Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Philosophers at Work: On Alexis Cukier's Que'est-ce que le travail?

Kathi Week's book The Problem with Work opens with a paradox of sorts: political theorist should be interested in work, work makes up the most immediate and daily experience of power, hierarchy, and command, but work is considered private and social rather than political so it falls outside of the purview of political theory. A similar paradox could be said to open Alexis Cukier's book, Qu'est-ce que le travail?. Philosophers should be interested in work, work and labor are intimately implicated in not only our concepts of subjectivity and society but also transformation and change, but is rarely given the centrality it deserves. Work is simultaneously too quotidian and too broad to generate much philosophical interest.

Cukier offers an antidote to later by asking that most Platonic of questions, his little book is part of a series, framed by the question What is...?  In What is work (travail)? Cukier offers a series of responses in which different aspects of work are seen as central and determinant. Work is sometimes defined by its physical exertion; sometimes by its capacity to produce and transform things; sometimes as directed and organized activity; and sometimes just simply as anything that earns a wage. Work is less something that can be defined once and for all than a series of partial and overlapping definitions. Cukier surveys the history of Western thought from the Bible to Hegel to see one or another of these different definitions as dominant at any given moment. Cukier proposes a synthetic definition of work, one which recognizes it less as a term than a point of intersection of multiple conceptions of nature, individual, and society.

Spinoza offers a different account of differing definitions of the same concept or idea. For Spinoza universals, notions such as a "man," "dog," etc., are often tainted by the particular, by a particular image. To cite Spinoza on this point (EIIP40S1),

"But it should be noted that these notions are not formed by all in the same way, but vary from one to another, in accordance with what the body has more often been affected by, and what the mind imagines or recollects more easily. For example, those who have more often regarded men's stature with wonder will understand by the word man an animal of erect stature. But those who have been accustomed to consider something else, will form another common image of men--for example, that man is animal capable of laughter, or featherless biped or rational animal.

And similarly concerning the others--each will form universal images of thing according to the disposition of his body. Hence it is not surprising that so man controversies have arisen among the philosophers who have who have wished to explain natural things by mere images of things."

What Spinoza says of the universal notion of man can also be applied to work in the way that Cukier has demonstrated. For some work is defined as a task of hardship or difficulty, for others it is the necessary ethical basis for the development of the self, and others will see it simply as anything that earns a paycheck, all in accordance with how their body has been affected, their own history of work..

Another way to demonstrate the same thing, an alternate demonstration or scholium, would be to consider the different meanings of the imperative to "get a real job." More often than not the "real" is defined in terms of a wage, making enough money to pay rent and son on, but it can also be defined in terms of sufficient difficulty or hardship, the lessons of "real work," or providing the basis for a linear development of a career. The "real job" is often juxtaposed to not only one that pays poorly, but one without a future or  one that is simply too much fun. Work is where conflicting realities meet.

If one puts aside any analytic fantasies of correcting our definitions, to all speaking of the same universal in the same sense, of bypassing the imagination altogether, then one is left to think through the conflicting definitions and conflicting universals that overdetermine any given concept. There is a politics to every concept.

I would say that when it comes to work we are caught between several universals in precisely Spinoza's sense (or Balibar's). One universal is, for lack of a better word, anthropological: work is the activity that provides and sustains needs. A second universal is ethical; this is the universal that Hegel concerned himself with--work as the foundation of recognition and self-respect. A third universal is simply that of the wage relation: work is anything that one can be paid for doing. These cohere in the ideology of work, in which work is seen as socially beneficial, constructive of a sense of self, and remunerative. But they are just as likely to fall apart as cohere. Many well paid jobs are individually destructive and social useless, and most of the work that is socially beneficial and most satisfying is often poorly paid--more often than not left to volunteers. (This seems to me to be partly what is at stake in David Graeber's concept of "bullshit jobs," but more on that in another blogpost) The ideology of work, the use of the same word to encompass social need, individual development, and financial gain, obscures these differences under the unified meaning of work, and the generalized imperative that everyone must work.

I will let Beefeater play us out.

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