Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times

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    Madeline Lane-McKinley

    Publisher: Common Notions

    Year: 2022

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 256 pages

    ISBN: 9781942173700

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Work is a joke. Laughing at it is political.

Humor, Groucho Marx asserted, is “reason gone mad.” For Walter Benjamin, laughter was “the most revolutionary emotion.” In a moment when great numbers of people are reevaluating their commitment to the hellscape we call “work,” what does it mean to take comedy seriously—and to turn it against work?

Both philosophically brilliant and deeply personal, Comedy Against Work demonstrates how laughing about work can puncture the pretensions of tyrannical bosses while uniting us around a commitment to radically new ways of making the world together. At the same time, Lane-McKinley exposes a war at the heart of contemporary comedy between those who see comedy as a weapon for punching down and those whose laughter points to social transformation. From stand-up to sitcoms, podcasts to late night, comedy reveals our longing to subvert power, escape the prison of work, and envision the joys of a liberated world.

About the Author

Madeline Lane-McKinley is a writer, professor, and Marxist-feminist with a PhD in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a founding member of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Review, The New Inquiry, Entropy, GUTS, and Cultural Politics. She is also the author of the chapbook Dear Z and a contributor to The Museum of Capitalism.

What People Are Saying

“Comedy can be a weapon, Madeline Lane-McKinley reminds us, in any hands, for good or for fascist purposes. In her hands, it is a scalpel for taking apart the world of work, for teaching us how it got so damn bad. But it is also, she brilliantly reminds us, a tool for dismantling capitalist common sense. Join her as she encourages us to embrace laughter as a refusal of work and to claim the rich pleasures of being a killjoy.” Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won't Love You Back

Comedy Against Work is the most pleasurable, wide-ranging, and deeply knowledgeable guide to the contradictions of contemporary capitalist culture that I have read in a very long time. Lane-McKinley achieves that rare accomplishment: a book that will appeal equally to casual lovers of humor and its history, from the origins of stand-up to the lockdown comedy podcast, and to readers looking for a critical account of how this history of humor intersects with the changing landscape of work in the U.S. context from the 1970s to the present. Comedy Against Work sits squarely within the great tradition of Marxist books that offer a framework for thought to an audience longing to understand why things are the way they are, how they got to be that way, what it means, and what we can do with this knowledge to change our conditions for the better. A great addition to the growing corpus of popular manifestos coming from leading thinkers of the Left.“ Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox

“From working-class sitcoms to podcasts about making podcasts, this whirlwind tour of American comedy brings labor to the front, where Madeline Lane-McKinley reveals it has been all along. You’ll never laugh the same!” Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials

“When work sucks and society appears on the verge of collapse, the laugh-makers are there to numb us back into passivity. But sometimes, Madeline Lane-McKinley reminds us, there are class clowns who help us envision a more egalitarian alternative and future. In this radically insightful and critical analysis of the relationship between labor, comedy, and political economy, Lane-McKinley looks closely and clearly at the anti-utopian and utopian potential of comedy alongside the social and political divides that pervade our everyday lives.” Raúl Pérez, author of The Souls of White Jokes: How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy

“What a deeply creative exploration of humor and its discontents Madeline Lane-McKinley has given us, one which takes readers on a tour of sitcoms, standup, late night and comedy strikes. What is so funny about late capitalism, anyway? This is a book about the wages of laughter and it’s for anyone who has wondered whether the joke is on capitalism or them.” Leigh Claire La Berge, Fellow at Free University of Berlin and author of Wages Against Artwork

“Madeline Lane-McKinley is among the brightest fruits in the anglophone critical ecology of utopian thinkers, and this hotly anticipated book does not disappoint. Here, the labors of laughter—in and against capitalism's work society—become a way of understanding structural violence, a gauge for shifting economic logics, and also a possible weapon for liberation. In these pages, Lane-McKinley showcases the full potential of the unique tendency of antiwork cultural criticism for which Blind Field, the journal she co-founded, is known. Comedy Against Work not only educates our desire for a world utterly transformed, it provides us with tools that can help us actualize it.” Sophie Lewis, author of Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation

“Moving deftly between mordant critique and radical hope, Comedy Against Work illuminates both the comedy of work and the work of comedy. Attuned to comedy’s history and politics as well as to its form, Lane-McKinley offers a compelling and original narrative that gets us from Lucille Ball frantically trying to keep pace with an assembly line to contemporary feminist stand-up and its anti-work “dream of rest.” Comedy Against Work also provocatively breaks the form of the traditional scholarly “work” by interweaving personal narratives—from Lane-McKinley’s memories of watching her grandmother watch TV while doing housework to her own experiences as an academic “gigworker.” Smart, moving, and politically fierce, this book will change the way we think about comedy and illuminate the way to a world beyond work.” Annie McClanahan, author of Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture

“A lively, amusing, galvanizing charting of comedy's unique capacity to register our pervasive ambivalence about work: our dependence on it, our complicated ways of being shaped and plagued by it, and our desires to escape it. Rooted in our antiwork moment, but historicizing comedic forms from the sitcom to the stand-up routine to the Covid comedy special, Lane-McKinley sees comedy as revolutionary laughter, bulwark against despair, collective complaint, and utopian longing because the world of work we've known—abuse, compulsion, mortal danger to self and planet—isn't the only possibility.” Sarah Brouillette, Professor of English, Carleton University

Excerpt

Introduction: Work is a Joke

“‘Labour’ by its very nature is unfree, unhuman, unsocial activity[.]” —Karl Marx
“Humor is reason gone mad.”—Groucho Marx

Nothing quite captures the dystopianism of our everyday lives as precisely, and exhaustively, as the idea of work. In its most capacious sense, work is waged, unwaged, valued, exploited, secure, precarious; work exceeds the boundaries of jobs and careers, sometimes called love and care; work is what it takes to “not work,” whether in the fantasy of leisure, the work of others, or the day-to-day work of surviving unhoused, unemployed, and uninsured. Work is our social totality, comprising all the activities we cannot know without compulsion under capitalism; it is what we struggle to see beyond, think outside of, or imagine alternatives to. Work, in short, is what robs us of life, while being, at the same time, indistinguishable from whatever life might be.

Work is also killing us, and not just metaphorically. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a global study which determined that roughly 745,000 people died from overwork that year alone, while an estimated 488 million more were exposed to overwork-related health risks. Between 2000 and 2016, the study found that work-related disease burden had risen substantially, with the number of deaths from heart disease associated with overwork increasing by 42%. Four years later, work was made even more dangerous with the spread of COVID-19. Across workforces, so many people continue to die unnecessary deaths, sacrificed for the sake of capitalism’s survival in a regime of “going back to normal.” Meanwhile, the pressure placed on households has intensified housework and caretaking, along with rates of domestic violence. And workers who were lucky enough to have remote jobs in this time, lessening their chances of exposure and transmission, have faced their own set of risks including increased rates of substance abuse, self-harm and suicide.

The contours of work have long been debated, precisely because to define something as work has such tremendous political stakes. In Marxism, whether or not certain kinds of work are value-producing, and how, will remain a point of contention for the foreseeable future. The crucial Marxist-feminist interventions of the twentieth century focused on the integral role of reproductive labor under capitalism – labor primarily based in the household, naturalized as labors of love, including cooking and cleaning but likewise, childcare, eldercare, nursing, sex, and much more. The last decade in Marxist-feminism has seen a trend toward social reproduction as a framework through which, as Tithi Bhattacharya suggests, “we begin to see emerge myriad capillaries of social relations extending between workplace, home, schools, hospitals – a wider social whole, sustained and co-produced by human labor in contradictory yet constitutive ways.” To the extent that ‘work’ describes the dystopia of capitalist life, in this sense, it also illuminates a utopianism through these capillaries of social relations, orienting us towards the possibilities of a wider social whole. “Because reproduction is inherently an affirmative process,” Amy De’Ath explains, there has been a strong tendency in Marxist-feminism to conceive reproduction through “its potentiality as a site of resistance.” What happens, De’Ath asks, “when we conceive of reproductive labor not as an outside or excess to the sphere of value-production… but as a negative dialectic internal to capital and labor?” While drawing from different Marxist-feminist conceptions of reproductive labor and social reproduction, this book approaches work as both expansionary and profoundly conflicted – by no means just a matter of jobs and employment, and very often a matter of what is unseen or even disacknowledged. Rather than approach work as a category, however, I want to think about work as a problem. To the extent that a category seeks to contain, distill, and organize, a problem generates an opening for critique, disruption, and transformation. In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks describes work’s problem as “not just that it monopolizes so much time and energy, but that it also dominates the social and political imaginaries.” Work exhausts our capacities to imagine a life against it, dominating our dreams, and even our attempts at refusal. To this problem, Weeks asks, “What might we name the variety of times and spaces outside waged work, and what might we wish to do with and in them?”

At the heart of ‘work’ – like any dystopia – there are utopian questions. In Lost in Work, Amelia Horgan beautifully articulates this contradiction: work, she argues, must be understood for its world-transforming capacities, yet as it stands, these capacities “are channeled into activity that causes harm on a massive scale… [toward] the destruction of human life.” While epitomizing so much of our shared misery, the various activities that comprise ‘work’ in our life under capitalism also reflect back to us the ways that human effort, as Horgan writes, “has the power to change the world.” Work, on the one hand, typifies our life under capitalism—the conditions of living in a world that creates so much harm, on so many scales—and on the other hand, work gives us insight into the desires and longings over which capitalism continually exerts its control.

In recent years, this contradiction has threatened to burst the world of work. “Work itself is no longer working,” Sarah Jaffe argues in Work Won’t Love You Back. Today’s ideal workers “love their work but hop from job to job like serial monogamists; their hours stretch long and the line between the home and the workplace blurs,” she explains, exploring the ways in which this idea that we should love our work has been “cracking under its own weight” since the 2008 financial crisis. The “world that constructed that desire is falling apart around us,” she writes, “the exposure to capitalism’s cruelty makes the demand to love our jobs a brutal joke.”

This book is about that brutal joke and how we inhabit it, while dreaming of ways out. It’s a story that begins with the post-crisis era, during which, as Jaffe suggests, the illusions and false promises of work steadily eroded—just as, paradoxically, the world of work became ever more suffocating. I trace these dynamics in the comedy boom of this period, looking to comedy as a complex terrain of capitalist work ethics and anti-work longings. I consider the ways the comedy industry has thrived in capitalist crisis, and how comedy has been produced and experienced through different media ranging from live performance to stand-up specials, serialized shows and podcasts, films, as well as popular histories and memoirs, all while teasing out how and why these uneasy feelings about the world of work become legible and collectively thinkable through comedy. The attempt, throughout this book, will be to examine and question anti-work comedy as a utopian impulse of contemporary culture, with the potential to disarticulate and challenge dominant conceptions of work. In thinking through this critical potential, I’ll focus on comedy in the context of three historical turning points: capitalism’s ideological and economic post-crisis recovery, the workplace critiques of #MeToo, and the transformations of work in the COVID-19 pandemic. During each of these junctures, in different ways, comedy not only flourished, but brought the world of work into question—never taking one step without the other. Through these important historical transformations, this book follows anti-work critique and post-work longing as key aspects of contemporary comedy, and as sources of insight into collective, political vacillations in this time between revolutionary eruptions of energy and descents into melancholia, nihilism, and dystopian dread.

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