Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fatigue, ca. 1939

Writing Process Reengineering is inspired by Business Process Reengineering, which emerges from the long tradition of scientific management, going back to the work of F.W. Taylor. One sometimes-forgotten member of that tradition is Dexter Kimball, whose work I expect will experience a bit of a revival if the "liberal turn" in management studies is fully executed. He was dean of engineering at Cornell and wrote the sorts of detailed books on industrial organization (how to organize a factory) that you rarely see these days. He was also a great champion of the humanities in business education, i.e., what the Carnegie foundation calls liberal learning. “The man interested in industry,” he said in 1925, “will find many things made plainer and his horizon greatly broadened by studying the recorded experience of those that have preceded him.” But he also noted that “the humanities are not matters that belong to a distant past. They flow in an unbroken stream from our experience with life.” This morning, I'd like to draw your attention to his work on fatigue or, as I think you'll recognize, what we today call "stress".

My interest in Kimball arises out of my interest in the great American poet Ezra Pound. Pound quotes Kimball in his Canto 38, from 1934—a characteristic incorporation of material that is not normally seen in a poem (notice the use of what today also looks like an author-date citation):

(…cigar makers whose work is highly repetitive
can perform the necessary operations almost automatically
and at the same time listen to readers who are hired
for the purpose of providing mental entertainment while they
work; Dexter Kimball 1929.)

While Pound cites Kimball's 1929 book Industrial Economics, the idea also appears in a comprehensive textbook called Principles of Industrial Organization, which came out in several editions starting in 1913. I've got the fifth edition, from 1939, beside me. The "readers" are mentioned (on page 245) in the section devoted fatigue, where he says a number of things that writers could learn from as well.

He sorts the problem of fatigue under the need, in the organization of work, for "personal allowances", here the allowance that managers must make for periodic rest periods, i.e., breaks. Whenever I discuss this passage, I always draw attention to something that really ought to be an an embarrassing fact about twentieth-century industrial organization:

Under the old and still much-used methods, the common idea was to keep a man as busy as possible during the entire working period for which he had engaged. It now appears that he will do more and better work if given periodic rests. (Kimball 1939: 244, my emphasis)

"It now appears"??? How could we ever have thought that work without periodic rest could be a good idea? After all, as Kimball himself notes, fatigue is something that everyone has direct experience with, and the solution has never been a mystery waiting to be illuminated by scientific discovery.

All are familiar with the phenomenon of fatigue. In beginning work there is a period during which effort is not only easy but agreeable, and the rate of production increases. Then follows a period during which conditions are uniform, succceeded in turn by a decline in interest and pleasure in production, straining begins to be felt, and finally, if the effort is continued, pain appears. During this last period the worker must put forth his will power to continue at the task, "working on his nerve," as is said; and at last, if the effort is continued, it becomes unbearable and complete exhaustion takes place. (244)

I balk at the need to discover these facts. (Kimball makes it appear as though modern science has made us aware of the importance of rest.) But maybe I shouldn't. After all, how many writers approach their work as though this description doesn't apply to them? How many writers strain at the work long after it stops being "agreeable", stops giving them pleasure? Kimball, for his part, emphasizes that the principle of periodic rest (and, in fact, variation of work tasks) also applies to mental labour:

[Fatigue is not] a function of bodily exertion alone. Jobs that require little or no bodily effort but very close attention and concentration may be even more fatiguing than others that involve considerable muscular effort. Mental work is often as fatiguing as bodily effort. (245)

Interestingly (and, in my ignorance, surprisingly) Kimball appears to be aware of the basic principles of what we today call "stress", urging work to be carried out within the "elastic limit", where it is "wholesome" and conducive to "good health". Indeed, he notes,

Physical or mental effort of any kind results in the breaking down of tissue, which creates certain toxic poisons in the blood giving rise thereby to the phenomena described [i.e., those of fatigue]. (244)

All this just to say that already before the second world war, the basic principles of the organization of work, including the work of writing, were well-understood. Make sure you work at your writing within the elastic limit of your prose (a notion I'll take up on Thursday). Get some rest. Keep the work agreeable.


Presskorn said...

A rather off-topic comment:

I very much share your initial skepticism of "It now appears" and your balking of the need to discover such facts about fatigue. This skepticism is, I hypothesize, at some level informed your (and my) committal to some sort of ordinary language philosophy, which balks at science discovering such facts. But perhaps, this is misguided. In any case, the need to constantly re-discover very obvious facts could be said to be the very method of ordinary language philosophy. Your post – in any case – reminded me of the following nice quote by Jean Giraudoux, which I think expresses something about the method of philosophy:

“Not this divination which gives names and dates, but true prophecy, that which reveals to men these surprising truths: that the living must live, that the living must die, that autumn must follow summer, spring follow winter, that there are four elements, that there is happiness, that there are innumerable miseries, that life is a reality, that it a dream, that man lives in peace, that man lives on blood; in short, those things they will never know.”

I am tempted to add: that work causes fatigue….

Thomas said...

Maybe this is too subtle, but I think Wittgenstein's distinction between "reminders" and "discoveries" is important. The problem with the social science of fatigue is that it presents what ought to be a (philosophical) reminder as though it were a (scientific) discovery. Philosophy, in a sense, mocks (always good-naturedly, of course) our ignorance of the social, while social science constantly legitimizes it. It says, "Well, we haven't studied the phenomenon yet, so you are right to feel you don't know enough to say."

Philosophy reminds you that there is happiness. Social science proposes to "find out" whether and how much happiness there "really" is. I think my sympathies are obvious here.

Presskorn said...

Yes, I agree... The mistake, then, consists, not in the apparent stupidity of reminding us of something as obvoius as the fact that work causes fatigue, but rather in presenting this obvious fact as a sort scientific discovery...