Dolsy Smith is a librarian in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly but doesn't publish much. At present, he is enjoying three months of research leave, working on a book about academic writing as lure and discipline.
As an academic librarian, I am blessed with one of those “day jobs” that all the time seem less and less plausible: a job with adequate salary and benefits, job security, professional standing, and a forty-hour week that neither swells with overtime demands (like much white-collar work) nor drains one’s waking hours of their vitality (like manual labor or many service jobs). As a librarian, I enjoy the privilege of doing “knowledge work” not immediately recouped for capital - teaching, research, and writing - although the saturation of the university by the managerial unconscious continues apace.1 But unlike my friends and colleagues on the faculty, who pour themselves through the sieve of those intellectual activities to find only the desperately small residue of institutional recognition and rewards (positive evaluations, publications, conference appearances, occasionally a raise or promotion), my “day job” is such that I manage to keep a good part of myself in reserve. Perhaps more important for my lucubrations than having time for them is being able to dedicate a mental space: a private space apart from the circuits of performance and reward. For the past several years, keeping my poetic work private has been the precondition of my doing it at all. I worry, of course, that past a certain point this approach proves self-defeating, but at the same time, I can’t seem to make plans for the work itself - apart from planning to make time for it amid other obligations and solicitations.
I am happy with my choice of career, and I do enjoy my job, even though there is something about it residually unsatisfying. This dissatisfaction doesn’t stem simply from its status as wage-labor, nor from its disciplinary character; after all, writing poetry is a discipline I can escape into at the end of the day. To put it a bit abstractly, the soul of work courts power and possibility - the very modalities of poeisis - but managed work pits those modalities against necessity and control. I have been thinking lately a lot about the concept of information, which we in the library profession use to talk about the work we do. It seems as though, from the librarian’s point of view, all the products of intellectual and creative activity - all works, in other words - should be reducible to this one common and universal substance, amenable to algorithmic principles of organization and storage - amenable, in short, to the logic of control. In a fascinating essay, John Guillory points out how much of the writing of modernity falls under the heading of informational genres: genres whose intent is not to persuade, imagine, or reveal, but merely to document or report: to render transparent to those in authority the activities of labor, or conversely, to convey to labor the decisions of management and the designs of capital.2 In other words, as JoAnne Yates argues, these genres of writing make possible the extension and ramification of managerial control on which the modern organization depends.3 I think the distinct lack of pleasure (or lack of possibility for pleasure) that attends writing in modes like the annual report - apart from their blatantly ritualistic character - has to do with the fact that the intention of these modes is, as Guillory notes, profoundly anti-rhetorical. Although they do not, of course, succeed without rhetorical resources, one knows, composing in them, that their institutional function, their raison d’etre, prescinds from that dimension of language that gives language its rhetorical power: from its being as material, personal, intimate, affective work. And so these genres of writing mirror the situation of organizational labor writ large, which is performed under the compulsion to ignore the feelings that attend its performance. Managerial structures demand that we cloak affect in efficiency - a disembodied rhetoric that proclaims the perfect justice of the code.
Again, I feel fortunate in that I can muster a certain amount of passionate investment in my job. Professionalism permits a sense of autonomous responsibility (over against the expectations of management), and I do often find myself passionately engaged, when working with students, arguing with colleagues about pedagogy, etc. Nonetheless, the passionate and moral commitments that work serves and inspires are not the same feelings that abide in work and that, from moment to moment, condition its performance. For the most part, the passion that I can muster on behalf of my job feels different from the pleasure I take in writing poetry. At issue, perhaps, is the work of time itself. As passionate investment, work looks toward the future as means to ends. As enjoyment, work appears as an end in itself - if the word end lends itself to what vanishes upon its presupposition. It tends to fill time, “as a glass may be filled not just to the level of the rim but slightly above.”4
Of my own poetic work, I would say that it amounts to a long, slow struggle to let language overflow the presence of my self-control. It is useful, perhaps, to distinguish control from constraint: the latter is arbitrary, extrinsic because chosen, and generative; the former is necessary (because internalized), intimate as my own reasons for doing anything, and repressive. Control manifests itself in my writing as an appetite for meaning and as a drive for self-expression, where these terms suggest the representation of moral or aesthetic truth, but also as the tilt toward any larger set of purposes to which I might subscribe the work. It is manifest, in short, as an urge to justify the work, inhabiting effort and devouring it from within like the larvae of a wasp, that gnawing self-doubt that can chew on an incomplete sentence for hours inside its fragile paper dwelling.
To emancipate the affective character of work seems like an admirable undertaking in any domain, not only in art. If it starts there, well, maybe it’s because art, as tradition and social practice, sustains traces of that character - of those characters, rather, flocking to efface themselves, in which is written down our inadequacy and our despair.
1 I borrow the phrase from Donna Strickland, "The Managerial Unconscious of Composition Studies," in Tenured Bosses, Disposable Teachers: Writing Instruction in the Managed University, ed. Marc Bousquet, Tony Scott, & Leo Parascondola (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004).
2 John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004).
3 JoAnne Yates, Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1989).
4 Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980).