This article was written on 15 May 2005, and is filed under Essays.

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Thoughts on Work

Marjorie Williams wrote that Christina Stead was one of the few authors to write accurately and thoroughly of money:

One other (random) thing I want to note is how wonderfully Stead writes about money. It is strange how little fiction there is that reflects the resonance money really has in life. (Middlemarch comes to mind, but how many titles spring after it?) The family’s economic decline, the scenes in which the Pollit children come to see that they are really poor, and the climactic one in which poor young Ernie–who defends himself through the careful accretion and management of money–discovers that his mother has stolen his last little savings, have a magnificent realism.

And I think this is partly true. Surely the most acutely realistic writers like George Gissing (in New Grub Street) have captured the relevance of money to the impoverished, but often, as with Dickens or Frank Norris’s McTeague, money simply becomes an item delineated by its desirability or its absence. The notion of finance, household particularly, is considerably rarer. Much of the “realistic” fiction of the last fifty years presents middle class people in financially comfortable situations, as long as they keep working.

But what of work? It has been on my mind lately because it’s been taking up larger-than-usual chunks of my time. But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I’m sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn’t spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he’s there.

The two authors who I do think of are Kafka (particularly Amerika and The Castle, both about characters looking for work) and the Beckett of Watt. I don’t mean this in an existential, fatalistic, or hopeless way; it’s more that they capture the non-narrative nature of work, the idea that in spite of whatever is accomplished, you will be back the next day because it’s your job, and unlike school, there is no natural ending point (short of a mass layoff). The sheer unendingness of one’s occupation, and the ability for that infinite plane to envelop one’s life and weave its tendrils through your mannerisms and speech patterns, are better captured by the actions of Watt in serving Mr. Knott’s capricious needs than they are by tales of occupational woe and oppression. Watt’s preoccupation with the endless variations that he is put through, and the way that they define his words and actions, stand in contrast to the limitations of the setting of his work; this is what work is.

But even these stories are abstract and hardly particular enough to capture the particular flavor of corporate life in the first world today. And I fear that in the absence of a compelling literary story of work, sociologists and social theorists have taken over the job of defining work. They have done so primarily in Marxist terms, though not always. The effect has been to objectify these occupations and give short shrift to their mythologizers: at least to those who would see a mythos as crude as Confucianism. Even the Confucian hierarchy would be preferable to the individualist aesthetic that no longer seems germane to most modern occupations, whose managers stress interdependence as much as they do individual competition and achievement. Many theorists (I don’t have to name them) have overlaid a narrative of exploitation and alienation on corporate work, one that is in many ways quite accurate even as it misses the point. Consider C. Wright Mills, the most dramatic and emotional of the American narrators:

The old middle-class work ethic–the gospel of work–has been replaced in the society of employees by a leisure ethic, and this replacement has involved a sharp, almost absolute split between work and leisure. Now work itself is judged in terms of leisure values. The sphere of leisure provides the standards by which work is judged; it lends to work such meanings as work has.

Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one’s life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to ‘live.’ Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar (p. 236), 1951

A vivid portrayal of a nightmare. What I would argue, however, is that however great a straitjacket corporate work puts on its employees, it cannot be innately alienating. Alienation, pace Hagel, requires that one be alienated from an aspect of the world. Mills (among others) would say that the alienation is from the product of one’s work, but in corporate work the product of one’s work is not perceived as the end goal, not as much as (a) the process by which the product is achieved, and (b) one’s own self-advancement, and the relation between the two. The product looks very different from the inside than from the outside. In other words, there is a world of non-alienation at work, often a hostile and paranoid one, but one in which people live as an end in itself. And since this world is something that takes up over a third of the lives of the vast majority of people in this country, it deserves better than the slick generalizations of a Franzen.

But it seems that few writers has picked up the slack, leaving the academic left and the Straussian right to promulgate archetypal portrayals of the western employee to their various audiences. The topic of work is too significant to be left to theorists; Studs Terkel’s Working is a better map of these territories than Marx. The area should belong to literature, which can provide more personal and emotional narratives for it. But literature has yet to stake a serious claim.

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