The Mangle of Work

Today it seems appropriate to write about work, and, on the advice of my friend and frequent commentor, dmf, I’ve been reading The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering. I find in his theory of “the mangle” a lot of resemblance to my own theory of work.  I’ll write more detail on it later, but suffice to say that it is the theory of how people and things are altered and affected by one another in a continuous and collaborative process of world building.  Here I just want to talk about my own practice, and how I see it through this lens of work and the mangle.

As an academic and a student, a lot of my work is writing – papers, blog posts, articles, exams, etc.  Generally, the first phase of writing involves coming up with a topic, a possible title, and a few key points that I want to make.  I sit down at my desk, and open the word processing software on my computer.  Already I am engaged with other beings – the chair, the desk, the computer – as they work upon me. Right now I sit with my legs crossed and my knee resting on the edge of the desk.  The desk is small and there are a lot of cords under it, so it’s not always comfortable to keep my feet there – and now my dog is also there trying to hide from some commotion in the living room.  I lean back in my solid wood chair, my butt is slightly sore and my arms have to extend fully to reach the keyboard.  I’m not uncomfortable, but right on the edge of comfort – this helps me think.  The computer strains my eyes.  I can see and read fine, and have never needed glasses, but the light background overwhelms them, and spending too much time looking at it becomes painful. My fingers jump across the keyboard in bursts as new ideas come or old ideas are discarded.

I start working by putting a little text on the page.  I write whatever comes to mind, just trying to get the thoughts recorded before they slip from my short memory.  The keyboard frustrates me – sometimes the “Backspace” button doesn’t work, so I have to use the “Delete” button instead, and this makes fixing errors a slightly more laborious process.  The ideas pour onto the page.  Often two or more ideas collide, and I have to think through the implications.  How do they fit together?  Maybe they can be reconciled, but in a modified form.  Maybe one cannot survive – maybe neither can.  I usually sit back, and slump down in the chair when this happens.  I’m thinking.  My mind works to fit the ideas together.  Sometimes the result is revolutionary and my whole concept of self and purpose is changed as when I encountered “Struggle Forever!”  Most times it’s mundane, and only a small change takes place. In this first phase, I don’t worry so much about the cohesiveness of the ideas unless something important strikes me.

The next phase usually involves leaving the computer.  I have worked to record my thoughts, and now I can work to assemble them in a reasonable order and think about how I want to phrase them.  For this I move to the couch – sometimes I shower and let my mind go over the thoughts as the water washes over my body.  Through this process I am working with the words that express my thoughts, testing out different patterns, and seeing how they feel.  Sometimes it helps to read an article or book on the topic to come up with new ideas or different phrasings or to find a quote that highlights something I want to say.  Often new ideas will come and I will have to figure out how they fit with the existing ideas, or set them aside for a later piece. Gradually, the essay begins to take shape, and I can get back to the actual work of writing.

I sit back at the desk, and work once again to record my thoughts on the page.  This time I pay more attention to the order the thoughts are taking and the way the thoughts are phrased.  These are influenced by the earlier process of assembling phrases and order, but often times when I see the words on the page it becomes apparent that a certain phrasing or order doesn’t work or a new possibility emerges.  The words, the ideas, the computer screen, the process of typing things out – all of these things work upon one another and also upon me.  A lot of times, the particular phrasing that I had come up with falls from my memory and I have to come up with another – usually I get the sense that it’s never quite as good as the original.  Oh well, maybe it will come back to me eventually… It never does.

My work alternates between phases of writing and phases of stepping away from the computer to think things through (not to mention taking breaks from the work altogether to watch TV, read, do other work, or go somewhere).  It’s somewhat haphazard – I don’t have a set plan for writing – but it does follow this general pattern.  If a particular piece is really challenging, I sometimes take out a notebook and paper and write by hand instead of on the computer.  There is a substantial difference working with a pen versus a computer, and I feel that my thoughts are able to come together better as I work with the pen rather than the computer.  Also, sometimes the limits of the computer screen don’t allow me to see the whole work – this is especially true of longer pieces. I find this very frustrating, and I often have to print a copy out so I can read it and mark it up by hand.

Through this process, all of the different beings I’ve mentioned – computers, ideas, couch, shower, pen, paper, desk, chair, dog, body/mind – play a substantive role.  They work upon others and allow themselves to be worked upon.  Some play larger roles, some smaller, but from this work something new emerges – a material-semiotic being: the text.  I could continue to work on it indefinitely, but at some point I decide to stop.  Sometimes this has to do with a deadline, other times it’s simply an arbitrary choice that no more work will add anything to it.  Now the text ventures out into the world, furthered by the work I do to share or promote it.  Depending on who reads it, how it is presented, the context of the reading, and a variety of other factors, it will have different – generally unpredictable – effects upon others.  I certainly have hopes for those effects, but recognize that it is largely beyond my control.  Later, if need be, I can work further to explain, rephrase, or alter some ideas if the effect of the text is radically different from what I intend.  Most of the time, I allow the text to stand on its own and I work through other texts to shape ideas further.

There is a lot of other work that I do – teaching, field work, networking, etc. – but those will have to wait for another day to explore.  However, in every case, and in the work I see being done by other beings around me, the importance of recognizing the collaborative nature of work comes to the fore.  Never am I alone in my work.  Never do I construct something completely on my own.  The process is always interactive, and I am always transformed by it as much as the other beings involved.

5 thoughts on “The Mangle of Work”

  1. this is a good start both along the lines of finding your own voice and giving due credit to the greater assembly ‘behind’ the scenes/screens, folks like Geertz started to
    re-cognize the role of writing and reading in anthropology and I think that your generation can bring into play the later developments like extended-minds and other object orientations to flesh out the gaps, fill in the blind spots, highlight the taken for granted. Have some faith in the powers of “thick” descriptions, not all fields of endeavor are best served by employing powers of abstraction.

  2. I first understood this concept long ago in my own mind and in my work this is a daily process…all the “beings” we touch and those that touch us…and how we all go forward as a result. This post and the line of thinking has implications for planet change and how we all realte to each other. Keep going with it!

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