I am camping at the northeast corner of Occupy SF, trying to fall asleep while the cars scream by on the Embarcadero. I am thinking about the conversation I had a few hours earlier with the man in the next tent, Ed, who is here because his house in Vallejo foreclosed this spring. He has a German shepherd puppy sleeping in his lap; he talks about his daughter in Virginia, and his ex-girlfriend who left him because of his drinking, which he has now overcome.
I can’t sleep. I’m accustomed to quiet and dark. I lie awake thinking of something I read: that when the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst over the span of four days in 2008, the movements in the market were 25 standard deviations away from the mean several days in a row. Probabalistically, this means that these market events should have happened just once in the time between now and the moment the universe began times a few billion[i].
So: low income people in Baltimore and Detroit and Albuquerque and Fresno and elsewhere being afforded the social, numerical legitimacy to afford houses—in the cognitive systems of the financiers—was quite logically the least likely thing to happen in any possible universe. I am growing accustomed to these vignettes. Will I ever have a house? I think. Do I want one? What is a house?
* * *
A few months before, I was riding the transbay bus across the bay bridge. I ogled the Oakland port system, the red and blue and green containers arranged in perfect grids on the landfill concrete like time-released capsules in an automated dispensary at the Eli Lilly plant, awaiting vacuum-packing, wrenched open daily to scatter their contents into the tiny, contested squash-courts of manifold synapses. I look at the colossal cable-cranes bearing aloft the twenty-ton things as if airlifting patients from one rationalist purgatory into another near-identical one, stacking them twelve-high and a hundred-across on those barges that are like globalism’s proper gurneys. The names: Hanjin and Evergreen and APM-Maersk are like gigantic Lawrence Weiner pieces that materially slide all over the plastic-frosted seas and aren’t just dematerialized concepts to be reproduced again and again on gallery walls and in Phaidon monographs.
Looking at those barges, I went back momentarily to my Midwest agrarian-populist family roots and had this thought: it’s all fancy-pants, all this language about immaterial labor and cognitive capitalism and affective labor and the reputation economy and the experience economy and the economist Jodi Dean’s idea that we should all get health insurance for using Facebook since the injunction to communicate incessantly with each other about our various projects and moment-to-moment states is an inter-subjective assembly line and the algorithms that make it all work are our foremen, and the baffled alienation that results is the blooming, frustrated fury of the proletariat; that the new golden phallus around which the dance of value-production twirls is relevance ranking[ii], so that if we participate in mediated meaning-making in any form—especially if it is performance-enhanced in any way by today’s metrosexual grandchild of the adding machine—then we can count ourselves historical subjects of that great primitive swindle that broke the collective heart in two sometime between the ages of Homer and Zola.
No, no, no, I thought, ogling the port, it all seems like a theory hatched out of nervous exhaustion, like Hippolyte Taine’s[iii] idea of the minor aristocracy:
well-bred people, who, cut off from action, fell back on conversation and spent their time tasting the gravest pleasures of the mind.
No, no, I thought, it’s like George Sorel warned[iv]: that a prime illusion of the bourgeoisie is the faith that our mild discontent can be/has been/will continue to be theorized, and is thus made useful.
No, I thought, despite our thriving micro-trade in logorrheic fantasies we are still as sands in the hourglass or dust in the wind of industrial manufacturing, and much of the fragility of global-techno-capitalist systems and the militant diligence with which they are defended has to do with the necessity of moving very heavy and unwieldy objects vast distances over the surface of the earth. We are still Victorian gentle-persons suffering fits of hallucinatory neurasthenia from the complicated scent of sweat on the bodies of neo-coolies who keep the imperial commonwealth intricate with stuff.
This was, clearly, a few months before the general strike in Oakland, before the march on these ports.
* * *
There is a feeling I get, some days, after teaching narrative storytelling —that immaterial labor par excellence—for eight hours at a stretch in basement rooms in the financial district. An itchy feeling that makes me paranoid I might have bedbugs but then on second thought seems to issue from some overtaxed, scabrous bulb of my cerebral cortex. It is a feeling that leads me to entertain a dramatic sort of thought: what if I am the abject embodiment of the immaterial labor economy? Now, I’m trying to understand what that means, that sentence, I sometimes wake up with it, sometimes in a panic, and now when I look at it, it looks narcissistic. Cute, even.
For the past six or so years, I’ve been—like so many—teaching writing and art at various institutions of higher learning around the bay area. The work is at turns sweet and stultifying; Oh, people! People, people, people, people, people. All day long people, people and more people! And myself with all their names in a ledger. So many people that in the evenings I am almost grateful for the hypnotic riddle of personal-isolation technologies, forgiving of their profit margins. People who take out student loans that are predatorily leant to them by a subsidiary of Goldman, Sachs, people who navigate the bureaucracy of veteran affairs so I can tell them to write stories with or against their will. I track the value of their zombie/vampire/free-style rap/romantic fantasies in EasyGrade ProÒ as if I’m hedging currencies on the Forex market. I have no stable contract, of course, and I rely upon the mercy of administrators coupled with my own good-behavior and faith in my robust physical health (no insurance) to keep me going another semester.
It wasn’t always like this. Right out of college I went into a PhD program in English at Johns Hopkins, where I had something like a $20,000/semester stipend (inconceivable!) in a city where $175 a month for rent is not unheard of due to the market-inconveniences of a 200 year old war between poor communities, police, and institutional forces, as popularly depicted in TV shows like The Wire, which I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch for fear of getting too immersed in the past. While at Hopkins, I bought a used 1982 Jeep Cherokee, and when it needed new tires I brought it to a crumbling tire-repair store that was said to have once been the home of Frederick Douglass. Once I ate dinner at a Hard Rock Café built on the exact spot the first slave ships docked in the US, so I heard.
How was Hopkins able to pay me so much for spending most of my time in Student Labor Action Committee meetings (we were organizing for a living wage for laundry workers); doing drugs; and sitting in my street-salvaged Ikea armchair writing about trans-historical threads between Mary Rowlandson’s 15th century captivity narrative and contemporary accounts of alien abduction, or Archie Comics and the Post-war Nationalist Symbol of the Impotent Adolescent, or William Bartram’s 16th century botanical travel logs as precursor to the American porn industry, or queer readings of expeditions to the North Pole, and other such seemingly market-unfriendly formulations? Well, it turns out that Hopkins’ proximity to the Pentagon supplies it with a steady river of capital (you can go to graduate school there in the Department of Homeland Security Studies, or History of Military Technology, and I once spotted Paul Wolfowitz strolling across the red brick, Federal-style quad), a river in which I naively bathed, though not happily, considering I developed a slight addiction to heroin, which would prove pivotal to my future career choices. When I look back on this time I sometimes think it was complicity’s contagion and not my own suburban somatics of imagined inviolability that led me into that bromide-punk-ghetto womb-narrative. Who could say?
Back in Berkeley over summer break, I found myself psychologically unable to return to Baltimore. So I moved into a cheap room in a collective house in Oakland run by erotic masseuses cum cult-members and answered a Craigslist ad for a job in Berkeley taking care of a paraplegic man (whom I’ll call Jon) for $10/hour under the table. The work was not easy – I was totally untrained – and it involved a lot of heavy-lifting, much contact with vulnerable bodily processes, and negotiation of incomprehensibly convoluted power-dynamics. I got along tolerably well, though, with my boss, who was a former Black Panther and LGBT and disability rights activist, and I had some nice moments reading aloud with him from Krishnamurti on his electric bed while he drifted into a time-release-Fentanyl-patch induced slumber. The maintenance of his fragile existence, however, depended on the small pension he received, as well as the occult whims of the insurance company (they might decide, for example, that the new type of $300 catheter tube was not covered.) When there were emergencies—which was nearly always—there was often only enough left over to pay me half, or even a quarter, of what was owed.
I sometimes asked for help from my parents. The company my dad worked for had just been bought by Merck, thus splitting his stock options, tripling his financial resources, and rendering him nearly high-bourgeois overnight. But when I was unable to endure the Oedipal privilege of that, I sublet my room and slept in my car for three weeks, returning to my room periodically to retrieve books, which I would sell to Moe’s to pay for gas. I could have stayed in Jon’s tiny guest room, but I decided against it out of fear of conscripting myself into round-the-clock unpaid labor.
During this time I was also in and out of the tail-end of my addiction, and I sometimes made extra cash by transporting smallish amounts of heroin for a ragged tout named Tim (who subsequently died of an overdose behind the do-it-yourself car wash on Potrero and 17th[v]) to various characters around the city – an elderly motel attendant in the Marina, a ghostly lawyer in Noe Valley, etc. When I think of my current precariousness in the ivory-basement, I am inevitably forced back into reflection on the more extreme precariousness of that time in the thriving informal economy[vi], driving a car with a cracked axle over the bay bridge, praying I wouldn’t get pulled over or careen into a minivan, hoping I wouldn’t end up like Tim, who was on the run from a speeding-ticket-turned-arrest-warrant in his hometown of Seattle, dogged by the exiling shame of this contingency and by some dumbfounding psychic wound from early childhood that needed persistent anaesthetizing.
Meanwhile I was doing a lot of writing, imagining that an MFA in playwriting might be a good way out of the knot[vii] of bio-anxiety my life had become. I got over my addiction, trained to be a yoga teacher, sharpened my self-presentation, and stumbled my way back into the creative class by landing a job as assistant editor at a mysteriously funded literary journal operating out of a little office near the ballpark, which paid me an actual salary. I worked there for a year or so before getting fired because I seemed too dour. But by that time I was teaching early morning yoga classes in a short-lived studio in Oakland, and the machinery of MFA applications was already underway. I had been attempting to write plays, but it always came out as fiction, so I applied to some generously-funded programs, got in, and went to one.
Two more stipended years in the psychically complex pleasure-pastures of east-coast experimental literature where the vines and orchards hung heavy with endowment and where I formed many unrealistic expectations about the ease and stability of teaching thanks to the Brown undergraduates who had received SWAT team-style training towards their places in the cultural economy at Exeter and St. Andrews. Then I found myself back in San Francisco looking for a job as a teacher. I sent my papers around and got an interview at a commercial art university. I was shocked by the wage—I had to give up bars and any hope of having a fashion sense to afford my labor-lifestyle—but it was what I wanted to do and there was very little oversight and: if it rained pearls, who would work? They offered me 5 classes right away.
I will summarize the next six years of my labor out of a suspicion that it could be easily imagined (and lived a few times over) by many who may have read this far:
—aborted, confusing attempts to unionize adjuncts with a few other dispirited teachers;
—revelations of my institution’s shadow-existence as the second largest real-estate holder in the city of San Francisco and the fantastic wealth of its Pac-Heights socialite owner;
—teaching 5-8 classes a semester, so that strangers sometimes approached me to ask: “aren’t you the guy that teaches eight classes?”[viii];
—fielding the narrative fantasies of oceans of students with bonafide dreams of pop-culture glory, including many, many young veterans for whom Hollywood had been a lover and confidant during unquiet nights in tents in Iraq and Afghanistan. One solemn woman from Oklahoma wrote obsessively of how she had been driven into suicidal depression by her job firing off twenty-one gun salutes at over 3000 army funerals, and how she had once been molested by Donald Rumsfeld. This semester I have been advising an acutely articulate middle-aged man who worked as a military contractor in Pakistan and in the CIA’s black sites in Germany and Afghanistan. We take walks around the financial district after class and he hisses his fears about the fate of this nation, the blood-retribution he knows gathers in swarms. He wants to be out of the country, he says, when it comes down. For the last fifty years we have been terrified of a nuclear bomb being set off within our borders, he says, and now we’ve pretty much guaranteed that to happen . . . by acting psychotic in every corner of the world. In response to my cautious urgings to continue writing about his experience he says, I know. . . I know how fun it is to kill. I know how well it pays. That’s what I know. Why should I try to make that insight worth something?
And then, a week later he sends me this email:
I came here (to this school) to make a film about my experience. It sounds
pathetic, but I decided how to do this, and it is with comic skits.
A friend and I are making comic skits about the war, contracting,
secret prisons, the USA, three letter agency people, and we are
going to put it on the internet and sell it. I expect to be on the
cover of the New York Times the next day. Not that I want to be.
Film is the way to reach people today, for it to go global. Comedy
is the way to tell them the truth. People want distraction and
mildly sadistic entertainment. I am lacing it with my avalanche of
It makes me bigger and not smaller. I don't want to be in the role
of the angry guy who wrote a book. I would like my funny videos to
be played in the secret prisons, and have everyone chuckle, etc.
I can make money off of it, enjoy doing it, reach a lot of people,
scorch George Bush's ass, and heal myself, all at the same time.
All of the little sheep addicted to their little machines... I
want to make those little machines work for me.
* * *
There’s more of course, earlier jobs, more recent ones. There’s the story of coordinating a small and baffled community art project in El Salvador while the community was (is) being convulsed and turned in on itself by dams, trade agreements, and climate change as if by an outbreak of some geopolitical form of kuru. But I’d like to return to the more impersonal issue of shipping containers, the cargo ships that haunt our port like movable mausoleums packed from wall to wall with the carcasses of commodities. Who or what expects me to hold them in mind? Who or what imagines that there is a place in my language for weight, for backbreaking loads that seem so alien to the perpetual motion machine of representation, like lug-nuts in the crème caramel? Who has the notion that I might know what to do with stuff’s intrusion into the symbolic, like a spore, threatening to determine the very possibility of utterance, to make language’s mantle spongy with the fruiting bodies of material, so that the two grow into a thing at once too specific and too large, and my own neurochemistry seems to buckle under the tonnage—what I recently heard called ‘the empirical sublime’—and yet the terms I have to think this with float in a sweet sciency brine. Who asks? Marx, one might say, that bearded figure who spoiled what could have been a fun and profitable century by asking why aren’t we having real fun.
But I do imagine I’m having fun for a moment as I march with a few hundred others from New Montgomery St. down to the Federal Reserve where the Occupy SF camp is happening. This is the first week of the occupations. And even though the long, nauseating history of San Francisco seems to live in that musky crook where the counter-culture meets the techno-capitalist, I will accept whatever vibe inflects this resistance, because at this point I am willing to take what I am given of spirit. From across the street, though, a middle-aged man yells: Get a job! Get a job! Get a job! Get a job! and it’s not fun. He is red-faced, temple veins bulging. A woman yells back: It’s Saturday!
And it is often Saturday, Saturn’s Day, Day of the Strong-armed father, Cronus, Time-man. Does he give us time or take it away? These weighty, respectable men and women (the police) and their ideological captors seem set on taking it away again and again, with the offhand grabbiness of a parent liberating a cigarette butt from his toddler’s mouth. Who would have guessed that stillness and a continuous togetherness in public space would prove so terroristic? Anyone could have guessed, especially the 1.6 million US homeless people (including 150,000 veterans), whose facticity as material beings, whose strange, historical unwillingness to learn to use the Scholes-Black equation to price derivatives or to use Gaussian copulas to engineer collateralized debt obligations, whose inability to neither purchase data streams from Bloomberg nor feed them into mainframes for the purposes of statistical arbitrage are like silt bars in the enforced liquidity of capital, that river of phantom agreements that is said to be necessary to keep commodities afloat above the impossible stone of the world.
[i] This is from I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, by John Lanchester, 2010.
[ii] Google’s algorithm is said to be the single most valuable piece of intellectual property in the history of humankind.
[iii] Sociological literary theorist
[iv] I exemplify exactly what I criticize, here.
[v] Note: read the fifth review down (David S.) on this link.
[vi] What did I learn from this time: that poor addicts do hard labor. They do some of the heaviest lifting, the most extreme multi-tasking, to keep the furnace of bourgeois morality packed with fuel. What would become of capitalism if there were no symbolic wounds? Addicts do the difficult work of converting the currency between real wounds and symbolic ones. They do it with unconscious affect, which is instrumentalized to the point where it becomes an extra organ. It is an organ that is in turn converted, cell by cell, into a running, abstract tabulation of affect, against the background noise of social systems—legal, financial, familial, biological. Believe me when I say it is hard work to rent out your unconscious affect to the hyper-diversified investment bank of bourgeois morality. It’s hard enough just to familiarize yourself with the equations that balance the sums of affect with the demands of world-systems. It is true that this sort of labor does not produce anything recognizable, hence the injunction to become a ‘productive member of society.’ Many who enter into this labor force do so at infancy.
[viii] One of my colleagues actually teaches twelve classes every semester. To me this man is the Flexible Personality personified, a heroic, uncomplaining maniac. He is still technically part-time, since thirteen classes, at thirty-nine in-class hours, is still one hour shy of the forty hours required for full-time. We all know, of course, that prep-time doesn’t count. Why should it? I could prep in my sleep! We should be paying them for the privilege of being allowed to prep! I find it deeply nourishing.