Rethinking Family, Time and Immaterial labor
This interview was initially published in Hungarian at Trafo House magazine, in the context of the exhibition Munka/Work (Marx 2000) and the workshop Rethinking marriage and family model , both curated by Szilvi Német.
The ReUnion team is currently comprised of Yin Aiwen, Jelena Viskovic, Tamás Marquetant and Tamas Páll.
Szilvi Német: What is the problem or defect that you detected in the current state of affairs that your project stand in direct relation to?
Yin Aiwen (ReUnion): I think one of the most pressing issues today is how do we organize life and work, when mass automation is in the backdrop. People tend to believe that care work would be the last kind of labor that can be replaced by machines, because the care receiver would be mostly human and organic life forms, who would require more emotional exchange alongside with the physical labor of care. And the general assumption is that the machine will have a hard time to provide that exchange. But we suggest we can extend this line of thoughts a bit further. The premises of the discussion lays on how the value of emotions and affections are currently framed in a market system — the system that assumes everything can be measured by objective data and turned into reproducible products.
To be clear, we don’t value less professional care and machine caregivers, than informal care that is given by family and friendships. Rather, we believe every relationship generates its own nuanced and intricate affections, which makes all types of care irreplaceable. Instead of following the logic of the market and attempts to reproduce these intricacies, we are wondering if a system can be designed in ways that are more respectful of the nature of care work. Taking this as a departure point, in ReUnion, we are trying to find different approaches to design the social network and the economy behind it, from the points of abstraction to the circulation of the tokens.
Szilvi Német: Can you define how this shift from physical work to mental and emotional work came into being/came more to the forefront in policies/discourse?
Yin Aiwen: I think there are at least two themes of developments enable us to put immaterial labor in the forefront. One is the identity-politics-related subjects, such as feminism, queer theory, post-colonialism and so on, where the discussions of immaterial labor has always been involved. Because the non-white-male bodies are generally easier to get taxed by immaterial labor, in a systematic way. So as this discourse develops, immaterial labor becomes part of a larger discussion. Secondly, the world economy is generally turned from material-driven to abstraction/cognition/information/communication driven, in which immaterial labor is the core productive force — regardless of being performed by humans or non-humans. This shift changes a lot of parameters for how we define work and the relations of production. Naturally, the recognition and the value of mental and emotional work enters the frontier of negotiation. This context, in my view, make it a perfect moment to reconfigure our value system and social structure, because everyone is at stake — all types of bodies — would have the incentive to talk about immaterial labor and emotional exploitation. It would no longer be “just” an issue of the minority groups but everyone’s concern. And I am more hopeful for a better society because of that.
Szilvi Német: How is a pre-modern social tie like the family deal with sweeping individualization and growing flexibility everywhere? What are the alternatives? As here again personal is political — childcare, elderlies and demographics are both government-level and market-level issues, which ReUnion could be contrasted to.
Yin Aiwen: A recent Japanese film called “Shoplifters” asks this important question: is kinship the only way to make families? In the film, the warm and loving family is made of a group of genetically unrelated people that are codependent on each other for financial reasons or the need for care. While their composite family is seen as unlawful in the authority’s eyes, they are all abandoned by their own legally recognized family. So I think individualization and growing flexibility is not really the problem here. The problem is that we have a very rigid definition about family that keeps us from honest discussions about care, dependency and practicality. If we can open up the discussions about what is family in a very honest and open way — it could be as simple as asking “who you would call when you need help” — we would find a lot of in-betweens. The question is what does the state, or market, or any third entity, positioned themselves with these in-betweens. Are they supporting? Are they creating oppression? Or are they completely absent? In ReUnion, we try to be supportive and empathetic for the in-betweens, while knowing that proposing alternatives to a long-standing institution would always come with social consequences.
Szilvi Német: How can a „heart be managed”? What is the cost of socially engineering private feelings? (By quantifying the self do we give in to an inverse Taylorism of our deepest self and the thrive for always optimizing)
Yin Aiwen: It depends on what the engineering is for and how it is done. In neoliberalism, “heart management” is for smoothing the productive process of immaterial labor, to increase consuming rates and profits. We ask a waiter to be extra kind and warm, to make us feel like home, so that we can have a better consumer experience and return for more purchases. It’s a bit like an Airbnb for emotional labor, where you need to reorganize your private feelings and get them ready for sale. Until you don’t have any availability for friends, family or even yourself anymore.
Although ReUnion also tries to do some kind of “management”, our approach is somewhat “inverted”. It’s not so much about packing up your feelings and getting ready for the market, but more about finding a balance through the help of others. For instace, when a new user get on board, the first relationship they get is the relationship with themselves. This default relationship will serve as some kind of “bottom line” of your social and mental life. So that you will know when is the time to get help, to “redistributing your labor”, so that you won’t burn out. That is one of the contexts of this project, that the excess demand for emotional and care labor drives everyone to burn out. Because the invisible exploitation is at work everyday, everywhere. We want to open up space where people can negotiate and collaborate with each other.
Having said that, I do think quantification in many ways work against the emotional relationship. Because love, in the broadest sense, works in ambiguity and mystery. It is the same ambiguity and mystery have gave shelter for exploitation of emotional labor — for example, women are easy to get exploited in a domestic relationship because they “love” their family and children; similarly in the art world, people were exploited because they “love” art. The problem is that we were to make the exploitation more visible, in order to work on it, the enchantment of love will simultaneously hurt. Finding the intricate balance between the two is something always in the back of our mind. I think it would be an answer emerged from constantly fluid relationships among the users, and we’ll have to be ready to adapt all the time.
Szilvi Német: Time management is a crucial aspect of the project. Is time/energy the biggest a scarcity of our age?
Yin Aiwen: Yes and no. Yes because of the reasons mentioned above. No because time and energy are in many ways human constructs. Whether it’s in scarcity or not is completely depending on ways that we see it and understand it. In ReUnion, we are working with three timelines that are more related to the mental state than the “objectified” metrics of time. The multiplicity of the timelines opens up the discussion about the quality use of time and the quality of our relationships. For instance, family time doesn’t really mean that much if everyone is on their phone, leisure time doesn’t mean much if you keep getting work messages. Time is strangely constructed in our current society with the multilayer space that is enabled by different media, we need new ways to approach time along with the new relations of production in our time.