on|off

terry eySSenS goes FroM alIenaTIon To allegIance To alIenaTIon.
1 FeelIng IT
I think it started when I was at school. A sense of not having anything to do with what I was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t a hard school. I simply was not the slightest bit interested in the basic activity of being at school, being a high-school student. I concede that I enjoyed – slightly – a couple of subjects in Year 11. But maybe it was more the energy and fairness of the teachers that engaged me. Apart from that, kicking the footy during breaks and after school was the most interesting thing I did back then. I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s when you leave school and enter the world as a worker that you can really feel it. While I was still at school, someone older told me that he wished he was back there. He warned me not to wish for it to end too soon. Once I began work, I knew what he meant but I didn’t want to go back to school. Work was worse but it was just more of the same thing. As for work – working – there was nothing that I wanted to do, to be. No vocational counselling or badgering could change that. So I took the easiest option. I began work as a carpenter, apprenticed to my father. I wasn’t interested in carpentry, but a few of my friends were going into trades and I thought I might get to know my dad. I lasted little more than a year. Over the next ten years I worked in dozens of jobs. I writhed my way through and inflicted on others the angst and ennui of my twenties. Up until I was about twenty-two my father would sit me down and ask me what I was doing, what I wanted to do and, more importantly, he asked me what I was going to do. I answered over and over again, “I don’t know”. He’d ask, “Do you wanna end up working in a factory?” I answered “No” but actually didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t meant to want to work in a factory but couldn’t see why that was worse than any other job. Every job had the same effect. Factory or building site or servo. I despised it. I took many, many sickies. Quite often, one sickie would turn into a week off. But I rarely got the sack because I worked hard enough while I was there, mainly because I didn’t want anyone else to have to work harder because of me. I knew that drudgery had to be shared. Generally, work made me nauseous. At that time, though, I didn’t really know why. It was strange being surrounded by people who showed up every day for decades. I couldn’t understand how they did it. As a young man who thought little of himself, with no confidence in his ability at anything, let alone the ability to make sense of the world, I could only conclude that something was wrong with me. On one of my weeks off I decided to catch the train up to Sydney, simply because I’d never been there. I read a second-hand copy of Lawson stories on the way. I had no real political understanding of what it is to labour and I got nothing out of Lawson along those lines. But in him I found, for the first time, a portrayal of bosses and work which coincided with my experience, and that the boss to be most wary of is the one who expects loyalty. Probably more importantly, Lawson’s stories encouraged me to keep wandering. They consolidated an urge to

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is from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of ����. operates on him as an alien. Apart from being true – or maybe this is what makes them so true – Marx’s words are a phenomenological explanation of what it is to labour and why it is sickening. I began my own collection. That’s how I understand Marx’s passage on the alienation of labour. Also. picked me up and took me back. 2007 63 . When you think about the thought game that leads to Des- overland 188. In arguments with friends. and despised it. or emerges or when it’s revealed. Kerouac and others. I hold that truth isn’t something that can be sought out. which I still add to. that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. She was minding a house in Woolloomooloo and I hung around there while she was at work. A girl I was having a fling with drove down from Sydney. He is at home when he is not working. apart from the generosity of friends. ���� on the alienation of labour. What he wrote is simply true. Once again. Lastly. the fact that labour is external to the worker. divine or diabolical activity – so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. I wasn’t working and wasn’t on the dole. and to read about it. That always got me in. However. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work. the book itself and the writer had little to do with expanding my consciousness. but I don’t. Sydney again. of the human brain and the human heart. that it does not belong to him. that in his work. and when he is working he is not at home. I spent a total of three years (on and off. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists. 2 recognIsIng IT But I still worked most of the time. It belongs to another. of mortification. but I didn’t lose so much sleep over it. strangely. I could quibble with him about terminology. I loved it. This was a significant early experience for me. even discredited. it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. but something that is recognised when it appears. included in the narrative of the The Songlines. is a labour of self-sacrifice. in between hitch-hiking trips) in a car wash. I was still angsty and annoying. Then. i. A liberation from the mainstream of expectations and from the associated guilt. I found the romanticism of the ‘being’ of the bum. the idea of truth is a staple. operates independently of the individual – that is. then.3 The passage is beautiful because it’s true. One passage. constitutes the alienation of labour? First. it is forced labour. I can’t remember what I was living on at the time. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination. It’s not just some nerdish cognitive puzzle like Descartes’ method of doubt. he does not affirm himself but denies himself. External labour. it does not belong to his essential being.1 I know now that the book and Chatwin’s methods during its creation have been criticised. in Kerouac. After I started to frequent Kings Cross she gave me books to read to keep me home. it is the loss of self. His labour is therefore not voluntary. He evokes the despair of being split in two and stretching and straining to pull it all together. these writers taught me nothing about politics.e. the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own. I don’t know the passage word for word but am a carrier of its sense. What I remember most are the sections of the book containing quotes and aphorisms of other writers and thinkers. and despised it. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need. London. does not feel content but unhappy. therefore. It was Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. labour is shunned like the plague. It was my introduction to political thought too. It’s true because it can be felt in the bones. when she realised that ‘no money’ meant no money. The only book I remember is the one that accompanied me on the bus. discovered or proven via scientific method. but someone else’s. What. Enjoying myself away from work just lent it some kind of utility. I told her I had no money but she said it didn’t matter. and in his work feels outside himself. does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. she sent me back to Melbourne. labour in which man alienates himself. I began to come around to the idea that it wasn’t that something was wrong with me but there was something wrong with the ways of the world. I enjoyed reading a narrative with an element of being on the road.be on the road. via Bruce Chatwin. Inspired by this. At the very least it’s a dualism that is phenomenologically real. Like Lawson.2 At the time though. So of course I found Twain. but coerced.

alcohol and the odd CD – but I’ve never 3 knowIng IT Once you know. events and festivals. Despite my idealistic expectations. These are all things that I have enjoyed. (Un)Fortunately. though. 64 overland 188.cartes’ pronouncement cogito ergo sum. It’s lame. Some of my fellow ‘professionals’. to find that my ‘physical and mental energy’ would be ‘developed freely’ as part of my ‘essential being’. Who runs this joint? Do they feel anything? They can’t. try to escape and after a couple of years and many fruitless interviews I landed a job at a student union. subsumed. clothes. it was my introduction to another kind of alienation. A lecture on the phenomenological actuality of Marx’s passage (a text they knew) would follow. the tribalism. I could forget too. I’d return enthusiastically to a building site. I ended up back in the same workplaces. I still worked in such places during uni. Their thoughts have no body. I lasted longer at it than I’ve ever done before. Nevertheless. as with the experience of every job I’ve ever had. is part of the nerdish legacy. I admit that there is something about a long hot day toiling alongside a friend. There is no need. but not that way. however. I won’t go into detail as to why it is alienating or why I was alienated. When the alarm rang the next morning. not much was changed by my university education. a wage slave. movies. Not to tell is impossible. The friends I mentioned earlier were still tradesmen and I often picked up work with them. After an academic year of reading and essay writing came the summer holidays. 4 consUMIng IT As expected. the humour. They vary but there is conspicuous consumption by some staff at every one. I made a more deliberate effort to not be a wage slave. But that would be just the first day. Though this didn’t really make its mark on me (I remained engaged in the struggle with the traditional kind). in consumption. As a teenager I enjoyed going to the footy. I socialised with people who. that was factories and building sites. I used to stand on the beer-soaked terraces at Victoria Park watching Collingwood. the effect was the same. The pay. A superficial4 obsession and preoccupation with pop culture TV. With me. Go back to the passage cited above. Like many of my friends. The contemporary cliché. ruined mind … the loss of self. however. I felt vindicated as one who ‘shunned it like the plague’. Being conscious of my being as a wage labourer. The knock-off beer was always good. I still have some indulgences – books. Mortified body. but never as good as that first one and all day every day a phrase would ring in my ears. work is never the same. 2007 . were constantly broke. This encompassed everything we’re familiar with. There was more than I could ever spend. I was right. however. doesn’t help all that much. For example: “It must feel good to do that kind of work. It’s good for you. Admittedly. I’d tell them about the experience of reblocking a house and fume at their responses. The beer at knock-off time is the sweetest it ever can be. Once you are a conscious carrier of this sense. the idea that our ‘minds are like computers’. The lives of many of my colleagues were immersed. doesn’t make it any less nauseating. I ended up needing four-day blocks of sickies. I still haven’t found an activity that totally escapes this way of being but I ended up going to university. Look around. I did. It’s no longer bewildering. The noise. knowing it made me a proselytiser. the knowledge that the job still had two months to run shattered any romantic or wholesome notions about the nobility of hard work. It was like being in another world. There was a difference. you know. CDs and appliances. And once I knew.” Steam would come from my ears. And we have founded much of our philosophy on it. between this work and all my previous jobs. Their offices multi-tasked as storehouses for piles of clothes-shop bags. because of their youth or class. I have always been astounded by the capacity of the liberal Left to consume. Mortified body. It was awesome. In tutes I was introduced to Weber’s iron cage and Hobbes’ pallid idea that we are all just cogs in a machine society. had never seen a factory floor or a building site except on TV. Knowing it. what I did there often coincided with my stated positions but it wasn’t long before I realised that even this labour is alienated. There was more going on than a game of suburban football. My work there was not my own. It was plenty. ruined mind … the loss of self. In need of rent and beer money. I’d go home with a contented glow. I reckoned that it would be a more tolerable form of wage slavery. I had hoped to be able to work in an ‘unalienated’ way at the union. it sounds like something a group of gamers would come up with in a chat room. I’ve worked at four student unions now.

how- overland 188. you could still go to Victoria Park and soak up the atmosphere. As a kid. it’s the only way to stay human. no luck. I’ll stop trying to explain it my way. seemingly treated as an adult. suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organisation and supervision of production. that’s it”. are just examples of increased control. inevitably. This time I didn’t stumble across his path. their endangered (if not extinct) status. They. What has happened to the Brunswick Street Festival? Darebin? St Kilda? What has. When I read it I went. Anything extra is luxury. students continued to enjoy my participation. finds himself every day. Aussie Rules redesigned for Kath & Kim and Lachlan Murdoch. their barrackers would treat us to the best day of stand-up comedy that could be had in the open. They could be stumbled onto. sums up what I’ve been trying to say: Whereas in the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation. I tried to work on stuff that was ‘my own’ and on what was important to the least managerial and bureaucratic students. these ideas of the ruling class are reversed as soon as the production of commodities reaches a level of abundance which requires a surplus of collaboration from the worker. containment of the potentials for spontaneity. but it was never boring. That atmosphere consisted of tribal excitement. Urban festivals used to be a bit ragged. simply because now political economy can and must dominate these spheres as political economy. loaded down with shopping bags. Eventually. There were once hundreds of places to see and hear a very good band. those I liked. no spontaneity. even for a Collingwood fan. Now there are fewer places and often you have to book to get in. squeezed out this kind of ‘worldly’ human activity? What do we have in their place? Grand Prix. Some staff stopped talking to me. marijuana smoke and swapping a couple of coins for a paper bag of peanuts from a man who inched his way through the crowd with a big sack full of them. What about the people that pass by. Short of not working at all (which does not mean ‘doing nothing’). for food and clothes. This isn’t a lament for traditional values. There is no chance in this.5 ever. I found his book. This passage. We could be lured in off the street into a dank bar by a tantalising riff. He is Guy Debord. without ever seeing him “in his leisure and humanity”. A writer had already recognised what I was within. in particular. The same could be said for Melbourne’s band scene. Nowadays a smoky chimney means that there’s a wood heater inside. no surprise. wandering in a multitude of isolation. “Yep. with clenched brows. Since then I’ve gone from job to job. Fearless Speech. It was a world away from work and consumption. on the internet. We used briquettes and timber offcuts from dad’s building jobs. Thus the “perfected denial of man” has taken charge of the totality of human existence. for three or four dollars at the door. Commonwealth Games. 2007 65 . It was very human. Importantly. I remember ours being the only house in the street that had smoke coming out the chimney.7 I reckon I spent my time at the student union in a relatively unalienated way. knowing alienation and trying to steer clear of it is just a small consolation. Victoria Park wasn’t always pleasant. You have to be well off to warm yourself with that stuff. (good humoured) obscenity. outside of production and in the guise of a consumer. The core of these activities seems After reading Debord. If Collingwood was playing St Kilda. burning up redgum forests from the other side of the Murray. the odour of spilt beer and poorly maintained toilet blocks. all organised by accountants? What about everyone else? 5 on|oFF Fifteen years ago. At this point the humanism of the commodity takes charge of the worker’s “leisure and humanity”. you’re pretty well off. My experience led me to him. in the rain. with zealous politeness. The Society of the Spectacle. over time. We could think of other examples. This worker. no serendipity. ‘‘political economy sees in the proletarian only the worker’’ who must receive the minimum indispensable for the conservation of his labour power. Somewhere along the way I learned that as long as you have food and a roof over your head. Adrian Peacock’s Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves6 and a little book of Foucault’s lectures. appointments and wallets light on cash and heavy with tickets for festivals and ‘artistic’ events. Unfortunately. The outer of football grounds and smoky pubs have never been everyone’s cup of tea. Shopping is for necessities. I had to leave. never full-time.been a big consumer.

They’re more sophisticated and controlled as ‘events’ and. even if he could see that it had been coming and increasing for some time. Is it more? An alliance is an agreement involving nominal equals. duty and solidarity. Debord was confronted by the novelties introduced to culture by the postwar boom in consumerism with its “expanding economy of ‘services’ and leisure”. I don’t have a phenomenological sense of it. 2007 . Their total subsumption as commodities. He described a world which was having the life sucked out of it. an allegiance to the society of managed events. One is in a position of power. as cogs in a machine. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been able to separate – alienate – myself from it. It is a pragmatic agreement to cooperate and/or a suspension or cessation of hostilities. traditional pursuits like sport and music culture. however well-meaning or mean. Whether we experience our society through the alienation of labour. We can do our best to avoid it but often. Bosses find it more difficult to ask for loyalty when workers know that their conditions of employment explicitly avoid such sentiments. is problematic enough. ratty consumer subjects – it is all dehumanising. but the edges have been smoothed off. Are we witnessing a change? Surrounded by WorkChoices. Deleuze and Guattari. gradually. he didn’t live in the world we do. I believe. as a ‘workforce’. we submit. came later. Coming on and going off. With wage labour. We are familiar with the circumstances in which workers have been asked to make further sacrifices. When Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. It’s a pledge of allegiance. an individual’s participation in ‘the society of managed events’ is a demonstration of allegiance. and their integration into the society of the spectacle for constrained and productive participation.the same.9 What is the function of these distractions? Well. despite ourselves. They’ve become more. however noble. This relationship can only end (without impunity) if the pledge has been fulfilled by the debtor to the creditor’s complete satisfaction. I cannot carry a sense of it. people participate in them with an intensity and diligence beyond ‘fun’. Nevertheless. Those involved are not equal. people related to much of the society of the spectacle as fun distractions from daily life. It’s what nation-states do when both recognise that they can’t order each other around. understood as suspension of hostilities. For those who take a position in opposition to capital. We are largely casualised. are not as loyal to our employers as our parents were. indebted. The fringes have become frills. they’re no mere distractions. discuss participation in the system of credit and debt as an alliance with capital and the (despotic) state. He wasn’t trying to be prophetic. Debt is a formal. it fills out capital’s coercive tradition. These circumstances arise in times of war or during periods of economic hardship. or as loyal. that debt should be seen as more than a simple alliance. legal way to extract allegiance and has been with us for a long time. they’ve got us over a barrel.10 is largely ‘voluntary’. loyalty. but fun nonetheless. her or it (rather than with her or him) under terms and conditions set by the creditor. Fuck. or because it’s so everywhere that there’s nothing distinct enough from it to be able to feel its shitness as alienation. It’s not necessarily a relationship of amity. I think. because of our need for food and housing. If only these were mere spectacles. How does it feel? All I can do is sit down in the main street and watch how people move. with the diminishing expectation of loyalty to a boss. Superficial fun. we are cajoled into pledging allegiance to consumption and the spectacle – the society of the managed events. many don’t. and conscientious participation in consumption as production (often via debt ). As Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games experience shows. Many workers instinctively recognise this call for what it is. The solutions of the past century. I don’t know how this feels. He was writing about his world. However. though. and everyone’s on pills to deal with it. We have moved from alienation from ourselves and the world via our labour – to allegiance to (total) alienation via our every waking breath and action. an alliance. I’ve got a problem. bunched in waves but separate. Did he imagine that it could go this far? I imagine that in his world. of observance. We. 66 overland 188. work harder for the ‘good of the state’. which is different – worse. communal leisure. in Anti-Oedipus. Capitalists themselves know that such hypocrisy will be recognised. In other words. All I can say is that everyone looks ratty. This process seems to have reached its zenith while seeming like a process that has no zenith. In purposeful transit between production and consumption.8 For Debord the spectacular society was just beginning. remained relatively intact. authority or reverence and the other makes a pledge to him. yes.

Fascism. alan Turner. 2002. they all require an alienated citizen subject. 9 Guy Debord revisited The Society of the Spectacle in the late 1980s and commented. capitalism. Would it. Sydney. London. ruined mind … the loss of self. Ellipsis. advice and critical responses to drafts of this essay. Too many cogs were important. “What would happen if all the circuits/switches in a computer were turned on?” He replied. karen Ballard.” Not enough difference to have information? Not enough difference to be able to tell what it is we are looking at. 7 Michel Foucault. Athlone Press. It’s bypassed. “We’re all just cogs!” Now we have reached a stage where. All on.have been unable to people their models with humans. “the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behaviour and objects … When the spectacle was concentrated. and everyone was on. Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. or a computer. New York. “If this is a joke. however. More accurately. 1984. If one switch fails. 10 “A time will come when the creditor has not yet lent while the debtor never quits repaying. 1998. what it is we are being? Not enough left outside. when diffuse. On|off. On occasion.” From Guy Debord. For three hundred years. Verso. people have thought about dehumanisation in machine terms. London. will we. Semiotext(e). 4 See Damon Young. PhD thesis. damien dupuis. Not now. 2007 67 . The passage I cite here is from the Manuscripts and is longer than the condensation included on page 90 of The Songlines. liberal democracy. See also Nicholas Shakespeare. Chatwin’s book is where I first encountered it. 6 Adrian Peacock. 5 Guy Debord. for repaying is a duty but lending is an option” (emphasis added). London. 1983. Not that I believe us to be computers. The Silent Chorus: Culture and Superficiality. which necessitates a call to allegiance. 2003. the machine had to stop for a while. |O Nothing more can be squeezed from the machine – from linear. Jeroen van veen. 1964. But I wonder. |O Ones and nones. Swinburne University of Technology. Nazism. 2003. 1988. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. International Publishers. a small part. 3 Karl Marx.) 2007 DONATE NOW (03) 9419 8377 overland 188. Vintage. it’s a ‘loser’. because you would not have enough difference to have enough information. 9. we can adopt one more appropriate for the digital age. to rot. But if everything went to plan. We’re not. the greater part of surrounding society escaped it. becomes redundant. (and addditional thanks to damon Young for the text message. left off – to feel. all require state organisation. London. Melbourne. ruth Quibell. 1999. 490–491. to chance. He would like to thank simon Firth. communism. From Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Harvill in association with Jonathan Cape. neoliberalism. But what would happen then? I texted a friend. what would happen? Could we only know what we are not? Will we be incapable of knowing what we are? Maybe that. to know. We’re just a bunch of switches. you would no longer have a computer. or calculation of it. Jane Mummery. Bruce lindsay and dawn McBride for their encouragement. no part. Detroit. sally skinner. hierarchy and the allegiance of citizen subjects. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of ����. 2001. It’s all about alienation. The Songlines. a system may work tolerably well for a good amount of people. Nothing stops. Nevertheless. in some places. If not. to recognise. But still. do tell. 2 See Barry Hill. If they failed or wore out. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 71. 197–198. Alienation is dehumanisation. 417–419. Bruce Chatwin. Los Angeles. causal. The Society of the Spectacle. dependent organisation. None. Picador. fulfils its promise. Black & Red. today. Hill writes of the concept of songlines as “falsely attributed to [TGH] Strehlow” and “most glibly by Bruce Chatwin”. Fearless Speech. Terry eyssens now does doctoral research in philosophy at the University of Ballarat. London. instead of Hobbes’ machine metaphor. all crash? 1 Bruce Chatwin. Now it’s simpler. 5. damon Young. Mortified body. 8 Ibid. 409–414. Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves. 110–111. See pages 187–200 for more on alliance and debt. the big idea is to get every switch going at once. The event can go completely unnoticed.