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Dispatches of a Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire

Phillip Lightweis-Goff, collage entitled Her struggle's real, though sometimes she isn't (2020).
Fig. 1. Phillip Lightweis-Goff, Her struggle's real, though sometimes she isn't (2020). 

Is there any critical concept so abused in our political culture as “emotional labor,” a term seemingly used—like mansplain— to settle scores, to end conversation? Even now, I revise myself. Yes, “wave” language in feminism is more abused, and used to banish the radical histories that produced critique within feminism. Yes, intersectionality is conceptually abused, as a defense or elision of the conservative bona fides of women politicians from Hillary Clinton to Kamala Harris. This wandering away from context seems part of the whole: the rendering of feminism, and feminist language, as an affective and aesthetic position. A personal brand, even.

Our public sphere is largely denuded of the critical reading practices necessary to situate the language of critical theory. And yet, “concept creep” and “conceptual drift” from academic fields to public writing have escalated in the last decade, not simply because of Twitter, but because of crisis-induced exodus from the academy that has likely allowed ideas to travel with those who’ve left. Nonetheless, these terms can circulate without a history, and when they do, I punctuate them with a simple line: Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight. When elitism and critical discernment are conflated with racism and homophobia—thanks to multinational corporations’ interest in producing diverse superheroes in their cinematic universes—Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight. When intersectionality circulates outside of the legal context into which Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced it . . . well, we might have to choose someone other than Benjamin. Even now, emotional labor is removed from the economic and social contexts that produce untenable working conditions for contingent and precarious faculty, among whom women are over-represented—much as they were in the fields to which Arlie Hochschild introduced the term in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1979).

Meritocracy Requires Acts of Faith

I’ve done the work that Hochschild describes, across a retail counter, while carrying mail, and as a teacher, so the conceptual muddiness troubles me. What can I say? I’m a reader, and emotional labor is itself a reading practice, reading the collective need of a workplace or a profession for particular kinds of affect and service. “Emotional labor,” as Karen Berry and Simon Cassidy write, “exists when there is a discrepancy between the emotional demeanour that an individual displays and the genuinely felt emotions that would be inappropriate to display.” As a contingent worker in academia, I am asked to perform the belief that I will eventually attain something like permanence or tenure, a performance underscored by publishing and conferencing, such as transmitting live to a virtual conference on a beautiful Sunday in January when I could be listening to my neighbors practice trumpet for a socially-distant Mardi Gras. This labor conceals a truth that is simple, liberating, and true: I will never have a tenure-track job, and I know this because I have published more than many of the tenured professors listening to that virtual presentation.

For ten years, I went on the academic job market every autumn without fail, save the year that my father-in-law died and my partner and I, frightened at the ways that the field had failed me, used his life insurance to repair a distressed home in New Orleans—certain that any labor we put into this falling down barn would have a more predictable return than my unrewarded efforts at MLA. To recollect a few startling incidents: I hobbled on two broken feet to an interview and then a crawfish boil in sub-zero temperatures in a hotel suite in Boston for a school that I could have driven to without difficulty, had we all just stayed home in Louisiana. I interviewed in Los Angeles for two longshot jobs in the fields adjacent to my area of study. At one interview, I was told that 1974 was a critical year, one unrepresented on my sample syllabus. The other committee urged me to add a chapter on India to a book about US spectacle lynchings to make myself more viable for jobs in postcolonial studies. Memorably, I drove to Philadelphia from Memphis, unable to get on a plane because I had just had routine hernia surgery that made in-flight pressure changes dangerous to the abdominal stitches that were holding in my intestine. At the beginning of the conference, I had been 9 days without solid food. On either side of the trip, I-95 had never looked so beautiful.

Each year that I went on the academic job market, I began with a theory about why I had failed the previous time: I was getting old, and should try to grab a few extra classes in the summer to fund Restylane or Botox, or at least stop putting my defense date in my cover letters. I should stop writing all these “I” sentences (a few years later, I would learn that I should write a few more of them for a critical creative “edge” on a nonexistent job market). When committee members noted that I grew up in Clemson, I should have pretended that my parents were faculty, since my first-generation status was often an awkward subject with legacy profs. There were plenty of people, and plenty of internal narratives, to tell me that I should just lose weight. Since I didn’t actually disagree, I spent a year and a half on a radically restrictive diet that shed half of my body weight. By the end of it, the parallels between weight and contingency were stunningly clear: my body was good and virtuous when I was disciplining it towards thinness. My career was proper when I imagined it as temporary; I was a good adjunct provided I was trying to land a job, rather than building labor solidarity without regard for that imaginary meritocratic metric.

Contingency Is Permanent

There’s an infamous line attributed to but likely not written by John Steinbeck that provides the title to this essay. “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” I am skeptical of the notion of America not only as a classless society, but as a society with limited “awareness” of class. The fewer resources you have, the more likely you are to rigorously measure them (Whatever time of the day you’re reading this, know that I have already checked my bank balance twice). Within the liberalism that functions as a social fetish object for white professionals, many imagine that the “awareness” offered by the problem disciplines would have prevented the election of Trump, or the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. This liberal faith ignores the fact that there are people who chartered jets to loot Nancy Pelosi’s office, and that unrest is odious only because of the beliefs that underpin it. “If the presidency of America ever really is blatantly stolen with corrupt election fraud,” wrote labor reporter Hamilton Nolan in the wake of the unrest, “I hope that people rush into the United States Capitol again.” Thinking that humanistic inquiry inoculates a nation against Trumpian political violence implicitly asserts the moral goodness of middle-class striving. It is to say that working-class people should operate on the model of contingency and fatness that I describe above, striving through higher education not towards class consciousness but towards a fictive social mobility that discards the biases unfairly and inaccurately associated with the white working class.

To their graduate students in the midst of ritualistic striving, tenured meritocrats are equally ungenerous. The closer they are to the experience of contingency and perpetual candidacy, the more likely they are to acknowledge that nothing about the university runs rationally, but they nonetheless run graduate programs with the fiction of meritocracy at their core, often telling graduate students that they must become intellectual Swiss Army knives for the faintest hope of success even as they note, in the next breath, that there is no reliable predictor. The lip service to precarity, and the putatively progressive politics of gatekeepers don't much matter when they tell you that, for example, your program needs to raise stipends for incoming graduate students but not for the ones who are already here because it needs to "attract the best talent in the new pool of applicants." Or, it needs a faculty member in LGBTQ studies but decided to hire in a field without critical needs in order to "attract the best graduate students in that specialty." You get the best candidates, I say here, because the economy is shit, the system is rigged, and brilliant people are fighting like hogs for scraps. Imagining that a higher stipend does it presumes that the talent needs to be lured out, even as it’s currently milling around on the Academic Jobs Wiki. I recommend a thought exercise; if you think your departments or professional organizations are run democratically and without illusions, bring up for conversation two potential proposals. On the first, write “we need a cluster hire in Ethnic Studies in the wake of civil unrest in Summer 2020.” On the second, write “We need a cluster hire to address the crisis of precarity, with all candidates drawn from our adjunct pool.” While both may fail, budgets being what they are, only one will mark you as heretical to the culture of the academy. Any time movement politics gain traction, predominantly white institutions commit to hiring superstars of color, with the hopes they will absolve them of the obligation of democratization.

Meritocratic arguments about decidedly unmeritocratic institutions leave graduate students demoralized and terrified, certain that the failure and rejection coming down the road (because of course it is) will not be met by a sympathetic audience from the advisers they trusted in graduate school. Of course, meritocracy is aristocracy, as we know from the conditions of the word’s coinage (1958!) by satirist Michael Young, who thought that our notions of worthiness simply dovetailed with much older prejudices about worth tied to blood, identity, race, gender, and embodiment. So long as we don’t call it aristocracy, so long as we simply pretend that we built this system on neutral GRE scores and Ivy credentials, we can stop noticing the social reproduction at the core of the institution. Half a century later, Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God would propose that “no social theory on earth short of the divine right of kings can justify a five-hundred fold gap between management and labor,” thereby drawing a straight line between the oldest prejudices and their technocratic successors. Surely we know this is also true of university instruction. Only the Divine Right of Kings can explain the $18,000 yearly salary of an adjunct, and the $70,000 salary of an assistant professor: national averages, there. YMMV: your meritocracy may vary. It seems to me that building relationships and solidarity with contingent workers, demonstrating that they are responsive to their needs, requires that the professoriate acknowledge the conditions of university capitalism and get humble about their fortunes. The fact remains that many scholars in the problem disciplines are impoverished when it comes to theorizing either labor or emotional labor. Enamored of theories of cultural capital, we keep expecting other people to pay their rent with it.


Dedicated to F. Thank you to partner Phillip Lightweis-Goff, and to my supportive colleagues at the University of Mississippi. The critique offered here is of our profession, not our remarkably functional department. I am grateful for a soft place to land.