August 06, 2010

"No I've never had a job ..."

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I should have pointed out that Ivor Southwood has his own blog: here he is on the Fairy Jobmother; and here's Digital Ben with more on the same theme. Ben's post is, in the best possible way, sad. The key line is Why can everyone else do it and not me? When I was unemployed, I was convinced that an absolute ontological gulf separated me from Work. Work - which, like "being in a relationship" - would automatically confer on me the status of being a Real Person. But the horrific irony was that one couldn't achieve this status. You couldn't become a Real Person by getting a job. It was the other way round: only Real People could get work. Being unemployed wasn't a cause of shame; rather the sense of shame which I carried around as if it was the core of my being was what prevented me getting a job. So my job applications and interviews had an air of total hopelessness about them. I know there's no way you would give the job to an insect like me, and we both know I couldn't do it even if by some miracle you offered it to me, but ... It took me years to realise that job interviews were a ritualized exchange where the point was to determine whether you knew what the right communicative etiqutte was, and that telling the truth made you some weirdo. Surely even those who have not been in the Castle know that one doesn't behave like that ...

Being a postgraduate student was little better than being unemployed - not least because it was regarded (by me as much as anyone else) as a way of avoiding work. (A friend once remarked that, in most circles in Britain, it would be less shameful to confess to being a drug addict than to admit you were a postgraduate student in an arts subject.) But I only "avoided work" because I didn't think I could do it. Ben writes:

    I canít quite make up my mind whether this missing quality is a ruling-class privilege (for which see the discussions collected here a few years back), or more of a stereotypical working class thing - hustle, graft, with its suggestions of not-entirely-legitimate activity. Perhaps itís something possessed by people at both ends, but lost by those inbetween? Rather like the ridiculous etiquette books of early Victorian times - real aristocrats didnít worry about that type of thing, they just did what the hell they pleased (knowing that they were immovably established and that being seen using the wrong kind of spoon wasnĎt going to affect them at all). Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie cooked up these arcane rules and customs to try and monopolise the road up and discreetly kick the bulk of the population off the ladder.

For me, it was absolutely a question of being projected into a space between classes. When I did work in factories, I was either pitied or pilloried. Every job seemed impossible: manual work because of my feckless diliatoriness, graduate jobs because, well, I wasn't the sort of person who could do them. Me, a teacher, a journalist or a lawyer - surely not.

Is there anyone who has caught the agony of this state of worklessness better than Morrissey? The useless jouissance of refusing what was anyway impossible: "No I've never had a job/ because I've never really wanted one" "No, I've never had a job because I'm too shy" ... I do sometimes think that the implicit political position in those handful of early Smiths songs was one of the most powerful of the 80s. Singing "England is mine and it owes me a living" at the time of 3 million unemployed and the Miners Strike ... Rejecting the masculine destiny of Fordist worker at the very moment when that destiny was being denied to the working class ("No, we cannot cling to the old dreams any more") ... Rejecting, that is to say, all of those working class homilies about the dignity of labour ... If there was a militant dysphoria in Morrissey it was here ... and the dysphoria was absolutely integral to the militancy: incapacity as refusal. Failure as negative capability. I'd rather be me miserable and shy than a successful communicative capitalist ... All of this when the Wildean defiance was shaped by gaucheness and awkwardness, rather than staged as a pomo panto turn. "There are brighter sides to life/ and I should because I've seen them/ but not very often". The "but not very often" is the genius touch, of course. Without that, the gesture of refusal could seem like empty breastbeating; it would just be the swagger of "Wham Rap"... With it, there is just enough suggestion of other worlds, other ways of being, which no-one in the current state of things has more access to than the unemployed dysphoric ... And no-one sees the Total System of capital - the way that work, sexual relationships, commodities all intermesh and entail one another - no-one sees that more clearly than the person excluded from work ....

Morrissey represented the desire for a proletarian bomemia at the moment when - after the 60s, after glam, after punk and post-punk - that possibility was being closed down. There's an excellent chapter in Jim McGuigan's excellent Cool Capitalism about the history of bohemia, which McGuigan connects with Marcuse's concept of art as the Great Refusal. It seems to me that the installation of business ontology over the last thirty years has centrally involved the defeat of bohemia: art schools returning to largely being places for the privileged; the reduction of the print music press to Indie Smash Hits; TV becoming populist trash or middlebrow mediocrity. The business culture of "selling yourself" (which I, like every right thinking person still regard as the height of vulgarity) has engendered the mandatory, seamless positivity that Ben and Ivor talk about: the Great Acceptance, as opposed to the Great Refusal. The aspiration to enter into bohemia was always the wrong kind of ambition from the perspective of a certain working class way of thinking. Still is ... many members of my family have never encouraged me to write, and continue to regard it as a "hobby", doing everything they can to put pressure on me to get "proper work" ... Contrast this with the bourgeois kids doing unpaid internships for years on end ...

Posted by mark at August 6, 2010 11:12 PM | TrackBack