"Has evolution really managed to culminate in this? This spoon, this cup, this plate; us, here."1

Helen Phillips' The Beautiful Bureaucrat documents the brief period during which its protagonist, Josephine Anne Newbury, works in data management at a company only known to the reader as "AZ." Josephine happens upon this gig after having been evicted from the apartment she shares with her husband, Joseph David Jones. Having moved to the city from the "hinterlands" "that endless suburban non-ness" Josephine and Joseph spend many months variably unemployed before being hired by different divisions of, unbeknownst to them, the same corporation.2 Following a series of increasingly unnerving encounters at work with her immediate supervisor ("The Person with Bad Breath"), her saccharine superior ("Trishiffany," whose parents couldn't pick between Trisha and Tiffany), and an unnamed, never-to-be-seen-again coworker from the 9th floor Josephine becomes curious about the nature of AZ's business, and ultimately discovers that the cryptic paperwork she is processing enacts the birth or death of various living beings.

Exemplary of what Annie McClanahan calls the "tipwork picaresque" a literary form that represents "subjects whose working lives are defined by multiple and fragmented social relations and by temporary, uncertain, and fluid working conditions" The Beautiful Bureaucrat describes the uncertain fate of the gig worker against the backdrop of a global market in its "long downturn," presumed to absorb the surplus urban labor army of the deindustrial Anglo-American North.3 Defined as it is by Josephine's attempts at eking out a fugitive existence within the contemporary capitalist conglomerate, the plot of The Beautiful Bureaucrat seems manifestly "anti-work." It is only fitting, then, that the novel makes an early and emphatic citation of Franz Kafka:

Before Josephine could decide whether or not she ought to ask her interviewer's name, The Person with Bad Breath abruptly stood. Josephine fumbled to follow, out of the office and down the long hallway. Once again, she noticed the sound: a sound like many cockroaches crawling behind the closed doors, interwoven occasionally with brief mechanical moans.4

Locating in traveling salesman Gregor Samsa an early template for the absurd machinations of gig work, Phillips' allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915) hitches The Beautiful Bureaucrat to the anti-work legacy of the modern that the capitalist city, that site and product of concentrated labor (which should be the most human place of all) is desperately inhuman, and to live there is to feel like vermin. In Theodor Adorno's formulation, "he over whom Kafka's wheels have passed has lost forever both any peace with the world and any chance of consoling himself with the judgement that the way of the world is bad" Kafka's claim to "anti-work" is mostly not moral, but affective or sentimental.5 Work (and modernist literary works) make us feel bad.6

And yet, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the citation. "Kafka?!" I remember thinking to myself, "in this economy?" Of course work feels bad. It seems to me somewhat trite and moreover unstrategic for The Beautiful Bureaucrat to invoke such an enduring figure for the impotence of the subject within the capitalist mode of production. Unlike Gregor Samsa and Josephine's near-eponyms Josef K, protagonist of Kafka's Trial (1925), and Josephine the Singer, of the 1924 short story of the same name who resignedly suffer tragic fates at the behest of the system, Josephine survives her stint at the company, having successfully manipulated AZ's processing system into creating the file for (and thus conceiving) hers and Joseph's child. What could be the purchase of the Kafkaesque of the nightmarish foreclosure of emancipatory possibility in the context of a utopian imagining otherwise of what Neferti Tadiar calls "remaindered life"?7 Why does The Beautiful Bureaucrat direct our attention to the Kafkaesque as form, recognizable as such?

In what follows, I hope to give an account of this literary redirection in the terms of what Sianne Ngai calls the gimmick: "overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention)."8 What I am suggesting is that The Beautiful Bureaucrat's invocation of Kafka which simultaneously hammers you over the head with its anti-work sentimentality, and fails to signify anew by virtue of this locutionary force as gimmick, as "mere form, with its determinative content scrubbed out,"9 is a way of pointing to the historically transformed conditions of work today. Further, it seems significant to consider how the novel seems to direct our attention towards a working subject on whom a certain literary universality could have once been (but can perhaps no longer be) presumed to be based. By suggesting an alternative twentieth-century literary interlocutor for The Beautiful Bureaucrat Takiji Kobayashi's Kani Kōsen (蟹工船, "The Crab Cannery Ship," 1929) I consider how the transformation at hand amounts to a certain literary displacement of the Anglo-American subject of industrial modernity. Moreover, what makes such a displacement notable is how it draws formal dynamism from the deindustrial economies of the majority world, whose attendant racialized, casualized, and precaritized working subjects have long been subject to the kinds of economic exigences now being introduced into the lives of a group ("white, educated, upper middle-class citizens of the developed world") formerly protected from them.10 In so doing, I hope to wrench into view the anti-work politics of The Beautiful Bureaucrat, offered in the form of a new genealogy of the contemporary genericized deindustrial gig-work novel.

Ngai refers to the gimmick as "a catchy hook, a timeworn joke, a labor-saving contraption . . . a readymade artwork that interprets itself."11 This is how I suggest we read The Beautiful Bureaucrat's citation of Kafka as an economical attempt at recalling the abysmal affect of the Kafkaesque without enumerating the material conditions which give this affect its locutionary force. In this way, the citation as gimmick does both too much and too little, pointing us at a certain inevitability of suffering in this case, of Josephine's as self-explanatory, without giving the reader a sense of the historical circumstances under which it becomes possible for AZ's offices to be filled with so many pitiable figures like Josephine. Per Ngai, this is why the gimmick is simultaneously "capitalism's most successful aesthetic category but also its biggest embarrassment and structural problem": even as the gimmick makes "attractive promises about the saving of time, the reduction of labor, and the expansion of value"12 the Kafkaesque as a "shorthand" for the misery of work it does not deliver. Even as Phillips' implicit reference to Samsa is meant to evoke a certain modality of anti-work sentiment a "tantalizing glimpse of a world in which social life will no longer be organized by labor" it does so in the visage of expediency, "indexing [a world] that continuously regenerates the conditions keeping labor's social necessity [as value-producing] in place."13

Assuredly, The Beautiful Bureaucrat's suggestion of the Kafkaesque saves the reader some hermeneutic time, but only insofar as it frees up time spent in the contemplation of the art-object to be expended as socially necessary labor-time elsewhere. What the novel's citation brings to our awareness is the fact that, in a capitalist world, "misprized things [such as perfunctory, time-saving citations of other literary works] are bought and sold continuously," whose "flagrant unworthy form" runs the gamut from "manufacturing, law, banking, education, politics, healthcare, real estate, sports, [and] art."14 We can no longer uncritically read such citations as allusion at an endpoint of "poetic decline" resulting in an "entropic devolution of literary figures into "tricks"" but what we can do, what is still available for our interpretation, is how the novel's invocation of Kafka as gimmick "names an experience of dissatisfaction . . . as if explicitly to solicit our misgivings" about the conditions of work today.15

Regardless of but perhaps, precisely because of­ the gimmick's registration of Kafka's ossified semantic value, Ngai reminds us that the gimmick might still be "endowed with enough critical power to actively "work against" the agenda of the original metaphor, to contradict or to limit the range of reference and meaning it establishes."16 In other words, The Beautiful Bureaucrat's gimmicky invocation of Kafka is not without meaning, but mobilizes the self-apparent valences of the Kafkaesque as a site of nonmeaning of opacity in order to "work against" the resigned aporias of the Anglo-American modern and to reopen access to forms of being-in-resistance that it would foreclose. This theoretical move shares a kinship with Nicholas Brown's assessment of the relative autonomy of the work of art amidst its continued subsumption by the market:

What appears as a loss from the standpoint of autonomy is at the same time a tremendous liberation of formal energies, made possible precisely because the old forms are no longer required to respond to interpretive questions. With the real subsumption of art under capital and the end of the modernist game, then, all the old "solutions," each one of which had been invalidated by subsequent solutions, suddenly become available again for us. A certain historicism Jamesonian postmodern pastiche becomes possible. Such a historicism is null as historicism, since what it does not produce is precisely anything like history. But it is practically bursting with excitement at being allowed to apply its galvanic fluid to the great gallery of dead forms, which are suddenly candidates for resurrection.17

If The Beautiful Bureaucrat's suggestion towards the Kafkaesque as gimmick threatens its semantic autonomy its very ability to read as "anti-work" then it is also true that this loss of autonomy amounts to a formal playfulness that also releases the novel from the "old solutions" of the modern and makes new genealogies of resistance possible. While this genealogy might not produce "anything like history,"18 resembling instead a critical pastiche, it galvanizes the "great gallery of dead forms" towards political ends that can be posited anew. In practice, this looks like finding new comparative frames through which to enter The Beautiful Bureaucrat, which more closely resembles the deindustrial gig-work novels of Japan Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman (2016, translated 2018), Kikuko Tsumura's There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job (2015, translated 2020), and Mieko Kanai's Mild Vertigo (2002, translated 2023), to name a fewthan anything in Kafka's oeuvre.

To this end, I want to suggest a different modernist interlocutor for The Beautiful Bureaucrat Takiji Kobayashi's Kani Kōsen (1929, translated 2013), which gives account of the grueling conditions to which the seasonal laborers aboard the crab-canning ship Hakkōmaru are subject. Unlike Metamorphosis or The Trial, Kani Kōsen more suitably provides a frame of reference for contemporary gig-work. The novel not only represents labor as migrant and peripetatictake the case of one worker, who loses consecutive factory jobs over winter and spring and comes to the Hakkōmaru as next in a long line of various "seasonal" worksbut also attempts to show the movement of a world in which the worker is forced into such kinds of work.19 Migrant labor aboard the Hakkōmaru is contextualized in reference to the increase in the production of relative surplus value as engineered by forcibly decreasing the natural price of labor-power in the city-centers. We learn, in the novel's characteristic narrative register of the free indirect, that the workers aboard the Hakkōmaru were ushered into their fates because it had become "impossible" to feed their families "despite working in the fields from before dawn." This sets into motion the classical industrial subsumption drama as staged by Karl Marx in Capital, Volume Ichildren are sent away to work in urban factories, where they encounter other "masses of such surplus people, like beans scooped up in a pan, [who] were driven away from the countryside . . . all of them dream[ing] of saving up a bit of money and returning home." But this surplus becomes trapped in the industrial city-centers, struggling to make ends meet "like fledglings trapped in a sticky rice-cake until they were thrown out of work as stark naked as the day they were born." Unable to return homeand with no way to weather the harsher seasons in unfamiliar places away from homethe industrial labor reserve sell their bodies "as cheaply as dirt," year after year, "calmly (if such a word is appropriate)" resigned to their fate. 20

Kani Kōsen is not unlike McClanahan's tipwork picaresque, invested as it is in the form's key features "an affective mood of pragmatic passivity; a tendency to connect service work and sex work; and, finally, an attempt to represent the dispersed . . . social relations that characterize . . . wageless life."21 The crew's fundamental distaste for work, its obsession with sex (and with the sex workers aboard the ship), and its fragmentary narrative mode (which does not take any single worker's perspective, but operates entirely in the free indirect) evince the grounds of such a comparison, even if it may seem as though applying McClanahan's framework here is tantamount to unjustifiable anachronism.

What I would offer in the face of this charge of anachronism­ and perhaps of ana-geographism, too, if such a thing exists is to recall Fredric Jameson's reflections on the relationship between modernism and imperialism, in which the subjects of the colonial order are recruited as unwitting authors of the literary modern. In proposing that "the structure of imperialism . . . makes its mark on the inner forms and structures of that new mutation in literary and artistic language to which the term "modernism" is loosely applied," Jameson gives a sense of how the modern bears the impression of a geopolitical imperial ordering of a nascently global economic system.22 We might consequently read as a certain loss of "meaning" in the aporetic mode of the Kafkaesque as reflective of the difficulty that the Anglo-American subject of colonial modernity faces in making sense of a totality whose "significant structural segment . . . is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country, in colonies over the water whose own life experience and lifeworld . . . remains unknown and unimaginable for the subjects of the imperial power."23 Concomitantly, it would not seem so outlandish to think The Beautiful Bureaucrat as bearing a similar imprint, but in this case of the kinds of contemporary work culture that dominates the cycles of production and accumulation outside of the Anglo-American North and implicitly shapes the literary and artistic language of the tipwork picaresque.

What does all of this mean for an anti-work reading of The Beautiful Bureaucrat? I would argue that the above suggests at least three things:


That the novel's citation of Kafka as gimmick is formally anti-work insofar as it pushes against the modernist metaphor of resignation;


That in foregrounding the novel's family resemblance to other contemporary tipwork picaresques from Japan, new genealogies of form become available for the tipwork picaresque and its attendant grapplings with conditions of work today;


 That if, per McClanahan, "the exemplary . . . representative of industrial work [in the nineteenth century] was a white, male, unionized manufacturing worker, [and] the exemplary representative of work in the age of deindustrialization in non-white and female, working in the sphere of reproductive labor . . . or in low-end service work,"24 then The Beautiful Bureaucrat indexes the displacement of the Anglo-American subject of literary modernity in favor of elevating the racialized protagonists of the majority world to deindustrial postmodernity's "generic type."25

And while it seems Gordian to attempt a conclusive overview that would enumerate the emancipatory possibilities enabled by this reading this gig-worker, too, struggles with totality it strikes me as equally disingenuous not to specify its politics. To take as mere allegory The Beautiful Bureaucrat's reference to Kafka would be to cede the grounds of a radical politics that could disrupt the system of violent exploitation, expropriation, and dispossession which shapes our experiences of work today. The aporetic mode of the Kafkaesque, whose Trial sees Josef K. led like a lamb to the slaughter, forecloses the notion that any other fate is possible for The Beautiful Bureaucrat's Josephine. But Kani Kōsen eventuates a different set of possibilities for the crew of the Hakkōmaru. Even as the ship's employing corporation chooses "submissive workers who had no interested in labor unions or activitism," recruiting preemptively against the threat of worker power, the "inhumane conditions aboard the crab cannery ships achieved precisely the opposite effect," the "brutal toil" of labor unifying the "unorganized laborers and the hopeless "drunks" whom [the company] had expressly and cynically brought together." The outcome of this "unlikely" kinship which, from the perspective of a certain Marxist politics, becomes politically decisive is best distilled by the anagnoristic call to action by one of the fishermen amongst the crew:

See? Let's suppose the ship exists because the rich put up the money and had it built. If there were no sailors and stokers, could the ship move? There's hundreds of millions of crabs on the bottom of the sea. Let's suppose we all got out gear and came out here because the rich were able to put up the money. But if we didn't work, would even one solitary crab end up in the pockets of the rich? See? Now, think about how much money's coming our way after we work here all summer. Yet from this ship alone the rich will snatch four or five hundred thousand yen of pure profit. Well, we are the source of that money. Nothing comes out of nothing. You see? Everything's in our power. And so I'm telling you to wipe that gloomy look off your mug. Show them who you are. In their heart of hearts they're scared shitless of us, and that's no lie. So don't be timid (81-85).

It is this affective conviction that Kani Kōsen vests in worker power and self-realization that seems particularly salient in the above passage describing the outcome of season-long exploitation aboard the Hakkōmaru. What I think this suggests for an anti-work politics in the Global North today is that even if The Beautiful Bureaucrat registers transformed conditions of work in the twenty-first century, it also reaffirms that the forms of political solidarity that we might use to circulate fugitively within these conditions have not changed. By foregrounding the Kafkaesque gimmick of The Beautiful Bureaucrat as anti-work, I have attempted an imagined genealogy of working conditions through the novel's generic relation to Kani Kōsen in order to reclaim outcomes of revolutionary solidarity as plausible eventuations of gig-work as we know it today. In suggesting a different modernist interlocutor for The Beautiful Bureaucrat in Kani Kōsen, I have tried to show how The Beautiful Bureaucrat's gimmick as anti-work inheres in how it exploits the Kafkaesque as a site of "nonmeaning" in the twenty-first century gig-work novel as a way of indexing the "specific [historical] meanings" of the conditions of work elsewhere conditions whose production needs to be obscured as this model of work is raised to the deindustrial generic type.26

What I think this also suggests, more immediately for literary criticism today, is that intertextuality even intertextuality-as-literary-historyis in fact inadequate to the critical project it assigns itself. It is this inadequacy of literary history in making sense of the anti-work politics of the contemporary generalized deindustrial gig-work novel that motivates my search in industrial history for the material conditions whose arrival in the Anglo-American North is indexed by The Beautiful Bureaucrat. To treat the conditions of gig-work today as "novel" in the context of a burgeoning anti-work politics would not only be empirically inaccurate, but perhaps reflecting the very worst fear of the literary critic aesthetically inept.

Alya Ansari is a Ph.D. candidate in the program in Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, with a graduate minor in Moving Image, Media, and Sound Studies. Alya is also an Assistant Editor at Cultural Critique.


  1. Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat (New York: Picador, 2015), 3.[]
  2. Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, 10.[]
  3. Annie McClanahan, "TV and Tipworkification," Post45 Journal 1: "Deindustrialization and New Cultures of Work," 2019; See Robert Brenner's influential The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economics from Long Boom to Long Downturn (New York: Verso, 2006) for his account of the "sharp fall of profitability for the advanced capitalist economies . . . between 1965 and 1973" as a consequence of "immense industrial crisis."[]
  4. Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, 4.[]
  5. Theodor Adorno "On Commitment," Notes to Literature: Volume 2, translated by Francis McDonagh (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 85.[]
  6. Many thanks to Liam Kruger for this succinct formulation.[]
  7. , Neferti X. M. Cf. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022).[]
  8. Sianne Ngai. Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2020), 1.[]
  9. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 36.[]
  10. Annie McClanahan, "Introduction: The Spirit of Capital in an Age of Deindustrialization," Post45 Journal 1: "Deindustrialization and New Cultures of Work," 2019.[]
  11. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 1.[]
  12. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 2[]
  13. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 2. []
  14. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 2 (emphasis mine).[]
  15. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 28. See also Fredric Jameson's iteration of this argument in his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); And, per Nicholas Brown, "since form is a matter of intention, it responds to indeed, demands interpretation" (Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 8, emphasis mine); Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 3[]
  16. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 28.[]
  17. Brown, Autonomy, 19-20. See also Sarah Brouillette and Joshua Clover's excellent diagnosis of the notion of artistic autonomy as "bourgeois fetish" in their "On Artistic Autonomy as Bourgeois Fetish" in Totality Inside Out, edited by Kevin Floyd, Jen Hedler Phillips, and Sarika Chandra (New York: Fordham University Press, 2022).[]
  18. Brown, Autonomy, 19-20.[]
  19. Takiji Kobayashi, Kani Kōsen, translated by Željko Cipriš (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013), 25.[]
  20. Kobayashi, Kani Kōsen, 23-24.[]
  21. McClanahan, "TV and Tipworkification."[]
  22. Fredric Jameson, "Modernism and Imperialism," The Modernist Papers (New York: Verso, 2007), 152.[]
  23. Jameson, "Modernism and Imperialism," 157.[]
  24. McClanahan, "Introduction: The Spirit of Capital in an Age of Deindustrialization."[]
  25. See also Jane Hu's recent dissertation, Generic Asians; and Hu and Anjali Raza Kolb's introduction to the Post45 Contemporaries cluster on Ling Ma's Severance (2018), in which they conceptualize the "generic Asian" as "an Asian constituted by and through genre, an Asian of a recognizable type, and in this way, part of a typology that deflects depth and calls orthodoxies about literary subjectivity into question."[]
  26. Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick, 45.[]