New writing from the beginning of 2017

Is a full quarter of 2017 already behind us? It’s hard to believe. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been on a bit of a writing tear, fueled both by my own inspiration as well as some exciting commissions by various editors. Here’s what I’ve been working on:

At Jacobinwhere I am proud to be a contributing editor, I have two recent articles. The first is an affirmation of the pedagogical and civic virtues of lecturing, a mode of communication that draws lots of ire because…it’s old? Yes, there are many ways to screw up lecturing, but, I argue:

The type of labor demanded in the lecture hall — and the type of community it builds — still matters. Under an economic system that works to accelerate and divide us, institutions that carve out time and space to facilitate collectivity and reflection are needed more than ever.

Then, in the wake of Susan Fowler’s whistle-blowing about rampant sexism at Uber, I wrote another article in which I discuss how the conditions she endured are really shouldered by all of us:

She did what most of us probably would do in her situation: she endured. Fowler focused on aspects of the work she enjoyed despite her employer’s failure to respond appropriately to the reported misconduct. Even an accomplished worker with highly marketable skills like Fowler has little choice. Most people require a stable income to survive, and quitters forego the right to unemployment benefits.

Finally, at The New York Times, I offered similar thoughts about the allegedly toxic workplace culture at Thinx. While erratic managers and demeaning conditions are unfortunately common, these practices were scandalous at Thinx due to the company’s feminist, body-positive branding:

If Ms. Agrawal had paid her staff higher salaries, or had taken the more radically feminist step of making Thinx’s majority-female staff cooperative owners, she might have lost business to more ruthless competitors. Instead, she was able to pay her staff what she did because of a socially entrenched gender wage gap, a weak job market for young workers and her employees’ willingness to work long hours and sacrifice pay for a cause.

Thanks for reading…there a some more articles in the pipeline; I expect they’ll be coming out in the next weeks and months.

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On Dutch Still Life

Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the opulent “banquet,” or pronk still life paintings that were briefly popular in the Dutch Republic. In the latest issue of the Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review (also known as RACAR), I consider why painters trained their meticulous capacities for observing and rendering on these piles of luxury goods. From the introduction:

As this study suggests, profuse naturalistic detail loaded these works with a visual excess meant to appeal to spectators informed by new methods of natural inquiry, keenly attuned to technical craftsmanship, and inclined to the thrall of visualizing economic affluence. As a representational mode, the naturalism manifested in pronkstilleven was itself a luxury commodity invested with a social capital that exceeded even the value of the painter’s skill, materials, and labour.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, Utrecht 1606–1683/84 Antwerp) Still Life: A Banqueting Scene, probably ca. 1640–41 Oil on canvas; 53 1/4 x 73 in. (135.3 x 185.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Charles B. Curtis Fund, 1912 (12.195)

Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, Utrecht 1606–1683/84 Antwerp)
Still Life: A Banqueting Scene, probably ca. 1640–41
Oil on canvas; 53 1/4 x 73 in. (135.3 x 185.4 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Charles B. Curtis Fund, 1912 (12.195)

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New writing at The New Republic

A colleague I have written an article over at The New Republic about the political economy of modern “dynamic” offices: “Life at the Nowhere Office:”

The result is that your office diffuses much like a gas following the laws of entropyThis anywhering of the office renders our attempts to disappear by implementingout-of-the-office replies instantly moot and futile. Work will fill the space available to it. And with no space spared, it will find you wherever you are: not just your work office, but also your home, your yoga studio, your children’s kindergarten. And what is more, in addition to our physical selves we now have to manage this professional avatar as well. And due to the ongoing metrification and financialization of work we are increasingly stripped of the clutter that makes us us. All of our quirks and idiosyncratic features have no use, as they can either not be numbered or would just make us look messy and thus unproductive.

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“Do What You Love. And Other Lies about Success and Happiness” releases this week

My book, Do What You Love. And Other Lies about Success and Happinesspublished by Regan Arts, releases in the US on August 11.

The book is an expansion of an essay in Jacobin, “In the Name of Love,” critiquing the contemporary notion that only by doing waged work that we love can we achieve success and happiness. Considering the arguments I make in both the essay and the book, I wanted to make sure that I was respectful of all workers and not slip into cynicism.

Corey Robin, a writer and scholar whom I respect greatly, kindly blurbed the book:

Work has its apostles. Miya Tokumitsu is one its most elegant apostates. Immune to all the happy talk of self-actualization on the job, she cuts quickly and cleanly through the mass of pablum, propaganda, and delusion that infects so much of our discussion of today’s economy. She’s that rare observer of the contemporary scene: historical, sociological, and never, ever boring.

I can only repeat what I said in the first post of this (very sporadically updated) blog, which is that I am still a bit staggered at the breadth of response to my writing about contemporary cultures of work, especially since this topic is well outside my academic area of focus, which is Northern Renaissance art(!).

I know all too well how precious time is, and want to say again how moved I am that there are people out there who devote any of theirs to reading my work.


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Coming soon: The Anthropomorphic Lens

I am pleased to announce that The Anthropomorphic Lens: Anthropomorphism, Microcosmism, and Analogy in Early Modern Thought and Visual Arts, is in production and due to come out in September, 2014 (production now scheduled for October, 2014). Brill is publishing the volume, and has posted preliminary information about it here.

In my essay, I discuss the surprising number of diverse contexts in which the grotesque, female cannibal appears in 17th-c. visual culture: in “ethnographic” reports from Brazil, printed maps of the Arctic Seas, and miniature sculpture in German Kunstkammern. As a figure who obliterates bodily integrity, the cannibal became a powerful symbol for anxieties about disappearance and the disruption of ordered systems of knowledge. These anxieties manifested themselves in numerous contexts in the seventeenth century, from existentially terrifying expeditions to the New World and to the earth’s polar regions to the pleasurable bewilderments of the Kunstkammer.

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A thoughtful response in The New York Times

A while ago, The New York Times published this response to my Jacobin article in the opinion pages. Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor at St. Olaf College writes,

“Perhaps, unlike Kant, you do not believe that the universe is swimming with purposes. Then is “do what you love,” or “do what you find most meaningful” the first and last commandment? Not necessarily.”

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Responses to “In the Name of Love”

I’ve been amazed at the depth of response to my Jacobin article, “In the Name of Love,” a refutation of that old banality, “do what you love.” It’s wonderful to see that the conversation about attitudes towards work, namely the pressure to love it, has continued around the internet–on Twitter, in Facebook threads, personal blogs, and even whole articles written about DWYL culture. Below, I’ve posted some of my personal favorites, and I’ve even included a dissenter!

Tasha Golden, in the Ploughshares blog: “The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why ‘Do What You Love’ is Bad Advice” (making a great point below):

Let’s be honest, though: even in love-driven professions, we rarely measure success by the quality of life that results from happily humming along. Instead, we measure it according to publishing deals, tenure, sales, raving reviews.

Neville Morley in The Sphinx Blog: “Antiquity and Modernity,’ C’est moi

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…

Kyle Chayka in Pacific Standard: Should You Really Love Your Job?”

These slogans suggest that passion should be directly connected to paid labor, that you can’t possibly be pursuing your dream if you’re not getting paid for it. Conflating creative passion and capital, however, can be hazardous, as the economic situation of the arts in the United States in particular suggests.

Andrew Smart offers a contrarian view on his blog, The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, “Doing What You Love Does Not Devalue Work or Workers”

It is true that the mantra DWYL in its current form deflects the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, which Tokumitsu mentions only in passing. She comes close to making the true revolutionary argument; but she misses going all the way with how DWYL could be stolen from the spoiled, ignorant and elite post-graduate children of the 1% and spread among the working masses.

Smart says later that my argument assumes that we should “keep the current system of wage-slavery intact as it is.” This prospect of wage-free work-for-love requires that for every task that needs doing, there must be a worker willing to do it out of sheer pleasure at the precise moment it needs to be done. I doubt very much that this could ever the case, barring a change in human nature (and physiology). I do agree that the desperate need to keep earning (often barely or not even enough to cover expenses) is highly oppressive, and yet I’m not convinced going full-DWYL is a practical solution.

I’d also add that work done out of even the deepest love isn’t always intellect-cultivating or pleasure-refining, as he claims, channeling Wilhelm von Humboldt. Many a person who’s tried to soothe a colicky baby at 4am can testify to this. Smart cites Humboldt heavily but excuses him for failing to consider female labor. However, if we’re going to talk about work-for-love, I think it’s wise to look at the very people who are already considered to be doing just that.

All the same, a big thank you to Smart for taking time to respond and for giving me something to think about.

Finally, Leah Libresco posted an excellent response, “Don’t Love Your Job. Love People.” over at American Conservative (yes, a Jacobin article was praised in American Conservative):

Employers can only sell us the aspirations they have in stock.

Have you come across any particularly thought-provoking responses to “In the Name of Love”? If so, I’d be much obliged if you shared them with me.

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