Oksala lectures on affective labor and feminist politics

Johanna Oksala of the University of Helsinki discusses feminism in an economic context.
Johanna Oksala of the University of Helsinki discusses feminism in an economic context. Jennifer Mastranni/Contributing Photographer

Last Thursday, Johanna Oksala gave a lecture on affective labor and feminist politics. Oksala is the Academy Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Finland, visiting at the New School for Social Research in New York. Oksala’s work draws on contemporary European philosophy and phenomenology as well as feminist and critical theory.

Oksala started by explaining how the relationship between feminism and capitalism is a “pressing task for feminists today.” This relationship, according to Oksala, culminates in the theory of affective labor. Affective labor is work carried out that is intended to produce or effect emotional experiences. Oksala explained that affective labor brings up key issues of “feminist stakes in capitalist markets.” Examples of affective labor include incorporating ideas of friendship, grace and emotional satisfaction into the market. A flight attendant’s job, for example, is not only to help with the logistics of a passenger’s experience, but also to enhance the passenger’s experience by acting gracious and friendly. In this sense, Oksala says that affective labor is the commodification of the private realm, specifically the commodification of what is typically perceived as “womanly” tasks or attributes.

In Oksala’s perspective, there are some advantages to the theory of affective labor. First, it identifies and recognizes a contemporary form of labor in which the domestic, private realm is marketed. “People have come to rely on the services they buy that they used to get from family and community.” It is, however, unfair that affective labor is disproportionately required of women both at work and at home. This concept of a woman’s double workday, according to Oksala, “is an obstacle to better paying jobs.”

Oksala then explained the reasons why feminists shouldn’t embrace the theory of affective labor. “How do we monetize affective labor?” Oksala asked. For example, if one were to pay for friendship or love, according to Oksala, the abstract concepts would no longer be valid. “But we must not only ask the economic question,” Oksala said. “We should also ask the ethical question of whether or not [affective labor services] should be for sale in the first place?”

Oksala stated that, in order for affective labor to have weight in feminist politics, it needs to examine the narrow scope of reproductive labor. “From the perspective of feminist politics, affective labor when understood as reproductive labor produces human beings,” Oksala said. Because producing more human beings is a necessary condition for the functioning of a capitalistic system, “feminist critique has to be able to analyze women’s reproductive labor,” Oksala explained.

Oksala believes that the capitalist system relies on the constant drive to extend the reach of the market into the private realm, but also relies on a sexist division of labor. “Economic gender equality [in a capitalist system] would require the radical restructuring of society and economy,” Oksala said. “Women’s reproductive labor [in a capitalist system] can only ever be a handicap in the economic game.” In other words, women have to take time off from work to have children and are usually expected by society and government regulations to take care of the children, which also contributes to the idea of a double workday for women.

Because of the importance of reproductive labor in feminist issues, Oksala believes that the theory of affective labor has to further examine reproductive labor in order to become an adequate theory.

“Affective labor should be a pivotal notion for feminists, but it deserves a more critical analysis,” Oksala said.