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On Being at Work (Routledge 2013)

About this book

This book seeks to develop a theory of being at work in the 21st century: what does work mean for us, what does it do to us, and what sort of persons does it allow us to become? It has three, inter-related arguments. (1) In Western societies we grow up with dreams of the person we will one day be, dreams we do not necessarily abandon as we get older. Work is one of the major forums in which we believe we will constitute those future, dreamed-of selves. (2) Labour, or the tasks we perform in fulfilling the terms of the employment contract, should therefore be distinguished from work, which involves processes of self-making over and above the ‘mere’ doing of labour. (3) The organization’s desire is that we be reduced to zombie-machines which labour and that are less than human, and although we try to circumvent this desire in various ways, organizations always limit the possibilities for achieving the self I/we wish to be(come). The dreams of the me-I-might-become through work are therefore shattered by the organization’s compulsion that forces me to labour. In brief, the thesis of this book is that organizations murder the me’s-that-might-have-been.

I borrow the term ‘less than human’ from the philosopher Judith Butler, whose work provides much of the theoretical frame for the book’s arguments. In ‘Butler-speak’, the questions I am seeking to answer are: what does it mean to be a being doing paid work in/for that thing we call ‘an organization’, who is this being that is doing the doing, and how is this subject brought into being through the doing? Most of the chapters use an interview of one person discussing their working lives.

In Chapter One, using the contrast between the lives of two sisters (myself and my sister Julie) and Butler’s recent work on recognition, I argue that we desire (paid) employment not only because it provides the means of sustenance, but because it is one of the primary locations where work on the self is undertaken. I distinguish in this chapter between labour (the tasks of doing the job) and work (the possibility of developing a self through the doing of the job). Chapter Two explores how managers themselves, the people who do the work of management, are as caught up in this desire as are other staff. Using a discussion of the working life of the owner of a small business which I read through the account of the master/slave dialectic in Butler’s work, this chapter argues that the ‘boss’ is as controlled by the title ‘boss’ as is staff. The argument is that the will of the manager requires, for that person to know that s/he is a manager, that staff are reduced to the status of zombie-machine. I therefore trace through the psyche and desires of one manager the inscription of centuries of capitalism, colonialism, class and hierarchy that constitute the speaking subject as ‘manager’. The paradox of this is explored in Chapter Three, the Bondsman’s Tale, in which I use Butler’s Antigone’s Claim (1997) to explore the working life of a male manual worker, Shakeel. In that chapter we go in the guise of a male manual worker into the cave where Antigone was to die, and see how arbitrary is the division between management and staff. Shakeel despises managers even as he speaks the idiom of management.

Chapter Four builds further on Butler’s thesis on kinship in Antigone’s Claim to analyse the working life of an archaeologist. This illuminates the distinction between labour and work, and argues that the friends with whom we work provide that recognition through which we become human. Chapter Four is therefore a thesis on friendship and work. Chapter Five turns to Butler’s early work and explores organizations and gendering. It argues that we are surprised into gender, with labour requiring a compulsory gendering of the subject, and work allowing (some of us, some of the time) to escape from the pall that gender casts on the psyche and on selves. Chapter One therefore articulates a desire to constitute a self through the work we aspire to, and the succeeding four chapters explore how that desire is frustrated by the organization’s proscriptions so that even though self-making is undertaken circumstances limit the possibilities for being selves. Chapter Six argues that this is a form of murder, of the me’s-I-might-have-been. Rather than Butler’s work, which says little directly about death, I turn in this chapter to Jonathon Dollimore’s book Death, desire and loss in western culture (2001). Similarly, where other chapters work with interviews with one or two people, this chapter deviates from that modus operandi, in that it draws on a cultural product, the whodunit, to help articulate and expound its arguments. I return to Marx’s theory of alienation in that chapter. Finally, the book concludes in Chapter Seven with an exploration of the ethics of organizational self-making.

A sample chapter is available at:

See also for details of the earlier book on ‘The Social Construction of Management: Texts and Identities’


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