There's nothing new about the hatred of work. So long as there has been work, work has always been hell, and workers have always known it. Working conditions transform, innovating new forms of class war and instruments of oppression, but the horror of work remains. 

At the same time, something seems to have shifted in recent years at an ideological level. As Sarah Jaffe suggests in her 2021 book Work Won't Love You Back, "work itself is no longer working." While perhaps it is no less impossible to imagine what Kathi Weeks describes as a "life beyond work," we live in a time of pronounced anti-work critique and post-work longing. Whether in popular discourses (and managerial anxieties) like "quiet quitting," or in periodizations such as the "Great Resignation," anti-work culture is everywhere, and largely characterizes the politics and aesthetics of the COVID era. 

This cluster explores anti-work as a complex feature of our political imagination today. Our goal in this cluster is not to predict the future of work, nor is it to debate different kinds of work, nor is it to claim that any of this is revolutionary. Rather, these essays each ask particular questions about the possibilities and constraints of anti-work aesthetics, what these tendencies clarify or symptomatize about our current situation, and how anti-work thought can help us to collectively engage in shared struggles. 

Taking up work as a site of conflict, each of these essays extends beyond the formal workplace and the traditional (white, masculine, blue collar) vision of the proletariat. In her analysis of the speculative anti-work dramedy series Severance, Johanna Isaacson questions the assumption that the show is a critique of office work, and more pertinently, that work refusal can be limited to waged work. Instead, its central conceit emphasizes an interdependence of sites of production and reproduction in contemporary capitalism and how both must be radically reimagined. As she argues, "the severance procedure is not an illustration of the schism between workplace and outside world, it is a demystification of that separation."

This rejection of discrete spheres is taken up in Shinjini Dey's essay on Tabitha Lasley's Sea State, a work that swerves from a journalistic exploration on masculinity to an autofiction memoir that refuses to separate desire and everyday life from professional reportage. Some may see this as a betrayal of objectivity, but Dey sees it, in part, as an anti-work manifesto in disguise. Rather than gathering formal interviews and measuring them against sociological and economic studies, Lasley reimagines her project as a "labour of love," flinging herself into precarity, intimacy, and sexuality, and thus generating a messy discourse guided by work refusal and desire.

Dominick Knowles outlines the resonating post-work longings in Wendy Trevino's "Sonnets for Brass Knuckles Doodles," as the ecstatic poetic and affective life-affirmation of revolutionary activity must give way to the prosaic inevitability of a life structured by waged work. The motifs and lyrical grammar at work in Trevino's formally experimental sonnets, Knowles argues, map the speaker's contradictory position following her involvement in Occupy Oakland, as she must return to work with a non-profit institution affiliated with a reformist counterinsurgency that actively coopted and thwarted the speaker's radical, anti-state position during the uprisings. "And yet," Knowles asserts, "the poems' admission is also their insight: at the end of work's desubjectivization, outside the spaces of revolutionary activity, poetic forms can make visible the self-reinforcing totality of capital as such, the hidden abode of our collective misery, whose spaces are always shadows."

Alya Ansari examines Helen Phillips novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat as an example of what Annie McClanahan calls the "tipwork picaresque," utilizing the "gimmick" of Kafkaesque parable to represent anti-work potentiality. Ironically, this very citation of a retrograde modernist formal device "makes new genealogies of resistance possible" as the gimmick's trickery indexes the centrality and opaqueness of global capitalism's emerging demographics non-white, feminized, reproductive, deindustrialized, geographically dispersed as they shape a new horizon of work conditions and potentialities for resistance.

And finally, Madeline Lane-McKinley takes on serialized TV as a correlate to the never-endingness of work and social reproduction. She addresses the anti-serial temporalities of recent shows such as Reservation Dogs and Russian Doll as examples of disruption to this seamless continuity of work, pointing to a horizon of work refusal as they displace narratives of individual, linear progress with meandering explorations of wandering and collectivity. Rather than fantasizing escape from the serial logic of work, she suggests, these deft representations confront the totalizing work ethic of our everyday lives.

In charting these aesthetic tendencies across various genres and media, this cluster asks of the political character of anti-work in contemporary culture. What do we get from anti-work aesthetics: critical consciousness, post-work imagination, collective power, or merely ways to cope? How might we distinguish between nihilistic, anti-utopian conceptions of the hatred of work from different revolutionary desires and utopian drives in anti-work critique? And what, if anything, is historically distinct about the aesthetics of anti-work today? These questions and more course through the essays of this cluster, and provide the basis of our shared inquiry into the politics of anti-work aesthetics. We hope these questions can strengthen critique, and future struggles against the capitalist regime of work. 

Madeline Lane-McKinley is the author of Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (Common Notions Press, 2022), co-author of Fag/Hag with Max Fox (forthcoming: Rosa Press, 2024), and an editor of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry. She has a PhD in Literature from UC Santa Cruz, where she now teaches writing. Her next book, Solidarity with Children: An Essay Against Adult Supremacy, comes out from Haymarket Press in 2025. 

Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror (Common Notions Press, 2022).