Sleeping While Woke + The Leisure Class In A Digital Society
|Tressie McMillan Cottom||Oct 15, 2018|| 39||8|
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”.
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.
It drives us crazy in much the same way that performative wokeness seems to do. We are not supposed to be slacktivists, god forbid, but we are also not supposed to work so hard at being about the work. We will accept being an organizer. That is good, noble work much like an artisanal whiskey groomer. You can be an influencer, a writer, an organic intellectual — all variations of the same performative wokeness we kind of mock. Maybe we mock it because it feels inauthentic, sure. But it also feels a lot like the dirty labor that makes the digital machinations of our post-industrial, consumer-driven, attention economy work. Wokeness is the cog in the wheel of clicks and amplification and advertising and think-piecing. It is the basement of the digital society, made up of platforms, consumption, and little else. Wokeness is work that has to be done and it is work that cannot be done without making visible the hard, hard work of being woke.
I think we do not like that because it says something about our world that we do not like.
Leisure, Class, and Work
I was thinking a lot about Veblen, obvi. I also mentioned Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy by Richard E. Ocejo. It is a good ethnography with a couple of caveats. It never critiques gender and race in a way that I would really like to see someone do in the study of artisanal laboring.
In contrast, Lauren Michele Jackson went all the way to town on whiteness in craft brewing, which may be the craftiest of all the crafts:
Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white. Craft culture tells mostly white stories for mostly white consumers, and they nearly always sound the same: It begins somewhere remote-sounding like the mountains of Cottonwood, Idaho, or someplace quirky like a basement in Fort Collins, Colorado, or a loft in Brooklyn, where a (white) artisan, who has a vision of back in the day, when the food was real and the labor that produced it neither alienated nor obscured — and discovers a long-forgotten technique, plucked from an ur-knowledge as old as thought and a truth as pure as the soul.
Women often have to sell sex to take part in crafting cultures, be it sexy beer girl or sexy butcher (I am not making that one up). Being sexy is harder to do if you are not white, able-bodied, and generally moldable into ideas of who can be sexy. I love (by which I mean loathe) this quote from a Food & Wine article on three black women trying to diversify craft cocktailing:
I had to sell sex and be sexy and wear makeup and do my hair a certain way and have low-cut shirts or short dresses and show off my body and looks,” said Brown, a bartender at Chicago’s Dearborn Tavern and The Drifter. “It wasn’t the same [for men]. Joe Schmo could come in and look the part and still not know anything.”
Once these women finally got a chance behind the bar, they started to look around and notice that there weren’t many of them there to begin with. For Brown and her business partner Ariel Neal, who are both black, their status as “double minorities” was even more glaring.
“Many times we’d be the only women of color in the room,” said Neal, the CEO of Leira Knows Cocktails and Events. It led to some even more uncomfortable moments with guests. A patron once asked Brown if she had “freed the slaves that day,” and when she told her boss about the incident, he instead just brushed it off as an “educational moment” because it came from a high-paying guest.
Seriously, what is up with people and their slave jokes? I get this somewhat frequently and I have gotten old enough where I am more confused than angry about it. One drink and I swear to you some white person is going to make a slavery joke at me. Y’all should work on that.
I feel like a heel making a defense of wokeness after Kanye woked all over us this week. That is a woke fool, is what. Kanye aside, I feel some empathy for the deep emotions of being woke. For better or for worse, what we often perceive as performative wokeness is a lot of emotions being had in ways that make us uncomfortable. And, I would be remiss, if I did not point out that this is often filtered through our discomfort with certain kinds of people having emotions. Again, Kanye aside, emotions do not have to be the enemy of reason and certainly not the enemy of political mobilization.
There is also more than a little — well, if not racism then racism-adjacent — posturing in critiques of wokeness. It helps if we delineate the new internet slang from the history of the term in black organizing. This New York Times piece has exactly the racism-adjacent, mocking tone that I am talking about.
In contrast, somebody at the friggin Oxford Dictionary said not today Satan and I am here for it:
Woke itself, is much older than #StayWoke, and indeed had a meaning of being conscious of social systems of black oppression, among African Americans as early as the mid 20th century. The earliest example of a figurative meaning of woke that Oxford lexicographers could find is from 1962, when woke was listed in a glossary of African American slang with the definition ‘well informed, up-to-date’. This glossary was part of a 1962 article by the African American novelist William Melvin Kelley in the New York Times entitled “If you’re woke, you dig it’ about (among other things) how white beatniks were appropriating black slang.
Can we mock wokeness without being racism-adjacent? I am sure of it. I am also sure that it is probably about as much work as being woke, which is why so few people bother.
As I Take A Break
My students threw me a surprise birthday party during our methods workshop this week. Not only did they get me two new Very Short Introductions but they insisted that I read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and so I am.
Also, I have procured my copy of Caitlin Rosenthal’s Accounting for Slavery. I will probably put it in the queue next.
Thank you to each of you who sent condolences last week and to those who donated and to those who simply kept me and my family in your thoughts or prayers or ritual chicken dances. I do not judge. And, all of it mattered. I am still slower than I would like to be. Some days I am fine and then some days I see some young person and realize that Alex will be forever young and BAM! I am right back in the thick of it.
It will take awhile. But, I am here.
* If you send me a single thing about craft breastfeeding I will come to your house and put my feet on your table, hand to God.