Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Writing and material labour

Hah! You know I keep saying that I'm groping towards some sort of idea about writing as material, not just as the flow of ideas from the brain via the hands onto the page with no obstruction, no resistance, no economy of loss-and-gain in translation/transcription as the ideas slip across media (brain/hand/page)? Well, it turned out I wasn't trying to formulate a thought, I was trying to remember something Hannah Arendt said. I found this today when I was looking through my notes on The Human Condition for stuff about ploughing. (Arendt draws a distinction between 'work' and 'labour', whereby work produces objects of human artifice, and labour simply reproduces life and/or the capacity for more work or labour - so you go off into your studio and whittle a statue, which is work, but in order to do so you have to cook yourself dinner, sweep up the sawdust, sharpen your tools, which is labour).

Here, the underlying tie between the laborer of the hand and the laborer of the head is again the laboring process, in one case performed by the head, in the other by some other part of the body. Thinking, however, which is presumably the activity of the head, though it is in some way like laboring - also a process which probably comes to an end only with life itself - is even less 'productive' than labor; if labor leaves no permanent trace, thinking leaves nothing tangible at all. By itself, thinking never materializes into any objects. Whenever the intellectual worker wishes to manifest his thoughts, he must use his hands and acquire manual skills just like any other worker. In other words, thinking and working are two different activities which never quite coincide; the thinker who wants the world to know the 'content' of his thought must first of all stop thinking and remember his thoughts. Remembrance in this, as in all other cases, prepares the intangible and the futile for their eventual materialization; it is the beginning of the work process, and like the craftsman's consideration of the model which will guide his work, its most immaterial stage. The work itself then always requires some material upon which it will be performed and which through fabrication, the activity of homo faber, will be transformed into a worldly object. The specific work quality of intellectual work is no less due to the 'work of our hands' than any other kind of work".

Arendt, The Human Condition, second edition, (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]),pp.90-91.

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