I am someone who enjoys working. I take great pride in the fact that I consistently work hard and, perhaps more ominously, that I am almost always working. Uncharacteristic to me, this dedication to work is often unthinking: Why wouldn’t I want to work? Seeing no reasonable answer immediately, I continue on as I did before.
I could point to lots of cultural and historic forces that have helped shape the ethos I have around work. I recognise these as part of broader processes of individualization, responsiblization, and the flows of global capital. The world expects me to work and often in a particular way. And yet I take great pride in the fact that in small ways I am able to subvert these broader trends. I choose to do work that fulfils me - I gross act of privilege - rather than pursue work that offers the most remuneration. The things that I produce through work, also, are things I sometimes like to think of as subversive. Substance matters to me a great deal; I do whatever I can to disassociate from what I feel is purely flash and lacking in thought or detail. I navigate judgements around the substance of work - both mine and others - carefully, however, lest I succumb to unnecessary judgements or the perpetuation of old hierarchies. All work can be meaningful and full of substance, no matter where it originates or in what field it operates; but the work we perform has no inherent postfacto justification. And herein lies my quandary.
In a conversation the other day I was given pause to consider my work ethic outside of the normal sociological and historical context within which I place myself, and rather on a profoundly personal level. I was struck as I walked upstairs to where my family was sitting of how I characterised my work with them. When asked where I was going and what I was doing I replied that there was “always work to do.” Upon reflection, I was troubled by how flippantly I used this phrase. Indeed, somewhere in the world there are always things to do, but do I always have work to do? I have structured my life in such a way that I always have things to do, which I value and think is important, but to say so surely that I always have work to do - which often feels like the case - seems more troubling.
Over the years and particularly in my education, I have worked very, very hard to craft an image of myself as a hard worker. This is an aesthetic, political, and deeply personal choice. I want to be (and be seen as) someone of ‘substance’ and in my own mind there is no better way to do so than to boldly and unequivocally state one’s workaholic credentials. This becomes more confusing, however, when I start to think about the things that I do. Almost without exception, the things I do as work are deeply meaningful, give me a sense of purpose, and are part of a larger plan to carry me towards goals in my life. But they are also designed, I realised today, as part of personal, emotional choices, as well. Defining myself as a hard worker is one thing, but to be accepted as this amongst others requires a more intensive kind of performativity. I make that which I desire to be as I act it out daily. I separate myself from others with the degree to which I am able to carry my work and I justify my self worth on this basis.
Worth. That was the word that was missing when I asserted my credentials in this conversation and when I act out my work daily. Work as a means to worth is a deeply ingrained cultural, religious, and otherwise trope. We’re told everyday that those who are unable to work are worthless to a larger economy, or that those who choose to step outside the boundaries of narrowly defined professions and occupations are wasting their time. These forces are pervasive and have the effect of a kind of larger-planetary gravity; they squish down everyone into squat pieces that are simply part of a larger machine. This dictates how almost everyone lives their day to day lives. This squishing down, it should be said, occurs on an uneven topography - i.e., my impulse to work is classed and raced and gendered and so on - but I believe the internal feelings of how worth is gained carry broader mechanical similarities. I feel worthy when I am working, I feel justified - and not just to broader systemic forces, but to my family and my friends and those I care about. I work to provide for myself and one day for others, but I also work to become a better man, to learn more about the universe, and to make things around me better as best as I can. But this kind of vision implies work as like physical force The expectation is that, while I may not always be in motion (a sort of expected future state), there force (work) being applied to my mass, which will cause (in a very immediate sense) a future change. The fundamental flaws of this kind of mechanical thinking, as any physicist would tell me, are that it assumes two things unthinkable in the real world: firstly, it assumes a limited, closed system and, secondly, the limitless application of energy.
Naturally, I cannot achieve either of these things. And so that leaves me with a question: if force (work) cannot be consistently applied to my person in order to create motion, what other states can I achieve? And since my inability to exist in a perpetual state of motion is a natural impossibility, how can I come to understand and accept these other states as natural and maybe even to enjoy them as such?