Signs of the Great Refusal (of Work-As-We-Know-It)

by Tedd Siegel


Thematizing the Space of Refusal

When I was a young master’s student at the New School back in the early 90s, I remember taking a class with the American philosopher Richard Bernstein about the politics of modernity/postmodernity. When it came time to define and describe postmodernity and/or postmodernism in the opening lecture, Prof. Bernstein struck a Heideggerian pose, and declared that the postmodern was best described as a Stimmung, or what he called a cultural mood. To be honest, some of us were shocked. We were expecting something having to do with the cultural logic of late capitalism, a la Frederick Jameson. A mood…that’s really all you got? Years later I still heard someone refer to him in passing as “Prof. Stimmung.”

Jenny Odell: The Value of Certain Nothings

A closer look at the introduction to Odell’s book further confirms what I am talking about here. At the most basic level, the book is about “disengaging from the attention economy.” Odell is an artist and adjunct professor of Digital Arts at Stanford. But this is no mere self-help book about remembering to put down our devices, or even a straightforward discussion about how contemporary technology is changing our everyday experience, presumably for both good and ill.

Mark Greif: To Figure Out What Living is For

Now consider also the preface to Mark Greif’s Against Everything. Although Greif like Odell is also a professor at Stanford, he says the essays in this book were written in his twenties and thirties, and previously published in the journal N+1 of which he was a founder. There is a specific reason, immanent to the book’s over all logic, as to why it makes sense for him to publish a book of what otherwise (in an academic setting) might be considered his juvenilia.

Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau

Picking up the thread from Odell’s book again, recall that where we left off, she was advocating for something she referred to as “resisting-in-place” by making oneself “into a shape that cannot be easily appropriated by a capitalist value system.” One of the ways that we do this, she writes, is to survey the “history of refusal.”

Walden 3: Thoreau & the Question of the Political

I want to say something more about Henry David Thoreau, so that those who look to him for inspiration (like Greif and Odell) are not accused of political quietism, on the false assumption that Thoreau is merely advocating for a withdrawal from society and a “return to nature.”

To Learn What Life has to Teach

When I was in philosophy graduate school, we didn’t read Thoreau’s Walden, except perhaps On Civil Disobedience in applied ethics. American philosophy was the pragmatists, including Charles Sanders Pierce, and maybe the Transcendentalists (i.e., Emerson). To the extent that we thought about “philosophy as a way of life” it came up in ancient ethics, and via Foucault, as a bridge to the writing of Pierre Hadot.

From Walden Pond to Zuccotti Park

Just prior to the story of the history of refusal in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, there is a chapter called “The Impossibility of Retreat.” Faced with the need for digital detox, she writes, “we might conclude that the answer is to turn our back on the world, temporarily, or for good.” Here too, she tries to make the case for a third way, something other than either ‘temporary life hacks designed for increasing productivity once back at work’, or ‘saying goodbye permanently, and neglecting our responsibility to the world’.

Many Thoreaus, Refusing in Tandem

I’ve tried to dispel a number of different preconceptions that are likely to arise about the cultural space of refusal, as a condition for some sort of a politics of refusal (of work-as-we-know-it). But this under laboring (to steal a phrase from John Locke) is incomplete if I don’t address “privileged position” along with its close relatives, solipsism and romanticism/withdrawal.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”

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