The Banal Drudgery of Inevitable "It's Not That Bad" Alienation: On Heike Keissler's "Seasonal Associate"
Heike Geissler | Translated by Katy Derbyshire | Seasonal Associate | Semiotext(e) / Native Agents (MIT Press) | December 4, 2018 | 240 Pages
What happens after you click “Buy Now”? For the more than 100 million subscribers to Amazon Prime, you wait. Then, one or two days later, a package appears on your doorstep. Where exactly it came from, and the precise details behind its arrival are beside the point. Search online for more information, and you’re likely to come across numerous patents for fantastic inventions seemingly ripped from the pages of pulp sci-fi: floating warehouses teeming with drones buzzing in and out, fully automated fulfillment centers, robotic arms tossing items perfectly into boxes and bins, the list goes on. As alluring as these fantasies may be—the Prime Air promo video currently has over 16 million views on YouTube—they only serve to mask the present reality. While Amazon’s warehouses often do feature high-tech machinery, human workers still provide most of the necessary labor. The company even acknowledges this, charting its organization as an inverted pyramid, with the the least important employee—Jeff Bezos—at the bottom, and the most important employees—fulfillment associates—delineated as the company’s most valuable assets at the top.
Seasonal Associate tells the story of one such asset. Based on author Heike Geissler’s own experience working in an Amazon warehouse in 2010, it follows a nameless protagonist, who, driven by the financial precarity of freelance writing, applies for seasonal work at an Amazon Order Fulfillment center on the outskirts of Leipzig. She—like nearly everyone who applies—is quickly accepted, and the mundane manual work that was intended only as a way to make ends meet, comes to dominate her life. Ultimately, the money is not enough to justify the job, and she abruptly quits before the end of her contract.
Aside from a handful of scenes involving her family and friends, very few details are revealed about the protagonist, and one never really learns about her motivations, personal details, or history. Instead, the main focus lies in the mind-numbing labor underlying one of the largest logistic networks in the world—unpacking crates, scanning items, packing books, and so on—and the physical and mental toll it takes on the protagonist and her coworkers. Geissler initially wrote a very different text about her experience with Amazon. Instead of the fictional Seasonal Associate, she composed a dense, factual report based on notes she hastily scrawled on Post-Its during free moments in the workday. This early version of Geissler’s experience, however, was ultimately scrapped, since it was, in the words of translator Katy Derbyshire, “dull and dry,” and rejected by every publisher that read it.
It’s easy to see why. Even in this literary account—aptly published as part of Semiotext(e)’s auto-fiction focused Native Agents series—not much occurs over the course of the book, in the traditional sense. It is a simple narrative, presented chronologically for a period of just over one month, with little that can be characterized as an event. By the end of the book, any change or growth in the protagonist is of only a temporary nature: calloused hands, a weakened immune system, a slightly less overdrawn bank account. Without the drive of a narrative, affective damage comes to be the center of the novel, and in the place of plot, the reader is primarily confronted by the constant stream of quotidian anguish—boredom, illness, sexism, clashes with coworkers—that characterizes the precarious work of Amazon seasonal associates.
It is, in short, a story of alienation. As theorized by Karl Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, alienation (entfremdung) is a process that afflicts the worker under capitalism, in which their humanity is stripped away and re-presented as a hostile, foreign force. There are four primary ways in which this happens: alienation from the product; the act of production; the worker’s species-being; and other humans. Though much has changed about the nature of work since 1844, Marx’s characterization neatly encapsulates the struggles of the protagonist during her time at Amazon.
The fulfillment center is a strange site of production. Unlike a factory where parts or raw materials are fashioned into a finished commodity, the protagonist and her coworkers turn familiar objects (books, mugs, toys) into abstract parcels (designated by various bits of obscure jargon) in order to facilitate their circulation. Actual encounters with objects can only bring trouble, resulting in the firing of a worker who tries out a skateboard, and severe reprimanding for the protagonist when she slows down her production to read the synopsis on the back of a book. The production process is broken down into repetitive, minute steps in order to eliminate error for error and increase efficiency, but in so doing, it reduces the human worker to little more than an automaton. As the protagonist’s supervisor puts it during training, “You don’t have to understand it… you just have to know it.”
As the protagonist adjusts to the warehouse work, she becomes increasingly separated from her personal life. Old friends are no longer relatable, and strangers appear hostile. Even the narrator’s children and husband—who are introduced at the beginning of the book—are forcefully removed from the narration by the protagonist herself. Above all, the Amazon-induced alienation is conveyed by the second-person narration. The protagonist is referred to throughout the book as “you,” by a narrator who is in fact herself, but from an unspecified point in the future. She is literally dehumanized through the work and estranged from herself, not part of an “I” but a distant “you.” As a seasonal associate, she internalizes the processes of labor, becoming less and less human, until becoming, as the narrator describes herself, “a tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear.”
In this sense, it’s tempting to read Seasonal Associate as not just a work of fiction, but also a manifesto of sorts aimed at creating social and political change. The timely release of the English translation in 2018—as workers at Amazon warehouses began to unionize, strikes occured on the annual Prime Day, and protestors successfully canceled a billion dollar subsidy for the company’s second North American headquarters—makes such a reading all the more alluring, seemingly situating Geissler’s novel in the lineage of works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Setting aside the historical context of the publication, however, there is little in the book itself to justify such a point of view. Consider the alienating effect of the narration. By referring to the protagonist solely in the second person from a temporal standpoint beyond the events of the narrative, Geissler creates a sense of futility. There’s no room for action, organization, or protest. Instead, the reader watches events that were predetermined before they even actually happened unfold, and much like the protagonist and her coworkers, essentially accepts such a fate—exchanging freedom and humanity for much-needed money— natural and unchangeable necessity.
Important as well is the simple fact that the protagonist’s job at Amazon isn’t that bad. To be absolutely clear, it is not, by most measures, a good job, and it’s difficult to imagine a reader being enticed by the largely joyless affair. Compared to many other jobs, especially those for unskilled labor, the working conditions are more or less acceptable. The fulfillment center pays on time, provides the protagonist with (unpaid) sick leave, and offers safe working conditions. There are certainly abhorrent and exploitative labor practices at some Amazon warehouses—such as unsustainable production quotas, hostile management, and religious discrimination—but these are largely absent from Geissler’s narrative. Striking workers appear in Seasonal Associate, but even they don’t mind Amazon that much. “A lot of things are fine here,” one protestor tells the protagonist, before pluckily wishing her the good fortune to one day work for the company again. The protestor’s dilemma.
That the protestor can still feel some sort of affinity for Amazon, even in the middle of the strike, drives straight to the point of the novel. More of a lament than a polemic, Seasonal Associate charts the mundane, yet meaningful ways, in which labor today degrades the worker. It is not specific to Amazon alone, but instead is “more than sufficient to find out everything a person can find out about the working world in its most common form.” Alienation does not occur only in warehouses, factories, or offices, but also in every site of production. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi would say, the soul itself has been put to work. When the protagonist first begins working at the warehouse, she misses people “who are what they do,” meaning people like who she used to be: artists, writers, creatives. In the end, however, such an idea no longer seems possible. There is no longer an outside, and everywhere being itself is undone through work.