Entropy in the cul-de-sac

by CarlD

I noticed this morning [yesterday, now] that the bathroom floor had collected enough schmutz to pass my action threshold. Leaves blanket our lawn and laundry blankets a corner of our bedroom. There are dishes in the sink and a bagful of student papers to read. The fish need feeding, the dog needs walking and the State taxes on one of our cars are due. Recycling was last night, and again in two weeks.

At moments like this I feel the grip of entropy most keenly. The little orderly systems of my life require the regular application of energy to keep from sliding down into chaos. Each time it’s worth it – the modest pleasures of a clean floor, a tidy lawn and an empty bag add up to a satisfying little life. Nevertheless, as I contemplate each outlay of attention and energy on doing that’s just going to need doing again, and again and again, the happy Sisyphus remains a tantalizing ideal.

In the classic The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979), anthropologist Mary Douglas and economist Baron Isherwood argue that the periodicity of tasks is a primary marker of status. High-frequency, non-postponable entropic tasks describable as chores are the specialty of women, children, and servants. This is economically rational, they propose, in the way that any specialization is.

Thus, the division of labor between the sexes is set, the world over, by the best possible economic principles as follows: work frequencies tend to cluster into complementary role categories. These differentiate upward: the higher the status, the less periodicity constraints; the lower the status, the greater the periodicity constraints (86).

It follows that “[a]nyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility (86-7).”

No wonder I try to turn the entropic work in my life into rare and extraordinary events rather than daily habitual duties. The problem, I suppose, is that my sense of status does not match my class, as Weber might say. The classy thing to do would be to engage Central Americans to regulate my floor schmutz and tidy my lawn; start a grad program so there are intellectual strawberry-pickers around to grade my papers; and delegate the dishes and laundry to my wife. Too bad she’s an artist and has no more sense of vocation to keep the house up than I do. If only I had a real wife and not this impressive doer of awesome things! Maybe the two of us could marry someone else to do the chores for us? Or adopt a kid, an older one so someone else has already made the training investment. But, you know, kids these days….

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11 Comments to “Entropy in the cul-de-sac”

  1. You can always buy a “skin job” from the Tyrell Corporation and worry about its “soul” later.

  2. Can’t do it. Rutger Hauer so clearly has soul that the question is foreclosed, despite Sean Young’s and Darryl Hannah’s more dubious cases. Maybe I’ll just move into a Matrix house and pop for the maid subroutine.

  3. I’m not sure you’ll be able to afford a Nexus 6. You might have to settle for one that needs an oil can once in a while and replies, “Yes, Mr. Voles, whatever you suggest.” or, “My, that is very funny Carl, if say so myself”.

  4. You can always try on the Sorcerer’s Hat:

    Just make sure you don’t get too giddy, nor too sleepy.

  5. I am trying to remember the name of an ancient science fiction novel in which the author imagines a society in which people switch roles periodically, taking turns at doing the dull, repetitive, service stuff and the exciting master of the universe stuff.

  6. An un-American possibility is the pattern into which our life has fallen in Japan. We live in a 70 square meter apartment, basically a ferroconcrete box, one of Le Corbusier’s machines for living. We have, however, fixed it up the way we like it, with a big walk-in closet and a tiny tatami room on either side of the front door and the usual sort of integrated bath, toilet, laundry space—nice, modern, and, since we upgraded to a flash water heater—equipped with totally marvelous shower. A Scandinavian system kitchen, hardwood floor, and floor-to-ceiling bookcase embellish what has become one big, L-shaped living space that opens onto the veranda. For the two of us, the space is ample. A quick clean-up takes less than half an hour. And, yes, we do have a Fillippina cleaning woman; but only once a month, to restore the spit and polish. No lawn, no car, no regular maintenance to worry about. Our guerrilla garden, carved out of a small piece of unused hillside is totally recreational and when we get around to it. All the delights of Yokohama are a short walk away. We sometimes feel a twinge of envy when visiting friends in the States. Those big houses and lawns can be awfully appealing. But the time it would cost to keep one up? No thank you.

  7. John, I wonder if you’re thinking of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed? Or there’s Fourier’s ‘utopian socialist’ solution of assigning jobs according to (what he imagined to be) people’s natural dispositions – he had children doing the cleaning because they like to play in dirt, if I remember correctly. The latter is better according to Douglas and Isherwood, since a rotation of tasks would squander all of the efficiency and expertise advantages of a division of labor. One of the subtle points of that part of their analysis is how costly and therefore what an incredible luxury gender equality is.

    Your living situation sounds lovely. On those occasions when circumstances have dictated that I live simply, I’ve never wanted.

  8. Didn’t want to seem too vain. I have noticed, however, that advocates of simple life tend to have a bucolic, rural image in mind. Our simple life depends on our living in the heart of a great city. Helps, too, that living there has contributed to our being married for forty years during which we have never once owned an automobile. Read somewhere recently that the average cost of owning and running a car in the States is around US$7,000 per year. Not having that expense has paid for a lot of international travel and nice wine over the years.

  9. Ah the joys of Philip K Dick’s kipple:

    “There’s the First Law of Kipple… ‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’…Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more. No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

    The speaker is, incidentally, a nobody, on the bottom of the social scale.

  10. Well as anthropologists Douglass and Isherwood were assuming that our social practices are adopted because of efficiency. The unasked question is, efficient for whom? and for what goals? Slavery was probably very efficient for the master class, but then it failed in competition with capitalist wage slavery. The reason the sexual division of labor is breaking down somewhat may be that it has become efficient for the capitalists to eliminate the family wage which paid a male breadwinner a wage that would support a housewife and children that didnt have to do wage labor so they could go to school and learn skills to be better workers. In this next consumer phase of capitalist development, expecting the family’s income to come from two wage earners rather than one has created the second shift problem for women or else in some enlightened couples a 1 1/2 shift of rotating housework between the two in the couple. It may be less efficient for the couple than the breadwinner-housewife way but it extracts more work for less pay from the worker, hence is more efficient for the owning class. And it does tend to make women more equal now that they are in control of a lot of the money coming into the household, unless they happen to be those unfortunate single moms who have to do everything and usually receive very little support from their -ex!

  11. Wow! There’s more here than I can do justice to, so I’ll just dance a couple of steps and hope the music carries us all around the ballroom.

    “The unasked question is, efficient for whom? and for what goals?”

    The answer is, efficient for everybody, for the goal of enabling a complex civilization. Fair or pleasant are different questions, right? Equality, especially in the distribution of tasks, is an inefficient value. This is part of why I take Marx to have appreciated capitalism so much and premised communism on it: at tremendous human cost, capitalism develops human productive capacity well beyond subsistence to a level at which the opportunity costs of values like equality, democracy, decency and so on can be absorbed.

    “Slavery was probably very efficient for the master class, but then it failed in competition with capitalist wage slavery.”

    Right, although slavery in the New World context was critical to the primitive accumulation of both capital and labor relations that enabled capitalism to tip over into dominance, so slavery failed in competition with capitalism only in the context of having first conditioned capitalism. Basically, of course, the advantage of wage labor over slavery is that the capitalist does not need to see to the well-being of the worker and only the ‘cash nexus’ binds them together; but ‘liberation’ of the work relation from all sorts of traditions of mutual obligation was necessary before that new minimized relationship could be established. The ‘liberation’ of women is the same sort of process.

    “The reason the sexual division of labor is breaking down somewhat may be that it has become efficient for the capitalists to eliminate the family wage which paid a male breadwinner a wage that would support a housewife and children that didnt have to do wage labor so they could go to school and learn skills to be better workers.”

    Again I agree; this is part of the process of ‘liberating’ women and their (profit-) productive labor from traditional relations of mutual obligation, including the traditional division of labor. But it may be important to see this process in at least a couple of moments, because in the early days of the Industrial Revolution capitalists thought nothing of drawing women and children into the factories; before that women were not ‘housewives’, they worked as everyone did in family economies organized around the home. The ‘family wage’ phase followed, and may have had something to do with capitalists’ realization, as Polanyi argues, that naked exploitation was destroying the fabric of society and therefore the conditions for profit. The globalization of the division of labor by which the ‘developing’ world took the place of the domestic proletariat, who were elevated to the notional middle class on the little brown people’s backs, was also a factor but I don’t have a good feel for the rhythms of that. It is certainly the case though that as Veblen argued, pulling family members out of productive labor and devoting them to conspicuous consumption has historically been one of the first markers of class.

    “In this next consumer phase of capitalist development, expecting the family’s income to come from two wage earners rather than one has created the second shift problem for women or else in some enlightened couples a 1 1/2 shift of rotating housework between the two in the couple. It may be less efficient for the couple than the breadwinner-housewife way but it extracts more work for less pay from the worker, hence is more efficient for the owning class.”

    Again, the historical anomaly is that ‘breadwinner’ interim where women and children were pulled out of macro-economic productivity. Historically, economies are based on everyone working except the ruling class or ‘entitled’. The rising bourgeoisie had to distinguish themselves from vulgarity and get entitled on two fronts: the working class on one side, their own lack of noblesse on the other. They did this in part by investing in the symbolic capital of unproductive persons, wives and children primarily, replacing their contribution to the domestic economy with hired local servants and then global ones. Class peace was purchased by extracting wealth from a globalized division of labor to enable simulacra of this entitled lifestyle even for our working class.

    It’s true that the impulse in capitalism is to shift costs away from profits, so eventually paying people less and getting more work from more of them will always appeal. The pressure to do this in core economies is probably tied to the success of the global extraction gradients. And there’s always the delicate matter of making sure there are consumers around to buy the things being produced, so people have to be getting paid at various levels of marketability. Diversifying the consumption pool has its advantages too, which is another reason more and better jobs may become available to women and minorities. Meanwhile out in the workforce all of this classifying symbolic work is wicked expensive. You can either have one income and get the housework done in-house, using all of the productive bodies to do it like in the old days, or you can have two and hire it out.

    Mmf, what a mess. Well, I’ll stop babbling now and hope at least some of this makes sense.

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