culture. smark. life. by tressie mcmillan cottom.

Tapped Out

Sleeping While Woke + The Leisure Class In A Digital Society

I haven’t read the news in maybe nine days.

There, I said it.

I have some vague notion that Kavanaugh was confirmed, Melania Trump is an evil idiot, and that something-something Saudi Arabia. I am generally aware but I am not in the weeds. I am officially too in the thick of things to be woke, which of course means that I decided to meditate on wokeness.

Sophisticated people like to mock the idea of being “woke”.

BBC Comedy@bbccomedyWhen you so woke, you asleep. 😜 https://t.co/USEgKWPExM

To be woke is to be aware of the world around you, ideally curious about a world that is bigger than just yourself. In reality, wokeness is conflated with being an inch-deep and mile wide for attention. That has always felt like a cheap shot to me, even as I occasionally shoot that shot. It is all about the messenger, I suppose.

Some messengers disparage wokeness as performative. Seriously, you google “woke” and you get something that looks like this:

Just page after page of people being fed up with wokeness.

To be performatively woke is to “not do the work”…except the performatively woke work pretty hard. I do not know if my wokeness is authentic or performative but I know that it is a lot of hard work. I have to read the news and not just the news that I am interested in. I have to read the news that does not interest me - sports and economic futures and what-not - because that is where the front page news gestates.

I have to follow people who will bring me even more news than that even. News beyond my dreaded “liberal bubble”. I have to read news about people who hate me and wish me harm. I have to read news about politics that hate me and wish me harm. I have to raise money and not just from other people’s money. I have to give my own money or else I am a fake half-ass socialist. Worse, I am a woke academic. That is exceedingly harsh.

It is a lot to tell you the truth and I have been over-extended. It is the middle of the semester over here and that means a lot of grading and feedback and teacherly things. It also looks like running committees and getting my manuscripts over the finish line. Apparently this is also the season when one is supposed to plant grass if they want to frolic next spring. And, I want to frolic damnit.

Resting one’s woke feels a little wrong but setting it down a spell also revealed just how much work it takes. That, in turn, got me thinking about how and why we disparage the idea of being aware of the world around you.

Perhaps we are not mad at wokeness because it does not do the work but because it does so much work. The “vulgar occupations” of an industrial society are the kinds of jobs that make work visible. We have worked up a good cultural distaste for such work even as we venerate the idea of “American workers” as moral occupations. Indeed, we probably like the American worker best once it has become clear that she has been demoralized almost to the point of cultural extinction.

All of this got me to thinking about the vulgar occupations of a post-industrial society. I am spit-balling here. You should know that. If you are ready, here we go. In every culture certain forms of work are valorized. Some kinds of work become associated with different class-status groups. Poor people go to the military. Women become kindergarten teachers. Filipino women do low-wage service work. And so forth and so on. It was once theorized that for the highest status cultures in a given society, certain kinds of work become verboten. That work was associated with the machinations of industrialization. Making things.

Then a strange thing happened. We kind of stopped making things. At least, the composition of our economy shifted from one that produces to one that serves and consumes. That sentence is one elegant ass transition of political economy, boo boo. Just look at that with respect for a moment, please.

Anyway, if the vulgar occupations of the Industrial Age were low status industrial jobs there is presumably an analog in the post-Industrial Age. There are a lot of good books and such out there that propose different kinds of these occupations. The most commonly cited are call center jobs, technology manufacturing and mechanical turks.

There are also the odd exceptions, carved out of masculine occupations. Richard Ocejo talks about the “masters of craft”, which as far as I could tell were young-ish men pursuing low-status skills that could be transformed into the service work for the leisure class. They are the boutique butchers, craft cocktail makers, and old-timey barbers. You have seen them. They put wax on parts of their body and are featured a lot on Travel shows and the Food Network. They have philosophies about actually touching the meat carcass or dough starter or hair follicle, as if Jesus can be found deep, deep, deep in the bowels of their manual labor.

And it is generally masculine work, mind you. I have not read about craft nail salons or craft breastfeeding or what have you. While I am sure those things exist because wealthy women exist*, they do not seem to have the same cache as the craft butcher-bartender-candlestick maker dude. Just like the old vulgar occupations, the new vulgar occupations rely greatly on gendered divisions of labor.

In this new post-industrial age, then, we still have vulgar jobs but they are not neatly organized by manual versus knowledge work. Some manual work can earn the patina of high status, precisely because those occupations “make” things. The vulgar occupations seem to be less about the manual labor than about appearing to labor manually. There is something, still, about appearing to work that is at odds with the cultivated leisure of conspicuous consumption.

Is there any better example of this than President Donald Trump, the non-workingnest President since…well, since I do not know when. I am not a presidential historian. But, I do not need to be one to marvel at Trump’s very exacting performance of leisure. He refuses to perform working hard at governance and statesmanship. And, I suspect that it has always been partially performative presidential work. I mean, sure, knowing all the dirty details of conquest must take a toll on a body but I have never fully bought that the President of the United States works that hard. But, we have liked to believe that they do. We do annual retrospectives of presidents going gray. White House reporters have, until recently, reported on the President’s schedule with a sort of breathlessness. Barack Obama took the new tech dictator approach to demonstrating how hard he works, claiming to keep his suit choices to just black and gray so that he had more time for real work. Even George W. Bush, a good time boy in a long line of lazy good time boys, perfected the slightly rumpled demeanor of someone crash studying for an exam.

Not The Donald Trump. This is a man deeply committed to the classical model of wealth, including the performance of leisure. To wit, Thorstein Veblen:

In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. And not only does the evidence of wealth serve to impress one’s importance on others and to keep their sense of his importance alive and alert, but it is of scarcely less use in building up and preserving one’s self-complacency.

Trump does not just golf. He owns the golf courses. He does not vacation so much as he takes periodic breaks from lazing about to do a little politics. He will not do the reading. He will not pretend to do the reading. He refuses to perform working and drives us crazy.

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