Unreal Nature

March 5, 2015

The Worker Is Eduated to Lack Such Self-assurance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… He seems, as we shall see, to have been almost incapable of distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’; and how could it have been otherwise, when neither of these terms could articulate his project?

Continuing through Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor by Dai Vaughan (1983):

Harry Watt: “He was always terribly scruffy and hairy. As a producer, I once tried to make him smarten himself up; and he told me what I could do … ”

[ … ]

… Working people are rarely, if ever, dilettanti. To be dilettante is to believe that one’s activity is justified by the mere fact of one’s wishing to engage upon it. This — which is a privilege not even of the middle class but rather of the aristocracy, or at any rate the very secure — constitutes a rejection of the success-motive before the question is even posed how success should be measured. At its worst, with which it is commonly identified, it leads to satisfaction with sloppy workmanship and to an unconcern with the position of one’s work in society at large: a position which is, after all, integral to its meaning (including, if properly construed, its meaning to oneself). The worker is educated to lack such self-assurance. His … justification must be made manifest to him by society. But the only criterion which society allows — the only scale whereon worth may be measured — is money. Legitimate activity is that which pays. A ‘real’ writer is one who produces best-sellers; and Art is consigned, along with other paranormal phenomena, to the realm of the imperfectly comprehended (or rather, to one of deferred comprehension — for even Van Gogh, as we have observed, makes money posthumously).

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Because, then, only the financially rewarded has legitimacy, the remainder of one’s interests can reveal themselves only as ‘hobbies.’ It is as if some Maxwell’s demon had neatly segregated the productive and consumptive elements of our lives in order to make of us the richest fuel for capitalism. But a hobby, still, is not dilettante, for it does not ‘precede’ criteria of success. It either misunderstands them (the naïve), or it submits to restricted and localised ones in a spirit of constrained eccentricity. (Thus amateur painting is rarely either experimental or self-indulgent, but strives after acknowledged norms.) A hobby is by definition — and is socially tolerated only on licence of accepting this definition — an agreeable waste of time. For a worker to demand that the labors of his personal commitment be taken seriously is, except in the special case of the political activist, a major solecism.

For my own part, I experienced a good deal of the force of this prohibition when working on this book. I sustained myself through the research by saying, ‘Think of it as a hobby,’ and only when it came to the actual writing switched to, ‘Think of it as a job.’ To what extent, then, was McAllister, in adopting a poorly paid and traditionally working-class role in a militantly anti-commercial branch of the film industry, facing himself with a comparable conflict?

McAllister … was not marked out to be a wage-slave: rather a sturdy professional or small businessman, pillar of the community. He could, of course, have conformed to the expectations of non-conformity by adopting the bohemian, raffish life of the painter as epitomized by someone like Augustus John. But he did not do that, either. Given his choice of a career as a film technician, the only distinctive option which his middle-class Scots origins are likely to have proffered him is the perception of work as duty. And this perception — which clearly underlies much of Grierson’s ‘public service’ rhetoric — is one which McAllister seems also to have rejected, preferring to see his own job, Cavalcanti-fashion, as dedicated to the renewal and refreshment of social language: as art, in fact.

[line break added] Occupying by fortune and by temperament an artisan grade (McLaren, by contrast, had entered the GPO at the rank of Junior Director), he threw himself headlong into controversies over theory and principle. From within what society designates a working-class position, he chose to invest his work with a personal commitment unrelated to the satisfying of any preordained criteria of success and to demand, on the strength of this, to be heard as an equal. He seems, as we shall see, to have been almost incapable of distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’; and how could it have been otherwise, when neither of these terms could articulate his project? I believe that this refusal of the available articulations, this ‘pollution’ of the received dualities, provides the key to an understanding of McAllister’s progress.

To be continued.

My most recent previous post from Vaughan’s book is here.

-Julie

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