The Myth of Productivity
Originally published on my former blog on April 4, 2017
My dissertation is about images of production and its byproducts in Middle English literature. That's about all I feel comfortable saying in a public forum (I am planning a later post about digital ethics for graduate students and early career scholars), but I have brought this up because it is often on my mind. Modern capitalist systems require that we believe our worth is based on our output, that our bodies are production machines, that labor is a gift, and the meritocracy is real. This is all, of course, deeply false. In academia, specifically, when we are asked to produce documents, ideas, evidence etc. it is never about the product but rather about the producer. The action of being productive is rarely about the product at all but speaks instead to the perceived utility of the agent producing. I am going to snag a bit from my dissertation prospectus to get this post on "productivity" off the ground:
It is crucial to remember that the very idea of production has its roots in the Latin producere, pro “forward” + ducere “to lead,” a word that has the sense of bringing something to the front, promoting, revealing, or leading forward. U.S. politicians cast images of an effectively producing and productive citizen as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, (increasingly) Christian, (often) male subject as a defining feature of who is able and desired to lead the nation forward (pro + ducere). This body is valued at the expense of and to the violent detriment of queer, female, black, brown, disabled, trans, non-Christian, and poor bodies. These are the bodies of waste in modern America. 
What interests me about this etymology is the link between production and teleologies of progress. This is the myth of productivity: that the act of producing propels one forward, that through production and productivity, one is leading oneself forward in the grand narrative of history. Or leading others. Or helping others lead others. That one's role as a leader is often contingent on the labor of another who receives no recognition for the efforts accrued in helping to develop the product. That a major name brand company gets accolades and wealth for a new high top sneaker that has been stitched in factories oceans away from the executive offices of the company with tools and materials that have been cultivated from the resources of other places.
When privilege intersects with productivity, the requirements of producing tell an entirely different tale. Those who pro + ducere are assumed to have value yet systemic oppression shows us that only certain embodiments and lives are given the tools to produce well (whatever measurement well might be). So while those of us in academia have careers that are bound to the ideology of productive output, many of us will never benefit from what we put into it.
If I spend, for example, three weeks writing a draft of a paper and in those three weeks produce over 20,000 words of writing but only a fraction of it, lets say 9,000 words, is "useful" where does that 45% go? Where does it live? Of course, those self-proclaimed shitty words are in a file in my computer or scribbled in my notebook hiding from the world, but that 45% of writing can still speak to my engagement with the project even though it is not the product. This is the stuff that I am interested in, the 45% of "waste" that we do not take into consideration. The byproducts of labor are deemed useless, wasteful, ungenerative, and yet these are the means to production. Capitalist systems rely on the abjection of the byproduct.
My thoughts on abjection and production is informed largely by Imogen Tyler's Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. In it Tyler outlines two registers for the word revolt: (1) the emotional register captures the sense of disgust and (2) revulsion while the political register denotes protest and revolution against authority. She synthesizes these two registers into her theory of social abjection that examines the citizenship status of disenfranchised groups in neoliberal Britain alongside the process of riot and revolt that these groups take against governmental authorities and systems of power. Tyler writes that abjection and revolt are the “processes through which minority populations are imagined and configured as revolting and become subject to control, stigma and censure, and the practices through which individuals and groups resist, reconfigure and revolt against their abject subjectification.”
To revolt against authority is to be revolting, to challenge social control and censure, and to resist teleologies of progress through production. In the academy then, our work is linked too readily to product and output. What becomes critical, in my estimation, is that the product, once produced, is no longer linked to its producer. The systems that afford or bar a particular worker from doing their job are not necessarily visible in a product. The byproducts and side-products of our efforts as academics - scribbled and jotted notes, files upon files of word documents, memo pads, notes to self, conversations among peers, shower thoughts - none of this is quantified, qualified, or perceived as productive.
In an earlier post I tossed some thoughts around about different ways of engaging with my own habits of writing and research. I want to get away from the product. I want to get away from the output. Instead I find it critical to build time into thinking, research, writing, conversing. Must I have something to show for these efforts? I don't think so. On most days the product that I can show an advisor or a colleague is a lunch I made myself, laundry that I have finally gotten around to washing, emails to which I have finally responded, a three hour phone call to my sister. We are not what we produce and our value as scholars should not be grounded in such tyrannical measurement.