Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ag dul go bPairc Sequoia

 Sequoia National Park, California
Chuaigh Léna agus mé go bPairc Náisiúnta Sequoia Dé Ceardaoin ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Bhí an Lá de Leorghnímh ann. Mar sin, níl obair aici.

D'iarr sí ag imirt go an teorainn nua. Ní raibh feicthe againn an ceantar faoi na Sierras Thiar ag imeall an Gleann Lárnach. D'fhág muid ár baile ag méan lae.

Thiomaint muid leis ár madra, Opie. Chodlainn sí sa suiomh ar ais. Ní raibh sí ag iarraidh chun breathnú amach.

Ach, rinne mé. Is maith liom ag feacháil na úlloird de liomóidí agus ológaí in aice leis an bailte beagaí. Rith muid tri Bakersfield (ró-te, in aice le 100F), Terra Bella (bhaile dúhais sean-chara), Porterville (eaglaisí go leor), Lindsay (ag fháil bhais ológái), Exeter (an-deas), Lemon Cove (ag fáil bhais), agus Three Rivers (sprionlaithe--aon leithreas phoiblí). Faoi deireadh, tháinig muid an Pairc.

Is maith linn na crannaí rua, agus na móineír Halstead, glas agus ag tabhairt cuireadh le mo radharc. Thít trathnóna nuair d'fhág muid uair an chloig ina dhiaidh sin dhá. Ëist muid go dtí an leabhar "The Secret History" a léamh ag a údar, Donna Tartt, ar an mbealach abhaile fada; d'fhill muid aice le méan oíche.

Going to Sequoia National Park. 

Layne and I went to Sequoia National Park on Wednesday during the past week. It was Yom Kippur. Therefore, she did not work.

She wanted to get out to new territory. We had never seen the region around the Western Sierras around the Central Valley. We left our house at noon.

We drove with our dog, Opie. She slept in the back seat. She did not want to look out.

But, I did. I liked seeing the orchards of lemons and olives near the small towns. We passed through Bakersfield (too-hot, near 100F), Terra Bella (hometown of an old friend), Porterville (lots of churches), Lindsay (dying olives), Exeter (very nice), Lemon Cove (dying), and Three Rivers (miserly--no public restrooms). Finally, we came to the Parc.

We liked the redwoods, and the Halstead Meadow, green and inviting to my sight. Dusk fell when we left two hours later. We listened to the book "The Secret History" read by Donna Tartt, on the long way home; we returned near midnight. (Grianghraf/Photo)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rob Lucas' "Sleep-Walker's Enquiry"

[by ROB LUCAS, expanding his "Dreaming in Code" essay]

This morning, floating through that state between sleep and consciousness where you can become aware of the content of your dreams immediately before waking, I realised that I was dreaming in code again. This has been occurring on and off for the past few weeks — in fact, most times I have become aware of the content of my unconscious mind’s meanderings, it has been something abstractly connected with my job. I remember hearing the sound of the call centre in my ears as I would drift in and out of sleep when that was my job, and I remember stories from friends of doing an extra shift between going to sleep and waking — of the repetitive beeps of a supermarket checkout counter punctuating the night. But dreaming about your job is one thing; dreaming inside the logic of your job is quite another. Of course it is unfortunate if one’s unconscious mind can find nothing better to do than return to a mundane job and carry on working, or if one’s senses seem stamped with the lingering impression of a day’s work. But in the kind of dream that I have been having the very movement of my mind is transformed: it has become that of my job. It is as if the habitual, repetitive thought patterns, and the particular logic which I employ when going about my job are becoming hardwired; are becoming the default logic that I think with. This is somewhat unnerving.

The closest thing that I can think of to this experience is that of someone rapidly becoming acquainted with a new language, and reaching that point at which dreams and the rambling thoughts of the semi-conscious mind start to occur in that language. Here too it is a new kind of “logic” that the mind is assuming — that of the structures and patterns of a language, and here too the mind is able to scan across its own processes with a pseudo-objectivity and determine the nature of their logic as something particular — something which does not yet possess the whole mind, but inhabits it and takes command of its resources. One never really gains this kind of perspective on thoughts in one’s own language; one never normally develops an awareness of the particularity of one’s own thought. But right now I experience it as a clear split: that between the work-logic-me, and the spectator on that me.

I work in IT. Specifically I am a web developer. That means I write potentially all the original code that goes into a website: markup like HTML and XML, the visual styling, the functional “logic” that happens behind the scenes and in your web browser, and the scripts that keep a site running on a web server. I work in a small company, in which I am the main web developer, working alongside one other who also deals with the graphical side. My line manager is the IT manager who, apart from programming himself, takes a lead in organising how our projects come together. Above him are the CEOs, who are a couple of oddball born-again Christians with a serious work ethic. They asked me about my religion in my interview, and set alarm bells ringing straight away. My response was that I didn’t see religion as mere superstition like “banal atheism” does, but that I see it as the real expression of a particular life situation, with its own meaningful content. I could have added that it is the “heart of a heartless world”, but I seemed to have convinced them by that stage that I was a good-ish guy, if not one of them.

After I had worked here for a while the stories started emerging: one of the CEOs claims to be an ex-gangster who saw “the living God” in a bolt-of-lightning revelation when he was contemplating a new scam that involved setting up a fake religion. The other was a successful businesswoman around the dot-com boom, but she fell into a crisis when the father of her child left her, and was converted in a low moment by her new partner — the other CEO. In drunken ramblings at the Christmas do, they have spoken emotively of “the living God”, with that “I was blind but now I can see” way of thinking that is the hallmark of born-agains. They used to try to put all new staff through “The Alpha Course” — a cross-denominational charismatically-inflected project to convert people to Christianity, and to organise monthly “God days” in which all staff would get to take the day off work on the condition that they spend it taking tea with a preacher. Unsurprisingly, many members of staff skipped these days — actually preferring to work than go through some kind of attempted conversion.

They had eased off a little by the time I started — someone had apparently told them that they were at legal risk if they continued to use their business as a missionary organisation. But God still comes to work on a regular basis — intervening to turn the annual business forecast into prophecy, or melding the fortunes of the company with providence. The most notable example for me is the time when I fixed a problem with the speed of our websites. The company had been held up for a while with an appallingly slow performance on each of the many small websites it runs, and people had been searching around for an answer. As long as our performance was that bad, we would’ve only been able to deal with a very limited volume of traffic, and thus a similarly limited number of potential customers. When I figured out the solution the bosses were clearly very happy: suddenly the amount of potential customers we could serve on each site was multiplied by about 30. But rather than thanking me directly, the female CEO simply said that I couldn’t take all of the credit as she’d been praying for better site performance, and we thus had to give God his due. In response I stammered out some over-hasty and awkward attempt at a gag, which trailed into a meaningless murmur.

In an everyday sense, probably the worst part of this job is that I have to deal with the paranoia that comes from knowing that your bosses are insane to the extent that they may not always act in the company’s interest: at least you know where you are with a capitalist who acts with the straightforward rationality of calculated self-interest. When the “living God” takes precedence in deciding company policy, and when stories abound of random and reckless sackings such as that of an employee fired because his wife disagreed with the CEOs’ attitudes towards homosexuality, the sense of a guillotine poised over one’s neck never quite goes away. My line manager is a freakish bipolar who bounces around the office like a well-oiled space hopper one day, and behaves like the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket the next. But he is decent enough, and easy to deal with once you get to know the cycle.

One of the most notable characteristics of the “politics” of this type of job is another kind of bipolarity — the split and antagonism between two poles: the business pole and the technical. The techies always feel that business are making arbitrary decisions based on insufficient knowledge of the way that things really work; that things could be done so much better if only we who understand were left to do it ourselves. Business always feel that the techies are being sticklers, pedants, needlessly and pathologically recalcitrant. Whilst business wishes it could just take flight into the ether, and rid itself of the recalcitrance of its technical staff, the technical staff wish that business would just leave them alone to get the job done properly: that the recalcitrance is that of the real world and its demands. In some ways this makes it easier to deal with the immediate people that I work with: since contact with the business side is mostly supposed to be mediated through a specific “project manager”, I primarily deal with those on my side of the great divide, so it is even possible to develop a certain “us against them” attitude with my line manager, and to hide behind the formal mediations when the shit hits the fan.

This side of the divide we live partially in the worldview of productive capital: business and its needs appear as a parasitic externality imposed upon the real functioning of our great use-value producing enterprise. This side of the divide, we are also strangely tied to a certain normativity; not just that of doing the job right in a technical sense, but also that of thinking in terms of provision of real services, of user experiences, and of encouraging the free flow of information. This sometimes spills over into outright conflict with business: where business will be advocating some torturing of language and truth to try to present “the product”, the techies will try to bend the rod back towards honesty, decency, and transparency. “What goes around comes around” seems to be more or less the prevalent attitude in the world of web development in the era after “Web 2.0”: provide the services for free or cheap, give away the information, open everything up, be decent, and hope that somehow the money will flow in. If business acts with the mind of money capital, encountering the world as a recalcitrance or friction from which it longs to be free, and if a tendency to try to sell snake oil can follow from that, in the strange world where technical pride opposes itself to capital as capital’s own developed super-ego, use-value rules with a pristine conscience, everything is “sanity checked” (to use the terminology of my boss), and the aggregation of value appears as an accidental aside.

I am then, under no illusions that the antagonism which inhabits this company provides any ground for romantic revolutionary hopes. The solidarity that we develop against business, apart from providing us with respite and shelter from individualised victimisation, provides a “sanity check” for the company itself. Indeed, the company is well aware of this situation, and this is more or less acknowledged in the creation of a “project manager” role which is explicitly intended for the management of relations between the two sides. The contradiction between technical staff and business is a productive one for capital: the imperative to valorise prevents the techies from going off too far into their esoteric concerns, whilst the basic need for realism is enforced reciprocally upon business by the techies as they insist on the necessity of a more or less “scientific” way of working.

There is little space left in this relation for a wilful “refusal of work”: with the technical, individualised, and project-centred character of the role, absenteeism will only amount to self-punishment where work that is not done now must be done at some point later, under greater stress. Apart from that, there is the heavy interpersonal pressure that comes with the role: since a majority of the work is “collaborative” in a loose sense, heel-dragging or absenteeism necessarily involves a sense of guilt towards the technical workers in general. Whilst I used to consider previous jobs as crap places to go to with a hangover, I now find that I must moderate my social life in order not to make working life a misery. Sabotage also, is hardly on the cards, not because of some alleged “pride” which comes with being a skilled worker, but because of the nature of the product that I am providing: whilst sabotage on a production line may be a rational technique, where one’s work resembles more that of the artisan, to sabotage would be to make one’s own life harder. One hears of freelancers and contractors who intentionally write unmaintainable and unmanageable “spaghetti code” in order to keep themselves in jobs. This technique may make sense where jobs rely heavily on particular individuals, but where one works in a typical contemporary development team that employs such group-focused and feedback-centred IT management methodologies as “agile” and “extreme” programming, and where “ownership” of a project is always collective, high-quality, clearly readable code has a normative priority that goes beyond whatever simple feelings one might have about doing one’s job well.

Of course, there is that banal level on which I drag myself reluctantly out of bed, strike off as early as I can, and push my luck in terms of punctuality; on which I try to make work time “my time” as much as possible by listening to my iPod while working, sneaking bits of reading time into my working day, or having discreet conversations with friends over the net. This sort of thing is the real fodder of worker’s enquiry. But the bottom-line recalcitrance here is simply that. It is on the same kind of level as the recalcitrance of the human body to work pressure: capital has never been able to make people work a regular 24 hour day — or even close — and people will always test the permissible limits of their own working day. Such is the fundamental logic of the capital-labour relation, and it does not take the pseudo-sociology of a worker’s enquiry to uncover it. Such actions only ever take place in the framework of what is permissible in a given job and, indeed, are defined by this framework. The apparent insubordination of my frequent lateness would soon turn to naught if it threatened my livelihood. And the attendant social pressures that come with this job are such that whatever time I can “claim back” through slack behaviour is more than made up for when the deadline approaches on a project and I work unpaid extra hours into the evening or start work in the middle of the night to fix servers when nobody is using them.

It is only when sickness comes, and I am rendered involuntarily incapable of work, that I really regain any extra time “for myself”. It is a strange thing to rejoice at the onset of the flu with the thought that, in the haze of convalescence, one may finally be able to catch up on a few things that have been pushed aside by work. Here illness indeed appears a “weapon”, but one that fights its own battle, not wielded by the erstwhile aggressor. Yet I wonder sometimes whether this sickness itself can be seen as merely pathological; a contingency imposed upon the body from without. The illness that comes sometimes feels almost willed — a holiday that the body demands for itself. Perhaps there is a continuity between “genuine” illness and the “man-flu” that a matronly temping agent once accused me of when I wilfully ducked out of work for a week on hammy claims to terrible sickness. It is at least certain that if sickness is all that we have, there is little hope here for meaningful “resistance.”

If then, worker’s enquiry is about unearthing a secret history of micro-rebellions, exposing the possibilities for struggle in the fine grain of lived experience, and in the process, bringing consciousness of this to oneself as well as other workers, this is worker’s enquiry in the cynical mode. We “struggle”. We are recalcitrant. But as techies against business our struggle and our recalcitrance are integral to the movement of capital, and as workers against capital our struggle has absolutely no horizon and, indeed, is barely struggle at all. Our day-to-day interest as workers is, in the most part, practically aligned with that of this particular capital. If programmers are a vanguard in the enshrinement of use-value, of technological libertarianism, of collaborative work, of moralistic “best-practices”, of the freedom of information, it is because all of these things are posited as necessary in the movement of capital. The systematic normativity with which our working practice is shot through is merely a universalisation of capital’s own logic.

Just as social capital posits its own constraint in the form of the state in order to not destroy itself through the rapacious self-interest of each individual capital, after an early period of ugly coding due to the fragmentation of the internet into a babel of different platforms, browsers and languages, a consensus formed in the development world that “standards” were important. Central to these standards is an idea of universalism: anything that adheres to these standards should work and be supported. If you don’t adhere to these standards, you are asking for trouble, and it is your own fault if you find yourself pissing your capital away up a technological back-ally. Microsoft became a pariah due to their continual contempt for these standards, and their penchant for developing proprietary annexes on the great public space of the net. Developers began to proudly sport web standards badges on their personal sites, and to become vocal advocates of technologies like Mozilla’s “Firefox” which, apart from the fact that it is “open source”, always beat Internet Explorer hands-down in terms of standards-compliance. Standards became enshrined in the moral universe of the developer, even above open source. To adhere to standards is to take the standpoint of a moral absolute, whilst to diverge from them is a graceless fall into the particularistic interests of specific groups. The universalisability of working practices became the particular imperative of informational capital; a duty to the “invisible church” of the internet.

Whilst some of these traits that come with the particularly collective character of work do not occur in the same way for the freelancer, “being your own boss” tends to amount literally to imposing upon oneself what can otherwise be left to others. I have worked freelance a little before this job, and also in my spare time whilst doing this job, and the very thought of such work now causes my soul to whither a little. In freelancing, one can easily end up working uncountable hours, fiddling with projects in one’s “own” time, with work colonising life in general due to the inevitable tendency to fail to self-enforce the work/life separation that at least guarantees us a fleeting escape from the lived experience of alienated labour. At least, when I walk out of the office I enter the world of non-work.

Indeed, the hardened work/life separation of the Mon-Fri 9-5 worker looms increasingly large in the totality of my experience. Whilst Sunday is a gradual sinking into the harsh knowledge that the return to work approaches and a sometimes dragging of the dregs of the weekend into the wee small hours of the morning, Friday evening is the opening of a gaping chasm of unquenchable desire, and the desperate chasing after satisfaction whose ultimate logic is also that of boozey self-annihilation. I become increasingly a hedonistic caricature of myself, inveighing against others to party harder, longer, and blowing much of my free time away in a fractured, hungover condition. This is the desiring state of the old fashioned rock’n’roller: the beyond of work as a state of pure transcendent desire and consumption, the nothingness of a pure abstract pleasure beyond the mere reproduction of labour-power. The refusal to merely reproduce ourselves as workers coupled to a desire to annihilate ourselves as humans. This is what the Stooges’ “1970” means.

But when I’m lying in that splintered early morning consciousness the night after partying, slipping in and out of dreams, and as the previous night’s fleeting attempt at liberation recedes, I often find that I am dreaming in code. It can be one of various kinds of code — any of those that I work with. A sequence will pop into my head and rattle around, unfolding itself as it goes, like a snatch of melody or conversation repeating itself in your ears. Much of the time, if I was conscious enough to re-examine it, it’d probably be nonsense: I have enough difficulty dealing with the stuff when I’m awake, and I suspect that my unconscious mind would fare little better. But sometimes it is meaningful.

One morning recently I awoke with the thought of a bug in some code that I had written — a bug which I had not previously realised was there. My sleeping mind had been examining a week’s work, and had stumbled upon an inconsistency. Since I am a thought-worker, and since the identification and solution of such problems is the major aspect of my job, it is not that fantastical to say that I have been performing actual labour in my sleep. This is not the magical fecundity of some generalised creative power, churning out “value” somehow socially, beyond and ontologically before the labour process. It is actual work for capital, indistinguishable in character from that which I perform in my working day, but occurring in my sleeping mind. Suddenly the nightmarish idea of some new kind of subsumption — one that involves a transformation of the very structures of consciousness — begins to look meaningful. Indeed, I find that standard paths of thought seem increasingly burned into my mind: the momentary recognition that there is a problem with something prompts a fleeting consideration of which bit of code that problem lies in, before I consciously jolt my mind out of code-world and into the recognition that “bugfixing” does not solve all problems. Comical as it sounds, there is something terrifying here.

Beyond the specific syntax of a language, isn’t it a particular logic, or way of operating that is brought into play when one thinks in this way? It is one that I suspect is not neutral: the abstract, instrumental logic of high-tech capitalism. A logic of discrete processes, operations, resources. A logic tied to particular “ontologies”: the objects, classes, and instances of “object-oriented programming”, the entities of markup languages like HTML. This is the logic which increasingly inhabits my thought. And when thought becomes a mode of activity that is productive for capital — the work for which one is actually paid — when that mode of activity becomes a habit of mind that springs into motion “as if by love possessed”, independent of one’s willed, intentional exertion, doesn’t this prompt us to wonder whether the worker here is entirely the bourgeois subject that capital always summoned to the marketplace: whether the subject of this labour process is the centred individual who would set about making his own world if it were not for the alienating, abstractive power of value? When I find myself observing myself sleep-working, I observe myself acting in an alienated way, thinking in a manner that is foreign to me, working outside of the formal labour process through the mere spontaneous act of thought. Who is to say that the overcoming of this “alienation” will not be that language taking its place as mother-tongue: that alienation will not entirely swallow that which it alienates?

If the workplace here is the forlorn site, no longer of that exteriority of the worker in which it is meaningful and possible to commit daily acts of insubordination, to develop a sense of a latent “autonomy” posited in the very exteriority of the worker to the process of production, but of a productive antagonism in which technical workers give capital its “sanity check” and in which recalcitrance is merely that of the bodiliness of these materials through which capital flows; and if labour becomes a mere habit of thought that can occur at any time — even in sleep — what hope is there here for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalism? What does our revolutionary horizon look like? It must surely appear foolish to place any hope — at least in an immediate sense — in the nature of this mental work and its products, in the internet or in “immaterial labour”

P.S. While that image accompanying this entry does seem hyperbolic, for any "knowledge worker" cannot be equated with a girl toiling in a brickyard in India, a mother in Aleppo, or a prisoner in Lhasa all of whom face conditions of debt/slavery, the grip of our work over our self-image appears to overwhelm many of us. Increasingly, Marx's theory of alienation between our identity and what we do to sustain ourselves daily grows as the divisions between work and the rest of our life tempt to free us (telecommuting at least for privileged First World situations) or trap us (checking our work e-mail before we sleep). Managers and software seek to enter a realm where even sleep might be monetized.

I share this article for educational purposes under fair use to supplement my own exploration of this topic. Lucas' essay "Dreaming in Code" NLR 62 (Mar-April 2010) expanded and appeared anonymously as above as "Sleep-Walker's Enquiry" at EndNotes #2. Thanks to Liam O'Rourke for the NLR contents, cited in my 8/27/15 review in Spectrum Culture of The Mythology of Work by Peter Fleming. See Recomposition for workers' accounts of sleep + work and a brief comparision to Lucas's article by "JF" reviewing Recomposition's anthology Lines of Work at Unity + Struggle (4-23-14). 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Peter Fleming's "The Mythology of Work": Book Review

The Mythology of Work
This is the first academic title I have reviewed where four-letter words and slangy invective jostle for space alongside dutiful repetition of theory. The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself sustains Peter Fleming's critique of corporate culture. In his third book on this subject, he shifts from the institution to the employee. Or, perhaps associate, colleague or team member.

Many of us carry such titles now, after all. These terms convey collegiality and shared engagement. Yet, as Fleming confirms via a 2013 Gallup Poll, 70% of millions of workers surveyed worldwide report being "actively disengaged" within the neo-liberal version of employee exploitation. Workers subsidize the rich as well as the poor; the job over the past generation has become the epicenter of life. Fleming seeks "how to successfully refuse it and the webs of capture it closely spins."

When we value ourselves only as human capital, "mobile and always potentially valorizable," our self-worth plummets. As we run by our "biopower," our energy depleted during the day and renewed in our sleep, Fleming adds, we report to management. They treat us as if a "deranged girlfriend" who not only has no interest in whether she is liked or is loved, but lacks any liking or love for herself.

Such a startling metaphor captures the spirit of Fleming's book. While far too much of it follows a scholarly pattern of citations from professors and recitals of their findings, the vocabulary now and then wakes the reader up. For instance, a worker equals a "tagged prisoner." Today's results-driven work environment breaks up many tasks. They may be completed any time, day or night. This means no more "normal working day" where we can clock in and out, assured our boss will not call us in the middle of the night, e-mail us on Sunday morning, or text us on vacation. The electronic format that allows more of us to telecommute and submit our workload remotely also means that we are watched. The "injunction to perform" needs no punch clock. It depends on the time-stamp of what we upload.

While such a dispersed workplace may suggest democracy, Fleming reminds us of the contrary. Workers feel as if "behind enemy lines" when a supervisor asks us to speak frankly. With electronic data stored, keystrokes logged, and cubicles leaving us exposed to a Panopticon boss, a worker's autonomy ends. Mandated retreats and meetings enable managers to ferret out introverts or stragglers. Performance reviews often supplant the judgement of supervisors as to the worth of his or her workers. Delineated in numbing detail, job duties are tallied piecemeal, requiring employees to juggle multiple projects with sometimes no start or end. Facing this open-ended situation wearies workers.

"How can one speak to power and still retain anonymity?" Fleming asks such tough questions. Some workplaces have shifted superficially into more welcoming places, but this comfort level is pitched by the bosses, not the workers. The managers claim a rhetoric of frankness, but employees know that the conversation more often than not is likely to remain one-sided, tilted towards those issuing orders.

Workers feel trapped. Managers co-opt a neo-liberal acknowledgment of discontent apparent from their subordinates. A grip of capitalist "disruption" chokes everyone. Fleming avers how a "capitalist employment relationship begins to resemble a weird version of the battered-wife syndrome: the more we are beaten, and emotionally haunted by rejection, the more we desire to stay."

In our precarious and unstable economy, worker options to flee are few. In earlier decades, anarchists preached slowdowns, absenteeism, and sick-ins to factory workers. Unions were growing, and strikes were a potent threat. Now, as IT consultant Rob Lucas is quoted by Fleming, radical advice proves unwise. For "when your work resembles that of an artisan, sabotage would only make life harder." This resonates with many readers. Our tasks depend on us alone, or as part of a team of co-workers. With few places to hide from oversight, in person or online, workers grasp at a restoration of "biopower" by snatched days off. Lucas concurs, "It is a strange thing to rejoice in the onset of a flu."

Rationalization and efficiency reduce many workforces while increasing demand upon those left. Fleming attempts to alleviate the impacts felt by both employees and managers at the end of this short study. A surplus living wage. "post-state democratic organizations," ending oligarchies and monopolies, a three-day work week, "demassifying society as a positive global movement," and finally "demonetarizing incentive structures" comprise his six-point plan. Today's tumult in stock markets, the EU debt debates, the anger by many at too much or too little work all speak to such pressures. While these prescriptions seem utopian under our present circumstances, Fleming's disgust at "a factory that never sleeps" reminds us of the cynicism and paranoia that corrode many lives daily.
(Spectrum Culture 8-27-15; Amazon US 9-20-15)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Never Work? Nevermind

 Never Work
Today is a day of no work, according to Jewish injunction. I suppose even non-observant MOT's take off for this. My wife reminds our older son, as they both work in Hollywood (in the greater geographical sense as well as the metaphorical one), that the High Holy Days mean time off work. Despite the rest of the economy, siestas and holy-holidays persist, within the margins.

The notion of what we are to do on this day off varies nowadays. Kol Nidre, with its plaintive chant of collective guilt, and its haunting melody, ushers in the night of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. We ask pardon of each other, and together in temple, of God. As a relevant aside, I'd hate it when I'd hear a priest's sermon, as a child, and the labored exegesis on a post-Vatican II, guitar mass at-one-ment rattled out as if a marvel of deep thoughts.

However, the prospect of taking a break from everyday life is commendable. When I was in college, I worked at J.C. Penney. The mall opened at 11 or noon (can't recall now) and closed at 5. This meant some semblance of a nod to time off remained. At least in cities, nothing seems to shut down 9-3/5-ish except banks, medical offices, and schools. The pressure to follow fast-food and gyms to stay open all night seems to grow, but I wonder if has diminished a bit when Amazon now promises one-hour delivery as of this month, in my native city as well as other hectic, Type-A or hedonic urbs.

The Situationists, of whom I've been reading lately with mingled interest and contempt, celebrated "ne travaillez jamais": the new commandment riffing off the First, to keep the day holy by never working. Yet not one day, but all week. Is this really possible? Can you get by doing what you please? Outside of a generous dole in a welfare state, can one do this in a capitalist system that demands one look for work, and provide one's biopower, as Foucault phrased it, to run for profit?

The then-youthful collective at CWC tried this around the late last century. They emerged from anarcho-punk's stubborn idealism, Ten years after, amidst our Great Recession, they debriefed.
It’s tempting to brush this off as mere performance art. Yet we have to understand it as an early attempt to answer the question that still faces would-be revolutionaries in the US and Western Europe: What could interrupt our obedience? Contemporary insurrectionists are attempting to ask this same question now, though the answers many of them offer are equally limited. By themselves, neither voluntary unemployment nor gratuitous vandalism seem to be capable of jerking society into a revolutionary situation.[2] Despite everything, we stand by our initial hunch that it will take a new way of living to bring about such a situation; it’s not just a matter of putting in enough hours at the same old tasks. The essential fabric of our society—the curtain that stands between us and another world—is above all the good behavior of exploited and excluded alike.
They criticize the situation more recently. "It turns out capitalism has no more use for us than we have for it. This doesn’t just go for anarchist dropouts, but for millions of workers in the US." What had been praised as voluntary refusal for a few misfits became for many, a involuntary predicament.

I've been called out as "wanting to be with the cool kids" by hating this economic and social system we labor under. Hard work, after all, we're all schooled, is our ticket out and up. I made schooling my way out of a bleak existence, where a dog kennel represented the future, I came from a blue-collar family, living in an industrial zone in a faceless sprawl of dust and concrete east of L.A.. If not for boosting GPA and blowing off lots of fun in my earlier years, I'd never had made it to this level of education preparing me for my career. Back then a Cal and a Pell Grant, work study, and scholarships could cover a lot more than the inflated tuition everywhere now. I had no safety net, no rich uncles.

Speaking of which, when hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli jacks up the anti-parasitical medication Daraprim he controls from $13.50 to $750 a pill overnight, one wonders about moral free markets. Under investigation for insider trading "irregularities." Claiming "altruistic motives" for this 7500% increase in the medicine he now owns, this Turing Big Pharma CEO represents the shadow under the bright benefits of enterprise where the winner takes all, and the rest can go to hell. Makes me sick.

(Update: he did renege the next day. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton used this case to push for drug reform. Americans can pay 10 times what Canadians do. I'd put up with more taxes wisely spent than the medical, housing, educational, transportation, and other debt burdens we increasingly bear. But as the GOP rushes to remind us, and HRC too, we must instead invade Syria and return to Iraq.)

Some praise this system as affording the lowliest opportunity. The kid from Somalia who enters Harvard is an inspiring story. But for most of us, a global race into the havens of the elite means a lot more left beside the gates than getting in. Bill Gates did drop out of Harvard, but he made it in, and that's what counts. I am more an auto-didact than a proud product of what I did for homework, and I will give my opponents their due by reiterating there's a lot out there to help anybody near a library. Let alone online, with Duolingo, the Khan Academy, and Open Culture. So, I see the other side. I was brought up to witness the treatment of the little guy, and to beware of fat cats and golden handshakes.

The imbalance of ambition to its rewards rankles. It may seem silly to some that I carry a chip on my shoulder. My mom always hoped I'd become a lawyer. On a humbler note, I found out I make, after two decades, about the same as Kim Davis, the controversial anti-gay county clerk in Kentucky, who inherited her mother's sinecure. I know. I have no naivete that the humanities pays off like a jackpot.

I realize I am lucky to have full-time employment in an occupation where now three-fourths of us are teaching on non-tenure, often part-time "contingent" tracks. Assisted by digital delivery, the nature of my work has changed dramatically since I began over three decades ago. I am in front of a class less time than before, at least in compressed fashion, eight rather than fifteen weeks. But I also work more at home. I am online every day. E-mails replace phone calls, but I am still on call, and monitored too.

So, as this 24/7 nature of work expands over the past two decades, I also feel drawn to suss out those who articulate alternatives to our malaise. The escape from work that our ancestors had, when at least they attended a church or temple to leave their peasant troubles behind a few hours, is gone. Perhaps along with the illusion of a Stern or Loving Presence, we have abandoned the ability to settle down. That is, away from our cubicle and on our couch, the luxury of shutting out media, alone in thought. Some, cast off to search, lament this status. In dead-end jobs, underemployed, not doing what they want, they face the anguish of getting food, finding shelter, meeting the bills. They must accept any work on the offer, and they lack any choice or any privileged disdain of how the hoi polloi toil.

Unless we have the nepotism or inside connections Kim Davis or colleagues enjoy, we have to battle to keep our positions. It's easy from some Oregon squat to mock Joe Lunchpail or Jane Assistant, but dumpster diving and shoplifting will not pay my mortgage. Rent isn't cheap, credit is as alluring as quicksand, and despite our attempts at savings, many of us are near the edge if disaster strikes. We face a sharing economy where we are told to drive our cars or rent out our spare rooms to support each other. Pensions vanish, loyalty of boss to worker evaporates, and bottom-line decisions rule. Unions fade, the helping hand withdraws, and all-but-open borders enable global competition. The rooted lives some of our families had, working decades in one career in one place, are swept away.

While nostalgia is dangerous, the dissolution of family ties and the imposition of economic imperatives minimize our individual status even more. Outsourcing, offshoring, offloading. We do the work of more, if we are considered valuable enough, or work far less, if we are not. Either way, the job turns precarious. Automation and cheaper labor somewhere else combine to shove us down.

CWC elaborates: "Now erratic employment and identification with one’s leisure activities rather than one’s career path have been normalized as an economic position rather than a political one." They go on: "Capitalism is also incorporating our assertion that people should act according to their consciences instead of for a wage. In an economy full of opportunities to sell one’s labor, it makes sense to emphasize the importance of other motivations for activity; in a precarious economy, being willing to work for free has different implications. The state increasingly relies on the same do-it-yourself ethic that once animated the punk underground to offset the deleterious effects of capitalism." That is, volunteers clean up after a BP oil spill, or I might add, take in refugees in the EU from Syria on their own. The State, in the CWC reaction, expects more of us to do its dirty work. But, a left-libertarian might reason that this agency, in the hands of everyday people, is also liberating. Why should we wait for the State to help each other out?  CWS wants subversion and resistance, and end to the conditions creating poverty--and ecological ruin, and imperialist slaughter, all the same.

This all seems twisted to me into a New Age or corporate-sponsored slogan. T-shirts are peddled with Situationist art and phrases. "Do what you love and never work a day in your life," we are urged. I like teaching, but the administrative tasks and additional responsibilities can wear one out. In my tenure at LAUSD, I'd bristle at the clause "and other duties as assigned" which gave a principal total command over what a teacher could be made to do. The union must have capitulated there. Yet I find even in my own profession, how once a review is commissioned (if gratis, furthermore) or a research project assigned, it turns into homework. That discipline can motivate me, and editors excise me of the tortured or verbose tendencies of my prose and my thought-process, a necessary surgery.

But I also like roaming on my own, learning whatever I want. Duolingo for Irish, Italian, French. The Net for ideas. FB for book recommendations from my friends, or films and music to catch up on. A.S. Byatt's novel Possession was one I abandoned years ago, for in grad school I hated reading of the more privileged, less attenuated and generously grant-funded stints of my British counterparts in English Lit. Yet I remember fondly Byatt's evocation of a life where one's research and one's passions mingled, and one's reading encompassed (still pre-Net then) the immersion into thought and action. The two blended, and in that moment, a glimpse of the imagined radical future can be prefigured.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tell Me Why

Flip to back Flip to frontI took one of "those" FB quizzes recently to confirm what I already have been called. It tallied me up as a skeptic. I wonder if this is inbred? I seem from an early age to be full of questions, not settling for the usual platitudes or casual responses. I want to dig deeper, but I question more even then. A favorite children's book. ca. the late '60s? Tell Me Why.

One of those wonderful productions in the Golden Books series (I think but I may be wrong), it listed hundreds of answers to such questions as "why is the sky blue?" Refracted crystals in the air, I dimly recall. I was reminded of this when today I came across a FB meme citing Epictetus: don't explain a philosophy, rather embody it. I have always been curious and eager to learn more, and except for math and jazz, I reckon I've looked up arcana on just about everything. While my interests shift, it's all striated. Like the Grand Canyon, you can see layers of what compels me to stay up late on this blog. The past few years may show chess, Buddhism, the Irish language, anarchism, or The Who.

It all sinks in. I make connections across limits. Richard Papen's professor of Greek, Julian Morrow, in Donna Tartt's The Secret History contrasts, unfavorably, the linear precision of ancient inquiry with the modern mind, which skips about among associations and whimsies. I embody the latter, but with enough of a dose of the former to keep me somewhat on track, despite what editors and friends may say. I suppose I tread not deeply but widely. I explained the other day to my class Isaiah Berlin's metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog. Despite my homebody stubbornness, I know which I am.

 Milton Glaser, the graphic artist, confided the advice not to hold on to beliefs too tightly, and I find this sensible. Not to be beholden as a slave to any one theory, but to learn from them all, as my philosophy professor wisely counselled me the day I graduated--when he found I'd go on to grad school. Perhaps that is why I never made it to the pinnacle of some of my classmates, but at least I have the chance to keep searching on my own for meaning, rather than be credentialed as a pundit or exponent of one school of thought or one period, one author or one school, in my journey in ideas.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Potlucks and freeloaders

Suffering From Capitalism? I have been contemplating, often as I drive listening the past month or so to forty hours of Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch, read wonderfully on audio by David Pittu, about its themes of how evil can produce good, and bad intentions may be construed ethically as justifiable. At least in hindsight by its main actors.

With its nods to not only a Dickensian scope and breadth, but Proust and Dostoevsky's The Idiot. the novel takes on, near its end at least, the question of morals and intentions. Every system to improve humanity has some roots in efficiency and practicality. None are totally removed from reality. Even those from left-libertarian aspirations, however dim or doomed to speculation, base their strategies in what is possible to draw out from within us. Like Tartt's characters, they pause and examine how their schemes have emerged from their occluded hopes, over decades. The political theorists and anarchic idealists I find myself reading recently claim that anarchism intends to bring about glimmers of such  better lives by allowing people freedom of choice rather than duty and obligation. As to who would clean up after the party, and who would pick up the trash, the reasoning goes all would pitch in, or divide the tasks. If motivation counts, I reckon those who'd develop new technologies of composting and waste disposal would get extra dessert at the communal feast. There's always competition, after all, built in. Still, I can't cheer on those who promote free markets above ecological stewardship. I have grown up with an instinctive aversion to real estate development rather than open space. I see land and to me it is never undeveloped, but a terrain where weeds, trees, birds, and beasts thrive.

One of our flaws may be the curse of Adam and Eve. Not to stay in our sylvan paradise, but to cut forests down, to kill animals, to dominate by naming all creatures and creations. I guess I lament my own childhood's end, prematurely, as lemon groves gave way to freeways and tract homes. The chaparral recedes, now as fire threats, beneath or around the subdivisions replacing my fields of play.

We seem cursed to reproduce this. To me, who found myself sympathetic with Augustine in medieval philosophy class, I recognize the inborn darkness that confounds the light; I lack the praise of humanity of progressives. However contradicting myself, I also inherit a Fenian stubbornness that contains a strong dose of defiance, albeit self-contained more than erupting, of questioning the status quo. I don't romanticize the poor, and coming from blue-collar roots, I reject glorifying working stiffs. Still, as I teach and talk with my students often from such similar roots, I slip in my slant.

For, I take their side more than their "betters."  I sidle away from profiteers. I may bend but I don't want to bow down. I don't like subservience, but I don't mind meritocracy. I can't reduce endeavor to earnings, nor can I run my life fueled only by a paycheck or by a media diversion or gadget. I savor autonomy, I seek transformation, I suspect commodification, I shrink from surveillance.

Margaret Atwood observes of our ancestors, how they treated troublemakers: "In the millennia we spent as hunter-gatherers, we had neither passwords nor prisons. Everyone in your small group knew and accepted you, though strangers were suspect. No one got put in jail, because there were no buildings to serve that purpose. If a person became a threat to the group – for instance, if he became psychotic and expressed a desire to eat people – it would be the duty of the group to kill him, whereas nowadays it would be the duty of the group to lock him up, in order to keep others from harm."

How do we, in our own prison of our own making, deal with malcontents? If we are building on this medium a better world, how does the purported libertarian ethic of the Net's countercultural founders fit into the corporate model we all pay fealty to today, as I type this via Google and post it on FB? 

So I was musing with a FB friend recently. When I cited anarchists who propose that if freeloaders showed up at the potluck, soon enough they'd be banished, the response came wittily and rapidly. Who likes potlucks anyway? Let the freeloaders eat at them. So much for the elevation of the kibbutz over the TV dinner in front of one's own screen. I was reminded of picking up trash in giant black bags in the dining area after my younger son's coming of age ceremony, as congregants mostly sat about kibitzing and very few offered to pitch in at all as me as the host, in suit, grappled with garbage

I suppose no meal, elegant or utilitarian, will dissuade those who flock to a free lunch, wherever it is held. Especially if it is apart from a ceremony, if one times one's arrival carefully. Socialism tries to encourage the expectation all will gather for the celebration--after the ceremony. Capitalism might counter that the freeloaders will sneak in later. Especially if those hosting are renowned for a better spread than day-old baked goods. But a part of me, in spite of my own aloofness, recognizes the lure of a life where people come together not out of profit or manipulation, but out of a purer sense of joy.

Is that primal life, where supposedly our ancestors gathered and hunted to share their bounty equally. only a distant origin myth? Early Marxists and today's anarchist anthropologists find that socialist paeans to a pre-patriarchal era are proven true. So, that capitalism is the root cause of our maladies was a meme I posted, if half in jest, at least that fraction seriously. There's slippage of leisure into work more as my job responsibilities find me at a keyboard every day at some point, and the idea of "weekends off" fades when one teaches Saturday morning and then grades on Sunday evening.

My intellectual sparring partner responded that the problem with capitalism was not its existence, but the demand for consuming goods no matter what. I suppose the quaint notion I had in college when I worked for J.C. Penney at a mall which opened at noon and closed at 5 on Sunday stuck with me. Some time off was necessary: I am not sure how I managed to go to Saturday evening Mass if I worked back then and had to go to work Sunday, but despite dim memories of mandated attendance, the concept of the sacred and the profane had ritual and practical separation. Now that seems gone.

So, I've l taken some time over these ten days of reflection to do so on this blog. If the personal and political blur, so be it. That is how I think and how I act and how I teach. I hope you like reading it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In the shadow of The Great Communicator

 take the stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate ...
I suppose patience, being a virtue, grows even on me. Long chastised as the one who wants to hurry business along, who has no time for chit-chat, who gets to the point even if barbed by bluntness or tipped with frankness, this trait of mine may be at odds with my aloof quality and self-effacing mood.

Last evening, I watched the GOP debates, round 2. I had missed the preliminaries last month, when the candidates who garnered below 10% were relegated to the "JV" game. I did not even know it was televised. Apparently Carly Fiorina did well enough to get called up to the majors this time around.  She joined a sometimes tame, but often near-rabid, flock of hawks.

Perhaps it's as well I did not watch her in the first dust-up. Her look cut glass. So, when The Donald patronized her, she shot back the kind of glare all men know all too well from matriarchal millennia. We watching wondered if she was always like this. Having as Californians dismissed her in a failed gubernatorial run a few years back, I don't think I had ever bothered to hear her speak back then on tv. Despised for her termination of 30k workers at HP, and a disastrous takeover of Compaq, surely her appearance was ill-timed considering HP, crediting years later her tenure, prepared yesterday to lay off another 30k. But that's my dad's days term. Now we say "reduction in force" or "rightsizing."

Such muffled verbiage, however, was not the case when it came to more war. All rallied 'round the flag, boys and girl. At least semi- libertarian Rand Paul, like his father Ron, at least demurred to it as a last resort. He held his own when defending states' rights on an issue even liberals might support, marijuana decriminalization. Fiorina, defying my wife's insistence that if women ruled, we'd have no more war, proved herself at least in this man's world to be as hawkish as, well, Hillary herself.

A lot of people are distracted by Trump. I don't worry. At this point in '08, Rudy Giuliani was ahead; in '12, Rick Perry. We all know whom we thought would run against Rudy two elections ago. Beyond Trump's calculated, celebrity-honed, media-savvy bluster, there were ideas that he and his colleagues revealed now and then. I found as I listened, to the small debate of two hours between wild-eyed Bobby Jindal, patrician George Pataki (was he running even?), a rather subdued Rick Santorum, and a puckish Lindsey Graham, drawn in much more than I expected. With only four, they had room for extended confrontation. They had a great tussle over the Kim Davis clerk case, and her refusal to carry out the law. This was contrasted and compared to the "gay wedding cake" trope and bakers' rights. I find this all engrossing, as it pits the Establishment against the Free Exercise clauses. And, First Amendment issues, to me, have always been my favorite. In Civics, I loved the Bill of Rights.

Graham even raised Marbury v Madison. With some Carolinian humor and banter, he praised drinking and provided lighter relief. Pataki reminded me of some Rockefeller Republican, from an era before The Great Communicator dominated, as he has, nearly my entire adult life as a voter.

For, before the prop of his Air Force One, the Reagan Library (to me a desecration of Simi Valley's open space, but that's a cowboy actor from Illinois for you, another fake native of my Golden State) hosted the GOP rivals. They all paid homage to their icon. Many were lost in the shuffle this time. John Kasich (whom I found since the first debate worked 2002-08 for Lehman Brothers, hmmm) could not get in as much of a presence as before. A booming Mike Huckabee, a feral Scott Walker, a sly Ted Cruz, and even straight-talking, albeit crooked, Chris Christie got lost in the crowd. At least Christie told the grandstanders to shut up and focus on the issues, a page stolen from "the Socialist's" strategy that Bernie Sanders insists upon when refusing to attack Hillary Clinton. (We'll see after next month's debate.) Fiorina shouted above them, and then pulled the predictable pout card to hint that the gang was shutting her out. She slammed as hard as the rest of them, and sought to out-do Trump at times in presence--her blue dress and botoxed face, perfect hair and grimacing mien assisted this.

Lest you call me sexist, look in the aftermath at Arnold Schwarzenegger. His florid face, pulled back, revealed a plastic surgery disaster, as The Dead Kennedys called an album. Let alone his wattles. 

Along with Fiorina, Ben Carson is rising in the polls, but I fail to understand his appeal. He seems too understated, too disengaged. His prattle lacks substance, even as his doctor's manner soothes us. None of them had that slick ease Reagan and Hillary's husband had perfected before the cameras.

Marco Rubio, at 43 looking 23, has that Kennedy-esque boyishness that may appeal. He's been dogged by his flip-flop on his immigration stance, as he tries to court those whom his some of his opponents shun. But I do support his proposal (was it him?) to end chain-migration and instead favor those whose talents can aid us. Rather than giving priority to those who cut in line and demand their rights by proximity south of the border. On the other hand, he and Jeb Bush sought to reach out, unsurprisingly, to the "Hispanics." Bush called Trump out on the charge Jeb played favorites due to his wife's Mexican origins, but to me, objectively, this seems fair--we all are influenced by bonds to those whom we love or whom we invite into our family and friendship. I do credit Cruz, much as liberals mock him, for getting us all once again (as Fiorina said, for the past twenty-five years an ignored or at least failed issue) to discuss the impact of 11 million here who have broken the law.

In Europe, millions are trying to reach there from Africa and the Middle East. Generous welfare and resettlement programs abound. The plea is that the West is not reproducing enough, so "we" need the labor that others provide to shore up such programs. But is this not inviting many more beyond, and as with Latin American and Asia to North America, accelerating rather than decreasing pressures? 

For we born here have no say. We elect officials and as Pataki said re: Kim Davis, they are expected to carry out the law. But direct involvement is always removed, whether we want to overturn gay marriage discrimination, or control who comes into our country legally and who is best qualified. I know this separates me from most of my family and friends and like-minded fellow travellers. Yet, I am firmly convinced that reductions in population and incentives to immigrate will ease pressure on the planet, and promote a more sustainable economy and society than our crowded capitalist frenzy.

The birthright citizenship question emerging now is indicative of what we ignore. Paul claimed  (as did Trump to Bush) that the 14th Amendment granting slaves citizenship if born on American soil applied to those "under the jurisdiction of the" U.S. He and Trump (who started off the debate by insulting Paul for his "1%" polling) at least concurred that this wording had not even been adjudicated conclusively at the highest level. Whether this makes the children of illegal (undocumented? here without permission?) immigrants citizens by default is, once again, a topic I look forward to hearing serious debate about. The left decries any dissension as prejudiced, but I'd be as angry if Canadian Hutterites sauntered over the Great Plains and settled on Lakota reservations.

Nations may falter before multinationals, but for now, doesn't a country have the right on behalf of those who live there, not those who enter there without permission, to decide who gets to stay there?  None of us like gate-crashers in person. We are told that open borders are moral, but we do not practice the concept of pushing to the front of a line. Others have waited years for visas. Besides, 40% of those who come here, as the candidates admitted, are on visas that expire. Many shrug. Sanctuary cities are justified, families are caught up in legal limbo, and big business likes the cheap labor as much as the Dems welcome if not a present than a future "demographic." Until the next "reform" or "amnesty" fifteen years from now. No wall is big enough, no screening tough enough.

For too long--and it shows once in a while patience can enable me to agree with nearly anyone if only on one in a hundred assertions--the Democrats, pandering to their voter base, or non-voting if you look around where I live, have shut down any serious debate on this, with knee-jerk charges of racism. This frustrates me for ecological and practical reasons. Our "democratic" system enables a few who decide such issues, imposing or ignoring policy for the many. So, for all the silliness that the media and liberals assume swirls around the "clown car" of GOP candidates, I do rescue thought now and then. However brief. Otherwise, ISIS vied with Planned Parenthood as last night's demon du jour.