3 October 2008

Listening to Work Symptoms

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:06 am

Don’t get me wrong: workers really do have legitimate gripes about inadequate pay or overwork, about poor working conditions or abusive bosses. Just because I’m a psychologist doesn’t mean I want to psychologize workers’ complaints, refocusing the problem away from the job and onto the worker. Quite the opposite, in fact: people who have problems with their work have problems with their work.

I’m focusing mostly on knowledge workers, creatives, professionals, managers, and others who have some responsibility for what work gets done and what products are produced in the capitalist economy. A case could be made for all such workers to quit their jobs immediately, inasmuch as they’re contributing to the extension of an inequitable, exploitive, wasteful, and generally tacky economy. Maybe everyone holding these jobs really would do something else — art, preaching, revolutionary politics — if they could afford the pay cut. But even in an economic system owned and run by workers or the public these same kinds of jobs would need to be filled. One could argue that performing these jobs poorly would undermine the current system, hastening its demise and its replacement by something better. But doing crappy work and turning out crappy products seems like a counterproductive move under any socioeconomic regime. I’m assuming that a different work system runs in parallel with and overlaps the system defined strictly in economic terms. In this other system work isn’t defined in terms of costs, prices, and profits — what in my last post I called the Green Path — but in terms of passion and calling, of expertise and standards — the Black Path.

Sometimes the Green and Black Paths coincide, and the design and distribution of the best products generate the most profits for the owners. Usually the overlap isn’t 100%: qualitatively better work might generate less profit; crappier products generate higher margins. Sometimes, though, the misalignment is jarring. To the extent that a worker is fully reconciled to working on Green Path, to that extent s/he is committed to realigning the work in accord with the owners’ interests; i.e., with maximizing profits. If, on the other hand, the worker is fully committed to the Black Path or is ambivalent about the trade-offs between excellence and profitability, s/he is likely to experience subjectively the gaps and frictions and collisions. In other words, the worker’s symptom is a response triggered by a tangible misalignment between the Black and the Green Paths.

Sometimes the symptoms are obvious — the worker just doesn’t like the nature of the work itself. Does this person already have something else in mind that she’d rather do? If so, why isn’t she doing it? Or is this person mired in chronic indifference, not really passionate about anything. Is this person really so indifferent, or has the flow been short-circuited by the indifference of the world? Sometimes what gets repressed is trauma and sometimes it’s passion, but often as not it’s both: the trauma stifles or castrates the passion. With the return of the repressed might come both exuberance and rage. Then you might actually get a passion for destroying the destroyer, the Big Other who stands between you and your passion holding the bloody knife — think about “Jack” and the rest of the guys in Fight Club. It might turn out that letting the passion flow again actually increases the symptoms, because make no mistake: the Green Path does put up a mighty resistance. Think about Officer McNulty in The Wire, an easygoing family man when he’s just walking the beat, but an obsessive, foul-tempered, boozing, cheating, lying law-breaker when he’s giving free rein to his passion for justice.


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