It may seem strange to say, but we academics who study work sometimes get too caught up in the workplace itself. By that I mean that, much like the workers we study, we get so fixated on workplace events and processes that we forget to attend to the sphere of non-work. If we really want to understand the meanings that work acquires, then it behooves us to attend to the messages about work that are increasingly encoded in popular media –most notably, in film and TV. Here we can often find instances of what Paul Willis once called “penetrations,” or insights into the truth about work and inequality that debunk socially dominant myths.
As Exhibits A and B, consider two recent films that center on the struggles that workers confront in this era of neo-liberalism and new technologies. Both films derive their power at least partly from the sites they invoke, which lie at the very center of power and authority in the advanced capitalist nations. In the one case –“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo— we get a vivid account of freelance cameramen trawling for lurid footage of violent crime, which they can sell to local TV stations wanting to jump start their ratings.
In the other case –“Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones— the film centers on military officers assigned to work as drone operators, ordered to rain Hellfire missiles down at Afghani peasants vaguely suspected of being militants. These films seem on their face to be worlds apart. Yet in truth, both capture deeply troubling situations in which workers are compelled to produce and reproduce the very culture of violence that envelops us in our everyday lives. These films raise far reaching questions of concern to workers generally: What to do when morality and authority diverge –and how to achieve a modicum of agency and autonomy in a system designed to support neither.