Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit

I'm not sure but when I look Heike Geißler up on the internet I think I recognize her face. I certainly recognize her concerns, or the concerns she presents in her book Saisonarbeit. Heike Geißler is a writer and a translator and lives in Leipzig and has two children, and she also spent a short time working in the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig on a short-term contract.

Saisonarbeit is not, however, merely a long version of those "journalist gets a job at the Amazon warehouse" articles we all read with such ghoulish enthusiasm, Günter Wallraff-style undercover revelations for which the writer pretends to need a manual job and then finds it horrifying. If I were to classify it (and I'm reluctant to do so), I'd call Geißler's book an extended personal and literary essay on the shitty nature of labour itself under the present system, using the Amazon warehouse as an admittedly eye-catching example.

It is by no means an easy read. Heike Geißler grabs her readers by the shoulders and pulls us into the book, addressing us in the formal second-person form as Sie (a form of address that Amazon, incidentally, does not grant the employees in its German warehouses, where everyone is called the familiar du although the legend of "flat hierarchies", as Geißler shows us, is little more than bullshit). Geißler the narrator commands us, the readers, to be Geißler the Amazon warehouse employee for the duration of the temporary contract, or the book, whichever lasts longer. The book lasts longer. We are placed under a double constraint, forced as it were to take on the job that Heike Geißler applied for and forced to read about how the employer treats us, or her, and how it makes us, and her, feel. Except we can stop reading whenever we want to; I didn't want to.

And so we try out for the job, with a mixture of reluctance and misplaced pride in our small achievements, because we need the money. And we get the job and we hate almost everything about it – the early starts, the malfunctioning door that lets in the cold right by our workplace, the bogus pre-shift pep talks, the petty rules, but also and especially the nasty dynamics between the employees, the way people pick on each other and on us almost like in the school playground. And perhaps we remember our own shitty jobs, where we too took pride in fielding the most phone calls or stacking the most shelves for a while, or we think of people we've met who talk about "our team reaching its targets" and mean, if they were to think about it, a randomly configured group of employees reaching the employer's targets.

What happens? We manage for a while. We learn the terminology, the strange verbs and nouns and the way the employees communicate and function; we fall sick and get a few days off, we learn how to work the system, we start identifying, we stop identifying, we start objecting, we start dragging our heels and we have a sudden realization. Just like we can as readers, Geißler seems to be telling us, as employees we can stop whenever we want. I know – and she knows – that it's not always that simple, and she shows us people who don't feel that way, for objective reasons. As such, the book does have something in common, structurally, with those undercover journalism pieces, because the author does have another way of earning a living. But because she needs the job to begin with, at least, she never places herself above the other employees or pities them more than she pities herself. And that's what makes it work so well, for me.

The idea that some people having to work for others is a shitty thing is not a new idea, you'll notice, and Geißler knows that too, referring us to Paul Lafargue and a number of more recent theorists and writers (there is a bibliography at the back). But by making Saisonarbeit a work of art, something created to provoke emotions as well as to transmit information and ideas, she gives us a pair of scissors to cut our own door into the subject. There are things in here that made me almost crow with delight – when our narrator sends us to work in her place and goes on a trip to Munich instead or the way she, or we, takes strange comfort in processing books into the system rather than toys or tools. And there are others that made me fume, or sigh, or identify. This is an intelligent and challenging book that is rightly gaining a lot of attention. I'd love to translate it.

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