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Re-enchantment of Work

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Its Off to Work We Go: Engagement in the 21st Century

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Workshop convened by Magda McHale on behalf of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) and the Center for Integrative Studies (University of Buffalo, October 1996)


Dwarfs ? I confess to being both confused and embarrassed by the title of the gathering -- 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work We Go'! I thought for a moment that I had to do some sort of review of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was very challenging because I couldn't quite work out the relationship of that to what would make a meaningful present for Magda. Particularly puzzling in thinking about it was that whilst the Seven Dwarfs were recognized, Snow White was absent -- or only implicit. So there seemed to be a whole feminine dimension that is somehow being excised from the notion of work and engagement in the way that the invitation was presented.

The subtitle started to interest me more when I realized that it could be understood as an effort to point to a greater articulation of the range of approaches to engagement. Lists of things like dwarfs, like values and virtues and so forth, are not usually very articulate in the distinctions they make between the qualities of the different things listed -- what values are implied by 'family values' for example. But given that the names of the dwarfs (Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Bashful, and Happy) can be understood as pointing to different ways of relating to engagement, there is merit in exploring this further. Ironically, in the drug culture, the dwarf names are code names for different drugs -- approaches to engagement which defy conventional understandings of work.

Misconceptions: And, of course, the dwarf is a sort of physically challenged person which, given the concerns of the workshop, seemed to indicate to me a variety of stunted misconceptions relating to understanding of work. So I started to look at the challenge of this gathering as a way of moving beyond the 7 stunted perceptions we may have in dealing with work.

And since I have some interest in the Jungian psychological perspective, I was also concerned that each of these 7 could be understood as having a positive, overt side as well as a negative, covert 'shadow' side. So within each of us we tend to have 7 dwarfs, each with a kind of positive connotation under normal circumstances but also a kind of shadowy, undigested connotation. In a sense the set of dwarfs makes up a kind of multiple personality, with each dwarf being a kind of schizophrenic subpersonality to which each of us has some access as we engage in the communities around us. The challenge of society is somehow to provide the engagement opportunities for personality integration, whilst at the same time offering environments through which we can learn through our unintegrated, and often polarized, perspectives. And the communities offering such learning opportunities have to be sustainable.

Axes of bias: To clarify this whole approach I made use of a little known philosopher, W T Jones (Pomona College, Claremont CA) who produced a book with a rather obscure title: 'The Romantic Syndrome' (1961). The subtitle is more meaningful: 'Toward a New Methodology in the History of Ideas'. I have found this very valuable because he developed a framework of 7 axes of bias in any approach to most academic or other issues. If there was a need to understand why a group of academics was engaged in unresolved, polarized positions of debate, these axes of bias provided a means of showing how much of the dynamics of the debate on any issue (in this case 'work') was predictable. He analyzed a number of cases in different disciplines, including unresolved debate on the 'romantic period', hence the title.

More comprehensive framework: Many of the seemingly contradictory remarks made on the topic of work, whether elsewhere or in this workshop -- the very good ideas that we're pointing to -- are in fact, positioned somewhere along these axes of bias and need to be placed in a more comprehensive framework.

This framework of the 7 axes of bias -- our 7 dwarfs -- includes dimensions such as 'order versus disorder'. This could be signalled by the dwarf Grumpy -- given the way some people grumble about any tendency to disorder! From this perspective, I would like to suggest that in our approach to work, our stunted perception is that we tend to be very oriented towards the 'order' perception of work and we don't have a very good way of responding conceptually to the 'disorder', or the chaotic, dimension of work. This is of course very present on the desks of many of us! The dwarf Grumpy does not know how to deal with his shadowy 'disorderly' side -- other than by complaining about it.

Another bias is 'due process vs spontaneity', namely the contrast between the procedural approach of the bureaucrat or methodologist and the creative artist. The dwarf Sneezy might provide a good mnemonic for the 'spontaneous' end of this polarity!

Another is 'static vs dynamic', which offers another insight into how different people engage in the world -- some are suffocated by static, montononous tasks, others are totally dissatisfied by the unsettling dynamics of changing work patterns. Would the dwarf Sleepy best help to remind us of the 'static' end of this polarity?

For Jones, for example, another axis of bias is 'discrete versus continuous'. And of course, for many people work is a very discrete thing -- the tasks of the day are dealth with as they come. For most of us, work is not a flow experience. Nor is it a life-long vocation. The dwarf Happy would seem to be best associated with the 'continuous' extreme of the polarity -- as research on flow experience has indicated..

Another bias is the notion of 'external versus internal'. How should we understand the engagement of some in lifelong prayer? Is that kind of vocation 'work' or is it not work? Such a notion of what people see as work, and of how they work and what it means, needs to be seen in a broader framework than that favoured by economists. The latter have such a lot of difficulty in giving any legitimacy whatsoever to any kind of inner work -- or any form of unpaid work, for that matter. This is something that I think we will all want to be sensitive to. The dwarf Doc is perhaps the best indicator of the 'external' extreme.

And then Jones suggests the dimension of 'sharp focus versus diffuse focus'. Of course many things in the current work environment can be clearly defined through job specifications and this can be absolutely vital. But it is also very important not to lose sight of the notion of very diffuse and ill-defined patterns of work which are much more difficult to get a handle on conceptually -- but may be equally vital. Which jobs cannot be effectively performed if restricted to the letter of a job specification? Maybe the dwarf Bashful is the best pointer to the 'soft focus' extreme.

And then there is Jones' axis of 'this world versus other world'. There are many people, for example in the Buddhist tradition, who are actually devoting most of their working lives towards increasing their merit in future lives (accumulating psychic capital!). This is very real to them -- and possibly vital to the social stability of some Eastern societies characterized by monetary impoverishment. Whereas our focus is normally on 'this world'. Is it not important to allow people to justify their existence by working in terms of some 'other world' and realities? After all there are some in this room who are entirely focused on distant futures or even outer spaces. Instead of devaluing people's orientations to other worlds, I think we should at least offer space for that -- especially to young people fascinated by the opportunity of escaping into cyberspace. This only leaves us with the dwarf Dopey as an indicator of the less mature approaches to the 'other world' extreme!

Vital interface: I confess that I am not very interested in some of the macroperceptions of the future of work. I'm much more interested in the interface between the individual as an individual, through this notion of engagement---how the individual engages psychologically, and will be able to engage psychologically, with the world of the 21st century.

So, will it be an ordered interface, or a chaotic interface, or rather, how does the individual manage that interface between order and disorder? At this point in time I do not think that we have helpful frameworks for understanding this interface -- especially for the individual trying to navigate in a complex society with a multiplicity of concealed opportunities.

Work prisons: I don't want to belabor any of these points, but I think my sense of why we're dealing with 'dwarfs', is because most of us, in fact, define ourselves into what might usefully be called 'work prisons' -- or in fact, are using conceptual frameworks which require that other people work in such work prisons. Wage slavery, like war, 'begins in the minds of men'. Like the dwarfs, we limit ourselves to seeing work as something that is done underground in the mines.

The question is, how conceptually we can free up the interface between the individual and whatever that individual is able to choose to engage in. We need to find some way of honoring that and relating that to the fulfilling activities of that person in society -- to the organization of relationships in sustainable community.

Extreme misunderstandings: The dwarfs are good reminders of a range of 14 possible extreme misunderstandings of work clustered into 7 polarized dimensions. It merits detailed exploration (beyond what I attempted in a separate note). Only when these extremes can be integrated into a single personality does a viable and worthy partner for Snow White emerge -- so that their community can become sustainable! There are important unexplored insights into the nature of engagement, work, and the vital interface between the individual and community, which underlie vulgar metaphorical references to intercourse -- if only in the expression 'getting a job'. Maybe the clue lies in whatever may be associated with a 're-enchantment of work' as a continuing courtship between an individual and the community.

Engagement: Engagement is essentially about 'psychic income' -- which is only in some cases directly commensurate with monetary income. Perhaps the fruitful approach is to think of the economic rationalist as being correct about work in the same way as Newtonian mechanics is correct within an Einsteinian relativistic framework -- as a limit condition only. Perhaps it might also be fruitful to think of sustainable engagement as being vulnerable to various form of catastrophic misunderstanding -- possibly even modelled by the 7 basic catastrophes from catastrophe theory.

It is time to consider the organization of society in terms of other dimensions that might offer more people more opportunities. Rather than vainly endeavouring to 'create new jobs', this would mean recognizing 'existing forms of engagement' which already contribute to vital aspects of sustainability that are not measured by GNP. Voluntary association activity is one of them. The issue is how the old lady sitting alone for hours in a village square can be appreciated and rewarded by the community -- as she is in an Italian village!

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