This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

A friend who used to work in hospitality once told me a story about the time she attended a workshop on “embodying core values” at which she had to watch a scene from the 1990 romantic comedy Pretty Woman and relate it to her work. The scene opens with Edward, a wealthy businessman (Richard Gere), and Vivian, an LA sex worker (Julia Roberts), sitting on a sofa in a penthouse hotel room. Edward and Vivian have spent a week together after Edward hired Vivian’s services. They have fallen in love, but Vivian is getting ready to leave. Edward walks her to the door of the hotel room. He opens it, hesitates and shuts it again, a grimace of lover’s agony flitting across his face.

“Stay,” he says, half-pleading, half-commanding. “Stay the night with me. Not because I’m paying you, but because you want to.”

“I can’t,” she whispers and he has to open the door and let her go.

The next scene cuts to the downstairs lobby where Barney, the hotel manager (Héctor Elizondo), is asking a staff member to “call maintenance” and have a mark removed from the lobby’s impeccable marble floor. At the end of this scene, the assembled staff were asked to respond. My friend put up her hand. Invoking the scene between the two lovers, she remarked that it highlighted the need for hospitality workers to give themselves completely to the guest when they were working. Not because they were paid to, but because they “really meant it”. Just like Edward needs Vivian to stay with him – not for the money, but because she wants to. The team leader looked perplexed and answered flatly: “Our point was actually about removing the mark on the hotel lobby floor.”

Recounting my friend’s story makes me smile, not least because I recognise myself in her experience. Her anecdote succinctly captures the kind of emotional tug-of-war going on inside us when we work. We can often find ourselves anticipating what might be expected of us beyond what is ever actually demanded of us. Yet this is by no means an accidental by-product of what we do, but the result of the ways in which many jobs today simultaneously allow and require us to use our intellectual, emotional, creative and mental capacities such that we give our whole “self” – the very person we “are”, including our hopes and dreams – to the work that we do. As a result, our sense of identity is intimately linked with our work. Moreover, our ideas of what constitutes meaningful human activity have become intricately bound up with the idea of work and our ideas of how we use our skills and have an effect on the world we inhabit. At the same time there is a more material rationale for our commitment to work: in a world of commodities, markets and money, we have to work to survive. Therefore it stands to reason that if we have the privilege to do so, we try to find work that can be fulfilling – although we are equally often propelled to hold work so dear out of a fear that stems from the competition for jobs, and the sense that failure to succeed is something to be ashamed of.

These kinds of identifications with work have come to characterise many people’s lives today, whether they have different jobs over the course of their lifetime, are self-employed, or have temporary contracts across different sectors. It is almost as if this kind of “flexibilised” scenario actually deepens the investment we make in putting our very “selves” to work. This may well be because it is only really the commitment we have to ourselves that provides any kind of continuity throughout our working lives. At the same time – and more often than not – our aspirations see us performing under the duress of ever more stringent targets, increasing demands, longer hours and greater income insecurity. Ironically, the stress that results from such pressures tends to undermine the very creativity and collaboration that is supposed to be harnessed with this unleashing of all of our productive potential.

The emotional tug-of-war embedded in contemporary forms of work is a central theme in the writing of the Italian philosopher and political activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi. In recent books such as The Soul At Work (2009), Precarious Rhapsody (2009), After the Future (2011) and most recently Heroes – Mass Murder and Suicide (2015), Bifo discusses the political and economic conditions under which our emotions, desires, personalities, relationships, communicative capacities and our very selves are “put to work”. Bifo is especially concerned about the effects this has on our mental health and the rise in instances of anxiety and depression. He attributes the increased occurrence of such psychopathologies (or disorders) to the accelerating speed at which we are expected to function, along with the overwhelming amount of information we are required to process. In this virtualised world, our screen-time exceeds the time we meaningfully spend in the actual presence of other human beings, and the expansion of financial markets injects competition into ever more spheres of our lives. For Bifo, this world is not only destructive, it is marked by exhaustion; yet we seem stuck in a crisis with no ostensible “way out”. Consequently, Bifo argues, we are seeing people take desperate measures to find an exit – either through withdrawal and isolation, or by means of suicide, with alarming instances of spectacular murder-suicide occurring more frequently than ever before.

Is Bifo right? It’s a provocative argument, certainly, but what might we find useful? What’s interesting to me about Bifo’s work is the registers it attends to and the reflections these registers open up. I find especially useful his concern with sensibility, our ability to feel and to perceive. Bifo explicitly links our emotional and mental health to the political and the economic, prompting us to reflect on how the environments we live and work in – environments that we make and remake every day – may be responsible for producing negative states of mind like anxiety and depression. Mental health is not simply about individual dysfunction, it is about the quality of the social relationships and environments we exist in. What is more, our sensibility – our ability to feel and perceive – is absolutely necessary for meaningful relationships to flourish. Sensibility brings into focus not just what we think and say, but also our bodies and feelings. How do we quite literally “affect” one another? What are the sensations that move between people: joyous affects of passion and excitement or sad affects like anxiety, shame or panic? Where do these feelings come from and how do they travel?

Take competition, for example. Competition has come to inform many of the relationships we have, either quite directly or as an abstract idea that circumscribes how we interact and behave in a supposed “marketplace” of scarce goods, services and employment. It’s important to ask where the imperative to compete comes from and what function or whose interests might be served by it. But in thinking about how we affect one another, we can go one step further to figure out the actual ways in which the imperative to compete makes us feel, how it gets inside us, how it comes to shape our relationships with each other, how it spreads, what moods go with it. We can think about how it propels us to think and act in certain ways and in turn what effects our actions have on others. We can recognise competition as a phenomenon that has verbalised dimensions; how we talk about it in the language we use. However, competition is also something that we act on and respond to in ways we do not speak about, for example through the ways we hold our bodies, our quite literal “dispositions”, our posture, our body language and the facial expressions we use to communicate. We may well even be able to detect competition as we walk through the city or take the train home, as we pass through the structures of our built environments and the urban landscape we live in. When we “make sense” of the world, we draw on knowledge gleaned from a substrate of felt communication. Being attentive to this register is something that we are capable of as human beings that have both minds and bodies with which to collect, evaluate and respond to the information we receive from the outside world.

Sensibility does not simply exist, it needs to be nurtured. It is essential to our capacity to live with one another and also relates to our capacity for empathy. This sensibility is at stake, Bifo argues, in a world increasingly mediated by screens and algorithms, where so much of our lives has moved online. On the one hand, we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. On the other, coming in at high speed are infinitely pursuable lines of stimulation that constantly compete for our attention. Smart technologies render us permanently “on” in a world of never-ending circulations of information, which exploits our neural energy and our physical capacities.

What might the effects of such technological change be? Someone once took me to a restaurant with no waiters. Each seat at the table was connected to a screen that a computer projected images onto. Imagine a tablet computer as a place mat. You could pick a background image for your place mat from an array of different colourful screensavers. You could tap your way through the menu and the specials of the day. Each item would be projected onto the table so that you could view the image and decide whether the dish or the cocktail you had clicked on enticed you with its virtual image too – and order it. When done, you sent your order through the computer directly to the kitchen and could then amuse yourself by watching a livestream of the kitchen where your food was being made, or by playing noughts and crosses on the games menu until your drinks arrived. I had a great evening with the person I was with. But there was something about the interaction with the serving staff that I also missed. And, more importantly for the restaurant’s revenue than my experience, their absence meant I could not be charmed into spending more money on things I didn’t even know I wanted. I wondered where the waitress had gone. Had she been “up-skilled” to a computer programmer now creating restaurant software, or had she been “down-skilled” to a busser, someone who merely brought your food and cleared the empty plate away? Or was she now unemployed, superfluous? In other words, what happens when technology replaces a human function in the labour process?

As places where people come together to eat, drink and have a good time, most bars and restaurants are especially attentive to the kind of vibe they create. The experience depends as much on the aesthetic dimensions of atmosphere as it does on the taste of the food and beverages. An atmosphere is felt, made by the interactions between the human beings who populate the venue (in their different paid, unpaid and paying roles) and create the affective experience. That is why most restaurants have not yet actually done away with serving staff, although technological innovations continue apace in the quest to increase productivity. One example is the recent introduction of handheld computers that allow serving staff to take orders at the table, while they appear instantaneously at the bar or in the kitchen. Service work is also not usually very well paid. Have you ever been to a bar where the staff seem to be having such a good time? Often they are. The (relative) pleasure you get from working there or the people you meet at least partly compensates the wages you are being paid. In the same way, people who work in caring professions often take on responsibility far beyond what they are actually paid for. This is often driven by massive cuts to resources. Carers do this precisely because they care and out of their sense of responsibility. At the same time, technology and algorithms enhance productivity while ways are found to pay us less – or nothing at all – for the work that we do. Just think, for example, of all the unpaid “work” we put in on social media, sharing links or liking other people’s updates. Our productivity boosts their advertising revenues.

Technological developments on their own do not account for the changes we experience. To complete the picture in the present context of our financialised world, we have to begin to see the world from the perspective of financial markets. For finance we are not whole workers; we are – to put it in Bifo’s words – just fractions of time that are traded on the stock market. If you work on a modern factory production line, your labour is not producing profit for a single owner, but for many shareholders, and you may be working alongside someone with a different employment contract, e.g. permanent, casual, or even self-employed. Finance asks employers to think about your work in terms of your contribution to the profitability of the firm. This includes risk, such as the risk of you being off work due to illness or annual leave. Finance never trades with the whole of anything, only ever with parts of ownership. All these little fragments of time and risk, bundled up as complex financial products, are compared against each other as financial investors seek out the highest returns on their investments. This kind of division multiplies competition, because the more fragments there are competing against one another, the more intensified the competition. To ensure a return to investors measuring our productivity against that of everyone else, we have to work harder, faster and longer.

Here we return to the emotional tug-of-war of work. The effects of financialisation on all but the very wealthy, argues Bifo, are to create an ever more intense and competitive environment in which we have to work harder and harder for less and less gain. Consequently, the emotional tug-of-war is overstretched and transforms into a spasm, a simultaneous acceleration and exhaustion. Bifo suggests that we feel this acutely in the “mental exploitation” we experience and the effects of this acceleration on our psyches and our sensibility. We find it hard to cope with the overexertion, and, in an accelerating world where information is in ready supply, what we have in abundance can quickly mutate into overload. We may well not be able to process the amount of information so that we start to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. In addition, the more time we spend in our virtual existences, the more time we spend in a world of simulation. According to Bifo, we become desensitised to our bodies and our bodily experiences. We lose our capacity for empathy and our ability to relate to one another. But the danger is not that desensitisation turns us into automatons. The danger is the resulting pain and suffering that we inflict on others due to this desensitisation, either passively when we no longer care about what happens to other human beings or actively when we react to it by causing tremendous harm to our own bodies and to the bodies of others – from everyday gestures of neglect or acts of self-harm to the more spectacular tragedies that Bifo writes about, like for example the Columbine High School shooting.

In an essay on exhaustion the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze elaborates on the marked difference between exhaustion and tiredness through the figure of the insomniac. Insomniacs are overwrought, anxious and at their wits’ end. Insomniacs cannot tolerate their situation any longer and are kept awake by their preoccupations. If insomniacs were merely tired, they would simply rest. Instead they have exhausted the possibility of going on as they are and need to shift towards a different way of doing things. There is a parallel here to the way that Bifo interprets contemporary forms of anxiety and depression as stemming from a sense of “no way out” in the face of utter exhaustion. A muscle spasm is the result of staying in the same pose for too long; from doing the same thing to a muscle over again. To get out of a spasm, the body needs to stop what it is doing and move the muscle differently.

With the image of a spasm Bifo directly invokes the body, which brings us back to sensibility. The body is a tool for sensibility and connections with others. While online we may be negotiating our multiple communicative selves, offline the body is still very much with us. When people suffer as a result of the aggression or neglect of others, it is bodies that implore us to remember our common humanity. We should listen. How do we shift when we have exhausted all possibilities within the way that we live our lives? How does something new and different become possible? In Pretty Woman, Edward and Vivian rescue each other and live happily ever after – the unfulfilled promise of prosperity and belonging of a bygone time. Now, post-financial crisis, the spasm of our current political and economic system seems much more apparent. More Gone Girl than Pretty Woman, there may well be no brighter future to hope for within its constraints. And yet, no spasm can be relieved by wishing back the time before its onset, or by hoping for a future without it. If indeed it is movement of a different kind that can help to overcome a spasm, our present predicament as described by Bifo would seem to be compelling us to find different ways of relating to one another and to our environment. Rather than panic in the event of spasm, an attention to our bodies and to our sensibility may well have something to offer in helping to bring about such movements.

Emma Dowling is a senior lecturer in sociology at Middlesex University

Heroes, Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s most recent book, is published by Verso; earlier ones are published by Semiotext(e)
Listen to a radio discussion with Emma Dowling on Bifo’s work at