A daring hybrid work that investigates the relationship between the individual and the institution
Jill Magi’s new book—comprised of fiction, poetry, and archival research—LABOR explores relations between workplace and workers, race-class-gender, the institution and the body, the “personal” budget and the economy, the archive and undisciplined paper trails. An “employee handbook” sequence runs throughout the text, providing a set of directions for ritual practices toward individual agency and workplace/worker transformation. But unlike the archived ideologies and hopes of traditional labor history that LABOR’s characters eventually abandon or never fully embraced, the transformation does not look like traditional progress or reform.
“It is uncanny—or is it?—the (pre)occupation with suicide that haunts Jill Magi’s remarkable LABOR. Perhaps not, given Derrida’s theorization of the archive as equivocating between conservation and destruction, archivization itself a form of archival self-violence.1 Which brings us to the black-and-white, metaphorically ‘archiviolithic’ photograph the reader encounters at the almost-end of LABOR: a double-page spread of the interior of NYU’s Bobst Library, a brutalist building whose ten-story atrium notoriously attracts student death.
Just before the Epilogue, which closes LABOR (belatedly) with ‘love will pull you back’ (80), Magi inserts this filmy image of the domicile of the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, such that on one hand, the reader may view by proxy the site where so much of the book is set, and on the other, she might also take up the perspective of a would-be suicide.
The reader installs herself, for instance, in the view had by the character Sadie, ‘formerly a historian now self-appointed inspector’—’Once she worked during the day until they wrote ‘due to’ ‘not able to renew your’ ‘we regret’ (19)—and named for the ‘real’ Sadie of the ‘Israel and Sadie Amter Papers, 1 box .25 linear feet’ (29), who, Magi explains in a separately published essay, wrote pro-labor didactic poems.2 Inhabiting by night the Bobst basement office of the character J., Magi’s reimagined Sadie collects labor grievances she at first deposits in a medical waste container at the edge of brackish water near the World Trade Center ruins and then instead begins to surreptitiously insert into the labor archive itself (44). At one point Sadie shares a scene with the character Miranda, an NYU-adjunct and artist who teaches in a classroom in Bobst and is sexually harassed by a male “dean”/“boss”: “Miranda finds Sadie at the edge of the plexiglass barrier standing at the fissure. She says ‘go ahead.’ […] Miranda finds Sadie at the edge about to leap into the atrium and says ‘you must not.’ She takes hold of Sadie’s arm tightly” (52). The text that follows, italicized notes from Miranda’s artist notebook, describes people jumping from buildings, only to hover in the air clasping hands and fly away as though they have made an escape. Later, with a kind of shocking timing, Sadie does finally fling herself to her death (70); or not quite finally: in LABOR’s final apocalyptic moment, when ‘the archive is on fire,’ ‘Sadie wakes up’ (76).”