Politics and Work

Body and Soul


Introduction: Figure Work

I was once struck to hear a painter, in search of nude models, express interest in bodies that looked as though they had lived. 'Perfect' forms were not necessary. There is something profound in the idea that life and work are there in the contours of a body, waiting to be traced.

In the commentary that follows, much of my agenda is to read back from such contours. Ricardo's photograph series forces us to confront the truth that the body is never really nude. His series nevertheless resisted me: I rarely know what to do before a photograph. In the end, I decided to do with it what I do naturally with other forms. Take the body apart.

Let me say that my work here, then, is to strip away even flesh, in search of the rules of composition - though never solely of the figure in question.


For M.A. Snow, the manipulation, after which "For God and Country: The Political Manipulation of Faith in Outport Newfoundland" is named, is carried out by the central power, and the workers in Newfoundland outports are yanked about like puppets on a string. This sense of the term 'manipulation' is so familiar to us that we are inclined to forget its origins. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this entry for 'manipulation':

c.1730, "a method of digging ore," from Fr. manipulation, from manipule "handful" (a pharmacists' measure), from L. manipulus "handful, sheaf," from manus "hand" + root of plere "to fill." Sense of "skillful handling of objects" is first recorded 1826; extended 1828 to "handling of persons" as well as objects. Manipulative is from 1836; manipulate is from 1831.

The term that originally belonged to the hard worker, the one who digs ore (or farms, or fishes), comes ultimately to name the method by which this worker is himself handled. For Ryan, in "Office Politics", the object of the worker's manipulation becomes his fellow workers, or his bosses, or those he manages, and his success depends upon his skills of manipulation.

There is here no brute force: the obvious power of the closed fist must be opposed to the hidden power of the open, receptive hand - the hand that handles. The open hand, extended in greeting, or spread across a keyboard or partially wrapped around a pen (only a child or a mad revolutionary grips his pen in a closed fist), has a remarkable power. Its effects are often felt as the source of power recedes into the background, out of the field of appearance. Indeed, as in puppetry, the effect is often compromised unless the source of power remains hidden.

When we become aware that we are being manipulated, how do we react? Snow reacts with a bit of focused revolutionary frustration, tries to pull back the curtain, handles historical characters and ideas. In Kevin Hehir's spoken word piece, "Truth has Been Suspended. Indefinitely", the chaotic reaction of one who realizes that things have gotten out of hand, we are grasping for meaning, scribbling down a word here and there and trying, like the poet himself, to discover a little order. The first stage in finding order turns out to be the corruption of one's own texts, the scattering of it through audio space, the 'diffusion' of what comes broadcasted (diffuser) to us in a tidy whole from "zero-intelligence" Channel 21.

Bennett's wisened Wal-Mart employee threatens to punish with the pen - though the threat here (the one that delivers the comic punch) is interruptive, immediate, and brutal. It appears that the Wal-Mart employee has converted his workplace into the site of his own stand; he operates from the inside. His stand is against the smart shopper, the consumer who exercises the only power she can in the situation she is given, down to the absurd (and therefore comic) insistence on pens that are adapted to every imaginable situation. In contrast to the consumer's insistence on the precision use of the pen, Bennett threatens to use the pen as crudely as possible. He completely disregards the 'intended' use of the pen - where the network of intentions for this particular pen is determined by the relation between the consumer and supplier. Why? As he himself says - the most obvious truth at the end of the laboratory process is that the value added to the product, the value needed to meet more precisely this consumer's needs, never makes a real difference to the Wal-Mart worker. However the pen is manipulated in the laboratory (or however it is handled on assembly lines where the workers also gain nothing due to such manipulation), the customer service agent at Wal-Mart continues to be enslaved to the eternally 'right' customer, and consequently to immediate superiors, who in certain cases might not even know how to handle a microwave.

Ryan's grandfather could not approve of the Wal-Mart employee who will not work hard. As Ryan puts things, there is a question about the locus of value, about the place of the good. The Wal-Mart employee who works hard will 'profit' in some sense from hard work, if Ryan's grandfather is right that in good work, the value generated by the work is not alienated from the worker. But what happens when the worker realizes that much of the value he generates through his hard work is never returned to him? What kinds of tactics can the worker employ? The idea that the practice of office politics could replace the kind of 'honest' work exemplified by Ryan's grandfather might offend our taste.

Shall we, then, throw up our hands in disgust, in frustration - and show that they are empty? That we have nothing to offer? Is this our political act - or is it a political act at all? To whom are we reaching - and whose hand is it that grasps our own to lead us along?


Bennett has a target: the threat is that the pen will be headed towards the customer's 'warm climate'. We can imagine a number of possible climates. Some come more readily to mind than, say, the mouth (the only orifice that appears openly in Ricardo's series), but this orifice is no less interesting therefore. What he is after is access, a way in, a way to shake the consumer, who appears beyond reach through usual modes of communication. The human being comes equipped with a series of openings designed to allow for the necessary interface with the outside world. We could perhaps drive to the root of many social problems by opening them up at the orifice. There is a way to interpret these problems as strictly for individuals (obesity, sexual abuse), but, taking our cue from Snow's discussion of 'outports', we will consider the grander sense in which the 'opening' structures our experience of the world.

The merchant's hands were open to fish caught in the outports. The 'outport': not the central port in Newfoundland, but any other of the many ports around the province. In Snow's use, 'outport' Newfoundland names a single entity, the entire part of the province that has historically been at the mercy of the main, East coast port of St. John's. Thus, the minority (those at the mercy of the central 'merchant' power) does not remain a multiplicity of discrete ports (though everywhere in the province such communities do insist upon their difference from adjacent communities). The single name 'outport' would seem to offer the chance for a solidarity of the oppressed, as Snow suggests, though a second division (along denominational lines) of the people served to remove the grounds necessary for a concerted political response to the problem. According to Snow, the two-pronged logic of consumer/producer, main port/outport, Catholic/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative afforded the merchants the opportunity to displace the voter's identity often enough to maintain power over him. The Marxist might say that the manipulation of the worker is possible because he is willing to give up on the dirty truth of his existence too quickly in the name of religion. But all we need to take away from the example for the moment is that how one understands/knows oneself is not unrelated to political subjection.

How then does the people begin to understand itself? One place to begin, among any number of others, is with the language in play during the time of oppression. Against the claim that the language of the oppressor - even when it is seemingly innocuous - should be destroyed, eliminated from use (1) (as certain Newfoundlanders now claim is necessary, given the connotation of the term 'newfie', which even in Québecois French means 'idiot'), we have to take the word as an opening, a chance for discovery. What is revealed when the term 'outport' is used?

The political geography of Newfoundland was for years determined by this roll of waves out from the outports, carrying boatloads of fish out and carrying supplies in. Newfoundland, today, from a plane overhead, looks to be a great body of land, whereas historically the place of Newfoundland is the edge, the fluxing waves. A people of the sea (2), too accustomed to the mighty forces of the sea, of the outside, too dependent upon these forces, too ready to submit? Post-1992 (3) Newfoundland could be described with reference to Hehir's 'constellations of sorrow', old houses scattered along the coastline, inhabited by an aging population, many of whose sons and daughters are indeed wandering around not knowing where they are. Newfoundland Outport has become move-outport, permanently outport, as Newfoundland comes full-circle to its earliest beginnings, when exploitation was official policy in England: while for years fishermen came to fish off Newfoundland's coast, leaving each year with large portions of firewood from coastline forest, living on the island of Newfoundland was prohibited. The first European settlers in Newfoundland (4) settled illegally in what we can call hide-outports.

As Newfoundlanders struggle to come to grips with the province's 'economic sinkhole' reputation, the matter of emptiness, of openness to interface with the world becomes central. Any hope of health for the future surely depends upon the proper regulation of such orifices, so that questions about what is ingested - as well as that of what is ejected into the world - must remain central.


What is ejected? How is it cradled thereafter? Can it live in the void?

These questions are evidently at issue in Ricardo's photograph series. Of the many striking images, all about the body in some way or other, four are central to this question of generation. Of these, the two images of children are immediately most suggestive to the untrained artistic eye. In each, another image is superimposed over the child/children. In photo 2, a CAUTION sign is imposed over the child - and flames appear to be encircling the outline of the sign. In photo 3, the taller of two girls appears behind a somewhat crumpled, transparent, plastic bag; the effect is one of 'splitting' the girl, just slightly - her body is morphed around the lines of the plastic. In both images, the child is distant, to be approached with caution - in the second case wrapped up, to protect the child, or to protect ourselves. Perhaps in our efforts to protect the child, we have alienated children from us, distorting their true nature and making them unrecognizable. Perhaps, the child has consequently become a legitimately dangerous object for us, one capable of igniting whatever boundaries we might erect. The ambiguous expressions on the faces of the children (Ricardo shows us no obvious smile other than the large one superimposed on the body in photo 1) give no clues as to how they might now be relating to those whose business it had been to take care of them.

But why do they pose a threat? The obvious challenge the child poses to the parent is that of the parent's maturity. Are you ready for this responsibility? Are you yourself prepared to be no longer a child? In the light of these questions, Ricardo's series lights up a little more, given the image (photo 7) of the figure balled up to look like, among other things, a foetus - against a void-like background, and given the image (photo 8) of the physically mature woman clinging to the child's doll.

What do we know any longer about how to relate to the child - how to handle it? Has our professed desire not to injure the child through excessive use of power not led to the construction of artificial divides - divides that smother children on the one hand, or light fires of rage on the other - while we, on the other side of these divides are spared the real encounter with the fragile bodies that we generate, locked indefinitely in a helpless state of infancy?

What else comes to mind when we think of Ryan's grandfather's observation that hard work has no value anymore? - Ryan gives us the obsession with games, with winning. Granted the virtues of play, a profound element of human (and not just the child's) nature, does not this reduction of everything to winning in the game indicate the vacuous nature of so much human activity? Ryan is astonished by the profound 'emptiness' of the game in which Senator Kerry is currently participating - the form of the game repeats, justifies itself independently of all ends: one wins because one promises to win again. Play itself is compromised by the structure of these games - if it is not altogether ruled out as a consequence. The illusion of transcending childhood is actually nothing other than a perversion of its truth: we do not mature beyond childhood; we simply grow into savage children.

And we are expected to act as such. Bennett's Wal-Mart worker is infantilized by the system in which he is expected to exercise no reason, to be almost absent, to be something other than human. He is precisely not allowed to grow, and the truth of the situation - which he well knows - is wholly ignored, leaving him with little other choice than to wield his 'toy', his pen, and make of it a weapon. How does this happen? How does a youth, cynical because of his power to grasp the truth of the system, come to end up in such a job? Such is the world that receives the youth who has finished his education.


Bennett's Wal-Mart employee has little faith in politics, and maybe for good reason. As Snow's example makes clear, belief of any kind makes one susceptible to manipulation; in his conclusion, he notes that not only strictly religious faith, but faith of a more secular kind can be manipulated as well. In this context, we must return to what Snow qualifies as separate factors that explain the submission of Newfoundlanders, factors we can call, for short, the roles of debt and of religion.

Not only is good work disappearing - as Ryan's grandfather notes - but commitment to good work, belief in good work, can actually put one wholly at the mercy of others. To believe in the value of work creates the condition for manipulation by those who have control over the means of production. Consequently, a global cynicism emerges, instead of case by case doubt, and creates an unproductive field of skepticism. This anti-productive spirit, on the part of those who recognize that their productions very often serve only to oppress them further, does nothing to save them from this state of affairs. In response to those who would encourage the purely destructive or even apathetic response to this problematic, we must open the question of a generativity that would save the worker from his oppressed state.

Where a reward is not given from outside, we have come to doubt the value of the work. It is an important question whether this is the consequence of an other-worldly approach to this world - characteristic of a sort of Christian, eschatological worldview, in which the good is always during our lifetime beyond our reach. But whatever its origins, the sense that value is beyond the immediate, that it transcends the present, is, if Ryan is right, growing more common. No doubt there are values that are beyond us, beyond the present time/space: the outport Newfoundlander needed certain supplies that could not be found in the outport itself. The way in which one relates, however, to the value that must be supplied (exchanged) is everything. This is behind Snow's characterisation of the submissive Newfoundlander (though submission does not exhaustively define the Newfoundlander). The merchant, upon whose service the outport Newfoundlander felt his existence to depend, was able to exercise a mighty power, to dominate through the debt relation. Whatever his own dependence upon the market in Newfoundland, the merchant appeared to the outport Newfoundlander as a figure who controlled the latter's fate.

If it is natural for human beings to attend primarily to what they do not have, this 'selective' phenomenological stance, so present in Newfoundland, can leave one blind to the values that are in fact there (in the outport, or wherever). The debt relation becomes crippling when one recognizes a dependency on something external, but cannot 'remember' the values being generated inside - the same values that would allow one to 'pay off' a debt, and ultimately to exercise some freedom from oppression.

Here the theme of 'redemption' in Hehir's piece becomes central: he wants to write a poem of redemption - where the roots of this term redemption (5) draw attention to a 'buying back'. In our example, this amounts to a buying back of freedom - possible only if one has generated enough to make such a transaction possible. For Hehir, the poem of redemption must be put off. But from our perspective, it is precisely always already high time that the process of redemption be undertaken; to put it off, to suggest that the value required to redeem such events as those in New York and Washington, on the 11th of September, 2001 (events which appear to form the backdrop to Hehir's piece) is not yet here is to have too much hope and not enough faith. For faith, in these circumstances, would require the great leap of believing that, despite the awesome destruction, there remains good. Value is present - and must be saved.

Hehir's soul is hurting - and he offers every ounce of it to those families who are suffering. When we seem to have nothing else, we offer our souls to families: but we must make an exchange. Why? Because the redemption in such situations is always primarily our own; it is not primarily motivated by sympathy for those directly affected by horrendous events. It is our own pain, our own horror at being present in such a world - a pain that wants to make us scream, or write, or sleep; but which, in any case, determines our action. We must remember a truth from Ricardo's work: that the world is written onto/into our flesh, that it is all evidently there - that action at a distance is our reality, that whenever/wherever there is a direct hit, we are struck.

Hehir is correct: the poem of redemption has not yet been written; indeed, as Hehir suggests, it cannot be written. The form of presentation in the piece is not accidental, but rather integral to the truth of the poem. The piece demands to be heard again and again - it tortures us, it offers up some small gifts on every listening. It will not reveal all at once, but depends upon the commitment of the listener for its coherence. We encounter it, lost in the middle - wandering about, not knowing where we are. The echoes of the event that inspired the poem resound, the fragments of the poem tumble through the air - and the listener is left sorting through the rubble, aching with the burden of reconstruction. This is not only post-9/11 poetry: this is post-event poetry. We are flooded, through all the usual channels, with perfectly ordered responses. The first post-event poetic act is simultaneously destructive (of unjust efforts to 'take account' of what has happened) and generative of modest chains of order - e.g. the bass voice, '...soul...sorrow...daughter... want to scream...' that facilitate the reconstructive act required of agents, but do not presume to do that work for them. Hehir does not offer his soul: he demands our own. He demands that we give a place to the floating bodies he presents, and asks us to work with them.

Blocked Terms

In the context of the previous discussion, the final task is to comment on the terms that were set aside during the 'submissions' stage of the process. The objective here is not to redeem these terms, but to acknowledge the obvious limitations on the power of a site such as this to do anything other than encourage a more attentive use of language in political discourse. I will restrict myself to a few comments on each. In the forum, it is encouraged that, in addition to any comments offered regarding the commentary above, a question or comment be added to the list of blocked terms. This allows us to begin entries into a dictionary, of sorts.

Is not the paradigm case of labour the giving birth of the child, where the value is profoundly 'inside' the process of work, and the aim to deliver this value?
Is anyone more unemployed than the Wal-Mart worker in Bennett's "Customer Service"?
From the Latin "salarium, originally the money given to soldiers for salt with their rations" (Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, 5th edition, (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 7). How might salary be understood again as that required for the regulation of the warrior's body?
Welfare State:
The cradle? The artifice that protects the child from the forces of nature?
Social Safety Net:
Held tightly in whose hands? Receiving us, or restraining us?
Common Man:
Is 'common' man given, or must he be created from spare parts and later established?
Difficult to block. Is even this act of copying, and the very logic of this site, capitalist in nature?
American Dream:
Does this dream still contain children as elements?
Work Force:
What is the physics of this work force? Do its vectors resolve into a directed force, or are all forces cancelled?
Do the submissions to a journal of this kind constitute a union? Or is it impossible to say before determining the integrity of this finalizing act?
The horizon of work, the last remaining workplace?