Geoff Goodfellow and the Violence of Work

20 Mar

The poems of Australian poet Geoff Goodfellow–which among other issues grapple with addiction, loss, and violence–ring out with working-class authenticity.  If read with attention, the poems about violence of the industrial workplace peel back the sheath of insensitivity through which we usually regard the world of work.  As inundated as we are with propaganda and low-level brutality, we get rather used to seeing our environment through this sheathe, and if we don’t work in a factory, we don’t so much as notice the soul-attrition and desperation produced along with gadgets.  Those who do work generally don’t have a voice.  Writers such as D. H. Lawrence sketched stunted souls and wrecked bodies trudging from the workplace.  Goodfellow’s contrasting virtue is that he empathizes.  In this post, I’d like frame an outline of an argument that Goodfellow is right to link violence to the menial, repetitive labor of mass production.  Following that, I’d like to post one of his poems.  You can have a look at his site and other poems here.  I’m including a few of the paintings of Otto Dix, because I feel they demonstrate visually the link between violence and mass production.

The Mona Lisa--Otto Dix

That repetitive, meaningless work under the more-or-less absolute authority of a boss is degrading is elementary, but a harder pill to swallow it is that it is at bottom violent.  “From the factory, dead matter goes out improved whereas men are corrupted and degraded,” quoth the bishop.  Of course, soul-sucking work doesn’t exist on its own but in the institutuional and metaphysical soup of our age.  Permeating culture is the supposition that “having a job” is best for every person, even if that job is demeaning and provides no space for the exploration of curiousities and desires.  The assumption has roots in the industrial revolution and remains fixed because of the way we concieve of and create technology.

The eloquent and insightful E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, said,

“The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self defeating.  (It has deprived) man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of the fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.  It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect  and roundabout way” (161, 163).

Is it such an overstatement to say that work, as we have created it, is violent?  Couldn’t it even be suggested that we are not totally ourselves if we spend our lives functioning as cogs, mashed into spaces that are not designed to produce dignity, serenity, or freedom?

The observation that violence is a day-to-day phenomenon is important because it means that ceasefires and prisons only trim the branches of violence.  Schumacher found violence to be systemic and “metaphysical”.  That is, the thoughts that engender violence are passed down as presuppositions and rarely reevaluated.  A deeply learned behavior, for example, is to judge “progress” in terms of production and consumption.  We do so because these are quantitative yardsticks, and problems of quantity are easier to tackle if reduced to strictly materialist terms.  A side effect, however, is that human beings are seen in the same light as machines.  Human dignity and freedom lack empiricism.  The English language attracts words like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogations”, but the word “sacred” has become dispensable or a fetish of the church-minded.  Today feeling reverent is outmoded.  We go about our lives pursuing private goals with minds accustomed to reducing the world to material and commodities.

Schumacher quotes Dorothy Sayers, who warned,

“War is a judgement that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe. . . . they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.”

If we have been cast out of the garden and into the molds of misconceived technology, it may not be possible now to say anything about our “nature”.  We may have to some degree been remade violent.  Recall that mass production came out that total effort to equip one culture with sufficient technologies of violence and groupthink to smash another culture into submission.

Flanders--Otto Dix

The value in Geoff Goodfellow is that he has not lost his human sight.  He is one, therefore, who can teach others what it is to see and to break out of the cycle of inherited aggression.  I assume that when he goes out to schools as a “Poet for Hire”, Goodfellow demonstrates the act of seeing and in doing so creates numerous small awakenings.  This, after all, may be the work of the poet and the philosopher as well as anyone who wants to create peace: to “remake” and teach others the language.

The Luxury of Work
from Punch On Punch Off

(With permission of Geoff Goodfellow)

Lots of shop girls work for small
family businesses
she told me
with some of them you get paid
ten dollars an hour & asked to stay
on the dole
while they drive flash cars
& their shop girls ride bikes

Yeah it’s hard being a shop girl

especially when you know they’re out
drinking their lattés
& slagging on so-called dole bludgers
you’d have to wonder just what else
they might get away with

i mean it’s hard enough holding back

Machine Gunners Advancing--Otto Dix

a pee for three or four hours . . .
let alone your tongue at times
& i mean sometimes you just hope
one of your mates will turn up
to watch the shop while you do go
it’s hard on your bladder

yeah it’s hard being a shop girl
& when one of your mates does
turn up you can bet your sore feet
your boss will turn up too —
& spring you yacking to them
as if you do it all day . . .
every day
& yeah you can tell by their
eyes & their thin mean lips
that they think you’re both bludgers

i’ve had to be sick in a plastic bag
behind the register a couple of times
because i’ve had no-one to cover for me
& i’ve cried out the back some days
when i’ve been a day or two late
with my period
& then i’ve had to go out & serve
& sometimes i’m sure my tears
have scared customers away
& the boss sure as hell wouldn’t
want to know about that

yeah it’s hard being a shop girl

& it’s hard getting a lunch break too

Self-Portrait of Mars--Otto Dix

in fact sometimes it’s hard even
getting some lunch
unless you take it with you —
& most times you’re living so day-to-day
you have nothing to take to work
except yourself

it’s even harder those times when
the till doesn’t balance
they make you put in
(as if you don’t anyway)
& some days i’ve worked for half
my real rate because i didn’t check
the balance when i started

& yet they tell me i have the luxury
of work.


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