What Affective Labour Has to Do with Reddit’s Corporate Cafeteria

Artist Dena Yago on food, affect and the Silicon Valley workplace

Frieze considers the role of food – aesthetically, sensorially, politically, environmentally – in contemporary culture

Dena Yago, Hands Full, 2019. Courtesy: the artist, High Art, Paris, and Bodega, New York 

The American workman’s metal lunchbox – filled with a triangular sandwich, apple, crisps and a soda – feels as anachronistic as the old-timey popcorn machine in the Playa Vista, Los Angeles, office – and the company-wide ‘popcorn’s ready’ email sent daily at 4 pm. No lunch bell rings, as food no longer plays the role of bisecting one’s day. Rather, it is continuously present
in the form of snacks or small plates to be taken at will. You are your own master, self-assessing when you can reward yourself, when you can dip into the honey pot of amenities that mask
an otherwise unliveable, always-on, flexible and ambiently present workday.

For approximately the past decade, my corporate working life has been marked by a sense of dread. A haunting feeling lingers that I am a modern-day Persephone about to be sentenced to a seasonal life in Hades for eating the damned fruits. Mythologically, these were pomegranate seeds, though for me they were anything from Taco Tuesdays at the in-house, subsidized cafeteria at the multinational advertising agency to Sushirritos offered by nearby food trucks. It was soggy wraps and vending machine sandwiches that I ate during my 3 pm-to-midnight shift in the IT department of a corporate law firm on the perimeter of Zuccotti Park. It was an endlessly filled wall of infantilizing cereal dispensers, a perverse and eternally refilled volume of Lucky Charms, or excessively moist romaine-lettuce salads in plastic containers during my short term in Fremont and Hawthorne – the industrial underbelly of Silicon Valley – working in communications as a social media creative manager. RFID-chipped superfruits and conflict grains were served from ‘healthy alternatives’ smart fridges, while an international buffet touted cuisines from far-off lands: Wednesday was Malaysian and Thursday brought Senegal to Palo Alto.

In an exertion of control over my own hunger and consumption, I mostly opted for the money-saving, but time-intensive, alternative of preparing and bringing my food from home. I had, after all, taken these jobs to pay off personal debt much lower than the American national average. But, I was also working towards and maintaining an attachment to what affect theorist Lauren Berlant defined in Cruel Optimism (2011) as the ‘good life fantasy’, an attachment that allows people to make it through day-to-day life even when the day-to-day has become unliveable. This was aspiration without the acknowledgement that the social institutions of stability granted to previous generations lay in ruins around me.

Instead, these meals became insultingly small moments of respite, which made an untenable situation palatable – small rewards after commuting two hours a day to do immaterial, cognitive and affective labour. Assorted salads, assembled bowls of rice and vegetables, soups and purées served to bring me back to myself, placating a default mode of dissociation in a corporate environment. One day, sitting on my ergonomic inflatable ball chair, I looked down at my thickened coconut carrot soup and realized I had made myself baby food. Control over the food, drink, psycho-pharmaceuticals and nootropic supplements that entered my body made this work bearable, which, in turn, postponed full acknowledgement of attritional labour’s fatal aspects, in the sense that it kills you slowly.

Food and drink structure time – time that is not your own – within two other institutions that structure tempo: the temporality of debt and the speed of communication demanded from cognitive and affective workers. 

Americans’ personal debt amounts to an average of US$38,000, including student loans and credit cards. Repaying this debt creates a temporal relationship where ‘the debtor is ensnared in a bond that enables the creditor to own the debtor’s future’. As author and poet Jackie Wang emphasized during a talk she gave in Berlin in February titled ‘Carceral Temporalities and the Politics of Dreaming’, this is a temporality that people in the US live with in a paralyzingly intense way. Debt in America is not a moral failing, but an institutionalized predatory structure which disproportionally affects minorities and marginalized communities. The penal system structures time rigidly, resulting in modern prison life being described as ‘doing hard time’. To be able to eliminate debt through work and to actively choose the form that this labour takes – what can be described as ‘soft time’ – is an inherently privileged position.

Today’s start-ups and apps that fuel the gig economy, the foggy cottage industry of branding and strategy, and creative and cultural institutions have weaponized time as a form of social control. They promise that workers are the masters of their own, flexible, individualized time. This myth further isolates precarious labourers from one another, and thus from imagining themselves as a collective class – in turn, precluding collective action. When working under the nested temporalities of debt, high-speed and constant communication, the effects of time spent is physically inscribed on the worker’s body. I could feel its impact almost immediately: the stiffness in your back, the strain on your eyes, the lack of sleep, the exhaustion that eliminates the possibility for imagining alternatives.

A man skateboards past a row of motor homes in the heart of Silicon Valley. Courtesy: AP Photo; photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez

Control over my consumption became a way to ward off the etching of time on my body. I would take nootropic supplements and psycho-pharmaceuticals that created the effect of speeding up or slowing time. L-Theanine provided the focus that accelerated lingering afternoons. Ativan furnished the floating numbness that permitted me to not care. Microdosing psilocybin mushrooms enabled distraction and a wandering mind. CBD did something I couldn’t put my finger on. Mediating what I did and did not ingest began to also feel like soft resistance. I prefer not to eat lunch with my co-workers; I will not be baited by sugar-laden amenities that would send serotonin signals to my brain. I will not drink energy drinks or take easily-available Adderall that would make me a more productive, more efficient and more enduring worker. I will not ingest, digest or excrete any of these products. I will not ingest the damned fruits and I will own my hunger.

Leaning on my standing desk in Fremont in my en mode French chore coat, I thought of Simone Weil spending time alongside the Renault factory workers in 1934 to experience the conditions of modern industry. She restricted her food consumption: an act of solidarity that also aligned with her ongoing, at times politically and spiritually minded, anorexia. For Weil, to ingest any food beyond what was available to the workers, or rationed to French soldiers, was to ingest bourgeois excess, akin to digesting the ideology of capitalist labour. For myself, working at a company that spanned industrially scaled physical graft and immaterial knowledge work, it was clear that the cafeteria’s food options catered differently to each group. In one section, there were electric-hued energy drinks and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, while diagonally across the room were Yerba Maté alternatives and chia-yogurt smoothies. This high-contrast stratification of nourishment is rooted in class difference, implying that the manual factory workers desired and were served unhealthy, cheap options while the engineers and communications employees were served the foods of an acculturated or gentrified palate.

The speed of communication and constant attention demanded in my role could be blamed for eliminating my appetite, but this explanation would ignore the distinction that ‘the gut is an organ of the mind: it ruminates, deliberates, comprehends’, as gender theorist Elizabeth A. Wilson writes in Gut Feminism (2015). The biology of hunger, disgust and repulsion ‘are already and always a minded event: contractions of the stomach walls, changes in blood sugar, liver metabolism are phantastically alive’. Allowing for the imbrication of cognitive and physiological responses, specifically between the stomach and the gut, can allow us to acknowledge what is critically fatal, imbalanced and untenable in any situation.

It was during this time that I visited the Reddit offices in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. To enter, I stepped over bodies of displaced people experiencing homelessness largely due to tech-driven gentrification and, after being given a name tag with a rasterized image of my face, I was led to cornucopious snack and beverage options. I opted for a child’s-sized carton of Blue Bottle Coffee’s New Orleans-Style Iced Coffee. My stomach immediately churned – a physiological response which was, in that moment, uncontrollable. It was time to leave. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the headline ‘Soft Serve’.

Dena Yago is an artist and writer based in New York, USA. In 2019, she has had a solo show at High Art, Paris, France. Her fourth book of poetry, Fade the Lure, is published this month by After Eight Books and High Art. Yago is a founding member of the trend-forecasting group K-HOLE. 

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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