Total Work Newsletter #4: Our Priorities Are Like Water

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 “occult” all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Update: At the end of Issue #3, I announced that I’d be discussing time discipline, the concept used by E.P. Thompson in a seminal essay on the subject. Since making that announcement, I’ve come to see that the literature on time discipline is enormous. Because of this, it will take me some time to gather my thoughts and to write something intelligent about the relationship between the invention of clock time and the industrial patterns of work.

Letting The Beautiful Object Just 'Float There'

Roger Scruton from his The Soul of the World (2014):

In our everyday interaction with the world, the objects of experience come before us as “to be known” and “to be used.” But there is another posture open to us, in which appearances are ordered as objects to be contemplated. In the experience of the beautiful we take the world into consciousness and let it float there. To put it another way: we savor the world, as something given, and not just as something received (p. 136).

Hey there, Dr. Seussian Fish Just Happily Swimming Along Together!

Our Priorities Are Like Water

#1: Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better! Moritz Sabotages Sequoia, Again 3 min. | TechCrunch | Criticism

Tech Crunch Sum: “Michael Moritz is legendary for many of the investments he has led throughout his long career with the venture firm Sequoia Capital. But Moritz has placed a target on Sequoia’s back once again by publishing a controversial opinion piece in the Financial Times, comparing Silicon Valley unfavorably to China.”

My Take: What makes the piece interesting is that the author double down on the work ethic. Where Moritz (presumably) defends the Confucian work ethic, the author, in a case of oneupmanship, replies by defending our Protestant work ethic. She concludes by saying that he shouldn’t be “telling anyone how hard they should be working” when, she implies, they’re already working pretty darn hard.

The Chief Assumption?: She assumes that the work ethic is a sacred cow.

#2: My Latest Piece In Quartz At Work Life Hacks Are Part Of A 200-year-old Movement To Destroy Your Humanity 10 min. | Quartz At Work | History Of Ideas

Quartz Sum: “A more fundamental question than how we can ‘hack’ our productivity is why we place so much importance on doing so in the first place.”

Overview: Here as elsewhere, I’m trying to examine what’s most taken for granted to see what it says about who we are. As a rule of thumb, I try to listen to what people are saying to discover what sorts of words have become common sense to us. These words–the cult of problems and solutions, for instance–intrigue me. In this case, I select the concept of personal productivity in order to look behind its appearance to disclose the history of its emergence.

Limitations: I’m still struggling to give voice to what’s especially unique about the modern world, to what makes it so odd, beguiling, uncanny, and weird. What would it be like to wake up to the bizarre nature of our civilization? I’m not persuaded that I was able, in this short piece, to show how utterly bizarre it is that, e.g., people care so much about work in general, about productivity in particular. I think it really requires a genuine artist to reveal what’s so mysterious about an appearance (here see the Oscar Wilde quote included in my essay below.)

#3: Workism And Post-workism Oh My! Post-work: The Radical Idea Of A World Without Jobs 20 min. | Guardian | Longform Essay

Guardian’s Summary: “Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.”

On ‘Workism’: We read further on: Brief polemics such as Graeber’s 'bullshit jobs’ have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology–sometimes labelling it 'workism’–and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.”

A Very Brief History of Modern Work: Later still: “Like most historians, he [Benjamin Hunnicutt] identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.”

A Doubt: Apart from the doubt about whether a post-work society is feasible, I raised a larger doubt last week about ennui, which I believe to be quite a human predicament. One critic voices another important doubt: “’There is little wonder the uptake for post-work thinking has been so strong among journalists and academics, as well as artists and creatives,’ he [Frederick Harry Pitts] wrote in a paper co-authored last year with Ana Dinerstein of Bath University, 'since for these groups the alternatives [to traditional work] require little adaptation.’” Nice point. In other words, those schooled in the liberal arts.

Recommendation: If you only read one of the pieces in this newsletter, let it be this one. Andy Beckett describes the landscape pretty well, I think.

#4: Digital Dictatorship & Intelligent Design Will The Future Be Human? 18 min. | WEF Keynote | Science Fiction Lecture

Listen: This is new historian-meet-science fiction superstar Yuval Harari’s keynote speech. Skip the unctuous introduction and go straight to the 2 min. mark. The talk ends at 19:30.

Overview: I had initially considered setting up a link to the panel discussion entitled “Putting Jobs Out Of Work,” but I found that discussion rather uninteresting, especially when once I listened to Harari’s fascinating keynote speech. In this talk, Harari, who has a surprisingly commanding manner of speaking, warns us of two imminent dangers: (1) the possibility of a “digital dictatorship” and (2) evolution by an elitist, human form of intelligent design, that is, a “re-engineering of the future of life itself.”

The Central Question: He leaves us with a question: “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” He doesn’t know.

#5: Amazon's Expansion Plans Amazon Go and the Future 15 min. | Stratechery | Analysis

Beginning: “Yesterday the Amazon Go concept store in Seattle opened to the public, filled with sandwiches, salads, snacks, various groceries, and even beer and wine…. The trick is that you don’t pay, at least in person: a collection of cameras and sensors pair your selection to your Amazon account–registered at the door via smartphone app–which rather redefines the concept of ‘grab-and-go.’”

Implications: The author Ben Thompson thinks about the implications of Amazon Go and about how it fits into Amazon’s vision.

4 Key Quotes: (1) “This willingness to spend is what truly differentiates Amazon [from Microsoft, Google, etc.].” (2) “It seems obvious that Amazon Go stores of the future will rarely have employees in store at all: there will be a centralized location for food preparation and a dedicated fleet of shelf stockers.” (3) “Marx saw a world where capital subjugated labor for its own return; technologies like Amazon Go have increasingly no need for labor at all.” (4) “That, though, is precisely why it is worth remembering that the world is not static: to replace humans is, in the long run, to free humans to create entirely new needs and means to satisfy those needs. It’s what we do, and the faith to believe it will happen again will be the best guide in figuring out how.”

The Enchantment Of Useless Space

From Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1923):

Being is still enchanted for us; in a hundred
Places it remains a source–a play of pure
Powers, which no one touches, who does not kneel and wonder.

Words still go softly forth toward the unsayable,

And music, always new, from palpitating stones
Builds in useless space its godly home.

A Dr. Seussian Fish--Awestruck--in a Bowl!

There's Real Mystery In What's Visible

First Things First: A Fishy Story About Us

I bet you’ve heard this one before:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This from the late David Foster Wallace who, back in 2005, was giving his now-famous Commencement Speech, “This Is Water,” at Kenyon College. We’re like the young fish not knowing that we’re swimming in bourgeois waters.

You: “What the hell is the Bourgeois Era?”

Me: “I know. Sounds fishy.”

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Priorities… Priorities…

I’m completely fascinated by Sarah Todd’s “A Simple Exercise For Figuring Out Your Priorities: Forget About Work And Relationships.” Todd, Deputy Ideas Editor at Quartz, has written a piece that’s about how to “clarify your priorities,” yet it seems to me that it’s about much more than that. To see what her priorities are, she takes a piece of paper and draws an x-y axis on it. She then lists her top four priorities:

Sarah Todd's Piece of Paper

She then remarks that it wasn’t a very “useful” exercise after all since “I already knew that I cared about relationships and work.” Rarely has truth been spoken so plainly! She advises us, should we wish to follow her lead, to take out work and relationships in order to discover more about ourselves. Earnestly do I urge all of us, on the contrary, to stop right there and keep our eyes on the surface. For I think that Oscar Wilde got it right when he wrote, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Following Wilde, I elect, in this case, to pay close attention to appearances. For while Wilde’s second statement isn’t entirely true from a metaphysical point of view, it’s absolutely true from an aesthetic one, which is the one I’m going to take. The appearance, this one, is deeply mysterious. In what follows, then, I want to use these sketches–Todd’s as well as those of her colleagues–to tell a story about who we are. Before turning to why her priorities are themselves fascinating (and telling about us) and why those of her colleagues are likewise fascinating, I’d like to apply a method taken from of the third volume of Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era series, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital Or Institutions, Enriched The World. I do that now.

Honestly, Honesty: Not A Brief Case But A First Case

In this part of her massive doorstop of a book, McCloskey is trying to show that the Bourgeois Revaluation led to the demise of the aristocratic ethos as the bourgeoisie, much to her approval (“hear, hear!”), took control. In Chapter 25, “The Word ‘Honest’ Shows The Changing Attitude Toward The Aristocracy And The Bourgeoisie,” she argues that before, say, 1800, “honesty” meant “mainly 'noble,’ even 'aristocratic,’ or sometimes 'dignified,’ in a society in which only the nobles were truly dignified” (p. 236). (We might catch a whiff of that aristocratic connotation in otium cum dignitate as Cicero uses it.) Later on, with the rise of the bourgeoise also comes a new meaning ascribed to “honesty”: since then, now, to us, it means “'committed to telling the truth’” and “'paying one’s debts’” and even being “'upright in dealing’” (p. 236). An honest person, someone who practices telling the truth, can be trusted. Notice that the new meaning of the term is not attached to the social class to which one belongs: in principle, a poor, a middle class, or a rich person can be honest or not, depending on the strength of his or her character.

Priority or Posterity? A Second Case (Also Not A Brief Case)

According to the OED, “priority” is partially borrowed from French, partially from Latin. It used to be an expression of a hierarchically arranged social-natural order. Priority, accordingly, meant “precedence in order or rank.” Helpfully, the OED pronounces it “now rare.”

An example from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is highly illustrative: “The heauens them-selues, the plannets and this center Obserue degree, prioritie and place [the heavens themselves, the planets, and this center observe degree, priority, and place].” Consider also the English classicist Ralph Cudworth, writing in 1678: “There must of necessity, be… a Priority and Posteriority… of Dignity as well as Order amongst them.” It is not, I think, how we, using our own faculty of reason, elect to rank-order persons and heavenly bodies but rather how they already are in terms of their natural rank in the general run of things. As Shakespeare said, these bodies themselves already “observe” a certain priority among themselves and so do social classes. A certain natural and social hierarchy, a “priority” and a “posteriority,” already obtains in reality.

Well, something happens as we cross the threshold around, say, 1800, for this is not at all what “priority” means for us. The change, it’s worth exclaiming, is huge! Now “priority” refers to a “thing that is regarded as more important than others; something which needs special attention.” Helpfully again, the OED suggests that we ordinarily speak of priorities in the plural. So Todd, the writer of the Quartzy piece I referred to above: “To get my priorities straight, I needed a different perspective.” For us, there is no inherent hierarchy revealed in the universe; the rank-ordering is up to us. For us too, there are no social classes that take precedence over others (at least this is so in principle yet hardly–see, e.g., Instagram and Twitter to observe feverish status-jockeying–in practice). And for us, what we give precedence to is not the natural-social order consisting of prominent figures due to their birth or lineage or of the heavenly bodies but rather to the mundane (by which I mean: “of the world”) items of our daily lives or on a to-do list.

Alas, what the OED entry doesn’t bring out is what I hear frequently when I speak with individuals at organizations. Increasingly, they speak of their “priorities” and of “getting their priorities straight,” and so, though anecdotal in nature, this suggests to me that “priorities” is now fully entrenched as a (fully secular) business term. The OED doesn’t show how the term went from having a metaphysical meaning to an everyday business meaning, the one with which we’re now intuitively familiar.

What I’m trying my best to make plain (how difficult it is to see the water in which we swim) are the following: from our modern point of view, the contingency of the universe; the menu of secular options; each individual’s free choice; the mundanity or diurnal nature of the endeavor; and, not the least, the orientation toward business, the “appointed tasks” or “values” of the day. A whole paradigm has shifted behind our backs and well before our births.

What I want to conclude, in brief, is that “priority,” like “honesty,” also shows the Bourgeois Revaluation in action: the aristocratic usage (inherent precedence in the rank, say, of social classes) is now very rare while the bourgeois usage (see which items among others are most important to you based on your own independent lights) has won out. We all speak of our priorities in the hopes of figuring out which ordinary items in our lives should take precedence. And that, we think, is constitutive of a good life.

But is it?

And Now… Back To The Quadrants!

Todd asks some of her colleagues to perform the same exercise. Here is one such:

Todd's Colleague's List of Priorities

The two answers, hers and her colleague’s, look uncannily similar, don’t they? And that’s not all. I’d bet that if we were to ask thousands of people to rank-order their top four priorities, we would find that all of them resembled each other in basic respects. Uncannier still!

While there are different ways of categorizing these two pieces of data (as well as those derived from the untaken fictional survey alluded to above), I’m opting for the following:

  • Romantic Love; or, The Affections of the Heart

  • Friendship; or, Pleasure-seeking Together

  • Biological Family; or, The Obligations We Fulfill

  • Work; or, Seeking Status and Meaning

I submit that this picture (or one resembling it) is the bourgeois conception of a good life. It’s the one we’ve grown up with and have been led to believe is ineluctably true.

Notice What’s Absent

To the objection that this shows selection bias (college educated, millennial, female, American, probably living in a mega-city such as New York City, Los Angeles, or San Francisco), I need simply reply that such a secular, urban person is precisely the kind of person, a creative class or knowledge worker exemplar, I have in mind.

To see how historically unique the bourgeois conception of a good life is, consider the following, by no means exhaustive set of answers to the question, “How should I live?”:

  • Homer: By seeking to achieve heroic immortality through victory in battle.

  • Socrates: By examining all aspects of life with a view to embodying wisdom.

  • Buddha: By attaining enlightenment, which is the ultimate cessation of human suffering.

  • Augustine: By seeking God’s face.

  • Jane Austen (see the Introduction I wrote): By being a morally virtuous person, becoming relatively wealthy, and marrying well.

  • Romantics: By beautifully expressing the innermost secrets of my soul or of my soul in interchange with nature.

  • Marx: By bringing about social justice.

What final aims (teloi) could be, because they have already been, of ultimate importance? These surely: the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the beautiful, the sublime, the true, the wise, the enlightened, the morally good, the common good, and so forth.

But for us? No heavens or hells, no wars raging within our hearts, no sundering of our souls, only the secular realm in which the mundane, ordinary, diurnal–turning, ever-turning–have taken up shop and are headed up by managers. With eternity gone from the picture, work could happily take over.

The Bourgeois’s Allies, Our Own

It’s not entirely true, though, to imply, as I’ve done so far, that our chief bourgeois concerns about “meaningful work” and good relationships in the private sphere capture all of what we care about. (Most but not all.) We do have a few allies.

Firstly, we have sequestered the help of the Romantics so that we can be “emotionally vulnerable” and “authentic” in our loving relationships (and, some have recently argued, beyond these). Secondly, we have enlisted the support of hedonists to ensure that our bodies remain healthy and attractive, to enable our friendships to be pleasant and pleasurable, our flings, hookups, and trysts exciting. And, thirdly, we’ve taken on board a form of humanism, which insists that human life, on the assumption that there’s nothing else than this, is sacred and that it should come first in our considerations. For instance, social change, urged by “change agents,” would be unintelligible were it not for a basic metaphysical subscription to humanism. (Here see Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus for an interesting discussion of the “religion” of humanism.)

So, another one of Todd’s colleagues:

A Third Colleague's List of Priorities

Ethical humanism, I’d surmise, in the upper left; hedonism (care for the body or for the body and mind) in the lower left; and, most noticeable of all, the bourgeois priorities in the upper and lower right, respectively.

In all these pictures, I think, we are looking at ourselves. And who, really, are we?

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Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”

I can remember reading Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” (1817) back in college in 1998, and although, I suppose, I managed to understand the poem middlingly well, I wasn’t able to feel any of its force. I must have read, for example, these two lines–“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue / Which teaches awful doubt.”–and, having finished the assignment, simply checked it off. I registered nothing; I felt nothing.

When I went, with my sister, for a hike in Estes Park in Colorado around that time, I had no sense of nature’s splendor and could find no bridge between my emotional flatness and the Romantics’ fervor. They seemed to live so very long ago, their poetry remaining inaccessible to my midwestern American sensibility. Was Shelley just being high-falutin?

Better question: why was this poem, and countless others, opaque to me? Why couldn’t I hear it, feel it, no matter how hard I tried?

I now know that, having been, like most of us, raised bourgeois, I had ready access only to comfort, security, prosperity, to the virtues of prudence, thrift, and modesty, to a minor range of ordinary emotions (irritation, annoyance, passing sadness, for instance), to thoughts of material success, to focuses on tasks and temperance, and for all these reasons my heart, let alone my imagination, had yet to be opened up to the possibility of transcendent experience. The world I inhabited was just too flat. Something would need to give, ripping me apart.

Total work, I now see in ways I couldn’t have 20 years ago, is one of chief obstacles to transcendence. To experience transcendence, one’s secure world, my own surely, may need to be torn asunder, as it was so wrenchingly for Job. Are we willing to lose our comforts in the hopes of coming face to face with birth, old age, illness, and death and with what is on the other side, this side also, of birth-and-death? When will we shine for the sun, giving unto it?

T.S. Eliot writes somewhere that Shakespeare’s genius was in describing the rich interplay of human emotion while Dante’s was in limning the depths (“inferno”) and the heights (“paradiso”) of human experience. These days, though, we’ve got reams and gobs of our Shakespeares: they’re called, ahem, memoirists. What we need are more Dantes, to become them ourselves. The question for us is not, therefore, whether but how: how could we become Dantes ourselves?

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Special Thanks To…

Dev Aujla (@devauljla) for sending me the story from TechCrunch; to many people for sending me the Guardian story about post-work; and to Sarah Kessler, who assiduously edited my latest piece for Quartz at Work. Thank you also to others who’ve sent me article that have yet to make it into this newsletter.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles On Total Work?

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