Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Toad Work

Recently I have become aware that Blackberry commercials are the most annoying thing I encounter on a daily basis. Before their recent ad campaign my impression of Blackberry was mostly positive. I'm a little suspicious of Apple and the iPhone, which are far too eager to corner the market on cool. Buying a Blackberry would be a vote for the classic and a way to resist the stampede toward the new. Plus Obama loves his, or did before the secret service took it away. My affinity for the Blackberry is a sign that, whatever its excesses, there is still something alluring about American business culture. Even socialists have to admit it.

But then appeared this ad campaign, featuring young gyrating arty-types, rock musicians, dancers--a whole menagerie of unpromising wealth-enhancement strategies, all offering obeisance to that counterculture businessman's koan "Love what you do". This is offensive because I find it impossible to believe that people who work, especially people whose work requires a Blackberry, love it. Even painters and musicians hate to work; why else do so many big rock bands split up after 10 years? I'll resist the urge to quote another Philip Larkin poem. But even when work is fundamental to a person's identity, as it should be, it is impossible to ignore the futility interwoven into every human pursuit. Artists realize this as well as anyone. The only people who don't realize it are those who are so narrowly focused on short-term gain that they lack the ability to generate a narrative that would explain to themselves their actions in the world.

Coat recently wrote that socialism's aim was to exhalt use over exchange values, to return us to a precapitalist intimacy with things. I think at its essence socialism was a critique of work and an attempt at its rehabilitation. The Soviet Union tried to create a world in which work would be awesome. Steelworkers became celebrities. Poets wrote 5 lines a year and got a dacha in the country. Functionaries and bureaucrats were granted absolute local power. It didn't turn out that way of course. If anything work was more unpleasant in that drab system. And there wasn't even anything to buy with whatever you earned. But as the planet fills up with bodies and overheats, as industry disappears and the number of indispensible individuals shrinks, we might consider grappling with this toad while we still have a chance. And buying a Blackberry won't help at all.


  1. What I admire about Soviet Union's theoretical regard for the value of work, is the way everybody signs their names, Veteran of Labor, and put that title right along their other titles, including Veteran of the Great Patriotic War.

  2. I think the idea that we are all engaged in abstract labor that is part of some larger national or human effort is appealing, but I also think we have to address the specific ends of work. Why is it better to work than not work? What exactly is this stuff we are making? On the other hand, William James said something to the effect that the amount of effort you put into life's tasks determines the degree of satisfaction you get out of it. That sounds a lot like the Soviet exaltation of abstract labor; it doesn't matter what you do as long as you try.