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Progress: Work as Occupation / Work as Vocation

The Whatever Happened to Leisure Society? the Work Less Party takes aim at exposing the hidden assumptions of work and revealing the effects it can have on people's lives. At the core of their message is the idea that our way of understanding and measuring progress is in conflict with quality of life. We have tendency to equate progress with materialism and commercialism more than we do quality of life. While this seems reasonable, work need not be something we should spend less time doing...

Work: Positive and Negative

In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimmage of Identity David Whyte notes:

Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves

If the work that we do enhances our individual quest for purpose and meaning in life then, "Work is where we can make ourselves." In this sense, the idea of work is closely aligned with a vocation in which we fufill our psychological and spiritual needs as well as the financial and material requirements for living. In these terms, work is a healthy and beneficial activity that enhances our ability to live a rewarding life. Whyte sees work as an activity that can be a positive or negative influence in our quest for identity.

In Whatever Happened to Leisure Society? the Work Less Party seems to focus exclusively on the idea that work is a place where we can break ourselves. The assumption is that our society values material production and consumption over quality of life. In this context, work is linked to this material production and consumption and is therefore part of the problem associated with thoughtless orientations to progress.

However, increasing something called leisure time is more an avoidance tactic than it is a solution. The assumption here is that increasing the amount of leisure time available to people would increase the amount of time spent with family and recreational activities. This in turn would increase our quality of life. The propostion of decreasing our work time and increasing our leisure time avoids the more fundamental challenge of aligning our work to our identity and our purpose in life. While it is reasonable to say that our general cultural orientation to work may be inept, it is not reasonable to assume that the idea of work itself is the problem.

Work: Knowing What To Do With Weakness

In contrasting her middle-class existence to her research experiences as a low-wage worker, Barabara Ehrenreich comments:

... I learned something that no one ever mentioned in the gym: that a lot of what we experience as strength comes from knowing what to do with weakness. - Barabara Ehrenreich Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in Corporate America

Work is a place where we can learn what to do with weakness. In this context, weakness is connected to the struggle for survival as a low-wage worker. And it is the very struggle that builds strength and resilience. Work becomes a form of survival, a kind of survival that takes the form of struggling to exist in a society that seems to value commercial materialism more than it does a human life. In this sense, In a way, the dark side of Corporate America retrieves the mythic energy of the hero's fall into a dark woods and struggle to emerge.

Work: The Choice To Grow Wherever Life Puts You Down

Do we know what to do with our individual and collective weaknesses? It seems that most people are able to articulate that genuine progress is not something that can be exclusively linked to materialism and that genuine progress is something that improves our quality of life. However, ideas about quality of life are often framed within and contained by the politics and economics of materialism. However, genuine progress is an idea that places ideas about quality of life into a larger context. In "The Choice To Grow Wherever Life Puts You Down" Hope Paterson reveals insight into strength as knowing what to do with weakness:

Yes, I feel fortunate every day. I think some people wonder how I lead such a gypsy lifestyle. Many of my friends comment that they too would like to travel and explore BUT simply cannot because...it is too expensive (ha, i live far more cheaply than anyone I know) or they cannot take the time out from their hectic lifestyles. I am not criticizing anyone else's choice. But that is just it. It is a choice...especially for us in the West. [Hope Paterson in The Choice- to grow where ever life puts you down]

This describes an important perspective on work as a means, in David Whyte's words, to make ourselves. Each of us has the power to make a choice about how we will live. Hope characterizes her lifestyle as being gypsy in character, that is, traveling around the world in order to fully experience how people experience life in different parts of the world. In this sense, the phrase "wherever life puts you down" is geographical in character. We may also interpret the same phrase in an emotional sense, that is, growth in character and identity can proceed from difficulties in life (wherever you are put down). Or, as Ehrenreich phrases it, knowing what to do with weakness.


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I have experienced firt hand this idea of 'consciously and stragically working against the creative threat'. I know it too familiar.
It funnels down to a resounding big fat "NO". In the world of Improv, we call that a 'block'.

When blocks are constantly being thrown into the path of a free mind, the bruises are felt. The recovery is slow and sometimes too difficult to fix. Again, in the world of Improv, we call this 'bombing'. And it too has that cascading effect you speak of.

Traditional curriculum, instruction and evaluation are the blocks. Rarely is there any way to recover from a negative evaluation, for instance. Remember the aptitude tests from the 70's? I was told that I should go to a vocational school and focus toward a career in manual labour. That was how students were measured. Has it changed much since then?

If I may...to re-read your paragraph in your last comment...

"I have found that creativity, if it can be referred to as that, is acceptable as long as these underlying assumptions are not challenged. In other words, the system can assimilate the creative without being in danger of changing in a fundamental way. If, however, the creative becomes a threat to the underlying norms, then it (and the individuals responsbile for introducing it) is marginalized as a kind of experiment, elective, transient project, or some new educational theory."

And then think of this...

As an writer/comedian/actor I have, at times, felt like a jester,and I don't mean the kind that become the King's best friend. I'm talking about the jester who is tucked away from the rest of the world and is only allowed to come out and play when the King says. The jester is beckoned to make the King laugh, and if he fails or offends the King, the King simply pulls on a lever and the jester plunges to the dungeon to starve for a few days until the King decides he needs to laugh again.

Hi Cynthia,

Your comments on "creative minorities" and how they might lead toward a new culture of the horizon are very interesting. What I find most difficult to deal with is not just the way that existing culture tends to maintain a death grip on existing practices, but also how they can very consciously and stragically work against the creative threat. I say "threat" because creative work will bring basic assumptions and presuppositions into question and if an assumption is changed then there is a huge cascading effect throughout the culture.

One area I constantly see this is in education. Of course, there are many claims made to new and creative practices being introduced into the system. Yet the system is not fundamentally changed - there is no real cascading effect that causes a fundamental change in its identity.

The current assumptions are, of course, that curriculum, instruction and evaluation are in fact the right things to base education on. These assumptions cascade into such things as age segregation, knowledge hierarchies, classification schema, standardized evaluation, and so on. Yet the creative will ask tough questions:

- Who says that twelve years of education should be segrgated by age and why should I believe it's true?

- Who says that knowledge should be abstracted into banal categories and taught via an imaginary hierarchy that occupies twelve years of a person's life?

- Who says that standardized evaluation really matters, that large masses of students should proceed through this kind of evaluation? What proof is there that this evaluation helps a person become better educated?

I have found that creativity, if it can be referred to as that, is acceptable as long as these underlying assumptions are not challenged. In other words, the system can assimilate the creative without being in danger of changing in a fundamental way. If, however, the creative becomes a threat to the underlying norms, then it (and the individuals responsbile for introducing it) is marginalized as a kind of experiment, elective, transient project, or some new educational theory.

I've met many educational "innovators" who had far more facility with language than they did with creativity.

Yet, we promote a system that has trouble teaching literacy over the course of twelve years. Odd, isn't it.

More thoughts Brian...

It would seem that the cultural mainstream have become petrified by hanging on to old ideas and rigid patterns of behaviour. As it would seem that the creative minorities have always been in some kind of transformation, reconfiguring old and inventing new elements with a new rising culture in the horizon. Thatís how it has worked with the theatre organizations Iíve been involved in anyway.

The frustration in setting new patterns comes into play when the mainstream refuses to change, hanging on for dear life, clinging more rigidly to its outdated ideas, not handing over their leading roles to the new cultural forces. The hope is as the creative minorities continues to define themselves and have a better stronghold in their communities, the dominant social institutions will no longer be dominant, in at least, that their clinging has less affect than it used to, making more room for creative evolution.

The creative culture is and never has been short term. Political and likewise institutions have been. Thatís what we can hang our hats on, I think.

Hi Rob,

I'm looking forward to your post. To join in on your thought - stepping out of the patterns of the Cartesian mindset might just allow us to enter the dark forest. Without that, we may never find the forest itself. Without that forest, we deny our own life.

Hi Cynthia,

I agree. Marshall McLuhan often talked about the importance of the artist's sensibility, or artistic acuity, as a means to opening our perception of the world. And by opening new ways of perceiving we begin to recognize new patterns. Yet much of our upbringing seems to be oriented toward submitting ourselves to a pre-defined way of perceiving.

Artists are often, sadly, marginalized in society - creative people, but not pragmatic people so the fodder goes. This view, to support your point, is of course wrong but all too common. Art is more than the production of aesthetically pleasing things, it is an orientation toward living and way of life. And I believe it is in all of us.

I really like the connection from the artist's way to survival. Creativity for an artist is akin to breathing. Artistry is, by default, interconnected with the mythic. I recall studying the lives of artists. Many of them lived extremely difficult lives. It is not hard to see the power of myth at play.

I have heard of Richard Florida but not yet had a serious look. Thanks for the reference:-)

I am reading Christopher Alexander's books - The Nature of Order (he rote the Pattern Language) They are about enabling us to "see" the patterns of life and nature again and by so doing rediscover our own nature and hence the nature of all things.
I will post a bit on this

But in short - seeing the patterns of life is surely to break the bonds of the Cartesian world and to find our place at last

Maybe pattern recognition is best 'seen' in the arts because, by nature, the artist is more open. More open to making connections, more sensitive to his/her environment. Quite likely that the artist never loses what comes naturally as a child.
As you mention, the transitional occurs in the junior high years, and it's also at this time where you see the artist emerge. This is where the trouble starts for the artist. No longer are they part of a crowd. They are the ones off drawing in the corner, or reading tomes of fantasy at the lunch table, while everyone
around them talks about "like boys and stuff".

Therein lies a break in pattern as well. The flow gets disrupted and new patterns must be sought if the artist is going to survive. Bouts of lonliness for an artist are not uncommon, but, in my experience, artists who bond with each other end up forming some of the strongest communities out there. Richard Florida (creativeclass.org) puts the power of the creative class into perspective.



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