On Love and Labor
thoughts that accompanied the making of a table
By John Preus
I recently joined a Jungian men’s group…(pause for my academic colleagues to peel off).
On some occasions in the group, we go around the room and everyone says something they don’t want anyone else to know about them. It’s called the withholding exercise.
One man was sexually and repeatedly abused by his older siblings, one had an affair with his brother’s wife and his brother has never forgiven him, one hates his job and is embarrassed that he can’t leave it, a married man loves his wife but is also attracted to young boys and suffers from intense longing, one is embarrassed that his stomach is growling, one spends more time than he would like to admit looking at pornography and was discovered masturbating by his 9-year-old daughter, one loves his wife so much that he feels emasculated and jealous and is afraid he will disappear, and one is in the depths of financial ruin.
I find this all riveting. Despite trying to maintain my cherished neutrality, I divulge to a room full of strangers something I’ve never told anyone before because it feels disingenuous under the circumstances. The confession, and the resulting (asexual) intimacy I felt with a room full of men was like an electric charge that glowed in me for a couple of days, temporarily erasing my general social anxieties. Under certain circumstances, shared vulnerability invites trust.
Tables support activity. And when they are not supporting activity, they are ready-to-hand, expectant, loitering around waiting for something to happen. The now traditional binary, form and function, addresses this dual role of objects in their identity as placeholders and actors. They are supposed to look graceful in waiting, to redeem the embarrassing position of being un-engaged. I am inclined to think that craft, like Glenn Adamson points out, is a way of thinking about what happens in the world, how to have some influence over it, your place in it, culpability and accountability. But the history of craft is also a reflection of collective longing and anxiety, loitering on the banks of the Styx, barking at the thing moving in the bushes.
Patching, as an additive variant of repair, is a long-standing strategy for lengthening the lifespan of a well-worn object, taking a piece of something to cover a worn piece of something else. Pant knees are patched with denim, roofs are patched with tarpaper and shingles, streets with bituminous, yards with pieces of sod, tarps with duct tape, cars with Bondo, boats with fiberglass resin. A patch is used when the object still functions, but is not stable unto itself. A patch does not generally change what a thing is, but prolongs a thing’s ability to be what it is, however temporary. A pair of pants could be patched with shirt material to the point of being more shirt than pant. While this may be problematic for an ontologist—assuming that the pants continue to be worn on the lower half of the body—most of us would be able to accommodate them without philosophical strain. At the same time, the identifying function, “pants” occupies a relatively short span of time on their material morphology.
Quilting, a designation generally reserved for things made of fabric, is the result of surplus parts. It is not quite an assemblage or collage, although that history certainly relates to what is interesting to me about the table. An assemblage has to incorporate disparate parts, disruptions, things that were not meant to be together, a forced marriage, so to speak. Being that all of the table parts are wood, it isn’t suitable to describe it as an assemblage or a collage. And it is not marquetry, which is an image or pattern-making technique using veneers of different colors to develop a picture. Quilting takes parts of other things to make a new thing. I would venture to guess that it comes out of a utilitarian folk tradition in which materials were limited and people had to make do with what was around. That may have been true long ago, but I am sure that quilting happens now more among folks with time to kill, than among low income folks trying to save material, textiles being as inexpensive as they are.
The most apt description might be bricolage, or using what is on-hand. Levi-Strauss damned bricolage as mythological and irrational thought, in contrast to the engineer. Deleuze and Guattari described it as the general mode of thought for a schizophrenic. I prefer Jacques Derrida’s statement: “If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.” Borrowing parts of other things to make a table strikes me as the most adequate expression of what a thing is in the broadest sense. Within the table is another table, a futon frame, pieces of virgin plywood, parts from other projects, bits of a chair, and a panel from a stereo cabinet. Those identities have all been subsumed to become the “table” but they have not entirely given up their former character.
I recently and belatedly discovered LA artist, Mike Kelley. I have known of him for a long time, but did not feel any particular attraction to his work until recently. My first impression was that my work repeats his piece, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid over and over again in a different medium, like we are both trying to squeeze the remaining juice out of neglected lemons. But then I researched what Kelley himself said about the piece and I am at odds with what feels to me like a kind of nihilism. Kelley hated pop culture and nostalgia and saw stuffed animals as emblems of a manipulative gift economy, in which price tags are written in invisible ink. According to Kelley, you are indebted to the gift-giver, never knowing how much you owe, which in the end makes us all socially-indentured and ashamed. I am left wondering whether or not he believed there was such a thing as generosity, or whether he would imagine that as a form of more or less veiled magnanimity.
Kelley’s afghan is made of hand-made dolls and stuffed animals that he collected from thrift stores and flea markets in LA. These handmade crafts for him embody a deep sense of pathos, since for some reason the owner of the animal or doll gave it away, and one is left to imagine why. Finding abandoned handcrafted objects points to some relational failure. Maybe in Kelley’s view, the cuteness of crafted things obfuscates their insidious mission, which is to make us feel indebted, ashamed, insecure, and inadequate. A form of seduction, they are deliberately inarticulate expressions of care or desire. But to point this out puts ones own expressions under scrutiny. The archaic fear that one’s own expressions of affection will be seen as irrelevant and/or viewed with total indifference might be the basis of all exaggeration. Kelley’s concern might also be expressed as a suspicion that there is some inverse relation to how much care is spent on things as opposed to on other people, a worry that I share as I sit here writing rather than playing Bucking Bronco with my 6-year-old-son.
Philosopher Simon Critchley calls yoga and Western Buddhism a form of “passive nihilism.” He might say the same thing about my Jungian men’s group, or how time-consuming craft can be. When a table can be made of an old door and a couple of saw horses, how is such an extravagant expenditure of time justified? Nihilism, to follow Critchley, is a form of disengagement from civic life, an abandonment of the idea that things in this world could be improved upon by our efforts. Maybe he would say that this tendency is exacerbated by an interest in something innocuous and ostensibly self-improving, something finally fetishized, a sideshow to the real work of living peaceably with others and with the planet. Yoga might represent for him a committed form of secession, and Buddhism something like the practice of not being affected by the problems of the world, and therefore resigning any hope of collectively addressing them. We know that if we seriously threaten the functioning of the global market, we will be met with the full brute force of our police state, and cast as anarchists (as if self-organization were the most horrible thing in the world) or terrorists. An innocuous essay in an art magazine is not likely to draw any serious concern from homeland security. If politics is the only measure, withdrawal might at times seem like the only option.
Meditation begins with active forgetting or “letting go” of the problems of the world, to quiet the mind, to stop worrying for a minute. Critchley’s argument might be that self-improvement competes with collective engagement. Life is atomized into individuals seeking happiness and well-being, and public life simply becomes a platform to grandstand one’s progress along the path of relative well-being. But I know civically-engaged yoga practitioners and Buddhists, and any committed practice of concentration can have the opposite effect of withdrawal. At worst, it is a low-impact form of sublimation, a way to forget about your problems without doing anything taboo or transgressive. But it’s not so easy to argue against the concern that the time spent making something beautiful, or meditating, could be better spent in civic service of some kind—a worry that animates the work of some Social-Practitioners. The SOPRAs among us might have difficulty looking at something crafted without thinking that it represents a failure of social concern, a withdrawal dressed up as an act of service. We could look to Slavoj Zizek, who calls this argument “blackmail” because it pits active engagement—picketing, activism, lobbying, organizing for a cause — against thought and analysis which he frames as an act of resistance, and analysis among the most important forms of contemporary engagement.
What are “love hours” anyway? What is love but an incommensurate surplus of emotion that spills over the contours of its object? Love hours are not counted with the same time clock as a job. Is time spent in an act of loving service wasted if it is not reciprocated or compensated? One can love another human to the point of being willing to wile away the hours pining, courting, making gifts, and the like. I would argue that this is because the outcome, the price tag of this activity has not yet been accounted for, and is actively resisted. And we resist accounting for it precisely because we want to believe that we will be surprised, that there is a meta-economy not beholden to quid-pro-quo accounting methods. Pragmatists make horrible lovers. Love lives on faith in an unknown quantity.
But how does this sort of commitment map onto the kind it would take to commit to a community, or an environment in the same way? What does it take to care about people that you don’t know, or a planet that needs protection, to squander your precious time working to alleviate anonymous suffering, for instance? I would venture to say that it emerges either from disappointment (Critchley) or fulfillment, sublimation or consummation. One either serves the community in the absence of an imminently fulfilling love object, (sublimation) or one has found fulfillment and has let it spill beyond the boundaries of the love object. Maybe it turns out the same, though the quality of service might be different. Or maybe it’s the other way around- falling in love with an individual is a response to the loss of community or the loss of connection to the greater body? We love an individual in the absence of a fulfilling community, or a planet for which we feel an attachment. Maybe the preponderance of music and movies about romantic love is that we no longer can or want to muster that sort of driving attachment to anything other than the ideal of monogamy. Augustine, while attending a friend’s funeral was ashamed of feeling too much for one person. Love in the City of God is a much more democratic affair.
There is very little to set this table apart from other tables. You cannot do anything with it or on it that you couldn’t do with any other reasonably sturdy table. It is a table in every way that other tables are tables. Home Gallery commissioned it for an exhibition entitled, “Form Follows Function Off a Short Pier,” as a multi-purpose project table. (It is a more-polished variation on a project that I did in 2008, with Sara Black, Adam Bobbet, Robin Hewlett, and iNCUBATE for Democracy in America, at the Park Avenue Armory in NYC.) This table started with one half of a tabletop that I picked up in the alley on Western and Berwyn, (upside down so that you are looking at the bottom of the table), and the other half of which was cut up for cube parts for the Cultural Center’s exhibition, “Spontaneous Interventions.”
I recall looking at the found table and how at odds it was with the architectural qualities of the house it sat behind, and thinking that maybe the owners inherited it from their parents. Now it was positioned next to the garbage, not worthy enough even for the trip to the thrift store. I loaded it onto the Volvo I inherited from my grandmother that I treat like a pickup truck, while the kids waited patiently in the back seat for me to strap it on with ratchet straps.
The shape of the found table is mannered, modest Rococco, nouveau-riche circa 1963, when the consumer age hit some serious bumps in the road. With the table being of the era that it is, I appreciate the craftsmanship and attention to detail, but don’t particularly like the style. I speculate that the former owners (or their parents) liked it because it looks vaguely French, and would’ve liked to imagine themselves in the atavistic lineage of Versaille without the wig, and with wine coolers instead of Bordeaux. The table is solid poplar covered in cherry veneer, which is unusual in current production. Most veneers are glued to MDF (medium density fiberboard or chip board—the stuff most IKEA furniture is made of), so it’s unusual to find solid wood under the veneer. In the trades, sanding through the veneer of a table top can be enough to warrant dismissal. The white lie of veneer is supreme, even though we all know it isn’t wood, especially, and not surprisingly in the corporate world-office and hotel furniture being the most prevalent examples. Sanding through the veneer deliberately is like a forced confession. It’s calling the barely concealed bluff. The paint on the bottom of the table served to unify all of the support mechanisms and hardware through color. The paint becomes a smoky shadow against the warmth of the revealed wood.
The most exciting marks are the revealed wood grain, screw holes and outlines under the table extension hardware as well as the skirt of the table. Like the outlines of a lost city, the shapes are distinctive and deliberate and index something that had a clear function, which is appealing as an accidental composition. The relevance of which starts me thinking about Freud: the unconscious and the superego are both forces that mitigate the force of the ego, the ostensible captain of the ship, which is to say that I am at least twice divided against myself. The social and genetic collective inheritance asserts itself and appears to the ego as a given, a prejudice that governs behavior while remaining invisible. Forces function behind the curtain, and continue to function even when they are revealed, which brings me back to confession. I imagine confession as a preemptive gesture of revelation to short circuit the psychic damage of guilt and shame, (which presupposes a conscience.) The withholding exercise could be seen as a secular equivalent to confession, but accountability is shared among a group rather than concentrated in a priestly figure.
What am I withholding? A modest and not totally irrelevant confession: I don’t want you to know that I broke up with a girl in high school that I was crazy in love with, because I was so terrified of her beauty, and the hold it had over me. In hindsight, to allow myself to love her would have been too strenuous, the fear of loss or abandonment too overpowering. A fascinating read of Freud’s death drive is that it is as much about control as the atavistic longing of our material being to return to dust. The death drive is the Super author—the one who wants to settle things on its own terms, including the terms of its death. I killed my love for her like a suicide. I fell on my own sword rather than to risk being slain by my love object. But now I have children, and despite my attempts to maintain a safe distance I am a walking wound, bleeding all over the place. My heart isn’t even on my sleeve; it’s gone feral, running wild in the world where I have no control over it. I am falling without a parachute into love with them. No one gets out alive. The Cure is playing in my head—“Killing an Arab”—.
One way to take pain is to increase it, so that rather than something that is happening to you, you are doing it to yourself, which somehow feels better. This is the allure of masochism, taken in homeopathic doses in more mundane things, like jogging. Masochism is built into our muscles. We have to tear them to build them… I suspect the terror of beauty, the fear of being seduced beyond the capacity to resist, is a significant impulse within the history of the “anti-aesthetic” in art, from Picasso and Les Demoiselles, to conceptual art, to Bad Painting, to noise rock and punk, even to minimalism, and I would go so far as to say any species of iconoclasm, which resists the seductive quality of the image. The anti-aesthetic object might be at the opposite end of the spectrum from, which is to say the same thing as the fetish object. They possess an equal charge to one under its spell. Kill the girl preemptively (metaphorically speaking) and she can’t hurt me. The anti-aesthetic object admits the allure of seduction by the energy of its resistance.
The black walnut plywood was leftover from the kitchen I built for an artist friend, which had been before that, leftover from deconstructed office cabinets. She doesn’t live there anymore and I don’t know what’s happened to the kitchen since she separated from her husband, and if he is still eating his breakfast there in her kitchen, amidst her aesthetic ecology. We shared vulnerabilities, artist lefties with children, apologetic for all of the trappings of domestic life but proud of our children. Most kitchens are gendered female compensatory, like sports cars or basement wood shops for aging men like myself. And sometimes they are strong enough to overcome domestic ennui. The friend who commissioned the table could have spent less at IKEA. But the table represents something for her beyond how it functions, and how nice it might look with nothing on it. Her life is ordered by the needs of children and family life, punctuated by the systemic failures of our commitments to supporting and nurturing the raising of children. Fostering the creation of an object of daily use from a friend is an economic act that supports my livelihood while meeting her functional needs.
Plywood is an impressive technology that functions similar to the warp/weft concept of weaving. It is solid wood that is stable by virtue of the fact that each thin layer of wood runs perpendicular to the layer adjacent to it. I am tempted to make a social metaphor, but let that be close enough. It is usually layers of pine, covered with whatever sort of veneer. Most common in the US are oak, pine, and birch. Walnut plywood is expensive and not very common. Black walnut trees are valuable enough that landowners have reported them being cut down and stolen from their property. A clear, tall walnut tree can fetch thousands from a rotary sawmill.
The pine plywood is construction grade—Bob Seeger-and-Freebird, blue-Gatorade-at-lunch-break-grade. But also workingman grade, Marxist-romanticism grade, maybe even Aldo-Leopold and the Sand-County-Almanac-environmentalist grade. I am comfortable with it. It’s the wood you want to go have a beer with, and in the company of which you don’t start spouting Freud. The smell reminds me of my family cabin in Wisconsin that my grandfather and his brother built in the ‘20s, surrounded by white and Norway pines. It smells like Henry David Thoreau, and the ambitions I had in the 90s of becoming an ascetic, when withdrawal struck me as the most honorable form of commitment. But I learned quickly enough that I needed to be seen as an ascetic for it to function in my internal narrative. I needed an audience to my withdrawal, and until now, nobody except the pines witnessed that failure.
Then there’s a piece of solid honest-to-goodness red oak, from a futon frame given to me by my current landlord, who got it from someone else. It had been sitting in the basement since we moved in three years ago, and I asked if I could have it. Oak suffers from overuse. Both expensive and working class kitchens brag about solid oak. There’s more fake oak out there than any other kind of wood, which has the effect of tainting the visual reputation of the oak itself. It’s associatively hard to work with oak for the same reason that it’s hard to use pomegranates and apples in paintings. A friend of mine referred to red oak with a natural finish as “standard Lutheran issue.” Oak is what comes up when you Google “wood grain.”
I read somewhere that love is always a quotation, which I take to mean that it functions on a spectrum of imitation. We treat love in the way that we learned through observation, from books, movies, songs and so forth. But we experience it personally as creatio ex-nihilo, as if it came from nowhere and out of nothing. Maybe we could say that love has something to do with newness. It is the emotional avant garde, always pushing forward, past what is known, toward an imagined future, gleaming or otherwise. But, before we get too romantic, it is also about cleaning kid vomit off of a suede pillow after a sleepless night, or taking care of your parents even when they call you Phyllis and treat you like a predator. If true or unconditional love exists, it’s hard to imagine where its force comes from. Critchley goes further, suggesting that we abandon such notions as happiness, that we sweep them off the table, which leads me to speculate that he means for us to embrace an engaged masochism in which to love, to care, to hope, and to have faith are all imminently dangerous. At some point, I would like to attempt a phenomenology of disappointment, but that’s for another time.
Critchley offers humor as the preferred form of sublimation in the face of disappointment, pain and boredom. I am willing to accept that love is committed masochism, something like the unconscious (karmic) arrangement of painful experiences in preparation for the inevitable. And maybe the will to be a moral citizen gets a big part of its force from the anxious craving to improve, or to feel inadequate before an infinite demand. But humor is not in my case, a strong enough incentive to overcome my “neoliberal motivational deficit,” powerful though it is, nor my terror of loving something that I know is going to die. Sometimes I need a stiffer drink.
I hope to explore this later, but Kelley might be the counterpoint to my thoughts on the Withholding Exercise. Unless his work is pure theater, and he’s actually a pretty shy and modest man, he was after deep revelation. And maybe it’s enough to believe that he is sincere for it to function as a more public release valve. His work is unsettling because it unveils many of these social currencies, forms of mutual dependency, and circular economies of care cloaked in pageantry of one form or another, in which guilt and shame can be the most ubiquitous coinage. My ignorant and uneducated projection onto Mike Kelley is that he denied himself forms of sublimation that many of us survive on, suspecting that they were a nostalgic gateway to more insidious forms of self-deception.
Each stuffed animal could be considered a squandered, wayward love-dollar, quilted together into one big defunct currency. Beauty, like love, might be for Kelley a form of social manipulation designed to foster longings and attachments that are never meant to be satisfied, and only fuel consumption and the feeling of indebtedness. On the other hand, the piece is now worth lots of money. Its value as an art object, if money could buy love, might be enough to pay back at least some of those love hours. The piece is an emblem of social dysfunction and pathos, and works on the psychological level like a binge-purge cycle, gorging itself on 2nd-hand sweetness while avoiding the cost of attachment. But it works on the economic level like a symbolic savings account. It is strange and funny and odd to think that Kelley’s worry is worth six figures. Is the amount of money it is worth related to a broader level of worry on that particular topic? I wouldn’t assume that we are all concerned, as Kelley was, about the failures of the gift economy. Is the collector saying, “yes, I am worried about that too?” Or is he saying, “good, now I don’t have to worry about that because someone else did?” Or even, “I support Mr. Kelley in his important work of self-revelation and growth?” Or does he have a savvy dealer whispering in his ear about investment potential?
Maybe a deeper question is whether or not being part of a community means, at least in part, submitting to that form of currency, to picking up on and responding to subtle forms of suggestion/manipulation, inarticulate requests for help, and to upholding some of the varied veneers of concern that obscure whatever darkness might lurk in our famished hearts. That makes me an incrementalist. But I don’t believe for a second that if all of our social pageantry were suddenly stripped away that we wouldn’t still feel urges for inappropriate objects, and wouldn’t still want to abuse the vulnerable because they can’t stick up for themselves, and overpower others because it makes us feel virile. Either we are beholden to an immediate community of peers to keep this from happening, or that is outsourced to an abstract authority. And maybe deeper still is wondering if that darkness comes out of a mass adolescence or psychopathology, an existential homelessness that leads us to make our own habitat inhospitable, and favor rapacious short-term gain over long term resilience and co-prosperity. I think we just don’t know how to do it yet, and the market does not reward love hours.
Now the table sits in the living room of the Home Gallery, (aka the home of Laura, Andrew, Jasper and Sebastian) and the last time I was there, it was supporting a group of parents spending their love hours for which they will never be repaid, teaching kids origami, a skill that has no practical use, on an expensive table cobbled together out of materials that nobody else wanted, and talking about the failures of the Chicago public education system, an economy in the making.