The Cloaca of Work and Friendship



by Justin E. H. Smith

As Facebook increasingly becomes the site of work-related activity, alongside what’s left in this degraded age of true amical interaction, I’ve come to think of it as a sort of cloaca, through which both the shit and the joyous stuff of life pass indiscriminately.

In an evolutionary sense the monotremes (the ‘one-holes’) are considered the most primitive of mammals, while those that have developed special organs for each function are held to be more advanced. We however have gone the other way. A generation ago one did not have to uphold one’s professional identity, one did not have to look busy, when shooting the breeze with friends late in the evening. Now, especially among academics, it is understood that we will carry over our career-minded uprightness, our eagerness to appear as good mentors, as positive role-models and eager organisers, into this same venue, practically the only venue that is left to many of us, in which we also pretend to express who we really are. But I am not a good mentor or role-model or organiser. I only do those things for a living. What I am, in reality, is a sceptical, hesitant, conflicted, confused human being, who nonetheless finds life worth living mostly because of the vast reserves of poetry, literature, art, and philosophy passed down to us from the ancestors. I am not my job, even if my job is the closest thing I could find in this degraded age, in this degraded world, to pure communion with the beautiful things that do not change. Or at least that is how I imagined the job would be, even if global economic pressures, craven administrators, and anti-intellectual politicians are doing everything they can to ensure that it not be that.

Academics often hold forth in social media on political issues, and this is thought to be a departure from their professional activity. But is it in fact? Much of the discussion serves to establish group solidarity, and it should be no big surprise that a group that bonds over political issues on Facebook is usually also united by education and profession. And in fact not just politics, but presentation of dimensions of the personal life as well is now part of the extended work we are doing on Facebook: the photographs of class-appropriate foods, the pronatalism, the characterisation of one’s intimate relationship as a ‘partnership’ (originally an expression of solidarity with same-sex couples who could not get married, but now mostly an inadvertent acknowledgement of the ubiquity of neoliberal forces: everything is a collaboration now, everything is work), and so on.

All of this is work-talk, and it happens at all hours of the day. If you do not experience it as work-talk, this is only thanks to the fortuitous natural fit between your personality, the economic order, and the tasks that have fallen to you within it: lucky for you, if the way you naturally talk is also the way you are expected to talk in order to maintain your professional identity and to keep the paychecks coming in. But for some the use of archaic terms comes more naturally, unapproved phrases, charged locutions. Where have these gone? In media history they burst through periodically: as in the flourishing of independent cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They seemed to be enjoying a new life in the first years of social media (or is it just that I was younger and more reckless?). But now there is again a perfect convergence, between the language of the media (social or not) and the language we are expected to channel in the relationships that ape friendship but that are grounded in economic necessity. There is no exploration in social media of new modes of expression, but only channeling of the established and expected modes, the modes appropriate to employees (or, more likely, candidates for employment), the same imitative sounding-like one might bring from an evening’s TV viewing to the next morning’s golf game with the well-connected uncle or beau père.

We conduct this work-talk in our underwear now, we do it on the toilet. And this is by now pretty much all we’re able to do here: talk about ‘how great my students are’, how pumped up we are about some upcoming conference, some jargon-filled funding application we just sent off, how great our partners are, how great our children are, how great some brand of whiskey or poutine au foie gras is, how dumb and evil Republicans are. Yes, they’re dumb and evil. Of course they’re dumb and evil! But affirming this self-evident truth is not what makes life beautiful. There is no history here, no art, literature, poetry, theatre, not even any science save for dumb memes about science.

It is as if there is some secret Zuckerbergian algorithm that has been gradually and subperceptibly narrowing our perception of the range of things appropriate for bringing up on our walls: electoral politics, family, food, TV, work. It seems we now have incontrovertible historical proof that every new medium of communication will be exactly as disappointing as the last. We have a potentially limitless forum to talk about whatever we like, we have historically unprecedented access to information and images from the entirety of human history, and we’ve ended up making this place as dull and as myopic, as presentist and empty, as a typical episode of the Today show circa 1986, to be talked about at the water cooler later that day between colleagues who in fact have nothing to talk about, mouthing some line half-retained from Bryant Gumbel, coming out of the same hole as the ’Sure thing, boss’ uttered a few minutes later when the supposed break is over. The difference, now, is that the water cooler has been installed in our homes, and the work never ends.

Crossposted with