AUGUST 7, 2021
WORK IS EVERYWHERE. It defines us, gives us personal satisfaction (or not) and social standing. We work both because we have to and because we want to — in which case we may not even call it work — and we fear not having work because being unemployed is not the same as having leisure.
The past few years have produced a raft of accounts of work, both scholarly and personal, studies of labor and individual narratives of employment, jobs, gigs, the ever more dispersed realm of individual interaction with the economy, made even more tenuous by the pandemic. A recurring topic in this field is Amazon. Among the world’s largest private and semiprivate employers, Amazon is number three, with over 1.2 million employees. No wonder the Google search string “working at Amazon” brings up 2.2 billion results. If one started clicking through them, one would doubtless soon run into Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler’s acclaimed account of working at Amazon (published in German in 2014 and released in English translation in 2018), whose protagonist, a nameless female temp employed for the holiday season at Amazon-Germany in Leipzig, merely confirms the company’s global reach.
But Geissler’s book has forebears. Given how much time and life humans spend at work and how deeply work shapes and defines us, economically, socially, emotionally, physically, this is not surprising. Work (the term I use for individual experience) and labor (for the collective economic activity) has a rich history in writing that is shaped by a broad range of Erkenntnisinteresse — angles of inquiry, in Jürgen Habermas’s sense. For modern pragmatic and scientific approaches in the US context, we can start with those pioneers of industrial management Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, the latter a direct precursor to Amazon’s labor practices today, with its algorithm-based workflow management (doubtless Taylor’s dream, had he only had the necessary computing power). A wonderful set of personal accounts, of “people talk[ing] about what they do all day and how they feel about [it],” is Studs Terkel’s Working, an acclaimed 1972 collection of interviews (the quotation is the book’s subtitle).
More extensive investigative narratives about jobbing include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (2001), in which the author reports on her own experiences trying to survive in America under prevailing labor conditions and pay schedules. Just a couple of years ago, Emily Guendelsberger, a Philadelphia journalist, pointed to Ehrenreich as her model when she took a job at Amazon and then wrote about the experience in her engaging account On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane (2019). This personal story comes close in spirit to Geissler’s but is more direct, pragmatic, and critical of the constant psychological and physical pressures that Guendelsberger identifies as a central experience of contemporary low-wage jobs. Geissler’s approach is more intellectual-reflective, as we will see.
In the German context — but of global impact, of course — the work of Karl Marx has provided a key impetus in thinking about modern conditions of labor but also, through his paradigm-shaping concept of alienation, about work and its impact on individuals. Literary works contemporaneous with Marx that depicted with a nostalgic glow work already passing into history include Gustav Freytag’s Debit and Credit (1855), the classic novel of the merchant bourgeoisie. Work/labor was a much-discussed topic in public discourse during the 1850s and 1860s, as Germany industrialized and labor took on national, if not nationalistic, characteristics, and Freytag shows the trade in colonial goods, with its exotic halo of faraway lands and colorful native producers, giving way to the cash nexus of global trade networks that Marx predicted.
A century later, in the 1960s spirit of political consciousness-raising and class awareness, Erika Runge’s oral history project Bottroper Protokolle (1968) gathered personal narratives that went beyond work to provide a fuller account of people’s everyday lives in their own voices. In 1976, Marianne Herzog’s Von der Hand in den Mund (From Hand to Mouth) provided a more sharply focused study of female employment in industrial mass-production processes (and in prison; there is not much difference as it turns out). Herzog’s book, now nearly forgotten, offers a bone-chilling collection of factual reports detailing women’s working lives in modern German industry, whose impact lies in their mundane simplicity.
A couple of decades later, Günter Wallraff’s Ganz unten (At the Bottom, 1985) went undercover to document the hardship of low-wage immigrant labor in German industry. Impersonating a fictitious Turkish laborer named Ali, Wallraff was sent to do the dirty and dangerous work that’s typical for short-term, disposable contract workers. More recently, Bianca Jankovska, in her angry, frustrated, but also deeply anxious Das Millennial-Manifest (Millennial Manifesto, 2018) provides a glance into the new precariat, her own virtual-life, always-on, self-exploiting generation. The direct experience of work is only one part of her narrative, but in the world that she evokes, leisure itself is a kind of work — the constant effort of posting and liking and following, the labor of the social-media influencer.
The changing nature of work, and its effect on workers, under the constantly evolving economic conditions of tech-driven capitalism, has long been noted, of course. The global competition, the growing wage disparities, the new forms of exploitation, the attendant stress and anxiety — these issues have been the subject of extensive economic and sociological research. The discussion, not new but newly urgent, of the so-called “end of work” — of the consequences of an automation system that relentlessly eliminates jobs — has also been widely addressed, for instance in Daniel Susskind’s recent study A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond (2020). Susskind considers the ongoing impact of industrial robotization and the consequent fear of loss of work and, hence, of the traditional ways individuals have made sense of their lives.
Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998) also chronicles the emotional and attitudinal effects of the ever more depersonalized working conditions of our time — the loss of trust, of human connection, of a sense of pride in one’s work and of being valued for it, and the dwindling possibility of finding self-definition and identity through work. Sennett’s description of the transformation of an Italian bakery in Boston over a 25-year period is sobering. After the bakery is taken over by a food conglomerate, the baking process is computerized, the bread only visible on a screen. The workers union is decertified and flex time initiated, with work on a contingency basis and no skill or experience required; the “bakers” no longer actually know how to bake bread. Employee commitment and pride are low, turnover is high. “Baking, shoemaking, printing, you name it, I’ve got the skills,” one of the women on the shop floor tells Sennett. “Operationally, everything is so clear,” the author observes, “emotionally, so illegible.”
Just last year, Anne Helen Petersen updated these widespread worries about work’s effects on individuals in her book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Petersen’s is another personal-experience-based narrative reflection on how contemporary work, with its demand of permanently “being on,” is consuming and destroying the author’s generation, squeezing them for time, money, and emotional reward. She identifies the seepage of work into life and the scattering of life into work as key culprits for the distracted, frazzled condition of millennials today. While psychologically and experientially based, her account also sketches out “how work got so shitty” (the title of chapter five) from an economic and global-market perspective, making her book similar to Jankovska’s account of millennial anxiety in a German context.
The point made again and again, in scholarly accounts and personal narratives alike, is that there must be better ways of working, less stressful and anxiety-inducing, more humane, cooperative, and fulfilling — forms of work that provide a sense of pride, ownership, and self-determination; also, simply working less. Alas, Amazon, in many ways a global leader in labor trends and personnel management, does not get us there. On the contrary, Amazon’s recent defeat of unionization efforts at its Alabama warehouse displayed the company’s hostility to any efforts at self-determination on the part of its workers. Meanwhile, on the cultural front, the discussion that has erupted around the Oscar-winning film Nomadland (2020) addresses the phenomenon of itinerant, often older, people who work short-term in Amazon’s warehouses across the United States. The movie is based on yet another account by an investigative journalist, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.
The media presented the Alabama unionization drive as a kind of litmus test for organized labor in the United States, with some hoping that a workers’ victory might give the movement a broader uplift. Those with more neoliberal views feared precisely such an outcome and its potential for crimping corporate freedoms in e-commerce and gig employment. But the Alabama union organizers lost, as did gig workers in California when the state’s Proposition 22, which attempted to classify such workers as employees in order to improve their working conditions, was rejected by voters. As for the movie, while it was much praised, it has also been criticized for its lenient depiction of work at Amazon, notably by Alec MacGillis in a March op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. MacGillis, a journalist for ProPublica, has himself just published a book about working at Amazon, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America (2021).
In fact, it seems that all roads in the global empire of neoliberal market capitalism lead inexorably to the doors of such giants of the gig economy as Amazon, with their algorithm-based management and precarious labor security. It is in this broad context, and specifically in light of recent political events in the American labor movement, that Geissler’s book has become newly current and to the point.
Seasonal Associate was based on Geissler’s own stint at Amazon in 2010. The original version, as translator Katy Derbyshire writes in her notes on the English-language text, “was dull and dry and five publishers turned it down.” In retrospect, given the success of more vigorous, first-person accounts such as Ehrenreich’s, Guendelsberger’s, and Bruder’s, these editors may have been right. But then, according to Derbyshire, Geissler rewrote the book, “changing the perspective as an experiment that gave her more control over her readers’ interpretation, making it much more playful, adding less factual elements, and blending in events and ideas that came later.”
Geissler’s key structural move involved splitting the narrator off into a voice that talks directly to the nominal protagonist, in the way we all talk to ourselves sometimes. The setup provides for a kind of running (self-)commentary that at times seems to come from a point in the future, the voice anticipating what the protagonist will be doing: “Later you stroll back; you’ve done all your rushing for today.” While it soon becomes clear that the narrative voice and the protagonist are the same person, their structural separation provides a clever device for commentary and criticism, as well as for assessment of situations and actions both as they happen and in anticipation and retrospection. The perspective is both broken and doubled, the classic framework for irony. What makes this even more striking is the alienating fact that the narrative voice addresses the protagonist formally (with “Sie” instead of “du,” the informal pronoun one would use in German when just talking to oneself). This gives the double perspective a hierarchical dimension and a kind of official predictive or evaluative quality — a nuance that cannot be translated into English, though the inherent duality of the setup comes across well.
Toward the end, Geissler’s narrator proposes more aggressive forms of critical thinking, even egging the protagonist on to minor acts of sabotage. Thus, after the protagonist wonders about women coming all the way from Chemnitz to work in Leipzig, subjecting themselves in the process to a harsh, cold commute, the narrator comments, “Of course you’ve heard tales of people who walk miles every day through terrible weather to get to work and back, but those are stories from a time when it was perfectly normal to be subjugated.” This is just one example of the acerbic irony that emerges from the assessment-enabling narrative fissure in Geissler’s text.
As the Christmas rush approaches, the narrator predicts that the protagonist will leave her job before the official end of the contract. “So you suddenly have this thought: I could just stop. I don’t have to see it through”; however, melding the commentator’s and the protagonist’s voice, she orders, “We’re not leaving this book until you’ve taken action” — the book, not the job. The action the narrator suggests takes on a subversive tint: “All I mean is that you ought to have more guts than me and not try to perform your work as well as possible; you should be trying to perform your work badly. Or, as Elfriede Jelinek writes: ‘Anyone alive disrupts.’ You ought to prove to your employer that you’re alive.” The text features numerous literary and cultural references, to sources ranging from Chekhov to Hannah Arendt, intertextual linkages that mark the protagonist as a rare character to be found working at Amazon. But these allusions have an anchor in the plot, too, as the protagonist, when “receiving” books into inventory, occasionally tears off a wrapper and browses. One (fictive) title she peruses is “How to Kill a Frustrating Job: Why it Doesn’t Matter Who You Work For,” whose back-cover blurb says, among other things: “[A]ll jobs are the same in principle, and your frustration at work is down to you.”
Despite such lines as “By now you’re doing more of a shuffle, walking sedately with heavy feet, almost always aching” or “During your remaining working hours, you simply continue to collapse,” Seasonal Associate moves the experience of work from the body into the head. Geissler’s argument ranges from work-place criticism, including technical, surveillance, and ergonomic issues, to deeper philosophical reflections. And the reading pleasure lies more in the book’s irony, black humor, intertextuality, and intellectual play than in its class outrage and condemnation of economic exploitation. As a result, while the book might seem less of-the-moment and activist, it is more durable, ambitious and, well, literary.
Toward the end, the protagonist begins to commit acts of resistance, even small-scale sabotage, by not “count[ing] the products in the tote,” “entering any old number in the system, which responds by beeping its error alarm,” and “send[ing] the tote off anyway.” In a darkly funny twist, this behavior seems to rebound on the protagonist when her own online order of a Christmas ornament arrives damaged, evidently by someone else packaging it negligently for some other large e-commerce business. On top of this, as if to add insult to injury, the protagonist learns at the very end that “Amazon is investing some 775 million dollars in buying a warehouse robot manufacturer. […] And you don’t have any objection.”
Finally, the narrative voice adopts a sweeping philosophical perspective, implying that the protagonist will get there herself eventually: “The present performance subject is identical to the Hegelian slave apart from the circumstances that it does not work for the master, but exploits itself voluntarily. As an entrepreneur of itself, it is both master and slave simultaneously.” And there you have it: the book’s intellectual appeal but also, if the reader comes from a more activist position, its soft, evasive underbelly.
Hans J. Rindisbacher is a professor of German and Russian at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His academic interests include Swiss, German, and comparative literature, cultural studies, material culture, art, fashion, and photography. In 2019, he co-edited Writing Switzerland: Culture, History, and Politics in the Work of Peter von Matt.