On Work

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On Work • Curated by Sarah Madges

Welcome to the “On Work” community anthology, curated by Editor-in-Chief Sarah Madges, featuring the work of eight writers. Below, you can see the original call for this anthology, which is what folks submitted their work to, as well as an editor’s note from Sarah, which gives insight into the words, artwork, and pieces you will find in this anthology.

In the wake of the so-called “Great Resignation,” quiet quitting, and unprecedented strikes, the media has fomented a moral panic — “no one wants to work anymore” — when, more accurately, no one wants to work under these conditions anymore. Our work regime has been tailored to maintain the power of finance capital, dividing society between the actually productive but relentlessly exploited, the devastatingly unemployed, and, in the largest group: people paid to do nothing, in positions designed to engender identification with the ruling class. The COVID-19 pandemic and related economic trends have sharpened existing labor inequalities into focus, causing many of us to question what we are willing to do in return for a paycheck. This issue is calling all kinds of writers and workers — especially those who live and labor on the margins — to show what has come from this questioning, or to start questioning! I want you to reflect on your relationship to work, critique corporate “culture,” talk about unions, bemoan the churn of “passion fields” and “mission-driven” careers, discuss “employability” in terms of gender presentation, class, race, neurodivergence, etc. Write an essay about your bullshit job*, or your shit job**, or work you actually love! Send in a poem about a literal dream job, a sci-fi vision of work in the future, or complicate what constitutes labor and production itself. Show me what work (or your conception of it) is like today, over three years into the pandemic. And get compensated for it!

*To paraphrase anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, a bullshit job is a form of paid employment so unnecessary or pernicious that even the worker can’t justify its existence, and yet they feel obligated to pretend that isn’t the case.

**Conversely, a shit job is a form of paid employment that is either necessary or of some benefit to society but the worker is treated like shit or must work under shitty conditions.

Over the last few years, all of us have been expected to, if not while keeping calm, carry on. We’ve labored beneath a treacherous pall that the coronavirus pandemic and recession cast over our lives, lives that in so many cases have been wracked with illness, loss, and precarity like never before. We have felt grief, fear, and pain on a massive scale, and undergone rapid changes as these years’ indelible impact continues to reverberate throughout the world. From mass protests of police brutality to bills trying to curtail Critical Race Theory; from mounting anti-trans legislation to the curbing of reproductive rights; from the writers’ strike and staggering unionization to the waves of layoffs in media and tech; from heightening symptoms of climate change to the affordable housing crisis; from resumed student loan repayments to the swarm of generative AI razing creative fields. From over one hundred days ago, when the genocidal campaign in Gaza began, to now…this “unprecedented time” continually out-performs its latest precedents. 

Through it all, I haven’t stopped thinking about work — its conditions, its cruelty. Its “culture.” How absurd it is that in the face of all of that, we still have to go to work…

As I (fleetingly) sidestepped the service industry and toiled at my dumb email job last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much easier its tasks were to accomplish, how there was no toil. (It maddened me to learn what so much of so-called “skilled,” higher-paid work entails.) 

Whenever I can’t stop thinking about something, I know I should write about it. And I tried! To write — at first about work, the goal simplifying later to at all. Over a decade of low-paying, high-demand / -intensity jobs only just behind me, I was burned out, with long COVID, outrage fatigue, or both fogging my brain. It took over a year for me to produce one coherent essay on the subject, which turned into part of a panel presentation on trans* poetics and labor, which eventually transformed into the submissions call for this anthology.

I sought pieces that both refract light on this moment and on employment precarity, especially as experienced by people whose race or ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexuality, chronic health condition(s), disability, immigration status, or even particular industry complicates their ability to find sustainable work. I had no idea what to expect, even from the three contributors whom I solicited before opening up the call to others. 

This is what I got: 

An elegant, elegiac suite of poems honoring the labor and legacy of a theater electrician. A story about a “hot trans girl” and her “ugly trans guy” amassing debt to “The Company” that replaced world institutions so she can get a womb. A satire that teases out and about the performative “wokeness” and cognitive dissonance one faces as a DEI coordinator. Excerpts of poems and autocritique that puzzle over the question: “why is it that the more transsexual I get, the more employable I feel?” A social commentary-meets-screed about working a job that determines whether someone is sufficiently unable to work a job in order to receive disability benefits. A group of poems philosophizing about — among other things — whether a boss can be “good,” whether jobs produce suffering on par with Job’s biblical suffering, and the internal contradictions of union work. A story about a PA saddled with “bull-sitting” while the “environmentally minded” TV show’s producer who employs her faces trial for animal cruelty. And finally, an essay pondering the “minion-god” dialectic of laboring as a “student-teacher” in grad school and the moral, social, and legal implications of “employing”/training/traveling with (service) animals.

Sarah Madges, Editor-in-Chief of “On Work”

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Electrician’s Litany

Lynne Ellis

The Opera House power vault / blows and knocks out the local grid / on our first day of work together.

To Pasture

Juliana Roth

The court had decided I was the most logical choice for the bull’s care. I was sufficiently neutral as a production assistant, and I’d already been tasked with managing him at the studio.

DEI, Bitch

Shebani Rao

Can everyone hear and see me okay? No? Oh, I was on mute, let me just ... There we go.

How Do You Make It Work?

Lester Tibbett

I’m writing this much later than I should be, in part, because I’ve just had another birthday, and as I age, I become more reluctant to do more than one job.

The Year of Getting Better

Grace Byron

“It’s the year of getting better,” her mother said as she walked into the room. It was Thora’s second hospital stay of the year.

On Employability

Neon Mashurov

"Why is it that the more transsexual I get, the more employable I feel?"

Headshot of Sarah Madges

Sarah Madges is a worker-writer-(copy) editor. They have an MFA degree in creative nonfiction still in the New School envelope it came in floating somewhere around their apartment. They live in Crown Heights with four cats and one person. Find them on the oligarch’s bird app @smadges.

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