BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 03 NOV 21

Amber Husain On How the Collective Can Counter Neoliberalism

Esmé Hogeveen reviews the writer's new book Replace Me (2021), which tackles replaceability against a backdrop of employment precarity in the arts and academia  

BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Opinion | 03 NOV 21

Replacement, we might say, is antithetical to individualism. If something – a material or immaterial entity – is irreplaceable, then it theoretically holds a different value than a thing that can be readily replaced. However, in the so-called real world, wherein monetary value can be ascribed to almost anything, no matter how ‘priceless’, how do the competing logics of replaceability and exceptionalism co-exist? In Replace Me (2021), published by Peninsula Press, Amber Husain grapples with these and other contemporary crucibles of commutability, thoughtfully exploring models for industrial production and individual irrelevance, and the consequent impact on personal wellbeing, desire and identity.

The book begins in an auto-theoretical vein with Husain recalling: ‘My first experience of “permanent” employment – a coveted job in publishing – was depressing for a number of reasons.’ While she’d felt depressed in workplaces before, this purportedly steadier and better-compensated job was ‘the first which felt causally connected to my growing doubt about the beauty and meaningfulness of life’. Husain’s honesty is striking – and appreciated. I suspect many arts-adjacent workers may relate to the hollow feeling she describes taking hold after beginning a first salaried job. The revelation that a pseudo-permanent role is no guarantee of pseudo-permanent relevancy may be unsurprising, but it’s refreshing to witness Husain so deftly unpack the false expectations that lead to career decisions and insecurities.

In formal terms, Replace Me reads as a roving essay. Husain references critical theory, pop culture, history and personal experience to illustrate a genealogy of replacement within Western societies. ‘Power and replaceability have long been mutually constructed,’ she writes in an early passage that compares Greek gods’ views on mortals to 20th-century humans’ views on robots. Specifically, Husain links Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmithing, to the first appearance of the word ‘robot’ in the English translation of Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921). Husain compares Hephaestus’s reliance on ‘a band of workers [...] each interchangeable with the next’ to modern factory owners’ ‘fantasies of workers resembling machines – highly efficient, barely demanding, easy to replace’. In both contexts, industrial production renders the workers’ distinct skills, needs and identities irrelevant. If anything, unique characteristics would likely make these individuals less valuable and thereby vulnerable to increased suffering.

Replace Me book cover by Peninsula Press
Amber Husain, Replace Me, 2021. Courtesy: Peninsula Press

Underlying the threat of replaceability is the reality that human lives are often assessed relative to labour and earning potential. As such, Replace Me functions as a meta-indictment of human relations within neoliberal economies. Encounters with bland yet toxic HR professionals and corporate hierarchies designed to promulgate employee unease are two examples of ‘technologies of power that turn on the intentional enforcement of replaceability’. As readers may anticipate, Husain invokes Lauren Berlant’s (sadly) still-trenchant concept of ‘cruel optimism’ from her eponymous 2011 book: ‘The fantasy of having options where there are none, anchored in a hope for a future less characterized by threat.’ Summarizing Berlant’s theory, Husain explains that optimism can be cruel ‘for those without control over the material conditions of their lives’.

If maximized production remains a global goal, replaceability will likely continue inducing feelings of anxiety and depression, although some entities are, of course, more replaceable than others. One analogy Husain uses is that of Theseus’s Ship, a paradox cited in ancient Greek philosophy that ‘invites us to consider the extent to which stable forms not only withstand but rely upon replacement of their constituent parts. As each of its worn-out timbers is replaced over the years, does the boat continue to be Theseus’s Ship, even by such time as none of the vessel’s original parts remain?’ This thought experiment, as Husain notes, is ‘well-known’ but effective. Who stands to benefit from the continuance of the ship? Presumably Theseus or whatever powerful individual, government or corporate body occupies his proverbial position.

The discourse of replaceability isn’t new. In fact, as Husain elucidates, self-awareness around potential replacement can be a powerful catalyst for striking and unionizing efforts. At times, I wished there’d been more breathing room for these and some of Husain’s other rich ideas. Quick shifts between theory, case studies and personal exposition were occasionally disorienting, as in a chapter that moves between considering effective altruism to the writings of Simone Weil to moral calculations in Homer’s Iliad (c1260–180 BCE). One of the book’s real strengths is exploring the futility of engaging with – let alone competing within – a replacement economy and the persistent social incitement towards personal exceptionalism. ‘No one should be made into a robot or inspired to make themselves a god,’ Husain pensively concludes. Within the precarious worlds of art and academia, Husain’s analysis feels especially pertinent. As the short- and long-term impacts of recent university and cultural-sector strikes continue to unfold, Replace Me is a reminder that comradeship – or ‘love-duty to the collective’ – can still effectively challenge the ills of replacement.

Main image and thumbnail: Portrait of Amber Husain. Courtesy: Peninsula Press; photography: Constance Meath-Baker

Esmé Hogeveen is a writer based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze: Feminist Film Journal, Artforum, Border Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art and cléo.