Homemaking and Shadow Work

Rachel Wilkerson has tied together many threads — including work vs. labor, shadow work, blogging, feminism, and the cult of domesticity — in this post, which has a great section synthesizing Shannon Hayes’ thesis that modernity hasn’t really abolished the tyranny of the family, but instead has merely replaced it:

Last fall, I read Radical Homemakers, a book by Shannon Hayes that puts forth a feminist philosophy I don’t think most of us learned in our women’s studies classes. At the risk of overly simplifying the message, here’s a brief overview: Hayes argues that instead of relying on a man, modern women now rely on The Man—that is, to be independent from our male partners, we have become dependent on our employers who we know do not always have our best interests at heart. And in our pursuit of financial independence, we must rely on cheap convenience products that are bad for our health and the environment, and that are often made by low-wage workers.

I can make the point about meaningful work vs. laborious drudgery quite easily, simply by asking you, dear reader, if you’d drag yourself out of bed to go to your job every day if you didn’t have to. And yet we’ve outsourced most of our daily activities — or what would be our daily activities, if we lived more simply and sustainably — to others, mostly poor immigrant wage slaves even lower in the barrel, so that we can continue our “professional lifestyles”: never-ending cycles of work in exchange for money in exchange for cars so we can get to work and get money and exchange it for gas for our car so we can get to work.

Here’s a quote by Hakim Bay from The Information War, which nicely continues the point:

Americans and other “First World” types seem particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of a “metaphysical economy” because we can no longer see (or feel or smell) around us very much evidence of a physical world. Our architecture has become symbolic, we have enclosed ourselves in the manifestations of abstract thought (cars, apartments, offices, schools), we work at “service” or information-related jobs, helping in our little way to move disembodied symbols of wealth around an abstract grid of Capital, and we spend our leisure largely engrossed in Media rather than in direct experience of material reality.

The material world for us has come to symbolize catastrophe, as in our amazingly hysterical reaction to storms and hurricanes (proof that we’ve failed to “conquer Nature” entirely), or in our neo-Puritan fear of sexual otherness, or our taste for bland and denatured (almost abstract) food.

And yet, this “First World” economy is not self-sufficient. It depends for its position (top of the pyramid) on a vast substructure of old-fashioned material production. Mexican farmworkers grow and package all that Natural food for us so we can devote our time to stocks, insurance, law, computers, video games. Peons in Taiwan make silicon chips for our PCs. “Towel-heads” in the Middle East suffer and die for our sins.

Life? Oh, our servants do that for us. We have no life, only “lifestyle” – an abstraction of life, based on the sacred symbolism of the Commodity, mediated by the priesthood of the stars, those larger-than-life abstractions who rule our values and people our dreams – the media-archetypes; or perhaps “mediarchs” would be a better term.

Of course this Baudrillardian dystopia doesn’t really exist – yet. It’s surprising, however, to note how many social radicals consider it a desireable goal, at least as long as it’s called the “information revolution” or something equally inspiring. Leftists talk about seizing the means of information-production from the data monopolists. In truth, information is everywhere – even atom bombs can be constructed on plans available in public libraries. … Books on every conceivable subject can actually still be found through interlibrary loan. Meanwhile someone still has to grow pears and cobble shoes. Or, even if these “industries” can be completely mechanized, someone still has to eat pears and wear shoes. The body is still the basis of wealth. The idea of Images as wealth is a spectacular delusion.

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