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Work

Post #1359 • June 3, 2009, 10:03 AM

Via Chris Rywalt, Matthew B. Crawford, in an essay adapted from Shop Class as Soulcraft, ponders the intelligence and soulfulness of work:

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Alain de Botton, author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, who will be speaking at the ICA this weekend, on the lack of contemporary literary effort about work:

The workplace is thought to be merely a place for degrading and banal labor out of which no one could spin anything of value other than (at best) a satirical or nihilistic commentary. This is connected to the fact that much modern work has become white-collar work, almost totally without obvious heroism or romanticism. Farming, fighting, building - these are rich in anecdotes and color, they are the stuff of children's tales. Less so website optimization and telephone customer management. It is hard to turn the latter into stories. We cannot easily "see" the interest. But that is not to say it doesn't exist - no less than that it was hard for readers to see the interest of an ordinary afternoon in London until Virginia Woolf pointed it out for them, or to note the manifold richness of the act of going to sleep until Proust started to write.

If much of life's value rests in work, and if novelists are concerned with forging a literature of meaning rather than romance or aesthetic gestures, then they should turn their eyes to material quite unlike what we imagine stories could be weaved from. It would be literature alive to new varieties of sensory deprivation, melancholy, boredom, passion, eroticism, vindictiveness, charity, triviality, and seriousness. It would be a literature, in other words, that properly wrestled with our modern condition, helping us to understand and properly inhabit it.

But when Crawford worked in the white-collar world, he found layers upon layers of entrenched meaninglessness.

My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.

My starting quota, after finishing a week of training, was 15 articles per day. By my 11th month at the company, my quota was up to 28 articles per day (this was the normal, scheduled increase). I was always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself.

The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author, to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work. Such detachment was made easy by the fact there was no immediate consequence for me; I could write any nonsense whatever.

This split between the physical and the intellectual reminds me of what's going on in contemporary art. As I asserted in The Mind of Materials (PDF), the primary information that one needs about art-making comes out of the handling of materials. Ideas have enormous value to art, but they have zero value as art. People who fail to appreciate that point typically are marked by the double life described above, the air of rationality without actual reason. Asking basic questions about their rationale threatens to blow down the whole shanty.

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