15. jan. 2013

Stiff Smiles

In December 2012, LifeTouch: Perspectives & Reflections, an online journal produced during Maribor's status as the European Capital of Culture (or rather, European Culture of Capital) came to a close. UMco published a selection of columns from the journal in a book entitled The State of Matters: Anthology of Perspectives & Reflections.

The anthology includes the (unauthorized) English translation of my last column written for them. The Slovene version, Togi nasmehi, was included in Stanje stvari: Antologija Perspektiv & refleksij (Ljubljana: UMco, 2012, pp. 82-85), the one in English can be read below.

Stiff Smiles 
Two years ago at a flea market, I bought a journal published in honor of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the Iskra Kranj work organization. As it often happens to occasional publishers, they forgot to equip the booklet with the year, but I had no difficulty in guessing that the journal stemmed from socialist times. A modest cover, socialist self-management language, grainy photographs: everything had the aroma of age. I spent the majority of the time staring at photographs of the work collectives. There were dozens of them with a group of twenty, thirty workers in work robes awkwardly posing under the neon lights. The bulk of their bodies blocked the view of the conveyer belt in the background of a large hall.

It reminded me how long it has been since I saw a group photograph of work. I can verify that there are none in the daily newspapers. These days, the pages dedicated to careers and employment mostly show independent entrepreneurs, usually ones that started from nothing or created a new market niche. Team work is represented by photographs of three or four people sitting behind their laptops smiling sweetly. They are dressed in a business manner: no blue robes, no workman’s shoes. And no one is over thirty. I thought, I do not have any group photos from my workplace, even though I have gone through many – if the term workplace is even suitable for short-term project jobs that are paid through a student order form or a copyright contract.

The fact that photographs of working collectives have been replaced by images of project teams really should not surprise me. With whom are you to be photographed, if you are a contractual worker and jobs (even that word does not seem appropriate) come and go? With whom, if your co-workers are constantly changing? And with whom, if you work from the employer’s home or even in your own room? When I am not working alone, I am jumping between projects, which are usually so intense that there is no time for informal socializing with co-workers and if there is any spare time, I do not really want to spend it with them. They are interesting, but with every project I wonder: why keep meeting always new people that will go their separate ways after the work is done and the group has dissolved. If we ever meet again, the circumstances will most likely be just as intense. We will ask each other, what is new without knowing the prequel, without knowing what was old. This superficiality, new beginnings, this running in place: it is exhausting.

With the Iskra journal in my hands, I tried to imagine the image capturing my work experience. As it appeared before my eyes, I saw the perfect flexible worker. In it, I was alone, sitting at my computer, which, together with my cellphone and an old-fashioned paper notebook, represents my mobile office. I was surrounded by unrecognizable traces of people, rushing through the shot. The prints of those who stopped for a chat for a moment were clearer, but still looked like ghosts from emails, accidentally finding themselves in real space.

Sociologist Richard Sennett states that one the characteristics of flexible forms of work that started establishing themselves in the west during the seventies and in the early nineties in post-socialist countries is a short-term orientation (instead of a long-term one), encouraging competitiveness (instead of solidarity) and social exclusion (instead of inclusion). In places where people are still sharing a work space, the teams are smaller and the sense of community is weaker due to the constant rotation of workers. It simply takes time to develop mutual trust, loyalty and firmer bonds. The fact that workers perform the same work under different conditions and for different pay in the same company only further diminishes the possibility of a collective forming that would join forces to resist the pressures with more ease. It is not difficult to imagine that it is easiest to manipulate with unconnected workers, who, on top of everything else, compete among each other.

Sennett lists a variety of reasons why the term collective has been replaced in manager manuals with terminology (but not ethics as well), characteristic of group sports, where there the used term is team. The main reason is, of course, ideological, as the declared wish for collaboration and cooperation is merely a front, behind which the demand for rivalry is hidden. Instead of workers defending their interests to their bosses, they fight against each other. Even the control over the effectiveness and discipline of the co-workers (similar to our own diligence) is of late being done by ourselves as well.

So, what kind of co-worker or team player do flexible work teams require? They expect a person with distance who is aware that the work is of a temporary nature and therefore concentrates only on it and not on the co-workers, with which the worker could form certain kinds of relations. A flexible teammate cannot afford to feel mutual affection, least any grudges, betrayal or jealousy. Since the person cultivates a certain ironic distance towards everyone and everything, they can work with anyone and can immediately join a new team. They will listen and with a smile advise every teammate who plays by the set rules. They move between the projects, teams and individuals like between the windows on a computer screen. Since only the present counts, only the visible results of a recently completed work, a good teammate does not cite past experience. If they do, they risk ridicule: experience means someone must be inflexible – and old.

The only skill a flexible player must master is transitive: they must be able to play anywhere, anytime and with whom ever in accordance with the declared sport ethics. During this, they must bear the mask of cooperativeness and the mask of egalitarianism, which are to conceal the actual balance of power between the workers and their subordination to the boss. The latter no longer commands, but only “directs” the work process. If the directors used to use the argument of power, the project managers and coaches now claim that “we are all in the same boat”. When the boat starts sinking, right before splitting, the most cynical among them dare to say that they were equally hurt by the storm as their workers. The worker, who only lethargically shrugs the shoulders upon hearing this and starts looking for a new job, embodies the ideal of flexibility. May he be bent over and over, he will always bounce back. This kind of player is a player in the theatrical, not a sport sense. He wears a convincing mask, a bright smile and—most importantly—shuts up.

I do not know what kind of terminology was used to substantiate the work discipline in socialism, but the fact remains that the long-term employment ensured a high level of trust and solidarity among the workers, as it offered them safety and social inclusion. People could be proud of their experience, because the company would reward a job well done, even if a person advanced to higher paying levels more slowly – or did not advance at all. Since the moral prestige of work was so great, your loved ones would respect you no matter if you were content with your work or not. Since your time was organized by institutions that seemed immortal, you could string your own life story it them, given meaning by the permanent social relations.

Nowadays, the role of the character test is represented by the willingness to take risks. Even though you realize that the chances of you being selected from the hundreds of candidates, who applied to the same position, are very minute, everyone keeps encouraging you to keep trying. Every time I turned down an offer for a project job that was more prestigious than the job I was currently doing, but the promised pay for it was less and was less reliable, some or other well-meaning acquaintance would pop up to say in amazement: “You could have at least tried it, you deserve more!” I tried to explain to her to no avail that they were offering me a sham, that it was pure lottery. It was more important that I “move on”, even though that would mean consenting to worse working conditions. Clinging to work, perceived as poorly paid or boring, means you must be a bore and an idiot who does not want change and success. The thought of someone being content with what they have is unacceptable.

While leafing through the Iskra journal, everything stated above made it difficult to resist the urge to idealize the working conditions in socialism. You cannot choose a better place for that than the flea market. What do I look for there, if not for patches for my nostalgia? Well, it was somewhat more difficult to romanticize the price the workers had to pay in the state socialism for their long-term safety: Sennett claims it involved sacrificing either their freedom or their individuality; that the “iron cast” of the large, complex and rigid institutions were simultaneously a prison and a home.

The workers in the group photos did appear uniform and stiff. At first I only perceived a cluster of bodies, robbed of their individuality and intimacy. After I started looking for these, I of course found them. At first, I noticed two workers on a photograph from the spinnery (Iskra was a textile factory up to World War II, employing mostly women). They must be close: they are casually sitting on the floor, leaning on each other. Another photograph of the same department is diagonally crossed by a long look. Two workers on each end are silently sharing a titillating secret. A photograph of the weaving room surprised me because of the girls with their proto-punkish hairstyles. They are staring at the photographer so proudly and angrily that I had to avert my eyes. A woman in the first row stands out from a photograph with at least fifty people. She is pointing her finger at a serious-looking man beside her, laughing cheekily at him. On another photograph, I noticed the difference between the women, sitting with their legs squeezed together, their hand folded in their laps, and the worker, sitting next to her co-workers in a mannish manner. There is another girl who has snuck into the shot: while the collective diligently poses, she is peaking from behind some contraption and making grimaces. Another girl appears to be so unhappy that I wish someone could take her out of the factory and pay her college tuition, so that as a grown woman she could afford the nylons that are running away from her now: she works on a conveyer belt in the synthetics spinnery. A skinny looking boy is standing beside her, trying to look manlier, standing up straight, with spread legs and his hands placed on his narrow hips.

The longer I stared at the photographs, the more details I noticed, the more stories and connections between the unknown faces. There were no details on my fictitious photographs of my work experience. Not even a background. You, I decided at the flea market, will be my historical memory, my background for the group photo I am unable to take. If I ever feel truly bad, I will cut my face from a photograph with no background and glue it among your faces. I will make a black-and-white photograph, so that my colorful face blends in with yours.

I asked the lady selling the journal about its price. It was not cheap, she wanted five euro for it. I started haggling, saying I would cut it up for collages anyway. She did not like that prospect at all. She said it was not just any booklet; it contained a picture of her father, who worked at Iskra his entire life. I tried to rescue myself from this embarrassment by asking her to show me his picture. I expected that the journal would automatically open on the right page, but the lady had to look for it for a while. Her father was not posing in a collective; he was alone in the picture. He was not actually posing; he was photographed during his work with the machine, which was the second most common type of portraits that only started to appear in the second half of the journal, dedicated to the seventies and the ushering of new technologies. If the workers abandoned their work on the older photos to pose in a group photo, the newer photographs depicted the workers while working – from the back or from the side. I am not sure whether that was because photographing had become so commonplace by then and the work process was not allowed to stop for every trifle, but the moment the lady showed me the photograph of her father, his machine looked back at me instead of him; the same machine that in a few years made him redundant as a “technological excess”.

I did not have the heart to start haggling again. Or the courage to turn down something so personal. Only after I was home, did I think how strange it was that the lady was selling the book at all. If she were truly attached to the booklet, she would not be selling it. She obviously had a mountain of extra copies left. Of was she proud of the fact that her father, a manual laborer, appeared in a real book? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually purchased a patch for my own nostalgia. The lady set the price to my, not her emotions. From that aspect, I convinced myself, that the book was actually quite inexpensive.

A short while ago, while reading Sennett's The Culture of the New Capitalism (2008), the Iskra journal found its way into my hands again. This time I decided the lady must not have insisted on the relatively high price because of her own attachment to the journal or her father, but the meaning he ascribed to his work identity. The work identity corresponded to the best character features in his time; it included responsibility and sacrifice, care for others, solidarity to the co-workers, loyalty to the company and the ability of planning a person’s own future. I thought how unlikely it was that his fifty year-old daughter can combine the listed values, if they even are values to her, with the demands of her work environment. The flexible job, if she even has one, dictates her sloppiness, distance, risk, mobility. Therefore, when she wishes for safety, she feels old. When she wishes or permanent relationships and stability, she feels like a coward. When she commits herself to her work completely, she is regarded as naive, when she tries more than necessary, she gets the feeling of being foolish. When she tries to construct her own life story from countless fragments, she feels like she has nothing to lean on. Sometimes she feels like she does not even exist. How is she to face all this uncertainty? Should she take to intimacy? I wonder whether the lady from the flea market has to try not to idealize those photographs either, even if they seem more restrictive than they seemed to the people on the photographs.

Translated by Živa Malovrh.
First published on the LifeTouch portal on October 2nd 2012.

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