We Are All Roman Porn Stars Now

Are we fighting the good fight through our service or just creating a spectacle of superexploitation?
By Marc Bousquet

AAUP members are likely to be familiar with the 1960 adaptation of Howard Fast’s Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick and Dalton Trumbo, a rousing Kirk Douglas production widely credited with breaking the Hollywood blacklist. We’re a bit less likely to be among the five or six million weekly viewers of the recent series of the same title produced by Sam Raimi, a show that will launch its fourth and final season on Starz in January 2013. While the show consistently wins its time slot against other cable offerings, I don’t particularly recommend watching it—catch up on The Wire, Nurse Jackie, or Breaking Bad first.

Impressively, the show has managed to hold its audience despite significant production challenges, including the death of the actor playing the title role. Certainly some of its viewers tune in for the objectified porn-star bodies of the actors. But they stay because they identify with the characters in the story. I think it’s worth trying to understand this identification, in large part because it seems to be an identification with a mode of exploitation similar to our own.

With balletic violence, gorgeous computergenerated imagery, and lovingly detailed mature sequences, Raimi’s production doesn’t at first seem calculated for the status-conscious and servicemotivated intellectual—the sort of person who gives up salary in exchange for prestige and satisfaction. That said, one of the show’s persistent themes is the personal cost of pursuing psychic rewards—such as celebrity or the esteem of one’s colleagues. The show invites identification with the gladiators on the supposition that the viewers are also imprisoned by their own pursuit of affective compensation. Our motivations (teaching for love, serving the community, bringing about the good society, and so on) are prime examples of psychic compensation. Our superdiscounted wages likewise exemplify the cost of accepting it.

Dalton Trumbo, Meet Larry Flynt

The show consistently wins its cable time slot in the eighteen-to-forty-nine demographic, a success that suggests, as even our friends at the New York Times acknowledge, an apparently growing appetite for stories of class warfare (see Ginia Bellafante’s January 20, 2011, article, “The Adventures of Spartacus Six-Pack”). Of course, this use of class warfare erroneously assigns the term only to class struggle from below (as if the arduous labor of Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill O’Reilly to roll back medical care, education, and workplace rights isn’t the class war of the rich on the rest of us!). As I observed at the time, and as the flash-fire of the Occupy movement confirmed, recent trends in cultural consumption indicate a growing will among the 99 percent to fight back against the institutionalized warfare of global capital.

There are two paths into this version of Spartacus that any reasonably competent cultural studies scholar might pursue: genealogical relationships, especially those with earlier versions of Spartacus, and transitive relationships with parallel iconography, like the masterless samurai of Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and the rest.

The first approach would be largely a project of mourning—that is, exploring all the ways this latest iteration of Spartacus measures a retreat from the Left cultural imaginary tapped into by the blacklisted dream team of Dalton Trumbo and grand old Howard Fast. For decades a best-selling writer of openly anticapitalist fiction, Fast was imprisoned for resisting the House Un-American Activities Committee and forced to self-publish the 1951 novel on which the 1960 film is based. (Apparently Kirk Douglas produced the film largely out of pique after losing the title role in Ben Hur to Charlton Heston, but he still deserves enormous credit for having the courage to employ these writers and helping to break the blacklist.)

The contrast between the 1960 film and the present is especially obvious in the variant handling of the line, “I am Spartacus.” In the earlier production, the line was a climactic appeal to solidarity, shouted for Kubrick and Douglas’s sound crew by the crowd at a Michigan State versus Notre Dame football game. In a nice turn, the contemporary version reimagines the line as a second-act complication, acknowledging submission: “I am Spartacus” in this version indicates the Thracian’s acceptance of his slave name, à la Kunta Kinte in the most famous scene in the miniseries Roots. Drawing this parallel to the more defiant and hopeful imagination of the mid-1970s (now three and a half decades in the past) is, however, similarly unflattering to the present.

The second analysis would recover part of the first—finding in this cynical Spartacus a free-ranging rebellion. He inhabits a modestly domesticated variant of the masterless samurai–Pale Rider trope, protesting, “I burn for no cause but my own,” but grudgingly making an exception to that rule.

A figure for the salaryman who puts on the office costume (but rides his hog on weekends) motivated by a goodfella’s desire to protect spouse and home turf, today’s Spartacus provisionally accepts the fraternity of the sport or ludus and even more provisionally the dominion of Batiatus, an ambitious Capuan fight promoter reminiscent of Tony Soprano. That the fight promoters are the next TV gangsters-as-lowermanagement is abundantly clear in season 2, episode 2, in which Batiatus is stomped in a butcher’s shop; the scene references a similarly located assault in The Sopranos and attempts to top it with a long-running and full-frontal urination on the victim.

Both of these lines of analysis could be extended usefully, and doubtless will be, but I think they aren’t enough, not least because they bypass the repeated, clear references to gladiators as the adult film stars of their time.

The mapping of gladiation by way of the contemporary cultural space of porn is literal, with repeated scenes of gladiators sexually performing for an audience of citizens, who sometimes offer direction (à la interactive porn sites), zoom in for close-ups of the action, and so on.

I want to be clear that I don’t bring up pornography in order to get into a moral debate. If I have a moral position on pornography, it’s probably something akin to class struggle. That is, potentially the likeliest, best outcome of porn’s cultural victory is self-abolition. Can the universally explicit be visible as pornographic?

Certainly serious complaints can be made about the series in this department: for example, the series can legitimately be read as uncritically reinforcing the erotics and homosociality of male dominance. It might be said to trivialize the contemporary traffic in women by its representation of male gladiators as sex toys for the Real Housewives of Capua. Nonetheless, if you want to argue porn’s morality, take it up with the extremely thoughtful feminist scholar Jane Juffer or, say, the million-strong Netmums demographic— mostly British, mostly women under fifty, mostly with kids—75 percent of whom, according to a recent survey, say they consume it.

The Grammar of Superexploitation

What interests me about Spartacus and the grammar of adult film is the question of delivering work without a wage, for an extreme wage discount, or over and above the requirements of a wage. In the technical sense, most wage work (excepting the hypercompensated type) is simple exploitation: you produce more value than you receive back in wages, often a lot more, and that value goes to someone of the Real Housewives class, who buys jewels and a good conscience by making occasional donations to charity.

By contrast, working without a wage—or for a discounted wage, or for psychic compensation, or delivering additional work off the clock—generally involves some form of superexploitation. The cutting edge of management practice is finding ways to maximize the employee’s donation above and beyond the wage: checking office e-mail at 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., taking calls on weekends and on vacation, working through lunch, and so on. One of the vectors for this exploitation is making workplaces “creative” and “fun,” as Andrew Ross has argued; another is faux professionalism; another is providing elaborate nonwage recognitions, as in the military, church, and education bureaucracies. Internships are both straight-up extortion (“You can’t get a job without one”) and status awards (“I won the competition for the position!”).

Gladiators experience the most primitive forms of superexploitation (direct enslavement, imprisonment, and degradation). All of these primitive forms are alive and well in today’s global economy, from prison labor to the traffic in women. And some aspects of gladiator labor are realized cinematically as the kind of lockedin dormitory workplace associated with Chinese manufacturing.

But the primitive forms of superexploitation don’t explain the Starz demographic’s identification with the characters and situation. The viewer identification has much more to do with the fact that the gladiators also experience the most advanced or progressive forms of superexploitation associated with Western workers employed in some of the most sought-after positions in the global economy.

While gladiators do receive some material compensation (better food, occasional prize money), they are ultimately paid in the coin of emotion. This is where the mapping of gladiation onto the porn industry delivers the most insight. The gladiators are almost exactly analogous to today’s porn “stars,” who support one of the most lucrative industries on the planet—but who can make as little as one hundred dollars for a filmed sex act, and might work on just a couple of films in a “career” that lasts a few months. The cost of plastic surgery, physical training, and so on easily outweighs the earnings of many, a fact known perfectly well to most of the men and women struggling to get into the industry. The idea that all these people are delusional, trying to win a lottery of high adult-film paychecks, misses the point. For the most part, they understand that they are also being paid in a kind of reputation that they have chosen to seek (perhaps mistakenly), even if they don’t get rich.

This is the heart of Spartacus’s appeal—its insight into a core question of our time: “If the rewards are so slim, why do it?” And the series captures the complexity and honesty of the answer: that most of us are deeply social in our motivations, that we strive most vigorously for nonwage compensation . . . and that these generally social preferences represent our vulnerability to the economic predators of our time.

Given the number of fronts on which its politics are fairly regressive, the series makes its largest contribution to consciousness-raising in its consistent representation of affective compensation as a form of Monopoly money printed up by a cynical management. Indeed, the central characters’ struggle to reject the psychic wage—and management’s effort to seduce them into accepting it—is the substance of the series’s storyline. It is not that the series opposes honor, reputation-seeking, or loyalty as such. It’s that the series understands that these and other emotions are vectors through which economic predators snare their victims.

In this version of Spartacus, the successful lanista and doctore (manager and trainer) are, first and foremost, managers of the arena’s workplace culture, providing the gladiators with rewards calculated to trigger the investment of their whole selves in their work: a sense of fraternity, accomplishment, professional reputation, and public recognition.

The whole of season 1’s affective dynamic comprises the complication-filled but steadily rising acceptance of this manufactured workplace culture by Spartacus, who swiftly wins the title of “champion of Capua.” His arc of acceptance is matched by a parallel, gradual disaffection with that same workplace culture by his chief rival, Crixus, the immediate past champion. Just when Spartacus’s growing acceptance of a bargain with management is burst, abruptly returning him to his original state of implacable avenger, the evolving emotional life of Crixus carries us forward.

For Crixus, the transformation from true believer to revolutionary means abandoning most of the psychic rewards on which he has built his identity—the recognition of fellow professionals, public celebrity, and so on. It also means a painful repudiation of the belief that gladiation offers a professional and meritocratic venue in which ability is inevitably recognized.

The Price of Loving Our Work

As we cheer along Crixus’s workplace epiphany, we are invited to have one of our own—to cast a critical eye on our own workplaces, and the management-engineered workplace cultures that enmesh us. It’s too often assumed that “teaching for love” and “serving the community” or “working to bring about the good society” is a win-win situation: Some people are happy with psychic rewards instead of pay, which saves a few bucks that institutions or legislatures can then spend on other important projects. What’s the harm?

But a labor market arranged around working for love—rather than fair compensation—is actually one of the most sexist, racist, and economically discriminatory arrangements possible. As I emphasize in How the University Works and elsewhere, when you make the professoriate an economically irrational choice, you stop sorting for the most talented people and begin to sort for the people who can afford to discount their wages.

That cuts out most people, period, making the best jobs in the academy largely a preserve for people with fortunate economic backgrounds or circumstances. And through the wealth gap, that primary economic discrimination has direct consequences for the racial composition of the faculty. When it is too hard to get a job, too arduous an apprenticeship, too poor of a return on education investment, only the wealthiest among us are able to “irrationally choose” psychic wages—and the wealthiest among us are disproportionately white, just for starters. All of this has tremendous, documented consequences for the achievement and persistence of students from less advantaged economic circumstances and ethnicities poorly represented among the faculty.

As for gender, reducing compensation for faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (for example, $15,000 for teaching six courses a year) assigns them disproportionately to women and to men or women married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once high-status jobs) into ones held increasingly by women, as Michelle A. Massé explained to me in a 2008 interview. That is just one of the ways, she says, that higher education forms a “pyramid scheme,” especially for women faculty members.

In the important essay collection Massé edited with Katie J. Hogan, Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces, the contributors survey the complexity of academic service, from the manifold senses of a calling to doing the university’s “housework,” that is, the undercompensated labor of care that in many circumstances falls harder on women. Among the countless insights the collection’s essays develop is that a complex and contradictory “service unconscious” has emerged among feminized faculty members, male and female: “We know that our [willingness to serve] sometimes damages us [but we nonetheless persevere] in these behaviors for the best of all possible reasons: the ways in which ‘helping’ and ‘serving’ please us and fulfill our deepest-held beliefs about the importance of existence in a community.”

Of course, the coin of emotion, in fulfilling the desire to serve, is only part of the story. Just as the gladiators are also restrained by the lash, the superexploitation of academic labor is assisted by lines of force. Where the personal need to serve ends—when it runs out, is depleted, pumped absolutely dry by the relentless engine of university accumulation “in the service of good”—a whole underworld of terror, humiliation, and abuse awaits the university worker who comes to his or her senses. When the appeals to pride, love, and self-sacrifice at last run their course, most of today’s superexploited will simply be bullied into further giving with absurd metrics, unreasonable expectations, dishonest evaluation, the threat of nonrenewal, or the like.

Marc Bousquet is associate professor of English and director of college writing at Emory University and the author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. He can be reached at pmbousquet @gmail.com.

This essay has been adapted from contributions to the Brainstorm blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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