Lebenskünstler

Liberal Arts – Uselessness and Leisure against mere Work

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 10/19/2012

Whither the Liberal Arts College? Or, Why Bloom’s Critique Doesn’t Matter – Jeffrey Polet

American higher education lacks the sense, MacIntyre argues, of a common enterprise. Rather it is dominated by an opportunism wherein universities seek to enrich themselves and fight the prestige battle, and students are motivated by careerism. The hallmarks of these places are professionalization and specialization, and in the process they lose sight of the one (truly liberal) question that would help make an education coherent: the question of what it is to be a human being. To ask this question would raise issues of the limits of scientific knowing, of the nature and quality of a moral life, of understanding the depths of self-deception, inquiring into the social dimensions of human activity, and so forth, and in a systematic rather than haphazard way. (There may be individual faculty who raise such questions, but such questioning is not woven into the curriculum.)

We are not inclined to pursue such an approach to education. Most colleges and universities have been thoroughly corrupted in the sense that as they become more specialized and professionalized in their internal functioning, they encourage the development of a faculty who are invested in not raising the larger questions about the purpose of education, and a student- body who will increasingly mimic this professionalization and specialization in pursuit of a well- paying job. When embedded in a culture that sees upward mobility and deracination as primary goods, the labor market begins to unify the shaping of student preferences. In that sense, once the servile arts are introduced into the liberal arts context, they quickly overwhelm it and reduce the liberal arts into a mere “value added” good.

What we won’t do is provide them with answers to the question of what it means to be a human being that takes seriously issues of contemplation or leisure. Newman argued that a liberal arts education is one wherein modes of action have their ends in themselves: they are not primarily directed to extrinsic purposes such as satisfying a requirement or getting a good job…

…frees us from mere idleness or mere labor, and places us, Pieper claims, into positions of worship and festive hope. In that sense, knowing born of leisure cannot be directed by anything other than its goal, and can serve no purpose other than itself – else it would be servile rather than liberal. To subsume liberal education to the needs of the state or the economy (which is much the same thing) is to destroy liberal education, for then it becomes merely a means rather than an end. A liberal education by the nature of the thing limits the power of the state and its coordinating administrative impulses.

Not understanding leisure, neither can we understand work. And not understanding work, neither can we understand how to fill student’s hours, or our own, in any meaningful way. We vitiate the classroom of its noble purposes and we create an indulgent but not coherent education.

Any sensible conservative critique of the university must, I think, take seriously the problems concerning what technology wills for itself; how the impulse to universalization and abstraction destroys that which is particular and near; and how questions about who we are and what we are destined for are occluded. It must see the interrelatedness of these problems. It should see college life not as primarily directed toward the formation of skills and habits that prepare one for engagement in the modern economy, but as an interval in life where students are encouraged to the most useful of activities by pursuing useless ones.

It is now more imperative than ever that liberal arts colleges rethink who they are and what they are doing. In an age of centralized state authority, crony capitalism, and military expansion, the call goes out once again for social institutions dedicated to alternate modes of community. Surely this is what MacIntyre was getting at when he noted that resistance to the Roman imperium coalesced when individuals “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with that imperium,” but rather began to form new communities where the moral life in its wholeness could be sustained amidst the coming barbarism. For that reason, the liberal arts college that serves the American imperium least serves it best. And that is what Bloom didn’t understand.

Josef Pieper – Leisure – Chad Lakies – How Might Life Live?

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 12/22/2009

An abstract for the forthcoming paper “Challenging the Cultural Imaginary: Josef Pieper on How Life Might Live” by Chad Lakies discovered at his blog here:

“Asking anew “How might life live?” is to offer an opportunity to re-imagine. In the midst of a cultural imaginary that imagines life in terms of the Protestant work ethic, resulting in a culture of total work, Josef Pieper imagines a different way of living. His work emphasizes the place of leisure in the life of the human creature. From within a culture of total work it seems impossible for leisure to have a place, yet Pieper’s reflections pose leisure as the very basis of culture itself, ironically the basis from which the current culture of total work may have emerged and at the same time, the only place from which it can be escaped. It is in the imaginative moment of leisure that one can affect a transformation of the cultural imaginary, for at one and the same time leisure is the basis for a new formulation of culture against total work and a living of life in a way that inherently stands in disobedience against the total work world.”

Art Work – Leisure

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 12/02/2009

UPDATE: More here.

These comments pertain to the recent release of Art Work by Temporary Services. They apply to the project as a whole, but a link to them was left on Julia Bryan-Wilson’s essay “Art Versus Work” as it is a central organizing essay. I apologize in advance for the scatter-shot nature of the response. I level these criticisms and objections with great admiration of, and humility toward,  Art Work, its organizers, and its contributors even if I don’t always maintain that tone.

Anything but work: Call Me a Slacker – NEVER a Worker.

“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh – anything but work.” – Abraham Lincoln

Julia Bryan-Wilson does an admirable job presenting a historical overview and theoretical foundation for those who embrace the notion of the artist as worker. What leaves me a bit cold, not just in her piece, but in Art Work as a whole, is the lack of any substantive dissent from this notion. At the very least, a sketch of some counter-theorizations, and a survey of key figures advocating against the valorization of work and labor would be useful. The slackers, quitters, idlers, loafers, drop outs, and leisure theorists have their own history, many providing a scathing critique of the lefts embrace of the proletarianization of human activity. I, being one of these good for nothings myself, hope to provide just such a sketch, but it will remain just a sketch as anything more would feel too much like work, and I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh…

On work, labor, and old man Marx

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused
by the belief that work is virtuous…” – Bertrand Russell

Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, “Drawing on Marx’s theoretical work, and prompted by a desire to make art legitimate, necessary, and meaningful, artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to erode the distinction between art and labor by insisting that their actions, and the products of those actions, were indeed work.” The idea that calling what you do “work” makes it “legitimate” or “meaningful” is the crux of the problem I have with much of what one finds in Art Work. This sort of thinking is everywhere on the left and Marx does in fact provide the theoretical mirror in which many self-identified “cultural workers” (I always shudder at this phrase) see themselves. Jean Baudrillard, the still mostly Marxist incarnation of which Bryan-Wilson cites, moved very quickly into a position not easily integrated within her piece or this newspaper as a whole. In his book The Mirror of Production he writes “The critical theory of the mode of production does not touch the principle of production.” That is to say that Marxist analysis too readily embraces the terms of the debate and therefore provides a mere functional critique, one that Baudrillard might note, “…deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as model.”

Like Baudrillard I see a certain kind of of Marxist theoretical fundamentalism at work here. Art, like everything else in life apparently, becomes just another form of work. The proponents of artist unions and art workers appear to see labor and production everywhere and thus we find ourselves talking of wages, compensation, and professional practices. Let’s keep in mind though that just as the id, ego, and superego are organizing myths of psychoanalysis, Marxism has its own myths. Mapping the world using these specialized tools is certainly useful in certain contexts, but I’d just like to keep in mind that they are specialized, very partial, and historically bound views and that they are maps after all. Or to return to Baudrillard in reference to Marxism:

“Historical materialism, dialectics, modes of production, labor power – through these concepts Marxist theory has sought to shatter the abstract universality of the concepts of bourgeois thought…Yet Marxism in turn universalizes them with a ‘critical’ imperialism as ferocious as the other’s.”

“…Thus, to be logical the concept of history must itself be regarded as historical, turn back on itself…Instead, in Marxism history is transhistoricized: it redoubles on itself and is universalized.”

“As soon as they [critical concepts] are constituted as universal they cease to be analytical and the religion of meaning begins [or what we called theoretical fundamentalism].”

Giles Gunn, not writing specifically about Marxism puts it this way, “Theory of this sort is always in danger of reifying itself – or, what amounts to the same thing, of treating everything it touches as mere epiphenomena of its own idioms. [emphasis mine]” So where does that leave us? What does employing these terms do? It seems many contributors here find them liberating. I feel it gives too much ground, too readily cedes a particular view of what is important about what artists do. I’m not sure that Baudrillard doesn’t have this one right:

“Failing to conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labor and production, Marxism no longer furnishes in the long run a real alternative to capitalism.”

And:

“And in this Marxism assists in the cunning of capital. It convinces men [sic] that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the ‘inalienable’ power of creating value by their labor. [entire quote in italics in the original]”

I see in Bryan-Wilson’s apparent acceptance of Marx a failure of imagination of sorts, one that leads us reductively to seeing the world through a narrow, economic prism. Much like the psychoanalyst sees libidinal drives and frustrated sexuality in everything from their morning coffee to flower arrangements, many in Art Work, see money, labor, and production everywhere. This strikes me as unhealthy and teeters dangerously close to the history of conceptual imperialism employed by Western ethnographers when they interpreted other cultures through their own cultural matrix and mistook this reading as transcription rather than translation. Baudrillard, again in The Mirror of Production is helpful here:

“…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.”

Continuing:

“In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects [so called primitive art] in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture.”

If we substitute “esthetic” with “economic” it should become clear why this is pertinent. By seeing something that looks like what the West calls economic exchange or labor and calling it such, we miss the opportunity to observe something deeply challenging to the very premise of economy, value, and work. To extrapolate then, we should think long and hard about how readily we want to place art within the conceptual spreadsheet of capitalist vocabulary, or as Baudrillard would say, its mirror – Marxist vocabulary.

Art work or Art leisure?

“…with art-relaxing art comes to you with a greater simplicity clearness beauty reality feelingness and life.” – Gilbert and George

“…there is no art without laziness.” – Mladen Stilinovic

Leisure, Joseph Pieper, the “intellectual worker,” and de-proletarianization

“Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many.” – Roger Scruton

“Work does not make you rich; it only makes you bent over.” – Russian proverb

One doesn’t have to look very far to find alternatives to the worship of work. Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, The Basis of Culture provides a road map to rethinking many of the founding assumptions of Art Work. Tackling head on what he calls the culture of “total work,” Pieper argues for leisure as an organizing principle for culture. He is especially scornful of the notion of the “intellectual worker” from which the easy leap to “art worker” should be obvious. He writes, “…the takeover…of intellectual action…and its exclusive possession by the realm of ‘total work’…the most recent phase of a whole series of conquests made by the ‘imperial figure’ of the ‘Worker.’ And the concepts of intellectual worker and intellectual work…make the fact of that conquest especially clear and especially challenging to our times.”

He goes on to provide a historical summary of how the idea of effort, work, and labor came to be equated with knowing and how this transformation omitted the very basis of intellectus, the passive, listening, visionary, effortless dimension of knowing at the expense of ratio, the mostly discursive, active form. As he describes it, many in this publication seem to have followed this same path of over-valuing effort and difficulty. So in Art Work it becomes clear that “…not only the wage earner, the hand-worker, and the proletarian are workers; even the learned man, the student, are workers; they too are drawn into the social system and its distribution of labor. the intellectual worker…is a functionary in the total world of work, he may be called a ‘specialist,’ he is still a functionary…nobody is granted a ‘free zone’ of intellectual activity…” In this I sense a sad resignation to proletarianization, but what if we sought rather de-proletarianization?

Pieper defines being proletarian as “being bound to the working-process.” This he argues leads one to become a “spiritually impoverished functionary” – and it is this that rings loudly when I see one embrace the term art worker. For once again it seems like a failure of imagination, a spiritual failure (knowing full well how unfashionable that must seem) to adopt, if even tactically, the rhetoric of total work, or “to fall into line as ready functionaries for the collective working-state.” What is the alternative? Rather than expanding the reach of work, its colonization of existence, its imperial nature, perhaps it is better to tame it, refuse it (to the extent one can), and most easily, reject its measures. As Pieper says de-proletarianization “would consist in making available for the working person a meaningful kind of activity that is not work – in other words, by opening up an area of true leisure.”

Slack

Another prism through which to read all of this is through the “paradoxes of slackerdom” – an online conference I co-organized with Stephen Wright here. In its own way that (international) conversation stands as a kind of rejoinder to this one, or at least a necessary supplement. I urge those who have found their way here to look not only at it, but at the legions of lazy sods, slackers,  and others that reject work altogether as the (only) measure of human worthiness – those that seek  to define their lives relative to, and in, leisure – what Paul Willis calls “the hidden continent of the informal.”