The Future in Labor

by Joshua Clover

From Film Quarterly Autumn 2009, Vol. 63, No. 1

Dollhouse (20th Century Fox Television)
(Duncan Jones)
Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

“You know how I got the money, when I was starting out? Here. Not here, but a place like it, in the Sprawl. Joke, to start with, ‘cause once they plant the cut-out chip, it seems like free money. Wake up sore, sometimes, but that’s it. Renting the goods, is all. You aren’t in, when it’s all happening. House has software for whatever a customer wants to pay for …”

So begins the soliloquy of Molly, highly modified professional bodyguard and central character in William Gibson’s cyberpunk axiom, Neuromancer (sailing toward the screen in 2011, and already listing toward the shoals). Given that the 1984 novel gave the world the term “cyberspace” as well as the usage of “the matrix” that would inform the film of that title, few would have guessed that the passage above would turn out to be the most influential. But this season, at least, that seems to be the case.

It might have been the entire pitch for Dollhouse, which recently completed its first television season. Joss Whedon’s previous creations, above all Buffy the Vampire Slayer, were unfailingly witty. Dollhouse, contrarily, floats in darkness, both of tone and palette: much of the story unfolds in the eponymous Los Angeles compound, underground and underlit, where come and go beautiful ciphers, ignorant of their true beings and imprinted with alien characters, all under the watchful eyes of keepers, ruthless administrators, and goons. (When a seemingly arbitrary reference to actress/zealot Jenna Elfman intrudes, it suggests a subtext for the suspicious viewer. The show could almost be called Scientology: Celebrity Center.)

In the main, however, the set resembles a high-tech Zen brothel. The ciphers in question are the dolls or “actives,” each named with a military call sign, though Echo (Eliza Dushku) is the show’s pivot. They have given themselves over for five-year contracts they’ll supposedly not recall; for the duration, they serve as human blanks. Against a considerable fee, any doll can be rented out and imprinted with memories and skills, with desires they believe to be their own. “House has software for whatever a customer wants to pay for,” indeed. Like Molly, they are supposed to remember nothing.


Dormitory terrors Top: Dollhouse. photo: 20th Fox Home Entertainment. Bottom: Moon. © Lunar industries Ltd. courtesy of sony pictures classics.

Echo is sometimes the hooker, but sometimes the bodyguard, and other gigs as well. The body doesn’t change; capacities and sensibilities do. She is a set of affects, abilities, and knowledge, in a world of quickly shifting requirements. And this is somehow more true, more real than, say, some dude on an assembly line. Quoth the corporate boss: “Robots? Zombie slaves? They are of course quite the opposite—an active is the truest soul among us.”

Echo and her cohort are the ideal workers for the era in which the prostitute is not an exception, but metaphoric representative of the labor force—the period generally deemed to have ascended around 1973, and variously described via terms like post-industrial, post-Fordist, knowledge workers, flexible accumulation. The show finds itself rather belated: a generalized allegory of the service economy, produced just as that era arrives at its own disastrous limits. What’s captured is the missing experience of that work, an absence that enables the labor to continue. For the dolls, each assignment ends with waking into the same well-appointed nightmare as if for the first time. On the clinic table, they unknowingly complete a scripted exchange with the watchful tech, in utterly blank tones: “Hello, Echo.” “Did I fall asleep?” “For a little while.” We see this scene over and over. It escapes the show.


Clocking on Sleep Dealer. Courtesy of Maya Entertainment.

Midway through the minor-key pleasure that is Moon, Sam Wells (Sam Rockwell) wakes from unconsciousness to the ministrations of an all-purpose caretaker computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam is finishing out a lonely three-year contract overseeing a mining operation on the moon, requiring occasional wrangling on the lunar surface; his most recent foray has ended in disaster.

As he comes to himself, GERTY asks how he feels, if he remembers who he is, and so on. The machine’s questions seem at once concerned and rote—the viewer will already be thinking of Kubrick’s HAL 9000, though GERTY is a good deal less malevolent. Like Sam, he’s just doing his job. Like Sam, he also has a bit of a heart.

As any Dollhouse watcher will suspect, it’s neither the first not the last time GERTY has issued this identical sequence of inquiries in the identical tone of mechanical concern, as his charge awakens on the same clinic bed. Sam will shortly confront himself, albeit a body grievously wounded from the accident; something has gone amiss. The two Sams pursue a bitter but brief rivalry over the claim to be the real Sam, before cool reason sets in and they deduce they must both be clones. The original Sam Wells is long gone. There is no imminent trip home, no wife and child waiting. The energy-mining job is, after all, hazardous, stultifying, and demands some small amount of training. It’s more cost-effective for the company to use a series of blank Sams, imprinted with the requisite memories, skills, and desires. The three-year contract will never end.

Both Moon and Dollhouse offer images of the future and a history of the present; this is science fiction’s partial formula. The drama of work when it has been literally dematerialized, cracked loose from the carapace of the unique body, is entirely of the moment.

That drama animates, with greater ferocity, the uneven fires of Sleep Dealer: an SF film set in Mexico and mostly in Spanish. Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) lives in small village suffering under a privatized water regime (a popular theme these days; see the summer 2009 column). Mistakenly believing him a threat to the dam, a drone plane flown by a remote pilot in San Diego obliterates the family home, killing his father instead. Guilt-stricken and compelled to seek work, he heads north.


Filling in the blanks The Girlfriend Experience. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

There will be no crossing the border at Tijuana. Migrant labor has been entirely dematerialized; the Mexicans need not drain U.S. resources, but their labor is imported frictionlessly. Memo gets implants from a “coyotek” (the film is filled with similarly thoughtful small gestures) which allow him to be a virtual wetback, hooked into the network and operating equipment across the Rio Grande. All around Memo in the “sleep dealer” (as such factories are called), others perform similar remote services. Construction workers, nannies—each unit of work equivalent before the technical abstraction, each laborer disturbingly blank-eyed, jolted by the central computer if they slack for ten seconds. This is telecommuting with a vengeance.

Which is to say it’s a more historically specific version of The Matrix, free of aperçus from Philosophy 101. Labor power is jacked in, tuned out, and systematically drained of its value by an invisibly remote ruling class; compelled to work to purchase stuff so it can work some more. What gives Sleep Dealer more purchase on our moment is the way that divergent interests of nationalism and open markets, fixed borders and mobile armies of workers, are neatly resolved technologically. This is the very nature of dystopia: the sealing over of contradictions, the infinite intensification of exploitation.

Also like The Matrix, the film has its heroic trio and revolutionary airs. Luz, the improbably beautiful blog-memoirist (a none-too-subtle embodiment of affective labor) first uses him for his story, but eventually falls for him, this being a movie. The pilot, a Mexican American, realizes the error of his ways and helps them strike back against the privatized and the virtual. If the film is disappointing, this is only because its victory is nostalgic. The dam destroyed, Memo and the others plant a symbolic milpa, community agriculture standing both for a better world and for The Real. This is common enough for science fiction, the full formula for which is too often images of the future, history of the present, ideology of the past.

The Girlfriend Experience is set in the excruciating present: two weeks in late 2008. Chelsea is an upscale call girl who provides exactly what the title promises: not just sex but the set of surrounding feelings and experiences. Her boyfriend Chris is a trainer who provides similarly personal service; as in Dollhouse and Sleep Dealer, the service sector isn’t just for hookers anymore. Reduced to this insight, the film verges on the banal: all relationships are mercenary, etc.

At the same time, catastrophe charges the chic, minimalist recesses of the New York bistros and hotels where the actionless action occurs. Journalists, call girls, trainers, bloggers, traders all ply their hustles in the midst of an economic collapse brought on exactly because of the tottering imbalance between the service sector and productive base—they are the simultaneous subject and object of the disaster, its cause and effect. At least the film has a classical grasp of irony, which is rare enough.

That Chelsea is played by porn actress Sasha Grey, known for her “unnerving ability to look absent even (or especially) in the midst of some convoluted group penetration” (Nina Power,, produces a double exposure. Chelsea is in some regard the proto-Molly: designer shades sutured to her face where Molly’s optic implants will be, she plays out her temporary roles with programmed vitality admixed with an irreducible blankness. For a cut-out chip that makes it all endurable she has her numerology books and a few romantic illusions, and well-appointed digs she shares with Chris (shades of Godard’s Contempt: no matter how much Camille and Paul think they are arguing over love and betrayal, we know the kernel is real-estate values for beautiful Roman apartments).

Sasha’s and Chelsea’s affectless affect, the film’s thin idea—these are matched by the relentless flatness of the film’s style, from the acting to the HD videography, all cool surfaces without heft. It’s like a long YouTube clip. Such banality may itself be rhetorical, a way to try to understand the emotional blankness of the new life made by immaterial labor, the truth of which is not the nifty shit forthcoming in the future, but the missing experience of now. It’s the world that got flat; we’re just working in it. And this may be why the immanent economic catastrophe, rifted with hysteria and panic, is nonetheless the most charismatic figure in the film: a social crisis and vast destruction, at least it’s a kind of change, a kind of awakening from the blankness of sleep, an awakening whose script might elude the ever-hovering technicians … the slightest potential for futurity.

Joshua Clover’s 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About is published this fall by University of California Press.