Total Work Newsletter #25: Samu

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.

Announcement: I’m just getting back from a weeklong sesshin. It was just amazing. Impossible to put into words. I write a bit about samu, or work practice, in the final short essay below.

Against UBJ: Reader's Letter

In Issue #24, I briefly discussed how we framed the future of work in terms of Universal Basic Income and “the right to work.” One reader, Alex Hardy, elaborated on his disagreement with Universal Job Guarantees (or UBJ) in this following way.

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I’ve long taken issue [Alex writes] with the idea of UBJ, or Universal Job Guarantees. Not because of any political leanings, but because I don’t think they will actually solve the the core issue. In my view, these schema are a “cargo cult” solution for the deeper problem. Universal Basic Meaning.

One effect of Total Work is that many people now define their identity through their job. This gives them a budget (pun intended) version of “meaning” in their life.

However, once the market stops valuing the work of, say, a truck driver (due to autonomous cars) or a factory worker (due to Amazon’s robots), I suspect the “meaning” that folks would derive from performing such jobs would also disappear, even if they were allowed to keep them ceremoniously.

Indeed, there may be nothing so evil as forcing sometime to do a job they know is pointless. As Dostoyefsky says in his autobiography:

It once occurred to me that if one desired to reduce a man to nothing – crush him in such a manner that the most hardened murderer would tremble, all one would have to do would be to give him work of a completely useless character… Let him be constrained to pour water from one vessel into another, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another, and then immediately move it back again, then I am persuaded that at the end of a few days, the prisoner would hang himself or commit a thousand capital crimes, preferring rather to die than endure such humiliation, shame, and torture.

Basically, there is nothing magical about the physical act of driving a truck, moving factory inventory, or even writing code that confers meaning. The meaning derives from the fact that I believe it has value, or the market communicates that there is value.

Therefore, to simply compel people to ritualistically perform (definition of cargo cult) such tasks without conferring commensurate meaning is pointless if not morally wrong.

I view UBI and UBJ as almost synonymous here. As with UBI, Similar to UBJ, “income” isn’t the primary thing people will miss if they’re technologically unemployed; it’s meaning. And a handout from the government (or from Google) won’t fix that.

So, What Do You Do?

Peter Limberg


The proper way to respond to “so, what do you do?” is to give your interlocutor an existential crisis.

10:27 AM - 18 Jul 2018

Click on the link above to read the comic strip.

Debt, Convulsions, And #WTF Only Your Perceptions

#1: STUDENT DEBT | James Altucher's Answer to the Question: Will the United States Ever Collapse? | 5 min. | Quora | Opinion

Quora Opening: “THE END OF AMERICA (from an optimist’s perspective) I’m usually accused of being too much of an optimist. When someone tells me ‘global warming’ I immediately think: good thing people are working on alt-energy solutions. When someone tells me….”

Brief Overview: Altucher argues that the American higher educational system, which is based on absurdly high tuition and on student loans exempt from bankruptcy, is broken, so broken that it could bring down America. His advice? Don’t go to college.

#2: CONVULSIONS | What Makes For An Excellent Human Life? | 5 min. | Big Think | Interview

Big Think Sum: “Practical philosopher Andrew Taggart talks about what is an excellent human life, what are the first steps to achieving it and what a society without work looks like.”

My Take: I was interviewed for this piece while I was at Brain Bar in Budapest. There are some bits in there about total work. This quote stood out to me: “I think that philosophy begins with a convulsive experience; an experience that shakes you out of your own certainties, out of your way of being in the world. Philosophy comes on the scene to illuminate that convulsive experience; it is not a merely intellectual affair. It’s rather what I would call existential. Let’s take death for example. Death can be considered abstractly and theoretically alone but that is not interesting or philosophical. Death can also be just considered deeply personally, but that’s not quite enough either. Philosophy occurs at the very moment when I am gripped personally, emotionally by something but I can also grasp that it transcends me.”

The Time Of Leisure Is A Separate Time

From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)

#3: ONLY YOUR PERCEPTION | Want To Love Your Job? Read This Article | 10 min. | Quartz | Opinion HT Pamela Hobart

QZ Sum: The new dream job is none at all. A contingent of ambitious upper-middle-class types are devoting themselves single-mindedly to achieving early retirement, with the goal of liberating themselves from work to later travel the world or pursue a creative passion. Perhaps the contemporary quest for future unemployment stems from the fact that many jobs seem…

My Long Take: The author misreads (a) Graeber, (b) Avant, © Danaher, even (d) The Daodejing, one of my favorite philosophical books. Graeber makes a reasonable distinction between non-bullshit work and bullshit work. Avant, also very reasonably, argues that craftsmanship may be more fulfilling than certain forms of professional white-collar work. (Another fine distinction!) Danaher, himself a Marxist (and I am not), also very reasonably suggests that there can be modes of production–for him, late-stage capitalism–that aren’t conducive to the creation of work that’s beneficial. And The Daodejing urges us to think of work as something we do enough of, and do well enough, and then let go of.

I’ll hasten to add that the recent upsurge in interest in neo-Stoicism, positive psychology, etc. can be chalked up to the overemphasis on the idea that “it’s only your perception of X, it has nothing to do with the nature of X.” And that, at its extreme, is plain old delusion: a slave working on a plantation shouldn’t just change his perception of that work; that work, rather, is ostensibly horrible. He may find better ways of stomaching it, but to lose sight of that key insight–this work is horrible–is to lose touch with reality.

#4: WHITE COLLAR NONSENSE | It Doesn’t Matter How Hard You Work--Just How Busy You Look | 5 min. | Spectator | Opinion HT Daniel Doyen

Spectator Sum: “The behavioural scientist Dan Ariely once found himself chatting to a locksmith with a curious problem. The better he became at replacing locks, the less…”

Key Quotes: (1) The great thing about proper capitalism is that it’s like football: anybody can play and there’s a lot of luck involved. It’s also a game where theory and intellect are often less valuable than talent or experience. The problem this creates for an educated middle class with a high sense of entitlement is that, in an open field, they would have to compete with everyone else. So to shore up their earnings and social position, educated people create the illusion that their work is like chess–a highly theoretical, abstract game whose mysteries are accessible only to a cognitive elite. Much of the apparatus of higher education serves not to impart useful skills, but to maintain the moral legitimacy of middle-class jobs and salaries.” And (2): “The problem with being working class is that people only pay you to do things which are actually useful. You don’t find scaffolders randomly erecting scaffolding where it isn’t needed. Middle-class people, on the other hand, can easily generate their own bullshit. In an IT-packed office environment, lots of moronic activities look indistinguishable from productive work. Any time saved through being good at your job is spent signalling your busyness by spreadsheet-tweaking or filling in compliance forms.”

#5: CO-WORKING | Sorry, Power-Lunchers. This Restaurant Is a Co-Working Space Now | 5 min. | Feature HT Lori Davies

NYT Sum: “Everything, it seems, is a shared office these days, including upscale dining rooms before they open for the evening. A start-up called Spacious is driving the trend.”

My Take: On the one hand, freelancers are horrendously lonely, so co-working spaces can, at their best, facilitate face-to-face socializing and genuine bonds while also, as one conversation partner would have it, help to deconstruct the office. At their very best. On the other hand, it is rather sad how the article points up the work-like quality to much in life. Thus: “Everything is now a co-working space, one of those shared offices that are popular among freelancers, small companies and other workers who want a change of scenery. Coffee shops are co-working spaces. Gyms are co-working spaces. Social clubs are co-working spaces. And now restaurants–but only before dinnertime.” No one saw fit to ask whether we need to also create co-playing spaces, co-civil society spaces, and indeed new Sabbaths.

Workplace As Portable Labor Camp

From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)


Late Tuesday night Alexandra and I returned from our sesshin. I still don’t know how to talk about this our first sesshin, not yet anyway. Don’t know how to convey how transformative it was, how many insights about myself I came to, and how I’d like to live in the light of these insights. Not yet.

I suppose, though I’m not sure how yet to put into words the experience, of sesshin, I can say something about what a sesshin is, at least when it’s seen from the outside. A sesshin, which means “touching the heart mind,” is a seven-day form of extremely rigorous meditation in the Zen tradition.

The Form Ordinarily Called "Andrew" on the Final Day of Sesshin (Credit: Alexandra Taggart

The schedule is very exacting: each day, which itself feels outside of time, starts quite early around 4:30 or 5 a.m. Chanting in Japanese and English begins at 5 a.m. Kinhin (walking meditation) follows. Then zazen (seated meditation) and an interview with the roshi (teacher) during which you discuss the roshi your practice and receive some guidance. Then walking in silence to the dinner hall where you and other sangha members eat a light breakfast while following a a set of rituals consisting of prayers, sophisticated use of bowls, and silence. Afterward, samu (work period), most of which is undertaken in silence. Then meta (lovingkindness meditation) which gives way to more zazen. Then a highly ritualized lunch. Then a period of rest and, for me, yoga and silent walking. In the afternoon, a teisho (a talk given by the teacher) touched off by prostrations and kinhin. Next, more zazen. After a brief exercise period and light dinner came the most important period: an hour of zazen during the Golden Hour from 6-7 p.m. Next, kinin, zazen, and interviews with the roshi. The night formally ends at 9 p.m. or so with chanting, prostrations, and tea, yet some will meditate on their own long into the night or until the following morning.

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Let me return to samu, which for us went from 8-11 a.m. each day. It took 21 hours for Alexandra to sand a table and apply the first coat of finish. Meanwhile, I worked alongside two men to sand down drywall, to apply primer, and then to apply two coats of paint in the foyer, hallway, and stairwell of the Zen temple in which we practiced.

It’s worth noting a few things about samu. First, it’s folded into the tapestry of a day of meditation and therefore is shaped by the meditative practices within which it’s couched. Second, samu is itself a kind of meditation: the practitioner intends to keep his mind clear and squarely on the task at hand and may have a “wordless koan” held gently in mind such as “What is Truth?” As to keeping the mind as clear as possible, to apply edge paint carefully just below a viga beam just is to apply edge paint–and nothing else, more, or other. The masterful Zen calligrapher Kaz Tanahashi speaks of calligraphy in terms of “brush mind” and so also everything else. Sanding mind. Brush mind. Brush cleaning mind. Walking uphill mind. Third, samu is only three hours long. The lion share of the day belongs to zazen, which is its focal point.

Samu, therefore, reveals the loving care shown in attentive work while at the same time putting work in its proper, limited place in the overall context of a human life and here also a particular community. Work is done, yes, yes indeed, yet it is not there that one shall find the True Source of Life.

A lesson, I think, for all of us.

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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 <>.

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For Newcomers

Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <>. Lastly, visit my website, <>, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.