U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Digging In: Work, Language, and Forms of Life

“It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.—And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.”[1]

It’s hot in Tennessee, and summer brings on odd moods, so here’s a tall tale based upon a recent experience. I’m thinking about a specific phenomenology of work and the laboring self. Doubtless there are countless different kinds of labor and work and ways to think about it. I’m concerned here with simple physical labor and what that does to the mind and to language. The experience described here is true to the best of my recollection. The very brief, hopelessly partial and idiosyncratic intellectual history of drudgery is the tall part of the tale.

I made a deal with my friend Dwayne recently. I go to his house in west Texas to work on a project and then he returns the favor in Nashville. This time he visited me. We built a stone path around sixty feet long on the incline at the side of my house. Doing that sort of thing requires digging out the existing turf to the proper length and width, on down to around five or six inches in depth. Intelligent people who actually do this sort of thing use a small backhoe or a turf digger to do the job, but we rejected that and went with two garden spades and a wheelbarrow. I didn’t know entirely what I was doing, so we plotted the thing out and just started digging.

We bantered quite a lot early on and then bickered some back and forth before deciding to work apart in ten-foot sections so that one person worked above the other and down the hill. We eventually found a better division of labor where one person acted in the role of Excavator, digging down and loosening the turf while the other acted as Shovel, scooping the loosened turf into the wheelbarrow. We alternated those roles and also alternated trips down the hill with the creaky wheelbarrow, dumping load after load of dirt into waste areas at the back of my yard. Excavator man, Shovel man, Wheelbarrow man.

On the whole it was sheer misery. People drove by and looked at us incredulously. A guy in a landscaping truck drove by and nodded gravely. (I think he appreciated the work if not the execution.) We went pretty hard for around fifty feet or so before hitting a course of rocks at the top of the hill just as the Tennessee heat became unbearable. The first fifty feet took around four hours and the final ten around two hours, the last punctuated by frequent breaks where we lay in the shade of the front yard, alternately drinking water and pouring it on our heads in a vain effort to cool off.

I haven’t dug like that in years. I now know much better why, on cable TV shows about murderers, bodies are always found in “shallow graves.” It would take a reasonably fit person several hours of incredible work to dig a genuine grave six feet deep. This is probably why the law catches up with certain serial killers. The killers lose heart in the digging. Maniacal obsession and steely dedication only go so far. It’s all fun and games until you have to dig a deep grave. I suspect there are several murderers living out there today who have never been caught. Those killers are the more dedicated diggers of earth than the shallow grave types.

I have another friend who told me once that his grandfather used to dig graves in Detroit back in the day. The only time his dad ever saw the old man cry was when, after a long day of it, he got out of his car and dropped the handle of Jim Beam he’d bought on the way home, shattering it on the ground. He sat down and sobbed inconsolably.

The point here is about the experience of this kind of “mindless” labor. It’s not precisely mindless, but for whatever reason in our everyday language we use this term to describe it, as if the mind stops or is absent. This is not true. The work is not mindless. You can use stories or metaphors or concepts to get at it. I’ve never been a fan of wisdom books that fetishize manual labor, texts like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft and the like. Books like that have too many atavistic notions about presumably artisanal approaches to work in them. Craft requires a different, careful pace of work that simply doesn’t provide all that much for enormous populations of human beings. Books like those do describe somewhat the dynamic kinds of experience that go into the laboring self, but they would somehow re-enchant the world by imagining labor as something other than alienated. For its part, Zen can read like a fantasy for libertarian worldly ascetics, with all of Robert Pirsig’s talk about “gumption” in its pages. One of the rooms at Apple headquarters is called the “Pirsig Room.”

Digging a path is about as basic as it gets. It starts with ideas about how best to approach things, the troubleshooting bits, but that quickly collapses with the recognition that you’ve found a good method and it’s time to give up the ghost and get to it. There really is a small death in that. Then it becomes repetition. The method in place, a primitive language game settles in.

Ludwig Wittgenstein began the Philosophical Investigations with a story of two builders. He does this to take apart Augustine’s account, in The Confessions, of having learned a language when mom or somebody pointed to an object and named the object for him. Little Augustine would repeat the names, eventually learning, by repetition, the words associated with particular images. He would then hear a word and associate the correct image with it. In Wittgenstein’s story, two workers, A and B, come up with a primitive language to do their job. Builder A calls for stones. Builder B responds to the call for the stones in the order that Builder A needs them. There are pillars, slabs, blocks and beams.

[O]ne very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen—is it the purpose of the word?—Yes, it may be the purpose.—I can imagine such a use of words (of series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the language of §2 [the language of Builder A and B] it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course, be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose.) But if the ostensive teaching has this effect,—am I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don’t you understand the call “Slab!” if you act upon it in such-and-such a way?—Doubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding. “I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.”—Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing. (4,5)

The game is the thing: the form of life. The words are placeholders in the context of the particular game. The workers know what they’re doing without speaking the names of the objects or the actions needed. They have learned the game. At some point, a series of grunts or gestures understood by the people working as part of the bricklaying language game do the trick.

Dwayne and I taught one another the language game of digging as we worked up the hill, pointing to this or that chunk of earth. As we grew ever more tired, we even grunted with a nod of the head. Whether Excavator or Shovel or Wheelbarrow man, we knew what to do without saying anything in words. Sometimes in our exhaustion we said the wrong word, but we knew what the other meant. There were no images in our heads, only the work. It broke our hearts.

The Philosophical Investigations begins with lots of examples like this. Wittgenstein makes metaphors of buildings and towns in order to unsettle the building blocks of language itself. Because of human beings who have labored, he can trot out one of the more famous master metaphors in the whole project:

Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) [8 is the language of 2 with the addition of the words “this” and “there” and different colors for different parts] consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. (8)

To do any kind of labor—to build a path—one must build a language game. I wonder more and more about Wittgenstein and his manual labor metaphors. What about the emotional and temporal experience of language games? Do we mind the return to some imagined period in the oldest of towns after having been so long in the suburbs? What does it do to modern human beings when so many have grown up in the suburbs and then return to the “primitive” or “simple” forms of labor and language at the center of town?

I remember reading in the Ray Monk biography that Wittgenstein, in frustration, sometimes told this or that Cambridge student to quit philosophy and get into woodworking or the like. It had to be better than the burden of doing philosophy. For his part, Melville’s Ahab somehow figured that to name the ineffable was to kill it. Ludwig was only so murderous, giving out before he could dig the whole six feet. He told some of his Cambridge students to stop digging. That kind of digging wasn’t for everybody. Maybe he would have been happier had he stopped much earlier. I’m glad he did keep going though—sometimes anyway.

Fragmented beings that we are, in the throes of repetitive labor our minds usually work up silly mantras of some kind; we repeat a song lyric over and over again for example. As we pulverized our bodies and minds, I stopped once to ask Dwayne what song was going through his head, or if one was. He told me what the song was. It was the same damned one I had going through my head. This was because I had sung a lyric just before we had started digging. We were both imprisoned by the same words over and over again. Of course, this recalls the phenomenon of any number of working songs people have long used to pace their labor, to give it shape and rhythm.

But we didn’t sing our words aloud. At the worst parts, we worked in grim silence. I think now that this must be partly what Theodor Adorno was talking about in the “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression in Listening” essay when he complained about popular tunes being stuck in our heads so that we’re coerced into hearing them over and over again. Many of us have simply replaced laboring songs with snippets of pop phrases. I’m not certain yet how one is better than the other, unless one has some romantic fetish for older forms of drudgery. As the day grew ever hotter and the work finished up, we heard a group of men down the way roofing a house. Some of them whooped and hollered and carried on to the relentless drumming of nail guns. Those guys were different from the others.

Anyhow, the path turned out well. I’ve walked on it every day since we finished it up. It sure beats walking on the grass.

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, G.E.M. Anscombe trans. (Basil Blackwell, 1958), 8. Succeeding references in parentheses.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice. It does historians well to reflect, periodically, on the way language is constructed and how that construction effects our views. I enjoy reading in, or about, language philosophy about once or twice per year—no more, no less. – TL

      • Ah, I approved this sorry little comment from the queue, but Tim beat me to a response. Was fixing to say: “effects” is also a verb; it takes a direct object, and means to bring that thing about. So, one can “effect change,” “effect results,” “effect comprehension.”

        For that matter, “affects” is also a noun. In the case of this commenter, it seems that his/her every affect merits the creation of a new username — technically not against the rules here (unless you’re sockpuppeting multiple screen names in the same comment thread), but practically inconsiderate to site admins who have to clear the comment queues.

    • You can probably read my ambivalence about language philosophy Tim. I spent a Wittgenstein summer and it nearly ruined me. I also love that there’s a take-down of a grammar troll in a post featuring Wittgenstein.

  2. Song-singin’ tyed to labore. I like this contrast of bourgeois yeoman labour planted opposite the powerful hymns that came frum the cotton fields, or that raucous roof-tiling crowd. Perhaps the silence felt was the absence of market forces.

    Speaking of contrasts… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aYzXyo30XM

    Should we try to throw [Leo] Marx into the mix and see what we get? It feels like those Myth and Symbol boys need to play in this pool, too. You did evoke Melville afterall…

    **Typos intentional.

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