William Fleming

Lost in Space

A review of The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn (Lolli Editions, 2021)

Art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund at the Overgaden in Copenhagen
© Anders Sune Berg

It is the twenty-second century and the Six-Thousand Ship floats through intergalactic space. On board, its crew works, eats, sleeps or turns off. In between, they desire, care, introspect, plot, and confess. Throughout, an efficient and productive workforce descends or transcends through individuation, obsession, unionism, mutiny and, ultimately, towards their own termination. Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century is the tale of these crewmates as relayed through a fragmented series of statements. Part science fiction novel, part workplace ethnography, The Employees is portrayal of our future beyond Earth that is equal parts sexy and depressing. Written as a companion to an art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund at the Overgaden in Copenhagen, it is a poetic exploration of human and ‘humanoid’ experience aboard the Six-Thousand Ship. Human workers have left their home on Earth behind and are haunted by its memory, whereas humanoid workers are cyborgs created aboard the ship. Each has their own personality and violently aspires for a more fulfilling future. Both sets of workers participate in largely unspecified workflows as their ship mines the exo-planet New Discovery for mystical ‘objects’. These objects, Hestelund’s sculptures, enchant the employees and, we are told in the foreword, are the focus of the corporate committee’s investigation. The sculptures are Ravn’s inspiration for the novel and act as key plot devices, but it is the human-humanoid relations and the entailing confessions of love, hatred, and loss, alongside a familiar labour process and labour politics, which drives The Employees.

We want to confess, and you’re our confessional. We want to write our testament, and you’re our notaries. – Statement 172

The novel’s journey is fuelled by the words of the crewmates as they make official statements to a corporate representative. These first-hand accounts come from both human and humanoid workers in a linear but intermittent narrative. This approach enables a hybrid form, the product of which is a linear plot, a timeline in a corporate report but also an anthology of prose poetry. This form is enchanting and fleeting but generates a growing sense of foreboding, a testament to Ravn’s primary occupation as a poet, as well as to Martin Aitken’s skilful translation. Each statement in The Employees is told from the perspective of a different worker, allowing for shifting motivations, priorities and modes of being – human or humanoid – to define their otherwise unspecified identities. The gender of respondents is rarely specified either, thus challenging readers’ normative assumptions of sexuality and desire. When gender is signalled it is in two contexts. First, in the familial, notably in the remembering of motherhood and in a despair for lost future generations, and second, in the labour process, where the gendered division of reproductive labour remains. Gender and sexuality take a central role in early statements but as events unfold aboard the ship, desire moves from sexuality towards selfhood.
            The employees’ statements are direct accounts but they are also the accounts of Ravn herself as she experiences Hestelund’s art. What emerges is an intensely confessional novel which is also resolutely polyglossic. Ravn’s experience as a poet may have contributed to her nimble navigation of this confessional mode; as a feminist and as the recent Danish translator of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar she will be fully aware of its ambiguities. In the years since Plath’s confessional project the distance between writer and text has become unavoidably self-conscious – no writer publishing a debut novel in the wake of Knausgård’s My Struggle can wholly avoid it. Such a context demands that we reconsider the role of confession in writing beyond artistic release for author or consumptive catharsis for the reader. It is to this critical deconstruction that Ravn responds by embedding her own experiential notion of aesthetics into the accounts of the workers in her novel.
            Ravn’s own positionality with respect to the text and its plot devices is complicated by the fact that although it is set in intergalactic space, we know that it is also an authentic response to Hestelund’s artwork here on Earth. The experience of the employees’ engagement with the objects aboard the ship and how it shapes their own sense of self offers a window into Ravn’s own experience of Hestelund’s sculptures. It poses the question, where is the place of the personal within science fiction? And, what does it mean to experience art? For the workers, their interaction with the ship’s objects is life affirming and radicalising in the context of their sanitised corporate work environment. Here art transcends the productivity metrics imposed on it by modern capitalism; their genuine wonder is almost incomprehensible to those numbed to Jackson Pollock canvases in skyscraper lobbies.
            Ravn’s considered ambivalence about the confessional mode does not prevent her from exploring the dynamics of the self. The employees’ confessions provide contrasting experiences of labour and desire and through this conduit a provocative and shifting phenomenology emerges to challenge the very possibility of a singular authorial confession. Rather, the novel requires the reader to accept a plasticity of selfhood: the confessors shift between first person singular and plural at will, and there are no easily identifiable characters – it is never clear if we are hearing from the same few workers or whether each statement is delivered by a different crewmate.

Art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund at the Overgaden in Copenhagen
©Anders Sune Berg

Yet as Statement 172 above shows, The Employees’ confessional mode is not merely a latent literary device. Rather, confession is an explicit consideration of the workers themselves. From this, a defined ethical project emerges. This year marked the English publication of Michel Foucault’s posthumous fourth volume in The History of Sexuality – Confessions of the Flesh. The volume continues Foucault’s genealogical work on the formation of modern sexuality. Within, he moves beyond the Hellenic and Roman focus of volumes two and three to consider how, through confession and discursive attention to the corporeal, sexuality was constructed within early Christian dogma. Throughout all four volumes of the work, Foucault exposed the fundamental role that sexuality has played in constitution of subjectivity and the social relations within which it is embedded. Sexuality is constructed as a dispositive, a pole of power relations which, through successive Western social forms, a person’s selfhood is determined; and which ethical and moral codes feed in and out of. The latest volume does not continue the grand theory building of his broader philosophy of power and ensuing governmentalities. Instead, it adheres more to the era often defined as ‘late-Foucault’, wherein his work took a distinctly ethical turn – a project developing an ethics of the self. This urge to reclaim the confession can be seen as something with which Ravn’s novel is in sympathy.
            One of the distinctions Foucault draws is especially illuminating of The Employees’ confessional practice. Exagoresis can be considered a broader spiritual practice through which an individual learns to relate to themselves, their situation within discourse and ultimately an ascetic way of life. Exomologesis is instead a single act of penitence which is ritualised, sacrament and negating of life. Within the volume, exagoresis is developed further to conceive of confession as a practice of self-examination and subjective truth-seeking – a practical hermeneutics of the self. Foucault’s implicit argument – and it is implicit for the text, written on Foucault’s deathbed, is somewhat inevitably a meta-ascetic experience – is that these obscure details of Christian confession continue to structure the everyday corporate governance that Ravn satirises in her novel.
            As implausible as this may seem, when we are asked to rate our personal well-being out of ten in workplace meetings, or as we update social media with our latest hot takes and personal development, the contemporary versions of exomologesis and exagoresis visibly pervade our social life. These modern forms of confession work are specifically complimentary to capitalist modes of production and its individualist ideology; away from a politics of community. The Employees offers a platform for examining these modern, subject-forming types of confession and their constitutive power relations.

On a scale of 1-10, how well would you rate your own workplace performance? – Statement 115

The workers’ confessions, in their form as official statements, perform different roles for both segments of the workforce. For the human workers, the time spent delivering their statements is undoubtedly confessional as they discuss their day-to-day work, how they experience the objects and their relations with their humanoid colleagues. However, rather than act as a process of individuation through exagoresis, these human accounts descend into nostalgic longing for Earth and those that they left behind. The confessor in Statement 080 declares they ‘want to know what it’s like to hold a child in [their] arms again’. Some humans spend increasing amounts of time with holograms of their children provided by the ship: digital ghosts of heteronormative humanism. Others, like the confessor in Statement 159, have ‘become increasingly like a pop song, the same looping refrain: Earth, Earth, home, home’ and whose ‘hands yearn to dig deep into soil’. The dark ecological themes of the Earth as home, and the earth as an interrupted cycle of life, haunt much of the later human experience aboard the Six-Thousand Ship. These human confessions are filled with regret and conspire more to Foucault’s second form of confession, exomologesis, as they coincide with a downward spiral in the human workers’ existence.
            As opposed to the humans, the humanoid workers are practicing a radical and (post)modern form of exagoresis. These cyborg confessions are ones of self-realisation. As the plot develops and as the humanoids reveal more about their desires, their longing for an identity, albeit one which is shaped in the humans’ image, becomes more pronounced in the workers’ own consciousness. They begin to question what it means to be ‘human’ and they develop a sense of ‘humanity’ within themselves. As the humanoid from Statement 052 asks, ‘perhaps all that’s needed is for you to change my status in your documents?’ and in Statement 163, ‘I want to take the opportunity to tell you I’m living. No matter what you say. […] You’re human aren’t you, like me? Humanoid. A flicker between 0 and 1’. The growing sense of self takes on increasing prominence in the narrative, and it is something both humanoids and humans are aware of. As time passes, the workers take control of the ship, using their official interviews to assert their will and construct their own identity.

Art installation by Lea Guldditte Hestelund at the Overgaden in Copenhagen
©Anders Sune Berg

According to Foucault, confession is ubiquitous. While there is longstanding and tedious debate surrounding the extent to which he supported such an ideology, the confessional practice found in The Employees offers a lens for developing confession as political activity. In the words of Volume One of The History of Sexuality ‘where there is power there is resistance’; if we take this to its logical extension, confession has radical potential by virtue of its very position at the centre of power relations. Confession enacted by the humanoid workers in The Employees demonstrates this potential: it acts to form the workers’ own selfhood beyond that of the eponymous employee. The humanoid workers develop agency, solidarity and a hope for a believable future in which there is ‘unfathomable quantities of nourishmentand the confessional process of their numbered statements is the device through which it is articulated and communicated.
            One critique of this confessionalism can be found in that directed at Foucault’s own ethical works. A recent example comes from Mitchell Dean, a renowned Foucault scholar, and Daniel Zamora’s The Last Man Takes LSD (2021). Within, they argue that Foucault’s project of identifying the normative modes of political governance in twentieth century Europe was one that proved fatal for social change. This crisis, the argument goes, can in part be accounted for by a turn towards the individual as the site of political struggle within contemporary social theory. In The Employees, Ravn offers some promise of compromise through its workplace narrative and provides a fictional lens for the scope of a subversive confessional politics.

But if you could just try to understand that betraying my friend in that situation was more abhorrent than betraying my workplace – Statement 129

By its title and in its narrative, The Employees is a ‘workplace novel’. This positioning of the novel within the labour process displays a concerted effort from Ravn to philosophically mould together old and new materialisms. Fashionable new materialisms are clear in her Harawayian cyborgs and the tension between humanisms, post-humanisms and techno-humanisms; through relational ontologies and the subversion of subjectivity and the extra-terrestrial objects; and through a preoccupation with gender, sexuality and their entwinement with ecological collapse. However, its science fiction genre combined with an anachronistic centrality of labour to the novel ensures an ‘old’ materialist historicism which synthesises classical Marxian concerns with those of this contemporary feminist political ontology. It’s especially poignant, therefore, that Marx himself could not have written Capital were it not for the evaluation reports on Victorian working conditions – ‘Reports of the Inspectors of Factories’, etc. – which formed the empirical basis for his understanding of labour exploitation. The Employees, in its form as a committee report, can be construed as a modern homage to that lineage.
            However, the cyborg mutiny aboard the Six-Thousand Ship is not achieved through traditional methods of workplace resistance. Although a quiet humanoid unionism emerges on the ship, evidenced by the workers sticking together and gradually stopping communication with the human workers, there is also a sense of guilt about the reduction in their productivity. By contrast, a humanoid worker in Statement 031 marvels at a human colleague’s ‘knack for streamlining’ and cutting corners to get work done more efficiently before suggested they simply ‘sit for a bit’. These subtler forms of workplace resistance evoke the amusing tales of ‘making out’ from classic 1970s labour process ethnographies such as Michael Burawoy’s Manufacturing Consent (1979). Making out involves a playful disregard for workplace regulation through low key interference and misbehaviour while working, aiming to take control of production without altering its structure. The human worker in Statement 031 is acting in a long lineage of a familiar procrastination at work. However, while the human workers practice these quiet forms of resistance and are more aware of the futility of their labour, this alienation is not a radicalising force but a hauntological dead end. Meanwhile, the humanoid workers develop their own sense of class and individual consciousness through their confessional process and eventually take control of the Six-Thousand Ship. 
            The differences between human and humanoid politics aboard the ship highlight broader concerns with the radical potential of post-human, new materialist politics. Sophie Lewis, in a now well-known critique of Donna Haraway’s latest book, Staying with the Trouble (2016), laments the latent misanthropy within her later philosophical works. In reading Haraway’s later work, she finds a disinterest in the radical potential of humanity; for example, in Haraway’s prescription of our era as ‘The Great Dithering’ wherein humanity stands by and watches environmental collapse. This dithering captures well the moping and longing for Earth exhibited amongst the human workers in The Employees. As they spend longer watching holograms of their dead children, as they grow first obsessive and then fearful of their humanoid workers, and as their subjection to their employers becomes more obsequious, their agency and individual and collective identity disintegrates. While we are treated to the humanoids’ valiant overthrowal of the Six-Thousand Ship, we resent the pathetic humans. Haraway’s earlier Cyborg Manifesto is not actually about humanoid robots, as in Ravn’s novel. Rather, it is a radical postmodern call-to-arms in the face of the entwining of capitalism, its coloniality and labour, with biopolitics and its gendered and power relations. In her critique of Haraway, Lewis laments that she has lost the visceral critique of biocapitalist labour-power along the way. The Employees is an explicitly technomaterialist novel which is set in one big workplace, but it is one which details the pathetic failures of human workers and the successes of robots. What contradictory lessons are to be learnt from such a construction?

I’m starting to feel disloyal towards the organisation and it pains me because there’s no place for me other than inside the organisation – Statement 071

Beyond this critique of post-human politics in Ravn’s novel, one wonders how substantive the radical potential of the humanoids’ mutiny and confessional self-actualisation actually is. The Employees is centred within the workplace and with this refreshingly ironic anachronism, Ravn provides a critique of our current imaginary of the future of work. In recent years the social theory generator has gone into futile overdrive in an attempt to imagine how we can build a post-work political economy. Many of these futures place belief in the liberatory potential of artificial intelligence, automation and their capacity to improve our quality of life. However, it is apt to remember John Maynard Keynes’ infamous 1930s prediction that we would be working fifteen hour working weeks by the twenty-first century. Indeed, Ravn displays a cynicism towards any radical change in our production systems and its ideology. The labour process in The Employees is a depressingly neoliberal one. From its corporate lexicon as a workplace commission and its flattened post-Fordist hierarchy (where each crew member takes it in turns to be the First Officer), to its integration of life as organisational cog (as shown by Statement 071 above): the working environment and process reads as one we would expect today. The cognitive estrangement that sci-fi provides is then deliberately altered to provide an unfamiliar workspace but a miserably familiar workplace.

Elevated view of the panopticon prison, by Reveley 1791

The familiarity of the workplace undermines the radical potential of the confessional politics outlined above. When Foucault outlined his biopolitical framework, he consciously and continually placed it within labour. It is in the workplace that the initially contradictory motifs of the panoptic prison and the neoliberal ‘entrepreneurial self’ meet in an apparatus of governmentality. Developments in Foucaultian sociology, such as from Nikolas Rose and his Governing the Soul (1990), exposed this further. Today it is hardly cutting-edge sociology to assert that modern economy of corporate humanism is set up to optimise our minds and bodies with the ultimate goal of profit. For all the hope in the humanoid workforce aboard the Six-Thousand Ship, their resistance is as futile as the humans’ was. The confessional space in which they actualise is one which is entirely controlled by the organisation’s ‘Homebase’. The reader is jarringly reminded of this as certain events in the novel are [redacted]; an overt manipulation of the text we receive. Similarly, the slightly manic concluding proclamation, Statement 179, arrives just as the ships’ life support is switched off. Ravn, after building a story of hopeful posthuman politics, crushes it with the controlling corporation’s ending of its own ship’s production and crew.

Shortly, like obsolete updates, we shall be gone – Statement 179

The Employees is a cautionary tale. Ravn picks up many traditions of left-wing science fiction and infuses them with a contemporary feminist philosophy whilst offering a reflexive critique of the radical potential of her and Hestelund’s own art. Pre-war Marxists tended to believe the next aesthetic revolution, whether photography or cinema, would hold politically catalysing potential. Instead, the sculptures which inspired Ravn’s novel, while aesthetically powerful, are still situated within an ideological space. This space, no matter how much we talk through our problems and acknowledge who and what we are, cannot be overcome. The Employees’ is not consistently wedded to either of these arguments; rather, its contribution to these theoretical dilemmas is to make felt their endlessly dialectical pull.  Through its own brand of multiple confessions, Ravn exposes the inconsistency and multiplicity of our selves.