:: Article

Sick Days Harm Amazon

By MH.

Seasonal Associate

Heike Geissler, Seasonal Associate, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2018)

In Women as Lovers, Elfriede Jelinek writes that “work on the line leaves brigitte her femininity, because it is a women’s factory with only female employees (women workers), so it is not difficult to maintain cleanliness,” in a not-so-subtle hint at the gendered nature of factory work and reproductive labor. In Seasonal Associate (translated by Katy Derbyshire), Heike Geissler notes how the book section at the Amazon fulfillment center she took a seasonal position at is mainly reserved for women, reminiscent of the fact that reading has always been a gendered activity assigned to the category of “women” as opposed to writing which has always been regarded as men’s work. Theirs are both shrewd denunciations of the social and psychological consequences late capitalism inflicts on working women, in particular. But they are also both gesturing toward the same thing: solidarity with oneself and others. 
—MH

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3:AM Magazine: Corporate work routine has never been short of creative ideas when it comes to exploiting and destroying at the same time — or, as you’ve put it: “You’re now in the mouth of the company (in its jaws?) and are being predigested before you’re allowed to enter the rest of the digestive tract.” How does the corporate employee become the sum of generic traits as they try to oppose the directives of professional growth, and cut-throat competition enforced by the false idea that nothing is out of reach as long as they work (and assert themselves) hard enough?

Heike Geissler: If I knew how it happens, I would call myself wise. I guess every expert has an explanation and, of course, I could come up with a smart one too. But as a former seasonal employee, and as someone who is living in this world, interested in how the world is constructed, and how people communicate, I would assume that companies like Amazon simply tire you out. They infiltrate you with their rules and mechanisms: on one hand, you have to do your job and, on the other hand, you have to remain skeptical, critical or at least aware (one should pay attention to everything). So, even if you would like to be aware, and protect yourself from such corporate indoctrination, you calm down and turn towards a work life at harmony with your employers — at your own expense, of course. I think what happens is a moderate Stockholm syndrome (because as employee you depend on the employer’s good will as clean good work will not be enough to prove you’re a good worker) and physical exhaustion coming together for a pas de deux and weakening you in the end.

3:AM: The internalization of work routine often comes at the cost of ending up mimicking and even upgrading your co-workers’ aggressive behaviors, and talking to yourself in “employee language”. In a way, you also want to become invisible, a common item that manages to get through the working hours without being too broken. Are there any consequences for choosing to expose the violence accommodated by the so-called flat hierarchies that are still hierarchies at the end of the day?   

HG: You stay on the outside and become a mirror for the others — and they don’t like what they see. But this is all discrete. You just become the Sonderling, the weirdo. I didn’t meet anyone at Amazon who had made the workplace their home. Everybody was very pragmatic. They were thankful for having a job, and so was I in the beginning. And so am I, every time somebody wants me to write something or teach a course. It would be wonderful if we could be thankful for a job, and still see where this job becomes cruel, inhumane, hilarious, idiotic, not well constructed, underpaid, too exhausting, etc. and then speak openly about it. Everything can be better and this is not to monetize the better, but to pay respect to everybody who is investing time, physical, and mental power into a job. Way too often, being resilient to ambivalences fades into accepting the feedback you get with a smile.

3:AM: You cite Chris Köver’s take on anger as an emotion seldom afforded or even allowed to women as it’s the kind of emotion that disturbs the sanctioned performance expected from them — docility, niceness, obedience, even a conventionally pretty face are all thrown away once anger settles in. Turning the woman worker’s fear into anger, into “a really deep state of being thoroughly pissed”, can be used to act and change work conditions instead of crying “the internalized tears of more experienced employees” hidden in a bathroom. What does this entail for a woman who isn’t interested in playing cool? 

HG: Freedom — the freedom of knowing yourself, and seeing it all laying clear in front of you.

3:AM: The commodification of romantic love is perhaps even more obvious in a corporate setting where every emotion deemed as positive is capitalized upon — for instance, a crush on a co-worker makes the employee more attached to company values and, as a result, their labor power gets stronger and more productive. But there is also room left for illnesses, for acute or chronic afflictions that play the part of romantic love once the initial infatuation is gone. How do they disguise the debilitating effects of the workplace?  

HG: Being in love or sick makes you deal with yourself, which is perfectly okay. But wouldn’t it be fun to say: I’m in love and feeling super positive but none of my super positivity will go into my shitty job that provides me only with (not enough) money but no respect or inspiration. I keep all my super positivity for myself, my family, for the co-workers I like. Or, in the other case: I feel terribly sick today but I do not want to expose my sickness. What I want to show instead is my being sick, and still feeling forced to come to work because I am really afraid of losing my job, and isn’t that a shame … Maybe one should never go to work as oneself, especially if it is a job that pays you only when it costs you too much. One should practice othering, dissociation from oneself. And then take a close look at what’s going on at work, and how the part that I othered/dissociated is doing. How can I help? What is the problem? Can I carry the part that is still me through the hierarchies, and strengthen it to maintain the ambivalence of being a dependent worker while also being harmed by the job? How can I not get confused, and not forget that just because someone pays me, they don’t doesn’t own the tiniest bit of me?

Heike Geifler

Photo by Andrzej Steinbach

3:AM: Once the worker is holding out, their behavior is read and praised as patience when, in fact, it’s sheer obedience. As stress is building up, their body gets tired and the financial compensation is hardly compensating anything. Do these circumstances eventually take hold of the worker’s family/community?

HG: Of course they do. And that’s probably what makes work so crucial, and the questions of how we work, where and with whom, so overtly important. An exhausting, not well-paid, unsatisfying job weakens your family. Of course some people manage better than others. But maybe it is better to say that they manage way worse. We still live in structures that feed on our patience and will to play along the rules that are totally against us. I hope this will gradually change. The sad truth is that hard working parents (and by hard work I mean having a poorly paid job that hardly offers security for you and your children, a job that physically exhausts you so that there won’t be any capacity for thinking of alternatives, not to speak of trying any) invest so much effort in work and structuring their life, that they want this effort to pay off eventually. But not moneywise — instead, their effort has to make sense. So they pretend it made sense and might even say: I don’t like my job. But they will hardly ever say: nobody should have to go to work. They usually defend the fact that our lives are actually structured by employers. At least, that’s what I experienced when I talked to relatives, former colleagues, etc. In general, people are so willing to live a life that makes some sense that they cannot say: work is nonsense. That would mean they spend almost half of their life with nonsense. And by acknowledging that, one would have to take action or, at least, tell the truth: I’m busy doing nonsense. I love every kind of work that considers me as a person striving for more freedom, independence, love, solidarity, and fun, and doesn’t try to make a profit out of me and my aims —  rare to find, if ever.

3:AM: Letting yourself be blinded by hate towards your boss while finding faults in your co-workers as they are easier targets is a trap, as it prevents you from taking a closer look at the hierarchy that pits people against each other by instrumentalizing their differences. You argue that performing your work in a deliberately bad way might be a solution instead of going after your colleagues — but wouldn’t such a solution have the same effect as a band-aid on a skull fracture?        

HG: I’ll stick to the skull fracture comparison. Yes, you are right. A band-aid on a skull fracture points out there is a problem, a serious one, and I do not have the right means for taking care of it. The band-aid functions as a highlighter — it shows that someone took notice, and found the spot where healing needs to happen, and change is needed. I guess even the slightest action matters. Such actions might not have meaning for the company, they might not harm, nor impress the company, but they keep you active and alive, especially if you don’t do them all by yourself. But having to use methods of destruction/sabotage inevitably proves that something is terribly wrong, and more actions are needed, the kind of actions requiring the contribution of unions, parties or minds that teach The Right to be Lazy.

3:AM: Frustratingly enough, your assertion that “woman has perfected capitalism, has transported it willingly into the most private of sectors, has internalized it and is only under the impression that she’s eliminated it”, is hard to disagree with. Women have indeed become the perfect entrepreneurs of themselves, with entire industries to show for it. How did they end up performing both the slave and master condition simultaneously?

HG: We’re just so good at it. I can’t think of a better answer now. I guess I’m in the middle of finding it out myself. I always carry that question in my mind, and it seems there are so many different answers to it. I can find myself acting so differently in the course of just one day. I don’t know if you read this post on the Feminist News social media page: “Ladies, what’s your makeup routine? I’m looking for a new foundation. Preferably liquid, but still matte and now that the men stopped reading, we riot at midnight.”More and more women are getting aware of how they live, love, work, look at themselves etc. By detecting and extracting the capitalist, neoliberal doctrines, and routines from our brains and hearts, we will find out more about how we ended up performing both the slave and master condition simultaneously. It’s work in progress.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MH
is a staff writer at Anomaly (Anomalous Press).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 13th, 2018.