Saturday, September 08, 2018

Real World Experience: On Yves Schwartz's Experience et Connaissance du Travail.

Image from the Simpsons and Frinkiac. 

Two thoughts immediately come to mind when considering Yves Schwartz's Experience et Connaissance du Travail. The first, which provides the inspiration for the image above, is the absurdity of dragging around a nearly nine hundred French book on worker's experience and knowledge. The second, somewhat more relevant thought, is that the book in some way feels like a missing element from my education. I never heard it mentioned before I dug deep into some of the writing on work coming out of France, but I know its references from Georges Canguilhem, who wrote the introduction, to Althusser, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, and Bourdieu. I partially understand why it never was translated or made it across the Atlantic, aside from the length it is indebted to many figures that never became part of "theory," Lucien Sève for one, but the fact that it is a book on experience written under the direction of Georges Canghuilhem should at least be of interest. Foucault famously posited a line of demarcation between philosophers of experience, existentialism and phenomenology, and philosophers of the concept, Canghuilhem, the philosophy of science. Schwartz is describing an experience that is irreducible to lived experience because it exceeds and situates life, or more to the point, living labor. 

Beyond the list of well known names the book benefits from its intellectual millieu in an way that stands as a reminder that French Theory was not just some intellectual fad. Schwartz's book is written at a time when words like experience, culture, and knowledge were very much in question, contested and examined from multiple angles. As Schwartz writes his own "theoretical detour"will be legitimate if it renders strange and unfamiliar the all too familiar and too human world of work. It is quite a detour; it takes Schwartz almost half of the book to get to  a discussion of work. That is because there is so much work to do even get there. The necessity of working through a general theory of culture and knowledge is not just because these words are often reified, assumed rather than problematized, but also that when it comes to work, to labor, there is already a politics of knowledge at work (pun most likely intended). As Schwartz argues any project which places inchoate knowledge on the side of the worker and the conceptual elaboration on the side of the philosopher risks becoming a kind of philosophical Taylorism. Even a conceptual inquiry into work risks being on the side of the boss.

Taylorism is a pressing concern for Schwartz not just as a specific reorganization of work, but as a reordering of the way in which we think about work, situating across the dualities of concept and execution, mind and body, conscious and unconscious. For Schwartz's Taylorism is a kind of idealism, the assumption that a concept can fully represent reality.Thinking about work cannot be separated from the question of knowledge in general, or language and its role in representing and constituting reality, and culture as a set of thematized and unthematized values and practices. Schwartz's work is a contribution to the "philosophy of work" not just in the sense that he is concerned with the putative connection between work and the perennial question of "the meaning of life," but because to understand work is to understand the relationship between consciousness and life, being and becoming, subjectivity and objectivity. It is philosophical through and through, but one could also argue that it is anti-philosophical through and through in that its determinations are not that of thought, of the concept, but of the intersecting and contradictory tendencies of material conditions and social reality.

Schwartz spends a great deal of time working through the various accounts of culture and society that have been developed in France in the latter half of the twentieth century. This prolegomena of sorts seems almost painstaking patient in its approach. The third part, on the dimensions of work, does not even begin until four hundred pages in. However, how he criticizes the different approaches to work begins to clarify Schwartz's position. For Schwartz structuralism, of the sort developed by Levi-Strauss, remains too arbitrary and unmoored. The different combinations of terms and values can explain everything except why a particular set of values or significations are realized here and now. Moreover, the "umotivated" nature of structural systems crashes upon works engagement with the material conditions of life. If the first part of Schwartz's criticism sounds like Althusser's criticism of Levi-Strauss, his critique of Althusser takes the opposite direction. If structuralism is at fault for positing an arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, making culture indeterminate with respect to its material conditions, then Althusser's concept of different practices and their corresponding spontaneous ideologies too closely sutures thought to its material conditions.

The criticism of Levi-Strauss and Althusser begins to outline Schwartz's understanding of worker's experience. That experienced must be both unmoored and moored, determinate and indeterminate. Worker's experience is framed by both their position within the system, the spontaneous ideology of their given job or task, and by values and norms in excess of their position. Capitalism, and the specific capitalist labor relation, adds an additional level to this, in that labor itself becomes abstract and unmoored from the specifics of a given job. There is a general demand of productivity, of abstract labor, that exceeds the particular demands of a given job. I would argue, and this is more my point than Schwartz's that the real abstraction of abstract labor has effects that are both material and ideological, just as the labor relation becomes the basis for material life the ideal of work becomes the basis for social norms and respect. Although Schwartz does acknowledge the tendency for labor to become not just the way one earns ones living but social respect as well. More to point, the identity and non-identity of abstract and concrete labor, as two very different ways of measuring and conceiving labor, constitutes much of working experience. Experience is less a discernible concept, a defined thing, than the point of identity and non-identity of abstract and concrete labor, the dead labor of capital and the living labor of the worker, and, more prosaically, concept and execution.

The latter term is central to the ergonomic critique of work, exemplified by Chrisophe Dejours, which sees the entire question of worker's subjectivity as how one manages the interval between what one is supposed to do and what one actually does. Workers, even those who work with ideas, images, and code, live the irreducibility of reality to concept because everyday they experience all of the various ways in which the reality of a given situation does not correspond to what they are supposed to do.

The idea of experience, of worker's subjectivity, being less a determinate content or position, and instead being the gap, or interval, between two structuring characteristics of experience is derived in part from Lucien Séve's Marxisme et Theorie de la Personalite. Schwartz's reliance on Séve might explain part of why his book is left in the dustbin of the untranslated. However, it also makes possible a revision of Séve against the backdrop of the anthropological turn in contemporary philosophy. Séve's turn to the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach as the refutation of any psychological theory of personality, stressing instead the social and historical basis of individuality is a strange precursor to Etienne Balibar's work.

Schwartz's work cannot be reduced to either Dejours nor Séve because for him the gap between concept and execution, or between abstract and concrete labor; these are only two facets of an overdetermined multiplicity determined, in the last instance, by the dominance of dead labor over living labor. In order to understand the relationship between consciousness and life it is necessary to understand how much of our experience is dominated by the undead presence of capital's dead labor. 

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