Unpacking the Productivity-Industrial Complex
Picture this. A scenic bedroom, a person waking up, cut to the ringing phone. The person gets up, turns off the phone, folds the blanket, and does a brief stretching in front of the window. Little choreographed movements. Birds can be heard chirping outside the windows. The sun about to shine, its first glints illuminate the monochromatic, minimalist aesthetic of the room. The wind blows the cream-colored curtains, moves the hair of our subject in that commercial-like gesture as if they’re selling to us their lifestyles.
You probably recognize this. A preamble of a productivity vlog. A how-to instructional video tour of the day. Video replete with lo-fi sounds, color-coordinated interior seeping through the influencers’ choice of clothes. A sit-down video maybe? Or a muted video blog narrating the whole thing in that lush voice, the movements impatient to be recorded.
A cursory glance on YouTube yields pretty much these types of videos. A very apt time for a culture deeply engaged in performing the everyday, the imperative of the hustle culture and gig economy. But what lacks these videos is calling into question the notion of why there is simply a need to constantly be productive, which can access the political dimension of this generation’s chronic feeling of burnout.
Invest in yourself
In an article from The New Yorker, Cal Newport, famed author of the self-help book Deep Work (which found its audience in these so-called productivity hustlers), historicizes the use of the word productivity. He defines it as, a measure of how much a worker could produce in a fixed interval of time, citing its obvious origin in the workplace. He mentions, Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory. An influential business scholar, General Motors, a company that builds automobiles and trucks, automotive components, and engines, recruited Drucker to study the operations of the then-largest company in the world. The study eventually resulted in breaking down company goals to be met by workers. This in turn necessitates “optimization of his personal habits”.
The usual accompaniment of the phrase “invest in yourself” are self-development, profit, future returns, pay-off, and success. Who wouldn’t want these? In the context of productivity, the investments here are not associated with risks. You have nothing to lose.
However, what besets us perhaps is the question itself of why there’s a pressing need to be productive. Investing in yourself is indicative of how capitalism has invaded the individual agency. It manifests in the language we use. We have come to treat ourselves as exploitable cyborgs in the service of building capital, succumbing to the idea that the self is endlessly optimizable. That every moment can be monetized or fashioned into social or cultural capital. A machine always due for an upgrade. What to make of the world where every instance of life is devoted to the pursuit of opportunities for optimization?
The fraught idea of #selfcare
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” writes Audre Lorde. Perhaps one of the earliest articulations of the value of self-care. But the sense of radical politics embedded in Lorde’s statement is what ultimately lacks our current notion of self-care. Here Lorde addresses the self in relation to the collective. We need to care for ourselves to care for other human beings around us. But it’s pretty interesting how capitalism has co-opted the idea of self-care and companies defanged this idea.
Productivity gurus (who in a sense are also influencers) are masters of this phenomenon. A hard day at work means content for self-care. But upon closer scrutiny, oftentimes, these types of content production are exhausting (which is another work in itself) which we can only take to mean that the capability of doing so relies on the fact that these influencers came from already affluent backgrounds that allow them to do these things.
In his article “The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care from The New Yorker”, Jordan Kisner historicizes the use of self-care. He cites Michel Foucault tracing the history of self-care in Plato’s Apology. Here, Socrates claims that men need to “concern themselves not with their riches, not with their honor, but with themselves and with their souls”. Kisner also cited the philosopher Stanley Cavell who argues that the “grand narrative of American individualism” is shaped by the individual’s ability to care for his individual self. Kisner explores the repercussions of this brand of self-care which served as justification for the racial subjugation of minorities. In America, the performance of self-care in society is a great indicator of the self-governing individual. Self-care, here, is ultimately individualistic.
The promise of self-care
The promise of self-care is that it ultimately gives relief to an otherwise harsh world. If you see it, there are latent politics in these “self-care” advertisements. The dirt in the city that stick to your pores, the harsh sunlight due to lack of shade like trees or public infrastructure, the wrinkles produced by being exhausted over waiting in traffic, etc. Dark eyes produced by the lack of sleep because of the continuous demand of work. Aren’t these the body’s response to our harsh environment? If not the origin, then definitely these reasons exacerbate these bodily responses.
Moreover, is self-care really self-care if it only becomes a precursor to work? A limbo where it nudges you to do it because a few moments later you’ll be back to work again. There’s this looming burden that is essentially a perpetual quest for free time. A wrestling towards the truest relaxation unbothered by work. A moment of stasis so often desired yet so often eludes us.
I believe in Audre Lorde’s statement about self-care which takes into account the welfare of the community and society at large. Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote an insightful article about reclaiming Lorde’s oft-misquoted phrase. “As ‘new age self-care’ focuses on the individual instead of the collective, it reinforces the very structures Audre Lorde devoted her life to dismantling,” she writes.
I agree that true self-care is not just an individualistic and isolated endeavor. Self-care is a political act that recognizes that caring for oneself is not selfish but in this case, selfless. Inward to outward. Moreover, there is the same pleasure found beyond caring for the community which I think is ultimately gratifying: the recognition of our shared humanity. A recognition that makes us aware that something needs to change.
Recalibrating our current notion of productivity means recognizing that the systems in place are broken, designed to get the best out of us. To extract from us the labor in ways that continually dampen our critical faculties. But of course, doing away with all these habits is not the solution. It’s about turning these habits into something that we can reclaim as truly nourishing for us.
As I’ve said the issue of productivity is not on how we do it but on why we do it. Finally, to whom are we being productive and to what end does this productivity chase? Rethinking productivity means refusing to succumb to the capitalist seizure of the individual agency towards an everlasting pursuit of monetization and instead valuing care rooted in our collective existence. To pause for a moment and find ways to subvert the current systems in place. An appreciation of stasis. In her book, How to Do Nothing, a political take on refusing the attention economy and the imperatives of productivity culture, Jenny Odell writes,
To capitalist logic, which thrives on myopia and dissatisfaction, there may indeed be something dangerous about something as pedestrian as doing nothing; escaping laterally toward each other, we might just find that everything we wanted is already here.
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Drex Le Jaena is a writer currently based in Cavite.