The Limits of Commensurability, The Individual and Work

Hey everyone, sorry for this late post. Had a bit of “work” to do today (but it was fun and joyful so I am grateful for it) but I was thinking to myself about the whole, “what do you do” question that a lot of people ask (and more people have thought about and attempted to answer).

And when I thought about it (while talking out loud to myself about it of course…) I tried to reflect on why I thought that defining oneself by their job seemed wrong  to me. Now, I don’t mean wrong in a moral way of course, it just appears to me to be illogical. But I had to think about this and work through it in my head for a few minutes. Why do I not like it when people define themselves this way?

Let’s back up a bit before we start. The idea of commensurability has to do with whether an object can be compared or not. A table is to my mind anyways, easily comparable to a chair. They both hold objects, usually have legs that help them stand and I easily relate them in my head (though that isn’t necessary to prove communicability).

Now, I tend to be of the individualist sort. And I mean that in general. Not only politically but socially as well. One of my fears with structures, organizations and things external to us is that they will consume our identity. As Thaddeus Russell points out (53:30-54:10) the nation state can consume (and historically has) your identity in all sorts of linguistic and structural ways. And so too has work done much the same. This question of “what do you do?” as a starting question to knowing someone and getting a baseline of who they are as a person belies that notion.

But what is wrong with this exactly? Well it comes back to the concept of commensurability and the individual. I eventually figured out that the individual simply can’t be simply reduced in this way. First off, I deny that individuals are fundamentally commensurable objects to begin with. Perhaps as a matter of biology or physique or something but as a whole or in general I find it fairly species that an individual can be totally compared to another thing.

This doesn’t mean that any and all comparisons about individuals aren’t fair. If we take a look at Tommy and Sally and see that they both have freckles and long hair as well as a mutual interest in heavy metal music we can certainly compare them based on these qualities that they share. But those qualities are defining of them as an individual. At least not in a static way.

For example my main interests are: Comic books, anti-work philosophy (surprise!) and Voltairine de Cleyre.

But does this define who I am as a person?

I don’t think it does. And not only because it doesn’t tell you about my other interests but because trying to reduce people to one line of being doesn’t seem to make sense to me. You can’t fairly designate me as “Nick Ford” with just those interests. Anyone could have these three interests and it wouldn’t necessarily make them me (at least, I hope not).

Instead, to be me someone would have to share a lot of my personality too. My emotions, my most prominent feelings and ways of dealing with things. My goals, my intentions, my means, etc. They would need to have some sort of equivalency to everything that I am. In other words, they’d need to not only be a physical clone but a mental one as well. For if someone who looked like me acted completely different than I do (for example preferring cats over dogs) people may be suspicious about who that person is. Not because the fact that I think dogs are better than cats (sorry, the majority of the internet…) is somehow central to my identity but because it’s a part of me that’s often expressed. I often laud dogs and only have more sporadic positive things to say about cats.

What I’m trying to get at is that we all define who we are through our emphasis on ourselves and how people view these parts of ourselves. I talk about anarchism a lot. I talk about comics and how much I love them as well as how much of a slacker and procrastinator I am. These things are important to my identity and perhaps they are useful short-hand to get to know me in some sense. But it’d never be enough.

You wouldn’t understand how I think or what I dream or what I’ve lost and how I dealt with that. You wouldn’t know what I do, what I laugh at, what I smile at, who makes me smile. You won’t understand my history or be able to really guess where my future is going (unless you’re a presumptuous asshole). And you in general just wouldn’t know me in any important sense past the very basics.

So that returns us to work. What does what we do exactly define? Alone, I don’t think it tells us very much. And I think it would be for the better if we didn’t ask, “what do you do” as an opening question to try to understand others but,

“Who do you see yourself as?”

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit heavy. Sue me.

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3 thoughts on “The Limits of Commensurability, The Individual and Work

  1. Pingback: Minimum Wage, Minimum Effort?: Ideas on Shaming and Jobs | Abolish Work

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