Saturday, February 21, 2004

Useful work

Paul Goodman (bibliography, bio) has been quoted as saying
I have learned to have very modest goals for society and myself, things like clean air, green grass, children with bright eyes, not being pushed around, useful work that suits one's abilities, plain tasty food.
I particularly like the simple goal of doing useful work that suits my abilities. I think my current work fits my abilities; my boss rewards me very well for what I’m doing. The harder question is whether my work is useful.

It is useful to my boss and hence my employer, because I get a pay check every two weeks. I don’t know if it’s useful to society at large, though. To the extent that my company pays taxes, and my work helps the bottom line, I contribute to the general good. My company also has a good reputation for contributing to social welfare through various programs, which is a more specific “good”. However, I don’t feel that my own work is improving the life of anyone who truly needs help.

An American for-profit company exists for the benefit of its shareholders; it isn’t a charity. And yet… the shareholders benefit when a company, especially one with a mixed reputation, is seen to be doing good: "Do well by doing good." Perhaps I would see my work as more useful if it were more closely aligned with improving the lot of the poor and the weak.

Of course, that’s a very selfish view: I want to feel good by doing good.

It is probably no accident that Goodman didn’t talk about “enjoyable work” or “satisfying work”. No experience is consistently enjoyable; without discomfort, we wouldn’t recognize joy. There are two ways to deal with this: find a middle way that is neither pleasurable nor painful, or seek elation while accepting that despair is the price that will have to be paid. Which path one follows is a matter of culture and personality; I prefer the former. Finding constant satisfaction in work is also be a will o’ the wisp. I would hope not, but my experience has been that I swing between satisfaction and frustration.

The qualifier “useful” exists outside the worker; it is a consequence of the work they do. “Enjoyable” or “satisfying” refers to the mental state of the worker; it is subjective and selfish. Goodman seems to be suggesting that we look to the social consequences of work, rather than its subjective effects. A noble exhortation; but oh so hard for a frail ego!

Thursday, February 19, 2004


All day, and into the night, and all day today
The blowing fills the bowl of bay and mountains

Haphazard spray scraped off the sea
Pine trees roaring hoarse

Sight bites

There’s an election coming up in South Africa, and the election posters are up. Seeing the slogans with a visitor’s eye was revealing – the agendas are there for all to see, in sub-sound bite size. Let’s call them sight-bites…

Politicians, if they’re any good, are in tune with their electorate, and political slogans thus reveal voters’ concerns. The DA’s slogan “More Work, Less Crime” make it clear that unemployment is still the key issue for many South Africans. This is a party trying to appeal to both worlds; the poor want work, and the rich want to be safe. (The DA is the Democratic Alliance - the erstwhile white liberal opposition that's trying to broaden its appeal.)

That comma between “more work” and “less crime” is working over-time; the multiple meanings are delicious. It could mean “and”; but it could also mean “which would lead to less”.

The slogan “Let your NNP vote count” suggests that many whites feel marginalized – no news there – and the NNP hopes to exploit their insecurity. (The NNP is the New National Party; though one wonders how “new” the party of apartheid is if it can’t even rid itself of a name freighted with so much baggage.) Another NNP slogan, “Let us be your voice,” strikes me as quite plaintive; the sense would be unchanged if one added the rider, “… pretty please?”

I look forward to looking for sub-texts in campaign materials in the upcoming US elections.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The poet's friend

I always knew my mother was cool. She rose even higher in my regard when it slipped out that she is friends with Ina Rousseau, one of the leading Afrikaans poets of her generation. I remember being taught Rousseau in school, and recently rediscovered her. Here's a poem I read last night, from her debut collection "Die Verlate Tuin":
Die gestorwene

Vader en moeder het hy verlaat
om die aarde aan te kleef;
om deur die maande en jare en eeue
intiem met haar saam te leef:
een met haar vrugbare liggaam,
been van haar been en vlees van haar vlees

A quick translation:
The Departed One

Behind he left father and mother
to cleave unto the earth;
to live intimately with her
through months and years and centuries:
being one with her fertile body,
bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.