Work: Not all It’s Cracked up to Be

One of the things, in fact the main thing, that makes Barcelona imminently inhabitable is that you work to live, unlike in the US where you live to work. Mimi and I had been in the city for four or five days before John, our friend’s housemate, even asked what it was I did back in the good ole US of A. Here the first thing we ask in conversation is “What do you do?” Even when talking about someone else: “What do they do?”

Harper’s Magazine ran Mark Kingwell’s introduction [subscription needed or pick it up at a San Antonio Public Library] to the forthcoming The Wage Slave’s Glossary (Joshua Glenn). It struck a note because of the above.

“The role of gainful occupation in establishing or maintaining biological survival, social position, and, especially in American society, personal identity is undiminished.” (19)

“The values of work are still dominant in far too much of life; indeed, these values have exercised their own kind of linguistic genius, creating a host of phrases, terms, and labels that bolster, rather than challenge, the dominance of work.” (19)

“Work looms larger than ever, the assumed natural condition whose “loss” makes the non-working individual by definition a loser.” (19) Consider the term “slacker” (also see the last page of Kingwell’s intro). It has never had any real teeth as a meme outside of the negative implications granted by the mainstream Protestant work ethic of America. While the word may have started out as a description of everyday resistance, it has never really been appropriated successfully by any kind of marginalized culture (that’s partially because the desire not to work is associated with laziness and apathy, which the mainstream culture folds back into the term “slacker” making it all but impossible to linguistically appropriate as a meaningful term for any such marginalized culture). Or as Kingwell puts it: “In effect, work is the largest self-regulation system the universe has so far manufactured, subjecting each of us to a panopticon under which we dare not do anything but work, or at least seem to be working, lest we fall prey to a disapproval all the more powerful for its obscurity. The work idea functions in the same manner as a visible surveillance camera, which need not even be hooked up to anything. No, let’s go further: there need not even be a camera. Like the prisoners in the perfected version of Bentham’s utilitarian jail, workers need no overseer because they watch themselves. When we submit to work, we are guard and guarded at once.” (20)

“And so celebrated workaholics excuse themselves from what is in fact an addiction, and in the same stroke implicate everyone else for not working hard enough.” (20)

I’ll stop there with the quotes (I’m likely to just copy and past the entire introduction: read it all) and reflect briefly on my (our national) love/hate relationship with the homeless. When I first arrived in San Antonio, from Montreal (the homeless capital of Canada) I had a sort of idealized view of the homeless as these quixotic individuals who chose to live outside the system and thus attack it. That changed, as I began interacting regularly with them at my new job in the States. I felt like they were actually living off the system in which I had to put my dues (there was a sense of jealously involved, obviously, but mostly tainted with disgust). Of course the idea of a “system” had also changed as I went from college to the mandatory workforce (i.e. a productive member of society, that awful cliché). I’ve since been preoccupied by the American preoccupation with work.

I went to school in Montreal, which city a National Geographic Traveler article written by Taras Grescoe got perfectly: “As Saumier-Finch [a man the author knows] and I chat, the subject of work doesn’t come up once. In New York or L.A., people ask you: ‘What do you do?’ — as in, for a living. In Montreal, the question is more often: ‘What are you doing?’ — as in, for fun, tonight.” Though Grescoe does backpedal later saying that in the 20 years since making Montreal home, he got “caught up in the daily routine of work … letting the city’s fun side pass [him] by.” (66) I think this is a good example of works reductive ability but also, perhaps, of a cancerous spread.

Obviously the homeless topic, a polarizing one, cannot be successfully simplified, which is part of the reason it is so polarizing: people try to work it into a system of thought (say, capitalism) in which it does not fit. The undertow of work pulls them under. The homeless, then, are what Kingwell calls scapegoats. People we, as workers, can point to as failures who thereby buoy up the system of work.

Perhaps ultimately I’m just allergic to work. I mean if people can be workaholics, addicted to it, there must be those of us who have the opposite medical reaction.

Grescoe, Taras. “French Twist” National Geographic Traveler. Sept. 01: 64 – 74.

Kingwell, Mark. Introduction. The Wage Slave’s Glossary. By Joshua Glenn. Emeryville: Biblioasis, 2011. Reprinted in Harpers. July 11: 19 – 23.

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4 comments for “Work: Not all It’s Cracked up to Be

  1. mimi
    June 23, 2011 at 11:31

    not uninhabitable

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