“Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work”

Citation: “Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work.” Profession 1999: 113-24.

  • Also available online.
  • See also: Alan Liu, “Reply” to letter from William Pitsenberger regarding “Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work.” Profession 2000: 186-88.

Excerpt from beginning of essay (pages 113-14)
Even this warning did not prepare Robyn for the shock of the foundry. [. . .] Her first instinct was to cover her ears, but she soon realised that it was not going to get any quieter, and let her hands fall to her sides. The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand. The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof. Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lava trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor. [. . .] Everywhere there was indescribable mess, dirt, disorder.
—David Lodge, Nice Work

Was David Lodge’s 1988 novel simply behind the times when it challenged its heroine—Robyn Penrose, Temporary Lecturer in English Literature—to confront the sooty business managed by its hero, Vic Wilcox, product of a Midlands technical college? Is this the utmost challenge that Lodge can imagine for the contemporary academic sensibility: to come to grips with the realism of “smokestack” industrialism as it has appalled fiction since the nineteenth-century industrial novel (Lodge’s elaborate allusion) through at least Sons and Lovers?

If so, then we can adequately attribute Lodge’s comedy to the slow, sly romance he builds between the academy and industry—to his deft dance of opposites that at last issues, if not in a classically comic wedding, then at least in the fleeting copulation of two faculties of expertise divorced since Victorian sages presided over the “idea of a university.”

The clarion call of the new millennium is clear. Let the academies have pure ideas. Let the Third World (represented in Lodge’s novel by the swarthy, immigrant underclass who serve Vic’s factory) have pure matter work. You, the New Class destined to inherit the earth (or at least the cubicle), you who are endowed with the inalienable right to process a spreadsheet, database, or report—have you counted your knowledge assets today? (pp. 114-15)

Or, on the other hand, should we allow Lodge’s minor prophets of the new world order—Robyn’s investment-banker brother, his financial-exchange-dealer consort, or (more demonically) the “CNC” computer-numerical controlled manufacturing machine in Vic’s factory—to shift the comedy into an altogether different register of satire? Robyn’s brother says cheekily while on holiday from financial London: “Companies like [Vic’s] are batting on a losing wicket. [. . . T]he future for our economy is in service industries, and perhaps some hi-tech engineering” (128). Vic says sombrely as he and Robyn stare across a Perspex pane at the CNC machine’s inhumanly “violent, yet controlled” motions, “One day [. . .] there will be lightless factories full of machines like that. [. . .] Once you’ve built a fully computerised factory, you can take out the lights, shut the door and leave it to make engines or vacuum cleaners or whatever, all on its own in the dark.” “O brave new world,” Robyn responds (84-85).

To glimpse even peripherally such a brave new world order is to recognize that Lodge’s last, best joke—so cruel that only his furiously contrived happy ending can salve the bite of the satire—is the obsolescence of the entire, tired opposition between the academy and industry. “Shadows” of each other, as the novel calls them, Robyn and Vic both inhabit a twilight order on the other side of the Perspex—or more fittingly, computer screen—from true post-industrial night. That night, which seems the dawning of a new enlightenment in its own eyes, is “knowledge work,” the Aufhebung of both academic knowledge and industrial work.

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