Two poems by the Puerto Rican author Pedro Pietri serve as pretext for this discussion: Puerto Rican Obituary and “Telephone Booth #905 ½”. These two poems seem to close a cycle and open another: the time of “hard” modernity, modernity deeply rooted in industrial development, consumption, credit, and the gradual improvement of the workers” life conditions; and another cycle of a “liquid” or “liquefied” modernity, as some theorists like Zygmunt Bauman have wished to call it. In this cycle, flexible work, the empire of “general intellect”, intercommunications, the globalization of capital and the reduction in the sovereignty of the state characterize a different production: the scenario of the great “Fordist” factories, with industrious workers trying to keep up with the rhythm of machines, so well documented both in our literature and in our plastic arts; multinationals, – part time jobs, and the production of immaterial goods and social relationships are imposed. Which, then, will be the scenario of post-Industrial time? Who will their new characters be?
I have drawn an imaginary line between these two aforementioned points. Pietri intertwines two ethical proposals that are, fundamentally, aesthetic proposals: “Obituary” is about work as “Labor,” an activity that only reproduces our animal nature (Aranowitz and Di Fazio, 331334). The lyrical subject of this poem mourns over four agreeable workers heading towards a destiny foretold by the title and tone of the poem. They are workers who wasted away, unaware of the prosperity of Fordist times, to which they arrived too late. In short, they are those who experienced New York”s great depression in the 1970”s, the collapse of the municipal government and the escape of the skillful and unskillful jobs that were, however, well-paid due to the struggles of labor unions. This is the history of four characters that, as Pietri”s own text simulates, yielded to the working day and “worked, worked and worked.”
The rhythm of the poem embodies the daily routine; its extension simulates tediousness, boredom and discomfort. The characters described by the poem”s lyrical subject relied on work as an instrument of social advancement. However, they were unable to avoid their fate. On the contrary, work took them through the tortuous road to the Long Island cemetery, where they remain united by a bond of common fate. Others, not mentioned by this lyrical subject, returned to their native country to find, once again, the same panorama they had left behind some twenty or thirty years ago.
The other poem, ”Telephone booth #905 ½ “does not coincide in tone or length with the previous one.”Obituary” has a melancholic tone; after all, it is an epitaph, an elegy to those who died immersed in the “ethics of work.” “Telephone Booth #905 ½ “, however, seems to be a threshold text, the almost imperfect announcement of a new time and a new sensibility that no longer responds to Fordist ethics, to the regime of the industrial factory synthesized by the hands of a clock. “Telephone Booth #905 ½” may be the first manifestation of a differentiated subjectivity that does not feel alluded to by the question “What is happening to us, Puerto Rico?”- Pietri holds the key to understanding the post-worker. It is imperfect and incomplete; definitely “encapsulated in a single sentence, like the character of Education Rita pointed out. But this poem condenses the link between a traditional species and one that has already begun to sprout out.
I would like to think that the new breed in Pietri”s poem, the so delightfully imperfect post-worker, aloof to the managements claims in favor of production quotas, far from the prerecorded violence of the strike (Benjamin), disobedient of the call to union solidarity or, rather, indifferent to politics; that post-worker has to -be a monstrosity because It dis-articulates a seemingly immemorial order, the order of work. To temper this essay to a Puerto Rican tone, this monster is like an “aguzao”, a “jaiba”, a “melindroso”. Misunderstood, condemned, rejected by those who still are stuck in the ethics of work, the post-worker is not exactly Pietri”s character in “Telephone booth #905 ½ ” In the poem, the character still maintains a bond, though weak, with work, but he does not respect it. There it is his “No sir” to point out that we are not yet in the futurist utopia, in the “techno-paradises” which exempts us from work. It certainly responds to a still potential sensibility: health would be dedicated to delightful activities, to remain at home without working. That illness takes care of “labor.”
In the utopia suggested in Pietri”s text, “labor” is associated with illness, with a social illness that must be extirpated in order to form a new society. In this futuristic story that we would like to imagine, none of us will work and if we do, it will be in such a radically different way that we will not consider it to be work. If we insist on working, our neighbors would avoid us. They would mow the lawn at unheard of hours just so they don”t have to greet us. They would not greet our children, and if they were to make contact with someone vaccinated against work, these would be cleaned with anti-bacterial detergents so the infection would not spread. Maybe they would create new clinics, or, perhaps, we would be disregarded by the municipal governments. They could always trust in that passers-by will close the windows in their faces and avoid them at the traffic lights.
In this futurist story that we narrate today, government employees gossiping with their neighbors, endless breaks, abusive waits, will only be samples of a temporary era, they will be the first cousins of the lyrical subject of Pietri”s “Telephone Booth #905 ½”. From the future, all these manifestations will be seen as expressions of intermediate species that, as they were characterized by the initial process of hominization, seemed indeterminate, damaged. From the future, these will be recognized as alternative possibilities; their bones will be sought in distant countries with the illusion of finding the missing link.
If something is certain it is that, in the future, most of us will not be subjected to the eight hour day. If it was celebrated as one of the most significant achievements of the labor movement in its time, in the future it will be seen as something unheard of, like abolished slavery, and commemorated only once a year. The tendency of the third industrial revolution will be in favor of shorter hours that seem so impossible today, the “guaranteed minimum wage” and other delights announced by Aranowitz and Di Fazio in The Jobless Future that will make work as we know It (as labor) an almost nonexistent manifestation. The future affords us the famous “leisure time” only experienced now by very exclusive sectors. Or perhaps, the future will unite us with the third sector and many of us will be part of the “social economy” described by Rifkin.
In that future, there will be museums dedicated to useless efforts where dioramas of species in danger of extinction and others already extinct will be exhibited. Some of the most visited sites will be those that felt immune to the new post-Fordist economy: engineers, doctors, architects, professors. There will be other sites for manual and industrial workers, but these were aware of their displacement and they easily adapted to the new tendencies of the market. What they were experiencing now, their grandparents had already experienced, in the first moments of the rationalization of work, when machines displaced them quickly and disqualified them as artisans, relegating their tasks to small doses of routine and insignificant work. These no longer feel the shame of beginners recently initiated in the risky business of unemployment. They had adapted well to the new manifestations. Others, less fortunate, will have to enter detox programs sponsored by municipal governments. But we do not want to go into great detail. Our story should be short regarding social misfits. We do not want someone to feel anxious regarding those possibilities. After all, it is possible that local bane executives, after having accelerated the death of work, will not be able to sleep if they do not rectify their conscience with an exhibition on the history of this already extinguished activity. Perhaps, in some moment of the night, their director will think of a “wage of life” that allows workers to make a peaceful transition toward leisure after they were displaced by machines specialized in rationalized calculation, but that would be expensive for any bank. Love for our country is one thing and mere stupidity is another. Our second peaceful revolution will be exactly that: the displacement of work (whichever it is) toward new occupation forms that augur a more promising future.
But, what escape valves will this new peaceful revolution have? Because even when the first peaceful revolution depended on the migration of thousands of workers to the neighborhoods of the north, what incentives will they have now that here, on their island, they can subsist without surrendering to essential labors? Will the vanguard work of the Welfare State finally be recognized in the creation of a new post-work conscience, or will it still be blamed for creating a generation of post-workers, pejoratively called “lackers”? Who guarantees that everyone will eagerly want to detach themselves from their work? Or will it be necessary to ask other questions? Are there enough jobs for the entire qualified population or not? What if leisure is not the problem, but the lack of a decent salary to live on? Wouldn”t the costumers of Borders exhibit this new post-work modality? I don”t really know.
What is evident and terrible is that, in the United States, since the 1970s, proposals have been articulated to deal with the unemployment that would generate more rationalization in the productive processes. They have not incorporated any of their recommendations like: a “guaranteed minimum wage” regardless of the type of work, a tax on industries related to this third industrial revolution, and greater support for the third sector and/or non-governmental organizations (NGO). Perhaps it would be necessary to glance at these proposals in order to stop lecturing those who have had to mutate to survive in a new era. After all, if we continue with the biological metaphor, the inability to adapt led to the leap toward humanization. Maybe this new “monstrous misfit” augurs a promising future.
Professor, General Studies Departament
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
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