Which leads me to wonder: why is there so little solidarity among all of us paperworkers? Why do we so often feel sorry for ourselves, so burdened by paperwork of one kind or another, while having so little sympathy for others—the dean who signs off on a clumsy sentence, the secretary who misaddresses an envelope, the paralegal who misses a deadline, the insurance agent who misfiles a claims form?
The reason, I think, is that paperwork has never fit comfortably into our idea of what work means, or what it means to work. This might explain, for example, why paperwork has so few heroes in mythology, literature, cinema, real life. There is no John Henry or Mighty Casey or Casey Jones or Rosie the Riveter inspiring us to work better or harder. The sweaty iron worker is an erotic figure; the sweaty insurance salesman a figure of derision. Even when it’s most of what we do, it’s not what we think of as what we really do. “I am a professor who also happens to write memos, reimbursement requests, self-evaluations, letters of recommendation, grant applications, conference budgets, procedural-revision plans, reports to the accreditation committee.” Not “I am a writer of memos, reimbursement requests, self-evaluations, letters of recommendation, grant applications, conference budgets, procedural-revision plans, reports to accreditation committees who also happens to be a professor.”
In an influential essay from 1977, Barbara and John Ehrenreich attempted to identify the class of people who spend most of their time this way. They called it “the professional-managerial class” and gave it a nifty abbreviation. The PMC was not the proletariat nor the petty bourgeoise nor the bourgeoisie proper. Nor would “middle class” do, since it was clearly an ideological ploy, intended to obscure objective antagonisms within and between classes. “We define the professional-managerial class as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” This is 1970s speak for a class of people who reproduce things rather than produce them, who keep things going or keep things up or keep things interesting while generally keeping things from getting out of control. Working in a less Marxist idiom, the French philosophical team of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari called this “the production of production.”
Sounds interesting, right? The problem is that all this paperwork is actually kind of tedious. Even when things go wrong, they tend to go wrong tediously. There are relatively few paperwork emergencies: you might find yourself calling 311, but never 911. If you find yourself short of breath, it’s more likely a heart condition than any sense of exhilaration. One effect of this tedium is that we routinely grow bored, distracted, alienated at work. Our minds wander toward sex and credit-card bills. We spend hours surfing the web, which turns out to be much less challenging and enjoyable than the verb makes it sound. Our backs ache, our carpal tunnels throb, our vision blurs. We begin to suffer from other, less localizable complaints. And then even after a long, tiresome day we have trouble falling asleep, trouble staying there. We go to the gym, which helps a little, but it’s hard to escape the idea that our minds, like our legs, are always racing on treadmills, going nowhere fast. It’s like that scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin continues twitching and turning his wrenches even after the assembly line has come to a halt, except in this case the muscle memory is in our brains.
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