Reclaiming ‘work’

Analogue stack © Samantha Groenestyn

I like to work—I love to be thoroughly occupied, engaged in a task, thinking it through and acting it out, seeing it to completion. But the word ‘work’ has been taken from us. ‘Work’ no longer defines a task laboured at, that draws on our carefully developed skills. ‘Work’ is inherently a repulsive word, a heady amalgam of ‘obligatory’ and ‘distasteful’ and ‘repetitive.’ It’s that adult commitment that we must attend to day after day, on someone else’s terms, that esteems us as worthy members of society. Though we are at it all the time, we separate it from our ‘real selves,’ the ones that go home and live honestly in private.

The Ancient Greeks lauded the public life as the pinnacle of existence. Domestic life provided comfort and refreshed one for public duties. Our modern democracies reverse this: the private life is prized above all else. We work to support our private lives. We hope that our job might contribute some good to the world, but above all, we hope to fund our houses, our renovations, our growing families and their electronics fetishes. We don’t pride ourselves in our work. We pride ourselves in our homes.

Joanne Faulkner* (p. 62) words it thus:

Against Locke and Rousseau, Arendt laments the ascendancy of intimacy and the modern notion that the true self can be expressed only in the private. In the capitalist age, the development of the sphere of intimacy, along with an emphasis on wealth and accumulation, has given rise to styles of life that isolate people from one another. In search of freedom, enjoyment and self-expression, what we find is consumption. Hobbies and leisure replace work, a more subversive (Bakhtian) mode of play, and dialogue as a means of self-discovery.

Perhaps it is because we have lost control of our work. We lack the autonomy to perfect our craft; our boss defines the limits of our work and thus our ability to perform at a level that engages us or gives us something to be proud of. Ashamed of our fruitless efforts, we turn inward, to the home, and fill it with goods that demonstrate our skills and taste. Locked up in bland plastic-clad offices, we dress our houses up in fittings from Italy; serving microwaved lasagne in a café, we cook elaborate meals in our own homes. Home becomes the only place we can express ourselves.

But, you object, work is not about expressing yourself. Of course, when I microwave the lasagne, I feel not a bit like myself. My ‘real’ self doesn’t own a microwave, and doesn’t miss it. But microwaving lasagne is not my work. It’s what I do for money, but it’s not my craft that I am pouring my skills into. The master craftsman does express himself in every product he carefully produces. Every Stradivari violin is purported to sound like a Stradivari, because a man devoted his life to crafting musical instruments of incredible quality. His work is an expression of himself, not an imitation of someone else or a strict adherence to procedure. Greatness does not come from adhering to guidelines.

To reclaim ‘work’ and reattach it to our expressive labours, we need to uncouple it from financial reward and associate it instead with personal improvement and the products thereby produced—be they scientific ideas, violins, or works of art. I work every day. I work at my technique, I work on my concepts, I produce finished paintings. Some of the days, I have to set my work aside and follow strict directions in exchange for money, but I know the difference.


This order reads: ‘One-quarter strength skinny latte, half strength decaf long black.’

If you drink this coffee, you might not really be a grown-up. Stick to chocolate milk?


* Faulkner, Joanne. 2011. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


4 thoughts on “Reclaiming ‘work’

  1. N says:

    I recognize that multimeter. It always used to put me in mind of Felix the cat. Also, that’s a lovely picture.


  2. Hilary says:

    I agree completely. You’ve expressed something that I’ve been trying to articulate to myself for months. Thank you! I love your blog, by the way.

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