This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology.
“In the past year,” Cassie told me, “I’ve felt more alive than ever before, but also totally burned out.” This was how she described her first year working as a production manager for queer nightlife events in Brooklyn, New York. It was one of such descriptions—shared with me during two years of research on substance use in queer nightlife—that prompted me to explore feelings of alienation among workers.
I understand alienation as a lived process rather than a state. In exploring its affective dimensions, Sara Ahmed (2010, 41) describes alienation as being “out of line with an affective community—when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.” But why would workers feel alienated within the supposedly creatively fulfilling and affirmative spaces of queer nightlife?
In the world of queer nightlife, I learned, the ideal of queer community is often reduced to a pleasurable togetherness. Many nightlife workers use chemical substances to facilitate their emotional labor, the product of which is partygoer pleasure. The production of pleasure is an inherently contradictory activity in which work must appear to be leisure and leisure, in turn, becomes work. To navigate this contradiction, many nightlife workers use substances—and not only by consuming them—to assist in the simultaneous performance of work and leisure, productivity and pleasure (see Mandler 2016). At times, the production of pleasure leaves them feeling alienated from their work, from their substance use, and from the fruits of their labor.
Alice produces underground queer warehouse events that continue well after 4 a.m., where sex and substance use can be as ubiquitous as dancing and conversation. Her work for a nightlife magazine also affords her social status within more mainstream New York gay nightlife. Mainstream parties often hire her as a host, which means promoting the party on her social media accounts, bringing her friends, and contributing to the party’s atmosphere. Alice explains that these parties are not spaces of her choosing; she does not really enjoy alcohol-driven nightlife culture and is not particularly interested in interacting with partygoers other than the friends she brings. However, she needs to promote these parties as if they are going to be the greatest night ever and then act the part while she is there.
Although Alice does not drink much at these parties, she makes sure to have a drink in her hand. Holding a drink helps her feel like she’s part of the party; it signals to those around her that she is engaged and enjoying herself, and it stops her friends or the producer from asking questions like: “How come you’re not drinking? Aren’t you having a good time?” Holding a drink helps produce the facade of pleasurable engagement—the intended product of Alice’s labor.
Arlie Hochschild (1983), in her theorization of emotional labor, distinguishes between surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting involves putting on a show, as when flight attendants “paint on a smile” they don’t feel. While holding a drink in itself is not emotional labor, it can be seen as analogous to surface acting in that Alice-holding-a-drink is producing pleasure for others even though Alice herself may not be feeling pleasure. Alice also does emotional work at these parties to appear to enjoy herself, although there are important differences between the emotional labor theorized by Hochschild and that done by the nightlife workers I came to know. For instance, underground queer nightlife workers are not accountable to the kind of corporate emotional-management systems that flight attendants are.
An example of surface acting through substance use closer to Hochschild’s rendering might be bartenders who find it easier to fake a smile after they have had a few shots. However, this scenario moves into the territory of deep acting, in which emotions and emotional responses are not superficially faked but internally induced—through, for example, intoxicating oneself.
Stef is a performance artist who often works at Alice’s parties. Beyond performing, this means that she spends the night moving through the crowd, dancing and conversing. She often takes LSD because she enjoys the experience, which helps her interact with others. (An aside: no other worker I interviewed used LSD at work; most said that it would prevent them from being productively or pleasurably engaged. This shows that LSD is not a chemical with essential and stable properties, but instead is assembled in different ways with different bodies in different contexts. Isabelle Stengers [2010, 29] identifies this as the “problem posed by any pharmakon.”) Stef tells me that when she’s on LSD she feels talkative, bubbly, and deeply engaged with her surroundings. In other words, Stef navigates the relation between her internal emotions and the emotions she is expected to engender in others, in part, through the use of LSD.
But is Stef really deep acting? She enjoys being on LSD and, through that experience, enjoys being at the party. At no point did Stef suggest to me that this was acting, or that she uses LSD solely for the purpose of work. But on another occasion, she spoke about the inherently self-commodifying nature of nightlife work, how it makes her feel exhausted and prevents her from going out for fun outside of work. Hochschild’s deep-acting flight attendants also reported feeling commodified and emotionally drained.
Drawing on Karl Marx’s (1988) theory of alienation, Hochshild argues that emotional labor performed for a wage alienates workers from their feelings in a similar way that the wage relation alienates other workers from the commodities they produce. While Marx discussed at least four dimensions of alienation under capitalism, Hochschild only mobilizes two of them: alienation from the products of one’s labor and alienation from the labor itself. As Paul Brook (2009) has pointed out, this leaves Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor open to criticism by those who claim that workers may enjoy their emotional interactions and that emotional labor is not necessarily alienating. Hochschild, in other words, locates alienation at the site of production, rather than presenting it as a phenomenon endemic to capitalist society. Marx, on the other hand, understood alienation as not simply a state of mind but as something that permeates social relations in and out of the workplace. Alienation is inescapable but also, simultaneously, incomplete. For Marx, this incompleteness emerges from the unresolvable contradictions within the capital-labor relation.
All of which brings me back to Stef, Alice, and other nightlife workers who see their work as alienating in some ways and yet enjoy it in others, navigating this tension, in part, through the use of substances at work. The parties where Alice and Stef work are often presented as unalienated spaces where workers are creatively fulfilled by their labor. Nevertheless, a sense of self-commodification remains. Following Marx’s point that alienation is not only produced in the workplace, for many queer nightlife workers, even their creatively fulfilling work is sometimes experienced as alienated labor because they depend on their wages to pay rent, buy food, and so on. In other words, while their work may be creatively fulfilling, it is not performed solely for creative fulfillment; it is performed for survival (which is not the case for all queer nightlife workers).
At first, I wondered whether substance use was a strategy to escape this reality. But now I think this is too simplistic. Instead of talking about escaping their realities, many workers connected substance use to creating new realities or possibilities. Cassie, for instance, uses cocaine to be more assertive, but sometimes this also leads her to stand on the stage at the end of a party and watch the crowd dance to the final songs in awe. She uses cocaine to manage one experience, but can’t help the fact that it induces another. In moments of reluctance to perform assertiveness, she finds awe and affirmation.
In sum, substance use is one strategy for navigating situations in which work has become leisure and leisure, work. Sometimes this happens through the creation of a facade of pleasure that masks the work lying behind it. At other times, it involves internally inducing the experience of pleasure so that the worker no longer feels that it is work. Yet in both cases, a sense of alienation can emerge such that the worker becomes aware that their work is not for their own creative fulfillment—even if it is creatively fulfilling. Substance use interacts with the experience of alienation in numerous ways, including opening up moments where different worlds become possible.
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Brook, Paul. 2009. “The Alienated Heart: Hochschild's ‘Emotional Labor’ Thesis and the Anticapitalist Politics of Alienation.” Capital and Class 33, 2: 7–31.
Hochschild, Arlie. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mandler, Tait. 2016. “Producing Pleasure, Minimizing Harm: Chemical Use and Harm Reduction by Queer Nightlife Workers in Brooklyn, New York.” Contemporary Drug Problems 43, no. 3: 258–76.
Marx, Karl. 1988. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. Originally published in 1932.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.