Antiwork and Overemployed
The concept of the double bind, coined by complexity theorist Gregory Bateson, describes a set of directives that is self-contradictory, impossible to fulfill. “Don’t go! Leave me alone!” “Be yourself; don’t stand out too much.” “Do what you love — as long as you do it under our exploitative conditions.”
Double binds can come from parents, lovers, society, institutions, or even from within ourselves. A child raised with frequent double-bind communication might grow up to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia — the experience of holding multiple simultaneous mutually incompatible realities — later in life. Exposure to constant relational, social, and organizational double binds as an adult can produce chronic anxiety and depression. Gen Z is capturing the many double binds of living in late stage Capitalism particularly well on TikTok:
One of my favorite existential games to play with myself is double bind detection, because once you recognize a double bind for what it is (i.e., an unresolvable trap), you can paradoxically twist free of its grip for a while. That is, until you find yourself stuck in the next one. (I haven’t figured out how to escape all double binds once and for all — something tells me that even the most thorough-going form of opting out won’t quite achieve that).
One double bind I’m currently caught in — alongside most of my peers, it seems — is what to do about the problem of work. My critical studies and radical politics have disillusioned me to the possibility of waged labor ever being noble or pure or the source of my dignity (see also: James Simpkin’s essay in this issue). Careers that I once considered meaningful — public education, scholarship, community engagement — have revealed themselves to be exhaustingly exploitative and precarious, and in many ways still implicated in systemic violences (see also: “The Position We’re In” and “A Conversation on Refusal” in this issue). In contrast, the jobs I once ruled out altogether — those in explicitly profit-seeking industries — appear paradoxically more bearable, because they generously reward my “market value” and don’t demand that I bring my soul or politics to the office. All they ask is that I roleplay my job, like everyone else around (you can LARP your own office fantasy with the solo RPG Bootstrapper in this issue!). I fantasize about not working at all, yet I don’t know how to manage that and also pay the bills, buy myself a decent vacuum cleaner, take my cat to the vet, and maybe even try to save up for something as mythical as “retirement.”
I’m reminded of a quote from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, in which Kevin Spacey’s character, a criminal, says smugly to his interrogator: “If you haven’t turned rebel by twenty you’ve got no heart; if you haven’t turned establishment by thirty you’ve got no brains!” I watched the movie in my late teens (my personal riot grrrl rebellion in full bloom), and felt pricked by Spacey’s line — will what he describes happen to me? If I’m smart like I think I am (an identity that has proven itself to be a double-bind) will I too “turn establishment by thirty”?
Ironically, Spacey’s character is a con-man – neither fully a rebel nor establishment, but some third thing — a non-career career that tries to escape the destiny of adulting as either an idealistic fool or a corporate tool.
I find myself now in my late 30s, trying to break out of the double bind of “you must work to live BUT all work is life-draining” or “the beautiful paths you chose all turned out to be dead ends.” In between remote team meetings at my new corporate sell-out job, I browse LinkedIn for signs of some more rebellious or ethical or otherwise more disgustingly well-paying option (alas, searches for “post-capitalism” yield no results). When that inevitably fails, I turn to Reddit — a modern Agora, a people’s forum — for solidarity. There, I find not exactly comfort but something like psycho-spiritual recognition in two increasingly popular and seemingly contradictory conversations: r/Antiwork and r/Overemployed.
The 2 million members of the Antiwork subreddit post and re-post memes capturing the affect of work refusal, chronicle the pervasive indignity of labor conditions across industries, and celebrate the badass ways employees tell their toxic managers they quit. Most people who frequent the Antiwork forums labor minimum- to medium- wage jobs, but they’d blow them up in a second for a life of socialized leisure.
The Overemployed subreddit, on the other hand, is populated primarily by Software Engineers and Business Analysts who work multiple full-time jobs (affectionally/diminishingly referred to as just “Js” as in “my J1, J2, J3”) remotely. They often earn well over $400K in Total Compensation (salary+bonuses+stocks) plus extra extra benefits like multiple paternity leaves, yet claim to do only 5-15 hours of actual “work” a week. The members here don’t really need the extra money, but they get off on the thrill of exploiting the tech industry, maybe feeling something like elite conmen from the safety of their quadruple-monitor desktops. Like the Antiworkers, the Overemployed class refuse the double bind of bullshit jobs, but their disengagement with the work ethic takes the form of excessively exploiting the very inefficiency of the work machine.
Could overemployment be a (new?) way to refuse and out-confuse a double bind? Could we (over)employ the concept to do some theoretical work beyond describing an underground network of anonymous remote high-earners?
The current issue of REFUSE: A Journal of Iconoclasms presents a small test case for this hypothesis. Several of the pieces in Issue #2 push against and beyond double binds in pursuit of liberation from being fixed, trapped, defined by some limiting externality. A shared mode of response among the contributors to their conditions is one of intentional excess — a kind of overemployment of meaning, function, and self-identification. In “The Devil’s Etymology Vol. 1,” Don Ciglio does this excessivizing move with weighty words like “analysis” and “rigor,” unpacking their origins and contaminating them with unruly new sources and definitions, hoping to “reinfuse them with something else, something otherwise, something lost, something new, something unexpected, something previously unthinkable.” Another piece in this issue — “A Conversation on Refusal” with scholars Steph Jordan, Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Patricia Garcia, Stefanie Dunning, mariam asada, and myself — joins Ciglio’s etymological feast. Transcribed and edited from a panel held by the Labor Tech Research Network, the polyvocal text unpacks the terms “refusal” and “refuse” into a dizzying array of meanings, references, and functions, woven together with personal histories and conflicting takes. But the meticulous theoretical masticating does not lead the conversation to any comfortable conclusion. Refusal is generative, the interoluctors agree, but one of the things that we want to refuse at this moment is actually an excess of generativity — the presumptive value of limitless growth, endless productivity, and constant capital-accumulation. Perhaps, it is suggested, what we need to embrace instead is inefficiency! Passivity! A militant commitment to napping!
In his essay, “Why The Dignity of Work Can’t Liberate Us from Total Work,” James Simpkin echoes the challenge to productivity by questioning the vision of work as a source of dignity and societal hope. He argues that behind the well-intentioned yet reductivist ethic is the trap of making labor into a God above life itself. The concept of “work” has been overemployed to do more than it was originally meant to do, and has become greedy — not just semiotically, but energetically. Instead, Simpkin invites us to orient towards Buddhist notions of “right livelihood” — doing a minimum amount of “work” to maintain a life while practicing the radical act of bringing “lovingkindness” to those we share the present moment with.
Jon Hook and Michael Laub also take on the double bind of work —but do so through the innovative form of a solo role-playing game. “Bootstrapper” uses just a pen, paper, two 6-sided dice, and the all-familiar traumas of office drudgery. Hook and Laub hope that by “gamifying capitalism’s contradictions” they can “encourage others to find new ways to play the game or perhaps refuse the game altogether” — to humor our way out of a trap that feels ultimately inescapable. The game proceeds through a series of challenges against quotidian work enemies such as the “commute”, a “stack of paperwork,” and “ancient software”— each with a Melvillian power to ceaselessly haunt you. Boostrapper’s “boss level” involves having an Existential Crisis, with all the questioning and curative fantasies implied. Perhaps try playing Bootstrapper in either Overemployed or “lovingkindness” mode?
The attempt to overcome the capitalist work trap through genuine spiritual transcendence is vulnerably explored in Jun Qi’s webcomic “Refu(SAL/SE/GE)”— a beautifully illustrated bildungsroman in 6 episodes. The author-protagonist invites us into vivid scenes from her personal existential crisis that involves trading a promising tech career for a stinking compost heap, with detours into Buddhism and its disillusionment. Countering The Usual Suspects’ prophecy, the author follows a path from establishment to rebel, but ends up somewhere in a fermenting middle.
Similarly alive if ambivalent, LN Foster’s and Shannan Lee Hays’ manifesto/mixtape “The Position We Are In” is a multimodal exploration of academia’s many double binds authored by two rebellious theorists (who are also musicians and artist and activists and more!) that find themselves between classrooms, urban encampments, and underground raves trying to make sense of “the impasses and excitements that come from trying to occupy multiple realities at once.” Recall the definition of schizophrenia from earlier in the essay.
Is schizophrenia the inevitable symptom of trying to refuse a reality we find intolerable while struggling to continue to exist, as Deleuze and Guattari warned? If so, what alternative do we have to psychic excess as rebellion? In his piece, “The Art of Selective Refusal,” Davood Gozli wrestles against the tendency of refusal to appear “imprecise, totalizing, and fail[ing] to speak to the here-and-now.” He does so through experiments in selective refusal, taking on one constraining logic or genre at a time, such as that of monotheism or mono-thesism. His contribution is a list but not an outline — an intentionally fractured whole that becomes more dimensional in its fragmentation.
Perhaps another theoretical frame for our collective schizophrenia or semiotic overemployment could be that of “diffraction” — the term feminist scholars Karen Barad and Donna Haraway borrow from optical physics to describe the inherent difference, multiplicity, and indeterminacy of matter and being. Diffraction happens when a wave encounters an obstacle or opening and bends around it, splitting into a set of complex diverging patterns, as a wave of white light breaks into a rainbow when encountering a prism. The image serves as a nice metaphor for the resilient power of being fluid and multiple in the face of oppressive binaries. In fact, nearly all the pieces in this issue might be playing with diffraction as they encounter the constraints and openings of ideas, taking on more dimensionality and corporeality through photographs, drawings, uncited references, invited interactions, and personal confessions — all forms that may not be considered appropriate or legible in other serious publishing platforms. If schizophrenia is the diagnosis for our outpouring excess, perhaps we can consider this issue as one small step toward Ursula Curiosa’s poetic prescription “to shove Capital’s statute of madness back into its face” and then “hurry to create communities of joy.”
Natalia Smirnov is a post-soviet post-capitalist compost-human and a founding editor of REFUSE: A Journal of Iconoclasms.