Note: I wrote this “welcome” blog post to my TU Dortmund  students  for a course on Anarchism in America, March 2014.

I think a lot about work. Thinking about work is an important part of my jobs, all of my jobs. Practitioners of “cultural studies” are self-reflexive about methods, disciplines, and canons; the best teachers interrogate lesson plans and classroom decisions to no end; and graduate students waver precariously between the roles of apprentice, colleague, and professional, with a variety of tasks — including research, writing, teaching, networking, professionalizing —  attending our every waking thought.

I am grateful that today’s lesson returned me to Emma Goldman’s “Anarchism: What it really stands for,” an essay that already saved my life twice in graduate school. Goldman first inspired a political and spiritual reawakening in me by reconnecting “intellectual” and “activist” work. I discovered her essays, articles and speeches around the time that labor-rights’ protesters began occupying the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. That same semester I got involved with the graduate labor union at U Iowa and with a number of activist circles in Iowa City. (Equally important, maybe:) I owe my dissertation topic to her lectures on art and literature, particularly her radical readings of Walt Whitman’s poetry and prose. I now confidently trace the origin of my interests in Whitman and 19th/20th century social theory to her militant re-staging of the “good, grey poet” as the voice of American anarchism.

So, what does she tell me about my work? Yesterday in class, we talked about Goldman’s criticisms of turn-of-the-century American capitalism and how it squashed the individual beneath its unimaginable BIG-ness: its organizational complexity, hierarchical centralization, and expansive tendencies.


For Goldman, “Anarchism,” in response, “aims to strip labor of its deadening, dulling aspect, of its gloom and compulsion. It aims to make work an instrument of joy, of strength, of color, of real harmony, so that the poorest sort of a man should find in work both recreation and hope.” For Goldman, the capitalist state

has but imposed one single mode of life upon all, without regard to individual and social variations and needs. In destroying government and statutory laws, Anarchism proposes to rescue the self-respect and independence of the individual from all restraint and invasion by authority. Only in freedom can man grow to his full stature.

We had only started to interrogate Goldman’s conception of “human nature” as a process of creative unfolding but, as any graduate student will tell you, the best days at work–especially in the classroom–are something like a model for Goldman’s view of labor as “joy,” “strength,” and “harmony.” Most crucial, the work of the classroom is collaborative. When collective discussion harmonizes with individual breakthrough it doesn’t feel like “work” at all.

But an issue we must explore this semester is what Goldman might mean by the term “freedom.” Contemporary sociologists commonly theorize academic work as an example of “affective labor,” a situation wherein the worker invests her/his entire “personality” in a job. In this sense, those short-lived moments of existential joy,  the social status that comes with being recognized as an “intellectual,” and the individual autonomy of course design and lesson planning, may obscure the larger social and economic problems associated with graduate student teaching (low pay, overwork, and institutional powerlessness, relatively speaking).


I’m an optimistic person by nature (there is that irksome word again), so I hold out hope for Goldman’s vision of beautiful, creative, and elevating labor. But I’m also a critical person by nature, and so I’m drawn to her unrelenting examination of hierarchies, whether they be social, political, economic, or psychic. With our course now up and running, here is to a summer that aspires to combine Goldman’s anarchist spirit of joy and critique.

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