Dubious Sites of Vague Human Activity: Office Labor without Intrinsic Good?

Previously in this series, we entered into one of the most common workplaces: the office. And in this post, I will touch on the purposelessness of many occupations that are bounded by this site. As I had mentioned before, my examples are derived from an office atmosphere that was observed during an internship in a museum. Hence, it would be faulty to generalize my thinking and assumptions to all the workplaces or offices that invigorate the capitalist economy. Even though these writings do not describe the overall picture, I believe it gives us some idea regarding the construction of working habits and the disciplining of the worker in modern times.

In a place like museums, like in many other institutions, employees belong to various training backgrounds. Although one may first think of curators, archivists, designers etc., when thinking of a site like a museum, there is more to it. Building managers, accountants, marketers, security guards, technicians, and so on… And such a variety makes me raise the question: What is the common purpose of all these people working for this institution? Is there even a common goal regarding contributing to this museum? Or, how would you be able to define ‘contribution’ when the nature of all these occupations are so differing?

If we simply and naively define museums as sites in which historical and cultural objects are stored and exhibited, then we can make a distinction about the impact of different occupations to the overall aim of the institution. That is, we can perhaps say that the role of a curator or an archivist is more crucial to this specific site, instead of any other workplace, say an insurance company; hence making such jobs “peculiar”. On the other hand, if we think again in terms of the weight some jobs have in the institution compared to others; other occupations that I had mentioned, like accountants, building managers, marketers, can be seen as “out of context” jobs that yet play a crucial role in the institution. To further elaborate, I call such occupations as “out of context” because the nature of their work is not peculiar to the institution but is a job that fits in many differing types of workplaces. In other words, curating is only meaningful in specific sites such as museums, and its impact on such sites probably outweighs those of other occupations. And other jobs, such as building management, are not bound to a specific workplace or industry, but can be applied in different contexts, regardless of how little significance the job has to the overall aims of the institution. I call the former group as “peculiar” and “out of context” for the latter one.

Now I would like to turn our attention to the “out of context” group because it is this group of occupations which make it ambiguous for me to understand the purpose of the individual in working for the institution. It is this group of people, which I believe, reflects the firm division between work and home, private and public. Let us imagine ourselves as an accountant. What makes us prefer working for a museum to working for a school? Is it the goals of the institution, or is it the material comfort provided (the salary, location etc.)? If one is to answer by saying ‘it is about the goal of the institution’, I would find it hard to comprehend such a motivation since the work that is done by the accountant is not hard to replace with the capacity of another accountant, as the job involves tasks that do not contribute to the overall motto of the institution. Instead, it involves tasks that are crucial for the survival of the workplace, but which do not significantly change the outcome. If this is the case, then what would the motivation, if there is at all, be for a person to spend a third of his/her day working for a specific organization? If there is no idea of an intrinsic good that lies under the 8-10 hours of labor, then what makes such jobs different from a factory worker, who are, as some Marxists claim, oppressed and deprived of their humanity? Can there be any emotional investment to one’s work if one is a part of “out of context” jobs? If the way tasks are carried out are “isolated” from the employee’s personal ideals, likings, and habits, then can’t we say that there is a definite distinction between work and home, public and private? That is, such occupations are only evaluated in its degree of rationality, free of personal emotions (which are reserved for the person’s ‘private life’)?

By raising such questions, I do not intend to disparage the so-called “out of context” occupations, as “peculiar” jobs too involve much more paradoxical aspects which I reserve for further writings. But I aim to reflect how the factory worker deprived of humanity has not disappeared, but has changed location. It is these aspects of modern work life and ethics which reflect the crisis we are in.

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