Work // Domestic Realism and Collective Choreography: An Interview with Helen Hester

Article by Benjamin Busch in Berlin // Friday, Sep. 02, 2016

Last year’s popular book ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’ by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams set forth three interwoven political demands: full automation, universal basic income, and the future. However, the question of care work and its role in a fully automated post-work society remained largely unaddressed. In her forthcoming book ‘After Work: What’s Left and Who Cares?’ (Verso, with Nick Srnicek), Helen Hester examines in depth the implications of automation for reproductive labour, its limits and its possibilities.

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Source: See Red Women’s Workshop, Feminist silk-screen poster collective, London 1974–1990

Benjamin Busch: The topic at hand is work. It’s a broad topic, so let’s narrow it down a bit. In your writing, you approach domestic space as a site where work, specifically care and reproductive labor, takes place. Your forthcoming book explores domestic space as a mutable site with emancipatory potential, a place where technology can intervene to alleviate drudgery. How do existing forms of domestic space prevent that today?

Helen Hester: In the late 1940s, the American builder and housing developer William Levitt claimed that ‘No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.’ This statement, I think, provides a useful starting point for thinking about the intersection of labour, politics, and domestic space in the global north. Not only does the over-supply of certain kinds of housing stock largely militate against alternative social arrangements (from communal living to extended families), but the proliferation of work that such spaces demand further enhances their politically conservative power. The standard single-family dwelling is largely privatized (a space of individual consumption rather than of communal services) and frequently atomized (in part, because of the inadequacy of public transport infrastructure); both of these factors render the home particularly labour-intensive. Given the gender disparities in the distribution of household labour, it’s clear that Levitt’s statement applies even more forcefully to feminized subjects: after a second (or third, or fourth) shift in the home, who has the energy for feminist political organizing, for example? The elimination, as far as possible, of domestic drudgery is not only a worthy aim in itself, but also a vital means of widening access to participation in civic and activist movements.

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The house of the future imagined as an enormous sphere that could be easily transported to its building lot. // Illustration from ‘When Home Owners Roll Their Own’ in the September 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics

BB: Going further, it’s clear that for better or for worse technology has historically transformed domestic space. Since the dawn of consumerism, new technologies have mostly entered the home through consumer products, a trend which continues today with “smart” technologies. Instead of reinforcing existing gender and class structures, how do you see technology shaping the domestic space of the future?

HH: There are numerous barriers to technology becoming an emancipatory force within the home, and time allocation studies indicate that the proliferation of so-called ‘labour saving devices’ has had only a limited impact on the amount of housework undertaken. Indeed, feminist historians suggest that any time-saving advances in domestic gadgets have been offset by skyrocketing domestic standards. So, it’s important to note that progressive changes within the home require more than just the judicious application of new devices—they require accompanying social and political changes as well. I think it would be an error, though, to suggest that technologies necessarily add to domestic workload. There are various ways in which technologies might be appropriated or put to alternative uses, and the way in which home automation functioned in the twentieth century will shape, but need not wholly dictate, its operations in the future. As our experiences of the home change, we also need to adjust our understanding of what counts as a domestic technology. The telephone, the contraceptive pill, the home computer; to what extent can these be considered as domestic devices? A radically revised concept of the home and its machines could make space for communal media production facilities, studios, workshop spaces, medical laboratories and so on, shifts that would help to change the nature of the home as a site both of labour and of social interaction.

BB: You’ve said that “gender is a workplace technology”. How could technologies such as universal basic income allow us to overcome present gender inequality?

HH: Ideas about a guaranteed income have long been debated within the feminist movement. Shulamith Firestone, for example, envisions the transition to cybernetic feminist communism as being supported by UBI. Silvia Federici, meanwhile, views Black welfare activists’ demand for a guaranteed income from the state as a demand for wages in the here and now—wages for mothers, ‘for the work of raising their children’. Of course, discussions about UBI are currently enjoying a widespread resurgence, and it’s important that its gender-political dimensions don’t fade from view. We must push for a version of the UBI that is both leftist and feminist, and which views any guaranteed income as a means rather than an end. Within the sphere of wage labour, UBI might act as a valuable point of leverage, supporting strike action and making it easier to refuse long hours, low pay, and poor conditions. In terms of domestic labour, UBI could be framed as a way of recognizing and remunerating traditionally undervalued and feminized forms of work, and as enabling more time to be spent in relation with others. It could also be a valuable tool for challenging conservative narratives about “welfare dependency”. Again, though, it is important to stress that securing an emancipatory form of UBI is by no means a given. It requires political struggle (not least around the future of other forms of benefits and public spending).

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BB: How might artists, architects, and planners work to design and implement spaces that can challenge what you refer to as “domestic realism”?

HH: At this historical juncture, it seems almost impossible to imagine ordinary domestic space taking any form other than that of the single-family dwelling. I have called this state of resignation to current conditions “domestic realism”, after Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism’. Of course, there are in fact many possible forms of domestic arrangement— both spatial and relational— and it is beholden to us to reactivate the domestic imagination. In the ‘xenofeminist manifesto’, we argue that ‘the production of space and the decisions we make for its organization are ultimately articulations about “us” and reciprocally, how a “we” can be articulated’, and we call for a renewed attentiveness to ‘collective choreo-graphy—the coordinated writing of space’. At the minimal level, this could involve architects and product designers asking questions such as: How difficult are these materials to clean? Is it easier to sweep in corners or curves? Who will be responsible for the upkeep of this communal stairwell? How easy is it to open this with a child in one’s arms? Beyond these simple tweaks, however, we need to generate broader visionary approaches to space and cohabitation. We require new domestic imaginaries that allow for both privacy and connection; I would love to see artists envision intergenerational, interspecies, queer, collective, experimental, labour-diminishing, energy-efficient spaces in which diverse kinds of people can really feel at home.

Author Info

Helen Hester is Head of Film and Media at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of social reproduction, and she is a member of the feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. She is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), the co-editor of the collections Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism(Ashgate, 2015) and Dea ex Machina (Merve, 2015), and series editor for Ashgate’s ‘Sexualities in Society’ book series.

Writer Info

Benjamin Busch is currently researching critical modes of architectural production within the field of spatial practice. Treating architecture as a symptom of abstract processes, his artwork and writing investigate complex fields of relations within the built environment. benbusch.info

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