Do What You Love

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Most of us are fools, it seems. Not just fools, but a romantic fools, adhering to the cloying adage, “Do What You Love.”

Fools, we are told in Miya Tokumitsu’s oft-cited essay in Jacobin, because to celebrate work as something we “love” is to dismiss, ignore, and render illegible the work of those who cannot, for an instant, imaging loving what they do.  Celebrating work-as-love is what the aspiring rich do, when they “retire” at 40, buy a yacht, decide to sample the world’s collection of piña coladas, and then turn it all into a show on BRAVO, cross-marketing it with a cocktail mixer named for their dog.  When the dwindling middle class embraces “DWYL” – “the most elegantly anti-worker ideology around” – it is rather boldly aligning itself with the interests of the ruling class, with its frosty, umbrella-accented drinks.

As Tokumitsu summarizes it, the ideology of DWYL is inherently solipsistic.  Its prophets insist that success comes only with the right mix of personalized passion, confidence, and self-reflexivity.  Structures, infrastructures, and larger networks of relation don’t matter. So when our dreams explode, who is to blame?  L’échec, c’est vous. And when those same dreams come to life, who gets the credit? Just you, again.

The consequences of our foolishness, we are told, are revealed most dramatically in the lives of would-be PhDs, who have bought into the idea that academe is a world apart, full of people who “love” their work. As the narrative goes, these trusting, prospective graduate students find, at the end of their innocent quest for a degree, that they’ve been led not to paradise, but to the mines, where they are pre-destined for a future of underpaid and undervalued work. DWYL is the ideology of modern capitalism, and the embrace of it turns turns anyone – even, yes, academics – into cheap, replaceable tools.  In pursuit of the PhD, they absorb the ethos of DWYL; and once the degree has been earned, they learn the darker, grimmer truth.

“Love,” here, is a four-letter word.  Of the very worst sort.

The argument is meant to shore up the lines in support of a single position: “Do What You Love” is social control, as damnable the Protestant work ethic and the hegemony of the time. If you believe in “DWYL,” then you are selfish and self-absorbed.  You think there will be tenured jobs, even if long-term trends might suggest otherwise.  You are convinced that your mentors care about you, but really they just want to exploit you.  You believe that the academic life is different, existentially defined in contrast to the business world, full of poets and dreamers, but it is actually full of cruel scramblers, who’ll sell you out to make a quick buck.  You think that faculty are progressive, but you find that they surely aren’t.  If you truly understood the way things really worked – the function of DWYL as ideology – then you wouldn’t even bother applying to graduate school, or you wouldn’t even bother with the job market.  You’ll never write for anything less than a cash payment.  You’d express your political interests as the members of a laboring cohort.  You certainly wouldn’t express your interest in a life’s labor by saying, “do what you love.”  The writers of Jacobin – and their allies – give us a choice: be rational and wide-eyed or become a soft-hearted dupe, a function of corporate ideology, a tool of the elites.

This is an old-school story.  But do we still believe that ideology is pushed downward by a mustachioed elite? Grasped desperately and without negotiation by a scrambling middle class? Are we convinced that “those who do unglamorous work” are entirely walled off from this negotiation?  That they cannot appropriate “DWYL” to suit their own purposes?  Have we forgotten what it means to believe in a distinction between “consent” and “the appearance of consent”?   Or in the “creativity of ordinary consumers?”  “What people can do and do do,” wrote Lawrence Levine, in the 1992 American Historical Review forum on culture and power (from which these quotes are drawn), “is to refashion the objects created for them to fit their own values, needs, and expectations.”  Doesn’t DWYL fit that, too?  The quartet of participants in that forum – including, alongside Levine, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jackson Lears, and Robin D.G. Kelley – may have disagreed about almost everything, but their single point of consensus is worth repeating: the relationship between people locked out of the penthouse and popular culture is dynamic and unpredictable, not static.

Hustling near-PhDs worriedly reading and re-reading “In The Name of Love” can make up their own minds about whether to go to graduate school, or whether to continue.

This a false choice, though. You can, of course, love the work you do, and not be blind to its deleterious labor conditions. You can enjoy your work and still be sympathetic to those who cannot do the same. You can take pleasure in a day’s effort, and fight hard for others to take the same pleasure. You can work hard for six or seven years and hope for something like a tenure-stream job and not be a fool, because hopefulness can drive social change.  You can go to grad school – with your eyes wide open – and not feel like a sell-out, because doing what you love doesn’t necessarily make you the enemy; it is what you do that matters, not whether you love it.  Everything that is wrong with academia is also wrong with every other job ever, so loving what you do is neither a cause nor a symptom of a deeper structural problem. It is, not-so-simply, a part of the ongoing cross-class negotiation over terms, a negotiation conducted on an uneven landscape, but also with surprising, unpredictable ebbs and flows. Everyone involved has a radically different notion of what “winning” and “losing” means.  All sorts of people – little and big – can determine what it means to “love” something.  And no one, really, is in complete control.

Not surprisingly, Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” ends with the planting of a flag. If we think of academic work as work, she argues, and if we organize and press for better conditions in the workplace, and for a more humane balance of work, family, and leisure, we might “get around to doing what it is we really love.” This prescribed, fixed, antipodal relationship between work and love is just as troublesome as the false choice described above, resting as it does on the notion that “what it is we really love” lurks somewhere out there, kept at a great distance by the unrelenting press of work.

The work is, indeed, unrelenting. It can be a part – a vital, beloved part – of what really matters. We should be judged – all of us – not by whether we love what we do, but, really, but whether we try, as a part of our day’s labor and our evening’s leisure, to make it possible for many others to do the same. Let’s celebrate the person who loves that challenge. A challenge, often enough, met in and around the classroom, by those hard at work.

 

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