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Buying a House: Manual Labor and Material Conditions

Today was my first full day of working on the new house.  At day’s end, my finger pads are sore, my arm is bloody, and I’m exhausted.  Turns out, this is what all that weight lifting this semester has been in preparation for.  The day we closed, we went over to the house and pulled the carpets up and discovered beautiful wooden floors beneath them.  The project of today was to pull up the tack boards that the carpet had been nailed into.  That didn’t sound like that much work to me.  But it took me five and a half hours to do two rooms (I had planned on doing three, but cut out from exhaustion after two — this would seem to be one of the rules of DIY home improvement projects: the project will always take at least one and a half times as long as you estimate it will take).  Part of the problem is that I had to figure out how to do it first.  I was using the back end of a hammer which was practically impossible because the boards are too close to the wall so I couldn’t get any leverage, so I googled how to do it and someone said, get a pry bar, so off to Lowe’s.  I found a tool that pried on one end and pulled nails on the other.  (Another rule of DIY home improvement projects: the right tool is key).


So I set to work.  My dad’s a contractor and I have gone out on the job with him before.  Also, my family moved to a fixer-upper when I was entering my sophomore year of high school, so I’ve done some painting and scraping and laying tile in my day.  But it’s been awhile.  Today, several hours into the work, I had a moment of deep sympathy toward people who use their bodies to earn a living.  It’s hard.  It hurts.  It’s frustrating.  The thing about manual labor is that it must deal with the material world, and the material world offers significant resistance.  In line with the argument of my current book project, material is not just passively awaiting the formal imposition of the maker (me!).  Oh no, not at all.  Material pushes back.  Nail heads strip off as I try to remove them.  Only one side of carpet staples come out, stripping the skin off my fingers when I try to pull the other side out with my fingers.  (Another rule of DIY home improvement projects is that pain is a good motivator of ingenuity: by the end I had figured out how to use discarded wood to create an anchor to get the other side of the staple out.)  The tool would flip back when I finally did pull a nail out and cut me.  I really did feel by the end of the day that material has a mind of its own.  This fact is the reason that manual labor can be so very hard.

The staples.

The staples.

I got to thinking–because actually, that’s a thing I like about working with my hands: the focus on a particular task gives the mind room to contemplate. I can understand why contemplative communities require work of some sort.  Adam Smith says that labor under capitalism will make people dull and stupid, but his reason is because the division of labor makes the tasks so monotonous–in fact, manual labor can require and inspire considerable thought.  Anyway, when I was about forty-five minutes from being finished in the second room, I was really frustrated.  The material things weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. It felt like it was getting harder and not easier.  My hands hurt.  It was late afternoon and I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast.  I just wanted to cry.  I guess this is what they mean by pouring your blood, sweat and tears into something.   The thought I had was that manual labor makes it hard to live in the world.  I worked hard for about five and a half hours and I was spent.  I thought, it would be so hard to be nice to people right now.  Then I thought, this is how labor conditions our world.  It’s easier for me to have patience, to seem civilized, to put up with whatever slights I might have to endure, because the work I do conditions those possibilities for me, even though I do consider the work I do to be time-intensive and tiring, but not tiring the way manual labor is tiring.  This is how the kind of work I do conditions the possibilities for me to appear virtuous.  It’s also how the kind of work that is manual labor makes it so much more difficult.  Then we ignore the material condition and praise people for what we consider virtue and criticize them for what we consider vice.

The work I did today, and the couple hours in the third room I need to do tomorrow, is the most difficult work that we need to do on the house.  I’m glad this part is almost done, and I’m glad for the material conditions (but I have to remind myself that my material conditions are both the labor of today and the ownership of the house) that motivate thought.  I think it’s fitting to start this project of owning a home by being reminded of the material world in all its defiance and the material conditions for social engagement as I work on a book on the force of matter.

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