Total Work Newsletter #54: Why Total Work Is Almost Inevitable


All: The pilot course, “Escape Total Work,” has just begun. While there are no longer any available spots, if you’d like to be put on the mailing list for the upcoming fall course (October or November), email me at Since I don’t really ‘do marketing,’ you’ll likely receive just one email telling you that you can now enroll in the fall course.

Subscribers: I just received—you guessed it—a fine, thick scholarly tome on images of the medieval peasant. Covid has made university library access. This month I hope to write an excursus on Ernst Junger’s important The Worker before writing the next historical chapter on manual labor undertaken by medieval peasants and on the prevailing attitude toward manual labor at that time.

Paragliding And Hypercapitalism

#1: PHILOSOPHY AND PARAGLIDING | What We’ve Lost | 2 hr. 10 min. | Ari in the Air Podcast | Dialogue

Sum: In this wide-ranging conversation, Ari, a professional paraglider, and I discuss physicalism, humanism, and secularism as well as paragliding, the fear of death, hawks and Daoism, and more. Prepare to take flight!

#2: UBI | Can UBI Save Us From Hypercapitalism? | 1 hr. 20 min. | YouTube | Dialogue

Sum: Oshan Jarow and I discuss his long form essay (included in the YouTube show notes) on UBI and hypercapitalism. It’s a very clear, methodical discussion.

#3: WAKING UP | Employees Who Practice Mindfulness Are Less Motivated | 2 min. read | Boing Boing | News HT Daniel Doyon

Sum: It turns out that, in some cases, practicing mindfulness meditation can lead practitioners to take a good hard look at their actual employment situation. Rather than becoming more (intrinsically) motivated or becoming more productive, they become less so. Probably, the article would need to distinguish between bullshit jobs and other forms of employment in hopes of making sense of the data.

#4: PARADIGM SHIFT | From The Anthropocene to the Microbiocene | 20 min. | Noema Magazine | Long Form Essay

Sum: Tobias Rees, seeking Covid as an opportunity to think anthropologically, takes aim at the Anthropocene, essentially arguing for a much more holistic view of humans’ relationship with all other beings.

  • Relatedly, Daniel Thorson and I discuss the limits of Humanism in this episode of the Emerge Podcast.

Why Total Work Is Almost Inevitable

In my podcast interview with Ari, I discussed physicalism, humanism, and secularism. I’d like to show that these are also relevant to understanding the ubiquitous nature of Total Work.


Physicalism, also known as materialism, holds that everything is physical. That is, everything—consciousness, stars, trees, the law of gravity, emotions—can be reduced to the physical. 

David Chalmers famously dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness” the problem of how physical states can constitute or give rise to the seeing of red, the tasting of honey, the thinking about mathematical theorems—that is, to subjective or phenomenal experience. It’s in no way obvious that neural processes could somehow lead to the emergence of qualia, or felt experience.

Concerning the hard problem, physicalists seem to believe (1) that such a problem is actually just an illusion and therefore not a problem at all (Daniel Dennett), (2) that neural processes just are conscious states (a head-in-the-sand position, I feel), or (3) that mapping out the neural correlates of consciousness will someday allow us to understand the emergence and nature of consciousness (i.e., someday science will discover what it has long sought). 

Understand that discussions in philosophy of mind have downstream consequences for the rest of us. While you and I might not think often of the hard problem of consciousness, it doesn’t follow that we’re not already implicated in this picture. For don’t you speak of your “brain hurting” when you’re confused or when you’re thinking too much? (Can a brain really think?) Don’t you believe that there is something called “mental health” and “mental illness” as if minds, like bodies, could be healthy or sick? (Here, I’m not saying that people don’t suffer nor even that the mind isn’t the cause of suffering; what I’m questioning here is the psychologization and therapeuticization of the world.) Don’t you assume that matter is really real? (Have you ever seen or touched or tasted matter? No, you haven’t: you’ve only had experiences.) Don’t you often identify with the physical body—when you work out, when you post something on Instagram, when you make love, or when you’re attracted to another person? And, above all, don’t you assume that the perishing of the physical body just means the end of conscious experience?


Humanism states that “man is the measure of all things.” For humanism to take off, as it has in modernity, the cosmos and divinity both had to fade into oblivion. (For much more on this, see my IHMC public talk.) 

To feel the shapes and textures of humanism, you need to first come to grips with the fact that what you care about are human concerns, human projects, and human endeavors. You care about human births, humans who age, and human deaths. If you care about climate change, you probably care the most about the end of homo sapiens. If you care about the biosphere, you probably care about it because it’s an ‘environment’ in which human beings dwell. You don’t care about angels, demons, spirits, non-human animals (save for pets, which, often instrumentalized, readily become tools for human well-being anyway). You certainly don’t care about the cosmos nor about the nature of ultimate reality nor about the sacred. What are these to you anyway? What do they matter?

This is humanism. Partly, it’s like the scraps after everything more sumptuous is scraped off the plate. And partly it’s like an invention that, for the first time in human history, allows human beings to be the theater patrons, directors, stage designers, and actors on stage. We have created all the parts, and we have filled each one. It’s like metaphysical cronyism.


Full-blown secularism is what emerges when any idea of something “really real” beyond the temporal world is vanquished—or dismissed out of hand. According to full-blown secularism, there can be no afterlife or reincarnation because there can be no ontologically distinct world set apart from this temporal world. And what is the “temporal world”? It is whatever is subject to chronos, or clock time. 

In this First Things article, I posited that “diurnality” and “mundanity” are seminal features of secularism. We have the felt sense that there is nothing apart from or above or in excess of this day and the next one. The days turn about in their ordinariness. But what of Covid? See how it feels now that your days have rested into a new daily rhythm defined by routines, To Do lists, ambient worries, and all the rest. Meanwhile, “mundanity” refers to the felt sense that there is just this turning world, where this turning world is understood chiefly in terms of psychology (the contents of mind playing out in the dramas we call “relationships”), economics (the massive market system), and politics (the speech acts and actions of major players that we spectators observe, kvetch about, and comment on). 

Life Parameters

Let physicalism, humanism, and secularism be “life parameters” (a term used by Ari in our podcast conversation). They define the nature, scope, and limits of the games you and I play. 

One such game is called Total Work.

What are the tangible consequences set by these life parameters?

  • Time being not only finite but also scarce: physicalism suggests that the physical body has a finite duration and that consciousness expires when the physical body does while secularism turns up the heat by urging us to believe that there can be ‘no more.’

  • The crippling or paralyzing fear of death: the discussion above naturally leads us here.

  • The upsurge in nihilism: physicalism, remember, tells us that there’s just the physical; secularism that there’s just the temporal; humanism that there’s just the human. If meaning is not something we can make but actually what we truly are in the cosmic and divine senses, then all three close us off from meaning.

  • The loss of depth: humanism in particular doesn’t encourage us to reach outside of the human condition and to investigate, let alone dwell beside, all other forms of animate life. Caring solely about the human predicament, we lose depth as well as height.

Total Work

Consider this:  

Adhering to these life parameters will often take you to Total Work. Why?

1. You’ll become a “secular monk” who takes it as a given that you must develop or optimize yourself by working endlessly on yourself.

2. You won’t see Steve Jobs’ line about “want[ing] to put a ding in the universe” as delusional but instead as inspirational. Why? Because as a Worker, you’ll want to use your work to leave behind “a legacy” without realizing that, given secularism, everything temporal is ravaged by time.

3. You’ll be engaged, unknowingly, in idolatry: you’ll treat work, which is actually nothing but a provisional concern, as if it were a matter of ultimate concern (Paul Tillich). Thus, you’ll try to manufacture meaning (which is impossible, i.e., meaning can’t be made, constructed, fabricated, or manufactured) out of work. Thus, you’ll be ideologically captured by “maximum social impact,” “purpose-driven work” “meaningful work,” “vocations,” “callings,” and other misconceptions.

Remember: if life is short, if this is your one chance, if there’s no real meaning (only what you allegedly make of your lot in life), and if there’s nothing but the human to be concerned with, then wouldn’t work be precisely what occupies your attention, beckoning you, soliciting you, cheerleading you, and thereby enslaving you?

There Is An Exit

Question physicalism, humanism, and secularism.

All we need for a starting point for a genuine philosophical inquiry is for you to open yourself up to the possibility that ‘my consciousness is limited,’ ‘humanism defines the scope of experience,’ and ‘everything is subject to time’ may all be incorrect. Nay, even less: all I need from you is for you to open yourself up to the possibility that there are things you don’t presently understand and that those things just might be properly called ‘mysterious.’

Earnest existential honesty invites you to drop the unwarranted convictions and to pony up to ‘I don’t know.’ Pony up!

If you pony up right now, then your own experience, right now, will be imbued with a kind of freedom you’ve never felt before. An opening is an openness.

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