Play at Work
Off and on throughout the second half of 2004, Raegan Kelly and I worked on Stolen Time, a collaborative experiment in the ordering, interpretation, and distribution of a particular kind of evidence. Stolen Time is constructed around a small group of ephemeral materials produced by, for, and about office workers in the twentieth-century United States.
On one hand, the archive includes didactic texts and objects (handbook entries, magazine advertisements, secretary gifts, industrial guides -- most of them from the 1940s and 1950s) whose primary purpose was to maximize office-worker productivity. On the other, however, it also includes more resistant texts: primarily zines that were self-published on the fly by office workers themselves -- cut and pasted, handmade, duplicated, and informally distributed -- over the course of the last twenty-five or so years. Since elements in the first category provide much of the subject matter and motivation for elements in the second, the relationship between the two turns out to be intimate and combative in equal measures.
Once you have gained access to the collection, you will be permitted to summon up archival texts and objects that have been subjected to processes of digital reproduction, annotation, and arrangement within a sequence of alphabetized and cross-referenced filing categories. The files are sorted by subject under three main headings -- "forms," "personnel," and "production" -- and you may examine them in whatever order and to whatever duration and extent you choose. Your own research process, in turn, will be tracked and recorded in the form of an evolving, cut-and-mixed collage through which idiosyncratic sets of meanings and alternative modes of access to the archive will emerge. Then, when you are done rifling through the files, you will be asked to activate a series of copying functions that will leave you with a ghostly remapping of your own interaction with Stolen Time. These screen-based 'photocopies' will gradually disclose abstracted layers of information: about the archival objects that you have examined, about their rapidly receding histories, and (finally) about the recent movements of your own hand on the mouse or the touch-pad. As such, as you make your way through Stolen Time, you will be called upon to participate in a series of uncanny improvisations upon the most familiar, rule-governed, technical functions of office work, including transcription, storage and retrieval of information, and copying. That these are also the most basic functions performed within the process of "creative/intellectual" authorship is one of the interpretive sticking points of the project.
Lev Manovich observed in a 2000 Switch interview with Inna Razumova that in the present moment, work interfaces frequently coincide (on the computer screen) with the interfaces of play; many of the nuances of Raegan Kelly's project design for Stolen Time draw heightened attention to this decidedly contemporary phenomenon. At the same time, however, the design and contents of Stolen Time also look back to a much longer history within which the tools of office work (ordinary supplies and machines, including pencils, copiers, file folders, typewriters, etc.) have been put to work in the services of the most common form of intra-office mischief-making: "time theft." (For those of you fortunate enough not to have encountered the recent managerial moral panics surrounding "time theft," the phrase refers to the "theft" of the boss's time -- not to mention the boss's office supplies -- by workers who engage, on the job, in work or play of their own.)
As an experimental archive, Stolen Time means to encourage visitors to think about the mixed significances communicated by any public collection of primary documents and objects: an archive is a practical resource, of course, but it is also (by virtue of practices of inclusion, exclusion, arrangement, annotation, display, and mode of access) a kind of argument. The contents of Stolen Time are displayed through a series of interactive functions, conceived and created by Kelly, that evoke the dynamic relationship between work and play -- a relationship that is on one hand oppositional, and on the other mutually constitutive and densely intertwined. Above all, Stolen Time (through its design and contents as well as through the collaboration between Kelly and myself) means to point up the futility of efforts to draw clear distinctions between so-called "creative/intellectual" and "technical" contributions to the making of any text, by concentrating on those moments when the brutal inevitabilities of wage labor and the transitory pleasures of creativity cross over and blur together.
Antonio Gramsci, in a prison notebooks entry (1929-34), took up a cluster of related topics in a brief, intensely moving discussion of early-twentieth-century Taylorist managerial strategies: these strategies, which impinged powerfully upon U.S. text-workers during the early decades of the twentieth century, were designed to maximize productivity by subjecting workers to minute bodily scrutiny (in the form of "time and motion study"), in order to render the human employee as mindlessly efficient as any machine (or as Gramsci also put it, as any "'trained gorilla'") might be. Focussing specifically on what I call "text work" (and what Gramsci called "the professions connected with the reproduction of texts for publication"), Gramsci observed:
... if one really thinks about it, the effort that these workers have to make in order to isolate from the often fascinating intellectual content of a text (and the more fascinating it is the less work is done and the less well) its written symbolization, this perhaps is the greatest effort that can be required in any trade. However it is done, and it is not the spiritual death of man.
According to Gramsci, once the rote, mechanical gestures of text work (stenography, typing, etc.) are mastered, the "brain of the worker" is able to achieve "a state of complete freedom," creating the conditions for "train[s] of thought that [are] far from conformist."
Gramsci's remarks are usefully (and characteristically) double-valenced, acknowledging as they do both the limits and the possibilities contained within the intellectual labor performed in the text-making trades. For example, the typist at the center of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, blanked-out and apparently insensate while she is being poked at by the "young man carbuncular," serves simultaneously as an ambivalent rendering of a (very modern) sexually active office worker, and as an anticipatory refusal of the Gramscian dream of a "state of complete freedom." At the same time, however, Eliot's own radical poetic practice, which encompassed the filtering, manipulation, and transmission of received texts ranging from the Upanishads to The Tempest to Leaves of Grass, bears a clear (if largely displaced) relationship to the day-to-day drudgeries of text work: taking dictation, organizing and reorganizing documents, making copies, and the like.
Pencils, typewriters, file folders, duplicating machinery: in the text-making trades, the tools used for mind-numbing and body-abusing work are the same tools used elsewhere (or, in the case of creative time-thievery, tools used in the same time and place) for invigorating intellectual play, so much so that the rule-governed pain of wage labor and the fugitive pleasures of creativity have tended to mix into each other (as they did, at that charged moment in Eliot's poem) in all sorts of volatile combinations. Brutal containment and radical inventiveness are contrasting possibilities that intermingle in the design and in the contents of the Stolen Time project as well, where we mean to ask you to think hard about what it means to make work out of art, and to make art out of work.
This present project is preceded by an array of efforts to organize and preserve the profuse but largely ephemeral material culture of the twentieth-century U.S. office. Major predecessors include Rider University's magisterial special collections, which encompass massive holdings in the histories of shorthand, typewriting, and business education; Alan Dundes' and Carl Pagter's meticulous scholarly gatherings and analyses of office-based humor, a genre that Dundes and Pagter have referred to as "folklore by fax"; Donald Albrecht's and Chyrsanthe Broikos's on the job: design and the american office (the companion volume to a 2000 exhibition at the National Building Museum); and numerous Web-based itineraries like "The Virtual Typewriter Museum," "The Shannon L. Johnson Typewriter Collection," and the "World Typewriter and Keyboard Museum."
Stolen Time shares with all of these a fundamental impulse, which is to draw attention to office work as a multivalent, skill-intensive, radiantly complicated process, rather than as a blank, bland, largely mechanical generator of product. Where Stolen Time differs from its archival predecessors is in its relentless scrutiny of a series of key contradictions -- having to do with identity and difference, pleasure and pain, privilege and subordination, visibility and invisibility, freedom and containment -- within which office work and office workers have long been enmeshed. In this, the key antecedent of Stolen Time is the venerable Bay Area zine Processed World, whose contents are represented within the archive itself. During the zine's twenty-three year run, PW editors published a marvelous series of photocopied collages -- most of them fashioned from recycled bits and pieces of the industrial literatures of office work. These were a main inspiration for the dual interface of Stolen Time, where the collage stands alongside the alphabetical filing system as an alternative method for arranging, preserving, and displaying received information.
The Stolen Time project also situates itself at a point where several distinct scholarly conversations converge: a long-standing labor-history literature; a literature concerned with the sociology and anthropology of office work; and finally, a quite recent flowering of literary criticism that takes up the relationship between clerical work, medial technologies, and literary expression. Stolen Time was generated by (but by virtue of its form and emphases is very different from) my own print-based work-in-progress, a book titled Writing is Work that got underway in the late nineties. In that (ongoing) project, I try to come to terms with the extent to which left-political writings produced in the U.S. during the second half of the twentieth century were shot through with anxious (and often with disparaging) references to clerical work and/or clerical workers. This research has led me to consider a broad range of topics including the definition of "intellectual labor," the composition of community newspapers, the protocols associated with minutes-taking, the dynamics of the "day job," and the late-twentieth-century politics of independent publishing (especially zines). In the book project I am trying to open up fresh possibilities in a (collective, ongoing) effort to map out a history of U.S.-based feminist activism and analysis within which questions about gender have long been entwined with (rather than being distinct from) questions about class, race, sexuality, and citizenship. Where Stolen Time differs from its scholarly predecessors across a range of disciplines, as well as from my own ongoing print work, is in its steady focus upon the ambiguities embedded within the everyday texts and objects of office work.
The scope of this project is potentially vast, but has been contained here by a number of factors -- most important among them the difficulty of the permissions process and the enormous amount of time that gets consumed in the making of any electronic project; these determined that in most cases we reproduce only small portions of texts, rather than wholes. What you will find in Stolen Time, as such, is not a comprehensive collection, but an eccentrically imagined floor plan for a file room of the future that has a close if contentious relationship to file rooms of the past. Many of the elements catalogued here bear marks of use and handling (marginal scribbles, staple holes, eraser smudges) left prior to their inclusion in the project. A few of them, as you will observe, have endured some seriously rough handling before coming into our possession: some were torn from their earlier contexts by ephemera dealers, a process that left their provenances mysterious, and others were shoddily microfilmed for library distribution and then left to decay. (Rough prior handling, by the way, isn't always a bad thing; a broken wind-up doll represented in the archive -- with her mechanical parts exposed -- turns out to be one of the most evocative items in the collection.)
The objects displayed here, whatever their provenance, have been frozen at a particular and admittedly arbitrary point in their own, ongoing histories, so that future traces left upon them by viewers of Stolen Time will not be palpable in the same way they would be in a physical archive. I count this as a loss, but it is a loss that Raegan and I have attempted to recuperate by inviting you to leave other sorts of (virtual) marks upon the project as you make your way through it. As strange as the notion of a dust-free archive will be to many of you, we hope that Stolen Time will in other respects feel familiar and usable to visitors whose primary allegiance has traditionally been to paper documents, or to more tangible, more solid objects than those you will encounter here.
Note: Antonio Gramsci's "Taylorism and the Mechanization of the Worker" can be found in An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), pp. 294-96.
-- Alice Gambrell
Alice Gambrell is on the English Department and Gender Studies faculties at the University of Southern California. Her book Women Intellectuals, Modernism, and Difference: transatlantic culture 1919-1945 was published by Cambridge University Press, in their "Cultural Margins" series, in 1997. "Stolen Time" is an interactive diversion from her book-in-progress Writing is Work.