June 13 2024

Work and Life in the Balance

by Gail Hamner, Syracuse University

"Commodity" spelled out in Scrabble

Riddle me this: when is balance unbalanced? Answer: when it is the stated norm of neoliberalism.1 In general, discussions of “work-life balance” assume balance as a necessary value and frame the project of balance around the individual subject. The bibliography on this issue is large and growing, but few contributions offer much (if any) attention to broad sociocultural dynamics, and none attend to the historical development of the problem itself.  Instead, orchestrated along the lines of raising awareness, instituting administrative programs, and offering “tips” to faculty, most arguments remain within a reformist and individualist frame, intoning regretful concern about the harm of stress to workers (and hence to worker productivity) and upbeat attention to self-help solutions that devolve the “problem” directly onto the individual. It is as if the faculty-body were the warped and unstable hinge of a seesaw: fix the hinge and the rhythms of life will bob and swing with utter control. What goes unexplored, however, is the social investment in this thing we name “balance” and about its putative location in the will and habits of an individual (and unmarked) body. This short essay cannot thoroughly examine what I take to be the most pertinent question about work-life balance—namely, when and how did “balance” become the pressing problem for academic (and other professional) labor?—but it can aim at that inquiry by looking at contemporary discursive intensity around “balance” as a mark of social and structural forces that supersede an individual’s rational decision making and better time management. The individual is not the root of this problem. The root lies rather in the social dynamics of time and hegemonic gender norms.2

The contemporary situation of neoliberalism can be delineated as a doubled entity that concerns at once the role of the economic market and the formation of the citizen-subject. Under neoliberalism, the market holds unquestioned supremacy over the state in “distributing public resources,” and this market dominance supports a brutal individualism that Aiwha Ong describes as “‘competitive,’ ‘possessive,’ and construed often in terms of the doctrine of ‘consumer sovereignty.’”3 As I see it, neoliberalism is a social system in which the formation of one’s sense of self is calibrated and intercalated with the pulse of market relations. The priority of the market in distributing public resources is evidenced in such socioeconomic changes as the early 1970s shift of retirement funds from accounts held and protected by employers to market-based 401(k)s and 403(b)s—the risk of which falls to the shoulders (and pockets) of employees4—and also in the 2008 rhetoric that the financial industries were “too big to fail,” thus justifying the TARP funding that saved Wall Street but dismissed homeowners and workers with a parallel—but opposite—rhetoric of individual responsibility.5 In colleges and universities, this sort of market logic reduces mission to profit—or at least a quantifiable, objectified “good.” The results include: (1) the hiring of adjunct faculty more than tenure-track faculty; (2) mandates to increase teaching loads, class size, or both; (3) the undermining of faculty governance at both department and college levels; and (4) the erosion of the assumed good of tenure—all of which make it increasingly difficult to sustain the view that students are anything other than consumers opting among superstore-like shelves of academic commodities.

We faculty, of course, are these “commodities.” Increasingly, the stability of our jobs depends not only on positive student evaluation of our classes but also on students choosing to enroll in our classes in the first place—a choice we are more and more responsible for ensuring. The warping of students into consumers pressures faculty to be the “Mad Men” of higher education, expected to advertise and promote our products (our classes, ourselves). The double deformation of the educator-student relationship into a commodity-consumer relationship clearly demonstrates the temporal dynamics of the market that underlie the “possessive individualism” generated and sustained by the structures of neoliberalism. Marxist theorists such as Maurizio Lazzarato, Christian Marazzi, and Antonio Negri have all written about this shift in subject-formation over the last thirty years. Their theories focus on the social rhythms of discourse, normativity, penalization, and reward that pressure mind-bodies to form and sustain themselves as certain kinds of subjects.6 Lazzarato, for example, calls the neoliberal citizen “the entrepreneurial self.” In The Making of the Indebted Man, he discusses the changing assumptions, not only about promoting oneself to get a job (something every humanities job candidate can affirm) but also about continuing to market oneself increasingly within the job.7

For many faculty, the department’s faculty web pages—once a nifty informational tool for colleagues and current and prospective students—has become obligatory to create and maintain with a current picture, CV, hyperlinks to publications, and course information. Web presence wraps around one’s name and promulgates one’s worth and status more effectively than word of mouth or professional reputation (indeed, it could be argued that web presence now simply is today’s word of mouth and professional reputation). This increased compulsion to craft and market one’s reputation as a scholar-teacher can be positioned as part of neoliberalism’s voracious warping of the temporal dynamics of academic labor. As Fredric Jameson has written recently, the expansionist flows of global capital mimic the Red Queen, who must run as fast as she can just to stay in place.8 As flows capital, so congeals the worker-subject: exhaustion, increased workload, precarious employment, anxiety, and the burden of performing one’s own professional legitimization on top of the labor of performing one’s professional tasks—this is the state of many of today’s faculty. Even bracketing the notion of a life outside (or on the sidelines) of this all-consuming work, it is hard to see how “balance” enters into this situation.

It should also seem hard to understand why balance has become such a widespread concern, but its putative self-evidence obscures its historical and contingent development. One useful rubric for clarifying the increased attention to and tactics for managing the habits and rhythms of workers and populations is “biopower,” a shorthand term for the wide-ranging technologies that govern the individual worker and citizen in postindustrial societies.9 Foucault gave a succinct distinction between disciplinary power and biopower in his statement that the former “makes die or lets live,” (the guillotine or a pardon) whereas the tactics of biopower “make live and let die” (vaccines and toxic waste dumps).10 The question of work-life balance, then, arises because we live in an era of biopower in which the attitude and practices of workers and citizens are central to the fluid operations of economic and political processes.

The concept of biopower, however, while providing a general account that may allow for the various contradictions of identity politics, itself remains an unmarked theory; it does not account for the different ways that different bodies are affected by the same biopolitical technology. This presumptive neutrality is important when one considers that the development of biopolitical management tactics, the solidification of neoliberal economics, and the professionalization of educated white women all occurred during the 1970s and intensified in the 1980s. When the financial crises of the 1970s caused white male professional salaries to plummet, white women were, for the first time, encouraged to enter the workforce.11 The discursive upshot of these social and economic changes was thus hardly oblivious to race or gender. Rather, the debate about work-life balance is a debate addressed primarily to professional labor such as academics, and hence primarily to hegemonic white bodies, and it became visible and voracious around the pressure point where the production of neoliberal subjectivity converged with bourgeois and white gender politics, namely, the social reproduction of labor.

From an employer’s point of view, certain non-work obligations will always intrude upon workers and distract them from the productivity they want and need to show in their paid labor.12 These unpaid obligations are, of course, human relationships, and on better days faculty will view these relationships not as burdens or distractions but rather as the material-affective ballast of our lives. The debate about work-life balance among faculty has rightly expanded from the narrow crucible of childrearing to include sick and disabled partners/spouses and aging parents, but as I see it, the fundamental point of irritation, the point of relentless and predictable repetition and disavowal—especially in the academy—remains maternal labor.13 As soon as hegemonic white women faced the impossible jumble of paid public labor and unpaid domestic labor, the asymmetric costs of labor—between male and female bodies, and between white and non-white bodies—came zooming into public awareness. As Amott and Matthaei note, “While the burdens of the double day—paid work coupled with housework and child care—have been experienced by millions of women, particularly by Black women, the extension of their experience to middle-and upper-class white women brought it to public attention.”14 But because much of the success of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s relied on a middle-class model of possessive individualism, what zoomed into awareness were the discourses of balance and time-management. That is, the need to repair the shortcomings of the white bourgeois liberal female became the “explanation” for what is in actuality an impossible social infrastructure that grids the obligations of paid and unpaid work against a work-obsessed subjectivity and an increasingly vanishing quantum of “leisure time.”15

To conclude, the entire “problem” of work-life balance can be seen as a symptom marking the necessity of social reproduction alongside the failed integration of educated women (no longer only White) into the workforce.16 Work-life balance in the academy thus signals a double disavowal: first of the gendered dynamics of time and labor that still fall heavily on women who bear children (relegated as a “private choice” and covered by professional dynamics that quietly punish women faculty who have children)17 and second of the historically contingent social infrastructure that eviscerates life for the sake of work (relegated as “professional success” and covered by the punishing rhetoric of individual will and the “need” for better time-management techniques).

Living in and through this double disavowal generates roiling anger, both at oneself for not being able to “figure it out” and at the foggy recognition that “oneself” is not the problem. The diffuse and hard-to-name network of systems, policies, ideologies, and affective expectations that boomerang the problem back onto individual bodies not only perpetuate the loss of life to work, but also stoke the fires of utopian dreaming. I am not making an appeal for utopian schematizing, but only recognizing that the affective landscape generated by a problem at once too large to grasp and nonetheless too quickly sheathed onto one’s own small body often does become the crucible that smelts the desire for utopia. Our yearning for a different world might need utopian framing as an aspect of what Spivak terms “training the imagination” toward an “uncoercive rearrangement of desires.”18 For example, faculty are often told that only the reigning mandates of quantification will ensure academic institutional viability: use predictable algorithms; show us balanced input-output equations. What happens if we imagine and desire differently? Through the patient development of alternative, collective practices—however limited, oblique, and transitory—we need somehow to subordinate the dictates of quantification to the elusive possibilities of a fragile and complex love. Not to obtain balance, but to participate in an emergent, networking, and fluid order that comes and goes within a relationally-robust, human- and earth-centered life.19



1 I wish to register my thanks to Jacqueline Hidalgo for her insightful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay. What remains unsatisfactory is of course my own failing.

2 For reasons I will touch on below, this essay focuses especially on white, heterosexual women academics with children as a constellation of normative factors that have driven the “work-life balance” discourse. This focus is not to overlook other factors that are also crucial and central, but only to suggest that the centrality of the latter has been denied or disavowed for the sake of keeping discursive and policy spotlights on hegemonic bodies.

3 Aiwha Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 11.

4 See Ellen E. Schultz, Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011) for a 21st century version of this asymmetric burden and risk on retirement funds.

5 TARP is the acronym for Troubled Asset Relief Program, initially authorized by the US Congress in October 2008 for $700 billion, and reduced to $475 billion by the Dodd-Frank Act of June 2010. http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/financial-stability/TARP-Programs/Pages/default.aspx, accessed July 12, 2014.

6 See Antonio Negri, The Porcelain Workshop: For a New Grammar of Politics (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008); Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008).

7 Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Amsterdam: semiotext(e), 2012), 143. Lazzarato speaks directly to the social dynamics underpinning the question of work-life balance: “the increase in psychologists’, sociologists’, and other ‘self-help’ experts’ interventions, the creation of ‘coaching’ for better-off workers and obligatory individual monitoring for the poor and unemployed, the explosion of ‘care of the self’ techniques in society—these are symptoms of the new forms of individual government, which include, above all, the shaping of subjectivity” (95).

8 Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume 1 (New York: Verso, 2011), 68.

9 Foucault discusses biopower in many of his later works, from 1976 on. See Part Five of History of Sexuality, volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), and his Collège de France Lectures from Society Must Be Defended, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003) to Birth of Biopolitics, 1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

10 Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 240-241.

11 Teresa L. Amott and Julie A. Matthaei, Race, Gender and Work: A Multi-Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 1996), 135. The authors note that the social approbation given working women was completely lacking in the 1930s, when middle class families had equal or greater need for more than one salary.

12 See Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy, trans. Gregory Conti (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), e.g., 41 where he cites Franco Berardi, who writes that “high-tech workers tend to consider their work the most essential part of their lives, the most singular and personalized. Exactly the contrary of the factory worker, for whom the eight hours of wage-labor were a kind of temporary death.” He contextualizes Berardi in terms of neoliberal changes in subject-formation, e.g., 50: “Skills, rather then professional qualifications, are put to work and with them workers’ emotions, feelings, their after-work lives, we might say the whole life of the linguistic community.”

13http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/being-married-helps-professors-get-ahead-but-only-if-theyre-male/267289/ ; http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/the-pregnancy-penalty-how-working-women-pay-for-having-kids/266239/ ; http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/05/24/489973/paid-maternity-leave-us/. All accessed July 12, 2014.

14 Amott and Matthaei, 139.

15 It is also interesting to note that while female professional workers have been told it was ‘their fault’ if they had children and derailed their careers, men have been increasingly blamed for being bad parents and lazy housekeepers, even while their careers have not suffered from marriage or children.

16 Non- or lesser-educated women have also failed to integrate into the workforce because of the labor requirements of social reproduction (childrearing), but their desperate struggles are not framed as “work-life balance.” In fact, they are rarely framed at all. The academic struggle for work-life balance is, fundamentally, a struggle of privilege and by the privileged.

17 I have come to call the dynamics of silence and censure around women faculty having and raising children the anti-maternality of the academy, a disposition distinct from misogyny but still falling under the general umbrella of sexism. These dynamics hold even in women’s and gender studies departments (that academic site of hyper-policed solidarity), where even if I raise the issue of children as a feminist, the discussion quickly devolves into debates about essentialism, as if the social fact that wombs bear babies (regardless of whether those wombs are in bodies labeled woman/female or man/male) automatically threatens a social mandate that all wombs must bear babies.

18 Gayatri Spivak, “Terror: A Speech after 9-11”, boundary 2, 31:2 (Summer 2004), 81 and 98. See other expositions of this training in imagination and rearrangement of desire in her book, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

19 The phrase “complex love” belongs to Anne Joh, who may or may not wish to be associated with the way I’ve used it here, but to whom I owe so much in thinking through the affective costs of academic anti-maternality.

Gail HamnerM. Gail Hamner is professor and director of graduate studies in the religion department at Syracuse University, where she also holds an affiliated faculty position in women's and gender studies. Her teaching investigates religion at the intersections of media and film theory, continental philosophy and political theory, and gender theory. She is author of American Pragmatism: A Religious Genealogy (Oxford University Press, 2003), and Imaging Religion in Film: The Politics of Nostalgia (Palgrave, 2011). Currently she is working on a book that theorizes the circulations of 'religion in the public sphere' for our twenty-first century hypermediated society. She can be reached at mghamner@syr.edu