Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Naguib Mahfouz On Forgetting And Habit

In Naguib Mahfouz‘s Autumn Quail, Isa, the corrupt bureaucrat whose long, slow, and painful decline after a purge following the 1952 revolution in Egypt the novel tracks, brings back Riri, a woman of the night, to his home. The next day,

He woke up about noon and looked with curiosity at the naked girl sleeping next to him. Recollections of the previous night came back and he told himself that as long as oblivion and habit still existed, everything remained possible. [Anchor Books, 2000, pp. 374]

Many a student of human nature is puzzled by the subject of his study. Why do humans behave as irrationally and self-destructively as they do? Why do they hurt the ones they love? Why can they not learn from their mistakes?

Perhaps because they forget; perhaps because they are compelled.

If memory can be so constitutive of identity, then forgetting gives us the chance to make ourselves anew. Forgetting ensures pain and joy once experienced are consigned to the past, and cannot act as guides to the future: they cannot inhibit, they cannot impel us to repeat a once-experienced pleasure, they cannot make us shrink from the venue of an older disaster. The burnt child fears the fire, but the forgotten fire provides no instruction for action when a flame is encountered again. Then the child becomes the moth; our expectation of its behavior is reconfigured. We may too, pass by a previously experienced domain of pleasure, now strangely reluctant to sample its joys again; we have already buried, pushed out into oblivion, memories of our times within its confines. We carry on, unaware that we have foregone an opportunity to experience that which once enthralled us so. This blithe ignorance may take us elsewhere, toward experiences and interactions, which are provocative of novel responses from us.

Habits, conditioned and impressed, sent deep into the innermost recesses of our being,  continue to drive us on too. They may become more than mere regularities in behavior; they may appear as instincts, innate and congenital. We may mark out zones of catastrophe, and expect no one will venture into their precincts, but the persona habitually conditioned to push open its doors and enter will continue to do so. And habits may send us, again and again, long after the shocks and the pleasures of the new have worn off, seeking old exaltations and ecstasies, hoping they will be as productive of joy as they once were. The resultant inevitable disappointment, so clearly visible to the observer, and which should seem to act as inhibitor, does not have that effect; the habitual commissioner of acts continues to do so long after all assessments of his actions as reasonable have ceased.

Forgetting and habit send us on into this world as a curious mixture of the new and the archaic. Such a creature is curiously open to possibility while simultaneously entrenched in older ways of being. The interaction between the two can be productive of much that might appear initially implausible.  ‘Everything remains possible’ indeed.

Why You Hate Work (And Will Continue To)

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath tell us why we hate work. (“Why You Hate Work“, New York Times, May 30, 2014; the “You” in their title article is less inclusive than it appears, for the primary focus of their study is white-collar workers. Still, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned by all.)

Their article has a familiar feel to it: there are several dimensions to employee satisfaction; employees do better and feel better when they are satisfied in those; employers are not sensitive to these spaces of desire; they ignore them, being all too easily satisfied with the fulfillment of work demands.

Put another way: employees are humans with needs; the workplace doesn’t meet them; the workplace-boss-employee relationship is asymmetrical.

Color me surprised.

Schwartz and Porath make recommendations to improve workplace environments: invest in employees; pay them enough; give them breaks; praise them; and so on.

It is tempting to say this is all common-sense, a temptation that finds its grounding in the utterly unsurprising nature of these recommendations. After all, who’da thunk it: humans need rest, adequate wage for labor, a little encouragement?

We have known for a very long time that ‘work’ is a four-letter word. The dichotomies are familiar. Work-bad; leisure-good; weekday-weekend; boss-friend; the list is easily extended (and extendable.) Everybody’s working for the weekend, after all.

A clue to why the Schwartz and Porath study might be cited extensively but almost certainly will not have its recommendations followed–once the initial hubbub following the publication of their Op-Ed in the nation’s leading newspaper has died down–may be found in the fact that while the word “profitability” shows up in their article, “short-term profits”, “shareholders”, “capitalism”, “first-quarter earnings” (and other such gems) do not.

Perhaps you might have guessed where I’m going with this: creating a workplace that keeps employees happy and satisfied has costs associated with it; these costs bite into profits, especially short-term ones;  employee satisfaction, to put it bluntly, is incompatible–economically–with short-term profits and quarterly earning reports; ergo, there is little chance the recommendations for the creation of such workspaces will be implemented.

There is something particularly terrifying about repetition compulsion: the endless recycling of a past, its contours showing up again and again to haunt the neurotic. Modern business is similarly afflicted; it rules over armies of the disgruntled, determine to repeatedly lurch from one past mistake to another, resolved to not make the changes that might palliate the suffering of those in its embrace.

This commentary of mine is incomplete; there is a more thoughtful, historically sophisticated take possible on our understanding (starting, perhaps, with the notion that ‘work’ was done by slaves.) More on that in another post in the near future.

Note: A budding neuroscientist might be interested in conducting an fMRI study in which it would be ascertained which brain centers were activated when subjects viewed the word ‘work’ or were asked to perform tasks that were described as ‘work.’  Performance on the latter could be compared with that of a control group which performed the same tasks not described as ‘work.’

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.