Working Metaphors

Michael Crawford wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft as a way to make sense of his work history:

This book grows out of an attempt to get a critical handle on my own work history; to understand the human possibilities latent in what I was doing when the work seemed good, and when it was bad to identify the features of the work that systematically preempted or damaged those same possibilities. In sorting things out, we have had occasion to think about the nature of rationality, the conditions for individual agency, the moral aspect of perception, and the elusive ideal of community. (198)

One of Crawford’s conclusions is that when a job is “scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work” that the results are disastrous. The formulation is not a new one. Karl Marx came to this conclusion in the mid-nineteenth century. I remember vividly getting tossed out of a high school government class because I agreed with Marx’s theory of the alienation of the worker, based on watching the slow gnawing despair in my dad as he coped with his job. The textbook (and my teacher) insisted that capitalism was perfect and that this “theory” was fatally flawed. She would not allow me to endorse such a “communist” thought in the classroom and she ejected me as a troublemaker.

I never can seem to think of “work” in the same way as other people. It comes from my upbringing. My father went to a job he hated every day. Increasingly, automation and MBA’s were running the oil fields from the central office and he felt as if he was not taken seriously. Dad seldom talked about this “work” but he constantly had work to do that he did discuss with me. Mostly, what he was interested in doing (and sometimes talking about) was the work at home—building fences, raising animals and crops, sawing firewood, shingling the roof. None of these activities resulted in any monetary benefit (other than spending less at the supermarket, I suppose). Work and the earning of money were completely separate activities.

This made sense to me. My dad was an oil worker who drove around checking on the state of equipment, usually calling other people in to repair or replace it when there was a problem. He paid his dues with backbreaking work when he was younger, and was paid for his opinion as much as anything else as he got older. He hated his job more and more as “command and control” grew distant from him. He tolerated the job until he couldn’t anymore—he retired early, with a pension of about 400 1980s dollars per month. He never made much money before that either, but it didn’t matter because money was not what he cared about. In later years, the easiest way to sum up what he cared about would be to say that he simply enjoyed a good tomato and fixing things. He was good with his hands.

I grew up as a service worker of a different sort. After an interlude of working as a photographers assistant/darkroom flunkie, I decided that it was ruining my interest in photographic work to actually “work” as a photographer. So for years afterward, I primarily sold things and occasionally fixed them. I never considered what I did to be “work.” Work was what I did when I got home—I made photographs in the fullest sense, printing, mounting, staring at them and then trying to do it better the next time.

Crawford recalls securing payment for time spent at work as “compensation” but I never really gave it that much thought. Everyone has to hold down a job, right? It was how I afforded the materials to do the work I really cared about. The only time money seemed connected to work was when I received commission, a percentage of profits from sales. Mostly, work was just about showing up and being civil.

As I began to hang out with musicians, a different model emerged. Many of the creative artists/musicians I knew really never held jobs. They had very little in the way of material things, but claimed that they didn’t need them. What they dreamed of were “royalties” for their performances/products. The word directly reflects its statutory heritage—they wanted to be granted something for just being themselves. A different model of service than what I was used to. To be paid to just be yourself? How odd—but nice work if you can get it.

Knowledge work is where I ended up after service employments. I was a teacher, which I think qualifies as knowledge work. But again, it’s simply a metaphor for something else— unlike the terms “compensation” and “royalty” which are somewhat grounded in their deployment, “work” is simply an empty container that defers the meaning of what happens (hopefully productive, in either a physical or mental sense) to an elusive image of accomplishing something. Sometimes that equates to money, but more often it does not. To be “productive” is not exclusively the province of wage earners. In fact, I find it notable that academics are “awarded” contracts based on their performance or background achievements. These jobs are not wage jobs in the conventional sense, making evaluation nearly impossible.

Work for me is tied to the artist’s model rather than the worker-drone. I feel that it is my work to make those things that satisfy me. Earning money is complicated and I can’t say that I ever really figured out how to integrate it into my sense of work. Earning is conceptually tied to the deployment of resources to profitable ends. It matters little whether the resource is skill (as in management skill or mechanical skill) or capital.

Currently, I invest to make money—it is not what I would call work. In the end, work is a metaphor for what actually happens—transformation. In all cases, work is transformative: one resource is transmuted into something else. If I invest money in a mining company, they mine a resource, subsequently transforming it into more money. I am granted a share for my troubles. But that share doesn’t seem like a “royalty” or “compensation” for the absence of my money in the meantime, or even (as is more likely) a “reward” for tolerating the risk of losing my initial investment.

All this is quite slippery, and I’ve only frozen a moment of my process of wrestling with it. Crawford’s book offers a lot of food for thought (as polemics sometimes do) but I get frozen simply considering the terminology. Crawford never considers “royalty” or “investment” or “awards” because it doesn’t mesh with his system of wages and compensation. All these terms just don’t satisfy; they suggest without quantifying.Work doesn’t quite work.