Essays on Working

By Lindsay Turner |

To tell you how it is would require extraordinary powers of mimesis, or it would require giving up on mimesis. To assist in the ordering, in the comforting, and the beautiful adornment of the state. To want to tell it all or not to tell it at all, giving up on light moving inside the house like water over everything for all of the afternoon forever, over even the walls. Maybe you know how it was. In the morning, it wouldn’t make way for the morning.



This by way of invocation. What is doing dishes like. The sink, the window above it is diversion, it is television and the telephone rolled into one. Now the green leaves are thick, the ivy is thick, that’s how smart a season is, like technology. What I am is, what does it mean, “accepted.” I know I don’t have to mind. The parts I avoid. A metal grater. The forks, the tines going the same way. I know I don’t have to.



The difficulty in trying to tell you. The days began with the same things to be done, basically, no matter where you ended up. I mean, I slowed it down that much. What the spring does to us. Isn’t anywhere anymore. Can’t. The light over the sink and the porch and the robin who looked too heavy to move, and it would require.  It is like water. The task of history as a makeshift raft on which nearly all perished. Do you even want to know? Not even to consent to its being and it’s being gone but, fuck it all, it’s still going.





Every time there’s a task, write it down. Dishes. Coffee grounds. Laundry at home. Laundry at Laundromat. Laundry washed at home, dried at Laundromat. Laundry washed at Laundromat, carried home, taken out to dry on the backs of chairs. The task for philosophy today. Take things out of the bag and put them away. Take things out of the bag and wash them or throw them away. Today, the task of thought is to re-think difference starting from existence, and not identity starting from objects. The state stopped recycling glass so they left two bottles and a note in the bin full of rainwater and small stones and the stuff like brown chenille that fell from the trees at the beginning of April. Our books, everywhere. You know how it is. Write a check and leave it on the table.



The sink. My domain. Ready to bite. I shall have my crown and stroll with it. Tired of being the spider, the umbrella case, the scrap. You’re my bad smell. The red towel that doesn’t absorb anything.



How did you find yourself here? There was torrential rain, but still they came back. What if we simply didn’t go home? We despaired at finding a house to rent. The front door was open behind the closed glass door. In the end we just went up and knocked. The guy there then had a cat and made coffee tables from railroad hand-cars. One day a palmetto bug ran up our legs. One day a bat fell asleep between the window and the windowscreen. The labor laws had not changed. She came dressed in white, everything shone. How did you find yourself here? No laws governing overtime, and no minimum wage. Some of this was patently false. Shining in white, full of grace. What if we just rose like the new condos? Up into the clouds where you couldn’t see us, and we’d never go home. The plants employed workers who walked by the river. They diverted the waterfall to make a place for you to walk on your break, if you had a break. There are shining executives who walk down by the river, speaking German. They put up lofts by the river with ceilings so high you couldn’t see them.





That was a house that I loved. July at the beach, up to your knees in sandcastles. The phrase comes from a box of cereal. Up to your waist, actually, up to your neck. Try to get around like that. Not in the house. Not in the house but not out of it, actually. Up to the upkeep. The language of the advertisement was too weird to be true, and yet.



It turned out to be about transcendence, of all things. We were a little bit surprised. It doesn’t matter what you actually believe. The task turned out to be a defense of transcendence, even though the tasks themselves covered every single thing exactly.



I had copied down some lines but didn’t know what to do with them. It turned out to be a problem, that I couldn’t recognize any other body as company for working. Instead, I sat behind the screen and watched the cardinal in the trees. I did no work that I could think about. I reproduce the quatrain for you here:


The mops are on the porch my dear
And Frances sits beside me
Lois smokes a cigarette
I am in an awful net.




Full of grace, shining in your white clothes. To tell you how it is would mean you here all the time, with me at the sink, up to your elbows in the green light like water. Listen to the robin going round and round into endless work. The condos go up and up. Inside they smell like plastic or like nothing. All the work is done here and is done far away. I opened the screen door to let everything in, including the carpenter ants. To tell you how it is would mean that we were everywhere and all together.


Phrases in this text are drawn from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Susan Stewart’s The Forest, Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias, and Jean Genet’s play The Maids. The quatrain is from Claudia Jones’s poem “Elms at Morn” (1950).

All photos taken by Lindsay Turner.

Some notes:

In her late work, Silvia Federici moves from calling for the abolition of housework to recognizing what she calls its “double character”: that is, as labor that is at once deeply exploitative and labor that is the grounds for any future revolutionary potential. I think of this doubleness as a paradox: the impossibility of doing this work but at the same time the impossibility of refusing it.

For almost two years, I have lived in upstate South Carolina, in a tiny rented house, with my partner, who is also an academic. I experience work, domestic work as well as academic work, as ambivalence: doing the work but not the way others do the work, doing the work exactly the way others do the work, thinking about it while doing or not doing it, doing it mindlessly, wondering about how or why I do it, wanting to do it, not wanting to do it, wanting it to be transformative, finding it deadly, doing it to escape other kinds of labor, resenting it for taking away from other kinds of work.

For Blind Field, I proposed a series of prose poems I would call “Essays on Working.” I wanted to write these poems to get at the “it” of “doing it,” where “it” is “housework.” In them, I want to write beyond any irritable theorizing about housework to the substance of this work. The poems began from a question: what is this work, and can it be a poem. In the end, no refinement was possible: I could not separate housework from the forces of gender, class, and race that condition it (for me, this largely means there is a lot I do not do), nor could I separate it from the texture of an experience composed of many types of work, poetic work included. I offer this composite as a theory of housework on terms that are both personal, and — I hope — expanded and expansive.


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