i’ve been thinking about my history of ‘work’ lately. as opposed to ‘labor.’
i remember a famous quip by roland barths: dare to be bored. one of his great anti-labor comments, no doubt. and yes, very ‘french’ raised to the level of universal critique of capital.
Labor is the activity one does for pay alone, typically when one has no social/personal investment in the products or outcomes of that labor.
Work, contrarily, is the activity one does regardless of pay, typically when one does in fact have strong social/personal reasons to do it.
obviously, capitalism has very strong motives for suppressing this difference, in order to, paradoxically, co-opt and suppress it to it’s own profit, literally and figuratively. high tech labor [htl] is the current model for this soul-slaying arrangement – it, htl, co-opted the fashion of various counter cultures, the laid back look of skate boarders, hippies, hip hop, and the like, to make the job rhetorically project Cool. T-shirts, denim, runners. Mark Zuckerberg clones incarnate. hacker chic. the way Gap co-opted the baggy pants/trouser look of black sons of prisoners forced to wear pants/trousers without belts.
i was trained, literally, to work by a depression era father who was also nominally, a ‘ New England protestant’, thus raised in the quintessential weberian habitus [to mix sociological paradigm metaphors] of the work ethic. he worked us hard, not as individuals, but as social members of that deeply problematic social structure, ‘the family’, to which, he trained us, to be ethically responsible. not bad, reasonable, though far from perfect method of raising animals, which humans are turning out to be more and more, that go by the names of, tory and republican and bolzonarians… and… .
I have 3 siblings, and to this day, whenever we get together, in twos or all together, we ‘work’ synchronously without even having to speak to each other. we all simply ‘pitch in’ to get done what needs doing. like setting up a camp for the night, one of the 10 year long vacationing ‘work’ experiences my father, brilliantly, i have to say, used to ‘train’ his children to work together toward a singular goal – happy camping… !! pleasure together as a social unit. and we were, for those 10 years, very ‘happy campers.’
freud might have learned from this new england, ‘goy’ tradition. subtext here… [goy = ? what? nigger? or, ‘wasp’? ]
i must say, that was late 60s to mid-70s.
after that, to compress the historical timeline, my relation to work/labor was seriously scrubbed by taxi driving in santa fe, NM, airport shuttle driving and courier driving in san francisco, CA, and, being in CA generally. but the profession i had chosen since i left high school, teaching students at the college/university level, my ultimate goal in life back then, and which i achieved, was, i can now say in retrospect, has been a life long disappointment for which i can only except the blame of being a naive kid from maine who was taught to expect that if you ‘work’ hard, you will be rewarded. and therein, lies, the paradox and the confusion and capitalism’s demonic control over the personal, the individual, the family, the ‘social’ in its entirety – perverting the salubrious ‘natural’ instincts of humans to ‘work’, for family and community, into, labor, for no one, for bosses, including academic bosses, for the managers at the top who stand by and don’t work or labor, at all, ever. all they ever do is, invest in crimes against humanity, everywhere, everyday, globally now, without stop.
so power… is, in the Foulcauldian sense, shared, never top down. and i believe that, wholeheartedly. IF, the mythic ‘people’ of the constitution were in fact protected… then they would rise up with that constitution’s protection. the great, WE THE PEOPLE, would rise up and take ‘work’ back from ‘labor’.
but, that brilliant rhetoric was just that, a ruse, against WE THE PEOPLE.
this mediation, so far, was begun by the fact that beginning in early april, i cleared, by hand, a large track of land of weeds, bushes, roots, vines, volunteer upstarts of many herbacious genres, that took me a couple of weeks of daily ‘work’. then i rototilled this large site. then i left it fallow until the soil temperature increased to +60F degrees so i could plant seed, grass, wildflowers, sun hemp, etc. then, i waited, and watched sundry species of weeds grow back because climate change in maine is serious, like everywhere else, and temperatures did not comply as predicted. so i had to wait longer than expected, and watched the weeds takeover helplessly. so, when the temps did rise again, and the soil temps too, then i had to rototill all over again… which wasn’t all bad. this sort of work is far better than going to a fucking gym where i have to encounter the type of humans i’m not fond of, mostly.
and, while i was tending to scattering grass seed, then covering it with straw, which took two full days, so large was the swath of wildness i’d tamed – at the point before i’d finished that ‘work’, my brother shows up, on schedule as expected, to help me paint the house. and i still had to continually move the single sprinkler around every hour or so to properly germinate the almost 100 lbs of grass seed plus… [the house water is not city derived, but, ushers up from a well, so the pressure is shit].
and yes, to cut the story short, we got the house, as of today, mostly, painted. and to rely in info above, it was my brother, so, we worked in snyc, mostly, brothers being brothers of the same work ethic driven father, we forgave each other a number of times, and got on with it. and in the end, the job is professional and gives us both pride in our ‘work’, because its for the ‘family.’
deep roots, that work ethic. it makes us, my brother and i, feel good about ourselves, together in some primal way, and somehow, whole. like we’re doing what are genes tell us to do, that deep, that ‘natural’, though of course, it’s deeply ingrained learned, socialized behavior.
that foreword is meant to introduce a perhaps odd divigation, or not, perhaps, a spot on digression… that is not that all but to the point. it came up as part of my pattern of reading… and syncs with past research, that suddenly bridges various lines of enquiry: cyborgism, technology studies, aesthetics, science fiction, art, critique of all that, when i came across the work of MIT computer scientist joseph weisenburg, who created the first program to simulate the turing test – an interactive program that pretended to be a psychologist that a patient could consult, called Eliza. the concept being, that if the ‘patient’ didn’t realize that the ‘program’ was non-human, thought it was truly human, then it would have passed the Turning test.
of course, it failed. as Weisenburg knew it would. his test was to demonstrate how the then Minsky driven goal of Artifical Intelligence was flawed and impossible, or, if not, misguided and threatening and should be stopped.
Wiesenburg, as a founder of AI, became AI’s first critic.
[for those in the know, it was around my study of cyborgism, early art/technology/developments, that brought me simultaneously to Wiesenburg and VanDerBeek… just sayin’… they must have met since they were there at the same time.]
anyway, another thread in the bartlett paradoxical universe once, long ago, had to do with studying mysticicm a la, rudolf steiner. that was when i was a high school student and on the cusp of aetheism. i’d rejected the religiosity of protestantism i’d been raised with, though not its work ethic, or its community sense of ethics, but still pursued as any intellectually inquisitive seeker would, other quasi, non-organized religious options: buddism, particularly zen, judism, zoorastranism, and, steinerism… forms of clairvoyance, in his language.
so i read a lot of steiner, and even visited steiner based schools and communities [communes], in New Zealand. I was then and still am, impressed by the Steiner schools i saw then. they were profound, pragmatically successful. providing very rich educational experiences. even though i’m a committed atheist and eschew all forms of mysticism, i’d sign off on steiner’s educational systems. [though i love mystical thought, including theology of all sorts, as forms of often brilliant human thought and creativity – even when it’s self-destructive, it’s interesting. right, that will sound patronizing, i suppose… but i don’t mean it that way… ]
so, today, somehow surreptitiously, perhaps fate intervened through mystical agency… lines of inquiry converged…
Weisenburg plus Steiner and AI and Work vs Labor….
the following excerpt if from the former’s introduction to a publication of the latter’s essays… a surprise find:
[note: Wiesenburg was German born, raised in the US after the family escaped Nazism, ‘worked’ at MIT as a seminal computer scientist, and returned to berlin, in 1996.]
The Renewal of the Social Organism
The proper separation of the three activities of society-economics, law, and culture-would make it possible for economic life to keep its focus on human needs and maintain its true brotherly character. Steiner envisioned this coming about through the working of motivational forces different from those to which we are accustomed. Self interest, profit, and personal gain could be replaced by the satisfaction of knowing one is working for the community good. Steiner argued that this is not a utopian dream; rather it is a motivation suitable to true human dignity. He also described new ways of working with wages, capital, and credit that would aid the advent of this new motivation. The key to its possibility and practicality is again the proper separation of the three activities.
He explains in the essay “Ability to Work, Will to Work, and the Threefold Social Order” that this socially responsible motivation would not arise from the economic life at all, because purely economic work has become inherently uninteresting since the division of labor became the norm. This was not the case for the medieval craftsman who produced his product in its entirety and then, taking pride in it, received thanks from his customer. The modern worker is confined to a task that, taken by itself, i.e., out of the macroeconomic context into which it fits, is meaningless. The existing economic motivation, money, leads people to do whatever is necessary to get paid. But it does not activate their interest in a task that is inherently uninteresting, with the consequence that absenteeism, alienation, and poor performance have reached alarming levels. Steiner recognized that socially responsible motivation could arise only from an independent cultural and political life. In the above mentioned essay he says that within the cultura1life the individual
“learns in a living way to understand this human society for which one is called upon to work; a realm where one learns to see what each single piece of work means for the combined fabric of the social order, to see it in such a light that one will learn to love it because of its value for the whole. It aims at creating in this free life of spirit the profounder principles that can replace the motive of personal gain. Only in a free spiritual life can a love for the human social order spring up that is comparable to the love an artist has for the creation of his works.”
From a separate democratically ordered life of law there would also arise motives to work for society.
“Real relationships will grow up between people united in a social organism where each adult has a voice in government and is co-equal with every other adult: it is relationships such as these that are able to enkindle the will to work ‘for community.’ One must reflect that a truly communal feeling can grow only from such relationships, and that from this feeling the will to work can grow. For in actual practice the consequence of such a state founded on democratic rights will be that each human being will take his place with vitality and full consciousness in the common field of work. Each will know what he is working for; and each will want to work within the working community, of which he knows himself a member through his will.”
If we attempt to fInd examples of this type of motivation operative in contemporary society, we often fInd negative instances. This is nowhere better exemplified than at the highest levels of computer research at MIT. This research is paid for almost entirely by the military. While it is possible to view it, if one wears just the right kind of glasses, as a pure science and as “value free,” it is, in fact, in the service of the military. Scientific results are swiftly converted to the improvement of implements of mass destruction and of death. Young men and women work in these fields trying to maintain the illusion that they are doing abstract science, a “value free” science. They ultimately have to come to believe that they are not in any way responsible for the end use of their labor. It is often said that the computer is a tool having no moral dimension. Clearly this position can be maintained only if one thinks of human society in abstract terms, i.e. if one denies the concrete historical and social circumstances in which one lives and works.”
The effect of this situation on the researcher needs emphasis. It takes enormous energy to shield one’s eyes from seeing what one is actually doing. The expenditure of this energy on the part of individuals is expensive in emotional terms. Ultimately this is the real tragedy, for it reduces the person to a machine.
There is a sort of irony involved, a chilling irony. A fear is often expressed about computers, namely that we will create a machine that is very nearly like a human being. The irony is that we are making human beings, men and women, become more and more like machines. For it is human to find the motive for work, consciously and with conscience and compassion, in the concrete historical and social context in which one lives. When this is not possible human beings are robbed of essential humanity.