The alien and the American discuss modern work life (P.S. It’s a joke)

So the alien has scheduled an appointment with the American in order to compare notes about work life on their respective planets. This is what they said.

Alien: On my planet, we have ‘companies’ that occupy physical spaces known as ‘office buildings.’

American: Yeah, we have those too.

Alien: Also. On my planet, we have ’employees’ who work in ‘official buildings.’ These ’employees’ file what we term ‘reports.’ They go to ‘meetings’ held in ‘board rooms.’ Some of them ‘make schedules’ and ‘field inquiries.’ We used to call them ‘secretaries,’ but now, after all the fucking PC bullshit, we have agreed to refer to them as ‘subspecialty-executive administrators-in-subservience-training-for-perpetuity.’

American: Yup, we’ve got them too. Sort of.

Alien: But listen, friend. I am not finished. On my planet, we also put some in charge of ‘examining budgets’: ‘accountants.’ And some we put in charge of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’: ‘managers.’ And some who are in charge of hiring new ’employees’: ‘alien waste management.’

American: OK, yeah, OK, yeah. I follow you. But who are the aliens who run the show? I mean, how do you call them?

Alien: Oh, yes, them. Them we call ‘assholes.’

American: Well, yeah, this is, ya know, really interesting, really really enlightening because I can see that we really have a lot in common. I mean there’s a lot of common ground here between your people and mine, between you and me, right here, right here between us. I see a lot of convergence.

Alien: I sense that too, friend. You have a halo of ethereal shit hovering high above you, and it puts me at great peace. And let us not forget that it is always important for collaborators like you and me to work toward a common vision for the sake of maximizing stakeholder returns.

American: Um, yeah. Exactly. And–right–so what I was about to say was that I think the main difference is essentially linguistic. You see what you call ‘accountants’ and ‘managers’ and all that we call ‘laptops.’

Alien: Ah ha. Very interesting.

American: And what you call ‘board rooms’–well, those we refer to as ‘Skype chats.’

Alien: I am taking notes as you speak, so please bear with me. You must know that I’m totally with you, bro.

American: Now then: what you used to call ‘secretaries’–the ones who get the coffee and make the appointments and, well, do all the scut work around here–on our planet these people, who by the way usually wear these really sexy hip glasses even though they have near-perfect vision, also work for free in exchange for ‘resume building’ and a couple of useless college credits–I’m referring, of course, to ‘interns.’

Alien: Ah, I see. That is very, very interesting. The Martians call that ‘exploitation’ but don’t mind them. They’re out there on the fringe left. In the mainstream political process, they have virtually no pull. But now aren’t we missing something? Something basic. You haven’t told me what you call an ‘office building.’

American: Oh, right. That’s ‘Starbucks.’

The return of the robots!

Beware the tin-tin bots, my friend!
The jaws that bite, the hands that snatch!
Beware the Jubjub can, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

Beware, beware because the robots are everywhere. They take our cash, they send us our buys, they give us our tickets, they feed us our food. They file our taxes, they analyze our scans, they spit out our caseloads, they make us our coffees. They make, they make, they make and serve serve serve. Indeed, they search and search and search. We’d love them, each and every one of them, were it not for our creeping suspicion that they were making and selling and then taking our shirts.

Dystopian Luddite fears are nothing new, of course, but with an economy that has yet to recover some economists are starting to ask whether the jobs that went bye-bye are ever coming back or whether the robots have snatched them up. Since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, we have tended to adopt 3 conflicting views of machines:

  1. They will do our dirty work for us, thereby freeing us up for dignified leisure (otium).
  2. They will replace backbreaking labor with high skills work. We will become their managers, technicians, designers, and overseers.
  3.  They will replace us, making our labor summarily obsolete.

During the best of times, Optimists have plumped for either 1. or 2. or both while Pessimists and some Sci-Fi novelists have imagined an ominous universe in which 3. holds sway. In some circles today, the Pessimists are making their presence felt.

Take the Nov. 2 episode of On Point radio which featured Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of MIT. They query whether we’re now witnessing a new period of technological innovation in which machines are outcompeting not just individuals formerly employed in low skill service and manufacturing positions but high skill white collar professionals such as lawyers, radiologists, and accountants. It’s a wonderful episode, worth having a listen. Their solutions? No good ones apart from their call for crowdsourcing the problem.

My modest proposal would be that we change the topic of conversation from, “What do we humans do (or do well) that robots cannot?” to 2 philosophical questions:

  1. What is the form and function of the human being? (For Aristotle, to ask what it means to be human is also to ask what a human is for.)
  2. What life needs do humans have, and how can these be satisfied? (Cf. my piece on 3 needful jobs.)

It could be that asking these questions, as opposed to the more practical ones we’re used to, might set us off on rational inquiries into how to do good work in the early 21st C.

Further Reading

Kay Hymowitz, “How Brooklyn Got its Groove Back,” City Journal.

In the article, Hymowitz asks, “How did the Brooklyn of the Lehanes and crack houses turn into what it is today—home to celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Adrian Grenier, to Michelin-starred chefs, and to more writers per square foot than any place outside Yaddo?” The answer: a new wave of entrepreneurship. The problem: crippling poverty after the demise of manufacturing.

Editors, “Difference Engine: Luddite Legacy,” The Economist.

The Editors examine whether the Luddite Fallacy may no longer be fallacious.

Wistfulness in these strange times…

My roaming personal essay, “Wistfulness in These Strange Times,” has just been published in Spike Magazine. The piece adduces the reasons we have for being wistful, and it describes the economic situation modern workers are going through. The essay begins,

This morning I awoke in a wistful mood. The birdsong coming through my bedroom window reminded me of something softer and higher but also…

From work = life to working and resting: A 2nd essay

First Essay: Work = Life

In the past 6 months, I have written frequently about the work/life divide. It should be said at the outset that industrial capitalism inaugurated two startling, world-historical changes. First, it transformed labor into a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Second, it made work into the kind of activity that was to take place in its own value sphere, a sphere outside of and far from one’s dwelling. The corollary is that work has become reconceived–in many but not all quarters–as a kind of drudgery: toiling for the sake of toiling no more. That “no more” comes in the form of leisure or retirement.

This postlapserian desire to be freed from working is indeed quite striking since most of our lives is occupied with working and its offspring: thoughts of working, distractions, idling, and daydreaming during work time. Furthermore, in the past couple years the very concept of the workplace has become something of an enigma.

My first attempt to put the work/life divide to rest went in the direction of an identity thesis. On this construal, work = life and work life = life work. My reasons for doing so are legion and not so easily canvassed in the space of the blog. Suffice it to say, though, that in my philosophy practice I see many conversation partners struggling with problems stemming from our bad sociological and cultural experiments. I see the degradation of work in the eyes of pleasure seekers. I see the untethering of work from higher aims. And I see the coarsening of our mental life in the public sphere and the spilling over of our desires into the private.

For months, I’ve been mulling over my work= life solution, and I can’t seem to make it work anymore. My dissatisfaction follows from the conceptual strain necessary for believing that states of being such as sleep, idleness, and leisure are somehow kinds or types of work. This would have to be true on the literal interpretation of work = life. Yet the phenomenological experience of reverie seems no more congruous with that of working than a dog’s dreaming seems to his experience of hunting. The absurd conclusion is that reverie is a kind of work.

To avoid this conclusion, I want to strike out on a different path, this one much older than the last–strike out and see how it goes. Here is the line of thought that owes much to Spinoza: We work and we rest.

Second Essay: Working and Resting


1. We work for the sake of

i. persisting in our existence

ii. raising our potency and realizing ourselves

iii. aspiring toward higher things such as goodness and beauty (where the act of aspiring is folded into the aim of aspiring)

2. To work well is

i. to be absorbed wholeheartedly in 1.i – 1.iii

ii. to be a thinking-acting being.

3. To work poorly is

i. to diminish 1.i-iii

ii. to dirempt thinking from acting, head from hands.

4. The ‘psychological’ results of working poorly are longing for rest, the desire for diversion, the regret for a life better lived otherwise, and the overall feeling of degradation and exhaustion.


5. We rest in the sense of

i. sleeping and napping

ii. idleness

iii. reverie and daydreaming

iv. leisurely contemplation

6. To rest well is to raise our potencies.

7. To rest poorly is to be gnawed by restlessness or to be undone by lassitude.

8. The ‘psychological’ consequences of resting overly much is to become a wastrel: i.e., to waste one’s talents, to let one’s fields lie fallow, to be a freerider.

Wisdom & Folly

9. Wisdom involves distinguishing good work from bad, good rest from poor rest and learning when to work and when to rest.

10. One type of folly is restlessness. This involves wanting to work when you should be resting or wanting to rest when you should be working.

On speculative philosophical biography: A conversation with Antonio Dias

On April 5, in a post on the work and life of the artist Eric Gill, I wrote that “philosophical biography is the  study of how well a philosopher’s ideas are realized in his life, in the core of his being, in his thoughts, habits, and actions.” I suggested that speculative philosophical biography would thus be concerned with testing “whether a philosopher’s way of thinking [though, as yet unrealized] could be realizable at some time or other and in some form of life or other.” There is one further condition that I should like to add to this statement: realizable with the aim of leading to a successful human life. I say more about this rider in my reply below.

This morning, Antonio Dias wrote a  remarkably thoughtful comment. It reads,

You open up provocative questions when you attempt to reconcile Gill’s writings and his “work” with a broken life of damage and physical and psychological destruction. This isn’t in the same league as a statement like Heidegger’s philosophy leading necessarily to Nazism. Philosophical work is a particular kind of work, as you’ve said and say here. It has an internal consistency that ties its statements directly to actions across the spectrum of what it means to be alive.

Gill’s case, and that of so many other fractured people who manage to hold parts of their lives together in spite of whatever damage that has led to committing reprehensible actions, is outside of that type of work, that en-training of intention, of philosophical consistency, and of actions throughout a life focused on the construction of a total edifice.

It begins to seem that this is too much, too narrow even for a philosophical life. The expectation that anyone, even a philosopher should be able to control their lives to such a degree seems unrealistic if held as an absolute standard. We can celebrate those lucky enough to achieve it, while still acknowledging the humanity of those who fall short. I think the Romans believed in the force of Fortuna within their philosophies.

Something like incest is so deeply enmeshed in a person’s history and the aftermath and consequences of actions in their family’s past, present, and continuing reverberations into the future that they cannot be held to a simple straightforward accountancy. Their actions are inexcusable, yet their circumstances are as complex as any human activity could be. This is the realm of Tragedy.

Gill’s work was inextricably linked to all of the circumstances of his life, as are everyone’s. That he posited such a role for work life equaling life work could very well be a compensatory construction as he wrestled with his demons and wished/hoped, such a focus could be maintained, Inshalla!

I think there needs to be room for a #5, maybe even a #6 added to the list. Finding them, and articulating them a worthy process.

And here is my reply:

Let me begin sideways or, rather, slightly far afield. Martin Amis takes what I would call the Party Line in a recent LRB piece on the poet Philip Larkin. Yes, Larkin was a crank, Amis admits, but I’m only interested in how well his work endures. This I call the Party Line because it expresses the assumption I find almost everywhere when I speak with writers. Geoff Dyer, for all his stylistic brilliance, unnerves me because he takes the work-over-here and life-over-there thought on board without question. He therefore makes a fundamental philosophical error and, in so doing, gets his priorities about the aim of life all wrong.

So I’m clearing a new path or, what is the same thing, making way for a very old one. Only yesterday I updated my Writing tab on my website to reflect this: “Writing is an outgrowth of living–and not the other way around. To live well is what matters; to write well only matters to the extent that living well does. Dying well without writing well: that would still be enough, more than enough.”

The joke I’ve been making of late: If I die and don’t finish my book, that’s OK. But if I die and don’t finish my life, that’s not OK.

I see your points about Tragedy and Fortuna. The Greeks were profoundly concerned with tuche (poorly but loosely translated as luck). My reply to your suggestions would be to make a modification: “What does it mean to lead a successful philosophical life?” So I want to rule out #5 and #6 simply on the grounds that, alas, these are not successful philosophical lives. Sad, yes. And the proper response is mourning and compassion.

There’s one further problem which I want simply to allude to here. It is that we take ideas to be on one side on the equation and doings on the other. (I said something about this in my short section on Theory Application from yesterday’s post). Then, once we do this we get in mind to pull out the glue and paste our ideas onto our doings and see whether they match up. (And here I want to add: Then we get into moralizing talk of “hypocrisy” and so forth. I find this moralizing talk unhelpful, wrongheaded, untragic. In short, gotcha journalistic.)

I’m afraid my talk of “consistency” may lead us to that conclusion as well. I’d prefer that it didn’t. More recently, I’ve taken to some more poetic language in order to capture this thinking en actu, this ideas-in-and-only-insofar-as-they-are-lived-out. It’s not for nothing that I keep talking about philosophy AS a way of life. (Probably my first go at this was a post I wrote for New Public Thinking on “trying things out.”)

Speculative philosophical biography, then, was an essay to test whether ideas en actu as potentialites could be ideas en actu as actualities.

P.S. Just saw this entry on footle, v. in my Inbox. Meaning: “To talk or act foolishly, to trifle or potter.” If we could press the definition a little further, we might say, “To talk-act foolishly.” Or, even, “To play the part of a fool.”

Readers, feel free to join in. These thoughts are all in process: yes, aiming at something but as of yet unfinished.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Eric Gill on Holy Work”

—. “On Drudgery and Artistry.”