Total Work Newsletter #39: My IHMC Public Talk And Millennial Burnout
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 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.
Announcement: My IHMC public talk has just been released. It’s the clearest, thoroughest talks I’ve given on Total Work to date. I hope you’ll view it and if you feel moved to do so, I hope you’ll also share it around. Also below you’ll find an in-depth look at millennial burnout, which I take to be one symptom of Total Work.
My IHMC Public Talk
Andrew Taggart: The Brief Story of How Work Took over the World and Made Us Who We Think We Are
Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. writes in Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents (forthcoming 2019):
Life hacking is self-help for the creative class (p. 149).
Busyness, Workism, And Pseudo-intellectualism
NYT Sum: “The ‘crazy busy’ existence so many of us complain about is almost entirely self-imposed.”
Key Quote: “Perhaps the world,” the writer living, and defending, a writerly life opines, “would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle.”
#2: MORE THAN THE 5-YEAR PLAN | Conservative icons: Josef Pieper | 10 min. | The Conservative | Essay
Sum: Roger Kimball, editor at The New Criterion, writes in appreciation of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. A marvelous read!
One Choice Quote: “Every human enterprise [today] is subject to the scrutiny of the balance sheet. Rest, vacations and breaks are acknowledged necessities, but only as unfortunate requirements for continued productivity. Consequently, free time is not so much a leisured alternative to work as its continuation.” I call this the Subservience Feature, the view according to which almost everything else in human life–rest, meditation, yoga, sleep, eating, and so on–is put in the service of greater productivity.
HuffPost Sum: “The rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice….”
My Take: David Loy, whom I’ve met in person and whose writings on Buddhism and the modern world are important, takes issue with the cooptation of mindfulness for the sake of business as usual. It’s something I’ve seen often enough as consultants have happily promoted “wrong mindfulness”: calmness in the service of greater productivity. Call it: “Total Work Mindfulness.”
#4: WORKISM | The Religion of Workism Is Making Americans Miserable | 15 min. | Atlantic | Long Form Essay HT Daniel Doyon
Atlantic Sum: “For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising identity, transcendence, and community, but failing to deliver.”
Key Quotes: (1) “Today, it is fair to say that elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.” (2) “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.” (3) “One solution to this epidemic of disengagement [in the workplace] would be to make work less awful. But maybe the better prescription is to make work less central.”
Proposal: At the end of the piece, Thompson proposes that we make work less central to our lives. With this proposal, I agree. However, I believe we need to get to the metaphysical and historical root of Total Work first. Policy without metaphysics is like modifying behavior without investigating belief.
#5: PSEUDO-INTELLECTUALISM | The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness | 5 min. | Medium | Blog Post HT Daniel Kazandjian
Medium Sum: “And I’m not the only person who believed that. In fact, if you look around you, most people are pursuing happiness in their lives. That’s why we collectively buy shit we don’t need, go to bed with…”
My Take x 1: The author, whose post has received 146,000 claps, writes, “What really makes me happy is when I’m useful.” This is pseudo-intellectual Total Work par excellence. He goes on: “It comes down to this: What are you DOING that’s making a difference?” Oh, brother. Pseudo-entrepreneurial clap trap. He concludes: “Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”
My Take x 2: The most basic thesis about Total Work is that under the regime of Total Work, a human being stands in the world, primordially so, as a human agent or doer who expresses this agency in and through the work he or she does. Such is nicely, if crassly, exemplified in this post. And because he’s speaking to the choir (each person take himself or herself to be, metaphysically so, an agent working on the world as well as working on himself or herself), he’s getting so many claps.
IN-DEPTH: Millennial Burnout
#1: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation | 30 min. | Buzzfeed | Personal Essay HT Marcus Kreitzer
Buzzfeed Sum: “I couldn’t figure out why small, straightforward tasks on my to-do list felt so impossible. The answer is both more complex and far simpler than I expected.”
My Take: This is a very long piece, one that went viral in January. What’s good about it is that the writer describes some of the behavior quite accurately: endless list-making, for instance, followed by “errand paralysis.” What’s quite off about the piece is that it fails to get to the root of the cause, which isn’t capitalism and patriarchy (which is the standard leftist ideology at play here). It’s Total Work. Only on the condition that human beings are thrown into the world in the mode of human agents or doers makes any of this possible. What stands in need of deep investigation is the metaphysical picture on account of which all of this she describes–all the signs, symptoms, and manifestations–makes sense.
BBC Opening: “I don’t remember the last time I relaxed. Honestly? I don’t know how to. Every time I try to read a book or watch TV, I think about what I have to do next, or my ‘to-do’ list flashes before my eyes. I feel guilty because I know that I could be cleaning my flat, or at the gym, or buying a birthday present for my boyfriend’s mum.”
My Take: This was a really great ethnographic piece in that it gives you a vivid first-person description of someone who is caught within the millennial mentality (mentalite in French) of Total Work. An excellent piece.
Slate Sum: “If we want to solve this, we should acknowledge the scope of the problem.”
Overview: The author of this piece critiques Peterson (who wrote the viral Buzzfeed essay). This author’s rebuttal? With regard to overcoming burnout, “It is figuring out what makes you, personally, reinvigorated and better able to manage stress.” Not exactly. The implication, here as in the two pieces above, is that burnout is to be explained chiefly in psychological terms. This is a mistake. We need to look at the matter in sociological, historical, cultural, and above all metaphysical terms. Burnout is not, then, chiefly a matter of health or even, strictly speaking, a product of capitalism (though burnout could surely rise along with capitalism); it’s an existential matter, I’m willing to submit, that is but one symptom or manifestation of the spirit of Total Work.
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What I’m Reading…
1.) Recently finished: Many books including
Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism (1992). A prescient book on the social consequences of the sexual revolution, consequences that are being felt today.
Nicholas Agar, How to be Human in the Digital Economy (2019; advanced copy). Not mind-blowing by any means but definitely a reasonable discussion, here by a New Zealand philosopher, of what the Digital Age may mean for human agency in general, for human work in particular.
Joseph M. Reagle, Jr., Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents (2019; advanced copy). Though generally lackluster and without great depth, the book does help to shed light on “lifestyle design” and life hacking, Silicon Valley subcultures that have since gone mainstream.
Rupert Spira, Presence, Volume 1: The Art of Peace and Happiness (2011). I find Spira to be one of the clearest voices and ablest teachers of non-duality today. This book was marvelous!
Lao-Tzu, The Tao Te Ching (1993). I’ve read a number of translations over the years, and this one, which is the Hackett translation, is the very best in my opinion. The poetry is sinewy and direct, and the translators manage to capture the fact that Lao-Tzu (also: Laozi) is writing for those with a meditation practice.
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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.
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 <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>.