By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
It’s that time of year again. The time when my wife orders a huge pile of compost and dirt, has it delivered to our front yard and then decides where this fresh earth is needed most. Of course, all three cubic yards of this will be moved into the ever-expanding vegetable and fruit garden she is constructing. It began a couple years ago with one raised-bed in our backyard, and now takes up our entire property. Granted, we live in NE Oak Park, so it is not like we have a huge yard, but covering even such a moderate area in fresh compost/dirt can be quite a chore using only a shovel and a red children’s wagon (we don’t have a wheel-barrel). It is a physical job; your hands get dirty, your fingers get calloused and your arms and back ache. Though this doesn’t sound like an enjoyable task, it actually is quite fulfilling.
I think many people love the ‘good’ muscle pain of a hard day’s work. To me however, this job is enjoyable for another reason. The question I have been asking myself the last week is why? Why do I enjoy this seemingly mindless chore? Well, I think I may have a reason. It’s the ‘natural’ way to work.
In his brilliant 1967 essay “Work, Time-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, the English historian E.P. Thompson illustrated how pre-industrial, agricultural work was ‘task oriented’. This was very different from our modern way of working, in which any down time is usually thought to be ‘wasted’. The modern notion of time really began with the industrial factory where time was to be ‘spent’ specifically and exclusively for production. Any time ‘spent’ otherwise was time that was lost, and hence, profits. This was new. It was not called the Industrial Revolution for nothing.
Obviously, most Americans don’t work in factories, but our modern style of labor still is based upon this industrialized ethic. I learned this at 19 when I worked at a certain, infamous fast-food chain. It was constantly reiterated in that job if you had “time to lean, you had time to clean.” In other words, don’t rest (or think), just work.
As Thompson pointed out, this type of labor was “unnatural” in the sense that humans had never worked in such a structured manner. Instead, people had always worked based upon ‘task orientation’, which had three major differences to the industrialized method: “First, there (was) a sense in which it (was) more humanly comprehensible than timed labor. The peasant or laborer appear(ed) to attend upon what was an observed necessity. Second, a community in which task-orientation (was) common appear(ed) to show least demarcation between “work” and “life”. Social intercourse and labor (were) intermingled – the working day lengthens or contracts according to the task – and there (was) no great sense of conflict between labor and “passing the time of day”. Third, to men accustomed to labor timed by the clock, this attitude to labor appears to be wasteful and lacking in urgency.”
It must be stated, I am a college professor, and am very lucky in the sense that I am one of the few who still work based largely upon this “task orientation”. But still, I often don’t have that strangely ecstatic feeling of completing a manual task. I rarely get the sensation that Stephen Duck wrote about in the eighteenth century:
At length in Rows stands up the well-dry’d Corn,
A grateful Scene, and ready for the Barn.
Our well-pleas’d Master views the Sight with joy,
And we for carrying all our Force employ.
Confusion soon o’er all the Field appears,
And stunning Clamours fill the Workmens Ears;
The Bells, and clashing Whips, alternate sound,
And rattling Waggons thunder o’er the Ground.
The Wheat got in, the Pease, and other Grain,
Share the same Fate, and soon leave bare the Plain:
In noisy Triumph the last Load moves on,
And loud Huzza’s proclaim the Harvest done.
All this being said, let’s not get too romantic. The thought of moving dirt from one place to another everyday instead of preparing for my history classes is not very appealing. But, without such physical tasks I believe I would be missing something intensely human. Even in our labors, the immortal and wise words of the Oracle of Delphi ring true: “In all things moderation.”