November 2, 2015: Work ‘til you drop – the fruit of independence

Gogdignon and Thiriet wrote, “As a vehicle for self-fulfillment and personal growth, work has quickly become the focus of individual freedom, as its impure origins in physical subjugation and subsistence needs have been forgotten…transforming [work] from a means to an end in itself.” [1] For Gogdignon and Thiriet (G&T) this aspect of self-determination, elaborated by the Enlightenment to circumvent abuse, has become an abuse all its own, against the individual, by the individual. I’m reminded of that old axiom, that all great ideas commit suicide through excess.

Echoing modernity’s lack of orientation in true community and tradition that we saw from them last time, G&T write, “Since [the self] remains entirely undefined, the self becomes nothing but the act of its own definition. This definition immediately resolves into a new one, and so on, into infinity…Self-affirmation can therefore be achieved through pure action. It must take the form of an endlessly self-renewing project, in which we set ourselves new goals…[where] nonstop work becomes the ultimate measure of [our] being.”

By this point it was clear, this was not so much an essay to the world as a letter to me. I fully embraced (for the most part, still do) what G&T denounce, and what author Philip Bénéton labels “late modernity,” when individualism acquired warp speed from the Sixties. [2] I made full use of the new emancipation: rejections of authority, free choice, self-determination, and a level of work effort that would have made the Puritans blanch. From the standpoint of personal achievement, it eventually served me well, albeit not without pain for my parents in the early years. Later, not without some measure of pain for me, having lost those opportunities for connection that can never be recovered. When I left a career focused on the methods of nature for a quest to understand the human condition, I felt a bit like Linus Pauling when he said he was so engaged in his work that he met his son for the first time at his son’s fortieth birthday party. It’s a common ailment of our times. As G&T note, what was once engagement with the social arena is “exchanged for the exclusive relationship of the self to the self.”

“We can now understand why work has become the individual’s most important, all-consuming activity,” writes G&T. “Its exactions constantly feed the willful appetites that haunt the modern world. If freedom must remain permanently unrealized, work is the perfect place to exercise it…We are witnessing a strange reversal of perspective, in which servitude – be it voluntary or forced – becomes freedom in action…If modern consciousness ever pauses to rest, it only finds a void that serves to fuel its own anxieties. We have no choice except activity or void, work or anxiety.” Tocqueville rings in my ears, having pioneered this perspective with his accurate evaluation of Americans already by 1840. [3] But to take the point only slightly farther, G&T write, “Freedom today takes the form of voluntary servitude to an absent master. Modern man is his own master, yet he has all the characteristics of a slave. Although he is hyperactive, excessively vigilant, and extremely driven, it is entirely by choice. He works frantically because he is free; not because he is held in bondage. This is not a sign of madness; it is the logical outcome of modern freedom.”

For those with a career in the sciences or engineering, there are two sides to this. One side agrees with G&T’s assessment. There were those occasions when a 98 hour week would lead me outside a windowless lab building in the midst of darkness. There I could find refreshment under a smog piercing moon, its rays cast upon asphalt and concrete vistas of another American mega city. Schedules imposed on those efforts were grueling, but my brain needed a break. So I stood there in the dark, wondering what life would be like without equations, computer code, and radio frequency circuits.

The flip side of this experience was the awe one discovers with those deep emersions in nature. In my case, they were pierced by those equations, computer code, and radio frequency circuits. The concepts of things we will never see, only calculate and measure, can be very close to the edge of human capacity. So close that losing one’s mental pattern of understanding spells another struggle to get it back. Being in the presence of that understanding was something like a religious experience. To witness those equations lift off the page with a life of their own was the same feeling as the brush strokes that makes the painting, or the scene that clicks on stage. You didn’t want to leave it. What Alasdair MacIntyre extols as private practice that earns satisfaction by doing it to the best of one’s ability. [4] A private satisfaction with no publicity.

There’s also something to be said for all those individualists gathering to complete some great project. While as transient as G&T would decry, who would not want to have been part of building the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Apollo moon mission, or Voyager now beyond our solar system’s heliopause. Most great projects can’t be done alone. But are such triumphs only possible by organized individualists within disconnected societies? The Pyramids, Parthenon, and Lighthouse of Alexandria marking the port to their great library provide arguments against this. (Incidentally, slaves did not build the pyramids as Cecil B. DeMille would have us believe.)

“We were mistaken to think that the emancipation of the individual would lead to the liberation of all desires and passions, to hedonistic self-fulfillment,” writes G&T. “Far from responding to the call of pleasure, modern man is entirely focused on the realization of his power to act, which is the sole indication that he is free.” Though one can barely imagine a laborer pining for another hour on, say, a road crew to dig another ditch. For them, in America, hedonism seems to matter. And why wouldn’t it? Their action tends not to be rewarding beyond remuneration. Often it’s “life eviscerating,” as Joseph Campbell coined our modern work. [5] Having toiled in several factories and on a road crew before my college years, I have some experience in these matters. What counted most on the job was lunch. Of course this is my perspective of labor, and surely – hopefully – there are those brave souls who truly do enjoy it, with a touch of MacIntyre’s private practice.

As witness to others still in the grind of whatever sort, my perspective is from the outside in now, and often I see what G&T meant when they wrote, “[Modern man] is no longer curious about the outside world or capable of aesthetic enjoyment. He has no time to wander freely, no time to waste in wonderment, reflection, or diversion. The self has dispensed with the outside world, and its tireless activity has now forbidden any intrusions…[sounding] the death knell not only of dilettantism but also of art.” And if you don’t believe that, consider modern art. Everything from “excremental works” (for $20,000 per can), to shouting until unable to speak, called “performance art.” With modernity’s disengagement from high culture, the replacement is cash culture or pop culture, while art is anything an artist says it is, and an artist is anyone who says they are. As with moral bearings provided by true communities now gone, we have no reference.

With all this in mind, my engagement with the workplace had a happy ending. Somehow, the utilitarian society I live in didn’t rob me of curiosity and that thrill of discovery. I left the workplace, not without reluctance, to expand my horizons. To write, to paint, to study other fields of science, history and philosophy, to reengage photography, hiking, and visits to what’s left of wilderness or antiquities the world over. Admittedly, I, like most Americans, have no community connection. And while G&T would be disappointed in my general lack of longing for those connections, at least I am enlivened by the wider world they advocate. Western civilization makes its rotation from confinement of the individual by someone else, to confinement of the individual by the self. What else can we do but make the best of it?

Until the first Monday of January the 4th, 2016.


[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, The Rebirth of Voluntary Servitude, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994
[2] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004
[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003 (1840)
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2010
[5] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1987
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Published on November 02, 2015 08:01
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