The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them — whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”
So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.
Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work — though we do need that — but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.
Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.
…A novelist who made a cult of laziness, he had no qualms about taking it easy when it came to literary invention—“The same idea is in all my books; I shape it differently,” he once said…
Cossery’s heroes are usually dandies and thieves, unfettered by possessions or obligations; impoverished but aristocratic idlers who can suck the marrow of joy from the meager bones life tosses their way. They are the descendants of Baudelaire’s flâneur, of the Surrealists with their rejection of the sacrosanct work ethic, of the Situationists and their street-theater shenanigans, not to mention the peripatetic Beats or the countercultural “dropouts” of the 1960s. Henry Miller, who raised dolce far niente to an art form, praised Cossery’s writing as “rare, exotic, haunting, unique.” Whether Cossery’s merry pranksters wish merely to have a good time or, as in The Jokers, to wage an all-out campaign of raillery against the powers that be, there is one belief they all share: the only true recourse against a world governed by “scoundrels” is an utter disregard for convention, including the convention of taking anything seriously.
…The proud beggars in this story are Gohar, who has abandoned a professorship to live on the fringe as a street philosopher and bookkeeper in a brothel; Gohar’s protégé, the poet and drug dealer Yeghen, who tries to live his life as if it were itself a poem; and El Kordi, a revolutionary sympathizer chafing against his dead-end job as a government clerk.
The Egyptian-French novelist Albert Cossery was a philosophical and aesthetic dandy who loathed the idea of work, celebrated underground movements and ideas, and absolutely detested power. He was the dandy as a political subversive—an idea that must be resurrected.
Cossery, in a sense, is something of the offspring of the Surrealist Jacques Vache, a self-described “umourist” who revelled in doing nothing at all. An artist who decided not to create art, a poet who decided not to write poetry, all in an effort to prove that creation of works is counter-intuitive to the true artist, who must live the art and not leave evidence or relics as proof of genius.
Governments are, in fact, quite terrified of this sort of philosophical dandyism—of the aggregate of individuals who subvert by gleefully doing nothing.
And so it is the politically subversive dandy—the transcendent dandy—who is best-equipped to lead a new politically-subversive movement, where a panoply of ideas merge like a kaleidoscope. The dandy understands the absurdity of power and the various ways to subvert, ignore and transcend it, without resorting to violent means.
Dandyism, at its core, is political subversion, and Albert Cossery was nothing if not a dandy. And it was the dandies, the forgotten and ignored whom Cossery celebrated in his novels.
…Characters opt to withdraw from any idea of a career. To recognize the absurdity of joining power in its game (government) and staying as far away from it as possible. To know that love—for friends, fuck buddies, boyfriends, girlfriends—was all and that it was untouchable, transcendent.
We need a new era of dandyism, of subversives. We need a new counter-culture.
The dandy as imagined by Cossery has time to think and enjoy life. Idleness is not only a virtue for Cossery and his characters, it is elevated to the natural state of being—a rejection of the unnatural tethers which are fixed to our bodies as soon as we escape the womb: the classroom, the cubicle, the wage, the dollar, rent, and so forth.
The Egyptian lived radically lazily on the Left Bank, challenging social norms with books devoid of materialism and ambition.
All his life, Cossery sided with those he felt God had forgotten: petty thieves, pretty prostitutes, exploited workers and hungry vagrants. He despised materialism and eschewed the rat race. In Proud Beggars (1955), usually considered his masterpiece, a university professor finds peace of mind by becoming a bum, proving that beggars can be choosers…
For the author and his lovable rogue’s gallery, sleep, daydreams and hashish-induced reverie are endowed with mystical qualities. Idleness is more than a way of life. It offers the greatest luxury of all: time to think and therefore the chance to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. The overt message of these people whom God has forgotten (but who themselves have not forgotten God) is that paradise is not lost, but most of us are too busy to bask in “the Edenic simplicity of the world”.
“If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” ― Ludwig Wittgenstein
…Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault — and feel bad about them — rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity?
…Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers — guilt, self-loathing, blame.
Though Expeditus’s pesky crow may be ageless, procrastination as epidemic — and the constant guilt that goes with it — is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.
…the voice — societal or psychological — urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.
Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers? To start, we might replace Expeditus with a new saint.
At the conference, I was invited to speak about the Egyptian-born novelist Albert Cossery, a true icon of the right to remain lazy. In the mid-1940s, Cossery wrote a novel in French, “Laziness in the Fertile Valley,” about a family in the Nile Delta that sleeps all day. Their somnolence is a form of protest against a world forever ruled by tyrants winding the clock. Born in 1913 in Cairo, Cossery grew up in a place that still retained cultural memories of the introduction of Western notions of time, a once foreign concept. It had arrived along with British military forces in the late 19th century. To turn Egypt into a lucrative colony, it needed to run on a synchronized, efficient schedule. The British replaced the Islamic lunar calendar with the Gregorian, preached the values of punctuality, and spread the gospel that time equaled money.
Firm in his belief that time is not as natural or apolitical as we might think, Cossery, in his writings and in his life, strove to reject the very system in which procrastination could have any meaning at all. Until his death in 2008, the elegant novelist, living in Paris, maintained a strict schedule of idleness. He slept late, rising in the afternoons for a walk to the Café de Flore, and wrote fiction only when he felt like it. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery would say. He was the archetypal flâneur, in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, whose verses Cossery would steal for his own poetry when he was a teenager. Rather than charge through the day, storming the gates of tomorrow, his stylized repose was a perch from which to observe, reflect and question whether the world really needs all those things we feel we ought to get done — like a few more pyramids at Giza. And it was idleness that led Cossery to true creativity, dare I say it, in his masterfully unprolific work.
“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”
[There are a host of problems with this piece –
A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?
A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.
Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…
And why is being “romantic” so terrible?
Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]
These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.
In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9
In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.
… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.
We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.
While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.
In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.
Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.
Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.
Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.
Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.
Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43
In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46
Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.
Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52
Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.
Oh art “workers,” affective and cognitive “laborers,” and cultural “producers,” it would be great if you did some reading “work” on this article.
Usually the accused is given the benefit of doubt, but here the burden of proof is shifted. Should the ostracised not want to live on air and Christian charity for their further lives, they have to accept whatsoever dirty and slave work, or any other absurd “occupational therapy” cooked up by job creation schemes, just to demonstrate their unconditional readiness for labour. Whether such job has rhyme or reason, not to mention any meaning, or is simply the realisation of pure absurdity, does not matter at all. The main point is that the jobless are kept moving to remind them incessantly of the one and only law governing their existence on earth.
In the old days people worked to earn money. Nowadays the government spares no expenses to simulate the labour-”paradise” lost for some hundred thousand people by launching bizarre “job training schemes” or setting up “training companies” in order to make them fit for “regular” jobs they will never get. Ever newer and sillier steps are taken to keep up the appearance that the idle running social treadmills can be kept in full swing to the end of time. The more absurd the social constraint of “labour” becomes, the more brutally it is hammered into the peoples’ head that they cannot even get a piece of bread for free.
The new fanaticism for labour with which this society reacts to the death of its idol is the logical continuation and final stage of a long history. Since the days of the Reformation, all the powers of Western modernisation have preached the sacredness of work. Over the last 150 years, all social theories and political schools were possessed by the idea of labour. Socialists and conservatives, democrats and fascists fought each other to the death, but despite all deadly hatred, they always paid homage to the labour idol together. “Push the idler aside”, is a line from the German lyrics of the international working (labouring) class anthem; “labour makes free” it resounds eerily from the inscription above the gate in Auschwitz. The pluralist post-war democracies all the more swore by the everlasting dictatorship of labour. Even the constitution of the ultra-catholic state of Bavaria lectures its citizens in the Lutheran tradition: “Labour is the source of a people’s prosperity and is subject to the special protective custody of the state”. At the end of the 20th century, all ideological differences have vanished into thin air. What remains is the common ground of a merciless dogma: Labour is the natural destiny of human beings.
Today the reality of the labour society itself denies that dogma. The disciples of the labour religion have always preached that a human being, according to its supposed nature, is an “animal laborans” (working creature/animal). Such an “animal” actually only assumes the quality of being a human by subjecting matter to his will and in realising himself in his products, as once did Prometheus. The modern production process has always made a mockery of this myth of a world conqueror and a demigod, but might have had a real substratum in the era of inventor capitalists like Siemens or Edison and their skilled workforce. Meanwhile, however, such airs and graces became completely absurd.
Whoever asks about the content, meaning, and goal of his or her job, will go crazy or becomes a disruptive element in the social machinery designed to function as an end-in-itself. “Homo faber”, once full of conceit as to his craft and trade, a type of human who took seriously what he did in a parochial way, has become as old-fashioned as a mechanical typewriter. The treadmill has to run at all cost, and “that’s all there is to it”. Advertising departments and armies of entertainers, company psychologists, image advisors and drug dealers are responsible for creating meaning. Where there is continual babble about motivation and creativity, there is not a trace left of either of them – save self-deception. This is why talents such as autosuggestion, self-projection and competence simulation rank among the most important virtues of managers and skilled workers, media stars and accountants, teachers and parking lot guards.
The crisis of the labour society has completely ridiculed the claim that labour is an eternal necessity imposed on humanity by nature. For centuries it was preached that homage has to be paid to the labour idol just for the simple reason that needs can not be satisfied without humans sweating blood: To satisfy needs, that is the whole point of the human labour camp existence. If that were true, a critique of labour would be as rational as a critique of gravity. So how can a true “law of nature” enter into a state of crisis or even disappear? The floor leaders of the society’s labour camp factions, from neo-liberal gluttons for caviar to labour unionist beer bellies, find themselves running out of arguments to prove the pseudo-nature of labour. Or how can they explain that three-quarters of humanity are sinking in misery and poverty only because the labour system no longer needs their labour?
It is not the curse of the Old Testament “In the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread” that is to burden the ostracised any longer, but a new and inexorable condemnation: “You shall not eat because your sweat is superfluous and unmarketable”. That is supposed to be a law of nature? This condemnation is nothing but an irrational social principle, which assumes the appearance of a natural compulsion because it has destroyed or subjugated any other form of social relations over the past centuries and has declared itself to be absolute. It is the “natural law” of a society that regards itself as very “rational”, but in truth only follows the instrumental rationality of its labour idol for whose “factual inevitabilities” (Sachzwänge) it is ready to sacrifice the last remnant of its humanity.
Labour is in no way identical with humans transforming nature (matter) and interacting with each other. As long as mankind exist, they will build houses, produce clothing, food and many other things. They will raise children, write books, discuss, cultivate gardens, and make music and much more. This is banal and self-evident. However, the raising of human activity as such, the pure “expenditure of labour power”, to an abstract principle governing social relations without regard to its content and independent of the needs and will of the participants, is not self-evident.
In ancient agrarian societies, there were all sorts of domination and personal dependencies, but not a dictatorship of the abstraction labour. Activities in the transformation of nature and in social relations were in no way self-determined, but were hardly subject to an abstract “expenditure of labour power”. Rather, they were embedded in complex rules of religious prescriptions and in social and cultural traditions with mutual obligations. Every activity had its own time and scene; simply there was no abstract general form of activity.
It fell to the modern commodity producing system as an end-in-itself with its ceaseless transformation of human energy into money to bring about a separated sphere of so-called labour “alienated” from all other social relations and abstracted from all content. It is a sphere demanding of its inmates unconditional surrender, life-to-rule, dependent robotic activity severed from any other social context, and obedience to an abstract “economic” instrumental rationality beyond human needs. In this sphere detached from life, time ceases to be lived and experienced time; rather time becomes a mere raw material to be exploited optimally: “time is money”. Any second of life is charged to a time account, every trip to the loo is an offence, and every gossip is a crime against the production goal that has made itself independent. Where labour is going on, only abstract energy may be spent. Life takes place elsewhere – or nowhere, because labour beats the time round the clock. Even children are drilled to obey Newtonian time to become “effective” members of the workforce in their future life. Leave of absence is granted merely to restore an individual’s “labour power”. When having a meal, celebrating or making love, the second hand is ticking at the back of one’s mind.
The political left has always eagerly venerated labour. It has stylised labour to be the true nature of a human being and mystified it into the supposed counter-principle of capital. Not labour was regarded as a scandal, but its exploitation by capital. As a result, the programme of all “working class parties” was always the “liberation of labour” and not “liberation from labour”. Yet the social opposition of capital and labour is only the opposition of different (albeit unequally powerful) interests within the capitalist end-in-itself. Class struggle was the form of battling out opposite interests on the common social ground and reference system of the commodity-producing system. It was germane to the inner dynamics of capital accumulation. Whether the struggle was for higher wages, civil rights, better working conditions or more jobs, the all-embracing social treadmill with its irrational principles was always its implied presupposition.
…No ruling caste in history has led such a wretched life as a “bondman” as the harassed managers of Microsoft, Daimler-Chrysler or Sony. Any medieval baron would have deeply despised these people. While he was devoted to leisure and squandered wealth orgiastically, the elite of the labour society does not allow itself any pause. Outside the treadmills, they don’t know anything else but to become childish. Leisure, delight in cognition, realisation and discovery, as well as sensual pleasures, are as foreign to them as to their human “resource”. They are only the slaves of the labour idol, mere functional executives of the irrational social end-in-itself.
Thus “labour”, according to its root, is not a synonym for self-determined human activity, but refers to an unfortunate social fate. It is the activity of those who have lost their freedom. The imposition of labour on all members of society is nothing but the generalisation of a life in bondage; and the modern worship of labour is merely the quasi-religious transfiguration of the actual social conditions.
The workers’ movement itself became the pacemaker of the capitalist labour society, enforcing the last stages of reification within the labour system’s development process and prevailing against the narrow-minded bourgeois officials of the 19th and early 20th century. It was a process quite similar to what had happened only 100 years before when the bourgeoisie stepped into the shoes of absolutism. This was only possible because the workers’ parties and trade unions, due to their deification of labour, relied on the state machinery and its institutions of repressive labour management in an affirmative way. That’s why it never occurred to them to abolish the state-run administration of human material and simultaneously the state itself. Instead of that, they were eager to seize the systemic power by means of what they called “the march through the institutions” (in Germany). Thereby, like the bourgeoisie had done earlier, the workers’ movement adopted the bureaucratic tradition of labour management and storekeeping of human resources, once conjured up by absolutism.
After centuries of domestication, the modern human being can not even imagine a life without labour. As a social imperative, labour not only dominates the sphere of the economy in the narrow sense, but also pervades social existence as a whole, creeping into everyday life and deep under the skin of everybody. “Free time”, a prison term in its literal meaning, is spent to consume commodities in order to increase (future) sales.
On the contrary, our contemporaries quite generally only ascribe meaning, validity and social significance to an activity if they can square it with the indifference of the world of commodities. His labour’s subjects don’t know what to make of a feeling like grief; the transformation of grief into grieving-work, however, makes the emotional alien element a known quantity one is able to gossip about with people of one’s own kind. This way dreaming turns into dreaming-work, to concern oneself with a beloved one turns into relationship-work, and care for children into child raising work past caring. Whenever the modern human being insists on the seriousness of his activities, he pays homage to the idol by using the word “work” (labour).
The imperialism of labour then is reflected not only in colloquial language. We are not only accustomed to using the term “work/labour” inflationary, but also mix up two essentially different meanings of the word. “Labour” no longer, as it would be correct, stands for the capitalist form of activity carried out in the end-in-itself treadmills, but became a synonym for any goal-directed human effort in general, thereby covering up its historical tracks.
This lack of conceptual clarity paves the way for the widespread “common-sense” critique of labour society, which argues just the wrong way around by affirming the imperialism of labour in a positivist way. As if labour would not control life through and through, the labour society is accused of conceptualising “labour” too narrowly by only validating marketable gainful employment as “true” labour in disregard of morally decent do-it-yourself work or unpaid self-help (housework, neighbourly help, etc.). An upgrading and broadening of the concept labour shall eliminate the one-sided fixation along with the hierarchy involved.
Such thinking is not at all aimed at emancipation from the prevailing compulsions, but is only semantic patchwork. The apparent crisis of the labour society shall be resolved by manipulation of social awareness in elevating services, which are extrinsic to the capitalist sphere of production and deemed to be inferior so far, to the nobility of “true” labour. Yet the inferiority of these services is not merely the result of a certain ideological view, but inherent in the very fabric of the commodity-producing system and cannot be abolished by means of a nice moral re-definition.
This way the attempt to use opposing interests inherent in the system as a leverage for social emancipation is irreversibly exhausted. The traditional left has finally reached a dead end. A rebirth of radical critique of capitalism depends on the categorical break with labour. Only if the new aim of social emancipation is set beyond labour and its derivatives (value, commodity, money, state, law as a social form, nation, democracy, etc.), a high level of solidarity becomes possible for society as a whole. Resistance against the logic of lobbyism and individualisation then could point beyond the present social formation, but only if the prevailing categories are referred to in a non-positivist way.
You will argue that superseding private property and abolishing the social constraint of earning money will result in inactivity and that laziness will spread. So you confess that your entire “natural” system is based on nothing but coercive force? Is this the reason why you dread laziness as a mortal sin committed against the spirit of the labour idol? Frankly, the opponents of labour are not against laziness. We will give priority to the restoration of a culture of leisure, which was once the hallmark of any society but was exterminated to enforce restless production divested of any sense and meaning. That’s why the opponents of labour will lose no time in shutting down all those branches of production which only exist to let keep running the maniac end-in-itself machinery of the commodity producing system, regardless of the consequences.
According to this spirit, the opponents of labour want to create new forms of social movement and want to occupy bridgeheads for a reproduction of life beyond labour. It is now a question of combining a counter-social practice with the offensive refusal of labour.
May the ruling powers call us fools because we risk the break with their irrational compulsory system! We have nothing to lose but the prospect of a catastrophe that humanity is currently heading for with the executives of the prevailing order at the helm. We can win a world beyond labour.
Workers of all countries, call it a day!
[A true classic on this Labor Day. This essay shows why David Graeber’s recently circulated essay “Bullshit Jobs” makes so little sense to me. Jobs are bullshit -ipso facto.]
No one should ever work.
Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.
That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act.
The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality. So much the worse for “reality,” the gravity hole that sucks the vitality from the little in life that still distinguishes it from mere survival. Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.
Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue, I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes, so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.
You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious. To be ludic is not to be ludicrous. Play doesn’t have to be frivolous, although frivolity isn’t triviality; very often we ought to take frivolity seriously. I’d like life to be a game — but a game with high stakes. I want to play for keeps.
I am not playing definitional games with anybody. When I say I want to abolish work, I mean just what I say, but I want to say what I mean by defining my terms in non-idiosyncratic ways. My minimum definition of work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or “communist,” work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness.
Such is “work.” Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic. Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.” This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is). Some otherwise attentive students of play, like Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens), define it as game-playing or following rules. I respect Huizinga’s erudition but emphatically reject his constraints. There are many good games (chess, baseball, Monopoly, bridge) which are rule-governed but there is much more to play than game-playing. Conversation, sex, dancing, travel — these practices aren’t rule-governed but they are surely play if anything is. And rules can be played with at least as readily as anything else.
Let’s pretend for a moment that work doesn’t turn people into stultified submissives. Let’s pretend, in defiance of any plausible psychology and the ideology of its boosters, that it has no effect on the formation of character. And let’s pretend that work isn’t as boring and tiring and humiliating as we all know it really is. Even then, work would still make a mockery of all humanistic and democratic aspirations, just because it usurps so much of our time. Socrates said that manual laborers make bad friends and bad citizens because they have no time to fulfill the responsibilities of friendship and citizenship. He was right. Because of work, no matter what we do, we keep looking at our watches. The only thing “free” about so-called free time is that it doesn’t cost the boss anything. Free time is mostly devoted to getting ready for work, going to work, returning from work, and recovering from work. Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor, as a factor of production, not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace, but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that. No wonder Edward G. Robinson in one of his gangster movies exclaimed, “Work is for saps!
The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, surveying the data on contemporary hunter-gatherers, exploded the Hobbesian myth in an article entitled “The Original Affluent Society.” They work a lot less than we do, and their work is hard to distinguish from what we regard as play. Sahlins concluded that “hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.” They worked an average of four hours a day, assuming they were “working” at all. Their “labor,” as it appears to us, was skilled labor which exercised their physical and intellectual capacities; unskilled labor on any large scale, as Sahlins says, is impossible except under industrialism. Thus it satisfied Friedrich Schiller’s definition of play, the only occasion on which man realizes his complete humanity by giving full “play” to both sides of his twofold nature, thinking and feeling. Play and freedom are, as regards production, coextensive. Even Marx, who belongs (for all his good intentions) in the productivist pantheon, observed that “the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and external utility is required.” He never could quite bring himself to identify this happy circumstance as what it is, the abolition of work — it’s rather anomalous, after all, to be pro-worker and anti-work — but we can.
What I really want to see is work turned into play. A first step is to discard the notions of a “job” and an “occupation.” Even activities that already have some ludic content lose most of it by being reduced to jobs which certain people, and only those people, are forced to do to the exclusion of all else. Is it not odd that farm workers toil painfully in the fields while their air-conditioned masters go home every weekend and putter about in their gardens? Under a system of permanent revelry, we will witness the Golden Age of the dilettante which will put the Renaissance to shame. There won’t be any more jobs, just things to do and people to do them.
The secret of turning work into play, as Charles Fourier demonstrated, is to arrange useful activities to take advantage of whatever it is that various people at various times in fact enjoy doing. To make it possible for some people to do the things they could enjoy, it will be enough just to eradicate the irrationalities and distortions which afflict these activities when they are reduced to work. I, for instance, would enjoy doing some (not too much) teaching, but I don’t want coerced students and I don’t care to suck up to pathetic pedants for tenure.
Second, there are some things that people like to do from time to time, but not for too long, and certainly not all the time. You might enjoy baby-sitting for a few hours in order to share the company of kids, but not as much as their parents do. The parents meanwhile profoundly appreciate the time to themselves that you free up for them, although they’d get fretful if parted from their progeny for too long. These differences among individuals are what make a life of free play possible. The same principle applies to many other areas of activity, especially the primal ones. Thus many people enjoy cooking when they can practice it seriously at their leisure, but not when they’re just fuelling up human bodies for work.
So the abolitionists will be largely on their own. No one can say what would result from unleashing the creative power stultified by work. Anything can happen. The tiresome debater’s problem of freedom vs. necessity, with its theological overtones, resolves itself practically once the production of use-values is coextensive with the consumption of delightful play-activity.
Life will become a game,or rather many games, but not — as it is now — a zero/sum game. An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play. The participants potentiate each other’s pleasures, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins. The more you give, the more you get. In the ludic life, the best of sex will diffuse into the better part of daily life. Generalized play leads to the libidinization of life. Sex, in turn, can become less urgent and desperate, more playful. If we play our cards right, we can all get more out of life than we put into it; but only if we play for keeps.
Workers of the world… RELAX!
[The piece below sounds very much like Chris Carlsson’s “Jobs Don’t Work” which is linked to in the commentary here. Carlsson’s is much better though – highlights of it will follow eventually.]
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.
Burning cars – Toward an unproductive infinitude – Baudrillard on art “workers” and cultural “production”
Baudrillard’s account in The Mirror of Production is motivated primarily by a critique of Marx… Marx endowed production and labor with a “revolutionary title of nobility” that has paralyzed subsequent attempts to formulate a political program derived from Marx’s concepts. Thus, one naturalization was substituted for another (Baudrillard, 18–19).
According to Poster, Baudrillard sees production and labor as the “forms” that Marx used as a foundation for the critique of political economy. However, in so using these forms, a part of Marx’s critique was left incomplete, carrying over entirely uncritically two key concepts of political economy itself (Poster, 2). By basing his critique of political economy around production and labor, Marx retained the theoretical and ideological core of the object of that critique, which inhibited his ability to complete his critique and escape the constraints of classical political economy…
…Thus, Baudrillard goes further than merely associating Marx with an inability to overcome the status of labor in political economy. Marx’s productivism is not merely a humanistic fetishization of labor and those who perform it, but a means by which every aspect of life is seen through the prism of production…
…Rather than maintaining a narrow fixation on the condition of one’s exploitation as labor as the means by which this exploitation can be transcended, Baudrillard argues that workers must liberate themselves from the status of “labor-power,” and “think themselves under another sign than that of production” (Poster, 3).
Under capitalism, workers are exploited not only as a result of the machinations of the system, which dominates them, but also by the code, which co-opts and coerces them. The reinforcement and perpetuation of this code in traditional Marxism ironically services the needs of capitalism. It generates this effect by means of popularizing the myth that labor-power is each individual’s “fundamental human potential” rather than a capitalist social relation. As Baudrillard writes:
“And in this Marxism assists the cunning of capital. It convinces men 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.” (Baudrillard, 31)
The attachment of the sign of the economic to every spontaneous insurrection under the sun is a commonplace in the Marxist tradition. For Baudrillard, bursts of revolutionary activity governed by the “pleasure principle” and the “radicality of revolt”—such as that witnessed in “the destruction of machines, in pre-Marxist, utopian and libertarian discourse as well as in the ideas sustaining ‘the cursed poets or the sexual revolt”—sought a new and more radical “total symbolic configuration of life.” But under the spell of Marxism, these strands of rebellion are abstracted out of movements in political economy, and, at worst, sacrificed as less important moments of the unfolding of history through the “development of productive forces.” It is this sense of finality from which revolutionary activity must escape, of some end toward which our efforts are driven. The “here and now” of revolution must be reinstated. Against the “imposition” of the meaning of revolutionary finality, Baudrillard instead celebrates “the radicality of desire which, in its non-meaning, cuts through all finality” (Baudrillard, 154–55).
…The Marxist paradigm not only provides a poor apparatus through which to rethink class struggle, but also does not allow us to escape the subordination of desire to “productive” finality. As Baudrillard concludes, “[t]o enclose the ‘exploited’ within the single historical possibility of taking power has been the worst diversion the revolution has ever taken” (Baudrillard, 167). It is toward a desire that exceeds this finality that Baudrillard suggests we turn to discover an unproductive infinitude whereby events may satisfy that “[s]omething in all men” that “profoundly rejoices in seeing a car burn” (Baudrillard, 141).
This argument has implications for the way in which we conceive of anti-capitalist political action. Trade unions and labor parties must cede the oppositional ground to the demands of social movements composed of desires and symbolic expenditure that exceed and cannot be recouped within a discourse of either production or its flipside, non-production. Plainly, the whole ethico-poltical edifice of capitalism must be challenged. In part, then, Baudrillard comes to the conclusion that the productivist inadequacy of both political economy and its Marxist critique must be themselves be urgently critiqued on the symbolic level of the code. While Baudrillard champions the burning car as the pure expenditure of symbolic exchange par excellence, it is the immanent critique of political economy and its critical counterpart that may in fact mark the beginning of any symbolic attack of la parole against the code. Far from hitting the streets armed with signs and placards heralding the “the right to work” and “jobs, growth and justice,” perhaps the implication of Baudrillard’s thesis is “criticize first, and then do nothing”: that we should instead take to our desks and discussion groups. In other cases, we should do nothing at all, so as not to be put in the position whereby our actions can be put to productive ends.
Art “workers” are to art what sex workers are to sex. – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed
This might clarify:
To describe what sex workers engage in as “sex” is accurate, but only in a *very particular way*. I imagine most folks would agree that it is not the same type of sex one means when talking about consensual relationships. Ergo, for those engaged in art as art “workers,” what they engage in is art, but only in a very particular way as well…
Now, I knew the comparison was dicey from a gender point of view, but it is not the nature of the work I was trying to compare, but the relationship one has to, and in, work. The way that “work” transforms an activity.
So, fighting for improved working conditions for sex workers is clearly laudable. But I think a better strategy would be to focus not (solely) on the conditions of one’s “work,” but on the compulsion to work altogether. In the specific case of sex workers, I think those struggles are better attacked from a human rights angle than from a “work” angle…
Again, to me calling art “work” accepts a set of normative principles and imports a whole ideological framework that I think is unwise. I understand the motivation (or think I do), but it’s the same reason I call what I do out here on the boat “cooking” (with scare quotes) rather than without because what I mean by cooking has a set of qualitative conditions attached that get completely severed by doing it as work.
***** – “acknowledgement of the value of cultural labor” is precisely what I continue to object to.
To call something “labor” invites a particular type of “value.” So, do I think artists engage in interesting activity? Yes. Do I think the activity is work? No. Do I think it is valuable? Yes, but the nature of that value and how it is valued is important. If it is indeed, *mere* work (yes, in Bob Black’s sense) then I have no more or less sympathy for it than say selling insurance. If work is supposed to be honorific in some sense, then I think another term might be needed or we need to be expansive in its application (to no good end in my mind other than to be fair and inclusive) so that we speak of juggling “workers”, hiking “workers”, etc. And yeah art *can* be a stand in, and often *desires* to stand in for the “general application of creative principles,” but I think we might need to get away from the word “art” as quickly as we need to get away from the word “work!”
I would say talk of compensation is tricky. When I have friends for over for dinner I hardly expect compensation despite the fact that I might have undergone tremendous effort (“work”) to prepare the meal. So if one’s art is akin to a shared experience among friends, talk of payment gets weird. But if it is not for friends, but a professional endeavor, one in which a “service” is provided to a client then talk of money makes sense – to the extent it is such it seems like talk of “art” then becomes tricky…
I should have said – *can* become tricky. I definitely don’t want to set up ironclad dichotomies…
In 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that the priorities of modern industrial society needed a thorough reappraisal.
“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,” he wrote in the essay, In Praise of Idleness.
“The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”
It has to be said that this veneration of work contains a slither of old Left thinking. The old Left, in an attitude stretching back to the nineteenth century, was very insistent that everyone should be obliged to work. No-one, said the old Left, in a taunt aimed at top-hatted, cane wielding capitalists, should live in luxury on the labour of others. But this expectation of universal labour was predicated on first abolishing exploitation. Now there is an expectation of universal work, regardless of the existence of exploitation. In fact, the expectation of work has become more emphatic as exploitation has intensified (this might be related to the fact that exploitation has virtually expired as a concept.
Work has now achieved the status, described by Mark Fisher in his book, Capitalist Realism, of “post-ideological”. Like recycling, its benefits are assumed unthinkingly. But this is, Fisher says, “precisely where ideology does its work”.
The virtue of work is an assumption even of a significant strand of anti-capitalist thinking – the school of “economic democracy”, or workers’ control.“Without the pride and self-discipline that good work instills, the human spirit shrivels,” says David Schweickart in After Capitalism.
The fact that the virtue of work is so fervently believed in by utterly diverse elements of the political spectrum perhaps indicates a widespread desire not contemplate something, to blot out an uncomfortable thought.
There is another reason why idolising work is fundamentally out of time. Compared to Russell’s day, there are urgent and mounting environmental problems. To take just one example, arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than virtually anymore anticipated. More work – “altering,” in Russell’s phrase, “the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface” – is not part of the solution, it’s a major part of the problem. Ecologically, we, as a society, need less work to be done. We need to de-grow.
Which brings me to one thing I found quite unappealing about the vision David Schweickart presents. His description of economic life seems to assume that the ideal way to live is to have some job that you go off to for 40 hours a week for the rest of your life. If labor is unpleasant, the solution is to give workers more control, rather than giving them the option of opting out of work–”voice” rather than “exit”, to use Albert Hirschman’s lovely phrase. Now maybe this makes sense to people who grew up in the mid-20th century, when the labor market was less volatile and careers were more stable. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if full employment is possible, why would it be desirable? If there’s not enough work to go around, why would you go and create more? And maybe it’s true that if we make the workplace democratic, then work will be fulfilling and people won’t mind it. But in that case, why force them?
More importantly, I don’t think it’s necessary to go down this road at all. Rather than starting with these complicated issues of economic planning, we should start with the thing that’s actually most desirable: making people less dependent on wage labor. Social Democracy has already gone part of the way in this direction, by removing things like health care and education from the market. But to really attack wage labor at its root, you need something like the guaranteed minimum income–perhaps in combination with reductions in the length of the work-week.
Which isn’t to say that basic income is a one-shot magic solution to all the problems of capitalism (although for the argument that it could be, check out a weird and provocative article called “The Capitalist Road to Communism”). Indeed, he best thing about a guaranteed income is that it stands a pretty good chance of provoking major economic disruption and social crisis–that’s what makes it a “non-reformist reform.” In a world with a guaranteed income, it could very well turn out that there are some things that just aren’t getting done. It’s not clear that you’d be able to find enough people to clean office bathrooms or work the night shift at 7-11 if they had access to a basic income, no matter what you paid them.
Some people invoke the above scenario as an argument against the basic income, but let me emphasize that this is a problem I would love to have. Once it becomes clear what kind of work is both desired and undersupplied, we can have a political struggle about how that work will get done. By offering special rewards (i.e. “material incentives”)? By creating some kind of national service requirement in exchange for the basic income (you have to go clean toilets or work the night shift once a month, say)? By finding clever new ways to automate these jobs? Or by deciding we can really do without some things we thought we “needed”?
I can’t predict in advance what the solution would be. And I don’t have to. That’s really the most important point I want to make here. I think the lesson of history is that momentous social change never happens because someone came up with a detailed plan for the future, won people over to it, and then implemented it. The chaos of real people making their own history always overwhelms such neat plans.
And I want to suggest that socialists, armed with an analysis of capitalism and a set of basic principles for the future, shouldn’t be afraid of a politics that aims to provoke a crisis without knowing exactly where it will lead. The idea of a basic income that breaks our dependence on wage labor is a proposal for pushing toward that productive crisis, and for that reason I find it far more compelling than all the sterile blueprints for economic democracies and democratic plans and Parecons and what have you.
…For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.
The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hard-working or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification. This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?
The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class…
…Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other…it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.”…
Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political Left and Right is ambiguous. But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages. With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.
Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs—food and shelter—are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to—and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than—betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl. This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.
Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system…
In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work. And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.
If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself. The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like Food Stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic—whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the 90s or hipsters on food stamps today. Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked. Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.
The Gay Science – 329. Leisure and Idleness
…in the American lust for gold – and the breathless haste with which they work – the distinctive vice of the New World – is already beginning to infect Old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality like a blanket. Even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s lunch whilst reading the latest news of the stock market, one lives as one might always “miss out on something”. “Rather do anything rather than nothing” : this principle too is just a noose to throttle all culture and good taste. Just as all forms are visibly perishing by the haste of the workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are also perishing. The proof of this may be found in the universal demand for gross obviousness in all those situations in which human beings wish to be honest with one another for once – in their associations with friends, women, relatives, children, teachers, pupils, leaders and Princes : One no longer has time or energy for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for otium at all. Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretence and overreaching and anticipating others. Virtue has come to consist in doing something in a shorter time than another person. And so there are only rare hours of sincere intercourse permitted: in them, however, people are tired, and would not only like “to let themselves go,” but to stretch their legs out wide in awkward style. The way people write their letters nowadays is quite in keeping with the age; their style and spirit will always be the true “sign of the times.” If there be still enjoyment in society and in art, it is enjoyment such as over worked slaves provide for themselves. Oh, this moderation in “joy” of our cultured and uncultured classes! Oh, this increasing suspiciousness of all enjoyment! Work is winning over more and more the good conscience to its side: the desire for enjoyment already calls itself “need of recreation,” and even begins to be ashamed of itself. “One owes it to one’s health,” people say, when they are caught at a picnic. Indeed, it might soon go so far that one could not yield to the desire for the vita contemplative, (that is to say, excursions with thoughts and friends), without self contempt and a bad conscience. Well! Formerly it was the very reverse: it was “action” that suffered from a bad conscience. A man of good family concealed his work when need compelled him to labour. The slave laboured under the weight of the feeling that he did something contemptible: the “doing” itself was something contemptible. “Only in otium and bellum is there nobility and honour:” so rang the voice of ancient prejudice!
Human, All Too Human – 284
In favor of the idle. An indication that esteem for the meditative life has decreased is that scholars today compete with active men in a kind of hasty enjoyment, so that they seem to value this kind of enjoying more than the kind that actually befits them and, in fact, offers much more enjoyment. Scholars are ashamed of otium. But leisure and idlenessare a noble thing.
If idleness is really the beginning of all vices, it is at least located in the closest vicinity to all the virtues: the idle man is still a better man than the active man.
You don’t think that by leisure and idling I’m talking about you, do you, you lazybones?
[This is a three in one post of material (in reverse order) I did for LeisureArts on David Robbins. Although I might choose another word than “production,” I think Robbins asks a question that still needs much contemplation – “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?”]
An initial stab at a semiotic square [David Robbins]
Note that “High Entertainment” is a category Robbins describes as “…works and artifacts that retain fine art’s complex ambitions for the culture while eschewing the specialized language of fine art in favor of mass accessibility – [it] can be manifested in games, toys, fashion, public sculpture, books, hoaxes, indeed in any product that has contact with the public.” p. 311
Art/Life – David Robbins – LeisureArts
The old art/life distinction.
The “triangulation” theory of David Robbins.
This notion is worked out in various ways throughout his book The Velvet Grind, but the essay “On Talent” spells things out pretty directly:
That something might stand outside art and report on it, comment on it, editorialize about it in an iconic language of its own – this was, and apparently still is, disorienting. The reason, I submit, is that it instantiates a complication of the modernist dialogue between life and art. Talent suggests that the old binary model has been superseded by a triangulated model whose points are life, art, and entertainment – a competing communication system no less madly self-sustaining, self-referential, and self-celebratory than art. “Showbiz” adds another category that’s neither Art nor Life. p.24
Robbins’s triangulation is an important step to finding new forms and languages for what he calls “imaginative practice” – creative, funny, thoughtful forms of invention that are not art. We at LesiureArts find Robbins incredibly useful [We hope to write more, but being the slackers that we are, this might be as far as we get]. He also writes about inventing experience which he distinguishes from producing culture. This is a welcome relief from all of the talk about cultural production, as invented experience resonates nicely with John Dewey’s aesthetic theory which is in dire need of being read by the legions of curators and artists who are reinventing the wheel of experience based practices.
The LeisureArts modified model.
As we mentioned, the triangulation theory is an important step, but LeisureArts is interested in expanding the terrain of inventive practices and theory to cover a host of other activities that Robbins’s triangle can’t account for. That leads to the above modification. In leisure, we have a broad field of activities that fall in between the various oppositions, some closer to one vertex or the other, but the field itself exists in a kind of equipoise (ideally). Adding leisure to the model allows for the inventiveness of car customizers, tea cozy makers, coat hanger collectors, home cooks, and others to mingle on equal footing with so called “high” forms of culture be it entertainment or art.
David Robbins – The Velvet Grind
…the pertinent question is no longer “what infinite variety of materials, strategies, concerns might we include in the context of art?” It isn’t “what might we map onto the coordinates of art?” These were the questions of modernism. The more contemporary question – tomorrow’s question – is “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?” (p.29)
The maximum site of invention, now, is one that forces the culture of criticality into direct and continuous contact with its strongest and most radical cultural alternative, the culture that thrives despite art’s low regard for it, the culture, ladies and gentleman, that actually expresses respect for lives conventionally led, the culture that doesn’t need art: entertainment. (p.167)
It’s time to separate income from work.
The solution is clear: to guarantee everyone, whether or not he or she holds a job, a minimum salary sufficient to cover housing, transportation, education, medical care and, yes, discretionary income. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in an 18th century mindset. We’re nowhere close to detaching money from work. The Right wants to get rid of the minimum wage. On the Left, advocates for a Universal Living Wage nevertheless stipulate that a decent income should go to those who work a 40-hour week.
Ford proposes a Basic Income Guarantee based on performance of non-work activities; volunteering at a soup kitchen would be considered compensable work. But even this “radical” proposal doesn’t go far enough.
Whatever comes next, revolutionary overthrow or reform of the existing system, Americans are going to have to accept a reality that will be hard for a nation of strivers to take: we’re going to have to start paying people to sit at home.
Going back to the 1970s – or maybe even to the 1910s – there has existed a decadent, artistic underground here which has placed little value on “making it” for the sake of making it. The king of decadent Berlin is the “poor but sexy” Lebenskünstler, an archetype who has had a huge influence on culture and nightlife here till this day. The Lebenskünstler cares little about his next record deal or art opening or publishing deal. Instead, life is his art. Only “now” matters and how you can make the most out of each moment. Screw success and any concept of “the future” because for decades Berliners – think of WWII, the Cold War etc. – have felt there is NO tomorrow (and they are right of course – we will all die).
The Lebenskünstler‘s dilettantish self-expression might have no audience other than his circle of friends or 30 people in some tiny Kleinkunst venue. Or he might just express his sense of existential freedom by taking off his clothes in a public park because it feels good. He feels no guilt due to lack of achievement.
…And yet, compared to much of the rest of the world, the likes of Robert make it clear that the Lebenskünstler are still alive and kicking: dreamers from around the planet, living in their personal utopia of a life made of ‘meaningful experiences’, art and creative endeavours and, who, rather than complain that “no one seemed to be working”, ask themselves…”Why should I work?”
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.
Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing? Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death). No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.
We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know.
It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration …It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.
My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.
I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.
…leisure-lovers of the world unite, and watch out for this guy’s moralizing work ethic.
Leisure should be a crucial political priority, especially in recession. There’s not enough work for everyone to do? Sure there is, if everyone worked less. Our preference for leisure, frankly confessed and proclaimed, can serve the common good, and point the way toward a more equitable distribution of hard-work, soft-work and no-work in our societies. A leisure rebellion in the US would also help to break the world’s most enduring stereotype of Americans: that they ‘live to work.’
At a time when productivity is the world’s largest religion, the siesta tradition lives on.
“We are an efficiency-oriented society,” he says. “It is perhaps the dominant value in this culture. The faster things get done, the better off we’re going to be. The idea of efficiency at all costs seems to be all-pervasive. It tends to invade our leisure. Unfortunately, socializing doesn’t have a ‘yield.’ It’s hard to develop relationships; those things take time.”
…Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.
The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar “commodity.” It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.
Care is not the only profession deserving renewed attention as a source of economic employment. Craft is another. It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible…
In our age, there is a covert moral position on the side of action. The belief that I am responsible not to waste time is tied up with the belief that my work can always be beneficial to myself or those around me or those who are affected, so long as my intentions are good and I try hard enough.
Philosophy, theology, poetry, ethics, the natural sciences, foreign languages, music, worship, novels, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, art, mathematics, cosmology, political theory, if all these are considered wastes of time for non-professionals, then by Jove I urge you to waste time. Waste it with panache. Waste years if necessary. These are bound up with what makes and sustains culture, and are part and parcel of active leisure. I know that already some of you are wasting time well. But in our age of transparency, I would encourage you to come out of the closet—or out from behind the bookshelf, as it were—as a time-waster. Join up with others and waste it like there is no tomorrow. Because if you don’t waste it well, there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one you would recognize.
We do not seek to overthrow the system but, rather, to underthrow it. [emphasis mine]
Leisure is not a promise that makes us press our noses to the grindstone; it is a basic human right. To work for the vague hope of a short respite is criminal extortion.
Listening to artists and writers talk, you notice that the word you are hearing most often, after I and but and the, and so on, is work.
In citing his work, an artist or writer associates himself with the non-gratuitous, unpleasant labor, the “toil and trouble” identified by classical economics…The word is meant to act in part as a good luck charm to ward off the evil spirits of vacuity, uselessness, solipsism, self-indulgence, depravity.
They conflate the second and third senses of work in an effort to push back at the idea of art as a gratuity, to demonstrate the worth of their product. “I am working on a series of works…” You can see where they are coming from. The problem is that art has never fit comfortably into a labor theory of value, and for that matter, any notion of objective value finds few takers under a marginalist, net-income-extracting model of economy. If the exchange value and standing of an object of art are determined instead by the symbolic capital bestowed on it by an arbitrary, conspiratorial “artworld,” what relevance has the labor-time inputted? It is out of their hands. They would be better off with a word like collateralize.
No, the ubiquity of work ultimately masks the artist’s most complex and vital relationship, which is to leisure.
Abigail Satinsky’s recent post on Bad at Sports Protest culture: Wisconsin and WAGE and recently seeing a group called “Artists Call for Workers Rights” has me thinking again about the idea of the art “worker” and artistic “labor.” Could anyone tell me what these terms even mean? They get thrown around quite a bit as if there is some self-evident justification for their use or understanding of what they are supposed to mean. Maybe if I used other terms my confusion will be more evident – Does juggler worker or juggling labor make immediate sense? Or hike worker/hiking labor? Pinball worker/labor? Bird watching worker/labor?
Obviously there are many activities that people enjoy without monetary compensation. They often have to have jobs to support undertaking them. Yet again and again, I see artists singling themselves out as engaged in some sort of special endeavor. Calling themselves “workers,” calling their activity “labor” in some honorific sense. In the interview Satinsky cites conducted by Nato Thompson with W.A.G.E., Thompson does at least ask why just artists, but W.A.G.E will have none of it – apparently having fully accepted the capitalist paradigm, self-interest reigns. “What do we need?” is the motivating impulse. They complain about artists having to “cobble together a living” and assure us that “The dream [of state funding of artists] is alive and well” in a perfectly self absorbed art cocoon. Why not state funding for jugglers? For hikers? The answer seems to be that artists are special, providing a uniquely meritorious “service” to the world if only the world would recognize that. And in the cavalier dismissal of social capital, it appears that the only real recognition an artist can receive is in the form of monetary compensation.
In my more snide moments I think yes, go ahead W.A.G.E., go ahead art workers, join the calls for a General Strike in solidarity with the labor protests in Wisconsin (the second line of thought in Satinsky’s piece). Let the resounding fury of artistic labor “withheld” be felt across the nation. Deny us Bruce High Quality Foundation’s self-indulgent Teach 4 Amerika tour. Refuse to publish the next issue of the e-flux journal. Teach the world a lesson…except that lesson is already established, which is that the art world this whole discussion takes place in, the art world that clamors for criticality and “radical” action will not be missed much by the people who live outside of it and the problem for its advocates is that most people do…I am quite sure that transit workers, nurses, firefighters, garbage collectors, and teachers will be missed a bit more and thus their cries of economic injustice are not met with my same skeptical ears.
There is much to like in this interview with Temporary Services. They do a good bit to qualify their ambition for their recent project Art Work, but the message is still muddled to me. They clearly have larger ambitions for economic justice than establishing what they consider just compensation for artists, but likely due to speaking from their personal experience the larger ambition seems to lose its way.
I certainly support the rehabilitation of their art-centric focus expressed here:
“Our concern is about creating a new language and methodology around art *and other creative fields* that sees this output as essential to the daily life of humans.”
“In general, we want to get rid of the idea of work for everyone. We believe that people from all fields can work together in order to create an environment that takes care of everyone and is not dependent on the outdated model of Capitalism. ”
My concern is that there isn’t much “new language” used in discussing these ideas. They seem to speak in pretty conventional leftist terms – especially around the idea of exploitation. They’re absolutely right that the commercial gallery system limits how “art can be conceived,” but this is true of any art context of which the commercial is just one. That is what makes it a context in the first place. It is only by accepting the primacy of that context and its measures of success that these arguments have weight. The charge of exploitation is a complicated matter. There are a VAST number of artists supporting themselves fully or partially in commercial galleries. Maybe they mean commercial galleries in Chelsea or other Art Forum/frieze sorts of galleries? There are artists thriving in commercial galleries in Mobile, AL – Taos, NM – Galveston, TX – Brunswick, GA – and many other ‘off the map’ locations. Additionally, there are many Chelsea artists who don’t feel exploited at all (some of whom have only marginal economic success with their work). Are we to know better than they do whether they are “exploited?” Certainly Temporary Services has provided rich documentation of many who do feel exploited, but let’s not pretend it is anything other than a polemic (yet one I am very sympathetic to).
When asked to imagine what working full time outside an art/commerce model, we get into the muddiest waters with regard to larger notions of economic justice/freedom. They look to the Works Progress Administration which I think is good in that it was not exclusively for artists, but I offer the counter-example of a Basic Income/Participation Income model as that does not emphasize the productivist values of work and employment. Work should not be the organizing principle of society which is what I thought Temporary Services was getting at in mentioning getting rid of the idea of work.
We need less work, less labor, and more emphasis on generating wealth outside of an economic rubric. I think we’re basically on the same page here, but they focus on the plight of artists far more than I care for. In fact, I rarely see anyone lament the sorry state of arts funding other than arts professionals and wannabes. It makes one pause to see a group (here I am not speaking specifically about TS) proclaim over and over how important what they do is, yet decry the fact that no one else seems to recognize this. Maybe that should tell them a bit about how much value they actually offer. If I were to be concerned about one group being justly compensated for what they do, it would be stay at home moms or adult caregivers, not artists. This singling out, of course, is pointless though.
TS says, “but we could do this exclusively if we were actually paid well for what we do. We have to have other jobs.” To this I say yes, welcome to the real world where people routinely get paid to do something they don’t like in order to facilitate pursuing things they actually enjoy. There are plenty of car customizers, gardeners, jugglers, SCA types, etc. that would love to be freed from the obligation to work. I support this fully, but rather than the WPA, or selecting artists for special treatment due to their self-perceived value to society, we need to rethink fundamental assumptions about work and leisure. While I applaud the effort and dedication Temporary Services brings to exploring ideas around art and economics, I can’t help but be disappointed at how easily the discussion falls into the trap of productivist, and often elitist thinking.
Related material here.
Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.
From A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass | 1912
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.”