Re-enchantment of Work
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Its Off to Work We Go: Engagement in the 21st Century
- / -
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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!