Notes on Labor, Maternity, and the Institution

Mierle Laderman-Ukeles, Wadsworth-Atheneum (1973)


Pro labor activism will not begin to overcome the injustices and indignities it purports to redress until it addresses an irreducibly (for now) gendered form of labor: labor, as in, going into labor, giving birth (or adopting). While much recent discourse attempts to account for the industrial or “fordist” to post-industrial shift in forms of labor, patterns into which workers are set, employment, and unemployment (I am thinking of the Italian Autonomist Marxists and Virno, Negri and Hardt in particular), and while so many statistics tell us that more women are in the workforce than men (in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008 to the present), maternity is scotomized. Is this just another not-so-subtle form of gynophobia? A fear on the part of feminists of essentialism? A critique of the emphasis French Feminists of the 70s placed on maternity? An innocent oversight in recent iterations of Marxist analyses?

Artistic practices of the last decade highlight the remunerative system of a global service industry, one in which “art” takes its place fully embedded in–rather than at an interval of either autonomy or imminence–the fluid, continuous circulation of goods and services: Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2002) in which Fraser had her gallery, Friedrich Petzel, arrange to have a collector purchase her sexual services for one night, Santiago Sierra’s 250 cm Line Tattooed on Six Paid People (1999) in which the artist paid six unemployed men in Old Havana, Cuba thirty dollars each to have a line tattooed across their back. Fraser’s work was characteristically “controversial” in the most rehearsed ways, and Sierra’s drew criticism for having permanently disfigured six human beings. The misprision and naivete of the critics spectacularized both, of course. Sierra’s retort involved a set of references to global economic conditions that the critics may not have liked to hear: “The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands and thousands of willing people.”1 Both Fraser and Sierra point to the quasi-universality of what autonomist Marxist theorist Paolo Virno calls a “post-fordist” regime of “intellectual labor” to describe the shift from the assembly line to a wide range of labor in which traditional boundaries and borders no longer apply. Virno says, “by post-Fordism, I mean instead a set of characteristics that are related to the entire contemporary workforce, including fruit pickers and the poorest of immigrants.” This post-fordist regime is characterized by flexibility, deracination, and the shift from habituated work to contingency. Concomitantly, the post-fordist laborer does not take his or her place in the ranks of he masses, but flows into a multitude, differentiated by numerous factors, among them, post-coloniality, endless permutations at the level of gender, ethnicity, race.

For Virno and the autonomists, art and culture are no longer instantiations of exemplarity and exceptionality, as for Adorno, but rather “are the place in which praxis reflects on itself and results in self-representation.” In other words, the cultural work operates as a supplement, a parergonal addition to an already existing logic. It neither passively reflects nor openly resists. There is no vantage or “outside” from which art could dialectically reflect and resists, as Adorno would have it. Long since the work came off its pedestal and out of its frame, from the gallery to the street, the ostensibly non-site to the site as Robert Smithson put it, cultural production is too embedded in social and economic circulation to reflect let alone critique. Virno sees this limitation—the absence of an outside—as one shared with that of activism and other forms of tactical resistance: “The impasse that seizes the global movement comes from its inherent implication in the modes of production. Not from its estrangement or marginality, as some people think.”3Ironically, the luxury of estrangement and marginalization enjoyed by the avant-garde and neo avant-garde is no longer available. And yet, it is “precisely because, rather than in spite, of this fact that it presents itself on the public scene as an ethical movement.”4 For if work puts life itself to work, dissolving boundaries between labor and leisure, rest and work, any action against it occupies the same fabric.

Among others, a problem that surfaces [too quietly and too politely, with a kind of ashamed and embarrassed reserve] is that of gender. The issue is not merely that Fraser puts her body at risk while Sierra remunerates others to place at risk, and in pain, their bodies, that corpus on which habeus corpus is founded. Needless to say, Sierra has organized projects around male prostitutes, such as that of 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, executed for the contemporary art museum in Salamanca, Spain, in 1999.

The problem is that the category of disembodied labor, or intellectual labor as Virno alternately calls it to describe its reliance on abstraction, scotomizes a form of irreducibly gendered embodied labor: labor. Now let the cries of essentialism! ring. Where is Julia Kristeva when you need her? Hélène Cixous telling us to allegorically write with our breast milk?5

Many feminist artists of the 1970s—in a historical moment that has both formed and been occluded by the artistic pratices of the last decade which I mention above–explicitly addressed the category of unremunerated labor: Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen(1973-4), for instance; Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman which explicitly draws an analogy between house-work and prostitution. Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1979) elevates maternity to the level of analytical research, part of the putative archival impulse. Merle Laderman Ukeles tacitly situates domestic work in a category with the service industry understood historically, before all labor became maintenance labor, as “maintenance.”6 Ukeles’s differentiation of production and maintenance almost seems romantic in hindsight. As though there were creation/production rather than reproduction. And yet…..

Radical Marxist and feminist activist Silvia Federici, author of Genoa and the Anti Globalization Movement (2001) and Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint (2008) argues against the gender neutrality of precarious labor theory, that of the Marxist autonomists Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri.7 Federici situates the commonality of rape and prostitution as well as violence against women within a systematized appropriation of female labor that operates as accumulation, much as accumulation did atavistically, long before the formation of commodity economies, or the development of general equivalence. Atavism as a repressed matrix for putative modernity—a modernity in which gender determination describes one of the greatest forms of uneven development—supports Ariella Azoulay’s claim, in The Civil Contract of Photography, that modernity did little to alter women’s positions in relation to discourse, the institution, and civil rights greater than the vote. Just as for Foucault the modern biopolitical regime compounds the old to achieve a more thorough penetration of everyday life, modernity permutes previous hegemonies “shaped and institutionalized over thousands of years.” In twentieth-century battles for the right to corporeal self-determination, to reproductive rights, for instance, “the body itself underwent a process of secularization, …this body came into the world without any of the normative defenses of citizenship to regulate it.”8 Under “Universal” rights, the contingencies of the body, deemed particular, did not become part of the discourse around citizenship, thus abandoning it to a renaturalized precariousness. Premised on a set of Enlightenment Universalist claims purportedly neutral to the particularities of corporeality, modernity failed to account for the specificities of women’s lives. Instead, the body, or “bare life” tacitly continues to be the way women are viewed, here commodified and sexually fetishized (neo-liberal “Western” democracies), there regulated within disciplinary, and often violent, parameters, as in Islamist cultures.9 These differences in hegemonic models of femininity may be theorized;10 the process of biological labor, however, slips the grasp of discourse, and, with it, policy. This last term would include international policies in which Enlightened self-interest are legitimated by the roles of women, of women’s bodies to be more precise.

Federici links her notion of atavistic forms of reserve—the accumulation of women’s labor—to colonial expropriation. She argues that the IMF, World Bank and other proxy institutions as engaging in a renewed cycle of primitive accumulation, by which everything held in common from water to seeds, to our genetic code become privatized in what amounts to a new round of enclosures.

Pop culture, as always a place where cultural articulations happen within normative parameters that may differ from “discourse,” presents the most direct expression of this that I have yet to come across. The high/low binary was a false product of fordism, one that no longer operates. When a famous male rapper says, “gonna get a child outta her,” he is speaking hegemony, not “marginalization.”


Labor: If Virno is “correct,” in his analysis, there can be no “perspective” from which to think labor. From what fold within labor might I think it? I’ve worked as an hourly wage earner, a mother, and a salaried “professional.” One of these three terms is incongruous; discourse has hit a false note. My description of something about which I should know a great deal, my own history as a laborer, has already committed a rather egregious crime according to the law of discourse. As De Man has famously said, “abuse of language is, of course, itself the name of a trope: catachresis. …something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachreses: when one speaks of the legs of a table or the face of a mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters.” What thwarted terms, or monsters, are barred from an account of my accounts? Discourse be damned, or in this case, personified; I am using “I.”

At 13, 22 years ago, I was what Siegfred Kracauer might have referred to as “a little shop girl,” working at a T shirt store for 3.75 an hour, selling 20 dollar Joy Division T-shirts and 5 dollar Grateful Dead stickers to other, older, teenagers [with allowances or their own jobs]. My mom had to accompany me to the first day to make good on PA labor laws. 7 hours of my labor/boredom would have bought me one of the T-shirts I sold. I’ve worked, like so many artists and academics, as a museum guard, 17 years ago, for 7/hr, or 10.50/hr for working past the 8-hour shift. Needless to say, none of these jobs had benefits. I’ve written articles for prominent scholarly journals where the pay may roughly be calculated at 3 cents/word, 1 percent of what a glossy magazine would pay for non-scholarly work. Let’s not get distracted by the amount of time that scholarship requires: travel; archives; dozens if not hundreds of books read; writing; and editing. But that “let’s not” is a sliding glass door of sorts: it articulates the injustice of unremunerated work, but it also stands as a reminder that the pleasure [and/or displeasure] of some work is irreducible to money, acts as an irreducible quality. But isn’t everything held in the matrix of currency [fiction]? All process, a term inclusive of work, skilled or unskilled, is irreducible to the monetary value assigned it. A bibliography supportive of that last statement alone would entail a foray into a discursive terrain bordered by Vico, Marx, Weber, The Frankfurt School, Foucault, Post Structuralism and practically every title in Verso, Stanford’s Crossing the Meridian and the University of Minnesota press, and the work of countless others. Irreducible labor. Or as Thomas Keenan has recently put it, the irreducible “jelly” of work that remains after the abstractions of exchange value is “accounted.”11

I’ve worked for 19 thousand a year as a gallery receptionist 14 years ago; for nothing, in monetary terms, writing a proto-book as a PhD candidate to produce a dissertation, partially about labor and art in reconstruction era Italy; for a stipend of 18 thousand per annum teaching college students courses that full [celebrity] professors were also teaching; for one glorious year at 55+ thousand a year as a “term” assistant professor at a prominent women’s college affiliated with an ivy league university; and some ten k (+) less a year as a tenure track assistant professor at a state institution. The latter ostensibly includes compensation for teaching Art History to undergraduates and studio practitioners, directing advises toward theirs MAs or MFAs, and coming to countless faculty meetings. I can retain that salaried position if I produce enough of those journal articles, at 3 cents a word, so let us include the latter, now that I HAVE a tenure track position, in that before-taxes salary. And I get benefits. I am by all [ac]counts VERY lucky and yet the contradictions in the remunerative system are too many to count. I am not compensated in any way—including in University evaluations and other assorted forms of self-regulative beaurocracy—for the 5 or so, sometimes more, hour (+)-long studio visits I conduct every week. An aside on the studio visit: it is by far more intense than an equal measure of time, the hour, of teaching, advising, or any other form of labor but one. And that latter, around which I skirt, is a term from which I steal to work. “Robbing peter to pay Paul.” Wait, I thought I was the one getting paid?

And I “speak” from a vantage of extreme privilege, of multiple privileges, of all privileges but one, to which I stand in a relation of excess and lack. That excess and lack revolves a particular embodied form of labor, a production that is a non productive labor unlike the non accumulative labor of which the autonomists speak…

The discursively impossible: I have given birth through the labor process to a child. “Let’s not,” in the interest of not getting caught in the sliding glass door, “count” pregnancy, or post pardum recovery or breast-feeding. Let’s try to isolate labor in order to attempt to, tautologically, quantify it, as the issue of labor conventionally requires us to do. That labor was 32 hours long. Not one of those 32 hours was commensurable with any other hour. Time contracted, not necessarily in rhythm with those of my womb (hystery in Greek), time dilated, not necessarily in tandem with my cervix. It was working parallel to me; no, those organs were working in tension against me. Dissonance. I have never been capable of thinking my body’s labor in what I will call, despite the need to shore it up by the labor of discursive legitimation, my experiential time. This time shrank and stretched like hot taffy. I would need the proper name “Deleuze” here, and The Logic of Sense, to get the discursive sanction I need to support this last claim. That would take a little labor, labor time I could punch in as academics will no doubt do some time soon, or rather do now however elliptically in requisite annual self reports. But those 32 child labor hours defy break down into 32 units of 60 minutes, 1920 units of 60 seconds, etc. This form of labor slips the grip of discourse; even metaphor.

Catachresis is not monstrous enough to operate as a medium for the articulation of this [non] event. There was, however, a quantifyable cost for the hospital ante-chamber, the delivery room, the “recovery” room, and the first examination of the infant. And there were more complex “costs;” I was “let go” of the second year of my position as a term assistant professor at a prominent women’s college associated with an ivy-league university. The Chair responsible for my firing, I mean, liberation, is a “feminist,” and a mother of two. She thought it would be “for the best,” for me to have time off. I never asked for time off. This did allow her to win a point or two for her annual docket; I was hired back on the adjunct salary of 3 thousand per class the next semester. This allowed the department to save 50 thousand dollars in 2007-2008, and the cost of benefits. Did I mention that the semester after giving birth, after having been “let go,” I still made it to campus to attend all advising sessions? 50K in savings that the institution no doubt never even registered, my loss. But who cares, I had a healthy beautiful bright baby!….. to love AND support. BTW, diapers are 20/box. Currently, I calculate that I make about 12 dollars and fifty cents an hour given that I work at least sixty hours a week. Ergo, a box of diapers is equal to over an hour and a half of work. I go through many of these per month still. At the time of being fired/demoted/whatever, I lived in NYC, where diapers cost more than 20/box. And I made, about 4.16 and hour. A box of diapers cost 5 hours of work. But like many women, and unlike many others, I had assistance, that of a partner and that of a parent. Let’s not address the emotional and psychological cost of the latter; let’s please not address the price dignity paid. Oops, prosopopeia. Does dignity have agency? I hope the reader knows by now that I find calculations to be absurd. “How do I love Thee, [dear child, dear student, dear reader,] Let me count the ways….” I am, however, serious in the following query: how do others less lucky than I make it in the global service industry (in which education and so called higher education now takes it place, now that Professors at State schools are classified as mid level managers?) How do women who have babies and work make it? They pay to work; they pay with their children. Sacrificial economies.

Now again, let’s not get caught in that door by even discussing the 24/7 labor of parenting. The pleasures of this last, and the agonies, are irreducible. But, again, isn’t everything? So: Suspended. Bracketed, a priori. A discursive delimitation or repression? It is in such poor taste to discuss this: bad form. Just a note, daycare is 10 thousand dollars per anum. A baby sitter charges 10-15 an hour. I over identify with the sitter and guiltily–as though I even had the luxury of being a fat cat liberal riddled with guilt–pay said sitter 20. But no worries: I don’t believe in baby-sitting. I have no life outside of the working and the parenting, no leisure. I mistrust the latter. I dislike being appeased. No compensatory blah blah for me. I do, however, want the hours taken away from my child by studio visits and the like to be remunerated HER. She keeps track of when I am missing. I can’t keep count. Guilty interstitial pleasure: Facebook, whom (uh oh) I can credit for the honor [snarkery free] of labor on the present piece.


Like most institutions of its kind, the University at which I have a tenure track position, for which I am reminded to be eternally thankful—and I AM—does not have maternity leave. Were I to choose to have a second child (this statement requires an exegesis into the word “choice”), I would take sick-leave, as though giving-birth were an illness; as though [biological] labor were a subtraction from the forward march of time, of production and productivity, of progress. Sick-leave, time taken while ill ad ostensibly unproductive. Sick leave, the concept if not the necessary practice, is sick. More perverse still is the idea that populating the next generation, however selfish this may or may not be in many way, however narcissistic or not, is not a form of non-productivity. The double negative in this last should raise some flags in the space of textual analysis, labor analysis, gender analysis. An aside: I never felt less ill than during pregnancy, childbirth, and so called recovery. The use of the word biology will deliver the present text, again, to the accusation of essentialism. I will add that it goes without saying that maternity need not be biological. But it is still labor. A colleague recently adopted a child. Said colleague travelled to a distant continent to retrieve the child with whom she had spent a year establishing an intimate, if painfully digitally mediated, long term relationship. She took family medical (sick) leave. It, apparently, is against an ethics of work to be preoccupied with a new baby.

Moreover, were I to have a second child, my tenure clock would stop if I took that odiously named family/sick leave. My opportunity to make a case for my own worth via tenure review would be deferred. Of course, were we unionized, there may be a fighting chance, were our esteemed male colleagues to support us, for maternity leave, or, more unthinkably, paid maternity leave and no punitive tenure clock [beyond the normative punitive parameters]. “We” are our worst obstacle. As a prominent political science academic and feminist recently pointed out to me, one of the greatest obstacles to unionization or any form of collectivization, for artists and academics, is that they think of themselves as “professionals” and associate unions with blue color workers. Were they to peek around, they would note that these workers are practically extinct. We are all in an endless lateral plane of service. As one student told me, “my parents pay your salary,” to which I responded, “like the cleaning lady.” Note that there is no “liberal elitism” lurking here. We are all, to some extent, unless we work for JPMorgan Chase or some hedge fund, the cleaning lady (many nannies, like many cabbies, have a string of PhDs. My republican aunt once told me with delight that her cleaning lady had worked with my dissertation adviser when she, “the cleaning lady” was in grad school). Anyway, the student just nodded. I told him he should work to get his parents’ money’s worth.

Professors and academics like to think that they transcend as they were believed to do in a previous disciplinary socio-cultural regime. Jackson Pollock thought that too. He was an easy puppet in Cold War politics.  Teaching undergrads in a core curriculum of an ivy league university that shores its superiority and identity around said core curriculum of old master literature, art and music—in other words, utterly dependent on a labor pool of graduate students—I participated in the effort to unionize. The threats were not subtle. The University’s counter argument was that students study; they don’t labor.

And women work, they don’t labor. There is no language.

1 Marc Spiegler. “When Human Beings are the Canvas.” Art News. June, 2003.
2 Interview with Paolo Virno. Branden W. Joseph, , Alessia Ricciardi trans. Grey Room No. 21 (Fall 2005): 26-37.
3 Ibid. P. 35.
4 Ibid.
5 The Laugh of Medusa.
6 For an excellent panoramic overview of these practices, see Helen Molesworth. “House Work and Art Work.” October No. 92 (Spring 2000).
8 Ariella Azoulay. The Civil Contract Of Photography. New York: Zone Books, 2008. P. 226.
9 Ibid. For a discussion of the blind spot of sexuality and embodiment in Enlightenment thinking, see Jacques Lacan’s “seminal” “Kant with Sade.” Critique (April, 1963).
10 “Nothing, we are told by Western Hegemonic discourse, so differentiates “us” from “them” as the lack of freedom for women in Islamist societies. It needs to be noted, however, that far from silencing the power of women, Islamist regimes highlight it, acknowledging through severe and violent restrictions that what women do is crucial to political and social order. The argument justifying the strict codes of conduct, based on respect for women (in contrast to the Western commodification of women and their disparagement as sex objects), has a dialectical dynamic that can lead to its own undoing.” Susan Buck-Morss. Thinking Past Terror. P. 12. London: Verso, 2003. P. 12.
11 Thomas Keenan. “The Point is to (Ex) Change It: Reading ‘Capital’ Rhetorically.” Fables of Responsibility. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007.

2 Responses to