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The Replacements

Turning the cultural logic of capitalism on its head

Replace Me by Amber Husain. Peninsula Press, 137 pages.

If you’re an academic worker, you probably already know that higher education is in a state of crisis. Depending on your perspective, it is either hurtling towards total extinction or simply dependent on the idea of crisis for its very existence. Either way, it is undeniable that over the past half century, governments have dramatically cut spending on public universities, and decision-making powers have been hyper-centralized within the bureaucratic apparatus of university administrators and cost-cutters. Answering either to a board of trustees or a board of regents, this managerial class has been overseeing the transfer of governance power for quite some time. They have also been busy inventing new standards, so that anything from financial exigency to student success rates can be an excuse to fire faculty. Take the governing board of Georgia’s public universities, which recently moved to undermine the academic tenure process as it has existed for the better part of a century in the United States. Citing concerns over accountability and oversight, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to implement new measures that would allow administrators to dismiss tenured faculty without peer review.

But this is already the case for most academic workers. Tenure is extraordinary precisely because it is a job guarantee, which, as historian Greg Afinogenov has pointed out, is mostly an exception in higher education today. The supermajority of academic professionals is overworked and underpaid, subsisting on short-term contracts and threatened with non-renewal. Overall, higher education looks a lot more like other industries than the tenure struggle illustrates: over half a million jobs in American higher education have disappeared since the start of the pandemic, the most ever recorded since the 1950s. Millions of workers watched in 2020 as entire departments were downsized, thousands of contracts went unrenewed, and class sizes ballooned—all while university endowments grew by billions of dollars. (Tell any worker in another sector that your workload went up, your colleagues lost their jobs, and your checks stayed the same as your company got richer; they will surely relate.) As institutions cut labor costs and burden shrinking workforces with under-compensated and even volunteer work, intellectual workers face the fact that they are increasingly dispensable to the university’s mission of making money.

The academic crisis is a crisis of replacement because replacement is the cultural logic of capitalism. This latter insight is the main thrust of writer Amber Husain’s short and sweeping Replace Me, described as a “pocket essay” by its publisher Peninsula Press. Considering medical conditions from Capgras syndrome to cervical cancer, cultural theorists from Freud to Kollontai, cosmetic commodities from stem cell therapy to Soylent, productivity measures from labor automation to sleep-tracking, and techno-utopian “solutions” from Alexa to Effective Altruism, Husain’s essay examines the myriad ways that modern experience depends upon exchange. Many of these discourses are framed through her own personal experiences—with a health scare, Covid lockdown, anorexia, and polyamory—and then reframed with snippets from Walter Benjamin or Eula Biss to grasp their theoretical dimensions.

The academic crisis is a crisis of replacement, because replacement is the cultural logic of capitalism.

Replace Me can be grouped within the body of scholarship dedicated to analyzing the psychic life of capitalism, including academic texts such as Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire, Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society, or Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies, as well as more popular books such as Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even, Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back, and Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work. It places itself in direct conversation with cultural theory such as Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, citing its insights as a founding myth for the millennial workforce and modeling Fisher’s own style of connecting personal anecdote to film analysis, literary theory to the political present. All of these works variously take up the difficult duty of ideology critique, dedicated as they are to uncovering the ways in which the most intimate phenomena are structured by the capitalist mode of production.

In this spirit of inquiry, Husain’s essay tries seriously to trace similarities between individual experience and exchange as a broadly conceived idea, beginning with one of the most common realms of the everyday: work. Husain shares a personal story about her first permanent employment situation in publishing as an editorial assistant. Although the job comes with a salary and benefits unlike what she received in the service industry, she is disappointed to find that the intellectual promise of editing has been turned into rote administrative activity: spreadsheets, tracking, email, and data entry. Actual editing and production work happens abroad in India, presumably by people paid much less than Husain herself. The work is boring, which makes it depressing, a feeling that comes from realizing that it “rendered us the company’s most replaceable resources, and thus the most resourceless when it came to asserting demands.” Deskilling is a surefire strategy for securing control over the labor process, allowing managers to break a job down into meaningless pieces and push productivity with the promise that if you don’t want to do it, someone else will. As they lay the groundwork for their own redundancy, the editorial assistants are threatened with their replaceability in order to work harder. What else is there to do but to make yourself indispensable?

Beginning with a relatable tale of her first encounter with “Nicole” from human resources, “an embodied spirit of the ‘Professional Managerial Class,’” Husain then links the myth of Hephaestus and his fleet of automated handmaidens to twentieth-century anxieties around the imminent robot takeover. “Power and replaceability have long been mutually constructed,” Husain plainly states, before arguing that in the transition from epic to modern narrative, power became secularized and potentially seizable by an oppressed mass. Philosophy, film, and novels can teach us to recognize figures of replacement as a power dynamic. When replaceability becomes written into a social system, abstracted from the will of a higher power, it is difficult to resist ruthless turnover and hold any single figure responsible for its churn. This line of reasoning is what leads Husain to relent that although Nicole’s job was to repeatedly encourage the editors to internalize their own replaceability, she is simply the mouthpiece for a set of rules that precede her. Just as they threaten workers with a specter of many others who can replace them tomorrow, bosses and HR directors are merely “types” of people who occupy a structural role. Capitalism is structured like a genre.

Even as it places people within a web of power relations outside of their personal control, the ideological power of capitalism comes from its cult of individualism, teaching each one of us to ward off the specter of replacement with the security of unique success. Husain covers this in her discussion of the “Quantified Self,” a defensive strategy that sells dependence on replaceability to overcome it. Rendering human life into raw data in order to strive towards an optimized self might feel like a solution for our own disposability, but instead it enables tech companies to harvest as much of our personal information as possible. For what? In order to sell us more shit. Track every calorie that passes your lips, and one day you might find yourself getting ads for Soylent, a synthetic cocktail meal replacement that simulates the caloric satisfaction of food without any of the trouble of desiring to eat. Husain finds this self-denial in both the anorexic and the tech bro, who embody “if not necessarily a simpering solipsism, a compliance with the rules of a game that whispers of salvation in personal exception.” When individual responsibility becomes the rubric for all areas of life, purity and policing are foregrounded as political principles.

Replace Me also relies on generic writing in order to contrast personal specificity with socially commutable scenes. Anecdotal accounts of the publishing industry, for example, are framed in the following way:

The editor who commissioned these half-imagined titles was typically a man with large hands and a mystically “sterling” reputation. And while he would cultivate a comradely rapport with his young, typically female assistant, the contrast between their working lives was literally night and day.

The description of these characters within a white-collar world doesn’t exactly speak to a universalizable experience of the working class. But they do evoke in the most generic terms a sexist imbalance in a specific workplace in a way that makes misogynistic practices within different kinds of professional work seem relatable across industries. One can imagine this same dynamic between a professor and a graduate student at a university, or a senior partner and a junior associate at a law firm—down to the veneer of bourgeois dignity excusing exploitation. The effect of this generalizing prose is that many things begin to be marshaled under the author’s rubric of replaceability, demonstrating its portable valence as a concept.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, replaceable,” Husain writes, riffing on Simone de Beauvoir’s famous articulation of the social construction of femininity in The Second Sex. To translate Husain’s claim into de Beauvoir’s terms, we might say that the fundamental source of people’s oppression is the subject’s historical and social construction as replaceable. But just because, as Husain so insistently demonstrates, the very idea of replaceability is tied to capitalism, this does not make it devoid of political potential. The last fifteen pages of the essay turn to the radical dimension of replacement that inheres in forms of collective action. Walking a picket line allows you to “Forget the Idea of Being Special,” leaving behind your uniqueness in favor of the image of yourself through the eyes of others. Husain turns to Jodi Dean’s idea of the comrade as a figure that is “‘multiple, replaceable, fungible’—all that we’ve been taught to fear.” If capitalism cultivates subjective attachment to individual irreplaceability while structurally relying on replacement to function, then communism—as the real movement which abolishes the present state of things—can redefine what it means to be replaceable according to alternative models of solidarity, even love. We need these kinds of calls to universality in a world ruined by the imperative of self-interest.

In its calls for a form of selfhood more attuned to the idea of the collective, Replace Me embraces the universal. But this same openness presents a challenge that we see in the essay’s ambitious scope. If this review has been too reliant on listing Husain’s subject matter, it is because of the comprehensive array of examples linking communist love to colostomy bags. We can understand this accumulation as part of the essay’s effort to reveal replaceability at the heart of such far-flung phenomena. And yet, the sheer range of Husain’s analysis is not quite adequate to the essay form. Without chapter titles or conceptual divisions in its 137 pages, her objects, each offering its own promising angle, undergo a kind of argumentative unfocus. Is replacement as a figurative strategy of characterization in, say, a film about sexual assault in the workplace identical to replacement as an ideology in the real workplace? Are art and reality interchangeable?

When taking on the vicissitudes of a concept, when trying to grasp the contradictions in a social formation, it is difficult to recover the relationship between an object and the historical complexity within which it exists. The trouble with this kind of dialectical writing, as Fredric Jameson writes in the conclusion to his 1971 Marxism and Form, is its “‘totalizing’ character: as though you could not say any one thing until you had first said everything; as though with each new idea you were bound to recapitulate the entire system.” While Replace Me does indeed find the utopian possibilities lurking within the most pervasive formations of capitalism, its own ambitious approach to culture strains the limits of linear and limited form.

Compounding this analytical confusion is the essay’s personal perspective: Husain’s insights are lyrical and poignant, but they occasionally interrupt the author’s argumentative trajectory as she steps back from theoretical analysis to tell us how something makes her feel. While Replace Me ostensibly rejects the regime of the individual, it tends to repeat some of the perspectival problems within contemporary literary culture: the confessional, the auto-theoretical, and the memoirized. Criticism is at its best when it is able to grasp the universal kernel within the deeply subjective. But cultural writing today seems almost required to personalize its analytical scope in order to be noticed.

Part of this genre problem stems from the uncertain relationship between socialist writing and political transformation. We are in a moment where intellectual work is increasingly happening on the margins of the academy and other stable cultural formations. We might take the author’s decision to publish with a small independent press as a doctoral student with past experience in the publishing industry as a sign that academia is not the sphere within which anticapitalist analysis can flourish today. While on the one hand, the essay’s accessible price and format makes it likely to be read by a wider audience than some of the most celebrated peer-review journals, the fact remains that the Amber Husains of the world should be able to depend on a lifetime of secure, gainful employment to continue to write and think. It is also a fact that under this economic pressure and professional insecurity, writers who might once have had the chance to spend years with an idea must turn to other venues. These para-academic venues, many of which have come forth in the wake of the defunding of the humanities, offer access to an audience but cannot typically provide workers with the means to survive. Without this guarantee, intellectual labor is forced to constantly cling to the conditions of its own exploitation.

Intellectual workers are also perhaps realizing that replaceability is precisely what they share with workers in other sectors.

Ultimately, Replace Me is riven by a deep melancholy for the degraded state of cultural institutions. Publishing houses, museums, magazines, and universities are hollowed out, run on insecure budgets or by workers on short-term contracts. Husain’s repeated return to strikes in these industries across the twentieth century speaks to a larger sentiment that the very conditions for intellectual labor are barely intact, as universities continue to cut labor costs and cultural institutions generally struggle to survive. And it is these surprising bonds of solidarity across these sectors, between docents and professors, that offer up a glimpse of “lost futures,” a world in which these kinds of work could not only be valued but their institutions entirely rebuilt.

As work stoppages and walkouts become more prevalent in the public eye, intellectual workers are also perhaps realizing that replaceability is precisely what they share with workers in other sectors. Academic workers should be fighting not only to restore minimal protections like tenure that only ever existed for some but to expand upon protecting intellectual work and its institutions as public goods. This includes the plethora of para-academic publications, like this one, where contemporary cultural analysis and courageous political critique increasingly thrives.

About German artist Rosemarie Trockel’s homonymous sculptural installation Replace Me (2011), featuring two ceramic couches sheathed in stiff plastic, Husain writes that the “Me of the title’s provocation suggests an individual scorned,” making the artwork “both an invitation and an accusation—a trap, an alluring dare.” But this same phrase does something slightly different in the context of critical inquiry. Taking into account the essay’s own dual situation between theory and experience, the title of Husain’s work comes to articulate something other than personal anxiety. Replace Me voices a collective demand for a future that is remade according to more revolutionary plans and liberated from individualism. It is imperative that culture workers collectively imagine what should exist, and organize to win the replaceable.