Since 2017, I’ve been exploring the nature and significance of Total Work. I define Total Work as the process, starting at the end of the medieval period, by which human beings have been transformed into Workers as more and more aspects of life have been transformed into work.
My approach has been to offer a thoroughgoing critique of the value of work in modernity. By “critique,” I mean both an honest assessment of the value of work and a deflation of its fetishization. I stand by the proposal that work, when properly understood, is not very important–it is somewhat important but not terribly important–in the overall conception of a good life. As a primer (helpful but not adequate), I include a short TEDx talk below. If you’d like to go deeper, check out the IHMC talk. In the final section of the latter talk, I discuss what role work could place in my utopia.
Now for the revealing part. Over the years, I’ve begun to track people’s emotional reactions upon hearing about these ideas for the first time. Here’s what usually happens:
Phase 1: Rejection
Typically, somebody gets upset and soon resorts to calling me a hippie, a lazy toker, or a trust fund kid. For the record, it turns out that none of these is true. What’s fascinating is that, a la the Jungian shadow, someone is saying, “Not-me. Work is sacrosanct, this person is challenging what I hold to be sacrosanct, and thus he and his ideas must be resoundingly rejected. This is the ground upon which I stand, and so he is not-me.”
I remember when I first viewed the YouTube comments below the Big Think interview I gave. The early ones fell squarely in the rejection category. Wow, that was learning experience!
Phase 2: Misinterpretation
Suppose someone doesn’t get angry; it may likely be that he or she has misinterpreted what I was actually arguing so that the message can be kept neat, tidy, and–distorted. One man I know often introduces me to new people as the “work-life balance guy.” Yet from Day 1, I’ve argued that work-life balance, a post-WWII conceptual invention, is actually a species of Total Work inasmuch as it conforms to two central theses–the Centrality Thesis and the Subordination Thesis–of Total Work. (*–See Endnote.)
We could also call misinterpretation “domestication,” “unwilling,” or “taming” since it’s try to turn down the temperature by tossing water on the fire.
Phase 3: Non-application
Like misinterpretation, non-application refers to the fact that my interlocutor finds it interesting yet presumes that it doesn’t apply to him or her. In this case, the person is not getting upset (Phase 1) and is not misinterpreting the main lines of the argument (Phase 2). And yet, my interlocutor takes these claims to be merely a matter of objective analysis (to wit, about how the modern world operates) and therefore not also, and at the same time, an invitation to introspect (to wit, to turn a question back on the questioner). Therefore, we could also say that this person “academicizes” the argument, not seeing it as an opportunity for genuine introspection.
Make no mistake; I include myself in this examination. That is, one reason I began thinking and writing about Total Work was that I wanted to see where it resided within me. I have continued that self-examination over the past nearly three years.
Phase 4: Loophole-finding
Some precocious readers leap right into loophole quering. Significantly, this is the first thing their minds go to. In some sense, then, loophole-finding is a more sophisticated version of rejection (Phase 1) and of non-application (Phase 3). “What about therapy–isn’t that ‘inner work’? What about acts of service? What about social entrepreneurship?”
The attempt to slice and dice and find the crucial distinction that will break in the reader’s favor is amazingly telling. My question is often: “Why is that the first thing that comes to mind? Examine that within yourself.” I’m not persuaded that we’re involved purely in rational discussion; I believe something is really at stake for my interlocutor. I think this person is not yet ready to turn the light back on his or her life to see by what standards and according to what aims he or she has lived.
Phase 5: The Spiritualization of Work
In keeping with loophole-finding, people will start “spiritualizing” some special kind of work by dubbing it a “vocation” or a “calling.” Perhaps there are such animals in the modern, secularized world, yet I think three replies are in order. The first is that most forms of work actually don’t meet the requirements of a calling (see Total Work Newsletter #44: You Very Likely Don’t Have A Calling). The second: by my lights, we really should begin by taking the Way of Purgation to its very end. Unless we actually trace out where Total Work still resides within us, we’ll very likely repeat the patterns of Total Work in new forms as the rest of our lives unfold. And the third: we spiritualize work because we fear something. What is it that we fear?
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- The Centrality Thesis: Work is the center around which the rest of human life turns.
- The Subordination Thesis: Everything else is not only put in the service of but is also made to be subordinate to work.