My first experience of ‘permanent’ employment – a coveted job in publishing – was depressing for a number of reasons. I’d had jobs and been depressed before, but this job was special. It was the first on which I was able to rely for my subsistence, the first in which my contract wasn’t built around the word ‘casual’, and the first which felt causally connected to my growing doubt about the beauty and meaningfulness of life.
The most obvious source of this malaise was the job’s disappointing mundanity. The industry, its structure having calcified around a self-perceived fragility, had seemingly long since transformed editors into book production administrators, their interests in literature obsolete, imagination broadly shunned. Publishing decisions were based with hysterical circularity on what had been successfully published before, and the role of the editorial assistant in facilitating this was as absorbing as the season’s master spreadsheet.
Assistants sent proposals to experts for obligatory but perfunctory review; recorded ‘projects’, once accepted, as spreadsheet data; tracked their progress by occasional email and, skipping the inefficient step of reading, translated the relevant features of manuscripts into incomprehensible codes that would render them readable by software. The software did something known neither to the assistant nor even to the editor, whose job was limited to ‘acquiring’ abstract book ideas and claiming these as figures on an annual list of things acquired. Editing itself, along with production, fell to outsourced workers in Chennai. I spent a full year in that publishing house and am not sure I ever saw a book.
More depressing still than mundanity itself was the way the job’s deliberate mundanification stripped the assistant of any power. While garnished with the luxuries, then novel to me, of office perks, holiday pay and the chance to work entire days while seated on my arse, working as an editorial assistant returned me to the impotence I’d known, and had hoped one day to transcend, when working in restaurants and bars. No one was better at clarifying this than Nicole from HR.
Nicole was an embodied spirit of the ‘Professional Managerial Class’ – materially close to the workers but symbolically with the boss. Nicole was contractually mandated to respond with meaningful looks over the rims of her lemon-tinted glasses, which glared like the mean little headlights of some unaffordable car, to any assistant curious about the gap between their pay and the fabled London Living Wage. Her skill was to encourage through belligerent repetition our internalisation of the very forces we had supposed we might challenge upon entering her office – the forces that rendered us the company’s most replaceable resources, and thus the most resourceless when it came to asserting demands.
Nicole would recite to us with eerie perspicuity the facts of our situation. The ‘marginal value’ we brought to the business had been steadily diminished by the number of available replacements. Our roles required minimal skills yet were subject to ferocious competition – did we not understand that, with the rise of automation, this was only likely to get worse?
Publishing, it seemed, was somehow standing on the threshold of a robot invasion. For all the evident pointlessness of what remained of our roles, we resolved that we ought to cling to them for fear of something possibly worse. For as long as we, the assistants, were replaceable, our condition of relative powerlessness could be continually upheld.
We quickly understood that the only raise on offer was that of Nicole’s perfect brow. What followed was a kind of regressive enjoyment in the vapid but uncomplicated nature of our day-to-day working lives. Assistants, myself included, quickly warmed to the satisfactions of typing data into unfathomable bibliographic software, adding this unit of task-completion to tallies of tasks completed. We discovered new talents for doing this with messianic energy. Our knowledge that these tallies existed for no reason greater than themselves was stifled by the momentary pleasure of nevertheless having completed them. We began sincerely to describe new ‘projects’ as ‘exciting’.
The reality of working while sitting on a chair was in some ways worse than the backache we’d experienced in previous jobs. Endurance asked for more than mere acceptance of myths; it asked that we join in constructing them.
The humanoid robot might commonly be thought of as an invention of twentieth-century science fiction, presaging a coming millennium of automated life, yet the so-called Beginning of Western Literature gives us just such a figure. In the eighteenth book of Homer’s Iliad, a fleet of automated women are described at work in a forge in the sky. Built from lifeless gold but gifted the living energy of adolescents, these robots exemplify capacities (for fluent but restrained speech; fast but graceful movement) such as a mortal factory owner merely dreams.
Their master is the blacksmith god Hephaestus, a figure of advanced insecurity. Hephaestus has been out to prove himself since childhood when his mother threw him in the sea – an effort to conceal from heavenly society her son’s ‘defective’ legs. Lacking the looks or athleticism of other Olympian gods, it is instead as a captain of industry that he makes himself indispensable – founder of a skyborne hub of production on which the others will rely. Hephaestus establishes a field in which to name himself unrivalled – god of fire, exemplar of skill, patron of all craftsmen. Meanwhile a band of workers must support this sweaty individual, each one charming and durable, each interchangeable with the next.
Power and replaceability have long been mutually constructed. Indeed, central to the Iliad’s premise is a Greek king’s horror at his wife’s rejection for another, Trojan man. None in Troy will rest until the usurpation is avenged – a transgression of those unspoken boundaries that define what and who can be replaced. Throughout the tale, the trading and sacrifice of interchangeable daughters, girlfriends and wives reaffirms the irreplaceability of Greece’s men. These men are to their mortal women as a god is to his robot slaves.
Yet while many English words and concepts find their source in classical Greek, robot is not among them. The word doesn’t appear in English until 1920, in the translation of Karel Čapek’s play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots or R. U. R.). Derived from the Czech for ‘forced labour’, a notion loaded with a history of violence, robot contains a historically contingent critique of industrial relations.
By the 1920s and ’30s, renditions of automatable labour’s exploitation, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Chaplin’s Modern Times, resonated as more than poetic fantasies of godly indulgence. Vast economic systems cried out for increasingly technological regimes, whose growth – a thrill for business owners – came at the cost of their employees. In R. U. R., workers have been replaced by robots which are 2.5 times more efficient. Yet while human workers are largely absent from Čapek’s stage, their plight is clearly mirrored in the robots’ own abuse. Allowed no interests or enjoyment in life ‘they are less than so much grass’. For as employers’ fantasies of automation gathered weight in modern Europe, so did their fantasies of workers as resembling machines – highly efficient, barely demanding, easy to replace.
In Homer’s epic register, the (gendered) norm of exchangeable underlings is mired in a vision of the world where the overlord Zeus, weighing the fates of all mortals against each other, ensures that things play out as they always would have been. The structure of epic literature is cyclical, symmetrical. It hooks the maintenance of systems of power to an aesthetics of divine order and inherent ‘human nature’. The narrative rings that structure epic verse are embroidered with repetition as though to enforce the cosmic logic underlying systems of domination – justice in cycles of vengeance and geometries of fortune.
Two and half millennia after Homer, Čapek seized on a vision of power relations as destabilising sites of class struggle – slow but directional antagonisms, tending towards upheaval. While Homer’s Zeus administers fortunes from cookie jars of evil and blessing, Čapek brings the jars down to earth and suggests that the unfortunate might seize them. A few decades earlier, Marx had projected that a ‘class for itself’ would eventually awaken to its common interests; Čapek gave his robot revolt a year – 2000.
I started my first job in publishing in the mid-2010s, more than a decade after Čapek’s prophesied insurrection. Needless to say, it was characterised neither by post-liberation bliss nor the zealous vim of any liberation-in-progress. However cushy the scene of deindustrialised work, the threat of imminent replacement now dangled above that too. Underlings were tamed by the forms of deskilling that the Taylorist ‘science of work’ had innovated in the 1910s for Fordist factory workers. Fred W. Taylor’s management breakthrough had been to recognise the power that workers retained through their knowledge of the production process. If workers understand what management does not and acquire specific skills, they find themselves able to take liberties and to bargain with the value of their labour. Breaking the process down into meaningless chunks, splitting execution from understanding – these were the logics that underpinned our ignorance of what we were doing, making us more manipulable and, of course, easier to replace.
The Fordist compromise, however, had been and gone, having managed to ward off revolution. Profit crises from before our lifetimes had seen labour go wherever it was cheapest. Expectations around pay, working hours and what counted as ‘exciting’ were lowered; calls to resist this dwindled to the odd half-hearted mutter. Never having experienced an alternative state of affairs, the millennial graduate workforce rolled with archaic rhythms of existence. The capitalist system of which we were a part seemed determined from on high – an order within which our highest hope was to pursue our own relative excellence.
The graduate workforce of the 2010s had internalised the capitalist realism described by Mark Fisher as an ‘anti-mythical myth’. Tracing the roots of the present beneath the rubble of antiquity, the Italian writer and mythographer Roberto Calasso pinpoints a transformative moment within the ancient practice of sacrifice. While in the practice’s earliest form, the sacrificial victim was deemed irreplaceable, it later became acceptable to use a stand-in victim. In the mythos of the Trojan war a sacrifice had to be made before the Greeks could first set sale: the king had to kill his daughter for the winds to go his way. Yet in certain tellings Iphigenia is snatched from the altar, replaced at the crucial moment with a deer of equal worth.
Such acts of replacement conform to what Calasso describes as a reduction of sacrifice to ‘pure exchange’. This, he argues, immeasurably expands the power of those who trade. Indeed, as long as the exchange is ‘fair’, the irreplaceable beings who profit from these transactions do so without judgement, or even recognition. The violence of these acts of substitution comes to be obscured by the syntax of exchange, portending the imagined neutrality of the godless invisible hand. ‘In the end’, writes Calasso, ‘the world will be inhabited only by substitutes, hence by victims unaware that they are victims, because the irreplaceable priest who raises the knife over them has no name and no shape’.
In more charitable moments, I think of Nicole from HR as just such a victim of the workplace’s irreplaceable priest. An arbiter of rules in which Nicole had little stake, the priest had nevertheless persuaded her that she’d do well to enforce them. In archaic Greece, operations of power were given imaginative form in the almighty gods – Hephaestus in his forge line manages his robots; Zeus atop his special cloud arranges his human dolls. In the present, the ‘big Other’ – the ‘symbolic structure presupposed by any social field’, to use the words of Fisher, drawing on Žižek and Lacan – struggles to assume any meaningful shape that might be held to account.
Those who now attempt to direct dissent at a fallible capitalist entity find themselves unable to wrestle such a figure down. Sometimes it will seem to take the form of a boss, yet this boss will prove extremely unavailable. ‘Dirk’, the irreplaceable priest of my first job in publishing, was indeed often spoken of but never once seen. I imagined him as the Platonic Form of office operations, the curve-edged man on the toilet door, shapeless architect of workplace norms, an A4 piece of paper.
As in Kafka’s bureaucratic labyrinth, where an infinite regression of substitutes is all that constitutes the system, the ‘big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead we only ever confront its stand-ins’. In my office one such stand-in was Nicole; in Kitty Green’s 2019 film The Assistant, it is the grey, faintly oily suit brought to life by Matthew Macfadyen.
The Assistant follows an entry-level worker named Jane around the washed-out corridors of a New York film studio’s outer offices. Here, from the darkness of morning until late at night, Jane spends her day attempting to appease one or more imagined authorities. For one, there is an omnipresent public eye on the studio’s operations – the gallery to whom PR departments were invented to play. For Jane this involves quietly sanitising the absent boss’s office – powder is swept from the desk, needles cleared from the bin, earrings pulled out the carpet and cum stains cleaned off the couch.
Another is the boss himself, who is absent from the screen yet understood as the action’s prime mover. Never once making it into shot, his presence is nonetheless felt in cascades of email and telephone apologies.
The Assistant’s central action is Jane’s decision to report, to HR, the absent boss’s sexual coercion of a beautiful young intern. Enter Macfadyen, the guy whose role is to dismiss such disruptions. He maintains, with grim pleasure, the office’s homeostasis – its collectively constructed order of power and quotidian abuse. Macfadyen reminds Jane that her sought-after job is contingent on cooperation – that others who might replace her have gone to better schools.
Critics have read The Assistant as a film about Harvey Weinstein, yet that particular man seems to me beside the point. The film shows us the extent of employees’ involvement in the construction of Weinstein-like spectres and the role of a prevailing bureaucracy in enabling this process. The quest to reach the ultimate authority who might resolve such an issue as Jane’s will never end, because, as Fisher observes, ‘the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about the big Other’s intentions’. For as long as the office is ruled by such acts of collective interpretation, its logics are as unassailable as an Other who doesn’t exist – an irreplaceable priest with no name and no shape, or what lies beyond a doorway that is always crossable but never right now.
Image © Agustinalvia
This is an excerpt from Replace Me by Amber Husain, out soon with Peninsula Press.