The Modern Worker

Another final paper for your enjoyment! Yup, now you can say “Well, jeez… this girl is super smart! She should get an A++! She should get her bachelor’s degree, like, tonight!” I kid, I kid!

The Modern Worker, Impotentiality and Potentiality

            Technology is everywhere, used by everyone and heavily depended on in today’s modern world. Gone are the days of simply going to the park and walking the dog, now we tag ourselves on Facebook or “tweet” about it on our Twitter feed, lest we risk upsetting our followers. It is common to go out to dinner and see cellphones on tables, people texting or checking emails, completely distancing themselves from the human company right in front of them. We are plugged in; it would seem, without intermission. This shift to relying on technology and the effects it has on our lives has been focused on by many works by thinkers such as Franco Berardi, Giorgio Agamben and Lars Von Trier.

            Cell phones are a major part of our culture, used by young and old. They not only function as a way to communicate, but also as a camera, email device, texting device, gaming device, etc. Cell phones are also relied on in the work industry, as illustrated by Berardi in his work The Soul At Work. “Control over the labor process is no longer guaranteed by the hierarchy of bigger and smaller bosses typical of the Taylorist factory, but it is incorporated in the flux. Cellular phones are probably the technological devices that best illustrate this kind of network dependency. The cellular phone is left on by the great majority of info-workers even when they are not working” (Berardi). Even when workers leave their offices, work follows. Work follows them home, to the basketball game, and to the park. Berardi is pointing to the fact that work in the modern world doesn’t simply constitute a supervisor and all the higher-ups applying pressure and regulations to make sure that work gets done while in the workplace. Our cell phones also service as substitute to our bosses. The ability of cell phones, which I am specifically referring to smartphones, to access email anywhere almost guarantees that the worker will feel the need to check to see if they’ve received any emails. Work has infiltrated our personal lives, which is driven by the capitalist society in which we live.          

            Interestingly, there is a case in Chicago in which a police sergeant filed a lawsuit in 2010. The police sergeant, Jeffrey Allen, claimed that the city owed him and other officers overtime pay for work they did on department Blackberry smartphones. This situation is unprecedented in the United States. The judge in the case must decide whether or not answering work-related calls or emails can be defined as work. The image of the fresh-faced, business school graduate doing whatever they can to climb the corporate ladder comes to mind. Pure drive to succeed and reach the top is what gives him or her stamina and the ability to sacrifice personal time for work time. If they are constantly checking their email or have their phone attached to their ear, it can be seen as admirable. That person is hard working, we think. Concerning the case of the Chicago police officers, journalist Jason Notte says people are start to feel less like “survival-programmed drones and more like humans, they tend to want to be treated as such.” The question that lingers in my mind is: Do we start asking for overtime for doing tasks such as answering emails outside the work place? While that would be fair, work shouldn’t be free; it seems to only make more concrete the fact that we are becoming technologically addicted workaholics. Should we just say no to answering those emails? Even though we know it’s as simple as opening an app on our phones?

            This question of whether or not we should work during our personal time ties into Agamben’s “On What We Can Not Do”. As children, we are told that we can do anything we set our minds and hearts on, we are told that we have potential. Potentiality is viewed as a very positive thing in American capitalist society. If we can do anything, if we can just work hard enough and make enough money then the world is ours for the taking. Thus, this leads to cases like the Chicago police officers, working in their personal time and demanding to get paid for it. They too want to buy luxury items like big screen T.V.s. Agamben points to the issue with human beings today is not the failure to realize potential but the failure to realize their impotential. “ ‘Impotentiality’ does not mean here only absence of potentiality, not being able to do, but also and above all ‘being able to not do,’ being able to not exercise one’s own potentiality” (Agamben, 43). Even if we have the “potentiality” to check our work email in our personal time due to modern technology, even if we are getting paid for it, we have equal “impotentiality”, the power to say: “No, I will not check work emails in my personal time”.  “…Everyone is simply bending himself or herself according to this flexibility that is today the primary quality that the market demands from each person,” (Agamben, 45). The constant email checking and working outside of the work place, on one’s own personal time, wears us down. It stretches us thin, and we lose sense of what we will not do, which should be work outside the workspace and being connected to the network on our own time.

            In order to understand why Americans in particular have lost sense of what we can not do and have consequently become workaholics, it is important to see what constitutes success in our society. Typically, when we think of a successful person we think of a happy and wealthy person. The equation becomes: success = wealth = happiness. Berardi writes, “The economic ideology is compulsively focused on the conviction that loving one’s job means money, and that money mean happiness.” How do we show off our money? By providing more wood to the capitalist bonfire with our consumerism; by purchasing T.V.s, cell phones and cars, we place our happiness in materialistic objects. In this sense, the more we work the more money we will have and the happier we will supposedly be. Yet, as Agamben points out, we have lost sense of what we can not do. We can not stop working to enjoy the materialistic fruits of our labor. “…It becomes necessary to reduce the time for joy and experience, in a word for life” (Berardi). This incessant need to work to acquire more wealth and purchasing power has deprived us of the ability to stop and enjoy life. If we do happen to stop working for a moment, we feel “guilty and neurotic” and feel the “need to get back to work,” (Berardi). We are “bending” ourselves, as Agamben puts it, and falling deeper and deeper into the capitalist machine.

            The film “Melancholia” by Lars Von Trier is a visually beautiful and captivating story about two sisters, Justine and Claire, both of whom are or have been part of the capitalist machine. Justine is an advertising agent; she helps create taglines to seduce consumers into buying products they likely don’t need. Claire is the wife of a very wealthy man; she lives in what is apparently a very large castle-like mansion, complete with stables and an 18-hole golf course. The beginning of the film is about Justine and the night of her wedding reception. A woman’s wedding night is supposed to be the best night of her life, something that she has dreamed about since she was a little girl. Justine’s behavior, as it unravels over the course of the night, shows to us that this is not the case. She is not happy, at one point she tells Claire “I smile, I smile, I smile” as if just the gesture of smiling can instill her with a sense of happiness. Justine is representative of a person that has come to realize what they can not do. She can not pretend to be happy and go with the strict time schedule of her wedding, she has the potential by fake smiling and following what she is told to do, but she refuses. The second part of the film is more honed in on Claire. She is not able to simply not do. Even with the impending doom that comes with the end of the world, she still wants to pretend that everything is ok. When Justine asks Claire what she wants to do and Claire replies that she would like to spend some time with her sister and son out on the terrace drinking wine, Justine tells her that her plan is “bullshit”. Claire is unable to let go of the façade of normalcy and give into the realization that she can’t escape the disaster of Melancholia.

            From Berardi to Agamben to Von Trier, we are given examples to the ways of our modern world.  A world that is inundated with technology that on one hand is wonderful and can be very helpful, but on the other hand forces capitalist pressure on us, in the form of constant work. There is honesty and power in what realizing what we can not do and not doing. There is a difference between not being able to do and choosing not to do. We are able to check our work email on our couch at home, but perhaps we should choose not to. In choosing not to do, we are being honest to ourselves and there is power in enforcing our own personal boundaries. We are not super robots that can just go go go and never take a moment for ourselves and detach from the technological network that has infiltrated our lives. If we do that, it would be equivalent to guaranteeing our own doom, our own little Melancholia, come to crash and destroy our life.




Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Nudities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. Print.

Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Cambridge: MIT Press,

2009. Print.

Notte, Jason. “Chicago Police Sue for Email Overtime Pay.” MSN Money. MSN. 07 Feb. 2013.

Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Melancholia. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander

Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland. Magnolia, 2011. Film.