Parshat Chukat: Miriam as Affective Laborer

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Photo by Nynne Schrøder on Unsplash

Miriam, sister of Moses, dies in Parshat Chukat:

“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon,a and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

From the Jewish Study Bible, Numbers 20:1.

Directly after Miriam’s death, the Israelites find themselves without water. Connecting Miriam to water is now well-known (most obviously by those who place a cup of water on the Seder table in honor of Miriam). And here: a lack of Miriam and a lack of water.

Rabbi Artson, in a piece entitled “Miriam: Water Under The Bridge?” for myjewishlearning.com, writes that the sudden lack of water after Miriam’s demise suggests that Miriam was providing the community with water in some direct, tangible way:

However, the power of Miriam’s integrity, piety and caring was such that God provided a moving well of water, one which followed the people throughout their wanderings until the moment of her death. Without Miriam, there was no more water.

The image of Miriam “caring” for others through her “piety” and “integrity” brings to my mind the category of affective labor(s): looking after, and trying to manipulate, the emotions and affects of others. Making sure one’s family eats a healthy meal, for example– or making sure people after a tense staff meeting are “all right” are examples of affective labor that (surprise) often fall within the purview of women.

Artson links Miriam’s death and the sudden, intense need for water with the commonality of undervaluing, undermining, and unerappreciating labor associated with femininity, motherhood, and woman:

The tragic reality is that for most women, after-the-fact recognition is often the only kind that is given. The women who work in the homes raising children, the women who work in the schools teaching students, the women who work in hospitals tending the sick, these and countless other women perform the difficult, tedious tasks that sustain and make human life possible.


Although affective labor tends to cover forms of labor that are historically (and still) identified with female and feminine work and workers, non-women can obviously perform this kind of labor. In fact, in the neoliberal moment we are in, many people feel underemployed, undervalued, underappreciated.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri famously claimed that in our particular moment labor operates in an affective paradigm instead of an industrial one.

Johanna Oksala discusses this claim in her article “Affective Labor and Feminist Politics“:

Hardt and Negri’s well-known claim is that there has been a shift from an industrial paradigm in which industry and the manufacture of durable goods formed the dominant sector of the economy to a paradigm prevailing today in which the production of services and the manipulation of information dominates.

Most workers in the West or the Global North no longer make widgets, but rather make copy about how people ought to feel about widgets. We code information, market already-made materials, blog about our lives. We create and manipulate the affective strings with bind us to one another.

This trend towards affective forms of labor has also been called the “feminization” of labor, of which Oksala writes:

Women’s role in the labor market has changed dramatically; for example, the “feminization of labor” has become a sociological catchphrase.2 This widely used but ambiguous notion denotes not only the quantitative increase of women in the labor market globally—the growth of the service industries and the way women have been progressively transformed into a strategic pool of labor. It also denotes a qualitative change in the nature of labor: the characteristics historically present in female work—precariousness, flexibility, mobility, fragmentary nature, low status, and low pay—have increasingly come to characterize most of the work in global capitalism. Hence, the iconic figures of the male proletarian and the housewife do not seem to adequately represent the gendered spheres of advanced capitalist production and reproduction any longer.

Our work has become and is becoming more precarious, more flexible, more fragmented. Teachers become Uber drivers to make ends meet. Universities move towards replacing stable tenure-track positions with one or two contingent faculty members.

So, returning to the parshah in question today: Are we a society of Miriams? Are we laboring away, dragging our proverbial wells around with little-to-no recognition until they are gone and our communities are suddenly baffled, thirsty, and outraged?

Not quite, Oksala would say. We are, of course, not all the same. While Johanna Oksala finds something generative and useful about this categorization of labor, she does find that it tends to “flatten out” the distinctions between different forms of affective labor.

Affective labor not only identifies qualitative changes in today’s waged work but also, inadvertently, eradicates the differences between such varied laborers as child bearers, child rearers, hospitality industry workers, wedding planners, and Walmart greeters.

Oksala also thinks that by overusing terms such as “affective labor” and the “feminization of labor” without at least acknowledging the uneven field of reproductive labor. Here, Oksala repeatedly states things along the lines of “currently only women get pregnant and give birth to children” (Oksala). While this isn’t true — genderqueer people and transgender men have gotten pregnant and given birth (for example, here and here) — it is nevetheless true that cisgender men cannot. (Currently. Who knows what medical advances the future may bring?) The lines of power, patriarchy, and cisgender privilege run in a similar stream: away from reproductive labor.

While labor may become increasingly like Miriam’s affective and feminine labor, we are not all alike Miriam in the same way. While there may be trends, distinctions and differences will nevertheless continue.

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