Work

July 14, 2005 § 7 Comments

I spent almost eleven gloriously air-conditioned hours at the union office today. It was my favourite kind of work day, which consists of intense bursts of hyper-focused activity punctuated by languorous smoke breaks taken on the small, metal fire escape that services the office window.

This rhythm of work—and it is very much a rhythm—can only occur under certain conditions. To begin, it requires absolute solitude; for the time that I’m there, I need to feel that the room is wholly and completely mine. Secondly, it requires equally absolute silence; though I love music more than I can describe, I cannot listen to it while working. Thirdly, it is entirely dependent upon the fire escape, which not only facilitates cigarette smoking but the periods of reflection that are the hallmark of the habit.

In this way, my work time is clearly demarcated: action/reflection; tension/release; forward/back. In musical terms, it is the distinction and interplay between pushing and dragging the beat, a phenomenon that is based on a difference of microseconds, if that, but which nevertheless transforms the perception of rhythmic flow. A great deal of the art of jazz, and most R&B, resides in this small acoustic space.

Harkening back to yesterday’s post, it has become increasingly clear to me that one of the primary reasons that graduate students in the humanities are so woefully unproductive—and let’s face it, we are—is because we are given no physical space to work in. Science grads, as I have recently discovered, are given offices as part of their studies, which may or may not contain computers, internet connections, and phone lines, but which almost always come with a key. It is a space that is theirs but is not home, one that provides both the physical and temporal boundaries that delimit the sphere of work, and which grants de facto recognition of what transpires there as something that has value.

By contrast, we humanities types grab space wherever we can get it: at a library carrel, if we are lucky and one is available; in cafés, when our apartments are too hot and we can’t think straight anymore; on bus and train rides to other destinations. Mostly, though, we work from home, the place where we do all the other things that make up a life, the things that define a space as not-work. Where is the distinction? Between one part of a room and another? Between different times of the day? To use another musical analogy, you can’t get rid of the bleed: that is, the echo of other instruments when you’re trying to isolate one sound on a track. When sound bleeds, you can’t bring one element up in the mix without bringing up the others–you can’t demarcate sonic space, which means that you can’t control it.

I find myself coming back to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and to the notion that work that is considered to have social value is accorded a separate space. Women’s work, in this sense, is that which occurs in the undifferentiated space of the home: as such, it is not recognized as work. The humanities apprentice, who has become in many respects a feminized worker irrespective of their individual biology, suffers from the same lack of differentiation, and from a similar lack of acknowledgement of the intrinsic worth of what they do.

When the chemistry student dicks around with a formula for most of a day, even if it ultimately fails, he has still clocked in a day of work that is recognized as such because it occurs in his conferred work-space. When a philosophy student reads a part of a text, wanders away, reads another text, thinks about the second text for a little while, and then comes back to the first, all in her small kitchen, she has not clocked in a productive day at the office. In fact, she is perceived to have done nothing whatsoever of value until the moment that the process is defined, not within a space, but as a product: i.e. an article, a thesis, a book. Without the product, she might as well have been doing laundry.

Yes, we need a room of our own, or an atelier, or our monk’s quarters. Dibs on the one with the fire escape…

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§ 7 Responses to Work

  • g_pi says:

    vila, honey, you make it hard for an old ex-smoker.

    It’s been two years and I don’t miss it. Except when I come to your site. Then I remember the way having a cigarette would so often coincide with that sublime moment when you slide into the slip stream – oh, the intense satisfaction as you inhale deeply and succumb to some very pleasant reverie or other. And then there’s the comaraderie of smoking (especially these days, when you’re pariahs one and all)….

    Like I said, I don’t miss it at all.

    Especially not an expertly executed roll-your-own, with a beer, and a few friends round the barbie….

    (By the way, I seem to have become a comment whore of late. Sorry about that! I promise I will go back to lurking).

  • Vila H. says:

    Oh, please don’t! It’s been lovely having you, so by all means, whore away!

    Speaking of comments, I keep trying to leave one for you but Haloscan isn’t having any of it. Feh.

  • g_pi says:

    No, no, tu était réussi. And I was very happy to hear from you. A most philosophical comment. There’s a great deal of pain in there, I fear. I hope to hear the whole story. One day perhaps. Over a beer. While you smoke, and I look on enviously….

  • Vila H. says:

    Rest assured, it’s just a slight twinge, like an arthritic knee that acts up when it rains. In any case, I suspect we both have a few stories to tell so let’s make it a pitcher, preferably on a terrasse somewhere.

  • g_pi says:

    Sounds perfect.

  • Anonymous says:

    fine analysis–too drunk to comment further–

    j

  • Vila H. says:

    Dear, you’re undermining my argument…

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