An overview of the argument of the book, the Introduction discusses postwar literature and art in light of the transformation of advanced capitalist economies, in particular the shift from the production of goods to the provision of services and the expansion of white-collar and in-person service work. Through an examination of some key examples, Bernes argues that the neo-avant-garde language of "participation," aiming to overcome the hierarchical relationship between writer and reader, artist and audience, anticipated and contributed to a shift in management theory toward new horizontal forms of corporate structure, undertaken in response to the widespread rebellion against the "anachronistic authoritarianism" of the postwar workplace. Bernes summarizes the main chapters of the book as well as its conclusions and finishes with a general discussion of periodization and historicization, elucidating his unique methodology in light of Marxist debates about historical causality.
O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems detail the poet's movements through the city during periods of leisure. In this chapter, Bernes argues that such leisure periods are usually, implicitly or explicitly, circumscribed by periods of work. This is especially true in Lunch Poems, where the conceit of the book is that many of the poems were written during his "lunch hour." O'Hara's lunch-hour pastorals are not so much opposed to the workday and its unfree time of getting things done as they are a space for an alternative kind of work. This chapter proposes that we see O'Hara as poet of service work as much as poet of consumption, reorienting ourselves to the presence of labor (his own and others') within the poems. In particular, Bernes argues, O'Hara adapts the resources of the lyric poem to the transactional space of service work.
The early poems of John Ashbery must be read as a meditation on the plight of labor, particularly white-collar labor, in the postwar United States. Beginning with an early poem, "The Instruction Manual" (1956), and its exploration of the ambiguous class position of white-collar workers, this chapter tracks themes of both labor and management in Ashbery's experimental second book, The Tennis Court Oath. In this book the standpoint of the earlier poem gives way to an explosion of shifting voices as Ashbery's distinctive use of free indirect discourse and other techniques of point of view registers the contemporary breakdown in labor relations and the crisis for established modes of management. In Ashbery's mature style of the 1970s, this chaotic play of voices yields to a comparatively measured technology of point of view, which reflects the new modes of management that followed the crises of the 1960s and 1970s.
Emerging from the military-industrial research programs of World War II, cybernetics presents an image of social self-regulation based on reciprocal, horizontal, and participatory relations rather than explicit hierarchies. This is appealing both to firms looking for a way to cut administrative bloat and trim costs and to artists and writers interested in developing a "participatory" practice, one that undoes the division of labor between reader and writer, spectator and art maker. Cybernetics promises a mode of collaboration and collectivity that liberates art from the narrow confines of artists. This chapter examines Hannah Weiner's Code Poems alongside Dan Graham's Works for Magazine Pages, both of which sit at the interstices of experimental poetry and conceptual art and both of which put cybernetic discourse to work to model alternative social relations. In each case, the laboratory of social relations takes postwar labor as its subject.
Engaging debates around the status of unpaid reproductive labor, this chapter investigates Bernadette Mayer's multifarious project Memory, which is simultaneously a performance, a conceptual work, an installation, and an epic poem. In attempting to document, down to the smallest detail, every aspect of her life for thirty days—using photographs, audio recordings, and written notation—Mayer effectively demonstrates the subsumption of the entirety of life by the protocols and routines of work as well as the transformation of the relationship between unpaid reproductive work and feminized wage labor. Mayer's "total" artwork, which merges different technologies into a single apparatus, prefigures the reorganization of office work around the personal computer, a technology that has probably done more than anything else to ensure that work and home life are unified by enabling white-collar workers to accomplish tasks from home and, in that sense, never leave work.
This chapter skips forward several decades, to the 2000s, and looks at the legacy of the transformations discussed in the preceding chapters. Bernes examines the debates that followed the emergence of "Flarf" and "conceptual poetry," both movements that foregrounded their relationship to contemporary office work. He focuses in particular on the relationship between Flarf poetry, with its rebellious use of work time, work machinery, and work jargon, and the increase in interworker aggression, which he attributes to the inability of workers to find outlets for resistance. Bernes links this horizontalized aggression with the phenomenon of the "Internet troll," who responds to the emasculation that male workers feel as a consequence of the restructuring of labor. By the 2000s, firms had so thoroughly neutralized the aesthetic critique of labor mobilized by preceding generations of artists that it persisted only in various forms of minor rebellion and acting out.
The Epilogue considers the possible fate of the artistic critique of labor in the decades to come. As demand for labor weakens because of ongoing structural transformations, the link between art and labor will likewise weaken, Bernes argues. Thus, artists would do well to revive older traditions linking the poet to wagelessness. The Epilogue examines these traditions, beginning with the Renaissance ballad and continuing through the Romantic poetry of vagrancy and the African American fugitive lyric, linking this poetic history to a theoretical investigation of what Karl Marx calls "surplus populations." The long history of the poetics of wagelessness gives some indication of the aesthetic outlines of the coming era. In closing, Bernes looks at two contemporary poets, Fred Moten and Wendy Trevino, who engage this long tradition and mobilize it to meet the specific conditions of twenty-first-century capitalism.