Total Work Newsletter #18: My TEDx Talk: How Work Took over the World

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

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: My TEDx Talk is now online. Scroll to the bottom of this issue to find a link to the talk.

Mind like a Mirror

Shodo Harada, a Rinzai priest, from his talk entitled “No-thought and the Mirror Mind”:

Consciousness in its natural state perceives, not through the filters of thought or analysis, but immediately (that is, without mediation), like a mirror reflecting an image. If there’s a flower there’s a flower, just that. If a bird sings a bird sings, just that. If it rains it rains, just that. If the sky clears the sky clears, just that. Nothing need be added. In our everyday existence the need for social relations and other interactions arises, of course, but direct perception is at the foundation. Zazen is the cultivation of the ability to abide and function in this natural state.

Bullshit, Housework, and Questioning the Third Rail

#1: BULLSHIT | ‘I Had to Guard an Empty Room’: The Rise of the Bullshit Job | 5 min | Guardian | Book Excerpt

Guardian Sum: “Copying and pasting emails. Inventing meaningless tasks for others. Just looking busy. Why do so many people feel their work is completely unnecessary?:

Graeber Definition: ‘These considerations allow us to formulate what I think can serve as a final working definition of a bullshit job: a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Upshot: Graeber has expanded his viral “bullshit jobs” essay into a book. In this book excerpt, he provides us with a definition of a bullshit job (see above), with a taxonomy of bullshit jobs, and with signs that your jobs may in fact be bullshit.

Technical Civilization and the Domination of Nature

Michael J. Coren


The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

1:00 PM - 6 May 2018

Click on the tweet above to read the excerpt from Joshua Herschel’s Between God and Man.

#2: HOUSEWORK | More Work for Mother | 5 min. | Iowa | Book Review HT Michael Coren

Sum: The author is reviewing three books: More Work for Mother, Home and Work, and The Female Economy. It’s a fascinating review of the ways in which, during the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, unpaid female housework helped to prop up paid male wage labor. The author concludes, “Cowan, Boydston, and Gamber [the three authors whose books are being reviewed] argue that women’s work shaped the entire nineteenth-century economy by enabling others to work in the specialized wage work that kept the system going, and by providing an ‘other’ that male workers could identify themselves against. The enduring legacy of women’s association with domestic work is embodied within the home itself: like brick, stone, or concrete, women were the physical foundation of the home, supporting the activities of life while remaining largely unnoticed. ”

My Take: In addition to unpaid predominantly female housework (still true today so far as I know) and wage labor, both of which reinforce each other, I’d add a third category: shadow work. This too helps to keep wage labor propped up and going.

#3: RIGHT TO DISCONNECT | What Happens when you Ignore Emails and Slack Messages after Work | 3 min. | Mashable | News

Mashable Sum: “With NYC considering a ‘right to disconnect’ law, a look at employees who’ve been punished for not responding to messages after work.”

Brief Take: Fairly limited as written and still within the ambit of total work (work comes first, yet it needs to be done in moderation; productivity and health are great; etc.) but at least an interesting development.

#4: CRITIQUE OF WORK | Work: Questioning the Third Rail of the Modern World | 20 min. | Think-Boundless | Essay

In Sum: One newsletter reader Paul Millerd has written a long form essay in which he argues (1) that “[o]ur conception of work makes many feel like crap,” (2) that “[w]ork sucks for most,” and (3) that “[w]ork destroys community, pride, and stability.”

His Conclusion: “Our modern conception of work says that we can solve problems through work. That works for a small majority with good employment and good jobs. Stable employment and benefits are disappearing for millions. We need to question our deep attachment to work and think about how our beliefs may reinforce our own lives but lead to instability, insecurity, and shame for many more.”

TEDx Talk: How Work Took over the World

TEDxBinghamtonUniversity - YouTube

When one believes something that goes well beyond the ordinary bounds (and so could be called contrarian in spirit), one never knows whether the message will speak to some people out there and this on a deep, emotional, visceral level; whether, in short, some people with ears to hear will really ‘get it.’ So, I was moved when one friend with whom I hadn’t spoken for a while wrote, just after having viewed the talk, to say, “I am in tears.” Another person I’d never met said, “He’s 100% correct: he’s a voice of reason in a hurricane of insanity!”

Since I’m more used to conversations and less to monologues and also since this is my first TEDx Talk, I’m happy to receive any feedback you may have. I hope you find the talk illuminating, and, if you do, I hope you’ll pass it along to friends who may benefit from hearing this message.

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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.

If You’d Like to Become a Patron…

Thank you so much, patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here.

For Newcomers

I write one piece each month on the history of, value of, and conflicting attitudes toward work for Quartz at Work. You can read essays I’ve written, going back to December 2017, here. And to learn more about total work, you can visit my website,, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.