Work Ethics

§ I am not one of those people who “loves” teaching or who became a professor so as to teach. As I always say, had it been my desire to teach, I could have stayed at home or chosen a place I wanted to live. Yet I experience a flash of longing when the zydeco men on the radio talk about their other project: teaching GED classes. I want to join them! I want a job with meaning, that is involved with a community and does some good!

§
It was always emphasized to me that jobs were not for fulfillment, but to support oneself. I should be grateful not to be stuck at home with children, and satisfied with just having a drink now and then “for kicks.” But I would so like to do something meaningful with what I have left of life, something in which I do more than reverberate ventriloquism.

§ I became a professor because I wanted an intellectual life, but it did not give me one and I am not the only one who has found this. I have been called “arrogant,” “immature,” and “unrealistic” for wanting work that meant something, or that I enjoyed, or could be proud of, or believe in. I am strongly affected by these characterizations, yet I disagree with them. And this disagreement is of course a sign of middle class privilege, since working stiffs do not expect to enjoy their jobs.

§
What can I do about these things today? 1. Maintain integrity whether anyone else does or not. 2. Keep working like a real professional, not a faux one, whether anyone else does or not. 3. Be autonomous, take autonomy, whether this is authorized or not. Because I do not believe work is something you should just put up with and suffer through, and I know my attitude is not just a childish fantasy.

Axé.

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29 responses to “Work Ethics

  1. P.S. What I most dislike about professors is their simpering and condescension. BLEAH! I wish I’d figured out earlier on that they were like this.

  2. human

    Middle class privilege — yeah. Once I expressed similar thoughts, that a job shouldn’t just be suffered through, and I really offended a family member who worked in a plant all his life, then retired, then didn’t have enough money and began driving school buses from the production facility to the school districts that will use them (8-hour drives). His view was, you do what you have to do to support your family, and if you don’t like it, you do it anyway because of your responsibility to them.

    I think everyone should be able to enjoy their job. But that doesn’t seem to be possible the way our economy is set up. Is it possible to make the radical changes in our economy that would be necessary for everyone to enjoy their job? What would the end result even look like?

    In the absence of such a chance I am left with the choice, either to strive for a job I love… or not. “Not” doesn’t really work for me; I may as well curl up and die. (I don’t have a family to support.) But the striving makes me feel guilty — even just the possibility that I might achieve what so many others never even have a chance at.

  3. But the striving makes me feel guilty — even just the possibility that I might achieve what so many others never even have a chance at.

    Yes, but this viewpoint is kind of falling short of a more extreme spirit of generosity. I mean it remains stuck in the ideological pits of individualism. It is hard enough to explain, but you might consider that you can experience somehow on behalf of the elements of humanity that were not able, some of the joys of being able to express your full humanity. Because, ultimately this is to achieve something universally worthwhile, whereas nobody cares if you remain miserable within the pits of individualistic thinking.

  4. And this disagreement is of course a sign of middle class privilege, since working stiffs do not expect to enjoy their jobs.

    Could be a sign of colonial privilege, too. I think where I came from, the whites, at least, all enjoyed their jobs.

  5. Yes and/but:

    + I could then have taken a job to just suffer through, but not moved thousands of miles from friends family and native landscape. As I keep saying off line, if I am not to have a creative, research oriented job but merely to serve clients, I could serve some far more lucrative clients … or, alternatively, serve clients I am actually interested in (e.g. the prisoners I work with).

    + In my upbringing you didn’t get a job to support a family, you got married to do that. Women would not be paid enough to support a family, and women who had families were not allowed to have jobs.

    + For everyone to enjoy their job, it would have to be another economy / another world, as you say. But I am speaking from the privilege of the professional middle classes. What I find odd is the idea that work has to mean suffering applied to us – it is self indulgent, self dramatizing, etc. to insist upon suffering in a good job. It is *not* cool to force suffering, as many of my peers, particularly in graduate school and assistant professordom, seemed to think. And it is *not* uncool to enjoy a professional activity and admit it, as some members of the older generation in my family seemed to think: one should never admit to pleasure in a job well done, it was unseemly especially in women, one should be suffering (although, at the same time, one should flaunt prestige).

    + ‘Not’ doesn’t work for me either and great efforts have been expended by various people to make me feel guilty for doing something interesting. As I say, that fake suffering really smacks of middle class privilege to me. I’ve tried it: suffer, because otherwise my mother would guilt trip me for not suffering; suffer, because my therapist thought it improper that I should have an intellectual job and felt I was using my brain power to shield myself from pain; suffer, because I had a tenure track job and I had friends who didn’t. It always seemed obscene because energy expended upon suffering could be so much better used. That is to say, the idea that one should suffer and not enjoy when one has irrevocably some enjoyable things is *terribly* self indulgent in my view.

    + Lower middle class me: I will not draw social security because we do not as employees of the state of Louisiana, and although I have retirement I will not have enough to retire except in almost scarily modest circumstances. I do not have a high enough salary to save more than I do. For these reasons I need to either keep working until I actually become unable to work, or retire and get another job. Ideally, that other job will be one which pays into social security. Driving school buses is not a bad idea, I had thought of being a barista. My idea is to get some sort of working like that, all for the sake of the social security not the wages, and also consult.

  6. Z

    Also: this is perhaps a Whiteman conversation.

    WM: Stay in school so you can have interesting, rewarding work.
    PZ: OK.

    PZ: This work is not interesting or rewarding, I am going to change jobs.
    WM: Do you not realize work is intended to be suffering? Accept it!
    PZ: But suffering at work is what I went to school to avoid … ?

    PZ: Perhaps what Da Whiteman meant was, “Stay in school so you can have prestigious work bearing the correct class markers.”

  7. Well the christian ideology goes deep.

    One point that I would like to make is that we should see things for what they are if we ever have a hope of escaping this ideology.

    For example with regard to the colonials. Let us not be too simple-minded on this matter. For instance I read a book once that espoused the line that the colonial (white) Rhodesians had no moral leadership and therefore were only worth disrespecting and subjecting to the world’s corrective mechanisms. And I am not denying the great violence they were capable of, but they were also very, very free, in a way that Marechera no doubt learned from (applying such principles of freedom to his own life).

    Sweeney says:

    “Sex, food
    And sleep.”
    Breaking black
    Africa’s rules

    So let us realise how much we are sabotaging our own freedom for the sake of a bit of ideological superiority when we look down on freedom.

    (Of course, Marechera’s concession to the nihilistic freedom of the white africans is a bit sarcastic. The point is, “so what?”

  8. Spoken like a true Nietzchean. And/but: what about cases where the freedom to exploit gets emulated? The master’s tools, and all (Lorde)?

    ***

    I feel slightly odd about this post since I am having an excellent semester and I secretly do like to teach. But the general point still holds, I think.

    Also on teaching: I mistrust those who say they like it because so often, what they mean by that is that they like to hold authority and to challenge others, but not themselves.

  9. More on teaching: I saw a blog post that I could probably find again, which pointed out that we are not professional teachers, but professional scholars who also teach. “Professional teaching,” the blog post said, was related to standardized testing: one is to impart official knowledge, period, whereas being a professional researcher (contributing to knowledge) and teaching from that energy-space, from that point of view, is something completely different and also more challenging to students (which is why they are in university, I would have thought). Teaching in those circumstances is of course fine with me.

    On freedom: yes, you have to be free. For me Reeducation coincided with being on the tenure track and so they are imbricated with each other … conform! conform! conform! said all voices together.

    It is very interesting, seeing what happens when one just decides to be free. Or at least freer.

  10. I don’t think I’m a true Nietzschean since I am not revering the behaviour I have described. I’m just noticing that there is something positive about it. There is also a lot negative about it. But my point is that a purely ideological point of view doesn’t give us the space to notice that things are complicated like this.

    Consequently, a purely ideological point of view leads to a deeper kind of slavery — a slavery to seemingly moral kind of position that really isn’t all that moral: For example — the idea that if one is suffering and in a state of renouncing power that one is automatically superior to others. But in reality, few people who get into “the world is an evil place” and “poor me” are really contributing anything positive to the third world.

  11. conform! conform! conform! said all voices together

    That is an interesting observation. I think that it is key to understanding Marechera’s reaction as to why, upon receiving a scholarship award to go and study in Britain, he considered it to be another form of indentured slavery. Because the link to colonialism was still strong in his mind. It just didn’t seem like an escape from that. And of course there was, hanging over his head, the implicit threat that a failure to attend classes and pass grades would mean deportation back to Rhodesia and an even more oppressive social system. So he had this constantly in his mind, and ultimately he went AWOL and ending up in Wales, and there the immigration police caught up with him.

  12. human

    Jennifer Cascadia: I guess you are right. It doesn’t help the other people with crap jobs if I work at a crap job instead of getting a better one. That much is true. But also there is more to it than that. I have come to understand solidarity as a value, at least partly. But I am straddling a strange divide. I was raised in a middle class family and so I am culturally middle class. But for most of my adult life I have not enjoyed the economic advantages typical of the middle class. With the job I have now that is slowly, slowly changing (they just gave me another COL adjustment today, as it happens) and I find when I examine myself that I would not be able to risk this in support of people who have less than I. I wasn’t poor enough long enough to learn real solidarity. So this is also part of what not working a crap job means, that I remain incapable of making sacrifices I feel are morally necessary.

    Er, maybe that’s circular. Er.

    Profacero: Thank you for the very thoughtful reply. I have a few thoughts dashing off in all directions.

    + I moved far away from my family and stay away, partly because of disagreements with my father but much much more because I was not and never could be free to live an intellectual life in Louisiana. As much as I love and miss my family I cannot go back except for visits. I tore myself away from home by choice and I know it was right but I regret the necessity.

    + My upbringing was strange in that, in some ways, I was never informed that I was female. Only some ways. And it was much more my mother’s influence than my father’s. But from my parents there was always the expectation that I would live my life for myself. That I would chase the dreams I wanted to and have the job I wanted. Now, on growing up I found that it was a lot harder to get what I wanted than anyone had let on. And that some unusual choices I made while young and ignorant would handicap me far more than I had ever dreamed. But I never was subject to the expectation (from my parents!) that I would marry and subsume my life to someone else’s. So I never have. Even if my parents screwed up in other ways (and I think everyone’s do) I can forgive them all, for giving me that.

    + I feel like I’m wavering between understanding and not understanding what you mean about suffering being a middle class privilege. But I remember when I was at my poorest, I took a job as a bike courier which paid less than half minimum wage (yay tax law shenanigans) and took incalculable pleasure out of earning my meager wage through physical labor that left me exhausted in body and rested in spirit. And still unable to pay rent. I remember the year I ate ramen (and perhaps a piece of fruit, if I had one) for lunch every single day; and I remember going for walks at lunch time and taking delight in the snow and the iced-over surface of the river. I felt very alive then even though I wished often to be someplace else.

    + I hope my above comment did not sound disrespectful of my relative because, on the contrary, I have a great deal of respect for him. The schoolbus driving gig is a good one by the sound of it. I’m young enough that I haven’t thought as far ahead as retirement. There seems to be little point in it since there is nothing I can do about the fact that I didn’t have a proper job to start saving for it until age 28. And the further fact that if I chase my dreams the way my parents taught me to, it means graduate school and many more years of not earning any retirement money. But I have asthma and so I will probably die an earlier-than-average death of pneumonia or something like that. So I may as well strive to enjoy the time I have got. And live with my middle class guilt? I don’t know.

    You see, those unusual choices I mentioned above involved in part a purposeful rejection of a middle class income. Then I found out, no take-backs! But I couldn’t shed my middle class identity either.

    I know I am not the only one in this confusing situation. My brother, some of my cousins and a lot more members of my generation, all of us are unable to find the income our parents had and so we are culturally middle class with less than middle class wages. We beat ourselves up for this because of course if we had strived harder for excellence like good middle class children, it never would have happened to us.

  13. …..in a way, we could say that the story of Marechera’s life was an attempt to come to terms with, and manage his drapetomania.

  14. OMG, I had forgotten about drapetomania. Slaveowners are really deranged, what can I say.

    Yes – escaping from conformity – I wish, when I had that crisis, that I had realized it was rebellion (and what I was rebelling against). I processed it as failure. Discussing it with a (much more conventional, interestingly) friend, though, she said it was a rebellion and it might be good. So the question is, I suppose, when what the bourgeoisie calls self-destruction is actually a good thing (and should be grabbed onto as such).

  15. Human – yes – more to come. What I mean by suffering being a middle class privilege is, actually, something like dithering or pretending to suffer, or being dramatic. The actual poor with actual problems have real pain, i.e. live with bad toothaches due to lack of access to dentists, and so on.

    Meanwhile I watch the middle classes do things like go into mortal depression for months because they need a medical procedure they can have for free on their insurance, but would rather not need.

    I remember that in graduate school – and I went to a public Ivy, it was not hoity-toity but in retrospect it was quite opulent and it was also in a really beautiful place – people insisted on being miserable, because it was cool to suffer, they thought. The same thing happened in assistant professordom when really, we had cushy jobs – H***, my job now is cushy even though it is c***** and underpaid for a professor job. People insisted on being miserable because they thought it made them more important.

    (Side point – one result of that is that people think one is “just complaining” if there really is a problem. I have found myself looking at officials in disbelief. “No, I am not ‘just’ complaining; I am *actually* complaining, by which I mean I will file a written complaint if necessary. I have come to see you not to vent, I can vent at home, I have come to see you because I want something done.”)

    Can’t live an intellectual life in Louisiana – yes, I am afraid that may be true not just for people who are from here. Ay.

    Retirement, I dunno. I didn’t have a job that paid into it until I was 30.5, and I’ve taken and spent 4.5 years worth of that because of being broke in Louisiana, so it’s as though I didn’t start having retirement funds until 35. I’m figuring they will be useful for my truly final illness or weakness since there is a lot of longevity in my family and I can’t expect to stay employed in my nineties – maybe in consulting or something, or maybe I will be living in a cheap country then, or maybe I will have struck it rich in the meantime, who knows. I’d say, do what you want, take the retirement funds you can get since they will be useful at the very end, but don’t be a slave to it.

    Do you have to be poor for a long time to have solidarity? This seems to be where I part company with a lot of people, I’m braver … I never cross picket lines, always speak up, always invest time I could have invested to further my own self, etc. It means I am not as far ahead in life as I might be, but it is more interesting. That doesn’t mean I am willing to be utterly masochistic and go live in a homeless shelter or something (and I don’t think that would do a lot of good, anyway).

  16. “No, I am not ‘just’ complaining; I am *actually* complaining, by which I mean I will file a written complaint if necessary. I have come to see you not to vent, I can vent at home, I have come to see you because I want something done.”)

    I’ve had the same thing in this culture. Fortunately the Japanese treat communication as if it were actually real, by contrast.

    I think it all comes down to the mind-body dualism thing in the West. It is a way of dividing what is human against itself and making it inhuman and machinelike. It is as if we had all been given a dispensation to make us transcendent of normal material concerns, so that making them into an issue is totally redundant and mere whining.

    If I come to complain about something, you had better bet that I actually mean it, though. And don’t think it is a sign of my own weakness that can be easily disregarded. To ignore my complaint means I start to take you apart, whichever way I can. I have a grievance against you.

  17. Yes – escaping from conformity – I wish, when I had that crisis, that I had realized it was rebellion (and what I was rebelling against). I processed it as failure.

    Fortunately for me, my body — which up until the point of integration into Western culture, had enjoyed a very different scheme of things — began to throw out its own hysterical symptoms of rebellion. I got a very tight band around my throat, indicating suppression of speech…I had no energy for being in this capitalist culture….

    Yes, there is a level of rebellion here. But it went all the way down to my socks — a conclusion that could not be denied.

    But, poor Marechera, too — a far more extreme case than mine of drapetomania. Every word of his oozes it.

  18. I wasn’t poor enough long enough to learn real solidarity. So this is also part of what not working a crap job means, that I remain incapable of making sacrifices I feel are morally necessary.

    Yeah, I get where you are coming from on this actually. Like whenever I was queuing up to get an extra dollop of social security, it impressed my mind that I have faced tremendous amounts of prejudice against my ass in this society, and that I really didn’t belong in such a queue. But at the same time, it occurred to me that the huge hostility I’d faced had been cultural and not racial in origin, and that it was more severe to be discriminated against on the basis of skin colour. So I said, “I am Marechera’s pale reflection.” This gave me insights.

    But really, blah to the whole thing of needing to suffer. I suffered because I didn’t have the choice and so I made the best of it and sought insights from being in my situation. You really don’t need to suffer to figure something out. You just need the capacity to take risks and learn from the experiences, you know, if you are looking to develop personal depth or something. Really, it doesn’t have to be so passive as suffering with others. I mean, you can try actively suffering for a change. Or you can simply actively engage. Take up a challenge. Go to the third world. Start an organisation that improves things there. Sure, you might learn something.

  19. It’s interesting on the mind-body dualism. I am so used to it that I do not see it, but when shown it, I see and it explains a lot.

  20. human

    Me too on the mind-body dualism.

    profacero, I think that it would be easier for me to have solidarity if I had ever been culturally poor instead of just economically (and blaming myself the whole time since for the middle class to be poor is a moral failure). But, it could be that I am just a big chicken. It is definitely true that a lot of times I want to act but just don’t know what to do with myself. And in that situation it is very easy to let fear take over.

  21. That’s interesting – I didn’t learn that it was a moral failure to be poor. I did, however, learn that it was a moral failure to be a parvenu. Perhaps I was raised with upper class, not middle class prejudices … and this is what makes me fearless, because unlike the middle classes I have the impression that while I may go broke I can never lose class status?

  22. Perhaps I was raised with upper class, not middle class prejudices … and this is what makes me fearless, because unlike the middle classes I have the impression that while I may go broke I can never lose class status?

    I have similar feelings. I think what I think and that’s all there is to it. But, you know, I think that Marechera did as well. And paradoxically, maybe, this is why his rebellion was not so well understood.

  23. It’s interesting on the mind-body dualism. I am so used to it that I do not see it, but when shown it, I see and it explains a lot.

    Yeah. The way I see this having its greatest effect it in humour. Instead of the preposterousness of reality-as-it-is being related back to an implicit humanistic standard of decency and fairness for all, a moral line is drawn. But it is a line of censorship in actuality.

    So I suppose a person could read BLACK SUNLIGHT and think “what a crazy person the author was — but you can sympathise with his travails because he is black.”

    But actually, it is supposed to be a novel full of preposterous humour. If you don’t appreciate that the implicit backdrop to all of its allusions is a humanistic standard, then you are unable to get its humour in the fullest way.

    And this is deeply problematic because there is a GOOD REASON why Western culture takes itself seriously and is not self-reflexively humorous: That is because the basis for this culture is primarily a mechanistic separation of mind and body, in a non-humanistic way. The “purpose” of this, from a capitalist/industrial perspective, is to facilitate work efficacy, rather than humanistic ends. So one does not joke about serious things such as identity. Identity is too serious to joke about — unless one is making a blatant ideological point. One simply doesn’t joke in that way. Too much of economic life and death hinges upon identity for humour not to be at least extremely defensive and biting.

    But the humour in Marechera is more defiant and ad hoc than intellectually biting. It makes it points more softly, more humanistically. At the same time, the humour is more slapstick, violent, than you would conventionally expect in Western culture. This is not a matter of formulating a moral discourse, but more a case of presenting an aesthetic revelation.

  24. Could you teach one GED class just to see how you liked it? I think they are very hard to teach.

  25. I wouldn’t do it while I had another teaching job. My point is, it sounds less like an alienated activity than academic work sometimes feels to me.

  26. human

    That’s interesting – I didn’t learn that it was a moral failure to be poor. I did, however, learn that it was a moral failure to be a parvenu. Perhaps I was raised with upper class, not middle class prejudices … and this is what makes me fearless, because unlike the middle classes I have the impression that while I may go broke I can never lose class status?

    That definitely sounds like upper-class thinking to me. Being a parvenu (I had to look it up, hee) was not something that was within our radius of concern, ever. On the other hand, we believed that the reason we had the modest wealth and advantages we had was because of our merit — NOT for being the right sort of people, which would be again more upper-class thinking, but because we did the right sort of things.

    In other words, we got the right education, we were smart and studied hard, we got the right jobs, we did what we were expected to and worked hard. And we deserved good things for this. But if we got poor grades or lost our jobs clearly we had done something wrong and needed to correct ourselves to avoid further punishment.

    It occurs to me the above may be the source of some of that unnecessary misery you were talking about. If, as a high school student, I was tied up in knots because I couldn’t figure out whether I should go to Decent College A or Decent College B, that misery would be incomprehensible either to someone going to one of the Ivies, or to someone for whom college was not an option. Yet it was very real to me because O God, if I made the wrong choice, the consequences could be dire!

    As for losing class privilege — I don’t suppose I thought much about this, except perhaps for vague notions that class privilege wasn’t fair and it would be better if I didn’t have it (!!) until I discovered that it actually is possible to lose class privilege.

    All you have to do is get pneumonia with only $80 left in your bank account… and try to find a medical provider who will see you. I learned really fast how lower-than-middle-class people are treated as a matter of course when they need something.

    This is a great discussion. Thank you!

  27. “Yet it was very real to me because O God, if I made the wrong choice, the consequences could be dire!”

    This sounds to me like fear of losing class privileges.

    Meritocracy, yes, that is a key idea for the professional middle classes. And it’s what we are taught is “American” – not an aristocracy, but a meritocracy.

    I think I do in fact have some lordly attitudes. I’ve been on unemployment and mistreated by the unemployment office and I am patient about it because I know the person behaving that way has had and will have fewer opportunities and chances in life than I. I seem to have this impregnable class identity that I think will save me from gender and race discrimination also, but it doesn’t … and then I fall apart entirely, don’t understand at all (why race discrimination: people sometimes take me for a POC although I am not one).

  28. I think I do in fact have some lordly attitudes. I’ve been on unemployment and mistreated by the unemployment office and I am patient about it because I know the person behaving that way has had and will have fewer opportunities and chances in life than I. I seem to have this impregnable class identity that I think will save me from gender and race discrimination also, but it doesn’t … and then I fall apart entirely, don’t understand at all (why race discrimination: people sometimes take me for a POC although I am not one).

    I have some very haughty attitudes. And I am certain that absolutely nothing will save me from any sort of discrimination, if that is how the other party feels……

    But still, I feel justified in telling myself, “Those who discriminate against me all deserve to die.”

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