Nostalgic and Precarious: The Affective Power of Objects in Olga Ravn’s The Employees (2018)
Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century (2020 ) is made up of statements by the employees - both human and humanoid - of the Six-Thousand Ship, detailing their interactions with the objects that have been brought on board to increase productivity. The cryptic objects, collected by the employees in nearby missions to the planet New Discovery, are described as being a mix between biological and technological and diffuse sounds and smells stimulative to the senses, “as if the objects only existed to awaken particular feelings ... by way of their form and material.” Set in the future, I argue The Employees ultimately mobilises longing for an irrecoverable past, and an impossible future, to criticise the inherently anxious work-focused, late-capitalist society of the twenty-first century. To do so, I will engage with affect theory to shed light on how Ravn’s novel conceptualises work. By considering affect as shared and political, I will connect it to nostalgia, an affect which I will be claiming also has a political dimension. It is through a nostalgic longing for a different reality that the employees will be confronted with their own alienation, as the unattainability of dreams of happiness (Sara Ahmed) and of the “good life” (Lauren Berlant) is exposed. The shattering of such illusions is what will ultimately lead the humanoid employees to revolt, while the humans remain attached to a doomed promise of the “good life”. In the end, I will show how the novel illustrates that a sense of precarity is not exclusive to those who are captive of a flexible, casualised labour market, but to everyone who must work to remain alive.