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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Alissa King

Our Modern Notion of Productivity Merits Rethinking—Here’s Why

I am excited to bring your a guest article by my friend, fellow scholar of the humanities, and fellow remote worker, Jennifer Janechek. Jennifer is a literary scholar with a focus on disability studies. She currently works from home for a publishing house and teaches courses at the University of Iowa. If that wasn't already enough, she is also the founder of Work-Home-Life, an online magazine for remote workers. Oh, and she has two young children! She's here today to unpack the way that our society thinks about productivity, a topic that is near-and-dear to Double Fourteen.

If and when I write my memoir, it will be called Productivity Addict. Ever since I can remember, I have had a strong drive to perform—efficiently and copiously. I have long associated my value as an individual with the quality and quantity of my output. But as I discovered while doing graduate work in literary studies and disability studies, this tendency to define human worth by labor is the result of discourses that arose, for the most part, in the nineteenth century. Indeed, our modern notion of productivity with which we are all so obsessed—myself especially included—is not a transcendent value but rather a historically contingent social construction, one that perpetuates many toxic ideologies…ableism prominent among them.

Tl;dr: I have internalized discourses about productivity as a measure of human value that arose largely during the nineteenth century—discourses that perpetuate problematic understandings of ability and dis-ability.

Some historical context would be useful here. With the rise of industrialization and capitalism, the culture of work shifted from apprenticeship and slow, masterful production to impersonal mass production. Karl Marx famously describes this change as alienating workers from the products of their labor, creating a profound estrangement from the self. But another, equally detrimental result is that bodily ideals evolve in such a way as to designate certain bodies as more valuable—because more labor-producing—than others. You can probably see where I am going with this: “able” bodies (and minds) are deemed more socially and economically valuable, whereas “dis-abled” bodies come to represent a burden on society, with negative attitudes toward “dependence” further exacerbated by the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century. The logic goes like this: If you cannot work well in the factory system, you cannot contribute well to society, and so you are a burden and lose value. Indeed, modern ideas about disability that support much of the ableism rampant in today’s society are born in the nineteenth century out of a drive to define human value in terms of productivity.

An image of a neoclassical statue of Adolphe Quetelet outside the Academy Palace in Brussels.
Statue of Adolphe Quetelet

To further support this mechanization of the individual, the notion of the “norm” arises from emerging discourses of statistics and eugenics in the nineteenth century. Prior to the nineteenth century, the ideal body was one represented by Greek and Roman gods; because the ideal was clearly unattainable by humans, there was not as much social pressure to conform to it. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the statistician Adolphe Quetelet discovered that human attributes could be plotted and averaged to theorize what he called “l’homme moyen,” or the “average man.” The “norm” becomes the imperative, except that the norm cannot be the mean, or the exact average, otherwise traits deemed desirable like tallness and intelligence would be treated as “deviant,” along with the extremes on the other, “less desirable” end of the spectrum. In response to this dilemma, Quetelet decides to use the median, rather than the mean, in determining the “norm”: in ranking attributes, nineteenth-century statisticians were able to reinforce notions of ability that were tied to a specific (heteronormative) form of embodiment.

You can see how the leap to eugenics is less of a leap and more of a tiny step: once you create a norm, you can attempt to “norm” the population, moving more of it toward the center of the bell-shaped curve commonly used to visualize a normal distribution. The “normate” individual—the “average” human being who becomes the ideal after which we all strive (think of how often we are told to value “normalcy”)—becomes the person who labors efficiently. So, the more and the faster we work, the more we rise to the top…as average. The less we can contribute in this way, the more troublesome we become to society, which reminds us, in turn, of our need to produce.

Whew…sorry about that deep dive into the historical discourses of industrialization, capitalism, statistics, and eugenics. The purpose of that overview is to explain something that I often have to remind myself: I am not defined by my productivity. Productivity is a social construction; it is a concept that we internalize so that we perform in the way that industrial society needs or wants us to. We then use this concept to police ourselves against arbitrary standards of excellence—fit-ness, really. However, these standards are pernicious. They are rooted in discourses of ableism, among other isms. Thus, we need to recognize the need to disrupt modern conceptions of productivity. I struggle with this so much, and the difficulty in disentangling ourselves from these arbitrary notions of value shows how deeply embedded we are within this discursive matrix.

So say it with me: my value is not defined by my productivity. Labor is not a measure of worth.

Let’s continue to expand our notions of productivity, divorcing it from the discourses that chain it to a vision of physical and mental fit-ness. For instance, can productivity be reconceptualized in terms of well-being—systemic, organizational, and individual? Can productivity be separated from the time clock, untethered from notions of efficiency, and attached more firmly to notions of quality work? These are some of my initial musings. I’d love to hear others’ ideas for cultivating a more inclusive notion of productivity that doesn’t hierarchize bodies and minds.

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