29 To Work, Perchance to Live: A Story in Five Parts

Jordan Houston

Keywords: Labor Rhetoric, Stories, Necessity, Surrounding, Life

 To all of those who have worked for my sake, and all of those for whose sake I work.




First, a definition: “work, n.  I. Action, labour, activity; an instance of this.” (“Work, n.”)


I’m going to tell you a story–and I promise that it’s true–I’ll just need a few friends to help me tell it.


I worked at a fast-food restaurant (the exact restaurant is unimportant, they are functionally identical) for a summer in order to make some money in between school semesters. Every time I closed, I had to go through the routine of throwing out food, which consisted of dumping literal bucketfuls of perfectly edible food into the garbage bin.

Every now and then, someone would come by and either ask me why I was throwing away perfectly good food or (if they were in the know) commenting how much of a shame it was. That was what I hated most about the job: not the physical toll of staying on my feet for up to twelve hours at a time, or the unruly customers, or the wage theft. All of that was to be expected; that was just the nature of the work. No, more than anything else, it was the daily ritual defilement of my most fundamental morals that really got to me.


I’m sure you’ve heard the Dolly Parton song that goes:


Workin’ 9 to 5

What a way to make a livin’

Barely gettin’ by…” (Parton)


A brief note: if I had been caught giving away (or God forbid, eating) any of the food that I was supposed to throw in the trash, I would have been fired, “for stealing.”


Writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For many of us, a large portion of our days is spent at work; in fact, the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. (“One Third of Your Life Is Spent at Work”)


The topic of this chapter–that of the rhetoric surrounding work, which I will henceforth refer to as “labor rhetoric”–looms in my mind for many reasons. For an individual, such as myself, who has been raised in a society built around the rhetoric of work, it is impossible to ignore its prevalence. For a student of rhetoric, such as myself, who has been taught and trained to analyze how language is used, it is impossible to ignore its significance. And for a black American, such as myself, who is all too familiar with the entrenched systems of injustice of the world, it is impossible not to question its motives and legitimacy.


James Baldwin once wrote:

But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. (Baldwin)


Labor rhetoric interpolates every aspect of our lives–its influence is undeniable. It is like a vast ocean; it surrounds us, seeping into every minor crevice of our lives, and those–like workers–caught in its vast expanse can only hope to be able to pull themselves to the surface and gasp for breath before being dragged back under.


Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.


The very deep did rot: O Christ!

That ever this should be!

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea. (Coleridge)




As will be seen, the narrative paradigm insists that human communication should be viewed…as stories competing with other stories constituted by good reasons, as being rational when they satisfy the demands of narrative probability and narrative fidelity. (Fisher)


As a child growing up in Tennessee, the heart of Appalachia, I was particularly attached to folk stories. Growing up surrounded by stories of Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed will do that to you. There was one story that I loved above all others, though: that of John Henry.

Maybe it was because I felt a kinship to John Henry (as a young black boy) that I just didn’t feel with Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. Maybe–even at such a young age–I had already begun to develop some Romantic sensibilities, and I found something admirable in Henry’s bittersweet victory against the steam drill. Or maybe it’s just a damn good story.


“somebody’s got to pick eggs

somebody’s got to shovel manure” (Langellier and Peterson)


But stories aren’t always true–not like the one I’m telling you now. Consider:


An old proverb fetched from the outward aspect of the visible world says: “Only the man that works gets the bread.” Strangely enough this proverb does not aptly apply in that world to which it expressly belongs. For the outward world is subjected to the law of imperfection, and again and again the experience is repeated that he too who does not work gets the bread, and that he who sleeps gets it more abundantly than the man who works. (Kierkegaard)


Baldwin writes: “And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.” (Baldwin)


But, true or not, stories have power as vehicles for rhetoric. They are often the pathways by which labor rhetoric is performed and the method by which work is discussed.



Although one might object that ‘‘somebody’s got to pick eggs’’ is not itself a story, our choice of it and of the term family storytelling emphasizes the performative sense of narrative communication rather than story as a static, solid text or representation. Families perform stories not only to represent past experiences but to embody and occasion them for a particular audience in a present situation. The tellability and memorableness of stories about work are enhanced when they draw on existing genres of narrative. (Langellier and Peterson)


One story that has always stuck with me goes like this:

The Lion and other beasts formed a party to go out hunting. After they had killed a fat stag, the Lion nominated himself to divide the stag into three parts. Taking the best piece for himself, he said, “This is mine in view of my official role as king, and the second I’ll take as my own personal share just for participating in the hunt. As far as the third part is concerned, let him take it who dares.” (Aesopus, et al.)



Which is funny, because: “Lionesses living in open savanna do most of the hunting, whereas males typically appropriate their meals from the female’s kills.” (Kays)


Which is doubly funny, considering that: “…the master narrative of capitalism converges with patriarchal and heteronormative narratives as family storytelling centers the male provider as wage earner, and women at home bearing and raising children.” (Langellier and Peterson)


Which reminds me of Tom Paxton song that goes:

Well I guess I’m lucky cos I got no kids,

And I’m one o’ those bachelor men,

But Jimmy’s got four and Billy’s got two,

And I sure feel bad about them.

And I’m standing on the edge of town,

Gonna get chilly when the sun goes down;

Cardboard suitcase full of my clothes,

Where I’m headin’ just the good Lord knows. (Paxton, “Standing”)




            Tom Paxton has another song that goes:

I hate unemployment and I’ll tell you why:

I want to keep working til the day I die,

I like to work, I do it well and when I can’t feed my fam’ly,

Lord, I feel like hell.

Lord, give me a job of work to do.

Lord, give me a job of work to do.

That’s all I want, that’s all I ask of You. (Paxton, “A Job”)




One of the most enduring characteristics of work in labor rhetoric is its necessity. Work not only should be done, it must be done; it is as inevitable as the rising sun. This necessity is tinged with moral obligation; it is not just practically necessary, but morally necessary as well to work. This dominant cultural paradigm–that which ties individual worth to productivity, and places work on equal footing (at least) with all else–is nearly as pervasive as labor rhetoric itself.


“Sixteen Tons” goes:

“Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store.” (Travis)


…the first tenet of this corporate ideology of worklife is that work is the most important element in life. This meaning is constructed through an emphasis on balance, a lack of any clear definition beyond ‘‘family’’ of life outside of work, and by the consistent placement of the term ‘‘work’’ ahead of the term ‘‘life.’’ (Hoffman and Cowan)


Virgil once wrote:

Before Jupiter’s time no farmers worked the land:

it was wrong to even mark the fields or divide them

with boundaries: men foraged in common, and the earth

herself gave everything more freely, unasked.

He added the deadly venom to shadowy snakes,

made the wolves predators, and stirred the seas,

shook honey from the trees, concealed fire,

and curbed the wine that ran everywhere in streams,

so that thoughtful practice might develop various skills,

little by little, and search out shoots of grain in the furrows,

and strike hidden fire from veins of flint. (Maro)


And Catullus once wrote:

“otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est

otio exsultas nimiumque gestis

otium et reges prius et beatas

perdidit urbes.” (Catullus)


For those of you who do not speak Latin:

Leisure, Catullus, is troublesome to you

you rejoice and exult too much in leisure

In the past, Leisure both kings and wealthy

cities has destroyed.


And yet work is a punishment as much as a virtue. Consider:

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (“Bible Gateway Passage”)


And the Protestants are no strangers to labor rhetoric. In fact, one prominent cultural theme that emerges when discussing labor rhetoric is what Aune describes as “that self-discipline and deferral of gratification known (rather misleadingly) as the Protestant work ethic;” (Aune). In a 2020 paper, Jennifer Robinson, drawing heavily on the works of Max Weber, further expands on the history of Protestant work ethic, arguing that shifts in the rhetoric and role of religion caused Christians to begin eschew spirituality for worldly concerns–particularly wealth (Weber)(Robinson).


In their 2006 article, Kristin M. Langellier and Eric E Peterson echo this sentiment in their analysis of familial rhetoric, writing: “Scholars have identified [in familial labor rhetoric] canonical stories about family fortune and misfortune, incorporating tropes of the American dream, the Protestant work ethic [emphasis my own], and bootstrapping” (Langellier and Peterson).


Thus is the dual nature of work within labor rhetoric, it is at once a blessing and a curse, a bane and a boon, a duty to be righteously undertaken and a burden to be wretchedly endured.


Aurelio Voltaire once sang:

“Twas the worst of times for tinkers like you and me.

So, in search of fortune, I took to the sea.”


“I can’t forget, I won’t forgive this sea

For the endless hurt it gave to me.” (Voltaire)


But that’s not so odd. For example: in Latin, the adjective sacer, sacra, sacrum is used to mean both “blessed” and “cursed.”




“…invocation of neutral principles assumes an initial state of equality between a corporation and an individual worker.” (Aune)


The fundamental nature of the relationship between employer and employee presents an unbalanced rhetorical situation; regardless of one’s beliefs or ideals, it is foolish to suggest that these two parties stand on an equal footing. Rarely does any worker (or even a collective of workers) hold even nearly as much power as those for whom they work.



And that is why Mary Hoffman and Renee Cowan said that: “The power of organizations to shape a range of life activities requires that we carefully examine the rhetoric of organizations concerning the proper relationship between paid work and the rest of life.” (Hoffman and Cowan)


And when they did, Mary Hoffman and Renee Cowan found that:

economic benefits are the primary rationale offered by organizations for providing work/life programs….the idea that work/life programs exist for the economic benefit of the organizations allows organizations to maintain symbolic and material control over the meaning and practice of the relationship between paid work and the rest of life….[this] reinforces the idea that such programs are not a ‘‘right’’ of employees, but a ‘‘benefit’’ provided by a benevolent organization. (Hoffman and Cowan)


Even if they do so from a less powerful position, workers still do engage in labor rhetoric. It is necessary, then, to analyze their rhetoric as well, in order to obtain a more total understanding of the rhetoric which surrounds us.


“…employees are not only positioned, but actively position themselves within organizational discourses,” (Alvesson and Willmott)(Nentwich and Hoyer)


It is no surprise–largely due to their divergent goals–that workers and their employers at times find themselves at rhetorical odds. It is the goal of a corporation to extract as much value from its workers for as little cost as possible, and thereby maximize its profits. This divergence in goals was already evident by the time David Aune wrote: “The contested issue in the strike is the by now commonplace one of the need for competitiveness in the global marketplace versus the workers’ need for security of jobs and benefits.” (Aune)


Marx and Engels said:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. (Marx and Engels)



And Phil Ochs has a song that goes:

For the wages were low, and the hours were long,

And the labor was all I could bear

Now you’ve got new machines for to take my place

And you tell me it’s not mine to share. (Ochs, “Automation”)



The dominant discourse of modern society is that which holds full-time work as the (markedly masculine) ideal of “commitment, productivity, and professionalism” (Nentwich and Hoyer). Full-time work, though, is not practical for everyone. For example, for many of those who are physically impaired, or possess substantial familial obligations–who nonetheless require money in order to survive–part-time work is a necessary compromise between the pressures of society and the realities of their situation.


It becomes necessary, then–or at least highly desirable–for part-time workers to combat the hegemonic paradigm of full-time work in order to justify their own existence. Labor rhetoric, as we’ve said before, places moral value in work, and especially full-time work. Work is a burden, yes, but it is a burden akin to temperance or piety, one to be undertaken in order to be virtuous. Those who do not–or in this case, cannot–work are therefore the moral inferiors of those that do (or can).


But this is a treacherous endeavor, as labor rhetoric is so ubiquitous that it infects even arguments against itself. Surrounded by the ocean that is labor rhetoric, they fight so that they might not drown.


…analysis showed that resistance is in constant danger of reifying the dominant if developing alternatives do not challenge or change the basic assumptions, but highly successful if the rhetorical interplay contributes to new assumptions that are taken for granted. (Nentwich and Hoyer)




And the builders shook their hands

And the builders shared their wine

And thought that they had mastered the sea (Ochs, “The Thresher”)


Audre Lord wrote: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Lorde and White)


There is a story–largely fictional, but with some kernels of truth, like most stories are–that the Roman emperor Caligula, in his madness, declared war on the sea itself, and ordered his men to cast their spears into the ocean.


When drowning, it is best to seek air, rather than to attempt to develop gills.




“Today and throughout history, the notion of work has influenced culture and leadership.” (Dayton)


And so it is that the malleable clay of labor rhetoric has been molded by a millions of hands: those of employers, of workers, and of families (among countless others).



“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” (Marx and Engels)


I began to tell you this story in order to describe to you the shape of labor rhetoric, but I am sure that you realize by now that doing so is akin to describing the shape of the ocean from the shore of the beach. I can describe the magnitude and the expanse of it, but it is impossible to comprehensively detail the nature of its depths. I hope that, if I have communicated anything to you, it is the sheer oppressing vastness of labor rhetoric, and why that makes it so fascinating, important, and powerful.


I leave you with one last thing to consider:


The Earth is a watery place. But just how much water exists on, in, and above our planet? About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers, and even in you and your dog. Water is never sitting still. Thanks to the water cycle, our planet’s water supply is constantly moving from one place to another and from one form to another. (“How Much Water Is There on Earth?”)

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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Jordan Houston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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