Posted on 2015/11/23 by

“What do you mean that noticing one thing can make the other things disappear?”: On Affective, Unpaid, and Invisible Labour

The Numbers

In 2011, the American organisation VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) began publishing a yearly review of major literary publications that tallied the gender ratio of writers, reviewers, reviews, and pieces published. In 2012, the Canadian non-profit organisation CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) followed suit with their tally of gender inequity in the Canadian literary publishing industry. Both organisations have continued to release their annual counts, and have begun to develop more nuanced methodologies to account for more than just female/male gender identification, such as VIDA’s 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count.

VIDA WOC Count 2014

VIDA WOC Count 2014


CWILA has also been working to account for the voices of writers outside of the male/female binary, as well as to develop an ethical and productive methodology of accounting for other representational inequities, such as diversity in racial and sexual identities. Unsurprisingly, the data found by both organisations has invariably skewed towards a large portion of the work—reviews, reviewers, texts, editors–being done by white men. While the overall numbers have been gradually improving since the initial imitative (no doubt partially in response to the increased pressure and attention the counts have received) a persistent trend is that male reviewers are primarily reviewing work by other males. This speaks not only to a literary publishing culture that values the critical and curatorial voices of men, but also to one that sees the work of men as inherently worth more in the circulation of public intellectual and cultural discourse. CWILA Chair Erin Wunker coined the term “The CWILA Effect” in 2014, to address the organisation’s conclusion that, while the numbers may be gradually approaching gender parity, underlying systematic and structural inequity remain. In the editorial preface to the annual release of data from 2014, Wunker also notes that the majority of the work of counting and disseminating the numbers is unpaid labour done by women.



Who’s counting?

As is often the case when discussing systematic inequality or marginalisation, the statistical data is only one twig in a deeply rooted exclusion. In other words—there’s a lot more going on than what can be accounted for in a pie graph. We can read the quantitative inequality documented by CWILA and VIDA in conjunction with Debbie Chachra’s critical inquiry into the gendered implications of the language and terminology circulating around “maker culture.” As Chachra notes in her 2015 article “Why I am not a Maker” for The Atlantic, contemporary maker culture values material production, as well as the image of a solitary Maker, above the less tangible or visible work that supports making. Chachra also notes that other kinds of making happen outside of the academy, the workplace, and traditional or documentable spheres of labour.

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. (Chachra)

What about work that is not seen an innovative or revolutionary, but rather as quotidian, expected, permanent, and uninteresting? Chachra notes that the kind of labour seen as static or fixed—education, caretaking, mentorship, repair, analysis—is actually more dynamic and vital than it may seem. The kind of work that takes place in the classroom or office, in the home, or in less tangible locations often has no physical product to present. Chachra addresses how this kind of work goes unnoticed and undervalued, especially in an increasingly capital-driven and corporate university culture. The labour of care, minding, and other kinds of emotional or affective labour is disproportionately performed by women. As Chachra notes, there is invisible structural support behind most of the products or labour that are celebrated as the ideal kind of making: “Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women” (Chachra). There is no system of circulation, reward, or capital for these kinds of making—or at least no unified or highly visible one similar to the way science, tech, and arts making culture circulate the products of labour. As we saw in the Star reading on Infrastructure—the kind of work that makes an infrastructure of support is often invisible until broken. But what if this kind of labour is pointed out, or stopped altogether, before it is broken?  How do women, and other performers of this kind of undocumented and uncompensated labour, find a language or methodology to pre-emptively discuss the issues involved?

Whose work?

In her 2015 collection of prose-poems, Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer considers the material and affective labour performed by women. Half memoir and half meditation on contemporary modes of “making,” Boyer considers how much of the labour necessary to quotidian existence—the work of care—is disproportionately performed by women, and goes largely uncompensated.

I will soon write a long, sad book called A Woman Shopping. It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing. It will be a book about envy and a book about barely visible things. This book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it. (Boyer 47)

Boyer’s poems, as well as her other critical work, explore the material and affective labour that women perform when they either support or create work of their own (often, both!), as well as the costs of this work. As she states in an interview with Amy King at The Poetry Foundation, “literature is against us.”  Throughout the collection, Boyer ties issues of gendered labour and work into modes of creation and artistic work by women. Drawing on the colonial history of canonical literature, Boyer argues that the ways in which literary production, education, and other large-scale forms of artistic production are constructed in ways that value a certain kind of Maker and a certain kind of product:

but by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. (Boyer)

As Boyer’s work demonstrates, the scope of inequality and exclusion in literary history and contemporary circulation is large, messy, and difficult to organise in data sets. How do we account for the variety of ways in which We and Us are excluded from the academy, publication culture, and a myriad of other corporate and canonical hierarchies?

While work like CWILA’s and VIDA’s continue to make invaluable interventions into inequity in literary culture, there is always the question: well, what next?

so….What next?

How do we take account of work and labour— and the inequities in that labour—that are less easily quantified or counted? What spaces and system do we create, or have to create, in order to bring these issues into public discourse? One possibility is to open up safe and productive spaces (digital or physical) for feminist discourse. Both CWILA and VIDA have begun other initiatives since beginning their data work, such as a paid critic-in-residence program, as well as regularly featuring interviews with women working in Canadian and American literature, among other initiatives. Another possibility that Chachra raises is to reject language that privileges a certain kind of discourse around productive labour.

I understand this response, but I’m not going to ask people—including myself—to deform what they do so they can call themselves a “maker.” Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above everything else. (Chachra)

Chachra’s call is to not reframe how her work—and the work of her colleagues—is seen and read publically, but rather to shift the focus altogether, and to consider the value of affective work. Boyer notes that the work that is performed (in her case, the work performed by a single mother stricken with chronic illness and cancer) is just as noteworthy as what is not performed because of these implicit structures of gendered labour.

There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of “not writing.” Not writing is working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work like caring for others, and when not at unpaid work like caring, caring also for a human body, and when not caring for a human body many hours, weeks, years, and other measures of time spent caring for the mind in a way like reading or learning and when not reading and learning also making things (like garments, food, plants, artworks, decorative items) and when not reading and learning and working and making and caring and worrying also politics, and when not politics also the kind of medication which is consumption, of sex mostly or drunkenness, cigarettes, drugs, passionate love affairs, cultural products, the internet also, then time spent staring into space that is not a screen, also all the time spent driving, particularly here where it is very long to get anywhere, and then to work and back, to take her to school and back, too. (Boyer 44)

Boyer’s work in Garments Against Women provides one alternative mode of quantifying affective labour and documenting the experiences of those who perform it. Her collection traces her affective labour of caring for herself, her daughter, and others, and also the material labour of work such as garment-making, writing, shopping, cooking, and caring for one’s appearance. She states “[t]here is no superiority in making things or in re-making things. It’s like everything else[…],” suggesting that no single act of labour that she can perform (or can’t perform) is innately more valuable than another (Boyer 20).  The intersections of the various kinds of labours are also considered. Through this tangle of information and memories emerges a detailed account of what it means to try and write from a place of precarious employment. Could Boyer’s account be used in public, academic, and personal discussions around the kinds of labour women perform, especially when they are also artists, writers, and public voices? I’d say yes, but others may say –what could be less objective, quantifiable, or analytic than poetry?

Can you count feelings?

As a member of the precariat, Boyer recognises that certain critical experiences are poorly translated into the accepted or valued modes of knowledge dissemination. In many ways, her collection offers a radical alternative to the documentation, curation , and framing of women’s work. In the opening poem “Innocent Question,” Boyer asks how we quantify what does not fit into formulaic modes—

Some of us write because there are problems to be solved. Sometimes there are specific, smaller problems. A friend who has a job as a telephone transcriptionist for people who can’t hear has had to face the problem of what to do when one party he is transcribing has sobbed.

(He puts the sobs in parentheses.)

This is the problem of what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling. (Boyer 3)

So…is poetry the (a) solution? Can it be the radical alternative for opening up discussions about issues such as contract-academia, the value of affective labour, and how to talk about women’s work? Boyer states that poetry is a vital methodology for addressing these issues, but that it also has limitations in what kinds of privilege allow it to be produced and circulated.

Then there’s not much time left for anything other than whatever we have to do to take care of ourselves so that we can sell more hours of our lives. Reading—even literacy—can always be, and for some kinds of people always has been, a minor rebellion, but it’s probably never a full scale revolt. There’s a genius in bodies, too, in hands, in seeing and hearing, in feeling, in arrangement, in taking care, in imagining, in saying words aloud. But the world as it is makes reading particularly hard, like we should read just enough to get some bad ideas but never enough to finally get to the helpful ones. (Boyer)

As with all public and published forms of expression, poetry and literature has its own set of privileges and limited access. So is it the answer to including the personal, subjective, and affective in scholarly and formal discussions of labour? Combined with work such as CWILA’s and VIDA’s, my inclination is to say yes. One such example of a creative and critical space is the blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, which features posts by a cohort of women working in (or alongside) Canadian academia. The posts, while written by experts in the field of critical writing, are unique in that they work to address the subjective, affective, and personal issues and experiences that are difficult to talk about in quantifiable terms. The blog acts as a safe space to talk about what it means to do feminist work and still end up with a paycheque. Some issues addressed in the past handful of months include 1) how to prep grad students for the reality of the job market, 2) how to structure and regulate over-booked office hours, 3) how to effectively make mid-week conference trips, 4) how to include vital information on anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-sexist work in undergraduate classes outside of the official and approved syllabus, and 5) how to navigate job precarity, and whether or not to discuss it publically. These topics all speak to the kind of unpaid labour that is specifically performed by contract-academics, though they also speak to a more universal issue faced in women’s work: how to evoke the personal, political, and poetic in structures of knowledge production that work to exclude those means of expression. Like CWILA, VIDA, and Boyer’s writing, Hook & Eye performs the kind of women’s work that is unpaid and often unacknowledged, but critical.

In my last probe I wondered about how we frame the voices of young women, such as poet Trisha Low. An assumption about these voices is often that the critical work is overshadowed by the emotional, or undervalued by the excess of emotion.

When discussing issues of labour, of women’s work—whether academic, domestic, critical, affective, or otherwise—do we need to use the quantitative methods of critical subjectivity, or should we be moving into a new form of knowledge dissemination that can account for this work? What kind of Media Lab, or any kind of center, could be successful at circulating this knowledge? My guess would be that it will not be centralised, but spread wherever the work and the discussions becomes possible: in poetry, in self-published blogs, in underfunded magazines such as GUTS: Canadian Feminist Magazine, or in the conversations that women have that are undocumented. As Boyer asks, what do we do with the information that is feeling? How do we move these vital thoughts and experiences into the structures that in many ways perpetuate the issues to begin with? Or do we look towards new spaces, new terms, new framing of the work done by women?              

That we are alienated, that we are unsure, that our next month is so regularly worse than our this one, are things common to many of us, are these hard and ordinary things of life as it is now which an algorithmic display of affect can’t soften.  The feeds could weep all day long, and it wouldn’t mean they won’t also be crying harder tomorrow. So what are we supposed to do? (Boyer)




Boyer, Anne. “‘Literature Is against Us’: In Conversation with Anne Boyer.” Interview by Amy King. Poetry Foundation 30 Aug. 2015: n. pag. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <>.

Boyer, Anne. Garments against Women. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta, 2015. Print.

Chachra, Debbie. “Why I Am Not a Maker.” The Atlantic. 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <>.


GUTS Magazine

Hook & Eye

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011): 252-60. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.


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