Ferguson, Workplace, and Making Soup

The choice between engagement and supervision

I prefer to work with words, count syllables, crack phrases, set lines to tunes, find etymologies, and hide rhymes. Without making a poem, it’s difficult to opine on recent events in Ferguson or to draw the relationship I see to the use of the Workplace software by their data-driven employers :


Of our first disobedience now the fruit
has ripened in a thing against our nature,
a growth that rules us we have bred from rules,
a coded being, supreme appliance, image
and appendage overgrown: a cyst
like an ovarian anomaly
with true eyes, hair, eleven misplaced teeth,
and six or twenty fingers on a hand—or more—
made to assist.
With or without poetry, however, writer Robert Solomon would perhaps not have bought the poem’s implication of a cultural aberration. As he put it:

Our so-called depravity is nothing but the deficit side of our chosen form of life, and I for one would want no other . . . But ‘narcissism’ is a nasty and unnecessary word. Ever since the early days when the diagnosis was damnation instead of disease, our desire to promote a decent society has been undermined by those bitter voices demanding nothing less than total change, and thereby making change impossible. The most tiresome depravity of our age is all this talk about the depravity of our age.

And even W.H. Auden put in a good word for our depraved age, however anxious it might seem:

“. . . I may escape notice
                                   but never
on roads I dream of
                     what Eden is there for the lapsed
but hot water
                     snug in its caul
                  exiles may feel as self-important
as an only child
               and a sage
                           be silly without shame . . .”
(From “Encomium Balnei”)

Indeed, whatever our gripes against the hurry, technology, commodifications, and depravity of our age, we like our plumbing and hot baths! So I’ll try to deliver an opinion rather than a poem.
But maybe there’s no need. Maybe body cameras have already solved public relations problems for law enforcement and maybe the erratic schedules generated by Workplace software will be simply fixed by coding more sensitively?

Well, in a first stab at being an opinion-leader, I’d say no. Here’s where the soup comes in.

You see, I often watch Kathleen make soup. She talks with the farmer about the cuts and bones, decides whether it’s to be lamb, turkey or beef, brings them home with assorted vegetables and greens, and sets up her pot. First, the bones are soaked in a little vinegar to begin the demineralization and softening of collagen. A long warm soak of the bones “snug in their caul” is interrupted by the addition of celery, onions, and garlic–the holy trinity. Six hours later, the starchy vegetables arrive–maybe sweet potatoes or butternut squash cut in large chunks. The stock cooks down for six or seven more hours, the lid happily bobbling atop. Salt and a few herbs enter an hour or so before serving. Then, as the bowls are taken down twelve to fifteen hours after the ingredients began their path of transformation, minced collard greens or arugula is stirred in and steamed just enough to soften them but not enough to destroy enzymes. The nutrient-rich, gelatinous, arthritis-healing, anti-inflammatory, savory broth is poured into large shallow bowls so that we won’t have to wait too long after inhaling the aroma before it’s cool enough to eat. The extra is set aside and frozen for later in the week for soup, stock, and warm drinks on winter mornings.

Please notice that the cook did not add the preserved contents of a soup can to water and microwave it for 3.5 minutes. Here’s the distinction: the long slow method required personal, creative engagement; the quick, automated method requires what I call “supervision.” The supervisor of distant, outsourced preparations passively removes the unknown product from the microwave and quickly feeds.
After about 20 years of teaching, I became a supervisor. When this happened, I couldn’t help thinking about the word. It literally means “looking over.” The stately definition implies a lofty perspective on the workplace. Diagrams and management theories emblazon the standards fluttering over the towers of Higher Management. For the workers, however, it means that the Suits are always looking over their shoulders. Or that a manager “overlooks” certain deficiencies out of what? Largesse? Noblesse oblige? Certainly, Management prefers the idea of a stately “supervisor” to that of the ruffian “overseer.” Whatever the merits of middle management, I always knew that “supervising instruction” was an abstraction while “teaching” was a personal and creative engagement. Abstractions omit more light than they emit.
So, what about the body camera and the improved program code to eliminate employees’ downtime? Abstractions. Exercises in supervision. Nothing new about them. When humans began to write, the headmen of the tribe knew that personal engagement in accurately memorizing the genealogy and Story of the People was on its way out. Once all the different Homers had their creative improvs recorded, there was no going back. Anyone who could look over the text could recite the story. Automatically. Granted, the appliance was not a cell phone, body camera, telegraph key, or software package to optimize workers’ labor. It was only a book. One could even overlook all the dull parts by skipping ahead. But an appliance had replaced a kind of personal and creative engagement. The community was no longer embodied and unified in the poet’s performance. A book was a disappointment to the jobless shaman but good news to the litigant who wanted to see where it was written that he owed a fifth of all his grain and chickens to the chief.
The choice is ours. Some things are so important that only personal and creative engagement will do. Other matters are better supervised. Here’s where we may disagree, so I invite your responses.
My opinion is that we are animals with limited understanding and scale who are rooted in our natural world. Care for each other and the natural world–what my teacher, Elwyn Tilden, called “life-fostering concern“–are precisely the matters requiring sustained attention and personal and creative engagement. These matters include education, the arts and sciences, the production and preparation of food, and the inclusion of all members of the community in significant creative work that embodies what is best about the culture—whether it is well crafted plumbing or a compassionate social code. Two counter-examples conclude my argument, such as it is:
• Underpaid part-time employment that does not allow the worker to know her schedule from one week to the next fails to be personal, engaging, or creative for either worker or employer.
• Trying to solve a problem of social dynamics with a device merely creates another problem of social dynamics. David Campbell’s “law” from 1976 says that “the more any quantitative factor is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (The Week 5/11/2015, p6) Turn the issue between police and community into a supervision technology and the monitors will be gamed.

As we are increasingly tracked, monitored, and profiled, we are encouraged to believe that all of this supervision is needed. But in fact, on a personal level, we need more experiences like making soup for ourselves. Productivity is not socially meaningful work. Low crime incidence is not a blessed community in which employers, workers, owners, renters, enforcers, and citizens live together equitably, treat each other fairly, and know each other by name. No, measurable indicators like productivity and crime incidence are abstractions. Useful in limited ways, as books, microwaves and cans of preserved soup are useful, our abstractions do not replace the social nutrient-system of relationships.

Obviously, it is desirable that all members of society should shine in their own ways and be meaningfully engaged in the works of society. Social indicators, apps, clever inferences from big data and even heavy-handed corporate solutions in the forms of brand-name packages are certainly useful from time to time, but massive societal disengagement and inattention are unlikely to keep us all in hot baths.
Even a blog like this is useful in dissemination of ideas and opinions. All artful work begins in sustained attention and personal creative engagement and ends in products like blogs, microwaves, poems, and telegraph keys. These products may be immediately useful or may even evoke responses from others. They do not, however, replace the mutually attentive relationships which nourish our existence and evoke our energy and desire for personal and societal transformation. This energy and desire, called ganas in Spanish, comes from personally tending to the soup of relationships with each other and the natural world. In Margaret Mead’s memorable words,

Never doubt that a small group
of committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

    This is truly as much opinion as I care to deliver. Your comments appreciated. For other perspectives, see Robert Solomon’s Living With Nietzsche and The Passions, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, James Gleick’s The Information, Plato’s Phaedrus (Socrates’ comments on writing), and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft and The World Beyond Your Head.

2 thoughts on “Ferguson, Workplace, and Making Soup

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