Notes On Digging A Hole


Through image and text, Notes On Digging A Hole is a meditation on labour and value as it relates to the body. Drawing primarily on personal narrative and the works of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, the essay questions the categories that dictate who should do certain kinds of work and how they should be compensated for it.


Published by Glass House Press.
Designed by Sergio Serrano
Edited by Jason Purcell and Matthew Stepanic

Notes On Digging A Hole

It was during an unusually wet summer that my partner and I discovered water in the corner of our basement. Not a lot of water. Not water pouring in through a crack. Just moisture on the surface of concrete. Like oil across a teenaged forehead, it was something that had seeped in through the pores of the basement. But unlike skin, which is oily from the inside out, the moisture was an intruder: the outside getting in. The ground was too wet, and that wetness was looking for somewhere to go.

It was lucky that during this wet summer we found ourselves two years into the project of insulating and residing our home, a job that had started small and grown in scope due partially to the age of the house. The previous summer we’d hired a friend named Kelsey, a contractor and carpenter, to complete the work, on the condition that we work alongside him. Though we were relative neophytes to the world of construction, my partner and I were eager to learn. It was Kelsey that we first turned to when we discovered the unwanted moisture.

Overhead on his scaffolding, Kelsey paused his work, descended, and helped me examine the evidence at hand. He was quick to diagnose the problem and explain to me exactly how I could redirect the excess water away from the house. He outlined each step of the process in detail. When he reached the essential step about the installation of weeping tile along the side of the foundation, I told him that I believed we already had it. My fear, though, was that it likely ended at the corner of our basement (where the moisture had appeared), not as far from the house as it should. He informed me that, if that were true, it would just be a matter of extending the weeping tile that was already there. This process, as he described it, would begin with the digging of a hole.

The act of digging is a form of subtraction, a difference produced by removing a part from the sum, and maybe it’s this difference that first took hold of my mind as I stared down the narrow stretch of land that needed to be unearthed. A different kind of taking, though, was starting to creep in—the kind Foucault might describe as a “means of deduction.” I’m getting ahead of myself, though. At this point I was just a man reluctant to put shovel to soil.

In the service of that impulse, I opted for another kind of digging, the kind more familiarly known as googling. Online, I found many businesses dedicated to the management of house-adjacent water. Each website prominently featured photographs of deep trenches that revealed the parts of houses that we bury, the tops of men’s heads barely breaching ground level. They all displayed a similar confidence in their ability to complete the task at hand—a confidence, it turns out, that does not come cheap. Two years of renovations had left us without much money to spare. On website after website, I found myself unable to afford even their least expensive service. I started to consider the possibility of taking on the project myself and turned again to Kelsey for a second opinion.

“Do you think I could do this?” I asked, standing on the ground that needed moving. With hands on hips, he squinted and ran his eyes along the length of the house.

“That’s a lot of digging.”

I told him about the prices I’d found online, feeling like a cartoon character standing meekly with his pockets pulled inside out. He suggested that I could hire someone to do the digging and then take on the rest myself. He told me that many of the companies I’d googled likely do the same, contracting out the labour for cheap and then inflating the cost of the weeping tile installation. Cheap labour, he told me, was easy enough to come by. The creeping subtraction was pawing at the door again.

Foucault says the evolution of sovereign power involved a shifting from “the right to decide life and death” to the “power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” According to him, this transition diminished the power of deduction (“things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself”) as a means of power and instead incorporated other forces intended to optimize, organize, and incentivize a social body: developing and managing life rather than threatening death. This led to the investments in systems designed to placate the social body while also steering it towards productivity and development. This shift, somewhat ironically, allowed societies to justify various horrific acts in the name of life. Of course, life in this context is a complicated term. It is intended to mean the life of the species more broadly, the human project, and by extension, those most closely affiliated with the levers of power. By this definition, some human lives are encompassed by the idea of life while others are deemed expendable, capable of being “apprehended as ‘living,’” as Judith Butler puts it, but “not always recognized as a life.” Because life as an idea depends on lives as a resource, these emergent systems “had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern.” Was I thinking about this while I surveyed the future hole? Of course not. I was thinking about my wallet and my back and the time I might carve out at the end of a day. I was only vaguely aware of something nagging at me, something I couldn’t yet see.

I started to ask friends and family for advice about the way forward. Their answers were consistent: don’t do it yourself. I was repeatedly encouraged to hire someone to do the digging. Memories of my performance in high school gym class resurfaced. You’d be right, upon seeing me, to assume that I’m not the ideal candidate for manual labour, but to be outright disqualified seemed extreme. For a couple of days, I puttered around mumbling to myself, “I can dig a hole.” I’d assumed their unanimity reflected some personal failing. As my tender ego healed, I realized the situation likely had little to do with my physical limitations. I went looking for other answers.

The most obvious was care. In this instance, I intend the word to mean concern, attention, consideration. My friends and family cared for my well-being. A decade ago, I herniated a disc in my spine. It was one of the greatest pains I’ve experienced as an adult and I have no desire to relive it. Perhaps those close to me were worried that days of manual labour would reignite old injuries. Maybe they thought that this was most easily avoided by hiring a stranger to do the job. Embedded in this concern was the implication that my body mattered more than someone else’s because I was visible to them, familiar. As is often the case, there seemed to be an implicit correlation between care and distance: that the closer we are to someone, the more we feel concern for their well-being. Logically, the work of digging a hole would take a toll on any body, not just my body. Concern, though, is instinctively given to those we know, those that are familiar, those we already care about.

Butler might say that the concern being expressed for my well-being was, in part, a marker of a system designed to “maximize precariousness for some and minimize precariousness for others.” The word precarious here acknowledges the uncertain vulnerability of life, how easily it can be drained away. Etymologically, though, the word, from the Latin root, means held through the favour of another. Favour, in most definitions, is rooted in acts of kindness or approval, and is something given or asked for. It occurred to me that offering a meagre wage for challenging work would implicitly suggest my approval of the exchange, and by extension, the broader practice. There is also another kind of support at play here, though, that leans more literally towards one thing propping another up. The extension of the weeping tile needed to be done, of that there was no question. What seemed negotiable was who was going to complete the work. The project of digging had the indirect effect of reminding me and those around of the body’s precariousness. In the face of that risk, I’d been presented with—perhaps even systemically encouraged to take—the opportunity to pay someone else to take that risk in my place. And because of how the work is classified, it was equally appropriate for that pay to be paltry.

In the midst of all this, I had a moment of clarity where I remembered that my history of back issues had not been a result of manual labour but of years of sitting poorly in an unsupportive chair. Basically, the opposite of manual labour. It was this very injury that taught me to pay more attention to my body and its physical well-being, which in turn taught me how to use it more effectively. With this in mind, I decided to dig. As a profession, this type of excavation is classified as unskilled labour, which means it is a job that requires no special training. Put another way, barring certain physical disabilities, it’s a job anyone can do. By definition, I was qualified.

As I started down, Kelsey would occasionally pop over to see how I was doing, offering me pointers. He advised I dig at a slight slope and showed me how best to deal with wet dirt. And dry dirt. And clay. With his every visit, my digging improved. It occurred to me that the digging of holes was not, in fact, an unskilled job at all. It might be true that most people have the capacity to dig a hole, just as it might be true that most people may have the capacity to defend themselves in court. Capacity, of course, should not be mistaken for the ability to do something well. My excavation was clearly benefiting from knowledge that had been gained through experience, and knowledge that was passed down to me. Without these things, the (w)hole thing might have gone differently.

It turned out, though, that despite the helpful advice and my growing experience, I managed to get myself stuck. Not literally stuck—the digging was going quite well—but mentally stuck. A few feet underground in a hole of my own making, that nagging feeling was starting to take form. I wondered: if certain work requires no skills or training, if it is indeed work that almost anyone can do, why do we so often contract it out? And if it turns out that what we demean and call unskilled work is not unskilled at all, why is it not well-paid?

These questions were especially acute in the shadow of COVID-19, which brought new meaning to words like essential, critical, and key. These adjectives came into fashion to describe people who, to keep civil society functioning, were asked to continue to show up to work despite the risks to their health and to their bodies. As the pandemic spread, a wide array of work became classified as essential: grocery store employees, delivery drivers, public transit operators, waste management employees, food service workers, health care workers. This list is by no means exhaustive. Many of the jobs that were deemed essential during the early days of COVID-19 are also jobs that are classified as low- or unskilled; they are paid as such. This paradox, rendered hyper visible by the urgency and scale of COVID-19, was the thought cycle I couldn’t escape. On one hand, “You are needed, important, necessary. Thank you for risking your body. Your life.” At the same time: “This job requires no skill. Anyone could do what you do. You are replaceable.”

Essential work is, of course, foundational to society. It is the work that all other work happens on top of. Like the foundation of my house—which I was working so hard to protect—it holds everything else up. By stepping in to do an essential job, a person is paying attention to something so that someone else doesn’t have to. (Feeling hungry? Go to the grocery store. They’ve got food waiting for you. Or better yet, just order in. And once you’re finished, just put the trash outside and someone will take it away for you.) Meanwhile, many of these jobs are paid as if they are meaningless, in many cases offering the literal minimum allowable wage. The market expresses our values and helps to define them, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Variations in compensation have partly come to reflect the degree of skill we collectively associate with any given job and by extension, the value we assign to anyone working that job. But skill is a word that we use somewhat selectively in this context to mean some sort of training, schooling, certification, or apprenticeship that precedes the work itself. It usually does not apply to skills acquired through on-the-job experience (though this can be valued equally in practical professional settings) or to the innate skills that make people well-suited to certain work. Nor does public perception around those who occupy particular positions change as they gain workplace experience. No matter how much time is spent in a role, and no matter how competent and skilled a worker may become, the base perceptions of that role will overshadow the reality of their skill. We only see low-skilled workers with experience, and they’re paid accordingly. In times of need, the word essential came easily. Why do we struggle, despite their importance, to admit that these essential jobs—all jobs, really—take skill, experience, and knowledge? It’s a question that nagged at me all the way down.

Foucault says, “capitalism...would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes.” It’s a straightforward idea: in order for capitalist systems to grow, the work needs to get done, or as Mierle Laderman Ukeles famously said, “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” To help fill the jobs that propel life everforward, obedience was taught in places like schools and the military. Participation was incentivized through the accumulation of wealth. The means of subtraction that were once the primary lever of power were woven into legal systems and social systems. As Foucault says, “It’s not so much that the law fades into the background or that institutions of justice tend to disappear but rather the law operates more and more as a norm.” Of course, norms around gender, race, and class help enforce ideas of work and who should do it. Classifications like low- or unskilled help reinforce those norms. And embedded in these hierarchies, the power of deduction persists.

There came a point in my digging when I started to think about other things we put in the ground. It seemed inevitable that my mind would eventually make its way to graves. The news had been full of death and my hole was slowly becoming the right size. I thought about gravediggers and the work their bodies once did (maybe still do) to lay other bodies to rest. I wondered if other hole diggers thought about bodies as they made their way down into the earth. I wondered about the exchange that was being made. A lot of the work we describe as essential is work that is demanding. Physically and emotionally taxing. It’s work that takes something out of us. All work trades on time and so in some ways all work trades on the body. Some work, though, has the potential to take something else from us: the freedom to live comfortably in the body. This isn’t a secret. In fact, it seems that we’ve designed a system based on this truth, one that both acknowledges and ignores that cost. There’s a reason why those close to me didn’t want me to dig that hole, just as there’s a reason why I don’t have any desire to do it again any time soon. It was hard. It took time. It took skill. And it could have taken more. It could have taken my ability to stand. To bend over comfortably. To simply move through the world.

Butler argues “that there ought to be a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” while also noting that it is a mistake to think “that the recognition of precariousness masters or captures or even fully cognizes what it recognizes.” She acknowledges the paradox. The precariousness of life is itself an uncertainty embedded in a sure thing. We will die. The details that precede that fact are hazy, not clear until they happen, if even then. What the world will do to our bodies—and perhaps more frighteningly, what our bodies may do to us—is unknown. The fear that uncertainty generates helps feed our ability to justify the harm that our systems do to some bodies, increasing precarity while limiting compensation.

The world we’ve built depends on essential work; a lot of that work is not work we celebrate but work we relegate to others. It’s also work that can be emotionally and physically draining. As a society we know this, especially now. The question I’m left with is what comes of this knowledge? Can we find more equality in the precariousness of life? Maybe part of the answer lies in recognizing how hard essential work is and how skillful essential workers are. Perhaps we can begin to acknowledge—even if we can never fully understand— what we are truly asking when it is bodies we ask people to give.