Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: The Wage Slave’s Glossary

Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell. The Wage Slave’s Glossary. Designed and decorated by Seth. Emeryville, Ontario. Biblioasis. 2011. 173 pages. $11.95 US / $12.95 CA.

One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.

William Faulkner, in a 1956 Paris Review interview
The work of a writer and editor (Glenn), a philosopher (Kingwell), and artist and designer (Seth), The Wage Slave’s Glossary is a sequel to the trio’s The Idler’s Glossary (2008), whose entries explored a world free from the imperatives of getting and spending. (Sample entries: skylarking, sleep, slouch, stroll.) This new book is both well and oddly timed. In an era of economic collapse, it makes good sense to examine the language of work and the ways in which such language naturalizes perspectives and practices that might otherwise seem repellent. (Consider downtime, which identifies the worker at rest with an out-of-service machine.) Yet when so many are desperate to find a job, any job, the authors’ anarcho-revolutionary suspicion of “the work idea” itself seems strangely detached from human circumstance and urgency. It’s nice to envision the world “as a site not of work but of play,” but one still has to eat.

Suspicion of “the work idea” aside, The Wage Slave’s Glossary is a grand and saddening tour of language past and present. So many of the terms herein suggest weariness as the necessary consequence of work: boreout (“a syndrome of exhaustion and disillusionment caused by office work that is underwhelming and unsatisfying”), burnout (“long-term mental and emotional exhaustion and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment”), grinding house (slang for a house of correction, then for a place of work), guolaosi (“Mandarin neologism meaning ‘overwork death’”), karoshi (Japanese for “death from overwork”). Euphemisms abound: downsizing, for instance, which seems to have euphemisms of its own:
Also known as: recruitment, delayering, early retirement, force shaping, headcount adjustment, offshoring (or bestshoring), rightsizing or smartsizing, operational simplification, personnel realignment, rationalizing the workforce, recession, reduction in force (RIF), skill mix adjustment, workforce optimization, and workforce reduction (WFR).
I’m struck too by the metaphors of modern working life: the many ceilings that impede ascent (bamboo, brass, concrete, glass, and stained-glass), the transformation of the human being into machine (bandwidth, multitasking) or obedient drudge. Busy as a bee?
Bees works tirelessly, without ever taking orders or varying their routines, only to be unceremoniously shoved out of the hive when they become useless to the collective.
The Wage Slave’s Glossary is beautifully designed and made — small (4" x 6"), with a glossy embossed cover, cartooned endpapers, and numerous illustrations (each about ¾" square). It’s the kind of book that represents, I think, the future of print — the book as desirable object. (Decidedly not better on a Kindle.) The Wage Slave’s Glossary is — I’ll say it — a labor of love, and worth your money and time.

Related reading
William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction No. 12 (Paris Review)

[Thanks to Biblioasis for a review copy of this book.]

comments: 8

Anonymous said...

At what numerical wage level is the "wage slave" no longer a slave?

One notes that the entity which publishes and vends this product -- a book -- operates in the capitalist model, and apparently must also employ "wage slaves." One sees it available through Amazon, which this blog seems to indicate among the masters of wage slaves. So....

Is a teacher in a school at any level a wage slave? Are you a wage slave?

Some personal insight from you would be most interesting.

Michael Leddy said...

I think I’m fortunate in the extreme to do the work that I do. And I know that from the food in my fridge to the computer on which I’m typing, I’m complicit in all sorts of economic arrangements that are far from just.

Anonymous said...

"I’m complicit in all sorts of economic arrangements that are far from just."

Fascinating. What are you doing personally to change this complicity in a tangible way, other than holding an opinion about it being "far from just?"

This is an earnest question, the answer to which I look forward to reading.

Michael Leddy said...

Is it really that fascinating? I think it’s the situation of any modern consumer. I make what choices I can about where to shop and what to buy.

Anonymous said...

Yes, to some it really is that fascinating. Fascinating enough to go back to find this in the "Older Posts."

If you feel "complicit in all sorts of economic arrangements that are far from just," all the while the state has gone from a bond debt of about 9 billion about a decade ago to 30 billion today, it sounds like "economic arrangements that are far from just" are overtaking the state, with the predictable outcome of less social and economic justice, not more.

Is your perceived complicity as broad as the state's policies into travail, or only as wide as "where to shop and what to buy?" It is a fascinating question to a curious mind.

Michael Leddy said...

Am I under oath?

I don’t understand the purpose or tone of your questioning, Anon. My political slant is pretty obvious from posts I’ve written. I’m one person, trying to do the best I can, sometimes by myself, sometimes with others.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Leddy, you are not at all "under oath" nor being deposed. I am not asking in fact about your political position, which you rightly note has been very clear in your blog. Nor do I quarrel with it.

Democrat-Republican is not a topic for me. What is interesting is that so many governments courtesy of both parties, from city to state to nation, here as around the world, are crashing up against liquidity problems, after having financed yesterday on a credit card with the bills coming due now all the while these same governments are trying to refinance/rollover existing debt while wanting to borrow yet more.

I think we are all doing the best we can, and that also is not the point of my queries. I was intirigued by your personal connection of economic injustice and your complicity, as you termed it, in it.

I don't judge myself complicit, nor do I find you complicit. I find that the situation requires us to not accept that we are somehow complicit in such corruption as the Blago conviction exemplifies, and such mismanagement as the massive growth of debt evidences. Just because one votes does not mean one also rubber stamps criminal acts, which would make one complicit.

So my question was certainly not an attack, and I am sorry you felt it so. My question was perhaps misstated. Let me try again:

Why do you feel yourself "complicit in all sorts of economic arrangements that are far from just?" From where does this self-perception arise?

Michael Leddy said...

Anon., I’m sorry if I misread your tone. The context here was questions of work. The produce in my fridge and on my counter is picked by workers who are ill-paid for the labor. I wear clothing and used electronic gadgetry made by workers who are ill-paid for their labor. I “buy local” (yes, it’s a cliché) and buy fair-trade products as possible. So yes, I consider myself complicit in economic structures that are far from just.