Total Work Newsletter #16: Finding the Pebble in Your Shoe
Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.
Announcements: First off, I’ve been bowled over by the number of people who’ve written to me to say that this newsletter has helped them think more clearly about these things or that it’s articulated something they couldn’t yet put into words. I had no idea what would happen when I launched this thing in January; your responses are ones for which I’m deeply grateful. Second, I’m going to be away in Crestone, Colorado, to celebrate my wife Alexandra’s birthday from Friday to Monday. I look forward to reading your replies when I get back.
The Specious Notion that Everybody Should Earn a Living
Buckmaster Fuller interviewed in 1970 in New York Magazine:
Credit: Khuyen Bui and, serendipitously, Pete Sims
Ivan Illich would agree with Fuller up to the bit at the end about going back to school (unless, for school, Fuller meant schole: leisure). Illich would also urge us to “deschool” just as we “de-job” and “de-career.”
Anti-careerism, Luddites Revisited, and Gonzo Journalism
#1: WAYS OF LIFE, NOT GOALS | Hunter S. Thompson's Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life | 5 min. | Farnam St. | Letter HT Michael Coren
FS Sum: Hunter S. Thompson’s letter to his friend, Hume Logan, on finding your purpose and living a meaningful life. The most profound advice I’ve ever come across.
Context: Michael Coren sent this to me as another rebuttal to the Tim Urban longform essay on careers.
The Crux: “So [writes Thompson to his friend] if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.”
Noam Chomsky Interviewed by New Left Project
Q: What is your personal work routine? How do manage to work so much?
NC: Well my wife died a couple of years ago and since then I’ve done nothing but work. I see my children once in a while but almost nothing else. Before that I worked pretty hard but had a personal life outside. But that’s unique.
Q: How many hours of sleep do you get?
NC: I try to get about six or seven hours of sleep if I can. It’s a pretty crazy life–tremendous number of talks and meetings so I don’t have anywhere near as much time as I’d like to just plain work because other things crowd in. But I nearly never have any free time–I never go to the movies or out to dinner. But that’s not a model of any sane kind of existence. (HT Paul Millerd)
#2: IN PRAISE OF SOFT SKILLS | The Future of Education, according to Experts at Davos | 3 min. | WEF | Quotes
WEF Sum: “Jobs are changing, and we need a huge shift in education to keep up, leaders at Davos say.”
My Take: The piece is a bit fluffy, yet for all that it follows the Scott Hartley “fuzzy” line that’s gaining traction these days. It’s interesting to me to see how a certain line of thought or expression becomes meme or meme-ish. I’m not sure whether we’ll be ‘saved’ by soft skills, but that is the bet people keep placing.
When the Rain Came Down
And when the air became thick and sweet and the sky clapped once or maybe twice and the rain came down, the children scuffled their feet out of doors. Female drops, soft and gentle at first, were followed by thick male drops. For them, juicy, forgiving ground and silky grass, becoming slick. For them, a memory of how to play tag and how to goof around and which way to run if to run like a fool and now to sing songs, the silly ones. Now their goosey skin through rubbery shirts and now also such shivering from someplace deep. Their teeth, chattering as they might, they gave into as the night came down. Do you remember this?
Axios Sum: “‘Automation anxiety’ is likely to trigger popular resistance to robotization, Carl Frey, a leading researcher on the future of work.”
Pairing: It’s illuminating to read the populist uprising piece over and against the soft skills piece. What becomes clear is that, at least on the left, class isn’t spoken of very often anymore. For the losers are very likely members of what what used to be called the “working class” whereas likely winners could very well be college-educated knowledge workers, i.e., elites living on the coasts. In essence, then, this would be class warfare.
“A book containing accounts of the sufferings of saints and martyrs, for reading on their feast days; a martyrology. In early use also (occasionally): a written account of a particular saint’s life.” (Source: OED)
#4: ANTI-CAREERISM: Interview: Kate McFarland on Anti-Careerism | 5 min. | The New Floridian | Interview
Sum: One reader of this newsletter, Kate McFarland, discusses her objections to careerism as well as her anti-careerist lifestyle.
Opening Quote: “I’ve never found it necessary,” McFarland states, “to structure my life around the pursuit of any career path. The goal merely to make sure that my basic needs are satisfied and otherwise to pursue what interests and engages me at the time. I don’t have an ‘occupational identity’ and don’t feel this as a personal deficiency. There’s a famous passage in The German Ideology in which Marx says, in describing the communist utopia, 'nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity and thus can 'do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’ That’s almost a perfect expression of the idea.”
Aristotle on Gilead
Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead (2004):
It’s not a man’s working hours that is important, it is how he spends his leisure time.
She could have been quoting Aristotle.
Finding the Pebble in Your Shoe
In this issue, I include some questions for you to mull over.
1. A good human life flows like water. It does not follow a set pattern. It flows leftward and rightward. Sometimes it overflows the banks, and sometimes it pools in eddies. But a career of any kind–whether Career 1.0 or Career 2.0 (“portfolio career”)–restricts the watercourse of life by jamming and damming it into story, one that I continue to tell myself. What if I gave up telling myself work stories about myself (indeed, all stories about myself)? (Sure, you may need to “play the game” to survive, but you don’t need to make the mistake of taking that game seriously.)
2. Since the 70s, feminists have brought to our attention the conundrum of unpaid housework. Since then, some have argued that (a) that work should be outsourced (maids, Task Rabbit, etc.), (b) that work should be overcome (by means of robots, etc.), © that work should be paid, or (d) that work should be more equally distributed among members of the household. At the risk of courting controversy, I think anything that brings such work into the “cash nexus” should, if possible, be avoided. Automating some tasks can be a good idea, and sharing the household responsibilities can also be a good idea. But the really good idea would be for each household to start examining the ways in which paid and unpaid work impact each member. Problem-solution thinking is no remedy for the deeper questions surrounding politics and gender.
3. In Work: The Last 1,000 Years, Andrea Komlosy writes, “Forms of living where work and leisure intermingle are strangers to the concept of free time, which itself, along with spare time, is a fairly new concept altogether. The expression [free time] succeeded ‘leisure’ but simultaneously signifies a change in meaning” (p. 76). For Komlosy, free time is anything concerned with “pleasure and play” (p. 77). (Which is unlike the way I defined it.) Hence her examples: hobbies, gardening, tinkering, etc (p. 77). What was lost when leisure was supplanted by free time?
4. In the same book, Komlosy distinguishes between 'labor’ and 'work.’ She suggests that many languages make a similar distinction. The former signifies travails, hardships, the drudgeries to endure. (See Graeber’s “bullshit jobs,” which are a particular form that 'labor’ takes.) The latter refers to acts of creation (e.g., works of art). Which are you most often involved in: 'labor’ or 'work’?
5. A job is a poor way to bundle content: it’s a model for survival plus the desire to make some contributions to the lives of others plus the desire to leave a mark on the world plus various social benefits such as health care. What would the world be like if we blew up jobs and unbundled this content?
6. (i) Total work is the process by which human beings are transformed into Workers. (ii) Total work created “the work society.” (iii) Total work causes unnecessary human suffering while also occluding our view of Life (by which I mean: the great mystery of existence [Dao]). (iv) There are two ways to “wake up to Life.” (v) The first way: to start to feel a “pebble in your shoe,” the sense in which things are a bit off, not quite right, somehow unsatisfactory because something or someone who care about has gone away. The source of that dissatisfaction (dukkha) is not immediately available. This is the Way of Loss. (vi) The second way: to be confronted with your own ignorance about something you’d taken as self-evidently true. This is the Way of Wonderment. (vii) The path out of total work is also the path toward Life, the great mystery of existence.
Where is the pebble in your shoe? Or where is the ignorance about yourself you’ve yet to discover?
Taleb on Liberal Arts and Technical Arts
Distilling the conversation with @bryan_caplan hosted by @tylercowen
1) There has been a traditional separation between:
+ "liberal education" for free men, (liber), who didn't work for a living, &
+"technical education", for those who labor.
6:28 AM - 26 Apr 2018
This is a Twitter thread well worth reading. While I largely agree with Taleb that we need to cultivate practical knowledge and while I also think his Nietzschean nod to academics being losers and therefore filled with ressentiment does speak to something true (even if exaggerated), I think his Straw Man distinction between liberal arts (as pure theory) and technical arts (as skin-in-the-game super-awesome practice) is misleading. There are plenty of ways to critique our academic institutions without falling into the trap of scrapping the best of the vita contemplativa, a mind that’s devoted to higher things. By my lights, one trouble with our academic institutions is just the opposite: that, quite simply, they’re not devoted to the contemplation of higher things. (HT Alex Hardy)
Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <email@example.com>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you so much (gassho, meaning palms pressed in gratitude) to my latest patron Dylan W.! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here.