at least partly aware of what a rare and privileged position this would be, dependent upon the labour of countless others, which is why we’re willing to open ourselves up to exploitation to such an extent – without necessarily realising that this is what we’re doing.
To reiterate: I do actually enjoy many aspects of my job, and am not yet ready to switch completely to the home brewing and sausage making (and that would, in any case, introduce a whole set of new pressures and anxieties into something that I currently do to relax). However, I am all too aware of how often I prioritise my work above other things including friends and family (or feel sullen and resentful that I’m not being allowed to do so; bloody social obligations, when I could be writing another paragraph…), and how far that work is indeed a source of pain as well as pleasure – it is significant, I suspect, that teaching is generally a more reliable source of satisfaction, or at least less often a source of real distress, as I’m less personally invested in the success of every single student and do not feel quite the same degree of absolute responsibility as I do with my writing.
I’ve decided that the answer is to be even more cavalier and slapdash in my books and articles, so that I feel a little less upset when they are assaulted by critics or ignored, and maybe that will free up a bit more time for my resolutely uncommercial interests; this afternoon, for example, I spent two hours digging up concrete from part of the garden, and resolutely felt no job satisfaction whatsoever.