Mid-February Check-in: On Work

February 19, 2021

There's a short story by Raymond Carver called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The characters are two couples, sitting around a kitchen table at one of their homes in Albuquerque. They're drinking gin, which always gives me the impression that it must be a hot day. The "camera"--the reader's point of view-- rests lethargically on this kitchen scene for the end of an afternoon and into the evening. The sunlight is very bright at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story night has fallen. The narrator is Nick, husband of Laura; the other couple is Terri and her husband Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist.

The narrator says "we somehow got on the subject of love." Terri brings up her ex, an abusive and manipulative stalker; she and Mel disagree over whether he loved her. She says, "He did love me, though," after describing how he killed himself in anger and despair. Next, Mel brings up his ex-wife, who he remembers loving but now hates, wondering what it means for love to end, and be remembered or not-remembered. Laura says that she and Nick know what love is, and prods Nick for a contribution. Nick kisses her hand theatrically. Terri affects annoyance, "You're still gaga, for crying out loud. Just wait." Mel veers toward the maudlin, saying that if he or Terri died, the other would eventually love again. Terri tries to rein him in--they are all still drinking--and Mel launches into a story about an elderly couple he treated in hospital after an awful car accident. There did not seem to be much hope for them at first, but eventually they pulled through. Mel describes them, laid up in bed after the danger had mostly passed, how the husband was depressed because his casts and the position of his bed meant that he couldn't see his wife. Mel insists on that detail as being especially significant--that the husband, after all that, was still suffering because he couldn't physically see his wife. Mel asks, "Do you see what I'm saying?" Then he says that he wants to call his kids, but Terri talks him out of it by warning that if he calls, he might have to talk to his ex-wife. Mel fantasizes aloud about releasing a swarm of bees into her house and killing her. Everyone seems pretty drunk; they seem to be too tired to move, or else time has stopped for all of them in that summer-evening way. The story ends as night falls, the characters ambiguously uncomfortable but not visibly discontent, still sitting around the table.

Reading the story structurally, you can support the idea that Carver is doing a kind of survey--implying the psychological shape and area of the concept of love by feeling out the places where it borders on not-love: love and violence, love and the mundane, love's ending, love as a locus of care, strength, and need. If you're reading it in a literature class, it is usually this aspect that the teacher will focus on; the story is used as an example of how an author can use a label (in this case, the title and first lines, saying that this is a story about love) plus a potentially-unexpected characterization (the ambiguously-positive-or-negative things presented as examples of love) to make a thought-provoking statement about the complexity and multiplicity of an idea that intuition tells us is simple[1].

What I would like to do, today and as a kind of ongoing project, is to take that pattern and apply it to the idea of work, and especially the concept of the work ethic, or "a belief in work as a moral good." I want to start with this 2013 video in which Adam Savage, Norman Chan, and Will Smith (not that Will Smith) discuss how they understand it.

First I want to acknowledge that I'm pulling this conversation way out of its original context. It's 8 years old, and it's from a vlog addressing the maker community in the context of employment. I don't think that a 20-minute extemporaneous conversation like this is a legitimate basis on which to draw conclusions about what any person believes or stands for. I think the conversation articulates widely-held beliefs about work; I don't mean to imply anything at all about the participants. They were inhabiting a particular context during the conversation, and it is really that cultural context, not these specific people, on which I want to focus.

The overall framing of the conversation is around building a career in creative industries like model making and special effects. It starts with a discussion that Savage identifies as about work in general compared to the idea of work ethic:

Every industry is [wonderful and horrible]...model-making, specifically, sounds like a great thing, but honestly...90% of it is spraypainting the same thing a hundred and fifty times. It's absolutely exhausting. Drilling 1500 holes and stuff like that. It can be crushing...At the same time, when you do that, and you do it well, about 10% of the time you get to do some fun stuff. You get to dress something and make it look cooler. You get to solve a problem. And if you do that well, you get to do a little more of it next time...until, at this point, Jamie and I have a team that cleans up after us. We don't have to clean up after ourselves. Now, we earned that by really understanding the totality of what we do, by doing all of the different parts of it.

To get back to that dues-paying, to that first part, where you really dedicate yourself to the drudgery, dedicate yourself to the brute force, and kind of muscular work...that is not fun and not glamorous. But you have to do it. You have to understand the rules of the genre that you're participating in.

If you think you understand something completely before you start working on it, you're an idiot. Because you don't. Because there are people who've been doing it a lot longer than you and still would claim not to fully understand it. Now, all of this is a long way of going back to work ethic, because what we're talking about right now is just work...to do anything well, you really have to understand it from the bottom up and dedicate yourself to it. But let's talk about work ethic. Let's talk about bringing in somebody who's 24; who's just out of college who's amazing, vs someone who's just ok or someone who's terrible...There are [surprisingly few] people who revel in working hard. That is the thing that I find most shocking about the adult world. Look--I have to admit, I didn't know how to work hard until my mid-20s; in fact, if I have one regret about my past, that's it--that I wasted a lot of time not working hard because somehow I thought that being smart and being clever and being pretty good at a lot of things, somehow granted me some free pass to success, which it totally does not.

I love this description because it's such a familiar tangle of contextual values and ideas. My experience, like Savage's, is that every pursuit that I find fulfilling does include some drudgery, and that the drudgery is positively useful. Sometimes it's a learning experience; sometimes it's an opportunity for mindfulness or meditation; sometimes it's an important element of my relationship with a respected teacher or a community of practice; the way that I honor a person or discipline by giving of myself. I think that's what Savage means when he talks about "understand[ing] the rules of the genre that you're participating in"--demonstrating that you are listening and giving honor, not just speaking and requesting that others honor you. These are principles that I believe to be fundamental tenets of respectful relationships between humans. But at the end of the quote, something really interesting happens. The conversation moves from these generalities to the specific example of "somebody who's 24; who's just out of college." This, I think it's fair to say, is the person to whom the advice is being addressed, the type of person who has the options and the wherewithal to pursue the things they want to pursue, and is maybe taking it a little easier than they might do. Who is not approaching their assignments with the full measure of seriousness and respectful attention that is due to their teachers, clients, and community. He gives this example:

We had somebody at Industrial Light and Magic once, sent her out to spraypaint these things--one of these crushing things, like 'spraypaint 90 of these.' Well, she went outside to spraypaint them. She came back in and said to her supervisor, 'Alright, I'm done, is there anything else to do?' and he said, 'You're done? That's amazing! It's only been like 40 minutes!' And she said "No, I've only finished a third of them, but really, it's so boring, I don't want to do any more. Is there anything else I can do?' And he goes, 'Yeah yeah yeah! You can go home.' ... ILM was the kind of place where a screwup like that would not get you hired again.

We see here a mismatch of expectations. The person doing the work had the expectation that the company she was working for meant to prioritize her comfort and interest on a moment-to-moment basis, while the supervisor understood himself to be doling out tasks for the benefit of the organization, without special regard, beyond mandated health and safety, for the enjoyment of the employees. So which expectation is justified? A company--any group of people working together in a common task--is going to need to assign some bad jobs. Someone needs to do them. If we apply the logic of a communal endeavor or a guild--the kind of community of practice I was thinking of earlier--then the norms of respect and deference in such a community do suggest that a junior person takes on that job and doesn't shirk or complain until it's done. In that type of community, for a junior person to expect their comfort to be a higher priority than the overall mission could legitimately be a disqualifying error.

Of course, all of this--the hierarchy, the norms of deference, the whole psychosocial deal--is based on certain pragmatic realities, right? The official rationale for the structure is that it benefits all the participants; those with more power, in the idealized version, are looking out for those with less, and providing an organizing and coordinating function which ultimately benefits everyone. And there is, I think, a generational divide in the willingness to accept that rationale. People of around my generation and younger seem less willing to accept that as a convincing rationale for why we should extend deference to the specific economic and political structures we see around us. To make a sort of general argument about it--instead of simply listing grievances with specific institutions--I grew up with the understanding that, as technology gets more advanced over time, life will get better. My personal understanding of what "better" means in that context is that things should, after first becoming more just, become materially easier and more secure for most people. If that is so, wouldn't it mean that, over time, as we are increasingly able to do more with less effort, the hierarchical strictures would be relaxed, and people would not be asked for the same level of deference or effort? Isn't it, one way or another, the goal for all members of society to be able to spend their time in the way that makes them feel most fulfilled, free from the requirement that they should be economically productive? Is that still the endgame that we intend, or have I misunderstood? I don't mean to say that we should already be in that world. What I mean is that, when the apparatuses of capitalism and democracy decide to work on something, they go about it in a fairly visible way. If the goal--not the explanatory rationale behind power, but its actual operational goal--was to produce a world that is more just and then materially easier and more secure for everyone, that should be unmissably obvious by now. We would see, for instance, official communications[2] normalizing working less. We would see official communications normalizing accepting help from others rather than equating unpleasant work with moral goodness. We would not see communications normalizing the idea that one's options are an occasionally-enjoyable job earned with sweat and blood or else relegation to the bowels of capitalist fleshpits.

I'm expressing myself pretty forcefully here. When I catch myself doing that, I try to step back and understand why the subject I'm discussing has touched a nerve in me--what thing in my personality or experience is implicated in the subject. Here, the connection is really pretty simple. What I've been doing for the past six months is precisely the type of project that, if we lived in a society that really wanted its members to pursue their highest potential, would be an option for anyone. Regardless of whether I'm right or not, the project that I'm working on is exactly what I think is the most important thing for me to be doing in the world. It is deeply personally fulfilling, it is intellectually challenging, and it is plausibly a thing that could benefit humanity. And yet, when I recognize honestly that it's supported almost 100% by unearned privilege--it's just me, able to give up a year of my career to something that I know in my bones is right--when I understand that this expression of myself and my highest potential is, in the public mind, either a luxury of the privileged or a positive indication that the "meritocracy" is working--it makes me feel frustrated and delegitimized. I am expressing myself forcefully about this because I see that distiction between luxury and human right as the deciding factor that makes the difference between whether I'm a person engaged with the rest of humanity in a common cause or just another aristocrat running around on his estate with a butterfly net, wondering why the people in the workhouses don't just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I really don't want to be the second one, but I can't convince myself that I'm not. I have had pretty good access to the apparatuses of power--that is one of the things that privilege means--and nowhere have I found a guild system or community of practice to support the work that I'm doing now, despite my knowledge that I've put in the effort and paid my dues to get to this point. If that's my experience as a mediocre-but-privileged person trying to pursue personal fulfillment, and if we actually believe that all people, most of whom are by definition mediocre, deserve the opportunity to pursue personal fulfillment, then what good can it do us to continue to position work, and its validation by that kind of guild structure, as the moral currency according to which we distribute opportunity?

I grew up in a town called North Andover, through which flows the Merrimack River. If you stood on its banks in the 1850s, watching the brick skeletons of the big textile mills go up, you could not have had any doubts about what the apparatuses of industry and state intended. Likewise, from whatever vantage point you now occupy, you can see around you the embodied will of whatever forces are currently shaping the world. Those forces are not theoretical or metaphorical or incomplete; there is not a machine made of our best intentions running ahead of us, laying the train tracks on which history will proceed. There are not even really many machines that we need that we don't already have. We've done enough of that kind of work already, or our parents and ancestors have. Much of the work that remains has a different quality--the quality of questioning reflexes and assumptions, of critically and carefully exploring foundational ideas, not on the basis of their roots in the past, but on their continued applicability in the world we intend for the future. That work, which is merely logistically difficult to support, reputationally dangerous to attempt, and treasonous to capital, is not legible within the guild system as the type of hard work to which we refer when we talk about work ethic. It looks to the guild system like prioritizing our own comfort over fealty to the guild.

  1. If you point these things out, your paper will definitely get at least a B-. ↩︎

  2. There's a delightful and fascinating series on the BBC, where a team of historians and experimental archaeologists reenact farming practices from different periods in British history. Starting in the Victorian period, and accelerating through WWII, British government and industry helped to coordinate the mechanization of farming and align it with modern scientific methods. During that time, any casual observer would have noticed that that massive project was underway. This is the type of visibility I mean when I talk about "official communications." ↩︎