Our 2 conceptions of work: work as toil vs. work as performance

Yesterday, I wrote about the three ways of making a living, and I still have many implications to spell out. Today, I set this subject off to the side and turn to a related topic, this being our conceptions of work.

I believe that there are only two conceptions that vie and belie each other, that each has been with us roughly since the beginning of human history, and, what is more, that they are in competition with each other in the modern age. I will argue further that although the first conception is more prominent, it is also mistaken. In contrast, the second conception, though rarer, is actually in stride with human excellence.

The first conception is that work is toil to be endured. Evidence for the existence of this conception can be found, already in the form of common sense, in the Book of Genesis where, as punishment, God tells Adam that he shall spend his days toiling in the field while Eve shall be burdened with the labors of childbirth. My (very) speculative thesis is that this idea of work as toil coincides with the birth of agriculture 10,000 years and so ago. It is not for nothing that aristocrats in many early heroic societies tended to distinguish between leisure and warfare (their noble pursuits) and animal husbandry, farming, artisanship, and slavery (the plebs’ various fates).

My further hunch is that work as toil, beginning with the production of a single staple (corn, rice, wheat) and the steady growth of urban populations (I’m thinking of Jared Diamond’s hypothesis), is carried forward into industrialization so that manufacturing becomes its inheritor. This conceptual stability might help explain (this a further conjecture still–but here see Polanyi’s The Great Transformation) why it was possible for rural populations of laborers to make the transition, however violent the upheaval and forced the migration, to performing factory work. Toil, they might have reckoned, was man’s fate and, as such, something to endure.

This conception is very much with us today. During a philosophical conversation I had not too long ago with a Danish man, he told me that there is a commonplace Danish expression meaning ‘work of the day.’ To do the ‘work of the day’ is to toil, more or less, from sunrise to sunset.

The nature of this toil, it scarcely needs pointing out, is unpleasant yet necessary in order to sustain life; is long yet purportedly highly productive; is oftentimes drudgery (‘banal crap,’ as one philosophical friend puts it) to the point of slavery. What comes to mind is the American folk song, ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ which was recorded in 1894 but was probably gets sung during Reconstruction. The hymn clearly spells all of the above out:

I’ve been working on the railroad

All the live-long day.

I’ve been working on the railroad

Just to pass the time away.

Can’t you hear the whistle blowing,

Rise up so early in the morn;

Can’t you hear the captain shouting,

“Dinah, blow your horn!”

Not slavery anymore but wage labor, which some historians have argued was actually worse. It is still common to hear the white-collar professional, when asked about how his day went, reply, ‘It went well. I got a lot of work done today. And now I’m about to crash.’

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So much for the first conception. The second conception, so unlike the first, states that work is a performance to be prepared for. My speculative genealogical thesis here is that this conception could have arisen out of hunting and gathering as when the hunters, using skill, cunning, trickery track an animal slowly, only to exert themselves strenuously and concertedly when the time is right. Then there would be days and periods of rest. I could imagine this conception being taken up also by warriors, knights, athletes, statesmen giving speeches, tragedians, rhapsodes, troubadours, etc. In the present age, this minority conception is still to be found in a whole range of performers: students who prepare for exams and write papers; professional athletes; singers and dancers; musicians; guest speakers; performance artists; etc.

The character of work as performance is, when it is going well, very energetic, short-lived, cheerful, and qualitatively rich. One throws oneself into it and feels absorbed, engrossed, one-pointedly engaged. Afterward, one is even more vital, more alive. When Aleksandra asks me, ‘How did your philosophical conversation go with so-and-so?,’ I would not think to reply, ‘Well. We got a lot of things accomplished.’ I say, ‘Ah, it was illuminating/edifying/enlightening,’ etc. Usually, she can see the cheerfulness in my demeanor, the sense of being more alive, more bursting with life now than before.

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It seems to me that work as toil lies beneath much of the exhaustion of the overworked after ‘the great speedup.’ It also assumes that work, being drudgery, is meant to be a form of punishment: a necessary evil. Yet work as performance is as joyous to prepare for as it is to undertake. I would submit further, without arguing this point, that good work can only be performed in 2-3 hour ‘bursts’ and then not more than a couple of times a day. This is why I have at most two philosophical conversations each day: one in the morning after dawn and one in the early afternoon.

Let me draw these reflections to a close with a point about freelancers’ confusion. Even though they work for themselves, many freelancers regard work as toil (you will see them working 8-10 hour days even if there is not much to do) in lieu of work as performance. This is too bad not just because, provided one is fortunate enough to be living in the developed world, meeting one’s material needs is not a high bar to achieve but also because, beholden to work as toil, freelancers can find no joy in their performance.

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