Lately Anne and I have talking about how work works. Here’s a photo of some jottings I did on my whiteboard the other day:
There are two paths, each characterizing a particular kind of relationship between self and others relative to work. The Black Path (named for the marker I happened to have in my hand at the time) constitutes a vector or rhizome that links Passion with Calling. There are sensations, desires, ideas, kinds of objects, meaningful themes, etc. that trace multiplex paths through humanity. You may find yourself particularly attracted to or inspired by one of these paths. in keeping with contemporary parlance, this personal response is a Passion. But you aren’t the only one who’s attracted to this vector: others too experience the same passion. If you encounter someone else who shares your passion, a kind of interpersonal energy field is established. This energy field is bidirectional: it flows outward from you, and it also draws you toward others. This draw exerted on you from others who share your passion is, using old-fashioned religious terminology, a Calling.
Someone who works on the Black Path isn’t just going with the flow. She positions herself in the flow and is inspired and called forward by it, but she also acts on the flow, transforming it into something other than what it was. Call this transformation of flow resulting from work a product. To effect a transformation — to make a product — requires the adept exercise of personal agency, or Expertise: knowledge, technical skill, artistry. To effect a good transformation of the flow — to make a good product — requires exercising expertise in the service of a set of Standards for distinguishing the good from the bad. Expertise and standards set up an intrasubjective flow field within the worker: through the exercise of expertise the worker propels the work upward, while standards call the work upward toward excellence. This intrasubjective expertise-standards force field operates orthogonally to the interpersonal flow field characterized by passion and calling:
—– Passion ———— Calling —–
Even if work is performed by individual workers, it’s still true that the expertise they exercise and the standards toward which they aim aren’t purely subjective. They are also intersubjectively defined. Work is typically performed in organizations and by teams, requiring expert coordination of multiple agents and convergence on agreed-upon standards. Also, what’s regarded as expert work and an excellent product is to a great extent defined by the profession to which the worker belongs. But expertise and standards also approach objectivity: the nature of the flow itself determines what sorts of actions must be taken to effect transformation, as well as what constitutes a good transformation.
The Green Path (again, the color of the marker is definitive) is characterized by a flow energized not by Passion and Calling but by Money and Power. To an extent these forces operate within the dynamic of the work itself: workers want to earn money for exerting the kind of personal power it takes to transform raw flow into products; buyers want to spend as little as possible while exercising their power as consumers to establish the standards for distinguishing good from bad products. However, Money and Power are also exerted from outside the producer-consumer dynamic by those who own the means of production and who hire the workers. In our society the owners are likely to be outside investors, but they might be the government or the workers themselves. The owners insist that the financial exchange between producer and consumer generate a profit that is siphoned off to them. From the owners’ perspective the final standard of a product’s excellence consists of the profit it earns for the owners. The owners wield power over the workers such that the workers must exercise their expertise in service of the owners’ standards of profitability.
Because the flow of money and power defines the Green Path, ultimately the worker’s subjective agency is defined accordingly. Every worker’s expertise is defined as the ability to contribute to owner profitability. Intersubjective standards of the organization and the profession, as well as standards dictated by the nature of the work itself, become secondary to the primary standard of profitability. As owner of his/her own labor power in the marketplace, the worker too defines his/work in terms of money and power. Am I paid what I believe I’m worth, based on comparison with others? Can I exercise authority over my job and that of others? Do I receive personal recognition from bosses and co-workers? Do I benefit financially from contributing to corporate profitability? Do I like my self-image and the image I project to others as a worker in this place? Instead of evaluating him/herself in terms of contribution of expertise toward the achievement of product excellence, the worker establishes him/herself from outside the workflow itself, as an entity toward which money flows and from which power emanates. In short, the worker becomes egocentrically self-absorbed as owner of him/herself, paralleling on a smaller scale the more massive narcissistic self-absorption exercised by the corporate owners.
More later, but surely it’s obvious that I think the Black Path is better than the Green Path. I’d like to position myself on the Black Path in some capacity, both for myself as a writer and for the benefit of other workers as a psychologist.