Saturday, 26 November 2011

Enter your pin please

Reading Clive James's new book A Point of View, an anthology of his ten-minute talks on Radio 4 from a few years ago, I found this passage:

'People really do define themselves by their jobs, even when their job is humble. That's why the lady behind one of the many counters of the department store proclaims her ownership of the goods you wish to purchase from her. ('I've only got it in these two colours at the moment but I should have the complete range in again by Saturday morning.') At the supermarket, the person on the cash desk will ask you to enter your pin number even after you have already begun to enter it. ('Can you enter your pin number for me?') The person is really telling you that he or she is an indispensable part of the process. We should try not to smile knowingly: in the same position we would do it too. And in any kind of cooperative venture, to make light of somebody's job is the quickest way of making an enemy.'

Work defines us. 'Why do half the things we do,' asked Thomas Traherne, 'when one could sit under a tree?' But sitting under a tree would soon get boring, wouldn't it? Thoreau said we should not calculate our wealth by how much we earn or own, but by how much free time we have left over when our basic needs have been met. Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays, seems to have this Thoreauvian idea of work, because he refers to his large salary as 'compensation', as though it  were keeping him from more important stuff he could be getting on with. But Thoreau always seemed to me to be pretty confident, if not overconfident, about finding things to do with his free time.  

I have been on a research fellowship this year so I haven't been doing any of my normal teaching or admin. In September, although I was officially on leave, I kept being interrupted by knocks on the door by people who didn't know I wasn't officially supposed to be here. But people twigged soon enough: the knocks became more spread out, the phone stopped ringing, emails became less insistent. Much office conversation is spontaneous and accidental, and people don't stop by unless they need to. An MIT study conducted in the 1970s found that office workers are four times more likely to talk if they are sat six rather than 60 feet apart, and that people seated more than 75 feet apart hardly speak at all. We like to imagine we are in some way indispensable; in fact everything goes fine, if not better, in our absence. It is salutary to get this little inkling of a semi-posthumous existence when our jobs will go on without us.

Absorption in daily activities, even if they are as meaningless as the emptying of an in-tray, is a way of giving our lives rhythm and pattern, and the idea that there is something better we could be doing with our time is perhaps a comforting delusion. 'Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame', reflects Mrs Dalloway. 'All the more … must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries …'

According to Clive James, the most tragic line in Shakespeare is 'Othello's occupation's gone.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'Our life becomes divided between "work" time and "free" time. Both are part of that grand illusion, the Spectacle. Within the society of Spectacle all time is spectacular time. Sometimes we are the commodity and sometimes the consumer. In our "free" time we buy back what we made during our "work" time. "Work" time and "free" time serve each other.' - Guy Debord


  1. Re the quote from Debord: Wherein fits the housewife and mother? whose leisure and work have no defining line? Is this why so many women feel 'empowered' to go out work because they can pretend that home time is leisure even when they still have the housework to do? Or is it that there is a lack of content in being defined by the job description 'mother and home maker' and the need of some external definition?