Homily for a Labor of Meaning
Issue #53, January 2001
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
— Karl Marx
I remember what hard work is like. Growing up on a small farm in Kentucky and from an apparently infinite succession of Irish tenant farmers, I had my mild share of chores throughout the year, as well as more major labors during harvest. I worked in a grocery store during high school and into my university years. I worked my way through university studies with a range of other jobs, usually waiting tables or bartending. I adapted to a different world of labor beyond my agrarian roots, an adaptation that has taken many turns in subsequent years.
I also had a series of other jobs over those years of undergraduate and graduate school: sculpture assistant, record store clerk, bouncer at a tough bar, publications director for an alternative organization, theatre design, assistant preparator in a museum, general laborer, managing a jazz club, self-defense instructor, selling computers, and looking a "real" job. In all of these positions, I explored the dimensions of my identity and helped articulate meaning through these experiences. I also learned to both love and hate work in its varied forms of oppression and joy. I set out to prepare for a life of work in the latter domain.
I continue to try to perform a set of tasks (such as this one) which humans such as I are historically and culturally ill-adapted to perform, yet which I find meaningful. This is the difference between work that is hard to do and hard work, which I had been prepared for by generations that survived by foraging, scratching dirt, and killing game — and others who would have liked to survive. My big peasant body gives ample evidence of that evolution. Given what humans have been prepared for physically and mentally, it is important to recognize what a unique time this is and how our labors are radically different in light of our individual and collective experiences throughout our histor(ies).
As I returned to school for my Ph.D. with a fellowship and additional funding through teaching and research grants, it was possible for me to support myself without the usual range of random jobs. I was finally able to work in my field of choice after having worked more or less full time for sixteen years. It seemed hard for me to comprehend after all that time, that I might not have to continue to work in jobs that I usually despised or tolerated at best. I began my "career" following my graduation in 1997. Now I profess as a profession.
Profess v. 1. claim (a quality etc.), pretend. 2. affirm faith in (a religion).
Academic work is a dormant life, as is most intellectual labor. Notwithstanding the physical lethargy, my life as an artist, designer, writer and professor is now rich with meaning and purpose. Even on the most frustrating day, I can remind myself of what life was like before and realize the honor of having meaningful work. During my earlier work life, I had to dig deeper for that sense of meaning and purpose to my actions which are needed to sustain one's life beyond the bare bones of survival. Given these preconditions based upon my experiences, the most meaningful work for me tended to be cyclical in nature, communal and united around a common goal, flexible in how you got the job done, and with tangible results.
Work that is cyclical reflects a range of activities for different times of the year, seasons, or even months. Agrarian life offers this range of diversity; some tasks are daily routines and others occur weekly, monthly, annually, or in even longer cycles. These patterns of effort establish an analog existence that has a radically different mode of being than more repetitive and fractured types of work. Cyclical work grounds your activities in the circadian flow of the measures of days, months, and years and therefore helps ground us in cyclical relations to time and our environment. Cycles also affect our health, particularly our hunger, reproduction, and sleep patterns.
Communal work united around a shared goal establishes a common project. This project may be social, political, or based upon other criteria around a shared belief. If we were able to rally around contemporary problems such as homelessness with the spirit of a sustained barn-raising, then we might see some change despite the overwhelming scope of this and other problems. What if our militaries in North America were deployed internally to fight the war on hunger or launched an offensive against the largest human psychological experiment to date - contemporary advertising? We have eroded our sense of community since World War II, which provided perhaps the greatest example of unified work in human history - albeit for the necessary labor within a grisly business.
Work that describes the problem rather than prescribes the solution engages workers in the creative process of production. Work environments with surveillance systems policing the actions of their employees dehumanize them. The engagement of employees in creative problem-solving has evolved to great success out of necessity in smaller companies and work units. In North America our so-called New Economy benefits at least in name from this practice.
Flexibility in working conditions is also an important concern for many. This might mean leaving your work at the office for some and telecommuting for others. The social space of the workplace should be a consideration in what constitutes a meaningful sense of community as well. Such flexible work practices can also result in the further erosion of public space(s) and communal workspaces, enabling a new form of urban flight that will sharpen the economic and social conflicts of urban life for those most at risk.
Work can be rendered meaningless in numerous ways. A list of a few of the most obvious factors might include: the empty repetition of monotonous tasks, use of a variety of surveillance tactics and practices, psychological impact of the predatory nature of capitalistic production and consumption, complicity in immoral and/or unethical forms of production, and a feeling of helplessness due to the exponential growth of markets and competition within those markets.
You should be able to see the results of your labor and must determine its value to you and to others. Sometimes, this may require a simulation, model, or virtual representation of some kind rather than physically being able to witness the result of your labor by holding an object in your hand. Without some marker of your progress, it is very easy to lose sight of the underlying meaning of your work. This also helps ground the ethical responsibility of your efforts in the wider context of production and consumption. One wonders what the machinist responsible for widgets used on the first nuclear bombs felt when (s)he witnessed the explosion. Many of us might not do what we do if we could see the results of our labor. This is why it remains important for us to be aware of the results of our labors and the subsequent impact of our actions.
Working to Live
Working to live rather than living to work is a mantra that bears some consideration in light of these issues. While the quality of life under later capitalism could clearly benefit from the obvious implications of this statement, we must also realize that our life is bounded with our labors in fundamental ways that cannot be separated. Our obsession in North America with meaningless forms of entertainment and seeing leisure as a commodity render life emptier still and mask the implicit and explicit meaning(s) of our work.
Obviously, if we are forced and/or participate in the more insidious practices and professions of capitalism, we may well see work as the sickness unto our individual and collective death. Unfortunately for many of us, we will work ourselves to death in active and/or passive ways. Through atrophy, repetitive stress injuries, and psychologically stress-related illnesses, we all too often die by degrees while ironically extending our lives through exponentially improving medical practices. We often are exposed to toxic work environments that we are required to endure as best we can. Given all of these considerations, it is no wonder that many of us hope beyond hope to "make it" to retirement.
If any additional evidence is required for despair, late capitalist societies have the best work conditions in the industrialized and industrializing world. The oppressive conditions of labor in poor countries dominated by a desperate need to participate in industrial production are unimaginable to me. Nevertheless, it is important to note the privilege our society affords us to even consider a less oppressive set of conditions towards a labor of meaning. As one who enjoys a good salary, a pension plan, health care, and the benefits of union representation, I can only try to hope and work for a vision of a future that might afford a more radically democratic practice of labor rights on a global scale. Many of us are unaware of our privilege and/or our participation in this oppression through our consumption or goods and services produce through these labor practices.
Work can be a site for subversion. Yet, it often carries a heavy price. I have paid this price a few times, although I was able to afford it in part through the privilege afforded by my education, health, sex, race, age, and without the additional responsibilty of providing for an extended family. Others have less opportunity for resistance within the workplace because of a more restricted set of social and economic conditions and responsibilities. Others who could resist simply fear reprisal and maintain silence, even though they are aware that what they are part of is wrong.
I have experienced economic hopelessness a number of times in my life, primarily due to working my way through thirteen years of university study. Although I feel a sense of pride in this labor, my experience has been a mild struggle in the safe haven of university culture compared to those most at risk. Poverty proper exists in the lives of the homeless, in the blight of public housing, the labyrinth of welfare, and the other less institutionally recognized poor - such as those living in rural areas and the elderly.
As an artist, I also enjoyed the cultural capital of voluntary membership in the aesthetic ghetto of the art world rather than being forced to live in poverty. My hopelessness never left me truly hungry or homeless, just stuck in dead-end jobs and disillusioned. Economic hopelessness has a lot to do with time and the effects of poverty over time. Being poor can break even the strongest spirits over time. I can't compare my experience to those who are truly poor, since I always had choices that the institutionalized poor rarely experience.
While I can say that I have felt the blush of the shame of poverty at times, I cannot say that I can comprehend the despair of witnessing my family in hunger and my inability to provide for them and for myself. Yet this occurs in thousands of homes and on our streets daily. I have seen children I taught in rural and urban schools who were clearly hungry and could think of nothing other than how long it will be until lunch, which for some would be the only meal of the day. Somehow learning about art didn't seem too important to them. Perhaps theirs is the most devastating form of alienation. Or perhaps it is the cosmic alienation of the lone individual within late capitalism as aptly represented in members of the "Fight Club" who lack the individual imperative for collective survival, and who recognize the capitalistic predator and their role as the hunted turned hunter. Regardless of your preference for the paragon of suffering, it remains true that different types of work can humanize as well as dehumanize.
Some forms of work manifest joy and give meaning to phrases such as "a labor of love." Many of the most meaningful professions are also some of the most poorly rewarded. Social workers, nurses, teachers, child-care workers, and public servants of all kinds are rarely recognized as the true revolutionaries that they can be. Rather than celebrating these cultural workers, our choices for celebrities aspire to distract us from our boredom, sell us more things and services that we don't need, and offer up the empty calories of banality while we starve for meaning. The laborers of meaning deserve our respect, support, and whenever possible our help. The real work of this life is to sustain it by making it meaningful. Such work allows us to not only survive, but to thrive. We should never give up on such a goal for our labors.
Tim Jackson is an associate professor of New Media at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, Canada.