Words matter

Both ‘work’ and ‘job’ are key words today. Neither had its prominence three hundred years ago. Both are still untranslatable from European languages into many others. Most languages never have one single word to designate all activities that are considered useful. Some languages happen to have a word for activities demanding pay. This word usually connotes graft, bribery, tax or extortion of interest payments. None of these words would comprehend what we call ‘work’.

– Ivan Illich, Shadow Work (1981, p. 101)

Here Ivan Illich has captured most succinctly the historical problem that I’m taking aim at. Work, at least as a word synonymous with the word ‘job’, simply did not exist in 1650. Part of what I’m trying to do is figure out where it came from. But for now, what interests me is the tendency among scholars of work to talk about language.

The most famous of these is of course Arendt, with her tripartite categorisation of all human activity between labour, work, and action. She notes that “every European language, ancient and modern, contains two etymologically unrelated words for what we have to come to think of as the same activity, and retains them in the face of their persistent synonymous usage (HC, 80).” For her, this is a clear demonstration that it’s essential to talk about work and labour as different categories entirely. As I’ve outlined before, labour is the futile cyclical struggle against necessity, growth, and decay. Work is activity that results in permanent additions to the human world.

Andrea Komlosy also maintains the split between work and labour, and like Arendt, draws on the distinction in ancient Greek and Latin between ponos-labor and ergon-opus. Labour is painful, arduous, involves suffering. Work, by contrast, is virtuous, but it also applied as a noun to the output of a process as frequently as it is to the process itself (W1k, 39-40). She provides a six-page table as an appendix containing every word for work or labour in five European languages in support of this notion (W1k, 228-233). We talk about Shakespeare’s works, Mozart’s Magnum Opus. Slaves laboured that the mighty might look upon Ozymandius’ works and despair. Women labour to bring forth children and perform domestic labour. Until recently, it was free men who worked, although ‘hard labour’ was a punishment for the unfree.

I’m going of have a lot to say in the next few weeks about the rise of the economy and its implication in the birth of work, but for now I want to ponder the ramifications of this linguistic puzzle. How did the clear distinction between virtuous work and grubby labour, with obvious overtones of class and gender, transform into a single totalising category that shapes our lives from just out of school to just shy of death? Where the hell did the idea of a ‘job’ come from, anyway?

This is why I’ve been reading Foucault. Apart from anything else, his entire oeuvre was dedicated to analysing systems of thought, technologies of power, power and knowledge… but also the ways those things were realised in and through language. His work on governmentality, biopower/biopolitics, and neoliberalism, builds on his idea of genealogy to chart the development of the state as a way of thinking over the same three hundred years that Illich notes it took work to appear as an idea in the form we now understand it.

To read Foucault is to embrace nuance. Unlike structuralist scholars, he doesn’t start with a series of categories that he uses to analyse the past. Instead, he deftly pulls out key words and builds a picture of the systems of thought that make them function or give them power. So rather than argue that each ‘type’ of governmentality eclipsed and wholly replaced the previous ones, he instead identifies several threads that tie them together, but simultaneously (and deftly) outlines the nuanced ways that the ideas and techniques of governance change as time wears on.

One can locate much in his notion of the Christian ‘pastorate’ or the 18th century notion of the ‘police state’ that feels familiar. But it is clear that while they have not disappeared as ideas or logics or technologies of power, and they may well have influenced or been subsumed by later forms of governmentality, they are far from ascendant. Reading Foucault is like watching rivers meet; you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, or which current is having which effects, but you can recognise the direction and power of the flow.

But I digress. The point is that Foucault’s method – which relies, crudely, on locating the meanings of words at different moments in history and teasing out the subtle ways they change over time, is perfect for unpicking this historical puzzle. If I can pull it off, it should allow me to trace the shift Illich identifies, between works (as discrete outputs) and work (as a job), over three centuries, with no moments of obvious or violent rupture or revolution in between. Just a steady trickle that slowly becomes a flood.


Header image – from Andrea Komlosy, Work: The Last 1,000 Years, p. 228. Garbage photo taken in dark pub by author.


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