Aleena Chia, Diagrams of Flexibility in the Future of Work [2020 C4eJ 49] (Symposium)

[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium]

Aleena Chia*

For the cognitive class, COVID-19 has made working from home less of a choice and more of a necessity. As institutions, companies, and journalists chew over what post-pandemic life will mean for how we restructure the workweek (Chang 2020), how we design cities (Lahart 2020), and how we distribute housework (Lewis 2020), individuals are left to their own devices—literally and figuratively. As office workers hack their ironing boards into standing desks and commandeer corners of their kitchens for their workstations, online furniture sales have boomed (Chung 2020). Released just in time to a captive and quarantined audience, Apple+’s documentary series Home showcases innovative homes around the world by designers who have reimagined domestic space as a solution to problems of urban density, inner-city community, neurodiversity, and environmental sustainability. As I compulsively scrolled through online stores for a mobile height-adjustable desk to make my small Vancouver apartment more conducive for my partner and me to work from home, I was soothed by Home’s episode on Hong Kong architect Gary Chang’s 344-square-foot apartment he calls the “Domestic Transformer.”

The Domestic Transformer (Edge Design 2007) uses a system of sliding walls to give a tiny studio apartment multiple functions for furnishings and appliances that can be reconfigured into a library, dining room, laundry room, and even a spa. Instead of compromising on luxury or functionality, flexible spaces let its inhabitants have it all. Even before the pandemic, micro-apartments have been trending on social media (Syfret 2019). For example, the popular Australian YouTube channel Never Too Small (New Mac n.d.) showcases how clever design of mobile walls, retractable furniture, and hidden storage make spaces multifunctional. Mediated celebrations of micro-living inspire us to think outside the box of single-purpose spaces, to flexibilize our spaces, and in doing so, optimize ourselves. However by focusing on the environmental and economic sustainability of domestic space, what remains unconsidered by this genre are the psychic costs of constantly transforming ourselves to live a flexible life.

In Work’s Intimacy, Melissa Gregg (2011) draws from interviews with cognitive workers to show how the discourse of work-life balance responsibilizes employees and absolves management from the personal cost of maintaining the new flexible workplace and its infrastructure. This finds expression in the fixture of the home office, which perpetuates “the idea of a career-centred and responsible citizenry, one that sees fulfillment in the combination of personal and professional success” (2011, 136).

The idea of balancing work and life is based on an assumption that they are mutually exclusive—that more work means less life. In her qualitative study of everyday meanings of “work” and “home,” Christena Nippert-Eng (1995) uses the concept of boundary work to describe efforts to mentally, practically, and spatially demarcate and relate these aspects of people’s lives. Boundary work is a mental activity that is enacted and enhanced through practice and can be used more generally to understand how people integrate, segment, reinforce, and modify ideas of what is “work” and “home” and how they should relate. Boundary work is part of an established conceptual toolkit used to investigate relationships between social and symbolic boundaries, cultural mechanisms for the production of boundaries, difference and hybridity, and cultural membership and group classifications (Lamont and Molnar 2002).

Flexible work arrangements—from the casualization of workforces and on-demand platform labour to working from home—perform different kinds of boundary work. Like the Domestic Transformer, flexibility in post-Fordism promises design solutions to material problems. Instead of choosing between work and life, flexibility promises both. However, post-Fordist flexibility is far from a win-win situation. Optimization comes at a cost, which is often borne by individuals and families, in ways that disproportionately affect women and racialized people. The boundary work of flexibility is ambivalent. This essay considers this ambivalence through the morality of compensation, its boundaries within post-Fordism, and concludes by reflecting on the diagrammatic of a future of “good work.”

Moralities of Passionate Work

In my previous work, I explored how romantic orientations towards work in creative industries normalize expectations to sacrifice job security for passionate work. My multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork with game players at fan conventions and recruitment events in North America suggested that these expectations are rooted in a moral calculus of corruption and sublimation between passion and profit (Chia 2019). This romantic orientation towards one’s livelihood operates through an ensemble of discourses, architectures, and administrative measures in popular culture, education, and industry (McRobbie 2016). Like the discourse of balance between work and life, the counterpoising of loving your work and getting paid for it is promoted by glorifying the flexibility of having it all; yet, like work-life balance, getting paid for your passion job is experienced in mutually exclusive terms—as sacrifice.

This rhetoric of vocational passion is known in popular culture by the motto to “do what you love.” Miya Tokumitsu (2015) asserts that passionate work, once an ideal reserved for artists, mystics, or aristocrats, has diffused to professional classes and in some cases, even to low-wage service jobs. Based on the faith that the road to self-discovery and personal fulfillment is through vocation, expectations of fervour for one’s trade pressures employees to align their bodies, hobbies, and desires with their employers’ interests. Enjoining people to do what they love denies that work is work at all, and persuades employees not to think of themselves as workers. Ilana Gershon (2017) proposes that an increasing number of professionals live anxious and insecure lives in which they freely bear the risks that come with corporations’ flexibility because they see themselves as entrepreneurs instead of employees. Gershon notes that an important innovation in human resource management was to persuade salaried men and women that instead of company loyalty, they should feel passion for their vocation and prioritize it above other obligations.

To understand the ambivalent morality of passionate work’s flexibility to converge work with life, and its obligation to compensate for passion with precarity, we must account for the interrelated ways waged work and commodity production have been dichotomized: its patriarchal separation from the home, its Romantic separation from the arts, and its industrial separation from leisure. First, Kathi Weeks (2017) clarifies that passionate work is part of the heteropatriarchal ideology of romantic love that feminists have criticized as propaganda, as mystification, as depoliticization, and as subjectification. Passionate work stems from an idealized and feminized model of love, which has historically assigned domestic work to women and now recruits all workers into a more intimate relationship with waged work. This Marxist-feminist analytic questions and disrupts the model of home and work as separate spheres. The enduring connection between life and labour becomes more promiscuous in vocational passion.

Second, Andrew Ross (2000) explains that cultural workers’ willingness to accept deeply discounted compensation for their labour is a part of long-standing sacrificial beliefs held by artists. The Romantic separation of art and culture from the commodity production of industrialization meant that pecuniary neglect of artists often translated into cultural credit. Today, this sacrificial ethos has spread from the margins of Bohemia to economic centres of production. David Graeber (2018) traces this conviction of work as self-sacrifice or self-abnegation to the Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle’s “Gospel of Work,” which decreed that work should be painful and that the misery of the job is itself what forms character. The Gospel of Work conferred onto work a sense of nobility that made its compensation unnecessary or at least incidental.

Third, Chris Rojek (2009) maintains that traditionally, leisure is seen as a sphere of one’s life to exercise personal choices of what to do and how to do it, as compared with the domain of work where one is subject to behavioural and economic restrictions. Ideas about compensation between passion and profit are a holdover from industrialization’s segregation of work from recreation, its ideology that the benefits of one compensate for the deficiencies of the other, and its institution of hobbies as productive forms of leisure. Hobbies gained their meaning by buffering industrialization’s separation of labour and leisure activities in the liminal category of “productive leisure” (Gelber 1999). The freedom in the home studio, for example, was imagined to redeem the work ethic from the supervision and repetition that dominated the Fordist factory. Hobbies were promoted by institutions and businesses as a restorative practice that psychically and physically compensated for the negative aspects of employment. Hobbies have generally been valued for mimicking the productivity of industrial labour but under more flexible and fulfilling circumstances (Douglas 2004; Haring 2007). However, to remain hobbies, “productive pastimes must produce items of value whose value remains secondary” (Gelber 1999, 35). The liminal category of productive leisure applies even to its professionalization, meaning that the value hobbyists create must remain incidental. In other words, it makes the trade-off between making a living and loving what you do somehow reasonable even for people who cannot afford it (Duffy 2017).

This precarious tradeoff is the legacy of compensatory thinking about leisure and labour. This means that as creative industry aspirants attempt to professionalize their hobbies, they often do so according to outdated ideas about how its freedom and flexibility are sullied by pragmatic concerns about wages. My analysis proposes that this archaic morality—that draws from normative assumptions about the compensatory relationship between love and money, work and home, redemption and sacrifice—inoculate the flexibility celebrated in discourses about the future of work. At the heart of post-Fordist flexibility is an ambivalence about archaism and futurity, scarcity and plenitude, which must be interrogated as forms of boundary work.

Boundaries of Post-Fordism

To reiterate, the boundary framework attends to the work that goes into defending, bridging, subverting, and transforming symbolic divisions (Lamont and Molnar, 2002). Symbolic divisions such as labour and leisure are enacted through practice. In his coinage of the concept, Thomas Gieryn (1983) used boundary-work to understand scientists’ ideological attempts to establish epistemic authority by publicly contrasting scientific from other intellectual activities. Like Nippert-Eng’s (1995) aforementioned study of the relationally between ideas of work and home, the margins of science are drawn and redrawn over time to fulfil different interests. Similarly, the demarcations between livelihood, leisure, and their mediation through hobbies are drawn and redrawn to serve different purposes across shifting contexts. This framework calls attention to competing forms of relationality: the binarism of labour and leisure and the hybridism in post-Fordist forms of flexibility are both ideological forms of relationality that require boundary work.

My forthcoming work analyses the dynamic relationality between hybridism and binarism in post-Fordist concepts, which argue that boundaries between productive and consumptive logics, practices, and identities are blurring (Chia, forthcoming). Sociologists, media, and games scholars have theorized the convergence of production and consumption, work and leisure, and professionalism and amateurism as part of larger socioeconomic transformations from Fordism to post-Fordism, which are associated with the shift from industrial to information capitalism (Robbins and Webster 1999). This is a shift from rigid, centralized, mass production to modes of production that are more flexible, decentralized and small-batch oriented, which are associated with employment rhythms that foreground modularity, mobility, and decreased managerial command (Hardt and Negri 2000). Such modes of production rely on communication networks and emphasize the production of knowledge and symbolic products, such as packaging, branding, and marketing, over material production (Harvey 1989). Flexible, networked, and symbolic forms of Post-Fordist production stretch out the value chain by integrating consumer activity at various stages. This includes activities ranging from self-service in food retail to customer reviews or fan creations on social media platforms. George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson (2010) propose the concept of “prosumption” to underline the productivity of these activities that are harnessed by companies from the rationalization of consumptive practices. Julian Kücklich (2005) uses the portmanteau “playbour” to foreground how digital environments extract commercial value using techniques and ideas about play to engage users and workers in repetitive or laborious tasks.

Although useful for understanding the plasticity of these historically situated dichotomies, hybrid concepts such as prosumption and playbor give the false impression of coalescence and parity between production and consumption, and between playfulness and laboriousness. Marwan Kraidy (2005) suggests that the label of hybridity confers a sense of analytical legitimacy that may gloss over the specificity of how structures and discourses combine in different contexts. In this sense, these concepts flatten the distinctions between degrees and configurations of hybridity between the dispositions of play and rationality, domains of labour and leisure, and positions of consumer and producer. Furthermore, hybridism often reinforces binary ways of thinking; this is because the impulse of Modernity is to purify the inherent hybridity of lived experience into their essences (Latour 1993). Therefore, binary essences and their hybrids are locked in symbiosis, taking turns to lead and follow.

The task at hand is to politicize how the flexibilization of labour practices and processes reconfigure symbolic divisions such as work, home, labour, leisure, employment, and entrepreneurship. The previous section outlined how vocational passion reconfigures the professionalization of hobbies through compensatory relationships, which responsibilize individuals to produce value for corporations under precarious conditions. Compensatory relations are just one of a multitude of ways in which industrial divisions of production and consumption are being reconfigured. The boundary framework attunes us to the multiplex and multi-scalar relationally that can decenter dualistic thinking. For example, Alison Gerber (2019) provides a model for understanding creative industry work based on gravitational forces rather than binary oppositions. Using the metaphor of planetary movement in a solar system, Gerber provides an alternative to models of polarity and binarism that use economistic reasoning to structure passion and profit in creative industries as a zero-sum game. Based on interviews with creative workers, the gravity model highlights bodies that are not suspended between stable oppositions, but orbit according to forces that are relational, contingent, and historically specific. Gerber challenges Pierre Bordieu’s (1983) influential field theory that has imprinted critical scholarship of cultural industries with a distinctly Cartesian space of matrices and axes. Instead, Gerber urges scholars to remove conceptual architecture that forces ideal types into dichotomies.

Another conceptual architecture that resists binary reductionism can be found in the model of equilibrium as compared to balance. As previously discussed, compensatory morality is understood in terms of dualistic forms of displacement instead of complex and nested systems of relationality. For example, even criticisms of passionate work such as the sacrificial ethos of creative work (Ross 2000) or its pain-pleasure axis (McRobbie 2016) are formulated in binary terms. Joel Kaye (2014) offers a way to think about balance not as a duality but as a complex system of equilibrium: the dynamic intersection of diverse parts within the working whole. This model is a productive way for people (including researchers) to think and talk about the compensation between work and life or between passion and profit not as mutually exclusive, but as multifactorial and multidimensional. Kaye emphasizes that models of equilibrium are implicit instead of explicit, yet have a real presence and exert a real force within the human mind and world.

Diagrams of Political Change

My current work explores such conceptual architectures and models by analyzing them diagrammatically. Diagrams do not just mark divisions, periodize time, and map positionality, they also perform conditions for political change. As diagrams of post-Fordist flexibility, prosumption and playbour are performative and processual-the relations that they map and classify are not neutral (Mezzadra and Neilson 2012). Diagrams such as the binary opposition and its hybridization are not just graphical depictions of theories, they are epistemic images “operating between form and word, space and language, the diagram is both constitutive and projective; it is performative rather than representational.” (Vidler 2000, 6, Cited in Engelmann, Humphrey, and Lynteris 2020) The diagram’s function is not simply representation but the construction of a real that is yet to come (Butler, Jeanes, and Otto, 2014). The diagrams do not just describe the world empirically, they function heuristically by transforming abstract ideas into graspable images and actionable forms (Engelmann, Humphrey, and Lynteris 2020).

The diagrammatic of hybridity is inadequate for understanding or politicizing the boundary work that pervades post-Fordism because these concepts do not account for multiplex relationalities. This is because hybridity operates within what Karen Barad (2007) calls the Euclidean geometric imaginary. This is an imaginary of Newtonian determinism, where geometric concerns of measurement, calculation, and causality provide a God’s eye view of the universe in its completeness. At the centre of this Euclidean geometric imaginary is the line. Tim Ingold (2016) proposes that the straight line is the icon of Modernity, projecting order, totality, and infinity onto the world by dividing it through grids, spheres, and trajectories, into categories. Because the elementary form of these categories is the binary opposition, hybridism as a heuristic is constrained by its Euclidean imaginary.

In place of hybridity, my work proposes the diagrammatic of topology to conceptualize the post-Fordist flexibilization of value chains, employment categories, and worker subjectivities. Like the gravity model, topological approaches decenter the fixed properties and static poles of ontology rooted in the Euclidean geometric imaginary, which pervades Western epistemology. In his analysis of Michel Serres’s philosophy, Steven Connor (2004) describes the conceptual architecture enabled by topological frameworks as “new shapes of thought.” Like the boundary framework, topological approaches to culture are concerned with the contingent and unstable relations of contiguity, disjunction, and connection between inside and outside which are not defined by lines but shades of variation (Mol and Law 1994). This topological focus on relationality contrasts with topographical concerns of location, size, shape, and scale (Shields 2012). Crucially, topology advances actor-network theory’s focus on relationality by thinking beyond fixed positionalities in a grid of identifications, to consider the dynamics and poiesis of constellations of relations (Shields 2013). The primacy of change in cultural forms and relations of power is crucial to the topological approach (Lury, Parisi, and Terranova, 2012).

The diagrammatics of boundary, gravity, equilibrium, and topology emphasize varying practices and histories but share a focus on multiplex relationality as a counterpoint to binarism and hybridity. Therefore, these non-binary heuristics are not mutually exclusive and can be used together to interpret and politicize sociocultural phenomena. The most politically pertinent is post-Fordism’s normalization of hybridity through the discourse of flexibility, which institutes ambiguity as a permanent condition and is experienced in individual lives as anxiety, precarity, and ambivalence. Prosumption and playbour are neologisms that reflect and reproduce a zeitgeist of perpetual revolution. They also provide placeholders for complexity that legitimize ambiguities in users’ relationships with tech companies and in hobbyists’ expectations for fulfilling livelihoods. At a concrete level, hybridity harbours sociotechnical, cultural, and regulatory ambiguities that have been exploited by companies at the expense of consumers and workers. Arguments about the hybridization or dissolution of industrial categories give the false impression of flux while obscuring how their realignments are concretizing into common sense.

Specifying the diagrammatic of these realignments is vital to interdisciplinary debates about platform governance in the digital economy, participatory politics in media ecologies, and vocational passion in the creative industries. This specificity is needed to resist the ambiguities harboured by post-Fordism’s hybridizing tendencies, and to redirect them into more equitable configurations. Mark Banks (2017) proposes that within the cultural industries, this should start with much more equal access to opportunities, positions, and rewards. This should also include the political recognition of cultural work as a source of economic as well as social and aesthetic value. Kate Oakley (2018) expands this notion of “good work” in the creative economy beyond professional and industrial to the ecological and planetary scale of human flourishing. This must include the cultivation of emotionally, economically, and ecologically sustainable practices across global supply chains. Good work must also encompass non-economic forms of productivity, including waged, unwaged, and reproductive labour. This expansive vision for the future of creative work cannot be contained by the Euclidean geometric imaginary. This vision of good work can be productively conceived through the diagrammatics of gravity, equilibrium, and topology. Whether the organizing categories of life in this post-Fordist moment is a window of ambiguity or a threshold of transformation will depend on not only on regulatory interventions and discursive strategies but also on cultural diagrams.


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* School of Communication, Simon Fraser University.