1 October 2008

Black Path, Green Path

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:06 pm

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.



  1. I really like what you’re getting at here. I think it is very helpful for the contemporary American worker.

    I think that the Green Path – Black Path distinction is a good one, but I wonder if it is accurate for all scenarios…..I think you’ve touched on this briefly in your most recent post, but I want to flesh it out here.

    K: Because the flow of money and power defines the Green Path, ultimately the worker’s subjective agency is defined accordingly……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.

    What if money and power defines one’s “calling”?

    Let’s take John Rockefeller as an example. As I understand his life, The Titan believed that his calling was for money and power. He didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle (at least, not when one considers just how much money/power he had). Rockefeller channeled his money into “meaningful” causes.

    At first blush, we might say, “Ah, well, that’s easy: the Green Path represents Rock’s pursuit of the means for fulfilling his the end, with the end being the Black Path.” So, the two are separated. People can do this today: work hard at a meaningless job, and then funnel that money/power into a worthwhile project.

    But on closer examination, the Green and Black paths for Rock are indistinguishable (at least in my mind) because Rock was a firm believer in capitalism. So, Rockefeller was doing “God’s work” so to speak because he was keeping the capitalistic engine running and providing jobs, etc. Thus, he was freed up to use whatever means necessary to build and maintain his empire. Not only was he funneling his fortune into worthy causes, but he was also serving a higher purpose (capitalism). If capitalism is God’s way (or a higher calling in some sense), then I think the Green and Black paths converge.

    Is Rockefeller an outdated analogy?

    I don’t think so.

    Look at Bill Gates: connecting the world through PC’s (higher calling), and now he’s got a foundation to distribute his fortune (higher calling).

    Look at the Wal-mart empire: low prices for consumers (higher calling) justifies all things–“everything is permissible”! And good ‘ole Sam Walton was a good ‘ole church-goin’, god-fearin’ man.

    So, according to my interpretation….in all of the above cases, the egoism and pursuit of money/power is a part of the calling. There is no distinction. So, gouging people or “pushing out the little guy” or even ethically questionable practice can all be justified in light of the fact that everything that is done serves the higher calling. At least, it seems to me that everything converges to qualify simultaneously as both Green and Black Path. The subject is defining himself as a powerful, money-making, but yet meaningful (i.e., serving a higher purpose, making the world a better place, generating positive energy, etc.) person. Perhaps the subject even fits the “egoistical” category as well, figuring, “Hell, since I’m doing so much to help the world, I’m obviously better than anyone else.” Kind of a prayer-of-the-Pharisee type of thing: “Thank you, God, that I’m not like those other damned sinners….”



    Comment by Erdman — 3 October 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  2. I think you’ve captured not only the motivation of perhaps most of the people who work, Erdman, but also the ideology of free market neoliberal capitalism. The market price of a product is an aggregate statistical function of how all the individuals in the society assign personal value to that product relative to all the other products for sale in the marketplace. So if you can earn a price greater than your cost of production, then your product is relatively more valuable to society than the work that went into making it. The more profit you make, the more good you’re doing in the world. There’s no need to “give back” anything, because the capitalist earning the greatest profits is by definition already doing the highest social good. So if you happen to have a passion for making money, then that’s indistinguishable from a passion for helping others. The greatest megalomaniac is also the greatest humanitarian: is this a great system or what?

    It’s conceivable that in a socialist economy the same mechanisms would be in play even if the passionate moneymaker didn’t get to keep the profits, if instead the profits were distributed among all the workers or were used to fund public works projects. The equation of value with market value is the issue here, regardless of who benefits from the transaction. There are many people who see no distinction, either as producers or as consumers. These people may still experience work symptoms associated with life on the Green Path: they can’t earn or spend as much as they really want, etc. For these people there are career coaches and mentors, as well as other kinds of counselors for people who can’t seem to make ends meet.

    Would I try to persuade Rockefeller that his values were fucked up? No. From a political standpoint I’d vote to constrain his power and wealth whether he liked it or not. As a psychologist I’d soon arrive at a position of recognizing that I wouldn’t be of any use to him, regardless of how much he paid me. Though I’d be working for the client, I’m also an agent of the Black Path, much as a Lacanian analyst is working not for the analysand but for the Unconscious. This I think keeps the practice from degenerating into helping the client do whatever she’s willing to pay me for. I want to stand with the client in the flow of passion and calling, helping the client establish herself as a subjective agent in the exercise of expertise and the pursuit of standards that aren’t reducible to money. If the client doesn’t already experience symptoms that reveal an inner conflict between the Black and the Green Path, then I don’t think it’s my job to provoke the eruption of these symptoms.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 October 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  3. That’s a very very helpful response.

    Particularly, I’m interested that you have a very specific focus: those who recognize at a very fundamental level that there are two different paths.



    Comment by Erdman — 3 October 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  4. I’m not saying they’d recognize the two paths consciously. Think about Jack in Fight Club: he didn’t consciously grasp the source of his alienation from the marketplace or from himself. The Black Path isn’t an obvious one in a marketplace dominated by the Green Path. And the social pressure of the workplace, as well as the consumer marketplace, makes it difficult for an individual to take his eyes off the money and power in order to see something else. That’s why, if they’re experiencing work-related difficulties they’d need to listen to the symptoms: to hear what their anxiety or anger or boredom is telling them about themselves vis-a-vis the work they do. Some may hear only the challenge of succeeding on the Green Path; others may come to recognize repressed frustration about passion and calling that they didn’t even realize.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 October 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  5. Gottcha.

    Good clarification.


    Comment by Erdman — 5 October 2008 @ 12:18 pm

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