craft

Artists and Alienation: Everyday Marxism at Subway

I eat at Subway, a lot. Probably more than any self-respecting person should. In fact, including this post, my blog has a bit of a Subway Series going on here and here. Maybe I should write a book on the sociology of Subway.

The Subway I go to most often requires its employees to shout ‘Welcome to Subway!’ whenever someone walks through the door. Other places do this as well – i.e. “Welcome to Moe’s!” I don’t find it particularly welcoming to be shouted at by strangers when I walk through doors. Does anyone ever shout back – “Oh my! It’s so nice to see you all today!” That would be weird. But, more than not feeling welcomed, it makes me feel guilty about imposing on these low wage workers making sandwiches on command for strangers all day. (I mean, not so guilty that I don’t eat there twice a week and load my card with points.)

A couple of months ago I was at a different Subway than my usual spot, but they still do the Welcome to Subway Shout – standardized welcoming is heartwarming. This day, however, it was less a shout and much more of a ‘dumb things I gotta do today mumble.’ I totally get that – no offense taken. In fact, I’ve often thought that ‘Subway sandwich maker’ has got to be one of the most alienating jobs available. These folks are making products that they immediately give away to their boss of the moment. They make the sandwich, someone else eats the sandwich – all day long. Not only do they immediately lose the product of their labor to someone else, they have to experience alienation from customers who often make really odd demands for sandwiches (i.e. “cut the bread the old way”). Customers are the sandwich exploiters of these Sandwich laborers – or as they are known in the industry: Sandwich Artists.

Yes, Corporate Subway calls these folks Sandwich Artists. This has to be as ironic an employee moniker as there is – it’s much worse than Wal-Mart’s ‘associates.’ There is nothing artistic about using predetermined ingredients, in required amounts, at the command of strangers walking through the door. This is not craft nor creativity, but rather carefully monitored capitalist production.

Here is a screenshot from Subway Corporate describing the position of Sandwich Artist:

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Notice the happy Sandwich Artist who ‘Reports to: Management.’ I’d guess this isn’t the same as an artist working for a patron. These are well managed artists, as we can see in the position’s Tasks and Responsibilities which include exhibiting “a cheerful and helpful manner while greeting guests and preparing their orders” and preparing “food neatly, according to formula, and in a timely manner.” These artists are paid for emotional labor and following a formula. Smiling and painting by numbers isn’t how I think of artists! That said, some members of the Subway Family are very fast – and, like any strong, artistically inclined family, Subway celebrates their efficiency.

Once at my favorite little corner Subway, I was chatting with a Sandwich Artist I’d come to know a little bit. She’d start my Veggie Delite before I ordered it. Yes, there was a sense of friendship here, not alienation. As we worked our way down the sandwich assembly line she mentioned she’d just given her two weeks and was leaving without a new job yet acquired. I said, ‘oh, that’s too bad, why are you leaving?.’ She gave me the most obvious look one could give, and said “It’s Subway.”

Yep. It’s Subway. Home of the alienated artist.

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Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Here’s how this happened

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a few weeks now after I read another blogger convincingly suggest that it’s a great way to work through one’s thoughts.  I’m a sociologist and I’m hoping to move in some new directions with my research (I’m the first one who has thought to do that, right?), but shifting fields is a big, confusing task.  The amount of work I anticipate has been making it hard for me to really get started in this new direction, but it also (pathetically?) was probably keeping me from even starting a blog.  I’m afraid I’ll end up just doing what I’ve always done (discipline-wise), and that my blog will fade away after 3 to 5 unread posts.  Still, I started it just now.  Well, why?

I’m a baseball fan, and this year I’m taking a new approach to baseball.  As a Brewer fan, typically there comes a point in a season when I give up on them and stop watching the game altogether.  That’s too bad because I like baseball simply as a game.  So, this year I’ve decided to take a purer approach and just appreciate ‘the game.’  As part of that goal I started reading a blog called ‘And That Happened‘ in which Craig Calcaterra (who is fantastic) briefly summarizes all of the prior day’s games.  It’s great, and not only that, it typically has a number of funny and even insightful reader comments.  Internet comments are rarely funny or insightful.  Often they are ignorant, hateful, or just too random to make much sense.  In fact, this is one of the things I’d like to start thinking and writing about when I move in my ‘new direction.’  What kind of ‘conversation’ happens on the internet?  Can there be ‘deliberation?’  Can there be anything like the emotional and personal connection that can develop off-line, even among relative strangers?  I don’t know right now, but I’d like to.  Others have written great essays about these questions that I need to read.

But, still I haven’t answered the question: why did I start blogging today?  Well, it’s because I read And That Happened and had the urge to make a comment.  A snarky, one-line, stupid joke of a comment about the DH being socialist.  To comment I had to register, and that happened to be with Word Press, and so I went through the steps for two reasons.  The proximate cause was my desire to make a snarky, stupid web comment.  The ultimate cause, I hope, was that I’d like my sociology to be a craft, and maybe a blog will help.

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Addendum: I see that my stupid comment has 1 thumbs up, and 3 thumbs down.  I think that’s a positive thing, really.