6. packages at penshurst
considering the aesthetic of hiding workers from the consuming eye
This week, there was a boycott on buying Amazon products. It was an attempt to show virtual solidarity to unionizing efforts in Alabama, as the workers have faced multiple challenges. Amazon barraged their workers with texts, insisting the union would cost them in dues. Workers involved in the organizing were pulled aside by managers for mandatory one-on-one meetings to harangue them. And, throughout Amazon’s time, it has been able to use these types of tactics to stamp out any efforts prior in America. The Alabama efforts are actually the closest any unionizing effort has ever come to being successful.
I became curious on how Amazon had been able to be so successful in controlling unions. Obviously, as mentioned above, they had a system in place to immediately send out messages to their employees. Yet, as I thought on how Amazon as a company has branded themselves, I was interested in how their workers factored even into that. And while reading about these labor rights efforts, I was struck by a parallel in literary history - how the working class factors into an institution's image.
First, consider how Amazon works. You search for your item on the website. You find the product that fits your needs. You click a few times, and it’s paid for and on the way. Within a couple of days, it appears at your doorstep. It is perfectly packaged, with tape bearing the Amazon logo. Once in a while, if your timing is right, you might spot the Prime worker leaving the package - but normally, you will never see them. In many ways, this is the selling point of Amazon: a removal of unwanted interactions. It has crafted its appeal off of the vanishing of its workers.
To most consumers, this may feel a bit obvious. Efficiency is being promoted. Requiring actual interaction to purchase an item slows down the buying process. And of course that can’t be denied. As a luxury, of course it’s appealing. But, it also offers a tool of control. As the consumer forgets about the workers present in their product, the worker falls more and more prey to the whims of the company. The bargaining chip - the awareness and morality of the consumer in regards to the worker - dissolves in size. And this disappearing tactic is not without precedence.
Let’s take a look at the Ben Jonson poem “To Penshurst”. In it, he describes the great comfort with which he was treated at the estate of Philip Sidney as a product of the estate itself. The food appears at the table. The wine glasses fill on their own. And there is never any fear of running out - the moment a plate is emptied, it immediately refills. And when the poem does mention the peasant class of the estate - servers and farmers - they are not working or producing food. They frolic, get married, and woo each other with sweet fruits they plucked in their spare time. They are part of the idyllic imagery.
It wasn’t until Raymond Williams published The Country and The City that attention was given to “To Penshurst” and the mysterious absence of workers. Why is there no farmer reaping the food? Why is there no server, plating said food? Why is part of the idyllic image not being served, but simply happening upon pleasure?
“To Penshurst” is a country home poem, an ode honoring a place. And Jonson sees fit to honor through a show of gratitude for the comfortable stay, as if advertising a hotel. To do so, Jonson has to reckon with the concept of “work” - “work” as labor, an act not done for pleasure. If enjoyment is dependent on recognizing something unenjoyable, then the idyllic image is ruined. To truly depict “To Penshurst” as the ideal place, work cannot exist there. And, in furthering the propaganda of the piece, the workers are not only free from work - they also benefit from the comfort of Penshurst.
Someone once told me that poets often factor into how we remember history. Ovid’s depiction of the barbarians influences how we have considered them throughout time. Similarly, Jonson fixes how we consider the serving class of the noble’s estate: never overworked, never serving, benefiting from being under the foot of their noble. How capable are the literate population of sympathizing with these workers if they only know them as happy objects?
Now recall our discussion of Amazon’s branding. A brand is an ode to what a corporation sells. Amazon’s appeal is the absence of delivery drivers, packagers, cashiers - every product you could want just at your fingertips through a click without a single person involved. And this transfers into how capable their workers are at fighting for their rights. When their workers are just background props to the public consumer, they can throw their workers away at moment’s notice. And when we never see them, we, as the noble class of consumers, only understand them as not truly having to work that hard. We cannot offer the same sympathy to their efforts as we do not have the primary resource of seeing how their work serves us. Hidden by the brand, we assume that we are just given our product.
As important as it may seem to tell your friends how much you hate Amazon, it is even more important to not forget the hands providing you your product. As the guests of Amazon’s estate, we can slip into the same perspective as the poetspeaker of “To Penshurst” - in bliss of how our products just appear at our hands. But to truly protest, to aid those who have to work with their hands, we have to be cognizant and active. The post about how much Bezos sucks isn’t enough - keep the workers in mind, boycott with the knowledge that the invisible hands belong to individuals also attempting to achieve happiness in life. Don’t fall for the ode just because you have the privilege to.