Talk Nishant Shah on Work and Labour
At the opening of the new academic year 2019/2020
On 11 September 2019 ArtEZ studium generale organized the event Hidden Histories'. It was the opening of the new academic year 2019/2020. Nishant Shah (Vice President Research) talked about Work and Labour. Missed it? Read this transcript.
A very good evening, everyone. My name is Nishant Shah, for the colleagues who speak Dutch I sit on the “college van bestuur”. For people who don’t it’s the executive board of the university. ArtEZ is a university of applied arts and the administrative head is an executive board which has one president and two vice presidents. I’m one of the three and my portfolio is largely in research development across the university.
It is such a pleasure to be here and just being able to welcome you on the behalf of a very large community who I stand in front of and I’m just going to start my PowerPoint so we can quickly run through some of the things I want to talk to you today about. So, perhaps one of the things that happen when you are in this more executive position is that you have a ceremonial role, like my mother threatened me that for my birthday next year she’s just going to buy me a very large scissor because a large part of my work seems to be just going to different places and cutting ribbons. And I give like a stock speech about ‘this is ArtEZ, this is how many people we have, this is what we do and so on and so forth’. So it’s really exciting when I get to be in a place like this where I don’t have to do that. Instead I’m very privileged that -- Joke Alkema, who you’ve just heard, she’s the coordinator, the director of the Studium Generale programme – she invited me to come and talk about a variety of themes that are running across the Studium Generale over the last three years now and will continue running in the next year as well. And it’s a great pleasure that I’m going to be able to do this before people who are much more intelligent, much more creative and have a much grander practice than me are going to speak, so I’m very happy that I speak in the beginning and that I hand over the floor to them. But there are guests and colleagues from the Sonsbeek 2020, thank you very much, we are very excited that we are partnering with them for the exhibition coming of next year. WALTER books has become our home away from home in Arnhem, so if you are ever in Arnhem, please make sure you are visiting them, it’s one of the most exciting communal events that you will ever visit. And Mister Motley who’s been a partner with Studium Generale for a very long time designing different events, I’m very happy that we share this space with you.
The event today is particularly interesting because it characterises three core values that the graduate school stands for. We believe that art has a role to play in the way in which we change our worlds and the kind of futures that we build and that the three core values that we stand for are resilient futures, equitable societies and critical diversity. But I particularly want to take the opportunity today to talk about the historical formation of work, largely because work, labour and its politics are questions that we will keep on encountering across the different programmes that we teach and especially in the research board (...). And I do want to take this opportunity to perhaps start thinking about work as a particular mantra of the times that we live in, right? I’m sure almost everybody has heard at some point or the other that you must love your work. You don’t have to love your parents or your family or your country, but you must love your work. There’s something, this passionate mantra that keeps on coming our way all the time that if you really like your job you will never have to work for a single day in your life, right? Because if you love something so intensely then you can carry it home, you can sacrifice your relationships, your health, your wellbeing and so on and so forth, because work is worship. There’s a particular idea about how work has become so completely tied to the questions of creativity, inspiration, passion, that everything else can be discounted or discouraged and perhaps given off to automations and machines, so to speak. So, I want to talk about why we are thinking through this glorification of work in the kind of times that we live in, right? Because work seems to now have exceeded the normal rationalities of economics. Like you don’t work to earn money, that’s so bourgeois, right? So 20th century. I mean, who talks about money in the age of bitcoin? That we should work because we have worth in our work, that we are passionate and it’s effective and it’s rewarding and it’s an experience which goes beyond its economic utility and transaction. And I want to suggest to us, does this glory of I love my work, I say this every morning when I wake up, “I love my work, I love my work”, you have to, right? But it has a fairly sinister implication and a history of labour which is often made invisible. So even before I go kind of very super historical on you, let’s think about how glorification of work allows for making different kinds of bodies and labour invisible in the conversations around work practices. This is, on the extreme side here is of course the example of the Foxconn workers in China, so for everybody who owns an Apple device like me we will have to take ethical responsibility that at least 28 people have killed themselves making our products every year because they live in conditions of bonded slavery, and there is no other way to describe it, right? But when we talk about Silicon Valley productions, when we talk about our devices, when we talk about design, these are the bodies which are obviously no longer thought of as working, as producing these in some way. Until the Foxconn exposé happened in 2015, most of us thought that our Apple devices were designed by machines, right? Because they look so pure and they look so beautiful. And you know that joy that you get of unboxing an Apple device and it emerges like on a pedestal, like God, and then you stare at it and then you see that it’s completely unsoiled and scrubbed of any hands and fingerprints, you forget that for example there is a high probability that your machine had fingerprints which were not just smeared in sweat but also in blood, (...) and how these traces of labour are absolutely scraped away from the devices that you use. Similarly we keep on talking about appraisals and worth and stock of companies like Facebook and other social media giants, very quickly forgetting that there is an entire army of people in the global south whose job is to look at content which is filled with hatred and deprivation and perversion. These are called content cleaners or content moderators, and all they do is remove everything that will offend your and my privileged sensibilities so that we will continue more and more engagement and giving more data to practices or platforms like Facebook. Or we talk about the new idea of ‘sharing is caring’; about how everything that you own must be shared, often forgetting that at the heart of the gig economy is precarious labour: people who can no longer afford to do anything more than just continue working as exploited machinations and (...) in a certain way. So I’m just looking at this, I’m looking at this gloom and doom kind of a scenario for you to make a very simple point: that all of these, the modern slaves in technology factories, the hidden cleaners who care for our systems and the precarious worker who no longer enjoys any form of social security, are clear examples of people whose work is not counted, because it’s not work that is defined through love and passion and creativity. An employee working in a Foxconn factory for 15 hours a day does not love her job. Indeed, not counting their work then allows for two things to happen. The first, they get treated as nonhuman workers because their work doesn’t seem to be human, sometimes receiving less care than the machines and tools that are used in the production. And second, their work is imagined as low skill and mechanical and hence easily replaced by automation and machine learning. So, I want to think through this new liberal paradigm about the whole idea of work hard, play hard, which establishes work and productivity as the worth and identity of an individual. You are what you work, your work must be inherently gratifying so that it does not matter if you are made to burn out, work hard, be exploited or denied basic human rights in the quest for optimisation. This particular narrative of work as play is what Theodore Schultz who’s an economist of digital labour calls playbour. It’s work which comes to you as play, as fun and games and in the effect you don’t particularly pay attention to the bodies who cannot play or who are not invited to play. And I have two very quick stories for you trying to look at how this is not a new thing, but there is both a postcolonial and a feminist history to be unpacked in thinking through how we understand our current conditions of work and labour. The first one comes from India, my home country, where I grew up, and I want to begin by talking about Thomas Babington Macaulay whose name can only be explained by the fact that his parents must not have loved him too much. Because if you name your child Thomas Babington Macaulay that’s bordering on abuse, I think. So Macaulay in 1835 was the governor general of the British East India Company that was also ruling India at that point, and who made this very provocative statement where he said that a single shelf of good European literature was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. He was responsible for example for the destruction of countless archives and libraries in the countries where books which were not European in nature were no longer allowed or thought of as important. He is singlehandedly responsible for more books dying than the entire collection of library of congress existed during that time. So, Macaulay, for many things that he wanted, he wanted basically the Indian native or the colonial subject to be trained to become a good worker for the British East India Company, right? Because that was the basic idea of colonisation in secular countries like India. So, Macaulay does a very strange thing, he starts English language education in India, which produces people like me 300 years later. In my country I’m actually called derisively sometimes “Macaulay’s bastards”. This is the wet dream that he had of producing English speaking middlemen who would have internalised British history, their morals, their codes, their ethics, the way that they dress, in a way in which even the British haven’t mastered it in many ways. But Macaulay had a very strange thing, so he wanted to produce people like me, people who would work on the behalf of the British East India Company to run the country that they are colonising. And while he was doing that, he decided that one of the first things that needs to be put into place is not really colleges, it’s not literacy, it’s not anything else but a very weird law which is called ‘The Unnatural Sexual Acts Law’. In India, just like in many other postcolonial countries, this became a code which basically tried to criminalise all sexual acts except for those penile vaginal intercourses that were intended for procreation. So if you’re having sex outside of any other reason but for having procreation and any other form of sexual activity which is beyond the penile vaginal intercourse was immediately considered unnatural in these particular places. He set out this law, which was inspired by the ‘Anti Buggery Law’ of the UK at that point and it introduces a series of guidelines on how to curb the homo-erotic excesses of the Indian native, one of which was to create boundaries in closed spaces, not allowing for the unclean male bodies to touch each other, which would otherwise lead to the temptation of the flesh. These boundaries became the blueprint of how much space must be maintained between two men in a closed working environment so that they can concentrate on their work, restrain their libidinal desire and resist the urge to break into song, dance and sodomy. The image loop is a recrafted artwork by the Raqs Media Collective in New Delhi, which illustrates both the kind of precision of resistance required between two male bodies employed in the British East India Company, but it also kind of reminds you completely of how it was only once the native was taught how to count and be counted, to compute and be computed and once the native was trained to understand the penal implications of his penile desires, then the native could be invited to become a worker for the East India Company. That work has always come with a large history of contamination of morality, of domination and control, where only certain kinds of bodies have been accepted as ready for work. And then there is a huge amount of human violence both at the ontological and epistemological level, which needs to be perhaps looked at.
My second story comes from the history of computing, that’s also one of the disciplines that I’ve studied, and this comes from the incredible material historian of computation called Jennifer Light. Excuse me if you already know this, but there was a time in the 1940s when women were called computers. In fact, the first computing devices in the history of computation were real life human beings and they were women. This is during the war, there are no longer men available with degrees in maths and physics, so the colleges in Europe and America started opening up themselves to getting women a chance to study mathematics and physics. And these women were actually hired as computers who worked in the mainframe, because the large computer, more or less, was the size of this room, right? And these women literally used to sit in these spaces and then do advanced computation and so on and so forth. Jennifer Light tells us the story of how in the 1960s when these computers were women, it took only 30 years to come to the 1990s when we started saying that women are not good at computing. How did that happen? How is it that the first people who were computers were essentially said that they’re no longer good at computing? And Light looks at how it’s only because the computer started shrinking and a lot of the role, which was of the mainframe architect, eventually got automatized by different things like silicon chips, by different forms of computer architecture, assembly line divisions, and so on and so forth. And once the main role got automated it took us 30 years to scrub women entirely from the history of computing and we now do these things about saying “Oh, we need more women in stem, we need to catch them young and treat the women specially to understand how physics and computation works, so that they can establish a new relationship with computing and we can include them in that particular dynamic”, right? So I’m presenting both of these stories to you to just think about a very different, a very simple idea: that when we think about labour and when we think about work, if you have a body that has been attributed with work, congratulations, you have privilege. But just because you have the capacity to work and just because you have the capacity to fit into a matrix of productivity and efficiency, does not necessarily mean that that’s the truth for everybody else. Work is not a meritocratic system and it is not a system that is outside of the matrix of domination, control and violence.
So I’m going to stop here and take the opportunity to do something very, very strange which you know, I should possibly not be allowed to do formally, is that at least for all of our students who are coming in for the next two years you are going to be asked to work very hard. I’m going to ask you not to work hard, but to labour hard and make a distinction between the two. Just because labour does not fall necessarily under the matrix of efficiency, productivity and external worth. Labour is the work that you often do which gets uncounted, it’s often feminised, it’s often attributed to bodies which have the least privilege in the structures that you exist. So while you work, make sure that you are aware that work is a contract, that work is a social construction, and that work is not the same as worth. That everything that you do does not have to translate into matrixes of work, but that if you want to start finding worth, it might be interesting to start finding it in different forms of collectivity, organisation and hopefully communities of care. And maybe that’s a good point for me to stop, to welcome you once again to the new academic year, we’re all going to work very hard, but we’re going to work hard at building communities of care. Thank you very much.